Trans Atlantic Way Day 1 Report
Thursday June 6, 2019: Awrighty then! Ultra Endurance Self Supported Bikepacking Race (slash) Adventure Race (slash) Journey into the Heart of Darkness…….Take 2. However one refers to these bloody long bike rides the time has come to get at it again. I have somehow managed to convince my wife to let me chase Type 2 fun every 2 years. In 2017 it was the 6,800 kilometer (4,200 mile) Trans America Bike Race across the US, this year it’s to be the 2,400 kilometer (1,500 mile) Transatlantic Way (TAW) around Ireland…..Giddyup!
Before I get into the goings on of Day 1 a brief overview of the route.
The 2019 race (this year advertised as a “ride”) being the 4th iteration has given the mad scientist and beautiful human behind the Trans Atlantic Way, Adrian O’Sullivan ample opportunity to tinker with and perfect the route. Riders have the flexibility to navigate their own way or use a suggested route from the start in Dublin to Checkpoint 1 in Derry. From Derry, there are 2 versions of a fixed route, short or long around the Wild Atlantic Way tourism trail which traverses Ireland’s rugged north, west and south coasts.
The long route is approximately 600 kilometers (370 miles) longer than the short and for better or for worse is my chosen parcours, pictured below (including the suggested route from Dublin to Derry).
Yes, a lot shorter than the only other ultra I have completed, about a third that of the Trans America but this ride comes with a 2 pronged sting in the tail. It has a lot of climbing, just under a half that of the Trans Am and the weather in this part of the world by reputation can hinder even the most intrepid of cyclists. Plenty of rain and wind is pretty much guaranteed.
But don’t just take my word for it……(don’t press play if you’re easily offended)
I was not on top form. Mind fog from lingering jet lag and pre race nerves were the prevailing moods of the morning. Not the ideal mindset to carve through a rather lengthy to do list that I’d left myself for the morning due to being waylaid yesterday afternoon/evening re downloading maps and route onto my Garmin…..long story. I didn’t have to be at the start until 10am and I thought I had more than enough time to get it all done but with ample faffing about I ended up being in a hurry. No surprises there.
Finally I was ready to go. I dropped my not for ride luggage (laptop, clothes for the plane etc) at the reception of the apartment building I was staying at in Smithfield Square, hoping that it would still be there upon my return in a week and a bit – the desk clerk seemed a little too disinterested for my liking. But hey, there was sweet bugger all I could do about it now. The pre ride logistics, planning and training were now over. It was all about following the purple line on my Garmin and turning the pedals for the foreseeable future. Ahhhhh the simplicity!
The 12 kilometer ride from Smithfield Square on the north bank of the River Liffe, about a kilometer and a half from the center of Dublin to the starting line at the National Sports Campus took around 45 minutes, including a couple of brief stops to check my tyre pressure. Flat tyre paranoia was kicking in early. Subconsciously I was probably worried about missing the start, not unfounded as I only arrived at the start 10 minutes before the first wave was due to set off at 10:30am. That only left me a short while to get my Brevet card stamped and to catch up with me ole’ Scottish mate from the 2017 Trans Am, Russell Jones. I’d only seem him very briefly the day before at registration before I had to rush back to the apartment to sort my mapping issue. So much to catch up on but nowhere near enough time. It would have to wait until during the ride…..maybe.
At 10:36am the 3rd starting wave was called to the start. I gave my race notes for Day one a brief look over, jammed it back into top tube bag and waited for Adrian to “drop the flag” at 10:40am.
“Get taps on your shoes and get gone……..Get rhythm”
– Johnny Cash.
The start of these long rides typically go 1 of a few ways; some riders head off like a bat out of hell keen to get their name in lights at the top of the leader board, some group up with others to chat and some just plod along in their own heads attempting to find a rhythm. As the scenery went from the suburban outskirts of north Dublin quickly into rolling green countryside, I was very much in the latter category. My training for this event had been very much data driven, in other words based around hitting certain Normalized Power (NP) and Average Power (AP) numbers, a soulless approach in my opinion (I much prefer to ride on feel) but an approach that I intended to honor given that I had adhered to it for nigh on 6 months of training for this event. My early rhythm was thus a result of frequent glances at 3 power metrics on my Garmin…….booooorrrring!
Oh, and don’t ask me the difference between NP and AP…..I still don’t really get it.
A Quick Ride With Russ
A couple of hours in and I had not noticed another rider for a while. The field had really begun to stretch out. I was very much in my own head, listening to tunes, lightly tapping away on the pedals. I was thus quite take aback when I glanced over my right shoulder and there all of a sudden was Russell Jones, up out of the saddle and powering along out the front of a 6 man 2 abreast peloton. It was quite the sight. Big grin and his ample locks flowing in a massive mane behind him. “Hey Marky” he roared as the group bombed on by. I thought about madly scrambling to catch up to hitch a ride but thought better of it. It would have required dipping into a zone north of my intended power and I still wanted to abide by the planned effort. I also didn’t fancy getting any assistance from the slipstream as I knew I wouldn’t be able to do my fair share of work on the front of that run away train. Drafting was not against the rules for this first section to Derry but there is still an ethical line there that I didn’t fancy crossing.
Not long later I caught up with the group anyway as they were slowed up by traffic lights coming into the town of Carrickmacross. The other side of town I had the pleasure of riding with Russell for a while as the route got a tad more lumpy. The Irish weather was also starting to show herself although only a light drizzle.
Luck of the Irish??
I chatted away with Russel for a while catching up on his last big (read massive) cycling adventure, the 7,400 kilometer NorthCape Tarifa ultra race from the top of Norway to the bottom of Spain. An extraordinary effort made even more so as he had to overcome plenty of mechanical problems with his bike, losing quite a few racing days. It was a reminder of the constant risk of mechanical breakdown inherent in these long rides that can occur anytime anyplace, risking long delays and derailing best laid plans. I’d be ok in this race though, I thought. I’d managed the risk by being overzealous with preventative bike maintenance. I’d had my bike fully serviced twice in the 6 weeks leading up to the TAW. Lady luck had also been on my side of recent times; only 1 flat in the 6 months of training for this event and unbelievably no flats or any other major mechanical problems in the 6,800 kilometers across the US in the Trans Am.
I would continue to ride the luck…..touch wood!
About 10 kilometers out of Carickmacross my chain started skipping on the rear cassette. I thought nothing much of it though, thinking it may have been due to the gritty back country lanes clogging up the chain and exacerbated by the frequent gear changes I was having to make due to the now steeply rolling terrain.
Unfortunately it soon became obvious that I had more of a problem on my hands as I rolled into the large town of Monaghan. The chain had stopped skipping but rather it was now stuck on the middle few cogs of the cassette meaning my gear capacity was pretty much halved.
I had now been cycling for 4 and a half hours straight and was getting close to running out of water. Monaghan was the perfect place to stop. I noticed a Spar Supermarket and a couple of service stations but instead of stopping to resupply and check out my bike I pedaled on. I just didn’t want to deal with a mechanical problem this early in the race. I took the “fuck it, lets just crack on” option rather than the “lets deal with reality” option.
30 minutes later the frustration was building. The terrain had flattened out but with the lack of gears I couldn’t take advantage of it and power on, rather I could only spin madly or just freewheel on the downhill bits. I had also run out of water and my thirst was building. I really should have stopped in Monaghan. I checked my notes – the next services weren’t for another 50 kilometers in Omagh. Bugger it. I cursed my stupidity!
I was contemplating stopping to door knock on a farm house and ask for water when around the next bend in the road I came across a convenience store. A really lucky break! I stalked the aisles for drinks, chocolate and ice cream and then slunk outside to mainline the lot and chat with another TAW rider who had just rolled up. He then watched me as I checked over my bike. In a futile attempt to demonstrate I knew what I was doing I clumsily lifted the rear wheel and attempted to click through the gears. Yep, the shifter wasn’t moving the chain to the bigger or smaller of the 11 cogs. I then tried to man handle the chain to the smallest cog on the rear cassette. I turned the pedals again. There was a bit of a crunch but the chain remained where I had placed it. However, when I attempted to shift through the gears again the chain refused to budge. It was stuck on that smallest cog!
The guy watching me said “Uh oh”.
I said something else!
Getting On With It
I now had only 2 gears. Nothing at the back but I could shift from the large to the small chainring at the front giving me a heavy gear to go hard on the flat and downhill sections and a lighter gear that was proving just enough to get up and over the hills. As long as the hills didn’t become too steep I would be ok until I got to a bike shop. Omagh, the next big town would be my best bet.
Despite the worsening issue with my bike my mindset was taking a turn for the positive. Food and drink had definitely helped but my brightening mood was more so due to the fact that I was now looking at the problem differently. It was now something to conquer, a challenge to overcome, even a reason for a bit of a chuckle rather than a cause for frustration. I had also caught up with Russell who I had lost contact with the other side of Monaghan and on the quiet country roads we were able to ride side by side chatting away for the next 90 minutes or so. A pleasant way to pass the time as the route heated out of the Irish Republic into Northern Ireland and the town of Omagh.
A Big Mistake
It was just before 6pm when we rolled into the historic town of Omagh, a town that I had heard of many times before but sadly only in the context of The Troubles. It was hard to believe that the town we were riding through was the seen of a bombing that killed 29 people only 21 years ago.
Should I stop and look for a bike shop?
Its almost 6pm, would one even be open?
The hills haven’t been too bad, its been a struggle with 2 gears but not impossible. Maybe I should just crack on to Checkpoint 1 in Derry. I can reevaluate there.
Russell pulled into a service station for a quick break, I pedaled on out of Omagh on the B48 trying to catch a pair of riders off in the distance. It didn’t take long for me to find out how much of a mistake I had just made. About 10 kilometers out of town I came across a TAW rider who had stopped by the side of the road to change a flat. A local in a white van had pulled up next to him to watch and chat and I rolled on over to do similar. It was a pleasant enough conversation but 2 unpleasant facts ensued; 1. a bike shop back in Omagh had actually stayed open late to assist us TAW riders, and 2. the next 50 kilometers to Derry was riddled with plenty of steep hills.
At least I now knew the cause of my shifting problem,. “I reckon your shifter cable is fecked mate!”
The next 50 kilometers to Derry took me almost 4 hours. It should have taken under 2. For every steeper than 5/6% grade hill, I crushed that gear as far as I could before grinding to a halt. I would then dismount and walk my bike to the top, my pride taking a beating with every step and every passing TAW rider. I met every patronizing “saving your legs for Donegal?” with a curt “shifter’s fucked”. I would then remount as quickly as possible like a rabid bobsledder in order to squeeze as much momentum as possible on the downhill before doing it all over again.
It was mind numbingly frustrating! Penance though for not being sensible and tracking down a bike shop in Omagh.
Peace of Mind Semi-Restored on the Peace Bridge
I finally pedaled into the city of Derry around 9:30 pm. The view from the Strabane Old Road north across the River to the old city was spectacular from the top of the hill but I was in no mood to stop and take a photo. I just wanted to get to the Peace Bridge and get my brevet card stamped at Checkpoint 1.
The checkpoint was being manned by race organizer Adrian O’Sullivan, his sister Madeline and a few other lovely people. With a big bear hug and some calm words of encouragement from Adrian all my troubles of the day seemed to melt away. All of a sudden a good nights sleep and a bike shop in the morning seemed like a good idea.
However as I was checking Trackleaders later in my hotel room a real sense of frustration kicked in. There was a steady stream of dots making their way north to Malin Head. Malin Head had been my planned destination for this first day, another 70 kilometers away. I checked the opening time of the bike shop that Adrian had recommended – 10am. Shit! I’d be another 5 hours behind plan at least.
These long rides are all about dealing with crap and just getting on with it. I didn’t expect crap this early in the ride though and I wasn’t dealing with it very well. I complained about my lot on Facebook and then hit the sack.
Day 1 Territory Covered and Stats
3D Overview from Relive:
2D Overview from Strava:
- Distance = 234 km
- Cycling (ie moving) Time = 9 hours and 47 minutes
- Stopped Time = 1 hour and 13 minutes
- Elevation = 2,470 m
- Money Spent USD = $162.50 ($17.50 on food/drink, $145 on accommodation)