I think the immediate run up to ‘the day’ was summed up beautifully by Colin Shaw whose Facebook post echoed what many of us ‘newbies’ were feeling.
But before I go into that, let’s wind the clock back a bit. My first real life encounter with Paris2Nice was at the Morehampton Hotel one evening back in February. Up until then the whole undertaking was very much in the abstract. To be honest I didn’t really know what to expect and I was doubtlessly lulled into a false sense of security by Kevin Hui.
As I walked up the short flight of stairs I was greeted by a hubbub of excited chat. The sound of great friends meeting up and reminiscing about past conquests and future adventures to come. It was infectious. Why had I been nervous about attending? Sure all the people seemed ‘relatively’ normal. This was going to be grand. By the time proceedings began, I had even stopped feeling guilty about not having cycled in. I had considered it, but reckoned the 6 kilometres would have floored me.
Up gets Tom Kennedy to deliver a masterful introduction to Paris2Nice – all the whys, whens and whats. But then…came the hows!!! Sweet Mother of all that is sacred! I think it may have been Paddy Holihan who burst my bubble, with a needle the size of the Spire in O’Connell Street. ‘You need to be out riding ‘X’ times per week, doing ‘Y’ kilometers for T amount of time, slowly building up to ‘X+Y+T’ to the power of 2 gaining in one point increments until we reach Armageddon! Holy shit! I was never great at maths, but all of these numbers were turning my brain to mush, to say nothing of my insides. I left feeling bewildered, terrified and more than a little bit confused.
Back to the present. So what is Armageddon? In its generic sense, it relates to any ‘end of world’ scenario or titanic battle. In its more specific sense, it relates to the Wicklow 100/200. Sunday WAS Armageddon in all senses of the word!
I had hardly slept the night before. I kept waking up in a cold sweat! ‘Jaysus Andrew, it’s just like any Sunday morning cycle’ I repeated to myself. Oh great, now I’m feckin’ talking to myself, and what’s even more worrying, I’m also answering myself back. As the night slowly dragged on and dawn made a pathetic attempt to break through the murky dank clouds – the rain started! Great, that is just bloody marvelous. Not only do I soon have to play a bit part in Armageddon, I’m also going to get soaked doing so.
Colin Shaw, my friend, neighbour and fellow cyclist arrived at 06:00. I opened the door expecting to see an ebullient, gungho smiling MAMIL. Not a chance. Like me he had been crawling the walls all night. Out to the car we went, like two condemned men talking the long walk that would culminate in an overly intimate encounter with Madam Guillotine! Next stop the Shoreline Leisure Centre – the site of the execution.
Things started to look up. Amazingly we found a parking spot very quickly, and started the long process of preparing the bikes and ourselves for the day. To be honest, we showed up at the P2N spot looking like hedgehogs. Bristling out of our backs were energy bars, Gels, Shots, sweets, rosary beads, cameras, arm & leg warmers, monkey-wrenches, batteries, lucky charms etc etc. I’ve packed less to go on a 3 month trek across Europe. Every time I leant forward it was like being kicked in the kidneys. But I had been a boy scout and I had to ‘Be Prepared’. Twenty minutes later, registration complete, group photo taken and we were off. As soon as we got going I felt shite, and started to worry even more about the day. My chest was tight and I wondered if I would be up for it. But I had to keep going. I couldn’t fall before I even got to the first hurdle!
It was only after we turned off the N11 and started to climb that I started to feel some semblance of normality. I know this sounds a bit corny and possibly a bit strange, but climbing hills relaxes me. No time to think about all the other stuff going on, just pure focused concentration on the gradient in front of you and the perfect cadence to get you up there. Staying in the saddle until the burning in the legs gets a bit much, then out of the saddle to give a new set of muscles a bit of a go. Then back on to the saddle again. Then back up again. All you hear is your breathing and the faint sound of your heartbeat. The rhythm almost becomes hypnotic.
When I got to the top, reality reasserted itself and I noticed that the brutal weather had not gone away. It was getting worse! The rain was bad enough, but the wind – the damned wind. It was then that I noticed my gear problems. Every time I went up to the big ring, the chain came off. After the second derailing I decided to just leave it on the small one and try to fix it at the halfway point in Rathdrum. This was fine apart from a few stretches where my cadence shot up to 130 or so. I was bouncing up and down on the saddle like a lunatic. When I say bouncing, I mean squelching! I had just come through a couple of cloudbursts and my chamois must have contained more water than my two Camelback bottles combined. But I was delighted to find out that if I sat down quickly and firmly that I could squirt the water out of it and make a little squeaky sound 🙂
I know, I know…but when you are 40k in, and trying to forget the crap weather, any little distraction is a welcome one! I can’t imagine what the riders behind me thought I was up to – as they cycled through the warm mist!
Thoughts of firing water out of my shorts vanished very quickly as I came down the treacherous hill a few kilometres short of Rathdrum. The road was in full flood and I had to slow down hugely just to make it safely down.
In to Rathdrum for a quick pitstop which comprised coffee, chicken & stuffing sandwich, coffee, fruitcake, coffee and then a cup of tea. Gerry, kindly showed me how to fix my gears and off we headed again. We had been told that the worst of the terrain was over and that the last 50k or so, was a cakewalk! Will I never learn!
The hill coming out of Avoca was a bit of a monster, but my legs were now on auto pilot. It had stopped raining and there was no more entertainment to be had from my shorts, so I reverted to singing some of the songs from The Clash album ‘Sandinista’. I was halfway through ‘The Call Up’ singing – ‘It’s up to you not to heed the Call Up – I don’t wanna die’ as I passed this other rider. He obviously just heard the ‘I don’t wanna die’ bit and said ‘Well why don’t you fu@kin’ slow down then’! I didn’t and I didn’t, if you know what I mean.
Shortly afterwards there was a sharp left where I was immediately confronted by a wall!!! Apparently there had been a postage stamp sign that instructed you to ‘drop your gear’, but I certainly didn’t see it. I just about managed to avoid some guy who had been caught short, and continued on up the hill. I ended up riding pretty much on my own, and couldn’t see anybody in front or behind. I slipped effortlessly into a bit of Lloyd Cole & The Commotions and started to pick my pace. Finally, I spotted some riders up ahead and was almost up with them when we hit Ashford. I followed hot on their heels as they swung left at the roundabout. I was distracted, as I was now belting out a bit of Kajagoogoo and wondering WTF was Limahl’s hair all about! Strange thoughts indeed given that hair styles have played no part in my life for 30 years or so!
I was about half a kilometre up the road when I started having doubts about our direction. I looked back towards Ashford, and there they were, a ganzy-load of riders shooting straight on! Ngrrrnnnnagghhhh! I reckon the guys that I followed were the ‘Wicklow Red Herrings’. An organisation whose sole purpose is to mislead and misdirect us poor beleaguered cyclists! Back down into Ashford, sharp left and started on the last leg. I passed by a half eaten deer at the side of the road. All I could think of was that Cathal had run low on granola bars and couldn’t wait for the food at the finish line!
The sun was almost out, the rain had stopped and some people had ventured from their homes to give us all a bit of encouragement. That is the first time I have ever been on the receiving end of such a wonderful thing. The lift that it gives you is immense. As I approached the final run down Greystones and the Shoreline Leisure Centre I got a massive boost of energy, partly from chewing a Clif Shot Blok (Blackcurrant flavour), but mostly because the end was very much in sight. I swear, if my chamois had not been so wet, I reckon there would have been flames shooting out behind me.
And so it ended, where it had all begun – the Hall of the Leisure Centre where I received my medal and my certificate. I genuinely don’t think I have been as proud of an achievement since I got my ‘Big Big Charity Walk’ cert for walking 20 miles with the scouts in the early 70’s. Forgotten were the tired legs, the slipping gears, the apocalyptic cloudbursts and in incessant wind. I had made it!!
I sat down with my pasta and salad and watched as a steady stream of riders came in to the hall. Some looked in reasonably good shape, but others would not have been out of place in the Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ video. Everybody had undertaken the Wicklow 100/200 for their own reason. Everybody was out to prove something quietly to themselves. And from the number of smiles I saw in that hall, personal achievement levels were in the stratosphere!
Armageddon – nah, not really. This was a titanic battle for many people, including myself, but guess what – it was all of us, the good guys who won in the end.
My thanks to all of the Paris2Nice alumni who got us to the stage where we could complete this sportive. Without your patience, guidance and knowledge, many of us would not have had a hope. And to all the volunteers on the day, the Marshals, Registrars, cooks etc. They were brilliant.
Finally, I would like to say a huge congratulations to Derry Clarke and Kevin Hui on their completion of the Console 200k to Galway the day before the Wicklow 100. A staggering achievement.