Do you remember the very first time you saw the Atlantic Ocean? Standing at the shore, looking out and all you see is blue. It is everywhere. It makes you realize how insignificant you are, how little you can do. The Atlantic was here long before you existed and it will be here for times to come, long after you disappeared. It does not care about you.
I do remember the first time I was standing at the shore and feeling the might of the Atlantic. It was in a place called Dog’s Bay in Connemara, on the Irish West Coast and made a big impression on me. Since that day I always wanted to come back and see more of this spectacular coastline.
Fast forward to Christmas 2015. It hadn’t been a good year for me, but it was Christmas and I could not stand the self-pity anymore. Being single after a long-term relationship and starting a freelance career after seven years in full-time employment, I felt unsettled by what the future might bring and needed some structure to get me through this time. I knew I would only get through the coming year when I had something to work towards to. Ideally something that is practically unachievable. What was needed was a goal, a true challenge. A new focus.
Ever since watching Melons, Trucks and Angry Dogs back in 2013, I was fascinated by the Transcontinental Race, though never even considering taking on such a monster myself. Then 2015 struck and everything changed. Suddenly I found myself with time, too much time, and no idea of the future. I had to start new and in a moment of foolishness applied to the Transcontinental Race Nr. 4. On Christmas I was informed that I had not been granted a place. Immediate reaction was relief, as I had been secretly terrified of the idea. But I was already too far in and found myself looking for similar races when I stumbled upon the Transatlantic Way Bike Race.
“The TransAtlanticWay is a 2500 km one stage self-supported road bike race between Dublin and Cork via The Wild Atlantic Way. With the pounding swell of the Atlantic as your constant companion, you follow the blue zig-zag signposts through seven of Ireland’s westernmost counties and be treated to many of Ireland’s scenic showstoppers, welcoming towns and villages, heritage sites and plenty of unexpected thrills.”
There was my chance to see more of the Irish West Coast, in fact all of it. And “only” 2.500km, this was so much easier! I signed up immediately to not give myself a chance for second thoughts. It was not until much later that it dawned on me that this might actually not be that easy. I had never ridden more than 270km in one go, and to finish this in the 10 days I set myself as a goal, I needed to ride almost 250 every day, for ten days straight. I knew I could do that once, maybe twice, but everything after that was completely new territory for me. Add being completely self-supported and alone and so I was suitably scared. Some of my friends said it’s not possible in 10 days, that I was crazy. Given my sparse cycling experience then, they were probably right about the latter. Of course, just finishing the route in no matter how many days would have been an achievement for me and the route as such is a great cycle tour, but this was a race and I knew I could do it 10 days – if nothing really bad happened. I also knew that to be in the top spots of such a race, you needed to be much faster than that, so I had no illusions there. This was my first time ever, so I set myself only two goals: Finish in 10 days and do not finish last.
And so I started training. Cobbles in Flanders, steep hills in Wallonia, windy days in the Netherlands chasing the Giro d’Italia, fast group rides back at home around Frankfurt, mountainbiking, road bike sportives, everything suddenly had a purpose. It was the perfect excuse to ride my bike all through spring into summer and I loved it. It was also a perfect excuse to build a brand new bike for the job. This was done by ROGGSHOP in my home town, they helped me choose the best parts and supported me right from the beginning. It’s a steel frame with disc brakes, hub dynamo and 28mm wide tyres, very comfortable. You can basically live on this thing.
When June came, I was ready as I could be, but still had no clue what to really expect.
Day 1: Grand Depart
The General Post Office in Dublin is an iconic place, it was the headquarters for the leaders of the Eastern Rising of 1916. This is where 29 cyclists gathered that Friday morning to go on a spin around most of the country. Having the brevet card stamped on the post counter inside marked the beginning for me. There was a short talk by Breifne Earley, a birthday song for Adrian, the organiser of this madness, and off we went. There is a video of the start here.
As we rolled out of the city, I took a couple of photos because I knew I would not see most of these riders again.
We soon found ourselves on the wide N2 road going north. The pace was faster than I had expected. Group riding was tolerated for the start, so I wanted to keep up. We were much too fast, I thought. After about 50 km there were still four or five riders around me when my route lead me left, off the N2 and onto some smaller roads. Everybody else stayed on the N2 and soon I regretted my route choice. It was hillier than I thought and the surface was slow. I was alone, the pace went down and when the adrenaline of the start was gone, all my enthusiasm was suddenly gone too. Rationally I knew it was a long way to go and that the first day meant nothing, but in my mind I had already lost the race, I would not see anybody ever again and started doubting what I had got myself into. What a stupid idea to think I could keep up with these riders for even a little bit. The buzz of the start had lasted only about 2 hours and here I was, more than 2.400 km to go and falling behind already. Luckily the roads were beautiful and the weather nice, so I started to enjoy the ride in touring mode and was looking forward to seeing the Atlantic.
In the late afternoon I started seeing signs for Derry, Checkpoint number 1, and remembered I was in a race, so picked up the pace a little. There was nobody at the Peace Bridge to stamp my card, but I met Matthias, another rider from Germany. We rolled across the bridge to check if we were on the wrong side of it, but did not find anybody, so took pictures of the bridge as proof of passage and continued on to the Wild Atlantic Way. As I rolled out of Derry it was becoming dark and I briefly considered checking into a hotel I saw on the side of the road. My plan was to ride 250 km each day and the hotel looked too expensive anyway, so I pushed on, catching the first views of the Ocean. Just a little while later, about 3km to Quigley’s Point, I suddenly felt very tired and saw a guy standing in front of a pub smoking, so pulled over and asked him if he knew a good way to get down to the beach. He turned out to be the owner of the pub and told me there wasn’t any beach down there, just rocks. When I asked him whether I could stay on the lawn behind the pub for the night, he said “Work away”, which sounded like “Walk away” to me, but the confusion only lasted a little while. After explaining briefly what I was doing, he clearly thought I’m crazy, shook his head, gave me a lemonade and refused to let me pay for it. In what I thought was very clever I stashed my footlong breakfast sandwich up in a tree so it would be safe from I don’t know which animals I thought it should be safe from and rolled out my bivvy under the tree. Surely everybody else was miles ahead of me by that point.
Dublin -> Quigley’s Point 247.6km 1823vm, Strava
Day 2: Into the wild
About 5 hours later of which I slept maybe 3, I got up hungry and cold to find that some worms had discovered the sandwich already, eaten through the paper and were all over it. Disgusted and still hungry I rolled into a beautiful sunrise and could smell the salty sea. The first real views of the Atlantic. I checked the tracker website and saw that some riders were actually still behind me, stationary in Derry. So I wasn’t the last just yet! In an effort to try and keep it that way, I was eager to get some miles in.
After some flat kilometers along the coast, the landscape changes completely as you turn left in Greencastle and tackle the first of many steep little hills. On top of the climb I spotted a bike and a bivvy bag in a corner of the car park. Not the most comfortable place to sleep, I thought. Zooey’s report later confirmed that. Shortly afterwards the sun came out briefly and I sat down next to a stone wall at the road to enjoy the view of the ocean. Cereal bar in hand, I fell asleep and was woken up by the approaching Ciarán. He had slept in a nearby cattle shed. Zooey also came down the road from his windy bivvy spot. It was good to meet some other riders and it gave me back some of my confidence. With a little bit of distance I followed the two for a bit, but still hadn’t had any proper breakfast and could not match their pace for long, so had to let them out of sight.
This was a problem I would face several times during the ride. Due to poor planning, I would run out of food, mostly in the mornings, and not find a place to resupply for hours, resulting in a very slow pace and sparse energy reserves. Shortly before Malin Head, Tobias caught up with me. He had an impressive turn of speed, his strategy being to stop for longer night rests and hammering it during the day. We met again in a little convenience store, the first opportunity of the day to buy anything, ate some soup and bought all the little snacks we could carry. With renewed energies and supplies, the next test was Mamore Gap. It was here that I would walk for the first time, pushing my bike and laughing at the ridiculous gradient. The excitement and adrenaline of the start had long worn off and I could feel how tired I really was, not having slept much since coming to Dublin, not even in the night before the race. Having no experience with how much sleep I really do need, I gave up my plan of solid six hours each night pretty fast and figured I’d just decide each day by feeling. I did need a nap now and laid down in the grass near the top for maybe 20 minutes when an older couple having a picknick warned me that “they” were coming. I don’t know if it was a joke or if she could tell that they were chasing me, but I looked down the hill and saw Tim and Jason grind up it. I was awake in time to descend with the two of them.
We lost sight of each other pretty quickly due to everyone’s different pace. Jason was fast and quickly disappeared up the road. But just before Glenveagh National Park I would see his bike again, parked in the garden of a Bed and Breakfast. It wasn’t that late, so I wanted to get through the gravel section before dark and pushed on. After the race some other riders reported that they loved the gravel. I didn’t, I was afraid of damaging my tires and walked most of it. Down at the lough I briefly considered stopping for the night in a nice little picknick area, but was immediately swarmed by so many midges that I quickly gave up the idea. The rain had become so bad by the time I saw the sign “Tea Room” at the castle, that I pulled in and asked if I could get a tea. They weren’t open, but preparing the venue for a concert later in the evening. I must have looked very pitiful though because I was served tea and scones and again was refused to pay for it. The girls were very curious about the race and asked all kinds of questions when suddenly I saw a familiar yellow gilet fly past the window outside.
Quickly back out into the rain, it was slowly getting dark and the chase was on. I could see Matthias’s hi-vis vest for miles up the road. It’s great motivation to have such a moving target. When I finally caught him, we were almost at Dunfanaghy, both with the aim of finding a warm bed for the night somewhere. The weather was miserable, so we both did not want to sleep outside. I was riding maybe 50 meters in front of him and pulled into the first driveway with a B&B sign I saw, expecting him to do the same, but he rolled on. I checked in anyway, looked at the tracker and saw that he had stopped just a bit further in town. Next up on the route was Horn Head, a short but vicious little loop back out to the peninsula north of Dunfanaghy and back in through town again. After leaving some of my baggage in the room, I headed out again and completed that loop so I didn’t have to do it in the morning. This was also where my Garmin powered off spontaneously for the first time and wouldn’t want to resume service, so I had to rely on my phone for navigation. That is less than ideal when you don’t have a handlebar mount for the phone, because you have to basically take it out of the pocket at every intersection. Luckily there are not that many intersections on the Wild Atlantic Way. Back in town, it turned out difficult to find food as everything seemed to be closing. Then I saw Tim roll into town. He was hungry too and we ended up in a chinese takeaway. He was going to sleep out on Horn Head and bought two dishes, one for dinner and one to keep him warm during the night/breakfast. Having felt the full force of the weather out on exposed Horn Head, I did not envy him as I rolled back to my luxurious warm room and slept a full 6 hours before heading back out again without breakfast.
Day 3: Falling apart
This was the day where the rain never stopped and my Garmin surrendered to it halfway up Glengesh Pass. From this point on I was alternating between navigating with my phone and trying to get the Garmin back up. I lost overview of the numbers but knew that my daily mileage was getting fewer and fewer. I was falling behind my 10-day goal. It was hard going, even harder than I had expected. The weather was miserable. I was stopped in the Ardara service station for probably about 90 minutes just drinking one tea after the other and considering if it really was a good idea to go up Glengesh in this weather. But there was no better weather in sight and I could not hang around forever. The whole west coast of Ireland is not very densely populated, but up Glengesh I could really felt the remoteness for the first time. There were no people, only remnants of old abandoned stone houses for miles. Garmin refused to give me any directions, the display just stayed blank. My phone could not help either, there is no reception up there. So a few times I would get to an intersection without any idea which road to take. I still don’t know how I did not get lost more often in those circumstances, somehow I always managed to stay on track. There are signs for the Wild Atlantic Way, but our route was taking a couple of detours so I could never trust the signs. The rain had been going on for a full 8 hours when I found an open pub and dived inside. A couple of hot chocolates, burgers and some soup later I was joined by Tim. He did not enjoy the weather either.
When we left the pub again, Jason rolled by. He was riding much faster than us and disappeared up a hill in no time. I was surprised that I kept on meeting him, had I expected him to be much faster. But he was more experienced than me and kept something in reserve on these early days. In the end, he would arrive in Blarney more than a day ahead of me. In the first few days of the race he would take much longer sleep breaks but make up for them with a higher speed during the day. When he started to cut down on his sleep towards the finish, I was so tired already that my stops were getting longer, not shorter. This shows his experience in these kinds of races and my lack thereof. I was so eager not to get left behind in the first days that I forgot to sleep enough. For most of the afternoon I was following Tim from a distance, so I would not have to worry about getting lost. One time I lost him out of sight when I stopped briefly to take some food out of my bags. Some hikers pointed me in the wrong direction when I asked where the cyclist went. Maybe it was supposed to be funny, but I failed to see the humour in it when I ended up in a dead end. Backtracked and having chased for a while, Tim’s orange jacket came in sight once again. When I caught him we cruised together for a while and talked about taking a room somewhere. I was exhausted as well and needed some rest, but for some weird reason could not get myself to stop before he did. As much as I enjoyed the company, I was now in race mode and wanted to get some distance between us, so when we found a room that he was happy to take, I decided to ride on to one of the next towns. The front of the race was already a long way ahead of us and so I focused on my secondary goal of not being last. I rode hard for another 25 or 30 kilometers through the rain and ignored the slight pain in the back of my right foot. Found a room in Donegal, told the owner I would leave at 4 am and slept until half past 7 because I didn’t hear the alarm.
Day 4: Limping behind
Got out of bed and realized I had a swollen ankle that hurt at every step. It was a little bit better on the bike than it was walking, but it wasn’t good. While I was cursing myself for ignoring the signs the night before, it quickly got worse to the point where I had to unclip and pedal with only one leg until I found a pharmacy, bought some diclofenac, ibuprofene and a support for the ankle. The ankle demanded frequent stops much more often than I would have liked and did not make good progress. A waitress in some small town where I had lunch took pity on me and prepared several little bags with ice cubes that I could stash in my sock. It really helped, until they were all melted and I was limping again.
Lots of diclofenac and ibuprofene later it was bearable as long as I did not have to stand up while climbing. I thought it’s all okay as long as I’m moving, but I wasn’t moving very fast and that made me a bit desperate. Towards the evening as I sat in Ballina having dinner, Tim caught up with me again. The night before I had pushed on to get away from him, damaged my ankle in the process only to get caught 24 hours later. You learn a lot in these races. Company makes it easier though, we had some interesting conversations that took my mind of the worries for a while. Together we rode on into the darkness and soon were on the lookout for a bivvy spot. We managed to find it on the lawn behind an abandoned old house. It would have been a very comfortable spot if it wasn’t for the midges that attacked every centimeter of skin that wasn’t covered. Wrapped up like a mummy in my bivvy bag I felt like I could not breathe. 2 sleepless hours later I gave it up and rode on alone.
Donegal -> Ballycastle 189,1k 1172vm, Strava
Day 5: Achill and the Wind
This was one of the hardest and at the same time best days. I was tired and hungry, had a strong headwind all day and still somehow enjoyed it all a lot. The diclofenac started to really work and the pain in my ankle was manageable. Even my Garmin had mercy and would stay on the whole day. Only stopping for short naps along the road, I was making relatively good progress. After about 4 hours of riding, around 8 am, I reached a service station that I had been looking forward to reaching all morning. Of course it was shut. This was the place where Matthias had been sleeping the same night, so he was not far in front of me, but I did not know this that morning. Ballycroy National Park was beautiful, though except for the brutal headwind I do not remember much from that stretch. At some point I was brushing my teeth by the side of the road, much to the amusement of some children in a parked car. Somehow I managed to get into a flow that day, forgot about most of the aches and pains and reached the start of the Achill Island loop in good spirits.
On one of the climbs on the island, I took another nap in the grass and woke up just as Stuart rode past me on an ElliptiGO. He was part of the Wild Atlantic Way Audax and it was great to talk to him for a little while, if only to be reassured that I wasn’t the only crazy person out here. We rode side by side until the end of the Achill loop, where he headed north and I south. At the bridge off the island I stopped for a meal. This is the only road on and off the island, so we had to pass this spot twice. I was almost done eating when Tim entered the cafe with a big grin. We both thought he had caught me again, but it turned out he was on the way in, so actually about 80km behind. I was amazed that I had covered so much ground that day. Tim pushed on to complete the loop as soon as he could, but I would not see him again. It was not long to go to Westport when I slowly caught up to another racer. From the moment I first spotted the familiar gilet I knew it was Matthias. He had not had a good day, had been held up by mechanicals and was looking for a pub. I could also use a break and some company so we had a drink in Westport.
It was only one glass of cider, but I hadn’t had any alcohol in ages and my body didn’t seem to like it at all. As we were rolling together past Croagh Patrick, I suddenly got dizzy and felt like I would fall off my bike soon. In a state of panic I fished for a couple of chocolate bars inside my bag. The sugar immediately helped. I was glad for the brief moment of normality the pub stop had brought and I wasn’t much of a drinker beforehand, but since this day I have not touched a drop of alcohol. Matthias had called ahead and secured a room in a cheap hotel in Louisburgh, so I wanted to ride at least that far and then a little further like I had done in Donegal. But maybe I was wiser now. Probably not, when we got to Louisburgh, I was just very tired and the owner had more rooms available, so I decided to check in the same hotel. We were in fact only separated by a wall so thin that each could hear the other’s alarm.
Ballycastle -> Louisburgh 242,5k 1991vm, Strava
Day 6: Chasing rainbows
I had great plans of leaving the hotel early and get some distance between me and Matthias. There were not many riders behind us at this point and I was eager to stay in the race. The winner arrived at the finish line that very day and there were people so far ahead that I would never catch them, but my mission was not to become last, so every rider I could count behind me was a success in my book. Probably Matthias had the same idea – only the walls were so thin that it was impossible to sneak out on the other. We met in the breakfast room and then again in the garage where the bikes had been stored for the night. He managed to get his bike ready faster than me and was on the way. This was all part of the mind games. Now I had to chase him. All day we kept leapfrogging each other. Every time one would stop to shed a put on a layer or buy something, the other would pass him grinning. We were racing in slow-motion and I loved it. Next up was Connemara.
I had already cycled in Connemara before, it was the reason I wanted to come back to Ireland. Reaching Killary Harbour meant a lot to me, from now on I was passing familiar places. I stopped for a second breakfast in a hotel in Letterfrack and would see Matthias pass while I ate. Then I must have passed him having lunch in Clifden, because while I was in the bike shop, pumping up my tires and explaining to the owner that I had to hurry up because I was being chased, the familiar yellow jacket whizzed by again. Thanking the owner I said “That’s him, I have to go”. And the chase continued. It was a glorious day, some of the best weather we had had up to this point. Connemara was as beautiful as I remembered it, it just flew by much faster than last time. In the afternoon, during a little nap behind a bush just off the road, I was woken up by a French tourist who was looking for a spot to camp and fish. I think we were equally surprised to run into each other in this place. Back on the road and in a fit of megalomania, I forged a plan to try and drop Matthias for good. I would stop early that evening, sleep a couple of hours outside and then push on through the night. I knew he was checking the tracker frequently, so my thinking was he would see me stopped and also stop for the night. Then while he was sleeping, I would overtake him and put as much distance between us as possible. It seemed the logical thing to do. Of course I didn’t know that Matthias had his own plan, which also involved riding through the night. On the long straight road heading towards Galway, I saw a sign outside a pub advertising “Fresh Pizza”. This would be the perfect dinner before my early stop, but the owner of the pub looked at me confused, “Pizza? No, we don’t have that.” Why would you put a sign outside saying you have pizza when you don’t? It made me more angry than it should have, probably less because of the two minutes I had just lost but more because of the spoiled idea of a nice pizza dinner. It was about 8 pm when I laid down on An Spidéal Beach for my early sleep. There was a guy at the dock eating take-away-pizza which I found ironic.
I found four hours of solid sleep in the soft sand before a couple of drunk teenagers emerged on the beach. They did not see me but were loud enough to end my night. It was midnight when I packed my sleeping bag and climbed back on the bike. Partly due to my tiredness and partly due to it being pitch-black, I somehow managed to lose both my sunglasses as well as my sandals on that beach. Now the plan was to ride all night and day and then see how much distance had I managed to get between us.
Day 7: Running on empty
After the quiet and peaceful day in Connemara, Galway was a shock. I had not expected so many people out on the streets, especially not in this hour of the night. Most of the people were surprised to see a cyclist out at this time as well and tried to get me to stop, to talk to me, one guy even tried blocking my way so I had to stop. It was an obstacle course of drunk people and I was just glad to get out of town. I saw an open kebab store and dived inside but was asked to leave my bike outside, so decided to push on. Out of Galway it was pitch black again and I was running out of energy when I saw an open Texaco and pulled in for some coffee. Now I don’t remember ordering them, all I asked for was a coffee, but he gave me 6 croissants as well, still warm from the oven. That made my night. The clouds disappeared and now moonlight was illuminating the wide roads. I was rolling along nicely and before I knew it, the light of day was approaching.
After filling up my bottles out of a lion’s head that I recognized from Ciarán’s instagram and a short nap on the bench next to it, The Burren began and the rain came back. The night had been quiet but now the strong headwind also returned and I had long run out of the croissants that helped me through the night. My pace was slow and I was getting a bit desperate when I saw lights in a tiny shop by the side of the road. It was still early and not open but the owner opened the door, a bit surprised to find a wet cyclist out here so early in the morning. First he seemed a bit grumpy, but when I told him that I was hungry and had been cycling all night, he waved me in. After a couple of coffees and filling up my bags with loads of snacks he would only take 5 euro for everything and wished me good luck. The people in Ireland are amazing and this wasn’t the first time that a kind gesture of a stranger changed everything in an instant, from desperation to gratefulness.
This time my smile only lasted until the Cliffs of Moher. By now I shouldn’t have been surprised by the steepness of the climbs, but this one hurt especially. It wasn’t improved by the headwind battering my face with ice cold rain. It’s only a small climb that does not stand out at all on the route profile, but it took me forever. I couldn’t understand why I was so weak, I had eaten enough and did not feel tired at this point. But I was slow and every little climb seemed so much harder than usual. Even three plates of scrambled egg in a polish cafe in Lahinch did not really helped, I was still struggling to keep a decent pace. Checking the route notes and realizing the Shannon ferry was next gave me something to aim for, but first I needed another short nap. By this time I didn’t even care about hiding anymore and just laid down in the field next to the road until a curious walker with some dogs woke me up. The ferry was going every 30 minutes and I calculated that I could just about make it to the next one, so decided to try and make it, figuring I could have some more rest on the ferry. Of course it wasn’t flat. When I approached it, I saw that the ferry was still there but it took off just before I could reach it. That was probably the most demoralising moment of the day, especially because I had time to check the tracker and saw that Matthias was still 65 km ahead of me! While I had stopped for 4 hours in An Spidéal he must have ridden through the entire night. I sat in the souvenir shop for 30 minutes and tried to think about what to do, but my head was just empty. At this point I was ready to give up, but it was harder to think about how to do that than to just keep following the route until I would find a place to rest. I knocked on the door of a Bed and Breakfast. Nobody was home but a barking dog. The weather was beautiful now, the sun out and the wind was bearable, but I just couldn’t enjoy it. When I reached Ballybunion and saw the hotel on the corner, the decision to stop was taken. It was only 5 pm but my day was over. I didn’t care about the race anymore and neither about the fact that the hotel was over my budget. It was relatively empty and so I was upgraded to a spectacular suite with hot tub and balcony overlooking the beach. I took full advantage of that, took a hot bath and washed all my kit. Then I realized I had nothing dry to wear, so went down to the fancy restaurant in wet pants with towel stuffed inside and had a 3 course dinner. Rachael and the other two girls working the restaurant seemed happy to have something to do and were curious as to what I was doing. They asked all kinds of questions about the race and were genuinely impressed. Something about the positivity of these girls restored me mentally – probably the shorter day on the bike, good dinner and 10 hours sleep also played a part, but I was up by 6 and felt ready to go again.
An Spidéal Beach -> Ballybunion, Strava (only last few kilometers of the day recorded with phone, rest icluded in manual entry of previous day)
Day 8: No way out but forward
The night waiter brewed me some coffee and congratulated to some victory that I did not understand. It had something to do with the European Football Championship and the German team winning a match the night before. The news of Brexit also broke that morning, which was the first news I had seen in a week. I wondered if I would be allowed back through England on the way back because I had no idea what that vote meant. When I checked the tracker and saw that Paul was in the same town as me and stationary, I got motivated to try and race again. We were pretty much off the back of the race, but it was good to know other riders were still around. Riding with new energy and motivation, I thought Paul was still behind me in Ballybunion when I suddenly saw him in front of me, pulling into a service station. He was looking for breakfast too and I was very happy to see him. We had talked a little bit at the breakfast in Dublin. I couldn’t believe that was already 8 days ago. After a quick breakfast, we rode up Conor Pass together in the rain.
Telling each other about the things we had been through was a welcome relief. It helps a lot to be able to laugh about your own misfortunes. Paul is a fast descender and I almost got carried away following his race lines down the road and into Dingle, but it was great fun. In Dingle, Paul introduced me to his secret of regular ice cream and yogurt stops. How could I have not had a single ice cream yet? My diet up to this point consisted mainly of chicken and coffee, but Paul also showed me the secrets of the Irish delis. I had been missing out on so much all this time, avoiding the supermarkets with their faboulous deli counters. Somewhere along the loop around Dingle peninsula we lost sight of each other. It was there that I renewed my vow to finish this, no matter how long it would take. I had not come this far to scratch and then having to do this nonsense all over again next year, because I knew I would have to if I didn’t finish this time around. At Inch Beach I stopped at a fish restaurant to complete another secondary goal of eating some fresh fish and chips on the coast.
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Yesterday I was in a very dark place. Having ridden 400k as fast as I could and still getting dropped by my closest competitor. Garmin stopped working. Both feet swollen up, hurting every pedal stroke. Exhausted I checked into a hotel in Ballybunion, had a good meal and slept 10 hours. Thought of all my friends and family supporting me so much. Spoke to the Salmon of Wisdom. So I decided to finish this race, no matter what it takes. Even if I have to crawl up to Blarney Castle, I will get there. When I signed up for the @transatlanticway I wanted to challenge my personal limits and that's exactly what I got. It's a tough and unbelievably beautiful course. Adrian, thank you so much for organizing this madman's race, I already know that I won't ever forget this experience. #taw16 #transatlanticwayrace
Then came the Gap of Dunloe and a sudden tailwind gently pushing me up the narrow road through spectacular scenery. I thought of so many things and nothing at the same time. Tears streamed down my face, I couldn’t even say why. I thought of my grandfather, about so many things and nothing at all at the same time, with only sheep for company. A group of boyscouts walking up the road near the top asked me if I had “cycled all the way up the mountain”. I said I had cycled all the way from Dublin, not mentioning that I hadn’t exactly taken the shortest route, and they erupted into applause and cheering. I was wondering where they were hiking to, there were no signs of civilization anywhere around us. When I came to an unsigned intersection and again had no phone reception to be able to display the map, I was forced to just choose one road and hope for the best. Once again I was lucky. The Killarney National Park is incredibly empty and the roads are some of the worst on the entire route, but it’s also one of the most beautiful stretches.
Afternoon turned to evening and I began to feel insecure about being out here in the dark. I felt like I needed a warm shelter for the night but wouldn’t find anything before getting out of this park. I couldn’t imagine bivvying out here, for some reason I did not feel safe and I became worried about running out of food. On one of the bumpy and steep descents in the park, I started to sing loudly to myself. That really helped, but it was still a long way back to the relative civilization of the Ring of Kerry and the wide N90 road. When I finally turned onto it, I was relieved, but it was dark already and I still hadn’t found a spot to sleep. I knocked at several bed and breakfasts along the road, either nobody opened or I was told that there were no rooms available, so I had to push on to the town of Sneem where I saw a rather big hotel and rolled down the steep ramp to the entrance. When the receptionist told me that they did not have a single room available due to some event in town that night, she must have heard my heart break, because she told me to wait and got on the telephone to ask a B&B owner in town if he could help me. When she mentioned a “desperate cyclist”, she was asked whether I was “in the race”. I couldn’t understand how he knew about the race, but nodded confused. She explained me how to get down to the Bed and Breakfast, where the owner was already waiting for me. “I know you are in a rush and I know you want to leave early in the morning, so just leave your bike in the dining room and we’ll leave some breakfast out in the morning for you.” He knew all about the race, he said I was the third racer in a row in his house and told me not to be surprised if I met George Michael in the hallway, because his double was performing on a local wedding and staying in the next room. I didn’t meet the man, but heard him coming home from the wedding early in the morning, which was my signal to get moving again.
Day 9: In good company
Climbing out of Sneem, I passed a man pushing his bicycle up the road. I slowed down to talk to him and see if I could help, but he did not have a problem with his bike, he was just spent. I asked him what he was doing so early out on the road and he said that this was his daughter’s bike, that she had passed away and that he had decided to take part in the 180km Ring of Kerry cycle challenge, not having ridden a bike since his youth. He knew he was in no shape to take on such a ride, but was determined to do it anyway. We chatted a little and I think we were both truly impressed by the other. It was another of these little encounters that helped to refocus, put it all into perspective and find some strength to keep moving. After all, this was just a bike ride and more about the road than the finish line. To be honest I’m now not sure anymore if it really happened or if I only imagined meeting the man. I remember the situation like it was yesterday, there was just something so odd about the whole thing. It doesn’t really matter, meeting him gave me the energy to fight up the next ridiculously steep climb, which is followed by an incredible fast descent into the sleepy fisher’s town of Portmagee.
The wall in the bar I stopped at for a second breakfast was boasting with photos of Star Wars actors pouring pints of Guiness here. They shot their new movie in this area and the bar was very eager to remind everyone. It made sense, the landscape is really out of this world. Back on the Ring of Kerry I was pulled back into reality by the masses of buses carrying tourists from one photo spot to the next. I pitied them, being herded like sheep out of the buses for 2 minute photo stops in designated areas. These people go home thinking they’ve seen it all, they’ve “done” Ireland, when in reality they haven’t seen anything. Nobody needs these designated photo spots to see the beauty, it is there on every meter of the road. It’s in the random encounters with strangers, little gestures, smiles, smells and experiences you make being out there. They paid a lot more money than I did, missed all the good parts and would all end up with the same photos to show at home. What a boring way to spend a holiday, I thought. Then again, maybe I was just annoyed with the masses of buses carrying these poor tourists. There is so little traffic on the rest of the route that this was hard to adjust to. Luckily it doesn’t go on forever, I was happy when the route turned off the Ring of Kerry onto a small lane and back up into the Killarney National Park where I had felt so unsafe the evening before. This also meant I was approaching the last 500 kilometers of the route. Once again I was rolling through the most spectacular scenery, but I was still having trouble with my navigation. I was stood by the side of the road trying to figure out which way to go next, when I heard a familiar voice from behind. Once again I was happy to meet Paul. He had broken his phone but his GPS was working, so I followed his tracks and wouldn’t have to worry about navigation for a while. I took some photos for him, because with his broken phone he could not capture any of the beautiful sights. On Ballaghbeama Gap he had to clean one of the yogurts from his chainring after it exploded in his bottle cage. We found it hilarious.
The scenery had been beautiful since leaving Derry a week earlier, but it was noticeable changing as we slowly approached the south of the island. It was almost too much to process, so many breathtaking views behind every corner. For the first time I felt a litle bit sad that it would be over soon. At this point Paul and I just enjoyed the ride and did not worry about finishing times or placings, all that mattered was to get it done. Every pedal stroke meant getting a little bit closer to the finish line, which also improved my confidence. The miles just rolled by. A day earlier I might have thought about what to do in order to get rid of Paul and get some distance between us, but now I was just happy to have some company to share. At some point we wondered which single word would describe this route the best and agreed on “brutal”. Brutally hard and brutally beautiful. Looking back now, almost a year after it happened, my mind blocked out the hard parts and just leaves me wanting to go back. But on that day, all that counted was to get it done.
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Strange to think that this will be all over soon. Having a great time in this spectacular country. Not long to go now. #taw16 #transatlanticwayrace #roggshop #pedaldamnit #imgoingtoseetheworld #bikepacking #adventurecycling #smilesformiles #enjoyeverymile #goforyourdreams #outsideisfree
Time went by much faster now. Paul told me some stories of the Transam Bike Race he had participated in and before I knew it we were on top of Moll’s Gap and started the rapid descent to Kenmare, which was a lot of fun and only slightly spoiled by a car feeling the need to overtake me too close in a corner and then shut the door on me. Where I ride around my hometown this happens all the time, but I just wasn’t used to it anymore after a week in Ireland, where in my experience cars are very few and drivers are patient, so I took it as a gentle reminder to stay focused. The finish line was relatively close now, but there was still a lot that could happen. We reached Kenmare, had a chat with some local cyclists, some more ice cream and rolled out onto Beara Peninsula. At this point Paul and me were mostly riding in sight of each other and not racing anymore. We decided to look out for a bed and breakfast, have a long sleep, proper breakfast and then try and do the last 400 km in one go. How hard could it be, we had the mountains of Kerry behind us and once we would turn east at Mizen Head towards Kinsale, we would finally have a tail wind. Paul secured a bed and breakfast casually while riding by a woman working in her garden. Yes, we could stay in the house next door and we would even get some soup and sandwiches for dinner. This would be the last bed before Blarney.
Day 10: Blarney calling
With most of the electronics having failed at this point, we weren’t exactly sure how much distance still lay between us and Blarney Castle. It didn’t matter, we would just ride until we got there. I didn’t expect any serious hills anymore. By this point I should have known better. It was hilly all the way. Looking at the profile they all seem like small obstacles, nothing too serious. But their sheer number and gradients would have been hard on any day, not to mention in my state by this point. It turned out to be the hardest ride I ever did. It also wouldn’t be Ireland if we hadn’t got some of the finest Irish weather for our final stage. We started into heavy rain and thick mist. It couldn’t stop us. Nothing could at this point.
On the road out to Sheep’s Head, a cyclist emerged from the thick fog heading towards me. It was Matthias on the way back in from the peninsula. So he was only a few miles ahead of us. For a brief second I considered if I could catch up to him, then tried to erase the thought of even trying. He looked good and I was in survival mode. After some tea out on Sheep’s Head and on the narrow and twisty road back towards the mainland, suddenly a car came out of the fog and through a corner, much too fast. There was not much space and the driver did not see us or just did not care. I was forced off the road onto the grass. Probably in a better state, more focused and less tired, I would have been able to keep it upright, but instead of focusing on that I turned my head for a brief moment to shout something at the driver. Then I came down. Luckily the wet grass had softened the fall.
My handlebar was bent and my elbow a little bruised. Nothing serious at all, but enough to keep me awake and alert for a while. Next up was Mizen Head, the southernmost point of the race route and an important milestone to reach. The end of the constant headwind and the beginning of the home stretch. It was about dinner time and it would be the last evening on the road, so we celebrated with the most fancy meal of the trip in a restaurant that was clearly too good for two smelly and dirty cyclists. We couldn’t care less and spent probably more than an hour there. We would need energy for the night ahead. Ironically this dinner gave me some stomach cramps during the last night, something that a week-long diet of the worst junk food did not achieve before. Once again and in the excitement of getting closer to the finish, I had forgotten to stack up on supplies. Maybe I figured the remaining food in combination with the big dinner would be enough. In reality I probably just did not think it through properly. 200 km seemed like a short ride at this point. It became dark and it probably helped not to see the hills anymore but god, I felt them. Irish summer nights are short, this one took forever. Chatting with Paul helped a lot, thinking about the Blarney Castle hotel and the warm bed that would wait for us. The night was far from over when we were running out of food. There is no hope of finding anything out there at this time of night, so we dug into our reserves. I found a grubby piece of cherry pie in the depths of my saddle bag. I didn’t know where I had bought it nor how long I had been carrying it, and it was not good, but was happy to have found it anyway. I would have eaten pretty much anything. Soon we were down to a Snickers bar. It’s incredible how many calories one needs on such a ride only to keep on going. Between Skibbereen and Clonakilty, Adrian had once again dismissed the direct route and added some hilly detours on narrow lanes along the coast. It was pitch-black, the only sound was the sea moving against the shoreline on our right. Shortly before sunrise, in what I think was the town square of Clonakilty, we both laid down for 30 minutes.
The effect of a short nap can be amazing. I felt like a new man, it just didn’t last very long. About 30 kilometers down the road, on the approach to Old Head and the last lighthouse, I was cruising down a hill when I suddenly woke up. My eyes had shut, only for a split second. I needed to sleep again, so close to the finish. It frustrated me, but there was no choice. I’m sure Paul could have pushed on but he decided to stay and we laid down on the beach for another half-hour nap. We were woken up by a friendly dog sniffing our sleeping bags. The sun was shining and it was not far to Kinsale now. Energy was at a low, so when we saw a little café just opening by the side of the road, we stopped. “What we need is, err, coffee, do you have…err coffee?” I couldn’t even articulate myself anymore. Of course he did and he also had the most amazing brownie cake with whipped cream. The cafe owner was another Irish original and proudly told us about his own ride from Malin to Mizen Head. He wished us good luck and sent us on the way with somewhat restored energy supplies. It would be the last stop before Blarney Castle. Rolling into Kinsale felt great, this is where the Wild Atlantic Way ends and the riders self-navigate the last stretch to the finish. We did not even bother stopping at the hotel that was the second checkpoint to get a stamp. I didn’t have the stamp from Derry neither. Just get to the finish. When we approached the airport of Cork, I started to make some calculations in my head and realized we could still finish within 10 days overall, even if it would be close. In the last few days I thought it wouldn’t be possible anymore and almost gave up on it. But the race had started in Dublin at 10 am, so each day on the race clock was not over by midnight, but by 10 am the next morning. What happened then still amazes me. Just hours before I had struggled through the night, felt as powerless as never before and fell asleep on my bike. But now, with the finish line almost in sight, I felt some strength returning to my legs. We picked up the pace and flew into Cork, only held up by a couple of traffic lights. I didn’t feel tired or exhausted anymore, the kilometers were ticking down and I was in a kind of tunnel. Over the river and out of the valley on the north side. There were signs for Blarney. Only a couple of miles left. Another steep ramp, of course. What else did I expect? And then the last downhill into Blarney.
During the night, Paul and I had joked about reaching the finish line in a sprint finish. At one point he suggested we stop a couple of meters before the line and let it be decided by who can throw his tracker the furthest. He had kept me awake and sane during the night and I knew I wouldn’t be here yet without his company. I was glad that we decided to cross the finish line together. But where was it? We rode around on the parking lot and almost headed out again, when I heard and saw Adrian in the crowd and realized we had crossed it already.
9 days, 23 hours, 57 minutes. After all this way I had beaten my goal by 3 minutes. The bikes were taken off of us and we were ushered to breakfast in the little café by the green. It felt incredible, I was buzzing with excitement.
Eyeries -> Blarney Castle 396,2k 4649vm, Strava
Ireland is beautiful not only for its wild landscapes but especially for its people. More than once an encounter, a gesture or conversation would help me tip the scale from wanting to give up to going on. If it wasn’t for those people, I wouldn’t have made it. Same goes for the racers that I had to privilege to share some time and road with. I found them all to be incredibly inspiring and friendly people. The route is spectacular but very tough. If you had asked me that day in Blarney if I would do it again, I would have told you “Never again”. But the mind is a funny thing. Soon enough it makes you forget about the hard times. All that is left is the good impressions and those stay with you. Also, the high-five with Adrian at the finish failed miserably, so I’ll just have to do it again.
The second annual Transatlantic Way Bike Race starts on June 8th, 2017.