I’m a bit disappointed to hear the news on Friday that the Etape Hibernia is to be cancelled, but I’m not really surprised.
For those of you not in the know, the Etape Hibernia is one of a series of events, following on from other successful events such as the Etape Caledonia. But what really set it apart from others was that it was a closed road event, covering 84 miles around County Clare. Normally this wouldn’t really be a factor for me, in that I tend to stick to quiet roads anyway. But without doubt the most spectacular scenery I have cycled around was the Clare coast, so I was really looking forward to seeing what it was like on closed roads.
Having said that, while the concept was good the organisers had completely shot themselves in the foot with the timing. Regardless of how well it is run on the day, the extra cost over other events (I think it was over €50 for entry) would be enough to put off a lot of people. But factor in that the event was always run on the same weekend as one of the flagship Irish sportives, the Sean Kelly tour, well there was ever only going to be one winner. Looks like I’ll be cycling in Waterford in August (NB that’s a good thing!)
Now that there was a car available , we made a decision (without much hesitation in fairness), to ditch the bags for the last day. Given that we had about 400 miles in the legs and wanted to tackle the Gap of Mamore it was a fairly wise decision. Althought the legs were stiff, the sun was shining and so morale was high.
As per usual we eased into the pace until legs were loosened out, but the route out to Buncrana was fairly flat and we tipped away at a nice pace, stopping once to get some gear out of the car. But the weather Gods had been quiet all week and by the time we pulled into Buncrana we were well and truly saturated. And with the northerly wind the temperature dropped as well .
We had lunch at a petrol station, and just as we were about to pull out (the rain hadn’t subsided yet), a local came up to us talking about the spin. He had done Mizen to Malin 4 times previously, and was quite enthusiastic. Once he found out we were going to try Mamore near the end of M2M, and in those weather conditions he thought we were nuts! In fairness he was very helpful with directions, and even lead us through town to the road. But between the bad weather, and the tales of woe ascending and descending the gap, morale started to take a downturn.
And of course the complete lack of signposts didn’t help either. But deciding the keep the coast on our left we plodded along, checking iPhones every few minutes to see if we were close. We knew the road would be rough and ready, and after a few really sharp pulls (18%+ or so) we thought we were pretty much on it. After a couple of hundred yards I was off the bike, walking, then back in the saddle on the less steep bits, barely spinning in the triple. At least I was making progress. And then we came off the boreen, on to a better stretch of road. And to our left was what can be best described as a tarmac wall. “Ah”, I thought “bingo!”.
IN fairness, the run up to it was straight, the surface good, and it didn’t look impossible. so after a few minutes break, people took on water (some emptied water!) ,everyone settled and off we went. For me it was pretty much just a duathlon! Don’t think I lasted more than 1/2 a mile. we have photo’s but they don’t really do it justice. Basically if you stopped at all it was nigh on impossible to generate enough momentum to go forward again. Best bet was to tack across the road and pray you could clip in.
Only one man made it up on the bike the whole way (in fairness the rest gave more valiant efforts than me), but the extra weight was an absolute handicap on the way up. Having said that by the time I eventually hauled myself over the line i thought I could just coast down the other side. Wrong! Having a combination of weight, wet roads, and just sheer fatigue I knew the only way down on the bike would be to absolutely ride the brakes. And after a few minutes at 3/4 miles an hour I was really struggling to keep the speed under control, so again it was a dismount to get down. In fairness I might have made it, but fear of not making it to Malin Head because of a broken collar-bone was fairly prominent in my thoughts, so no regrets.
At least once near the bottom we were able to spin away, back to normality. And just as we were progressing down the road we spotted “the Rusty Nail”. “PINT?” I called out. “PINT!” came the reply. And we that we were pulled over again. Decent pints outside, but they tasted so much better after Mamore. It was here we spotted a broke spoke on MOC’s bike, the only mechanical failure (zero punctures!) of the week. Just as we were about to head off again the heavens opened, so we just stood under the shade of the pub, waiting for it to break, and talking to a local who did a lot of club cycling.
It can be tough when you land into Malin town and then realise there’s still another hour to go, but c’est la… We tore through Malin anyway, and on the open road, pancake flat, the lads led a leadout train, pushing away at around 21mph, into the wind. Tough work, even tucked away sucking wheel! But once we hit a final set of bumps we were all blown. From here on I just wanted to spin, and just get there. The last few miles are tough enough, no long drags, but some really sharp little digs (15, 20%), that the only way up is out of the saddle.
I eventually rolled in to the base of the Banba, for the final climb. Here the 3 amigos that had done the whole were waiting for me, and in a gesture that was (truly) appreciated, they insisted I lead the way to the top, where our supporters had gathered. And what a tough few hundred metres it was! An absolutely fantastic feeling once we got there, having an actual finish line was really nice. Big cheers to the 2 girls who came up to drop of MOC for the last day, and to Dick for driving the rest of us home. Also tahnks to Mike’s mate Vinnie, who dragged the family up for support. Greatly appreciated all.
I’ll spare the details of all the photos etc, but I would like to mention the owner of Caffe Banba, who had a coffee truck up there. He gave us some really great coffee gratis. A real gentleman.
Our original plan had been to cycle from Ballyshannon past Letterkenny, just to leave us with a short day at the end, (circa 45 miles or so). But since Martin O’C was driving back up from Limerick to cycle the last day with us, we decided to have an easy day on Friday instead. Everybody was looking forward to a nice easy relaxing day, and that’s how it started.
Since we had a short day the lads wanted to break it up a bit, so our landlady at the B&B advised us to head through the town and head to Rossnowlagh beach. The street through Ballyshannon is pretty steep, so a shock to the legs first thing, but once through town we just spun away for a few miles, until we arrived at the beach. Stopping off at the beach was a great idea, it really helped break up the day. One of the drawbacks was a bunch of lads trying to change on a packed beach without any towels or swimwear. And as a certain member of the group found out (name withheld), you need to keep up a certain amount of momentum when cycling unto the sand, otherwise unfortunate dismounts can occur!
After an hour or so on the beach, it was back on the bikes, a handy spin 45 mile spin to Letterkenny. Morale was high in the camp, although there were a few tired legs, everyone was looking forward to getting to the B&B early, just to relax for a few hours. For the whole week while not killing ourselves with pace, we had very little downtime in the evenings: normally once checked in and showered it was normally straight out to dinner.
We stopped at a petrol station on the run into Donegal Town for a quick sandwich and then back on the bikes. Barnesmore Gap was the only climb of the day into Ballybofey, but it wasn’t as bad as expected, and once into Ballybofey we stopped for another coffee.
Unfortunately this is where things went awry. Long story short we missed the turn that was signposted for Letterkenny, and ended up staying on the road to Lifford. Since we had a westerly wind we had actually been tipping away at a nice pace, and it was only after about 7 miles we realised we were on the wrong track. The options were either to cut across country (over a narrow network of roads), or cycle back all the way to Ballybofey, and then pick up the right road. Getting advice from locals (obviously not cyclists!), we headed over cross country: big mistake! The route was quite narrow, with some really nasty, sharp little climbs.
and of course we missed a few other turns (the Irish just don’t do signposts). After about an hour and a half basically going round in circles, we eventually got back onto the right road (if you look at the garmin activity the detour is fairly obvious). Of course because we were expecting only a short spin, I didn’t eat enough, and the bonk hit on the final climb up to the top of the hill before Letterkenny. I must admit I was doing a lot of whining. But at least once we hit the top it was all downhill.
The descent into Letterkenny was expected to be the fastest descent of the week, and it lived up to the billing. Because I wasn’t overly happy with the braking with the extra weight on the bike (plus a few hit manholes on the way down), i kept my top speed to 39 mph. Mike hit about 47, the highest of the week, although Donal wasn’t far behind (very hard to read a cycle computer with your eyes running!). Fortunately the B&B (Burndale House) was just off the turn, and we were home for the day.
Once we had the usual shower etc we headed off to find what can only be the best hidden gem in Letterkenny, the restaurant Fantasia. Hidden inside an industrial park, we were convinced we were on the wrong track (once again), until we caught the waft of garlic bread. And were we in for a treat! A unit across from an NCT centre, the restaurant was very nicely decorated inside, and given the large crowd it’s obvious that’s it’s not that hidden to the locals! Every plate was cleared, many rounds of Peroni consumed, and to top off the dinner the waiter gave us a round of Citronella on the house. Fantastic!
Martin O’C and the girls arrived just as we were finishing dinner, and Mikes contact (who had suggested Fantasia), next recommended the Cottage pub on Main Street. I’ll spare the details, but a good night was had, and we were back home just after last orders.
On paper a long day, and this was made a lot longer by a headwind that was present for about 60 miles. Understandably after the previous night there was a slow start in the morning, but unfortunately a very heavy shower (10 minutes of absolutely torrential rain), made this a struggle. we didn’t even have time to get the raingear on when the downpour started, and had to head towards a cluster of trees for shelter. But we were soaked to the bone, and it took hours to dry out
We stopped at Charleston (after only 20 miles), in a nice little deli just off the main square, and had fine lunch (outside unfortunately, because we soaked and didn’t want to wreck the place inside). Because of the northerly wind the pace was slow, and we were wet can cold, so morale was fairly low, but we pushed on to Sligo, and despite another few showers we began to make some gains in speed, due to a slight downhill trend to the coast.
We got to Sligo just after 4, and stopped off at a petrol station just on the other side of town. At this stage morale was improving, and with the weather picking up and an end in sight we set for a bit of a pull out of Sligo. However we were still into the wind, and again we climbing for what felt like an hour (although it was in reality about 15 minutes!). Finally with about an hour to go the wind finally shifted to our favour, and because everyone just wanted to get to the B&B (Elm Brook) the lads started to lift the pace. For the last few miles from Bundoran to Ballyshannon the wind was fully at our backs and it was a relief to be able to just spin away in the big ring for once.
To be honest the day on the road was probably the least enjoyable, due to a lack of scenery and the weather, but as it happens because of the tailwinds at the end, combined with an urge to finish we actually finished the day with our highest average speed, of just over 15mph.
Karen, the owner of the B&B, was very friendly and obliging, and once again we were blessed to enjoy the hospitality of a great host. She very kindly put on a wash of our kit, and stowed the bikes away for the night. She also advised us to go to the Nirvana restaurant, but unfortunately it appeared we arrived on an off night. The food was average, and the 2 waiting staff were under pressure, and not overly-friendly (indeed the young waitress was making faces at another member of staff). Given the tiredness of everyone we just had a couple of pints and then headed home.
At 79 miles this was planned to be our longest day, and given that a few of us were struggling at the very start with stiff legs, the initially climb out of Doolin was a bit of a shock. But once the legs loosened out a bit it turned out to be a cracking first half of the day. Even though it was a little overcast, the cycle along the coast was fantastic. I was expecting more hills, so it was a nice surprise to find a pretty flat spin on the way into Kinvara, even if we had an easterly headwind on the run into Ballyvaughan.
After some really rough roads, and a surprising sharp little wall of a climb (the first time I had to get off the bike), outside Bell Harbour, we eventually made Kinvara. We had lunch in Kinvara, but by the time we got back on the road again it was 2 o’clock and we had 50 miles left. But from Kilcolgan all the way the Claremorris we were now on main roads, with a hard shoulder and what was now a tail wind. so for the next we hours we started making a decent pace.
Apart from an absolutely torrential downpour (we were lucky we were less than 1/2 mile from a tree) the journey into Claremorris was pretty uneventful. We arrived at the B&B (Ashlawn House) around 6, and while initially quiet, the owner had no trouble at all in letting us wash our gear.
Once sorted we strolled into town for some food. To be honest we were expecting very little of the food in Claremorris, but we had definitely a memorable night. First off we ate in the Old Arch restaurant, and the food and wine was simply fantastic! Not a morsel left on any plate, the staff were brilliant, very well trained and very friendly. It really was brilliant food.
Once we had our fill of steak and merlot, it was off to potter around town, to find somewhere for a decent pint. We were strolling around, ignoring all the obvious choices, when Martin suddenly said “lads, I think I saw a pub at the back of that shop”. And so he did. A brilliant little gem of a place, PJ Byrnes. At first we were eyed with suspicion (only about 3 in the bar), but it was exactly what we were looking for. Quiet, but with really friendly locals and fantastic Guinness. By the end of the night they were chatting away, telling us about how they had fought the law and they won! (after hours serving was the crime…pfft!). This little pub was a real highlight, they even signed a postcard of the pub, to the wish us luck and if that wasn’t enough Dick stood a round to us. These were exactly the sort of experiences that we had hoped for, and were an undoubted highlight of the trip
This was our first full day, and after a decent nice sleep and a cracking breakfast, we ended up rolling out of the B&B at 10:20A.M. (only 20 minutes behind target!). We had good eather, no wind or rain, and not too hot. We stocked up on bananas and jaffa cakes, and then it was pretty much straight into the Cat 4 climb up to Molls Gap.
I was pretty nervous about it, because the only other time I did it was during the Ring of Kerry, where I ended up stopping maybe 3 or 4 times on the way up (granted it was after about 85 miles the last time!). But this time, even with the bags on, we were able to spin away up at about 9 or 10 mph, so not too bad (Donal was disappointed it wasn’t harder, I might have overstated it before!).
We stopped at the Avoca cafe, as agreed. Mainly because I thought I would be spent, but given how early it was (maybe 40 minutes in) it was probably a bit early. The descent down the Gap was pretty hairy, mainly because I found out the night before that my rear brakes hadn’t been working at all. Not sure why, but I think the mudguards were the cause: every time I hit the brakes there was a squeak but no stopping!
About an hour later we were in Killarney, where we stopped for water. Next we headed for Tralee via Farranfore, and as expected this stretch of road as very unpleasant, mainly because the roads were so busy with Bank Holiday traffic. A few close calls, but not too bad, and once most of the traffic branched off in at Farranfore the road into Tralee was alright.
Another stop in Tralee for sandwiches at a petrol station, and then the final 20-ish miles back into my home town of Ballybunion. After leading the team through the town I almost came to an end at a roundabout where I couldn’t clip out. Fortunately I fell onto Donal, and he broke my fall! There is a very short climb out of Tralee, only a mile or so, but around 10%, and to be honest it absolutely blew me away: heart rate was 170-180 all the way, very unpleasant (even though the day wasn’t too hilly my heart rate averaged around 160, very high)! The rest of the road in was pretty flat, although there were a LOT of complaints about the poor road surfaces. Coming from Kerry I knew there were bad, but the others didn’t really believe the difference between North and South Kerry (Jackie Healy Rae land)
The road in was pretty uneventful, but because I was pretty weak after the climbs the pace was fairly sedate, although there was a breakaway with around 5 miles to go (same culprits led a similar break-away into Malin Head). We set up camp at my parents, where we were able to do some repairs on the bikes (I decided brakes were more important than being dry, so the mudguards were removed!). The rest of the evening was spent with my family at my sisters, and then a solid nights worth of entertainment. People got to bed at varying times, the earliest being around 3A.M. Tomorrow was a heavy day!
We left Mizen Head just before 2 pm and luckily the weather conditions we’re pretty favourable (if anything there was a dead heat in sheltered areas).
We set a fairly decent pace, and stopped in Durrus, Bantry and finally in Glengarriff. The biggest climb of the day (indeed the week), was the 1000ft, Cat 3 Caha Pass. The scenery was stunning, and even though I settled into a nice pace I was pretty spent at the top. From there into Kenmare it was a nice downhill, and for most of it the road surface was fairly decent.
The B&B (Riverville House ) was very nice and some good food and pints were had in town. Special mention should be given to Margaret at the B&B. While we were some sight when we arrived she gave us some fantastic coffee and cookies, and in the morning the breakfast was simply brilliant.
UPDATED: Since this was the only blog I wrote from the road I thought it was worth just adding in the links to the B&B and the Garmin activity