The Tour de Connemara was my first significant ride since my
exam period started, back at the start of April. Because of the exams I wasn’t
sure how I would perform due to the 7 weeks of stress, lack of exercise, and
Centra chicken fillet rolls that accompany 10 Engineering exams in your final
year. I had tried to fit in some rides, but they were short and not very
intense. This led to some apprehension about the ride!
I had signed up to the Tour de Connemara more from a
nostalgic point of view as the route went though many areas I had spent my
childhood summers in. For the first 16 years of my life, I had spent some
period of my summers caravanning in Acton’s campsite on the coast in
Claddaghduff, around a 20-minute drive from Clifden, so I knew almost every
part of the route from excursions during these summers. My Mum and Dad also
came down for the Tour as they too had spent summers in the Connemara and
enjoyed spending time in the West.
The beach of my childhood
The Tour isn’t a competitive race like the ones I’ve been
blogging about, but a sportive. A sportive involves a mass start before
following a route which has numerous food stops where people can stop and
refuel before continuing on, at whatever pace suits them with no time limits to
be made. I’ve done many sportives and find them a great way to explore a
country, meet new people and developing endurance. For this particular sportive
though, I decided to really go for it and try and finish in the front group. I
wanted to do this because my fitness needed a good shock to get it back in gear
after such a long exam period.
My parents and I had headed out to Connemara the day before
the race so we could spend a day setting up the tents in Acton’s campsite and
wondering around Claddaghduff. This included a bone-numbing swim (which my Mum
and I regretted immediately!), walking along the coast to Sweeney’s pub for a
pint, making friends with a cow and enjoying cold pasta bolognaise on the point
of Omey Island in the freezing wind! While
all this doesn’t sound like a pleasant way to spend an evening, I thoroughly
appreciated it as it brought back great memories. After our fun evening we
returned to tents for the night which, given the blowing wind, was not very
enjoyable. But nonetheless, I was eager for the next day to begin and to get
A cold dip!
Walking to the pub
The next morning came after a restless windy night in the
tents but the sun was shining which was a change from last year, where it was
incredibly wet and cold. Now it was just cold and windy but most importantly,
dry! We had our breakfast, which consisted of a very sophisticated cereal and
milk given our setup, before heading off to the race. I had decided to wrap up
warm because of the cold wind and if necessary change when I got to the start
if the conditions changed. Mum and Dad decided to break down camp after I had
started off, which was great for me, as I didn’t have to do it! They would then
try and meet me at various points on the route to snap a few photos and cheer
The joys of camping and cycling!
One last look before getting down to business!
We arrived at the Station House in Clifden where the race
was starting. The buzz in the start area was fantastic and everyone there was
chatty and friendly. Another great thing about sportives is how easily they can
be accessed. At competitive races, everyone is lean and mean, and looking at you
with an eye of competition, thinking how to get one up on you. At sportives,
all shapes and sizes are participating, everyone is a friend, and we’re all
there for one purpose, to enjoy cycling in the mesmerising scenery of
Connemara. Competition has its place and I relish it, but sometimes just
enjoying cycling is so simplistically fun.
The route today was a lumpy 140km anticlockwise loop of
Connemara starting in Clifden. We would head down to Roundstone, across to
Cashel, up to Maam’s Cross, over Maam Valley, across to Leelaun, along Killary Harbour,
pass Kylemore Abbey and finally though Letterfrack before finishing in Clifden.
While there were no significant climbs on the route, there were numerous short
sharp climbs, but given momentum, could be easily handled. Nothing my large
frame couldn’t handle! The wind on the day would be quite significant though. A
strong Northerly wind would affect us for a large proportion of the course.
Theoretically, since we were cycling in a loop, for all the headwind we’ll
have, we should have the same amount of tailwind, but as all cyclists know, it
doesn’t quite work out like that!
Ready to go!
After signing in (and receiving a lovely training jacket), I
got my gear ready and soon I was standing in the start area waiting for the Grand
Départe! As we got closer to the start time, the buzz intensified. Even the
inflatable Skoda sign collapsing didn’t dampen spirits, if anything we all got
a laugh out of it! After it had been reflated, we were signaled to start. I had
wormed my way to the front of the start area, as I knew the fast front group
would form quickly and I wanted to be in it. As we rolled out of Clifden, I
could see a few riders shooting off at a very fast pace, including Aidan Reade
in his Irish National Champion gear. I was apprehensive to jump onto them as
they were going very quick, very early and I felt I needed time to warm up. If
I pushed too hard too early, I was sure I’d pay for it later on, especially as
I hadn’t done a long spin for nearly two months. So I played it cool and waited
for someone a little less fast.
An unexpected disaster!
After around 3km, a Killarny rider passed me going at a
decent pace so I decided to latch on and we eventually caught the fast riders
who had shot off but had since slowed down slightly. So 6 of us formed a nice
group that worked well together each taking our turn on the front before
someone else coming through. It was obvious that everyone had some racing
experience, as it was all very smooth. One of the riders was a guy called Chris
training for the Wild Atlantic Way Challenge. Chris had a great and chirpy
character and was cranking out the jokes that were a great was to pass the
time. I learnt that Chris and group of people were using the Tour de Connemara
as a training spin to get ready for the Challenge, which included old rugby
So the 6 of us continued to ride along till we hit
Roundstone where we received a warm welcome of applause from the residents, it
made me feel like quite the pro! Soon after, we were joined by a very large
group of around 30 riders who had caught up with us. This was good as there
were now more riders to share the load of riding on the front into the
significant headwind we had from Cashel up to Maam’s Cross. Everyone in the
group decided to skip the first food stop, which came after 40km, which suited me,
as I was feeling good and fresh. Until Maam’s Cross nothing particularly
exciting happened, a few riders seemed to be quite excited and every time they
came through, the pace would shoot up, but a few shouts from the wiser riders
calmed them down.
Coming up to Maam’s Cross the head wind became particularly
strong which cut down our pace. After crossing Maam’s Cross, we had to work our
way up the valley that led to Maam Village and the second food stop of the day.
The climb was the only significant one of the day so I knew I could go
reasonably hard on it and not worry too much. Coming up the foot I found myself
coming to the front of the lead group to do my turn. I pulled off thinking the
next rider would come through to do his turn, but no one came through! I
probably should have slowed down to let someone come through but I was happy to
be leading the group up the climb so I set the pace up. Coming up to the top, a
young rider from the Nicolas Roche Performance Team jumped away and sprinted to
the finish. I presume he had been using the sportive as a training ride and was
putting in a decent effort as he soon slowed down after cresting the top.
Coming across the top I asked around if we were stopping at the next food stop,
which came at the bottom of the descent we were starting, and the general
consensus was that we were which I was happy about as I was running low on
fluids and bursting for the toilet!
After the fun descent, we pulled into the food stop were I
proceeded to rush to the toilet, then fill up my bidons. I looked around and
saw everyone was sitting down and getting comfortable with some tea and cakes!
I was hoping that people would get going pretty quickly after stocking up and
relieving bladders, but it didn’t look like it. I saw Chris getting ready to
ride and he said that he couldn’t stop for long as he seizes up if he does. I
asked if I could ride with him and of course he had no problem with that. His
friend Mike, who was also training for the Challenge, joined us as well. We
thought that if we took it easy enough the front group would eventually catch
up with us and we’d join up with them.
So off we went. The section we had just started down to
Leelaun was again into a severe head wind being funneled down the valley. While
we weren't racing along, we weren't taking it too easy either. We were joined
by another rider, which helped with the load sharing. There was some
spectacular scenery along this valley with mountains pushing up on each side of
us. We eventually started the short descent into Leelaun before riding along
Killary Habour for a few kilometers. The views along Killary Harbour were once
again stunning and beautiful. Our pace continued to increase along the Harbour
until we were almost at full pace again, so much for waiting for the fast group
to catch us!
Coming to the end of Killary Harbour, we had to do a little
climb to get out of the Harbour were Mike and the other rider proceeded to drop
Chris and myself. Coming over the top I managed to crawl back onto Mike and the
other rider with Chris also eventually getting back on. The next section was
reasonably flat as we rode beside Kylemore Lough, we also had a tail wind which
helped a lot. At this stage we had joined up with the 80km route so we were no
longer the only cyclists on the road. As we reached Kylemore Abbey my Mum and
Dad were cheering at the side of the road. My Dad snapped a few pictures and
unintentionally snapped a hilarious photo of a rider cycling along eating a
choc-ice! Which was well received on the Facebook event page!
The famous choc-ice photo!
We decided to skip the last food stop at Kylemore Abbey as
we were only 20km from the end and flying. At this stage we lost Chris and our
mystery rider, Chris saying his legs had turned to jelly! So Mike and myself
continued to push on and I really had to dig deep to keep up with Mike,
especially on the numerous little climbs we had to deal with where he was very
strong. With 8km to go, I cracked and couldn’t hold Mike’s wheel anymore. So
off Mike cycled into the distance, as I withdrew into the pain cave and worked
my way to the end of the course.
Pushing to the end
The last few kilometers were rather enjoyable because as you
get closer to the end you get a little bit of extra energy to keep you going!
My parents eventually past me telling me to hurry up, which wasn’t well
received by me! They went up the road and stopped to take a few more photos
just before I came into the finish of the course.
Rolling into the finishing area was great as all the cars
were stopped so that I could roll without having to stop, again making you feel
very pro! Upon crossing the line, I received a little participation medal,
which was nice, and was given a well needed sports drink. My parents followed
me in to congratulate me and take a few more pictures in the finish area. I
thanked Mike for the ride and Chris rolled in soon after us and I thanked him
as well before heading back to the car and clean up for the trip home.
Overall, I really enjoyed my day at the Tour de Connemara.
While it wasn’t competitive, I was very chuffed to be the second person to
finish the 140km route, after Mike. It gave me some confidence about my fitness
before my return to racing. Hopefully it won’t be too hard for me to regain my
race fitness. The general consensus was that it was a great and fun day out. The
event itself was very well organised, with rolling road closures, well-stocked
food stations and friendly staff. The rain managed to hold off all day, which
was great as well. I’ll certainly be back next year!
I big thank you to my parents, Peter and Wendy, for all their work and support over the weekend.