Sunday, 16 September 2012

To Hell and Back

100km into yesterday's Rebel Tour on one of the steep ascents between Ahillies and Eyeries at the back end of the Beara Peninsula I was in a bad place. The last 10km had been tough, very tough. My legs weren't working the way I expected them to - no power, lactic acid everywhere and muscles that never troubled me before were on the brink of spasming. Ian (my travelling partner for the day), who I had left the food station back in Adrigole with, was gone ahead. Only for my quick stop in Ahillies to fill my water bottle and take my emergency gel, I wouldn't have made it this far. I was contemplating a very slow and tough 60km back to Glengarriff - how was I going to get up and over the Healy Pass? for the second time. If my legs were bad now what were they going to be like then.

The first 62km (39 miles) to the Adrigole food stop had went well - leaving Glengarriff at 9:30 with Ian and about 400 others and heading up to the tunnels of the Caha Pass, the steep descent towards Kenmare, drafting behind the Dungarvan cycling crew before the second climb of the day - pushing hard, chasing Bandon Cycling Club up the hill and down to the foot of the climb up to the Healy Pass. Grinding my way up to the top at a steady pace, getting out of the saddle for the steepest section over the last 300m - over the top and the technical winding descent down into Adrigole. I had lost Ian on the first climb but he wasn't far behind me.

After stocking up on tea, sandwiches and cake we headed off for the second leg around the end of the Peninsula, this time without the benefit of a group. We took it in turns at the front, although Ian was there more often than I as I had overdone the food intake at Adrigole. We made good progress along the undulating road to Castletownbere and heading out the winding road to Ahillies. After a while a group of 4 passed us and I suggested to Ian that we tag onto the back of them. This went reasonably well for about a mile but I was under pressure to keep up. As soon as the first challenging hill came I was out the back before I knew it and didn't have the legs to get back on, as I saw Ian chase the group up and over the hill. The next 5 miles was a steady decline as the undulating road zapped whatever energy I had. By the time I came into Ahillies I was at my lowest, but the worst was yet to come.

The water stop and emergency gel in Ahillies was enough to get me back in the saddle for the 10 miles of road to Eyeries. I heard one of the volunteers mention that the next hill was very steep so I braced myself mentally for the challenge. Having never travelled this road I did not know what was in store. I did know, from reviewing the contour map beforehand that there weren't any long hills so it should be relatively straightforward, right?. The problem was that I wasn't at my best, the hills were short but steep and I didn't know how many of them there were. The only consolation was that others were suffering around me and one or two were walking up the inclines. But others seemed to breeze past me as fresh as daises. Eventually the last hill was behind me and a series of sharp descents with 90 degree blind bends began. One guy in front of me overcooked a bend and ended up in the ditch across the road - still on his bike though so no harm done. To the credit of the organisers every sharp decent was manned by a marshall with a red flag and whistle and some of the worst even had flashing mobile traffic lights - superbly organised. The descents gave way to a few miles of level road where I made reasonably good progress into Eyeries for the second food stop. Never was I so glad to get off the bike. Getting back on could be a problem.

I didn't eat much at the food stop but did take on a big cup of warm sugary coffee. As I hadn't had a cup of coffee all week the hit was all the more powerful. I sat a while chatting to Ian and a few of the motorcycle support crew and began to feel a bit more human. It wasn't long before we were back on our bikes for the final leg back to Lauragh up over the Healy Pass for the second time and left along the coast road back into Glengarriff and the finish. We agreed to take it easy for a while to see how our aching legs reacted. There was a group of 20 cyclists in front and I suggested to Ian for the second time that perhaps we should tag onto them and get an easy ride for a while (you'd think i'd have learned my lesson). This time we managed to stay on and were soon motoring along with a crew primarily from Waterford City. We were passed by another crew but after a mile or two both came together to form a sizable group. The effort was reasonably comfortable, my legs complying for once and the fatigue from the previous stage forgotten for the moment. A guy beside me said that we were clocking 36kph (22.3 mph).

I did notice that we were unintentionally working our way forward as those setting the pace on the front were being recycled towards the back and before i knew it I was on the front setting the pace, working twice as hard just to keep up with the guy beside me. When I had had enough I recycled myself backwards and it was Ian's turn. Fortunately the end of the train ride wasn't too far away as we turned left for the climb up the Healy Pass and the group began to break up. Ian's stint at the front had been longer than anticipated -"No one took over from me" he said afterwards - although i'm sure if he had eased up like I had done he would have been relieved of his duties - but that is not the Army Navy way.

We kept a steady pace on the gradual 5km climb, although it was slower that our first attempt 3 hours earlier. The only worry was the final 300m to the summit and it was tough as I didn't have the same power in my legs the second time round, just managing to claw my way up at a pace that just had enough forward momentum  to keep me from toppling over sideways. I stopped at the top briefly as Ian came past and headed down to Adrigole in front of me. I kept the descent easy as two guys went past me just before Adrigole and the turn left for Glengarriff. The two guys hooked up so I jumped onto their back wheel and got pulled along. Ian joined us as we passed him with the 2 guys in front doing the work. Before long we were on the last pull of the day, a 5km gradual incline that required a comfortably hard pace to  keep with the guys in front. One of the guys pulled away from me but the rest of us kept together....for a while. As I neared the top I looked back and I could not see Ian or the other guy. The remainder of the road was a short steep decent followed by a short rise and the 1.5 mile long fast decent and 2 flat miles into Glengarriff and the finish, passing a few of those that were completing the 85km loop. Ian was about 5 seconds behind me at the finish having clocked his fastest mile 98 at 31.6 mph to chase me down on the Road into Glengarriff. Home at last, in a few minutes under 6 hours (saddle time).

Another feed of tea, coffee, sandwiches and cakes before we headed for the local GAA club for a cold shower - after all the hardship of the day you'd think a cold shower would be a doddle but there were more screams heard coming from that small clubhouse that anywhere out on the course.


  1. Sounds suspiciously like a marathon, really.

  2. When I started reading I thought you were talking about a running race and thought 'holy shit, 60k back!' Anyway, I know from experience that hitting the wall on a bike can be just as bad. I guess you've got a good feel for what the TdF riders go through day after day...

  3. Sounds bloody tough - great day out , well done Grellan (and Ian)

  4. Like Ewen i was thinking it was a surprise ultra you were doing. impressive cycling. u are a seriously fit guy- imagine how good you would have been in your 20's? ;-) (maybe you were!!!!) well done