5 June 2016. The day of my biggest challenge to date on a bicycle happened. Around 110 miles of rolling terrain on a sportive (mostly) on closed roads.
5 June 2016. This was the day it all finished. The expectation, anxiety, pain and joy that carries one around such events.
But this crazy adventure started way earlier. As soon as January this year, emails were arriving in my inbox about the Gran Fondo and it became a regular talking point as this year’s main cycling challenge around the office. In the end of March, I finally committed to race the 176km from Belfast to the Mournes and back, climbing over 2500m.
After my commitment, it was time to prepare. I had only ridden over 100 km once this year, so I needed to push myself a bit more if I were to finish the sportive. As such, and as the other commitments allowed me (holidays, etc.) the most I was able to do was a Lap of the Lough (Neagh).
The registration was the day before the race (Saturday 4th of June) and it was simple and straight forward. Arriving at the time of opening, there were already a few fellow cyclists ready to register and plenty of volunteers happy to help. Plenty of chattering around the big day the day after, but I had to cycle home and soon I was preparing mentally for the day ahead.
The more close the start of the race the more a mix of expectation and anxiety flowed through me. A nervous feeling of “will my legs hold it for so long?” or “will I be able to finish?” went through my head.
However, the day had arrived. It was the time to go to the start line and race this wonderful event.
Cyclists lined up at the start line, discussing what was to come ahead or talking about one else’s bicycles, the presenter cheering up the start and a radio station providing some needed music to get the mood going.
The start was fast – at least faster than I was expecting it to be. Leaving Belfast towards Saintfield we started with a small leg stretcher climb of the Ballygowan Rd (video from a spectator).
This was quickly passed and on to the rolling terrain in direction towards the foot of Dree Hill. Not really plenty of scenery here, but just an urge to get to Dree Hill and tackle it.
There were plenty of people cheering at the side of the road and the volunteers that helped on cross roads were also always ready to cheer. This was something common along the route and it was incredibly important later on.
The Dree Hill was a difficult challenge. It starts at a steady gradient, but suddenly you look in the horizon and see a massive wall that, on that day, was dressed in pink and white (the colors of the official Gran Fondo jersey). Once one gets to that steep part it’s as simply as “put your slow motion rhythm” and “get on with it”. At least until you start to cramp out your legs. Then I just put my “very slow motion rythm” and arrived alive the other side.
Honestly, I couldn’t enjoy the green pastures and the scenery during the climb. The pain took over and I was solely focused to reach the top. With the climb surpassed, it was time to fly to reach Hilltown, the first food stop at the 70km mark.
Road to Hilltown
The way to Hilltown is very fast, specially in closed roads, except for the small village of Rathfriland. It sits in a hill-top and wherever side you are reaching it from you are forced to climb. The climb is not more than 500m long, but very steep. Fortunately, there was a donut barrack at the top offering free donuts. I didn’t stop as it was crowded, but it was a brilliant idea.
From then on, I just joined another rider and went the remaining 5km to the food stop talking how this event was tough and what we still had to tackle.
Hilltown Food Stop
Very good and well prepared food stop. The staff was incredibly helpful by helping to drop the water from the bottles to the bidons. Bananas, gels and water were available and the only delay was to wait to use the toilets.
Road to the foot of Spelga
Leaving Hilltown, with sun tanning the exposed legs and arms, we entered a small drag uphill with a very nice and quiet scenery. The descent to Rostrevor is fast and amazing, hills on both sides, Rostrevor Forest Park on the left and the Carlingford Lough on the horizon. No talk at this time with all cyclists focused on taking the most of the descent and soon enough I arrived in Rostrevor. A big crowd awaited to cheer up all the riders that passed through.
The next part of the ride is probably the one I found more beautiful, while also painful. Going through the Rostrevor Forest, there were some incredible spots on the road where the trees provided some cover from the sun, now in full force. Also during this phase of the race there were plenty of people just outside their own houses cheering up and kids “high-fiving” cyclists. Plenty of fun just before the climb to the biggest height of the day.
Climb of Spelga Dam
Just before the climb the cramps appeared for a second time. I dropped my tempo and tried to recover, until I turned a bend and contemplated the famous hairpins of the Spelga climb. From other people passing I heard “once you get over that bit you can get to the top! That’s the worse part.” It is indeed the worse part, but the damage it does last through the whole climb, which is about 4km long. During that distance, you focus solely on getting to the next imaginary mark ahead in the road, until you actually reach the dam, without stopping or walking, and feel an immense and overwhelmingly proud sensation with that achievement.
After the quick stop for pictures it was time to do the remaining kilometers over to the 400m height mark and reach the second water stop (the first was at the top of Dree Hill that plenty of people skipped). Arriving there and another moment to stop, grab water and take a few pictures.
Note here for the only failure I have seen from the organization. I was the person that got the last water bottle available at this water stop and plenty of people were still behind me and obviously didn’t get one.
From Spelga to the last food stop
The descent from Spelga is crazy fast and I reached almost 80 km/h, which was a speed impossible to reach for me without the closed roads. After the quick descent, it was time to go back up again to the top of the Slieve Croob. This was one of the most difficult phases mentally, as each small bump in the road looked like Mont Ventoux. Fortunately, the last food stop arrived quickly, midway through the climb, and it was again time for some food and rest.
The last food stop provided mash potato with some bacon, gels and water and plenty of people took the opportunity to take a well deserved rest before the last stage of the event.
Just arrived to the last food stop at 122km. Just 50kn to go mostly downhill
Direct Mash to Finish
I did not stop for longer than 20 minutes. Still had long 50km ahead and as above I thought it would be mostly downhill. It wasn’t. The first few kilometers were climbing and once I crested the Slieve Croob I believed I was going to finish and that the last kilometers would be plain sailing. So wrong I was.
The toll of the distance was starting to sink in and, despite a good schedule of eating, every small stretch uphill was getting tougher and tougher and my way to deal with the physical and mental pain telling me to stop was to rest every 10 kilometers.
Riding towards Dromore and Saintfield, the people standing in the road were also very important to give that extra lift and motivation to keep going and to stop the voices in my head of “the pain is too much” or “you’ve done more than ever, it’s ok to give up”.
Once the small uphill to Carryduff was overcome, it was a very quick return to the finish at Titanic Quarter, where I succumbed to the thrill and emotion of having completed such a difficult challenge. Next year there is more!