Thursday, 4 September 2008

Fáilte go Phort Láirge* - from Sean Kelly !

*Welcome to Waterford


The August Bank Holiday in Britain is associated with the last chance getaway to the sun before the schools resume, for those who are lucky. For the unlucky ones, it's another chance to endure a weekend of torrential rain at home.

Fred and I were getting away for the weekend, but to somewhere less sunny and definitely wetter. Not sure if that made us lucky or not !

Well seeing as they always talk of the "luck of the Irish", I liked to think that by going to Ireland, we were lucky !

We flew into Cork, then drove over to Waterford (Phort Láirge), where we met up with Fred's family to attend the christening of his baby nephew.

The journey to Waterford was a very grim affair - driving rain and a cold wind. From the main road, to the left of us were apparently the Comeragh mountains.

We couldn't see any of them through the mist. And the most daunting thought was that we were supposed to be riding up there tomorrow !

Yes, we'd decided to ride the Sean Kelly Tour of Waterford. There'd be a choice of distances - 50km 100km or 160km. I was hovering between doing the medium or the long distance ride. However, given the biblical weather we were experiencing I didn't think I'd be riding anywhere the following day !

Still, the spread after the christening was a jolly affair with lots banter plus food and wine in generous portions. And hey, I wasn't going to skip on any of that for the sake of riding 160km !

The following morning turned out to be clear and bright. When we left the house at 7am the sun was just peaking through over the mountains and it began its job of drying up the roads.

I began to look forward to the day. The Event HQ at Dungarvan Sports Centre was a hive of activity - lots of cyclists of various shapes and sizes, and on different types of bikes milling around.

Fred had a cold, so decided not ride. I felt that for all the effort I'd made to get there, and as a way of getting to know the area it would be best if I did the longest route available, so I signed up for the 160km.

The lady on the signing desk couldn't hide her expression of surprise and admiration that here was a young woman from London, still in her civvies, hoping to set off and ride 160km through the mountains in the next half hour. There were many local women who wouldn't dare ride up there. Everyone I spoke to about the ride had mentioned the infamous climb up Mahon Falls. It seemed to evoke a reaction of fear and dread from everyone. I wondered what I had let myself in for.

Once I'd been through the signing on formalities I quickly changed into my kit and followed the other cyclists to the start area at Dungarvan bay.

Just after 8am we were on our way. The early part of the ride was a procession through the local streets with the townsfolk out to cheer us on. We had motorbike outriders to escort us out of the town and there were rolling road closures, which made us feel safe.

I hadn't quite realised just how many of us there were until we were on the main road and I could see a long snake of people ahead of me. There were over 2,000 riders.

All along the route I spoke to lots of riders from various parts of Ireland. They acted very impressed that I'd come all the way from London to do their event. Some gave advice on what the route would be like and what to save the energy for. Mahon Falls was mentioned again and again.

I got talking to a group of women mountainbikers from Portsmouth. One of the women was the mother of a good junior rider who raced for Wildside Racing Team in London. I also met a group of Irish women racers who had raced at World Cup events and knew some of the fast women from the old Rapha Condor squad. Small world.

The first difficulty of the day was Seskin Hill, just outside Sean Kelly's home town of Carrick-on-Suir. It was all very well talking about the steepness of the later climbs but no one warned me about this one. It was just over a mile long, and averaged 10% - the last 500m were at around 16%. It reminded me of Toys Hill in Kent.
A few riders had to walk this section. We were only 30 miles in. How would they cope with the rest ??

There was a feedstation a couple of miles after this, where Fred and the rest of his family were waiting to cheer on the riders. Fred's brother-in-law and a few friends were also riding the event. They'd passed through the feedstop about 15 minutes ahead of me.

Wow, the organisers know how to set up a feedstation ! It was an elaborate affair. Everything was located in a big sports hall. I suppose they didn't want to take any chances with the weather. That's fair enough, but they'd really gone to town by setting up chairs and tables. To be honest the amount of food on offer definitely justified making the feedstop a sit-down affair !

There was the usual pasta and sauce meal. In addition there was rice with other sauces, sandwiches, ham, sausages, lots of cakes, biscuits, a variety of fruit, plus tea and coffee - all this as well as the usual energy drinks.

It's worth mentioning that this cyclosportive, like the Tour of Flanders, is not a timed event. The emphasis is on completing the ride, rather than competing for a time standard.

After stocking up on refreshments, a quick chat and a photo, I continued on my way. The terrain regularly undulated until we reached the intersection.

Then once again came that moment where the group I was with was suddenly reduced to one, everyone else went straight on to do the 100km route, and I was the only one to turn left to do the long route. It wasn't too long before I found a few people to ride with again.

Also at this point the road became steeper and steeper. We were entering the Comeragh Mountains. As I looked up and saw the mountains I realised that my work was only just beginning.

The first serious climb was Powers the Pot. No idea where that name comes from, but you definitely needed power to get up it. The gradient averaged around 8% for 5km. The area above was quite exposed and reminded me of the North York Moors. There was lots of purple heather around.

The big descent was a pleasant relief, but then losing so much ground meant that we'd have a hellish climb to do later !

This came in the shape of the climb everyone was talking about - Mahon Falls. By this time, the sun had gone in and the rain began to fall. I was determined to hold onto the new group I'd found until at least the foot of the climb. I couldn't hold on for much longer beyond that though. The gradient was steep. There were a number of short 12% ramps. I just ground away slowly on my 34x27 compact for around 4 miles. I'm not sure that I had enough gears. Then right at the top, as if you hadn't had enough, the gradient kicked up ruthlessly to almost 25%. I was honking out of the saddle as best I could, and hoped that person in front of me would not just suddenly stop and compel me to use unnecessary energy to quickly switch my line. Luckily he didn't. Mind you, alot of people were walking this section.

Now I understood what people meant. This climb lived up to its infamous name. For me it was a cross between Wrynose pass (in the Lake District) and Bwlch y Groes (in North Wales).
Now I know where Sean Kelly would have gained his strength from to win the Tour de France points competition 4 times, and also the Tour of Spain.

The descent from Mahon Falls required a lot of care - especially on the hairpins and in these wet conditions.

I was glad to have gotten this beast out of the way. Unfortunately the run in homewards was not that straightforward. There was another long drag to endure, and although the gradient was not as tough as Mahon Falls, the Mara road proved to be difficult for me as it came quite soon after the 25% ramp from earlier.


Once over this I was able to buddly up with a few guys and we rolled back down to the main road to take us back to Dungarvan.

The sight of the harbour in Dungarvan was a welcome relief and it was quite a picturesque way to end a long day out in the hills.



Seven hours after crossing the start line I had finished. And I was pleased. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining down on Dungarvan bay - just as it had done first thing this morning. I then celebrated with Fred, at the Sports Centre, which had been converted into a cafe area. It was also the place where people went to have their photos taken with Sean Kelly, and have him sign their finishers' certificates.
The lady who handed me my certificate was quite pleased to see that I'd made it through and I still had a smile on my face.
I didn't get my certificate signed but I took a picture of Fred with Mr Kelly, and thanked him for organising such a great event - including arranging reasonably good weather for the day !
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