Tour of Windy Sligo 2011

When I say it was windy, we're talking 50-60mph up on the mountains. …

When I say it was windy, we're talking 50-60mph up on the mountains.

It transformed a killer cycle into a struggle against the elements of elemental proportions.Drive up was smoother than last year, roads have improved around the big midland towns. Gorgeous morning, left the family sleeping in a damp, misty Monasterevin to journey via Portarlington, Tullamore, Athlone, Roscommon, Boyle to Sligo in 2 hrs 40 minute journey. What a beautiful place Ireland is. The view from the road between Roscommon town and Boyle is especially lovely at 7.30am.Training had gone so so. Plenty of local circuits, some 3 Rock climbing and I managed a Bluebell loop of 16 ( * 2.2kms) in 3 hrs on Friday – MTB repairs done and worth the money. Not killer fast but as I age, I no longer think I ought worry about speed. Endurance and journey are my more natural bedfellows. A solid training ride of close to 95km last weekend with a friend from Laois CC got the juices flowing but it wasnt sufficient preparation for Sligo. It was very windy up in the Wicklow Hills also so energy expended exceeded the 95km. All part of the endurance process but bottom line I hadnt been on the bike for more than 3.75 hrs at a time since last August. I did however felt great in the lead up to this cycle and I was looking forward to it. True to life, it bit me in the ass. It was sunny but blustery in Sligo. Some comments over the PA seemed to suggest it had only just stopped raining very heavily. The combination of blustery winds and rain make cycling as dangerous as it gets (bar ice) so my fingers stayed crossed inside my jacket pocket while I got myself suited and booted for the wind and possibly rain, ready to repeat what was a tough enough ride last year. Big change to last year was the direction we cycled. In 2010, we had a good 70km under our belts before we got to the first food stop. This year, we cut out the lake loop and went out around the final 10km from last year in the reverse direction. Great, no problem with that except we reached the same food stop at the same location as last year after 25 miles. Everyone stopped as you do and got off to join the predictably depressing queue for chicken sandwiches and tea. I didn't need this yet, my belly was still full of breakfast and I had just found my legs. I flew up the hidden climb on which Id had to walk for last 20 metres last year. Barely saw it this time. The corollary to not stopping after 25 miles, as I heard later on from a riding partner, was that many people who kept going bonked once they were up in the hills. They faced another 90km before they could get any food into them and with the high wind, energy was in short supply (did they not have some bars with them ?) The corollary to that corollary is the organisers should move the food stops when they switch the course around. Also I witnessed a crash. A group from ShannonTriathlon Club who are very visible participants were all ascending together and a trio of cars came laming down the hill, smacking straight into a guy on the far right. Literally knocked him off. The driver got an earful, feigned shock but you could tell she didnt give a shit. The "I drive the car so I rule the road" mentality we have to destroy. Unfortunately, a lot of cyclists are going to get hurt and/or get killed before Anon-a-veg behind the wheel gets the message. As we headed on out into the course, I kept trying to recall directions & features from last years trip, recalling a nasty undocumented climb ("Theres only 2 real big climbs") then reversing the tape to try locate it as we went in reverse, not literally of course. As I figured out later, the route from Coolaney to the first big climb (big lake to the left etc) was initially in the same direction as last year but we climbed Ladys Brea first – second last year – AND in the opposite direction. That threw my compass off I can tell you. As it turns out, the balance of climbs etc was more pleasing – even taking wind sheer into account – than in 2010 but try telling that to my plotting scheming planner devil :devil: Most climbs have a steep side and a less steep side because most mountains or hills evolve from glacial movement where the glacier cuts deep narrow gulleys, the content of which gets pushed up and over the back of the slope. In last years race, climb #1 and Ladys Brea both forced us up the steep sides of either mountain/hill. The main reason for the switcheroo in 2011 was the 2010 descent from Ladys Brea which is narrow, v steep in parts, gravelly and covered in blind corners. I bet some people got hurt coming down that descent because this year every descent was signposted to the max with stewards waving flags & blowing whistles. The 2011 descent of Ladys Brea was a piece of cake (or a chicken sandwich if you prefer) although a broken bottle cage meant I had to retrieve my beloved DIA water bottle from several ditches. I lost contact with a few riding partners too. Not sure what the etiquette is in circumstances where a non-essential item of cycling infrastructure falls on to the road mid conversation going uphill. Be rude to ask your riding partner to stop so you can….one of many unanswered questions of cycling lore. So I found myself hairing along at the same pace as first 35km with like-minded individuals. The only time I can motivate myself to push my speed close to or beyond 30kmh is during an event like this one. By nature, I prefer to preserve my energy for the climbs and suck down the slower finish times. I got stuck into groups to protect my energy from the wind because even early on there were signs of an impending storm, not via the heavens but in the wind direction. We had been cycling South West for about 65 km and then turned to head South, inland just as the landscape changed from coastal dune-like windblown to angry mountain lowland. If Id looked a little more closely, Id have seen the tiny chains attached to every sheeps hoof and used by Sligonian Farmers to keep their flocks from blowing away in the wind. Can you imagine the chaos after a big storm as some poor bollix ends up with an entire county's worth of sheep in his fields while all his neighbours with more open, upland farms have none ? There'd be war. The chains only come out in the event of Force 6 gales or higher. Unfortunately I was cycling quite quickly and didn't notice the sheep chains but the Force 7 gale (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beaufort_scale for a definition – streaked sea with lots of white horses = Force 7) started to wear me down almost straight away. I stopped for a piss about 15 mins into the climb and noticed how stiff my bod felt. Not just the usual feet, hands, neck and back but my shoulders, arms, my face (?) all felt battered. Back onto the saddle to try stay on someone/anyones wheel but I couldn't the wind was just so strong. In fact, not many people passed me. It was a case of swerving as little as possible in my lowest gear, climbing was difficult since standing up on the peddles just pushed me higher into the wind. At the water stop around half way up the climb, everyone I could see up ahead of me in the train, everyone who had passed me by over the preceding half an hour was stopped at the stop. Id never seen this happen before as most serious cyclists just keep at it. So everyone was basically seeking shelter. Also missing the food stop probably caught some people out, few people sucking down energy bars. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the mobile phones appearing – "Hi, I cant cycle any further. Please meet me at the bottom of such n such". And you notice jaded legs giving way as people fall over their own bikes, telltale signs of exhaustion. It was a pure slog for around 45 kms directly into the wind over beautiful but unforgiving Sligo mountain countryside. The cyclists companion is such a vista: collapsed rows of fir trees, their scarafed bows bleached to white by the unremitting wind, snow, rain, sun of altitude; the beautiful streams gurgling down into the lakes; the constant sswiisssh of the trees protecting isolated houses from the worst of the weather; and the lurking sense of dread in me, "Will I last until the end ?" It was then I started to hallucinate about a cup of tea – sugar mostly. The descent from this climb was fine despite the "Extreme Caution Required" signs. The wind was so high I had to pedal down hill just to get some speed up. One heavy set guy flew down the hill, made me feel old and stupid. Aha, so the "old + stupid, what the hell are you doing to this to yourself for" refrain began to bubble up from my subconscious like a ~90km hyena. We got a brief shower of hail but thank the sligo stars, we stayed dry because the wet would have finished me off. Can barely even think about it. Back to Coolany was another 15 kms. On every one of these long cycles, there's always one 10-15kms stretch that feels like 50kms. This was it for Sligo 2011. Perhaps some sign post was simply wrong or I was heading into the red. Stick an increasingly vivid hallucination about tea plus food out in front of that "50km", you begin to get the picture. I began to recognise some of the landscape albeit in reverse from last year. Two young guys had cycled along side me for about 1km in 2010 so I was able to count down the distance to the food stop. Again some cyclists in groups (organised bastards) passed me by but I knew I wasn't going to be last. That said, when I got back to base they were taking down the WELCOME BACK sign but at least the girls with the Certificates were still there with a small handful of documents. Lady parked beside me said she felt physically sick. I empathised although my struggle had been a mental one. I reached the food stop slumped with a tea, two slices of ginger cake, a mars and a roast beef sandwich. "Do I go on, how far is it, which direction". Spoke to one guy in full Sky Team regalia, he said some of his companions got into the red on the second climb and had to stop. So the misplacement of the food stop was a bit of an issue. For my part, I felt even stiffer now, all over body stiff. I guess the effort of fighting to keep the bike upright, that hand pushing me backward had taken its toll. But there was still another 50km to go. I grabbed some gels which I hate taking – they taste like oysters in Benelyn. I overcame the obstacles in my head and pushed off into the wind (it was still blowing although not quite force 7). I tracked the route in my head. Back toward Sligo then out down around the Cooley peninsula via Dromahair (nice town). I called into the last water stop 20 kms from home. I was the only one to do so. Best cup of water so far – the stuff I got on the mountain tasted haired-up – and the lady serving it the friendliest, even had me a few spare chicken sandwiches. Stopped again 5 km further on to eat them plus my peanut butter sandwich. Found a comfortable moss covered slab of stone to sit my tired, sore ass on. Still the nagging dread in my stomach, uuurrgghhh. Will I make it ? 15kms to go. First of two gels and the pain become number. Lovely cycle round the lakes and into the final 10kms – down hill WITH THE WIND BEHIND ME and back to Sligo Tech. Made it in 8hrs 5 mins, about an hour slower than last year. I did it <pats self on back>. Anyone involved in APS reads this blog, three things:

* move the first food stop out to 55 km even if it is half way up a mountain. It supposed to suit the cyclists rather than the local GAA club !

* serve HOT food at the end. Every participant pays you e30.00 so spend it on hot food. Id had enough sandwiches to make me puke by then. Coffee was lovely though but all the pastries were gone.

* go easy on the health and safety. Nature doesn't put up signs to warn us of high winds so why the scarifing signs warning of "Extreme Descents. Proceed with caution". Overmother us and we wont come back.

I started out in great form and finished slightly shattered, very stiff BUT I enjoyed it, yet again An Post Series delivered a good one. Until next year Sligo. Ciao

The Stiff Cycling Blogger

PS Just heard a young Dutch cyclist was killed today on Stage 3 of the Giro. God rest his soul, his family. He died doing what he loved.

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