Saturday, October 10, 2009
Cycling the Wicklow Way in one go
For one last time I was going to take out my race bike before putting it away for the winter. This is my report about cycling the Wicklow Way in one go.
For those who don't know the Wicklow Way, it's a 127km (other sources say 132km, Garmin says somewhere inbetween) walking track that leads from Marley Park in Dublin straight over the Wicklow Mountains all the way down south to Clonegal in Carlow. It goes over or around the likes of 2Rock, Prince Willies, Powerscourt Ridge, Djouce, Glendalough, Mullacor, Glenmalure and Slieve Maan. The total climb you do is about 4,000 meters, with most of it happening over the first half (the last big ascent is Slieve Maan, out of Glenmalure Valley, just after the halfway mark). The Wicklow Way is mainly off-road with a good bit of fire-road, some very hairy and tricky descents (Prince Willies and Powerscourt Ridge) some hike-a-biking (some of Slieve Maan's ascent) and some more tarmac road sections towards the end. The second half is a lot tamer and easier with less climb and more road.
Ryan set a very good target last year - actually almost exactly one year ago - of 8h 17min (read an account of his attempt on his blog, a drama in 3 parts :) - Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).The previously recorded fastest female and male cycling time was 12h 4min achieved together by Beth McCluskey, Peter O'Farrell, Paul Mahon and Eoin Keith - albeit they admit that the offer of culinary delights from their supporters, the lure of cool pints at Glenmalure Lodge and the amazing vistas along the way were the reasons that held them back - although I found another view on this thread... ;)) Last year Ryan wanted to set a strong benchmark with his record for the male time, this year it was my turn to benchmark a fast female time.
To avoid the dangers of beautiful vistas slowing me down, I decided to do the Wicklow Way on a bad day with little visibility instead, allowing myself a nutrition of gels and bars only and just enough rain to not get lured into the beer garden of the infamous Glenmalure Lodge. Well no, I obviously would have liked to do the Wicklow Way on a sunny, dry, windstill day, and in fact the whole 2 weeks beforehand had been sunny, dry and windstill - which is an anomaly for Irish weather. I was planning to avoid the problems that Ryan had encountered: due to a period of constant rain (summer didn't show up for the whole of last year in Ireland), a lot of the course for Ryan during the 2nd half of the way had become a softened mud pit. Ryan had the unfortunate task of wading through knee-deep mud on flat terrain, which, in the dry, would have been very fast indeed.
Anyhow, with the recent drought in Ireland I thought I'd be spared from mud and I decided to do it on the Saturday, 3rd of October, the only suitable day really for Ryan and me. However, unfortunately for this only day in the whole week the weather decided to take a turn for the worse. Forecasts predicted strong westerly to north westerly winds and even rain. I kept checking and rechecking and cross checking, but all websites actually agreed on their forecast of strong sideways gusty winds and rain. Pah, I thought, that little bit of wind won't throw me off my way!
And so it was that at just before 9am on Saturday morning Ryan and I turned up in Marley Park in unpenetrable mist and strong sideways gusts and a miserable drizzle. I just thought I'd be crazy to do it in this weather. My spirits dropped and I was hoping for Ryan to tell me not to go and to postpone it to another day. But nothing came from him except for a questioning look. Hmmm, I thought, the chance that we'll have another dry spell like this anytime soon is probably nil. So with the weather about to change I thought that this was probably my last chance to do it this year with the daylight getting shorter and the constant Irish rain setting back in. It would also be difficult to find another suitable date for the two of us. And so I made up my mind. I'm doing it. At the strike of 9am I turned on my Garmin and switched into race mode.
For logistical support, Ryan was to drive to the places where the way crosses the tarmac road and give me a new bottle of drink and more food, just as I did for him last year.
The first bit after the Park was along the M50 against the wind. This stretch of road at the bottom of the mountains gave me a taster of what to expect on the top of the hill. Against what felt like 100km headwinds I churned my pedals until I turned south up Kilmashogue Lane. I know the Kilmashogue climb well, as it is one of my training and testing hills. Another turn east and I was zigging up the hill. The pleasant surprise was that the climb was well protected from the wind and it was almost windstill until just before the top. I was going fairly well until I hit the top where I had to turn south again and the westerly wind almost blew me off my bike. It was so strong and gusty that it almost took my breath and I constantly veered towards the ditch beside the new Wicklow Way section. It made cycling over the gullies too dangerous, so that I had to get off the bike on almost all of them and push it over. Then, when I turned west again to zag along the rocky path towards Tibradden, I was hit by the brunt of the wind head on with full force. I couldn't go hard enough to maintain speed and had to push my bike over some of the more technical sections that I would usually ride over with closed eyes. And this was going to be the theme for the rest of the way. Each 'zig' was a bit of a tail wind or protected from the mountain, while each 'zag' section brought on a headwind that forced tears in your eyes. I thought I was going backwards on that section! Then I met some encouraging MAD people on the descent to the road - but all I could reply to their cheering was: This is miserable!! I was seriously considering to stop my attempt when I met Ryan on the road towards Johnny Foxes, thinking it would be crazy to continue. But then Ryan said that I was only about 2min behind his split from last year. That was enough to keep me going for a little while longer.
With Ryan's experience and record of 8h 17min from last year and the previous time of 12h 4min, I was being conservative with my estimate and planned on finishing in and around about 10hours - I was secretly hoping to finish just under it, but I didn't want to get my hopes up too much. 10hours meant with a 9am start I should be at the finish in Clonegal at 7pm, just after sunset. I had no idea what to expect, my previous longest off road cycle was about 6.5hours in a UK 100km off-road marathon. I've had experience with ultra-endurance events, such as the Wicklow 200 cycle sportif on the road or the 24h Rogaine (mountain orienteering event) or 24hour adventure races, but I've never before cycled more than 100km or 6.5hours off-road by myself, so this was entering a bit of nomansland. Nutritionwise I decided to mainly live off TorQ gels and bars and TorQ Energy drink. I threw in a few Nutrigrain bars and some "real" food like jelly babies and savoury bagels and salty nuts, not knowing what my taste buds might demand after 8 hours of riding.
Up Prince Willies and along the top were uneventful. Most of it was protected against the wind, so there was only mist and drizzle to keep me company. I had to hike my bike most of the way down the rock slabs of Prince Willies. When I met Ryan at the bottom of Cloon, I heard that I was still only 8min off his time. A quick pee stop and off over Knockree and along the river in the valley before the ascent up Maulin towards Powerscourt Ridge, overlooking the gorgeous Powerscourt Waterfalls. Except that today the beautiful waterfalls were only visible when the layers of drizzle and grey cleared for a few seconds. The wind blew me around again at the top and I carefully hiked my bike over the very slippery and rooty trail and down the rock step descent towards the Dargle River.
Then it was another push-a-bike section back out of the valley. When I hit the top where the path turns east over the turnstile, I had a fantastic push up the slope from the wind - until I turned south again over the next turnstile to cycle up the grassy path along the foot of Djouce. Here the wind was pushing hard sideways in gusty spits and I had trouble pointing my bike into the correct direction. It wasn't getting any better along the single track towards the sleepers and I had to resolve to push my bike over any technical section, just because I didn't have enough control over my bike.
Unfortunately the 2nd boardwalk section just at the top of Ballinastoe did not allow for cycling along the side, so it was another push and hike-a-bike section until I hit the forests of Ballinastoe and the protection of the trees. I was near tears and frozen to the bone when I finally saw Ryan waiting for me at the car park overlooking the beautiful Lough Tay.
I layered up and with my splits still within 10% slower than Ryan's I decided to go on. Djouce would have been the most exposed area and it should get better from now on. The weather forecast had also predicted an improvement of the weather during the day, with wind and rain dying down - I really hoped they were right. The next bit was still fairly wet but less windy. With Lough Tay far below me I ripped down the tarmac road and then right into the fire road. I turned right again into a single trail where a tree branch almost ripped my helmet off my head and then it was down towards Lough Dan. A bit more fire road, field crossings, tarmac and a trail along the top of a mountain and I was entering the forests towards Glendalough. A small mistake along some singletrack due to misleading signage and I was on the last climb up the fireroad before descending into Glendalough Valley. Finally, I arrived at Glendalough car park in good time for another pit stop.
The next bit involved a bit of slaloming around the Glendalough walkers, that have been out in droves despite the bad early weather. Fortunately though, the weather started picking up from here on and I even felt the sun on my face for a bit. I tried to look very unsuspicious when I passed a ranger's car (the Wicklow Way leads through parts of the Wicklow National Park and you are not meant to cycle on it).
Ryan had said the next climb up Slieve Maan will take me about 40min. I thought this was a very optimistic estimate regarding my last crawl speed climb. But this was at least the last substantial climb of the day. Again I went into auto-mode to forget about the pain and concentrated on eating my bagel instead. Real food, eh? It took me almost 40min to eat that bagel! I just couldn't get to chew the bagel properly. I ended up taking bites and swallowing them in whole with the help of my water. Another hike-a-bike section up a particularly steep, tricky and boggy bit and a bit more fireroad and I was finally at the top. Another hike a bike section through some deep bog through the forest towards the road and when I came out of the forest, I could already see Ryan standing down the road with his camera in hand waiting for me.
Just as for Ryan, now started that part of the Wicklow Way that I didn't know apart from where it crosses the road and I had given support to Ryan the year before. All of the sections before I had ridden multiple times one time or another. But now it was entering the unknown. Thank god I had Ryan's GPS track - it took away the fear of overlooking a sign and taking a wrong turn.
The next few sections of the Wicklow Way were generally sections of fireroad up and down a hill in the forest and before hitting an intervening bit of tarmac before the next fireroad section. I was feeling good and the weather had become nice with little winds and the sun shining. Finally I reached the section that almost broke Ryan last year: a section of cattle trails that can turn into knee deep mud in the wet and become completely unrideable. That was one of the reasons why I had decided to do the Wicklow Way on this day: it had been dry for the last two weeks and I hoped that the trail would be dried out for me. And I was lucky! Apart from a few muddy spots the trail was completely rideable and I was able to keep up a good tempo. In fact, it was actually a very nice bit of trail, winding its way through the man high ferns. The only annoying bit were the 20+ cattle gates I had to climb over on this bit. But finally I was so hot I could take off my big jacket.
I had expected to see Ryan at the next tarmac bit, but he had gone on to the next stop. However, due to my exertions and the warmer weather I had almost emptied my bottle and I was starting to get thirsty.
Thank god the next off road section was also mostly dry, in complete contrast to the bog that Ryan had to wade through and I started enjoying myself. I was getting more and more thirsty and then I was getting confused as to how far I was from our next meeting point. So I called him and asked him where the hell he was?? It turned out that I was only about another few kilometers before our designated meeting point where he waiting for me but he drove up from it anyway to meet me further up. This was the last official meeting point and I only had about 20km to go. Soon I was entering the 2nd last off road section, a quick fireroad spin up a hill and down again. Then the bit along the road where Ryan hit the wall - a particularly steep bit of tarmac. Ryan drove behind me and was shouting encouragement at the really steep hill, except that this was a really steep hill before the REALLY REALLY steep hill. I dropped into my smallest gear on the bike to make it up the really really steep hill - I so didn't want to live with the shame of getting off the bike on this bit. Finally I entered the last off-road section. I was only a couple of kilometers from the finish and I was still well under 9hours.
Wow, I was calculating in my head, I had about x km to go and about xmin to do it in, does this mean I can finish in less than 9hours? A (not so quick) calculation in my head and I thought, yes, I can do that! And I made it into my aim to finish under 9hours. Ryan waited for me where I came out of the last off road section and shouted at me to go go go! I was really fired up now, knowing I had only 4km of pretty flat tarmac road left and enough time to complete the Wicklow Way in under 9hours. And so I put my head down and time trialled the last section towards Clonegal, to arrive at the Wicklow Way end sign with a time of 8h 55min. I just did all of my weekly amount of exercise in one day :)
And here it's time to say a HUGE thanks to Ryan who gave up his day to drive all the way around Wicklow to support me in this endeavour.