Cyclist Ollie Batson gives a terrific account of his first SKODA Celtic Series event at the SKODA Tour de Conamara
In pursuit of time: Racing myself at the SKODA Celtic Series Tour de Connemara
“Not now. Come on, please, not now!” I plead with my legs.
I’m struggling to keep up with the group of cyclists strung out in a line in front of me. On the back of the chain I try to make the most of the slip-stream, inches from the wheel in front, tucked up, out of the wind but to no avail.
“We’re not going that quick. Have I punctured?”
I’m clutching at straws now, searching for any other explanation other than the horrible truth that lurks in the back of my mind.
“You cannot be running out of steam now” I’ve eaten plenty yet all the evidence suggests that it’s not been enough.
“You’re going to lose that wheel, come on, dig deep!”
I’d felt great five minutes ago, flying through Maam Cross on the front of a small group of five or six. We’re flanked either side by the granite strewn foothills of the Maumturk mountains, bright yellow Gorse lines the roadside at random intervals in stark contrast to the surrounding landscape. But I can’t enjoy the view, instead I stare desperately at the wheel in front of mine, looking away only to check my rear brake. I’m convinced it has somehow seized on.
My bidons are empty, I know I only have to hang on for another five kilometres before the next feed zone but I feel as if I’ve suddenly lost all power. The group slip away from me and I curse myself. I can’t believe how quickly things have taken a turn; I can see my goal disappearing along with my ability to ride a bike.
Passing a small Lough on my right, I head up and over a short rise, giving out a sigh as relief washes over me. It is now as I see the road finally relenting, snaking down towards the feed zone, offering respite, that I fully appreciate just how much this event means to me. Up until this moment I was certain I’d had it in the bag, now, I’m not so sure.
Death or Glory.
For me the Tour de Connemara represented something more than just a social day out on my bike, I wasn’t in it for the chat, although it was hard not to get caught up in the friendly chit chat. The fact that it was my first sportive, irrelevant, neither was the distance I chose the allure from which I sought gratification. I knew cycling a hundred and forty kilometres was within my grasp, perhaps not well within, but within none the less. However I was searching for something, validation perhaps, but from whom? To prove something to myself or of myself, but what? As is the premise of this event, it was definitely not intended to be a race, however for me, at least in my head, it was. The moment I laid eyes upon the epic imagery emblazoned across the slick website, an idea was conceived that felt as lofty and grandiose in the days leading up to the event as it had four months previously on the day that training began and reality schooled me with a strap right across my back.
It was to be a race that would quench my thirst for the kind satisfaction only yielded by immense toil and suffering; the kind of elation one only feels upon completion of a task so great and behemoth that its end could not be fathomed, its completion not imagined. I wanted to race the clock and complete the Tour in… wait for it… five hours or less. There I said it.
Not such a lofty goal for some I’m sure, but for a ninety five kilogramme former powerlifter with an average speed of around twenty five kmh, it felt as if I had tasked myself with the impossible. To win my own personal race I would have to muster a blistering average of twenty eight kmh at the very least. I was relying heavily on good weather, good fortune and good legs; failing that I would enlist a band of brothers and sisters, a pack of equally debauched individuals hell bent on a kamikaze dash for death or glory. Duly taking my turns at the helm of the group, I would imagine I’m a professional racer, controlling the peloton on a crucial stage of the Giro D’Italia or the Tour De France.
Clifden is alive, cyclists from the far flung corners of Ireland and everywhere in between, proudly sporting their club jerseys. The air is filled with the sound of spinning wheels, noisy wheel hubs reminiscent of a chorus of chirping Crickets. Hundreds of riders eagerly testing bikes, warming up, spinning legs and killing time. With my bike set up and ready to roll, I opt for breakfast at a nearby café. From the window I can see the route twisting southward. My excitement builds as I watch packs of uniformed riders rolling up and down the initial drag, rehearsing group signals in two by two formation. With ten minutes to spare I head out once again onto the busy streets and join the mass migration towards the start line.
Rounding the corner a sea of helmets flood the narrow laneway in front of me. Loud, up-tempo music has legs twitching and heart rates rising. The crowd tightens and compacts, inching towards the start banner. United by their love of the humble bicycle, strangers chatter freely, last minute checks and preparations are carried out while others compare bikes and components. Moments before the off a brief safety announcement gives way to even louder music seemingly signifying the start.
The route takes us briefly through narrow back streets before the road opens out and the pace is quickly lifted. Passing Clifden harbour on our right, the calls start almost immediately, every car, pothole and bump in the road is announced and passed back through the bunch causing a domino effect of sharp braking. This heightens the excitement, suddenly sprints are launched up the outside of the large group, one after the other as we vie for position, weaving and cutting our way in and out of the pack. The speed is soon brought to an abrupt halt as we cross a narrow bridge and we’re given our first glimpse of the mountains to the north east; the famous twelve Bens of Connemara can be seen in all their splendour, uninterrupted by clear skies. From here the route heads further south, hugging the coastline our speed varies constantly as hundreds of riders funnel themselves through narrow country roads. We pass through numerous settlements dotting the shoreline, each as idyllic as the last. The land juts and recedes to reveal perfectly smooth off-white sand beaches scattered with rocks reaching out into the jade coloured shallows. Rudimentary, jagged stone walls divide square sections of land into miniscule fields where cattle, sheep and Connemara ponies enjoy a priceless view. Robust looking, stone walled shacks used to house peat bricks look, to me, extremely well stocked so far from the colder months. I can’t help but ponder whether this might be testament to a milder winter past or just a savvy people, readying themselves for anything. Racing through the small village of Roundstone, a group of spectators cheer us on from the roadside. Wedged together like this, hundreds moving as one at high speed, I get a real sense for how it must feel to be a professional racer. The speed, the danger and the thrill; the cheers, hoots and admiration from the on looking crowd.
From Roundstone we skirt around a series of large coastal inlets, the road taking us north, west and then deeper still into southern Connemara. Through the village of Kilkieran we’re treated to more cheering and horn honking, egging us on. The distant seascape here is peppered with small and large islands alike, a confused archipelago of ancient skerries battered and divided by the fierce comings and goings of the cold Atlantic. Once again the majestic peaks to the north are brought into plain view, closer now but a constant reminder of just how far we have yet to travel.
Feeling fresh and very well prepared I’m moving at speeds I can hardly believe I’m producing. I’m certain I can’t possibly sustain this effort level for the next one hundred or so kilometres. Yet it’s happening and I’m grateful of the fellow rider with whom I have formed a silent pact, sharing the work for the past half an hour as we pass large groups, outlaws, going it alone.
“Maybe I can do this quicker than five hours” I think to myself, looking over my shoulder, hoping my new friend will take over on the front sooner rather than later.
The landscape takes on a bleaker appearance now as we make our final turn towards the hills. Leaving the coast behind us, a vast heathland hems in the road that winds its way through a labyrinth of loughs in the direction of Maam Cross. We’re exposed to what little wind there is on this otherwise still day and it takes its toll. I find myself repeatedly looking down at the tall grass by the side of the road, baffled as to why it seems impervious to the wind yet my speed is diminishing rapidly. I hunker down and think to my training, confident that I can push through.
Training for the tour had been fairly consistent overall but had occasionally become very stressful. Juggling full time employment, two canine dependants as well as other commitments at times felt like spinning plates. Most weeks went by with only two or three training rides, shorter but intense during the week and longer efforts on the weekends. Squeezing in a five day trip to Mallorca a week beforehand turned out to be a very good decision. It is often said by professional cyclists that no matter how hard you push yourself in training, you simply cannot achieve the same level of intensity as that provided by racing. I think the same can be said of riding with a partner. As my friend and I lost ourselves in the excitement of foreign climes, mountainous vistas and pristine roads, the speeds were pushed ever higher. Smaller climbs battled over, sign posts contested with furious sprints and long drags treated as team time trial efforts, each of us pushing harder with every turn on the front. I could feel my training paying off and I was hopeful that this would be the final boost I needed in order to seal the deal at the Tour de Connemara.
At war with myself.
The decent into Maam is short and not particularly steep, however the corners are long and sweeping allowing for wide entry and high speed exits. I overtake a handful of people, revelling in the speed, feeling confident again I push myself faster and faster into each turn. Opening out in front of me is the Maam Valley, large and almost strath-like with lush, green pastures and spate rivers at its basin. Home of the Joyce’s, a clan of Welsh origin, the valley provides a boundary between two regions, with the sharper ridgeline of the Maumturk mountains and Connemara to its west and the gentler, rolling hills of Joyce’s country to the east. I make a mental note to return to this country, on foot, with time to fully appreciate it for all its wealth.
Reaching the village of Maam with ninety kilometres in my legs, I swing into the feed station without a moments hesitation. I had ignored the first at fifty kilometres, having plenty of food stashed in my jersey and water in my bidons, I didn’t feel the need to stop. I am parched now though and in desperate need of revival. After scoffing a banana, stashing another in my jersey and filling my bidons at the PowerBar station I hit the road again, fearful that stopping for too long will result in what I like to call forgetful legs. A condition characterised by one’s legs feeling as if they’ve just been called into action after a long spell on the sofa in front of the TV despite having only rested for a short amount of time.
The hills either side of us form an impressive backdrop to our efforts as we make our way over the undulating terrain towards Leenaun at the northern end of the Maam valley. The road winds its way through the grassland, running parallel to the Bealnabrack and Joyce river systems. We meet with the river for brief moments, the road affording us the odd glance before turning again, guiding us towards the next awe-inspiring landscape.
Turning west through the village of Leenaun we hug the southern shoreline of Killary Harbour. One of only three in Ireland, this sixteen kilometre long glacial fjord lies on the border between the counties of Galway and Mayo on its northern side. The road here is in excellent condition, smooth and fast. With the one hundred kilometre point passed somewhere in the Maam valley I feel that now is the time to start emptying the tank. To give it everything I have, to shave off as many minutes as I can. Deciding that five hours is no longer quick enough, I brake away from the small group I’ve been riding with the last while. Passing the mussel farms that occupy Killary’s fertile waters the road starts to climb, leaving the fjord’s shoreline in favour of rolling moorland, surrounded on all sides by the grandeur of the mountains. Heading for Kylemore lough, I find myself almost completely alone save for a solitary figure in the distance. I’m waging a personal war on myself, urging my legs to keep turning this gear, keep churning out the effort, goading my mind not to crack. The lone figure up ahead becomes a target, leant forward and head down, I’m gunning for them; I let my imagination run wild, the race is on.
Twenty kilometres to go; The final feed station at Kylemore is as busy as the last, I choose to pass it by. A small stone wall separates the road from the lough as I race down its northern shore. Trees sporadically meet from either side, merging to offer brief moments of shade along these sections of avenue. Rounding a corner the trees and hedgerow disappear suddenly as the road dissects the lough. To our right the dramatic, neo- gothic Kylemore Abbey reveals itself. Residing over the head of the lough, its sharp, angular turrets and terraces are almost camouflage against its craggy surroundings.
From Kylmore it’s a quick dash through country lanes, before a short climb takes us up and over into Letterfrack, now a mere fifteen kilometres from Clifden and the finish. Descending through the busy crossroads a score of tourists look on, some with bewildered expressions, others with joy and cheer. Pedalling as fast as I can, the road twists and turns it way over rolling terrain. The surrounding flora is lush and of abundance, giant patches of rhubarb spill over from the roadside while pungent wild garlic fills the air with its powerful, almost sweet aroma.
Before reaching the finish line the Tour has one last trick up its sleeve, a sting in its tail. From the small settlement of Moyard the road starts to gradually rise, the rich vegetation slowly giving way to moorland yet again as the incline intensifies. With the finish line almost in sight the climb is a bittersweet reminder of the effort we’ve put in thus far; to a fresh set of legs it would pose little problem for most I am sure, however now it feels as if I’m scaling a Pyrenean col. My legs are completely gone, the only things spurring me on are sheer will power and my computer, staring up at me from my handlebars, its clock providing an ever-present reminder of my objective. After one or two more shorter climbs I start the final, brief descent into Clifden. Still pushing as hard as I can physically, I afford myself complete piece of mind as I round the final corner; I know that my goal is in the bag. I’ve done it, and with time to spare.
Having reflected upon my time in Connemara I’m still not entirely certain as to what it was I wanted to prove to myself, however it has given me a better understanding of what I am capable of on a bike, the confidence to take on bigger challenges and, above all, the desire and knowledge to keep pushing myself to improve.
While the Tour De Connemara does not allocate finishing positions it does provide the rider with a unique insight into how it feels to ride amidst hundreds of other cyclists. Travelling through a historically rich and diverse landscape, the route could hardly be more perfect for anyone wishing to test themselves. Be it a first time sportive or a race against the clock, the Tour welcomes all with open arms.