The good weather has stayed around for another week. Not as warm and sunny as last week but despite the grey skies and chilly winds it has stayed dry which is the most important. As my fitness is at a pretty good level and I’m going back to work tomorrow I thought it would be a good idea to get my 100K done nice and early this month, especially as the weather may not last.
I was tempted to go a longer route this month, especially having seen one of the guys in the club doing a great 110K route last week. However, I’m still not comfortable going far from home and having to use garages and shops for comfort breaks and food stops. I decided to stick with a similar route to the last two to be on the safe side and be able to have my break at home again.
I modified it slightly again though. This time I did three overlapping loops. Clady to Ballybofey (37km), Strabane to Killygordon (37km) and Clady to Killygordon (26km). I had my break at 74km which was perfect again. This route worked really well as there was a gusty, cold SE breeze. This was a real hassle on the first loop but the second one used the wind better by going down the sheltered back road and back the main road with a bit of a tailwind. The third loop was OK too but short enough not to matter.
At 52km the sun came out briefly and I stopped to eat a bar and admire the huge 5.5m tall metal sculpture at the border in Strabane. It’s officially called “Let the Dance Begin” but in typical irreverent Irish humour it’s known locally as “The Tinnies” as Tinney is a local surname. The artist is Maurice Harron who is a very far out family relation. The site of the sculpture is highly significant too as it’s the former location of the “Camel’s Hump” British Army border checkpoint from The Troubles and dismantled in 1999 after the signing of The Good Friday Agreement (1998).
The tone of the recent government announcements about lockdown restrictions suggest that we might see some relaxations from early April. I hope to go somewhere more interesting and further away for next month’s challenge🤞
Believe or not completing this on the very last day of the month was according to plan. Since last weekend when it was clear that Spring was coming this week and that cycling was back on the cards I’d planned to do my 100K spin yesterday. However, a bit of over exuberance and lack of thought on route choices on Friday left me with a much bigger week than expected. This forced me to rearrange the weekend and make Saturday a recovery day.
As I said yesterday recovery rides are not my forte. I set out with the best of intentions but it usually ends up a normal ride, slightly slower and with my cadence on the higher side. My legs were tired and achy yesterday which forced me to focus on my form and actually resulted in a proper low power and heart rate spin at a higher cadence. As a result today felt great.
In Covid times I’m still not comfortable being very far from home so I chose to ride a similar route to last month. I shortened it slightly to give me 2 full laps of approx 37km plus a final shorter lap of approx 26km. I felt the meal break at 50km was too early last month but 75km turned out to be perfect today. It was nice to get back to the house, eat something proper and stretch out for a bit. Having a short lap to finish was also a nice mental boost to get going again.
The nicest part of the day was just under 5km from home. A little girl, about 7 years old, came along the pavement just as I was pulling away from traffic lights. She called out “I saw you this morning too”. She was absolutely delighted with herself and full of happiness. It put a big smile on my face that took me all the way home.
I’m heading back to work on Saturday and the weather is set to be good again all week. If all goes according to plan I hope to repeat this ride on Thursday 🤞
The way January has developed I was starting to think I’d never get this ride done and that one of my main goals for 2021 was going to fall flat in the first month! I lost a lot of time due to Covid, 10 days isolation plus recovery afterwards ate up about half the month. Then we got snow and I lost at least another week for cycling. I was able to keep walking though so did build and retain some fitness.
For the last few days I’ve been watching the weather forecast pretty closely. The prediction was for it to get a lot milder Wednesday before another band of heavy rain moved in Thursday. I was hoping for a quick thaw to open up the roads again and let me out on the road bike. In the end up the thaw started Tuesday afternoon with most of the snow gone by evening and completely gone by Wednesday morning.
Then the weather gods played the joker! Fog! Clear, mild conditions combined with an almost total lack of wind and high humidity meant that the Finn Valley was shrouded in thick fog all morning and into early afternoon. By the time it cleared I’d lost interest and had become engrossed in my current book. Plus I was going to run out of daylight and I didn’t fancy finishing in the dark.
The forecast held out further hope with a window this morning into the late afternoon between the two bands of heavy rain. It was to be a bit breezier (18-24km/h) so fog was unlikely. All set to go 👍
I’d already planned to do my “easy” route. It’s the 50km loop of the Finn Valley between Strabane and Ballybofey using both sides of the river. I also planned to stop at home at the halfway point, have something proper to eat and adapt my clothing if needed.
The weather turned out very mild. I had on thermal leggings over my shorts but could have gotten away with leg warmers instead. The skull cap went at 25km, I changed to a lighter base layer at lunch and also ditched the liner gloves.
The first half was OK but I really paid for my lack of cycling over the last two months and this month in particular. At 40km everything was hurting, shoulders, neck, lower back and ass. Some of it was lack of flexibility, some due to the effects of walking with a weighted backpack this week but to be honest most of it was due to a lack of saddle time. Up until today I only had 278km across 6 rides for the whole of December and January. My ride today pretty much doubled my January total. I was glad to see home at the halfway point and get some anti inflammatories into me as well as a bowl of soup and wheaten bread.
I was expecting the second half to be slower but it turned out slightly faster. Coming back from Castlefinn to Killygordon I felt great. There were impressive figures (for me!) showing on the Garmin and I was starting to think there was something in the soup! At the very least the wind had dropped. Turning in Ballybofey to come home on the final 10km I realised that the wind had changed direction slightly, I’d had a bit of a tailwind for the last 20km and I was now finishing into a headwind. The last 10km was tough. Mentally I’d had enough and I was physically tired. The big effort from Castlefinn was now biting back. For the first time ever I thought I wasn’t going to make it up the final hill to home!
The roads have been very dirty since October but they were really bad today and I was glad I made the last minute decision to stick on the rear mudguard. The surface has also deteriorated a lot over the winter and especially with the recent ice and snow. There were random patches of grit on the hillier bits as households had dealt with the snow and lots of gravel washed off side roads in the heavy overnight rain. It didn’t make things any easier.
The day started with an unexpected trip to Donegal Town. The weather was snowy and icy and Catriona was worried about driving to work and what the conditions would be like afterwards. I agreed to drive her instead. On the way back I stopped to admire the fantastic view of Barnes Gap from the shores of Lough Mourne.
Getting home around 1130am it was clear that a 100km cycle was going to have to involve the implementation of Plan C. I’d decided the night before to abandon Plan A which was a repeat of the Club Lap The Finn route from earlier in the year. The western section around Fintown is too mountainous and pretty much guaranteed to be snowy and/or icy based on the weather forecast that included a Yellow Warning for ice and snow.
Plan B was a repeat of my February spin doing two repeats of the Ballybofey to Strabane loop taking in both sides of the river. However, the back road was still icy and slippery at 1130am and the shady areas were likely to stay that way all day.
Plan C was to avoid the back road entirely, drive down to Killygordon and just do two repeats of the main road between Stranorlar and Lifford. Stranorlar to Lifford and back is 40km so riding from Killygordon to Stranorlar first and back to the car at the end gave me 50km. Not the most exciting or inspiring of routes but mostly flat at least.
Using the car as my base camp also gave me a warm dry location for lunch. A packed lunch and flask of tea got over the problem of the restaurants and coffee shops closed under the latest Covid19 restrictions.
To relieve the boredom of the route I put on my Bluetooth earphones and listened to the radio. I’m one of the few that don’t have an issue with earphones on the bike. At any speed the wind means I usually can’t hear approaching traffic anyway and I don’t think not wearing them would save me from a rear end crash. I don’t wear them in town as they’re too much of a distraction when full concentration is needed. Yesterday it was left ear only as with both earphones in I could hardly hear anything at all under my skull cap! It did make it difficult to distinguish between traffic approaching from the front or rear though.
Apart from the ice and snow it was a perfect day for cycling. Bright and sunny, hardly a breath of wind and almost completely rain free. The downside is that in December that equals bitterly cold. It took a long time to warm up at the start and just after lunch with hands and feet getting the worst of it. Starting later than planned meant darkness was falling close to the end. The last 30min were close to 0°C with windchill well below that and the last 10min were far too close to darkness to feel comfortable or safe without good lights and hi viz. Thankfully quieter roads and blinkies saw me finish safely.
So 2020 Metric Challenge complete. Roll on 2021 with a repeat but this year they’ll all be done within the correct month🤞
I’m not really into retrospectives but Gerry from The Vicious Cycle posted a really good one earlier this week and I have been reading a few others too. I don’t usually find a lot of personal value in looking back. Facebook memories, Strava’s end of year review and Veloviewer’s infographic are as close as I normally get.
I’m much more interested in setting goals for the future. Some of these are short term like the mini challenges I wrote about last time but at the start of a new year I also like to set longer term goals for the full year.
Unsurprisingly, most of my goals are cycling related.
annual goal: since I started using Strava in 2014 my biggest year was 2016 when I rode 8,046km. This past year was fairly average for me at 4,541km. I’d like to beat that in 2020 riding an average of 500km per month for a total goal of 6,000km. 8,000km would be a good stretch target as I’ve only hit it the once and it’s also the equivalent of 5,000miles.
streak goal: I should have my 12th metric century completed by the end of this week completing the set for the year. I’m planning the same challenge for next year but this time I’m going to do it within each calendar month and go for the full set of Strava Gran Fondo trophies for 2021. It doesn’t sit 100% right with me that I missed a month or two this year.
I also want to restart the Audax Ireland RRTY challenge this year. I plan to start it in May or June so that I can start and finish in Summer as well as having some momentum going into the tougher Winter months. I’m also hoping that lockdowns will be a thing of the past by then giving me a chance to take part in calendar events and introduce some variety.
distance goal: my biggest ride so far is 210km back in 2017. I’ve completed quite a few 200km Audax rides now and would like to complete one next level 300km ride this year.
For the first year I now consider myself a runner as well as a cyclist and I want to set goals to improve my running this year and make it a permanent part of my training.
streak goal: I’ve managed to get back to a level that I can run a 5K without stopping. This year I want to run a full 5K each month and like my cycling goal above complete each of the Strava monthly 5K challenges.
time goal: my fastest 5K time so far is 27:23. My goal this year is 25min.
other activity goals
365 challenge: inspired by ADudeABikes and following my November streak I’m setting a target of a minimum of one recorded activity per day walking, cycling or running.
bikepacking: I’ve been watching a lot of Bikepacking videos and read a lot of articles this year and want to complete one short trip and camp out for one night. I haven’t spent a night in a tent for about 10 years!
strength and conditioning: during lockdown I discovered Tom Merrick’s YouTube channel. He has a nice and simple 6 day follow along program for strength and flexibility. I’m not setting a specific goal but want to incorporate this into my regular activities this year. I have strong legs but my upper body strength and my general flexibility is poor and needs to improve before I end up with injuries.
weight loss: in the early part of 2020 I was at 88kg. During the latter stages of the first lockdown I managed to get that down to 80kg through 16:8 intermittent fasting and increased activity. I wasn’t able to sustain the fasting for long once I went back to work and bad habits gradually crept back in. I’ve been able to keep it between 81-82kg and during this year I’d like to get it down to 76kg and keep it there consistently.
There’s a lot in there and too many goals could mean that I’m setting myself up for failure. However, most of them are continuations of goals I’m already working on or are stretches that are definitely achievable. The key one is the 365 challenge. If I can get that rolling then most of the rest should fall into place.
For anyone that follows me on Strava it’ll come as no surprise that I like to use challenges to motivate me and keep me active.
Strava are without a doubt the king of challenges and the whole concept is part of their DNA. Users can create and compete on segments to earn the KOM (King of the Mountain) or QOM (Queen of the Mountain) crown for the fastest time. Strava also give you trophies for your top 3 times on segments and give you table positions based on age and weight and in comparison to members of any Strava clubs you belong to. They’ve also recently released a new concept called Local Legend on some segments for riding a segment multiple times.
Each month Strava also host regular challenges. For both cycling and running they have cumulative distance and elevation challenges as well as one-off distance challenges such as the monthly 100km Gran Fondo for cycling and 5K, 10K and Half Marathon for running. Most months they will also have partner challenges that more activities count for.
Although the regular challenges are mostly based around running or cycling they seem to be making their walking challenge a regular one.
This year I’ve been working on a Metric Century challenge to ride a minimum of one 100km spin each month for 12 months. This was originally inspired by a post of Tempo Cyclist but prompted this year by Paul of 36×25 who coined the term Resolution Ride. I’ve missed at least one month this year due to Covid lockdowns but have made it up with an extra ride the following month. So far I only have one ride left to give me 12 for the year.
Part of what attracted me to Audax was the challenges they also run. As if long distance cycling wasn’t challenge enough they have a number of streak and cumulative challenges. In 2018 I completed the Four Provinces Challenge. I’ve also started the RRTY challenge a few times including this year. I’ve decided to put my current attempt on hold as the multiple lockdowns are playing havoc with Audax Ireland having to pause and resume a number of times during 2020. I’d rather wait and make sure I can get a clean run at 12 in a row, ideally starting and finishing in late Spring or early Summer.
The ultimate Audax challenge is the Super Randonneur, completing a 200, 300, 400 and 600km event during the Audax calendar year. I don’t know if I’ll ever be capable of that but it is one I aspire to.
As far as mini adventures go though this looks like the ultimate one….
The theme of yesterday’s spin was checkpoints and road works. Officially the country is in the last week of Level 5 lockdown and we’re supposed to stay within 5km of home unless it’s an essential journey. This also applies to exercise. For cycling this is totally nonsensical, as well as impractical. Compared to Lockdown v1 virtually nobody on my Strava feed is paying any heed to this restriction including some of the most compliant people I know. I’m still cycling solo but seeing as I meet so many people through work I don’t see the point of cycling close to home. Part of the non-compliance is the lack of enforcement. I passed through 3 “Operation Fanacht“ checkpoints and barely got a glance from the Gardai at any of them. The multiple stops for roadworks created more of a restriction and annoyance, especially the last one which I only realised was a hedge cutter at work at the very last minute. Glad now I’m riding tubeless tyres.
The aim of yesterday’s spin was to reverse my November ennui and keep my 2020 Metric Challenge streak alive. I’d been watching the forecast all week and despite some fluctuations Wednesday looked about as good as could be expected for the end of November.
I finally made the break and removed the Brooks C17, going back to the factory fitted Selle Royal Seta RS. Before leaving I took the time to get it perfectly levelled and exactly back to the same position as the fit done at the shop when I bought it. It meant I was an hour later leaving than planned but definitely time well spent despite spending more time in the rain at the end of the ride.
When I did get away shortly after 1030am it was bright and cold but I was kitted out in wooly socks, Winter shoes, overshoes and Winter tights over my normal bibshorts. Three layers up top, base layer, Perfetto jacket and Club gillet. Extremities protected with a skull cap and Buff and a double layer of gloves meant I was well insulated.
I’d decided to ride pretty much the same route as August with a small adjustment. The first 30km was very enjoyable with a slight tailwind all the way to Nixon’s Corner before turning for Newtowncunningham. I didn’t really feel the breeze with the protection from the high hedges for most of the road. The good weather lasted until the last 5min when I was hit by a short, heavy shower just before my lunch stop at Kernan’s at the 50km mark.
While making my tea an older American guy was making some small talk and when he followed me outside I thought I was about to share my lunch with a bit of a PITA. I was wrong. Turns out my talkative friend was pretty interesting. Bob is originally from Washington State, close to Seattle and living in Ireland for just over 30 years. He’s retired on a disability pension after a nasty accident involving his right arm and a printing press. He showed me the gruesome result which must have been insanely painful at the time. We had a good yarn while enjoying our sandwiches in the cold November air. One of the interesting stories was the origin of the name of “Seattle’s Best Coffee” brand and their rivalry with Starbucks.
Leaving Bob I was feeling the cold and added an extra layer using my Sportful gillet. The lingering dampness of the shower, disappearance of the sun, spray from the passing traffic and an increase in the now cold breeze was multiplying the cooling effect of the food stop and the extra windproof layer was much needed.
The road from Newtowncunningham to Letterkenny is a busy main road. Its only saving grace is the wide hard shoulder almost all the way. I wasn’t looking forward to it as I figured it would be a slog into a stiff breeze but it wasn’t too bad after all. The biggest challenge was spray from passing lorries as the road was now quite wet.
Dropping down past Manorcunningham towards the start of the dual carriageway is where my route diverged from August. I’d decided to use the back road I was familiar with from the Audax route, albeit from the opposite direction and avoid the busy dual carriageway. I’d also decided to go on further and climb out of Letterkenny via the Cullion Road instead of Dromore. This is a much better surface and only my second time up this road by bike. It means crossing the main road close to the top of Lurgybrack but traffic was reasonably light and getting across wasn’t a problem.
Shortly after this, with approximately 75km done, was when the rain started in earnest and I really started to feel Winter’s bite.
The showers started coming pretty heavy and close together. The road was very wet spraying my feet and legs and spray from passing traffic killed any breaks between showers. It was at this stage I was really cursing not having stuck on the mudguards and not packing a proper rain jacket. The cold was biting and slowly but surely the wet was soaking into my feet and hands as the overshoes and gloves became overloaded. It was a long 25km back to home but at least I had a tailwind for about 12km between Stranorlar and Castlefinn before finishing with a slow 5km into the headwind and the usual climb to home.
Despite the final conditions it was a great spin. It was mostly comfortable and even with the wet and cold finish I was soon sorted with a hot shower and food. I was just glad to be able to finish having let my mileage slide over the last 6 weeks or so. Only December to go and that will be my 2020 Metric Challenge complete.
Really struggling to get motivated to cycle this month. I have lots of excuses. The biggest, and only genuine reason, is that the weather has been horrible, really horrible. My days off have coincided with wet and windy weather. I know it’s possible to go out with the right clothing but it’s not enjoyable.
Since my Audax ride in the middle of October I have only been on the bike six times and my distance for November is as low as it has been for a while.
Despite my lack of cycling motivation and excellent excuse generation I have been moving. I decided at the start of the month to try and reverse my declining activity by committing to at least one recorded activity (walk, run or cycle) each day of November. 22 days in and so far, so good.
This week I need to reverse my lack of cycling motivation as I’ve only got two more opportunities this month to complete my metric century for my 2020 challenge. It would be a shame to give up on it now with only two months left to go.
At the end of September Donegal was moved to Level 3 of the government’s “Plan for Living With Covid19“. From a cycling point of view this means I can no longer leave the county. In order to keep going with the Audax Ireland RRTY Challenge I needed a Donegal option as the Dark Hedges 200 is Co. Derry and Antrim. Taking a provisional route from a couple of years ago and some modifications I came up with a good route staying within the county boundary.
I sent the route to Audax Ireland for consideration and within a couple of days it was reviewed, accepted and published on their website. I was surprised how easy it was and I was a little bit caught out as I hadn’t put much of a route description in but getting an edit was as simple as sending a second email with my description.
Actually riding the route was the next challenge! I had ridden the majority of it before but not as one complete route and the section from Ardara to Doochary was completely unknown to me.
I had booked a couple of days off work and had planned to complete the route on one of these. Looking at the weather forecast the previous week, I’d settled on Tuesday. This worked well as it gave me Wednesday as a rest day before going back to work as well as what was predicted to be the best weather day.
Monday evening it looked like the wind was changing direction and staying strong for longer than initially expected. Getting up on Tuesday morning it had worsened further swinging around to become a N/NE breeze and up to about 24km/hr through the middle of the day. This would of course coincide with the time I’d be cycling straight into it from Donegal Town to Letterkenny!
My plan was to get up at 6:30am and get away from the house by 7:30am. I spent ages faffing about, trying to decide whether or not to go or delay until Wednesday. It was 8am before I convinced myself to go and if I’d had even the slightest encouragement from Catriona I’d have stayed put.
It was a real novelty doing an Audax without having to drive to the start. The official starting location is Ballybofey but you can start a Permanent at any point along the route. As it passes the end of our road (clever route design!) I was on the official spin within 5min of leaving the house.
My first 10km is the last 10km of the route and pre-lockdown would have been my warmup for going to a Club spin. Heading into Ballybofey I met the start of the early school/work rush hour build up and thankfully I was soon out of town and off the main road heading up the first climb of the day to the Derg Line via Meenglass. I was nicely warmed up and felt pretty good, keeping my power and heart rate low and cadence high. The road wound up the hill with high hedges forming tunnels at times and with the leaves turning there were loads of photo opportunities but I had to enjoy looking only as I didn’t want to stop on the climb.
The Derg Line meets the main road again just before Barnes Gap. This is a lot more enjoyable as it’s mostly a fast drop through the actual Gap with a good hard shoulder. The only negative was the windmill construction work part way down and the resulting muddy hard shoulder that left me spattered literally from head to toe and regretting not using mudguards.
About 7km later the route leaves the main road again and heads for Laghey via back roads and eventually on to Ballintra. I rode this a couple of weeks ago as part of a Club spin so it was very familiar as well as enjoyable with a slight tailwind to make things easier. Ballintra is also the first control point. It wasn’t easy taking a selfie in this small village without getting funny looks from the few residents out and about at that time of the day.
The route bends back towards Donegal Town avoiding the main road by using some of the back roads that wind around Rossnowlagh and Murvagh, both locations of beautiful beaches but both unfortunately out of sight. It eventually spits back out on the main road back at Laghey but only for a couple of KM before heading into Donegal Town centre and back out the Killybegs Road.
Dunleavys Spar on the outside of town gave me the perfect opportunity for a sandwich, tea, water top up and a toilet break at 65km. As the showers were drying up and the sun showing its face I was also finally able to remove my Sportful water resistant gillet and enjoy the weather.
The improving weather nicely coincided with some of the more scenic sections. Heading out the main road towards Mountcharles the route takes a left down to the coast and follows a beautiful coast road around the bay. Views were fantastic across to Co. Sligo and Mayo as well as further along Donegal Bay. After a few KM the route turned more Northerly and the climbing work began.
At this stage I was climbing for most of the next 12km until reaching the top of the ridge between Frosses and Glenties. This was a bit of a test of my climbing legs and fitness but so far, so good and I was feeling happy about the day so far. I was also starting to head more into the breeze but it was still light and I was sheltered to a large extent by the very ridge I was climbing. Over the other side I was descending towards Glenties and the breeze helped cool me off after the long climb.
The road drops down to the main road between Glenties and Ardara but the route I designed turns off before the last 5km and uses small back roads to approach the outskirts of Ardara. This was my only route miscalculation but it was a bad one. I’ve never ridden these roads and relied on RideWithGPS to plot the route. Unfortunately this took me along a farm lane that was basically rock and mud with large potholes and no tarmac at all. I was extremely worried about damaging my wheels or falling off but also didn’t want to get off and try to walk for fear of soaking my feet or twisting my ankle. I didn’t want to go back and didn’t know where to detour so ended up going on, very slowly and very carefully. Eventually the lane spat me out on some poor but infinitely better tarmac and I was soon back on the road and approaching Ardara. This miscalculation has now been removed and rectified for the next time.
I didn’t enter Ardara proper as I once again used side roads to bypass the town and bring me out on the Narin/Portnoo road. I’ve also decided that this was a bad idea as the next shop isn’t until Letterkenny, almost 70km away. The new route would leave Ardara as an approximate halfway point and a good option for a hot meal or a cup of coffee/tea at the very least, especially important for the colder months.
Leaving Ardara I was now heading straight into the breeze. The sun was still out so I was feeling OK and still confident. This is a lovely scenic area with lots of views but I kept pushing on for the second control. This is at the Dolmen Centre, a community centre named after the Kilclooney Dolmen located a short walk away. As you cycle this area there is a real neolithic feel as there is an amazing amount of large exposed rocks filling the landscape. This whole area must have been deposited with rocks as the ice retreated during the Ice Age. Many of the gardens have embraced the rocks and integrated them into their gardens and landscaping.
The Dolmen Centre was the mid way point for me and I used the picnic bench outside as an opportunity for a break and unfortunately just a cold lunch. I would have loved a cup of tea at this stage as the sun had now disappeared and the wind was getting stronger and colder. It was here that I met a very chatty local lady walking her very furry whippet dog. She had a problem with her electric bike the previous night, left it propped up outside the Church and couldn’t find it today. She seemed very laid back and relaxed that it was missing despite it being her only form of transport so I hope someone just made it safe for her and that she got it back.
Leaving the Dolmen Centre the road goes through a series of short, steep rolling hills and swings around to the NE. This is where the wind really made itself known. I always struggle with the third quarter of any Audax I’ve done. It seems to be a combination of energy levels both physical and mental. This was also a really hateful section of road. The terrain and the wind seemed to be conspiring against me, I was getting cold and tired and really questioning my decision to go out today. Somehow I dragged myself round the coast to Lettermacaward, across the really impressive Gweebarra Bridge and into Doochary. This section is beautifully scenic but my heart really wasn’t in it and I just focused on keeping the pedals turning on a bike that now seemed to weigh three times what it did earlier.
I stopped again shortly after leaving Doochary. It was simply where I could get pulled in, an unremarkable little stone bridge over a noisy stream, sheltered by some trees and out of the wind. I had some more food and a few jelly babies to try and force some motivation and energy back into me. One of the toughest sections was ahead of me and I didn’t know if I had the strength and will to keep going. I felt as battered and bedraggled as my poor bike!
The next 15km was the hardest cycling I’ve ever done. It’s through the increasingly mountainous and very steady climb to the top of Glenveagh where the Bridal Path meets the main road. Mountainous in Donegal means open and exposed, this is rural Donegal turned up to the max. There is nothing out here except sheep, blanket bog and wind. Unfortunately the wind was now very blustery and cold and straight into my face with no shelter to give respite. For what seemed like hours I ground my way very slowly up this road, head down and struggling to keep my speed above 10km/hr. I lost track of the times I talked myself out of stopping and if I hadn’t been out of network I honestly think I would have pulled the pin and called Catriona to come pick me up.
Eventually I reached the top of the climb and faced a long steep descent into Churchill and control 3. I was really looking forward to a break and a chance to recover on the descent but it wasn’t what I expected. I now had the wind buffeting me from the side and I had to concentrate really hard to stop being blown into the side of the road as I passed gaps in the hills where the wind whipped through, seemingly determined to get me yet. Finally reaching the shores of Lough Gartan I was relieved to get shelter from the trees and hedgerows and take a break at the beautiful Glendowan Church on the edge of the lake.
Leaving Glendowan it is straight into a really steep hill that annoyingly turns into a T Junction about 3/4 of the way up. Once over this though I was dropping back down again and through the village of Churchill and heading for Letterkenny. Despite being a rural area this is quite a wide road with a good surface and one I know fairly well. The familiar landmarks of townlands and junctions lifted my spirits and I started thinking about another, final foodstop.
Passing the turn off at Newmills I ignored the irritated beeping of my Garmin and diverted off my course to the service station just under 1km up the road. I desperately needed something warm to eat and drink. Unfortunately the deli was now closed but they had a very welcome tea machine and I couldn’t resist the glazed donuts and a much needed chocolate bar. I sat outside, people watching, enjoying my tea and sugar and finished the last of my sandwiches. The sun was totally gone by now and the temperature dropping so I layered back up with some of the clothing I’d removed what seemed like a week ago in Donegal Town before heading back to the planned route and feeling more optimistic about completion.
This final 40km wasn’t easy but I was very happy that I’d decided to ride it for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I was familiar with the terrain and the junctions and could have ridden it without my Garmin. I knew where I had to conserve energy on the longer climbs and where I could push on to maximise my momentum. I could almost physically feel the miles clicking off and home getting nearer. The sugar infusion combined with an improved mental attitude put energy back into legs that seemed to have given up not that long ago.
In typical Irish tradition the wind that now should have been an assisting tailwind had dropped off as I came back down to lower levels and while it was still there it wasn’t the helping push I’d hoped for. Almost before I knew it though I was over the last hill into Raphoe and dropping down the fast descent into town. I think I may even have been smiling again!
A quick stop in Raphoe to take the control photo, text Catriona to say I’d be home in less than an hour and I was away again, sugar levels topped up with a handful of jelly babies and with a reserve in my back pocket.
This last section isn’t easy. There are a number of rolling, steep climbs and one quite long climb from Ballindrait but I could smell home. These are roads I know well and I had renewed energy now that I knew it was almost finished. As I came over the top of the hill between Ballindrait and Castlefinn the sun was setting in the distance, just below the cloud level and I had a stunning view out over the Finn Valley and towards home.
20 minutes later I was rolling up the drive to the house. I was absolutely exhausted. This was one of the toughest cycles I’d ever done, physically and mentally and it almost broke me. Importantly though it didn’t!
At 207km and almost 2,500m of climbing it’s also one of the most challenging I’ve done. As Donegal has now been moved to Level 4 restrictions until November 10th it looks like I’ll need it for at least one more month to keep RRTY going. Let’s hope the wind is more favourable next time.
I rode my first Audax in May 2015 at the Fermanagh 200 calendar event. On Sunday I rode my 9th but my first for almost two years.
(This developed into a very long post all about it!)
Audax is long distance endurance cycling with distances starting where most other events stop. The minimum distance is 200km with longer events typically 300km, 400km, 600km and even multi day events of 1000km and 1200km such as the best known Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) that takes place every 4 years and requires official qualification.
The ethos of Audax is that it is non-competitive, the challenge is to finish. There is a maximum time limit depending on the length of the event but it’s set at an average speed of 15km/h. To emphasise that it’s not a race there’s also a minimum time limit set at 30km/h although this is rarely used. The golden rule is “always finish and always finish smiling”.
Audax events take two forms. Calender events are set dates with a fixed start time and location. A group will gather and set off together. There will be a random mixture of abilities and therefore groups will form naturally as people find others at a pace they are comfortable with. In addition there will be those who prefer to cycle alone and while usually friendly will stay away from groups.
The event is called a “Brevet” and attendees are called “Randonneurs“. At the start you are issued with a Brevet card showing the designated control points, their distance along the route as well as the earliest and latest times you have to pass through them. As you navigate the set course you must stop at these control points, record your time and obtain proof of your visit. This may be a stamp or signature but receipts from shops, ATM receipts and photos have become the norm. Some controls will be manned but most are not. At the end of the event you hand in your card to the organiser along with your proof (photos are emailed or sent via WhatsApp) and once checked the organiser conforms your completion of the course to the governing body of your country. In Ireland this is Audax Ireland who then also register your completion with the world governing body called “Audax Club Parisien” (ACP) who are based in France.
The main difference between Audax and a Sportive is that Audax riders are expected to be completely self-sufficient. You must carry all your own food and water or resupply along the route using shops and cafés. If you have a puncture or other type of breakdown you are expected to be able to repair it yourself or be able to make your own way home. There are no organised food stops, no broom wagon and no roaming mechanics to get you out of trouble.
The second form of Audax event is called a Permanent. These are routes that can be ridden at any time and you can start at any point along the route. You just need to contact the organiser, register your intention to ride and pay the registration fee, usually €5. Permanents are mostly a calendar event that the organiser has agreed can be ridden as a permanent but some permanents don’t have a fixed calendar date. Also many calendar events are not available as a permanent.
There are a number of different challenges run by Audax Ireland that Irish Randonneurs can take on:
Randonneur Round the Year (RRTY): complete a minimum of one Audax event each month for 12 months in a row. These events can be a mixture of distances and calendar or permanent events.
Super Randonneur (SR): Complete a full series of at least one 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km event in the Audax calendar year that runs from Nov 1st to October 31st. Permanents cannot be used for this challenge.
Four Provinces (FP): Complete a calendar event that starts in each of the four Provinces of Ireland within the Audax calendar year. Normally permanents cannot be used but for 2020 an exemption has been made due to Covid19 restrictions.
In 2017 I completed the Four Provinces Challenge and made a start to RRTY. I made it to 4 months but missed out on December. My cycling decreased significantly during 2018 but I did get one 200km event in April and restarted RRTY in October but only managed two. 2019 saw a further reduction in cycling but this couple of months I’ve managed to jump start my cycling mojo with 31 Days of Biking and buying a new bike.
My fitness has steadily improved through the Summer and August has given me my best cycling fitness for a few years. I’ve decided to take on the RRTY challenge once again to keep me motivated and keep improving my fitness as well as justifying my bike upgrade. Sunday was my starting point.
My closest Audax route is the Dark Hedges 200 and it can be ridden as a permanent. I’ve ridden it a few times now so it’s a good choice as the route is familiar. In general it’s one of the easier Audax routes. Navigation is pretty straightforward and the first 40km is pretty flat before you have to deal with the first climb which is ironically from Downhill beach.
The day was forecast to be dry with little wind and sunny for the majority of the day. At this time of the year that means fog for the early mornings and it lasted for the first 40km before being treated to a fabulous view out to sea.
Over the hill into Articlave and the first control at a petrol station. It was also time for my first food break but unfortunately they didn’t have a tea option from the machine and I had to repack and head down to the next garage before I could eat.
The next section follows the main road through Coleraine and on to Bushmills which is famous for its whiskey distillery which is also the second control.
After Bushmills it’s on to a variety of rural roads that eventually take you through the third control at the Dark Hedges which is how the route gets its name. This has always been a popular tourist destination but has become even more famous since it appeared in the second season of Game of Thrones.
At this stage I was starting to feel hungry again but being in the middle of rural farmland I decided to keep going on a mini Snickers and a few jelly babies until I could reach Ballymoney.
The last few times I’ve always had route issues with Ballymoney but not this time. Last time I figured that the route left the road and went through a riverside park using cycling paths. This spits you out on a main road in the middle of town and this time I realised how the cycle path picks up again across the road and through a small housing area. Another riverside park that conveniently brought me out close to a small retail complex including a shop deli with 105km done.
The third 50K is always the most difficult for me. This is when tiredness kicks in, both physically and mentally. On this route it also coincides with the least enjoyable section from Ballymoney to Maghera. It’s a combination of busy secondary and primary roads with a few diversions on to hilly rural roads. The final 15km along the busy Coleraine to Maghera road is a slog and it’s almost a pleasure to see the Maghera town limits. The fourth control is yet another petrol station but the bonus here is a large toilet open to the public that gave me a chance to use the bathroom, wash my face and reapply chamois cream before having another food break.
The final 50K is where the real work begins on this route. A rolling ride into Moneyneany is followed by a tough and steep climb up over the mountain to Feeny. The toughest part of this is a 3.2km segment rising 200m with a 6.2% average and a number of 10-14% sections. The payback is a fantastic and very fast descent before the final short climb into Feeny, the final control at the local Spar shop and a final food break at 170km.
The last 30K includes one of my favourite sections of road I’ve ridden. A few km out of Feeny the route returns to rural back roads that snake along the back of Claudy and follow the river valley into Derry. The road wends its way along the valley through wooded areas with steep slopes on both sides. The terrain is a mix of short, sharp climbs and descents that, despite tired legs, encourage a strong effort to speed through this last approach to Derry. It’s fab!
The final approach to Derry should be a chance to relax but this route has a final sting in the tail. At 190km there is a horribly steep climb up Church Brae to Glendermott. It’s not long at only 0.5km but it’s unforgiving with a 9% average and hitting 18% for one short section. With all of the day’s distance it’s one hell of a final challenge.
Dropping back down into Derry to the Foyle I was treated to beautiful views along the river as the sun was setting.
Arriving back at the start I was delighted to see an average speed slightly over 25km/hr meaning I was coming in just under my target time of 8hrs. I had a second target to get finished in less than 10hrs total time but I was happy to finish with such a good time!