The inaugural TransAtlanticWay race took place this year, starting in Dublin and heading north to pick up the start of the Wild Atlantic Way route. The race then traverses southwards along the west coast of Ireland, out and back along each peninsula and crossing several counties before finally arriving in Kinsale on the south coast. From here it leaves the Wild Atlantic Way and heads up to the finish at Blarney. 2500km of quiet lanes, stunning landscapes and hills. Lots of hills. And weather. Lots of weather.
Dublin to Derry
The start line in Dublin finds 30 or so seasoned endurance riders raring to go, and me. Having been a dot watcher until now this is to be my first experience of racing an endurance event and I stand there blissfully ignorant about what is to unfold. Too late to worry about it now, we’re off!
The ride to the first checkpoint in Derry is surprisingly fast on rolling A roads. After the early groups split up, I’m grateful for my fellow rider Jason’s company on the final stretch into Derry. One of the many highlights of the race is meeting the other riders. Lots of them are quite experienced at this and all of them are a real pleasure to meet. Jason has some problems with his bike so stays in Derry while I carry on northwards in search of the start of the Wild Atlantic Way.
The next couple of days through Donegal are some of the most exceptional roads I’ve ever ridden but extremely tough going. Short steep climbs dropping down to beautiful beaches then climbing back up to cliff tops. Long draggy climbs past peat bogs, across moorland, farmland and acres of country park. The road always snaking its way slowly along the craggy coast. Every inch of the route is stunning.
A theme for this route is starting to develop. A long slog out to one of the many headlands (including Malin Head the northernmost point) is followed by a long slog back, all the while seeing the next headland in the distance and the next slog. The race is already physically and mentally demanding.
Another theme becoming apparent is the Irish weather. Relentless headwind batters my progress along each headland and frequently becomes an evil crosswind on the return. The only respite I find is in the lee of the many steep hills (Mamore Gap and Glengesh Pass being the most memorable in Donegal). Intermittent showers turn into persistent rain and I forget about the wind for a day as we race along the coast and into the town of Donegal.
Co. Mayo and Achill Island
The counties of Leitrim and Sligo roll by quickly in the early morning and passing through Ballina I realise I have reached Co. Mayo. The sun comes out briefly as I ride towards a giant rainbow across the bay and into the rain once more.
I make a stop in Ballycastle to stock up on my now established snack of Haribo when I spot another rider. Paula heads past into the morning gloom. She is having a tremendous race and is looking like cracking into the top few places in the next day or so (her account of the race is a good read). My own race has been patchy, a few mechanicals and a lot of tiredness has seen me put in less kilometres than I would have liked. My initial aim was to ride about 300km per day but with the terrain and the weather this is proving much harder than I’d expected. Somehow despite all this I find myself hovering around the edge of the top 10 on day 4, completely unexpected.
Paula has stopped for a bit further down the road and I catch up and ride alongside her towards Ballycroy National Park. It’s nice to have someone to chat to for a bit. Somehow during this section I manage to destroy my front derailleur and stop briefly to make an attempt to fix it. The outer arm of the mech has come away and there seems to be no obvious fix so I leave the chain on the big ring and carry on. I can’t keep up with Paula for long, she is a far stronger rider than me so I drop back to ride at my own pace and I watch her disappear down the road. I enter the park and find myself on long straight roads riding towards huge hills, crouching giants in the distance. This more than makes up for the continuous presence of my old friend, Relentless Headwind™.
The roads of the country park lead to Achill Island and three inner loops of the island await. I bump into Jack and have another welcome natter. He’s just finishing the island loops as I’m starting them and is very impressively munching through the miles (Jack’s blog about his race is well worth checking out).
Not long after that I bump into Stephen who I was trying to race a day or two ago but who is now well and truly out in front and pulling away all the time, another rider having a very impressive race. Achill Island turns out to be my favourite bit of the whole race. Narrow quiet roads wind their way out to the edges of the island, up and down from beach to cliff top. The rugged western edge of the island hides the most wind but this does not wipe the grin off my face. It’s a beautiful place and makes all the suffering worthwhile, just the kind of ride every cyclist lives for.
I leave the island happy and with new sheep racing skills (they’re fast!) but slightly broken from being too lazy to manually change the chain from the outer ring….I’m sure it will be fine. I push on and race in to Westport to finally bust a more respectable 320km mark for a days riding.
We’re over the halfway point and the miles are starting to take their toll. A few bad nights bivvying are also catching up with me. The saddle sores and aches and pains I’ve been putting up with are OK but I am starting to feel terrible and each day is getting progressively harder. I vow to push on whilst I can still ride.
I fix the front mech by wedging a chunk of cable tie on the bit of the outer arm at the point it used to be attached. It seems to hold and I’m able to shift between inner and outer rings but it’s probably too late, my left knee is starting to hurt.
Some more climbing and some more battling against the wind as I make my way slowly through Galway, past the Connemara National Park and onto Sky Road. This headland loop turns out to be a real treat, more fantastic views revive me a bit and I pick up the pace. I ride through some wooded lanes towards the town of Galway. Whilst getting off the bike to check something I tweak my knee a bit and the pain is excruciating. I give it a minute and gingerly ride to the outskirts of town and decide to rest up at the first B&B I see. Adrian is just behind me on the tracker so I hobble out to cheer him on. How he has managed to organise this event and race it at the same time is mind boggling, all the kudos!
There’s not much improvement the next day but I carry on in the vain hope that the pain will subside. It turns out to be a tough day. It’s slow going around the Cliffs of Moher and I have to stop frequently to rest my knee where I discover that the dry bag on my bars makes a really comfy pillow.
A pharmacy stop sees me stocked up on painkillers and I carry on. I finally reach a beautiful long beach at Spanish Point and lie in the sand for a while. I’m going slowly now but I’m still going, it doesn’t matter to me where I end up in the placings I just want to keep moving. I lie there a while and ponder the Spanish fleet that was wrecked on this coast and think myself lucky that this particular Spaniard can get back on his bike.
The sun breaks through the clouds as I make my way to the Killimer – Tarbet ferry. I realise if I speed up a bit I can make the next ferry so I pick up the pace and just make the crossing in time. The ferry across the Shannon Estuary provides a welcome rest before tackling the next county.
I ride a few more miles into Kerry and as the evening fades I decide to pack in for the day and set up a bivvy spot. The following morning is not great, knee pain and other ailments are making progress difficult so I decide to rest up for a few more hours in Tralee. I visit all the pharmacies in Tralee, tape myself up, neck some Ibuprofen Plus and slather myself in Deep Heat and Voltarol. I think I look pretty good.
I decide to skip the Dingle peninsula in order to save the knees but it’s now taking hours to get anywhere. The full-route is basically over for me. I don’t feel too bad, it’s taken more than a few days of struggling to make me realise this so I’m prepared for it. I decide on a new revised version of the route to honour the race as best I can. I plan to ride cross country to the final checkpoint in Kinsale and then on to the finish at Blarney. I’m missing some of the best bits of the route in the final few peninsulas which is a real shame so I’m just going to have to come back and do it again!
Co. Cork – Kinsale and Blarney
It’s probably only about 100 miles or so to Kinsale and then onto Blarney from Tralee but it takes me 2 days of torture to get there. Stopping every few miles and riding like I’m on some kind of clown bike with square wheels but I make it, slowly. I’m immediately glad that I have when just after reaching the finish I see Jack arrive and into 2nd place overall (1st full-route finisher) behind Bernd Paul who had been out in front for most of the race and finished the day before.
Jack has ridden 600+kms in one go, 30 something hours to take 2nd place, a truly phenomenal ride and I’m completely speechless! It’s a real honour to witness his achievement and makes the last few days of torture worth the effort.
Later that evening we are joined by Paula who takes 3rd, another amazing ride and then that night and the next day the rest of the top few places arrive, including my buddy Stephen who has had a cracking race. The remainder of the riders arrive over the next few days and I enjoy hearing their stories and seeing the immense efforts that they have all put in.
Chapeau to all the riders, finishers and non-finishers alike. It has been a beautiful, brutal but ultimately rewarding race and I’m very honoured to have been a part of it and privileged to have visited this beautiful country and met its lovely people. A huge thank you to Adrian O’Sullivan for organising the race and Michael Marks for top work as Race Admin. In fact a big thanks to everyone involved in the race, including the dot watchers and friends at home whose support has been overwhelming.
Would I do this again?
Of course I would!!
UPDATE: Just published; a fantastic account of the 2016 race by Jesko Werthern. This is really worth a read, captures the experience brilliantly.