“Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” is my way of doing things. I’m of the belief that it takes as much energy to do something wrong, as it takes to do something correctly in the first place.
Mistakes are part and parcel in life, failure happens; strong people get up off the ground, dust themselves off and go again. I take this attitude with me to work, my life as a musician and I urge our 13 year old child to practice the same. In our home, success and failure are measured in the same way, they don’t matter. What does matter is that you tried and did your best.
“Look yourself in the mirror and if you see honesty, you’ll do okay”
No sport personifies this attitude more than cycling. Whether you’re at the top of the world in a professional team or the bottom of the ladder like I am, how you apply yourself to the sport is all important.
Anything less than commitment and hard work will result in failure and will find you sitting on a lonely road, possibly a long way from home, waiting for a lift.
There are no team mates to hold your hand in this sport and definitely no place to hide.
So, with my training of 10 months behind me, a car packed with every conceivable spare part imaginable, I find myself eating a packet of pasta at 6.30am on a Sunday morning, in Bray, Co Wicklow, Ireland. My second Wicklow 200 is about to start.
I get an immediate boost when a man working as a marshal commends me on my preparations and shortly after 7am, I head out and it’s not long before we’re onto our first hill of the day.
“The old long hill” it’s called and it’s approximately 4km in length. It’s 11% gradient in places and I’m a bit surprised to see people walking already. “They are in for a long day” I think to myself.
Through the village of Roundwood, riders get a glimpse of how dangerous this sport is. A medical team are surrounding a rider on the ground. Wrapped in a blanket, with his friends looking stunned, it’s a sobering thought. I sincerely hope the rider made a full recovery; nobody wishes to see anybody getting injured in any sport. We’re all amateurs after all, with jobs to go to the following morning.
The village of Laragh gives people the choice. Turn left and do the Wicklow 100 or straight ahead, onto the Wicklow Gap and attempt the 200. Straight ahead is the obvious decision.
The “Gap” isn’t all that difficult and my training is standing to me. I’ve trained in The Nire Valley Co Waterford, The Vee in Co Tipperary / Waterford, so it doesn’t pose me any problems. The descent down the other side is crazy though. A few years ago, fear was my biggest enemy on high speed descents, but I’ve learned to overcome the fear. Let the bike do what it was designed to do, brake properly, pick your lines, see your exit on bends and most importantly, ride safely.
After the Gap, the ride takes us through the village of Hollywood onto Baltinglass. This is where I feel like I’m in the Rás, our national bike race, which sadly isn’t happening this year. I’m in a group of about 10 riders and with everybody “doing a turn” into a strong headwind, we make short work of the 25 or so kilometres. There’s a food stop in Baltinglass, but I’m planning on doing this on one stop, so I keep going. The other riders are stopping, which is a pity, I enjoyed their company.
A thunder storm (this is Ireland after all) leaves me drenched and freezing cold, as I head on towards the hardest part of the day, with the climbs of Slieve Maan and Glenmalure coming up. Both the climbs arrive in quick succession and all that hard training throughout the winter months will be tested.
Slieve Maan averages almost 8% for 3 kilometres, with a maximum of 13%. At one stage I’m convinced that I have a puncture, because no matter how much power I apply to my pedals, my bike seems to refuse to move. I reach the top, trying to keep my heart rate in check.
The descent is another hair raising ride and a small bit of respite before Glenmalure comes into sight almost immediately. A man at the bottom warns us to “keep those pedals turning” and tells us that there’s a coffee trailer at the top. Noticing my Rás Tailteann kit, commemorating our national race, he shouts that he completed three Rasanna, so he deserves respect. Most riders don’t manage one. My kit has the names of every winner of the Rás printed on it, so I’m carrying a lot of history on my back.
Glenmalure begins to break riders and many are falling by the wayside as it’s just too hard. One man sits on the grass margin, bereft of energy, with that 1000 yard stare of total bewilderment. “I ask him if he’s okay”, he attempts to answer. Near the top, another rider points out a drone flying and suggests we should smile for the camera. I don’t even answer him, I haven’t the energy
After 3km, I reach the top and the hardest of the climbs are now behind me, there’s “only” 75 km to go.
A food stop in Rathdrum gives me the chance to replenish my energy reserves and a much needed break. A selfie is taken, posted onto social media and I’m away again.
In a group of 4 riders and a slight tailwind, we head out in the direction of Avoca. The lead rider turns right after about 2km and we follow. Arriving in the small village of Ballinaclash, he stops and informs us that he has taken a wrong turn and we need to head back.
An Italian rider laughs and informs me that “at least now, we can do the Wicklow 210km”. I hope he doesn’t mind me saying that it wasn’t all that funny.
Wicklow gives riders another kick, when just outside Avoca, the course turns north and another climb at Kilmacurragh drains any energy the riders have in reserve. I’m stuck on my own at this stage and can’t bridge the gap to a group of riders about 100m ahead. It’s the loneliest feeling in the world, when you just can’t get across to a group.
The villages of Newcastle and Kilcoole come in quick succession and it’s at this stage I allow myself to think I might finish this thing.
Into Greystones, another climb at Windgates and into Enniskerry, my Garmin reaches 200km. I’ve completed the Wicklow 200, but thanks to our earlier “tour guide” I still have about 6km to go. I relax however and allow myself to enjoy the last few km and as usual, a few tears begin to well up with pure relief and achievement.
The turn into Bray Emmets GAA club is greeted with shouts of “well done” from local people, marshals and a local Garda.
As usual, Caroline and Kian are there to welcome me home. My second Wicklow 200 is now under my belt and I punch the air in pure delight.
It’s the toughest event of them all, but that feeling when you cross the finish line makes it so worthwhile. Roll on 2020 and we’ll try to make it three in a row.
My thanks to the IVCA for organising an absolutely brilliant event, the marshals and volunteers that kept every junction safe. The Gardaí, Red Cross and emergency personnel, who turn up for every event and watch over people.
The people of Wicklow for their patience and understanding on the roads for the day.
A special word of thanks to the lads in our own little training group here in Cahir, Co Tipperary. For a small group, we’re represented all over the country, taking in some of the hardest and most prestigious events available.
I don’t do mornings, never have and I never will at this stage of my life. So, when the clock goes off at 5.45am on a Sunday morning, my immediate reaction is not pleasant.
As a musician, that ungodly hour of the day hasn’t me long in bed .Getting up at this time is alien to people like me.
We’re in Dublin for the weekend, as I’m taking part in the annual Wicklow 200. It’s Ireland’s premier cycling challenge and widely considered the hardest. It’s 200km in length, which isn’t the biggest problem and almost 3000m of climbing, which is a problem.
The route takes in some of the most iconic climbs in Ireland and the finisher’s medal at the end is well deserved and hard earned.
I’ve worked hard for this event, having trained throughout the Winter in all kinds of weather. Frost, snow, hail and of course rain, this is Ireland after all, have made no difference. If you don’t put in the miles, you won’t finish the “200”, in fact you might as well just stay at home.
One of my hero’s , Sean Kelly is on record as saying that the best way to learn how to ride your bike in bad weather, is to just ride your bike in bad weather.
For the first time ever, I’ve also prepared my bikes myself. I got into the habit during the Winter months and I take great satisfaction out in the garage on a cold night working on them and having them running well. So many people train for an event and never think of looking after their bikes.
I believe that a new chain, bottom bracket, tyres, tubes, brake pads and having your gears indexed properly are the “minimum” you need to do. Remember that on the Wicklow Gap or Slieve Mann, you will easily reach speeds of 65 or 70 km per hour on the descent. There are many sharp corners as well, so it’s not the time to find your brakes are not working as an example. If you’re not suitably skilled, bring it to your local bike shop and they’ll have it running like new. I cannot stress the importance of this enough.
I always bring a second bike. The horror of walking down stairs on the morning and realise you have a puncture is enough to start you off on a poor footing, so I always carry a spare. My second bike is normally used for Winter riding, but it’s meticulously maintained and the gearing is almost exactly the same as my “good bike”.
The booth of the car is a bit like something you would see on the Tour De France. Spare tubes, helmets, glasses, shoes and tools are all laid out, so all I need to do is put my hand on stuff and it’s there.
My bikes are loaded onto the roof rack the night before, locked and secured. We are in Dublin after all.
Actually, excuse me while I go off point here for a few moments. On Saturday evening, I took a quick warm up spin in our capital city. Starting at North Bull Island in the north of the city, I rode the handy 10km to O’Connell Bridge in the centre of the city. It’s an immaculate cycle lane for most of the route and at one stage, where I needed to cross a busy round about, a man in a car stopped to wave me through. Onto the quays and more cycle lanes, down past the Jeannie Johnson famine ship, past the Samuel Beckett Bridge and in no time, I’m at the heart of the city.
To people from down the country, nightly news reports would make you ask, why would anybody go to that place. Sure it’s all murder, drugs, gangs, lawlessness and so on. My experience is standing with my phone, taking selfies, surrounded by tourists, shoppers and people going home from work, all smiling, content and happy. The news programmes don’t report that stuff very often. I’ve never had a bad time in Dublin, quite the opposite in fact. Of course, the reports of people enjoying themselves aren’t quite as newsworthy as murder and mayhem.
On Saturday night, we all went to the cinema and I’m a bag of nerves. That’s what cycling does to you, it gets into your head and “the bad person” as I call him, tries to tell you that you can’t do it. I’m trying to raise funds for the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association, so there’s a little added pressure. Many of my friends have donated and I don’t want to let them down.
AS quick trip to a fast food restaurant, into a late night supermarket to pick up a few bits for breakfast and it’s back to the hotel for final preparations.
Everything is laid out, ready for an early start. Sleep doesn’t come easily that night as all I can see is the suffering that’s coming up in a few short hours time.
I’ve a slight sore throat and a cough, but even if one of my legs was hanging off, it wouldn’t stop me heading to that start line in a few hours time.
In no time at all, I hear the clock buzzing. It’s time to do this thing.
“We want more, we want more”, “One more song, come on the night is young” were the calls from a packed dance floor at 1 am on Saturday night / Sunday morning. For a small time musician these nights can be a bit of a rarity, as the normal reaction from people is “when will this guy shut up and give our ears a break”.
So, a few encores are played, the wagon is loaded, there’s an hour of a drive home, unload everything, leave the dog out for a pee, get my bike ready for the 9am spin and oh yeah, a few hours’ sleep would be handy.
I think I nodded off about 3am, but I kept waking up, thinking I’d slept it out and eventually, looked at the clock, it’s 8.30, damn it, I’m late. I rush through the kitchen, stick on the kettle while putting on my bib shorts, turn off the intruder system, leave the dog out again, with that “hey, I only had a pee while ago” look about her, stick my water bottles on the bike, while making a quick coffee and shock horror, there’s a puncture. It’s now 8.50am, the group leaves in 10 minutes.
Cycling groups don’t wait. 9am is 9am and if you’re too tired or can’t get out of bed, the suggestion is that you take up a different sport.
A hurried bike change, thanks to my luck winning a pro bike a few years ago, where’s that flippin’ dog after going and I’m tearing down the road to meet the gang.
“You look tired”, “you’re mad, you should have stayed in bed and gone out later”. There’s a small bit of sympathy from the group, but sympathy won’t get me through the Wicklow 200 in a few weeks’ time. The only way to climb the Wicklow gap is work and effort, anything else, you’re only fooling yourself.
The one thing that the bike rider at the very bottom has in common with the top professional is the fact that you will have to dig deep at times and suffer. The road isn’t easy and it’s what makes the sport so hard.
Today’s training route is tough, including a climb of the beautiful Nire Valley in the Comeragh Mountains. Rising to over 450m above sea level, it’s one of the highest points in Munster, but the 8km will have the Garmin informing you that the gradient in in excess of 8% in places.
My bike today has a massive 53 X 39 chain ring, with an 11 X 28 cassette. It’s meant for much better, younger and stronger legs than mine. Slowly but surely, I head up with one of the group for company. It’s raining, there’s a strong side wind, it’s cold and nasty, typical of Summer in Ireland. Soon enough, I’m on my own and it’s a struggle, me against the road, against the elements.
It’s one of the reasons we’ve produced some of the best cyclists the world has ever seen. Kelly and Bennett still train on these roads.
The descent on the Mountain Road to Clonmel is dangerous in the wet and I have a few slips and a few altercations with potholes on the way down. I’m soaked through and my feet are freezing by the time I reach the town, so I decide that a coffee is needed. A slip on a manhole cover on the Old Bridge area almost has me on my arse, but eventually I reach Applegreen and a welcome shot of warm caffeine.
I’m a strong enough climber and I’ve put a good bit of time on the group, so eventually they arrive, frozen through, with one rider having encountered seat post problems, that could have hurt.
The last 20km on the route is on back roads, with little or no traffic, but lots of small hard little climbs that just sap the last bit of energy out of your legs.
I award myself a few selfies and manage to drop my brand new phone. Thank god I listened to the girl in the phone shop and bought a protective case as well, as the case did its job.
Towards the finish, you need to be prepared for “the gallop”. It’s the final sprint to the imaginary finish on the Convent Road, a show of strength to the other riders and bragging rights until the next night. Somebody will “lead it out”, the sprinters will line up behind, before it’s eyeballs out for the final 50 meters. There’s none of this “arms in the air nonsense” only a small bit of satisfaction and a guarantee that if I was 35 years younger, I’d match Sam Bennett handy enough.
I had planned to keep going for an hour, to get a bit more mileage on my legs, but tiredness has now kicked in and I’ve used up my luck for the day, so I head for home.
The Giro on telly, a steaming cup of coffee and a message on “the gram” from Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes professional Robert John McCarthy cheers me up. Robert has his own vlog on You Tube and asks people for questions.
I asked him about motivation during the week and what keeps a professional bike rider putting themselves through torture every single day. He replied, with advice for an amateur like me and wished me the best of luck in the upcoming Wicklow 200. Chapeau to him, the fact that a professional athlete bothers to take a few moments means a lot.
Three weeks until Wicklow, it’s in the lap of the gods now. I have thousands of kilometres trained, I’ve climbed the height of Everest god knows how many times. However, no matter how hard you work and train, if you don’t give your body time to recover and rest, you’re going nowhere.
However, cycling won’t pay the bills, so my lifestyle won’t be changing any time soon.
It’s a busy evening for the sport of cycling. At home in Ireland, social media is filled with photographs of race numbers and race kits. Bikes have been prepared, some with new upgrades and in some cases, new bikes are ready to be used in anger. Status updates are counting down the hours till the racing season begins and there’s a nervousness, from the newcomers in A4, to those at the top, in A1.
It’s been busy on the international stage too, where Sam Bennett and Mark Downey have done their bit in the last 24 hours. Mark claimed a bronze medal in the World Indoor Championships and earlier today, Sam beat some of the best sprinters in the world in Dubai.
Down at the bottom end of the ladder, the Unknown Bike Riders are also preparing for the year ahead. There’s no recognition down there and in some cases, the only time groups of unknowns get a mention, is an impatient driver screaming at them to get off the effing road.
However, unperturbed, goals have been set and as the evenings get a little longer, mid week spins are kicking off again. There’s the usual “ah sure, I’ve nothing done” laments as the groups meet up, whereas some unknown riders have kept going through Winter.
Sean Kelly advised that people should “do something” through the Winter, whether it’s a spinning class, the turbo trainer or handy short spins. If Kelly says it, it’s gospel, so many riders have heeded that advice and will hit the ground running.
Many people wonder what drives the unknown bike rider on. For example, on Christmas morning, my family did a double take, as they saw me putting on my gear to go training. “But the Rapha 500 is on” I protested, “if I lose a day, I’ll never make it up”
There are many reasons why people ride their bikes, ranging from the obvious health benefits, the buzz of being fit or maybe the freedom of just getting out on the road.
There are people battling against more important issues such as illness.
I ride my bike following a close escape that I had with with alcohol. Alcohol attacks your brain and your mind. Your mind can be a strong ally and an even stronger adversary. Riding my bike keeps my mind in a good place.
The natural painkillers or natural high’s that hard exercise creates are called endorphins and they are nature’s way of assisting people to cope and to keep their health good. “Do they work?” You bet they do.
So what events are people targeting? In our little group, we have riders heading for most or all of the major events in the country. We have one rider doing his 20th Ring of Kerry ride, which must be a record. My main target is in Wicklow on June 9th, when I’ll attempt my second Wicklow 200.
There are no easy days on a bike and there’s nobody to hold your hand. People will suffer on Molls Gap in Kerry and they’ll suffer on the Wicklow Gap on the other side of the country.
However, that moment, that one solitary moment when you cross the finish line is what it’s all about. You’ve willed yourself through it, you’ve trained like a person possessed and quitting was never an option. That’s why it’s done.
There is a lot of tough training ahead, both in groups and people on their own. Personally, I enjoy the solitude of solo training spins, as I can go as hard or as easy as I wish. I can stop when I wish or keep going if I wish. Others prefer the group, as it keeps them on their toes and the company is good.
This is Ireland though and one thing you can guarantee, is bad weather at some stage. In other sports, there’s an easy option to stay home during torrential wind and rain, you have the option to go back under the duvet as the rain hammers the window on a Sunday morning. Those options aren’t there in cycling.
Fear of the cold, or just plain fear, on a 70kph descent down The Nire Valley, are not an option.
“You only get out what you put in” the saying goes.
It’s why I believe that a small country like Ireland has produced so many world class cyclists, from the great Shay Elliot, King Kelly, Roche to Bennett. Ireland breeds them tough.
The Rás, is a huge loss to cycling fans this year, as the excitement of a stage finish is something to behold. All fans of the sport hope that sponsorship can be found for 2020.
So, it’s time now to start getting in the miles, as “the Summer will be here in no time”.
My very best wishes to the people out racing from this weekend on. Stay safe, mind yourselves and chapeau, I wish I had the courage to pin on race numbers, or even a bit of talent at that.
To the unknown bike riders, have a great year, see you out there. There’s a weather warning for the morning, if you’re worried about whether it’s too wet to go out, I’ll leave you with this final nugget from Sean Kelly.
“I check the weather, I put on my gear, I go out and do my spin, then when I’m back do I decide if it was too wet or not”