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Setting off for the Wicklow hills...

This year I, once again, took part in the Wicklow 200 cycle ‘challenge’, which covers 200 kilometres of spectacular Wicklow countryside, most of which you don’t notice as you struggle with every ounce of energy to just get round the course. I first did it back in 2008, and left from UCD, chatting with another cyclist all the way up into Stepaside and towards Enniskerry, where I had my first real experience of cycling in a pack – up the hill in Enniskerry, hoping that nobody towards the front would stall and thus take everyone down with them. Needless to say nobody did and we proceeded on, cycling for hours on end and not arriving back home until well into 7pm that evening; absolutely wrecked and unable to ascend stairs. In 2009, I was away on my round the world trip so doing the cycle wasn’t an option but for whatever reason, in the midst of growing college work, the thesis, trying to find a job, and a bunch of other stuff that constantly delays me from doing anything I actually enjoy doing, I decided to try it again this year and committed myself to significantly more ‘training’ ahead of the big day so that I’d not just finish, but also finish in something of a slightly more respectable time. And I started off well – got a good few cycles in to Howth, up and over Killiney and even around Enniskerry; but by no means anything that could possibly stand to me as ‘serious’ training. So, Sunday 13th saw me standing, a bit cold, in my ‘cycling attire’ in Greystones for sign-on at around 7am. And off we went…

Climbing into the rain...

I’m by no means a serious cyclist – I commute, and very little else – and I don’t take a huge interest in the tactics or strategies of serious cyclists, but if there’s one thing I learnt from the last time, it’s that cycling in a group makes things seriously easier, faster and more pleasant. So leaving Greystones, I hopped in behind a bunch of people wearing ‘Emyvale Cycling Club’ tops and pretty much followed them all the way up until the turn for either the Wicklow 200 or 100; very generously, the organisers also provide a shorter course of 100 kilometres and what’s more, you don’t have to decide which one to do until an abrupt fork in the road somewhere not far from the sugar loaf. So, I made my turn for the 200 and begun the lengthier journey. Last time I did it, I distinctly remembered there being a long downhill section followed up shortly afterwards by an intensely painful and unwanted climb to begin the trek up the Sally Gap. Because I didn’t know the descent led to anything so excruciating so soon, I took it gently, happily trading safety over speed – only to be cursing that decision moments later. This time as we approached a serious bit of downhill, I let the bike take it at its own pace and so we began our descent, shaking and rattling like Big Thunder Mountain all the way. I was nothing short of having an on-ride photo taken along the way down! And, thankfully, the plan worked out nicely and I was carried up a generous portion of the initial climb for Sally Gap, which tired me out so much last time. In fact, the climb for Sally Gap actually seemed to have tamed in the intervening period and I definitely remember it being much worse – the only major downside to it this year was that I climbed near the peak, it began to absolutely spit rain, and a heavy fog descended that threatened to become a major safety problem.

After a 7km/h journey up the side of the mountain...

Because of the aforementioned rain and fog, even the downhill then afterwards wasn’t much use – I ended up more or less jumping on the brakes all the way down, trying to force my brakes to provide at least some stopping power in the lashings of rain. Probably because of that completely lacking downhill section, I ended up cycling extremely slowly through the next few townships and climbing the hills with very little speed – if anything, it became more a case of ticking them off the list, one by one. Finally, we pulled out onto some pock-marked road that’d probably be laughably considered a ‘primary road’, which I knew from past experience put me on the countdown to the first checkpoint of the day, Donard. The only times I’ve ever been in Donard in my life have always been on the bike and at this stage, I can safely say that I wouldn’t even have a clue how to find it in a more direct manner than the way the likes of the Wicklow 200 takes me. Last time I did the Wicklow 200, I took quite enjoyably long rest periods, which was actually not really a good idea – it made getting back on the bike all the more difficult – so this time, I elected to stop in Donard for no more than about 10 minutes, before continuing on with things. Moving on, things really picked up after the break and I was flying along at certain times, really making good speed, again passing through all these little villages and towns. Slieve Mann is undoubtedly one of, if not, the toughest climb of the day at around 460metres and I tried hard to remember how exactly we approached it last time, so I could try, like Sally Gap, to take something of a run at it. What happened however was not quite so graceful – as we descended down into the valley where the climb begins, I was nearly beginning the ascent again when I recognised the buildings and surround and suddenly started to pick up the pace in a frantic last-ditch effort at getting up the side of the mountain.

Getting ready to leave Rathdrum again for the final leg...

No doubt, this is where the training, if I’d done much, would have really come to shine; I literally cycled at no more than about 8km/h and because it was so slow, the hill just seemed to go on for an eternity. As I slowly progressed up the side of it, the road would start to bend in a new direction, but continue climbing regardless. It felt like I was trying to cycle up the side of the Alps on a bike. Not only that, but just like Sally Gap, as I neared the peak, it began to lash rain once again – déjà vu or what? And once again, because of the rain and an accident that’d happened about halfway down, speed was drastically reduced on the downhill, which then caused problems running into the next mountain, which followed immediately, since I hadn’t really had much of a run at it either. All in all, by the time I hit the next pit stop, Rathdrum, I felt just about ready to die. But, and this is the important point, I was ‘just about ready’, not completely ready, so after a brief stop, it was back onto the saddle (in the rain, of course) and onwards to Avoca, before coming across some extremely unwanted (at this late stage of the day) ascent that seemed to go on forever – although in hindsight, this had probably more to do with my fatigue, aches and pains that had already set in rather than the actual hill itself – before descending for Glenealy and Ashford. Finally, the route took us along to Newcastle and Kilcoole, before returning back to Greystones, where I thought my legs were going to come off!

I always seem to forget the incredible untold pain I suffer after these events when I’m signing up for them but will I go back for the 2011 event?

Ask me in January…

Reformed backpacker & former ultra-cheap traveller, Andy now atones for his past by overspending on premium travel experiences and failing at making the most of the miles & points game. Based in Malaysia, he is a product manager by day, and travel aficionado by evening and weekend.