I’ve been holding off writing this up as I still haven’t gotten over the disappointment of scratching. The TAW was my main target for the year, something I’d trained extremely hard for and my first chance to measure myself against some of the giants of the ultracycling world.
Everything was going perfectly right up until two days before the race. I woke up with a sore throat, a headache and some aching in my joints and dread set in – having avoided injury, London’s drivers and commuting mishaps, I was going to be taken out by a sodding cold… in summer. I panic bought cold and flu medicine and stepped away from the bike, hoping two days’ rest would see me fit to ride.
The next morning I flew out to Ireland. I felt like death and my girlfriend is pretty much wholly responsible for actually getting me on the plane and keeping me motivated and confident (well as confident as can be for a man with man flu). Once in Dublin and fully briefed, I built up the bike and went for a quick spin… my legs barely worked, my chest was a wreck and I had a blinding headache. Perhaps I shouldn’t start tomorrow after all? I climbed into bed while the sun was still high in the sky and passed out until my alarm woke me up in a pool of sweat the following morning.
I felt awful, but the adrenaline was hitting hard and Beechams seemed to be holding off the worst of my symptoms. I decided I’d ride and just see what happened – my intention was not to race, to take it steady and to just be happy with whatever I was able to do.
I got to the start line early, found a track pump and fixed an issue with my rear mech. Eventually Adrian called for the first wave of starters and I said my goodbyes, grabbed the bike and started wheeling it toward group 1… shit… my rear tyre was completely flat. No puncture, no issue with the valve… just a completely flat tyre. No sign of the track pump… no time to mess about… I got just enough air into it to feel confident riding and headed for the start… then jumped back off and carried on pumping while we were being briefed, much to the amusement of the crowd and circling photographers.
Eventually, we were off. Our wave quickly whittled down to just five riders and I decided to settle in… Bjorn was there and I recognised a couple of the other riders, so this was probably a good place to be.
Only, the pace started feeling pretty glacial. I was pedalling squares, but putting out very little power and a couple of the riders in the group were using their aerobars while trying to hold a wheel. I waited for a straight section of road and decided to ping off the front and settle into a more comfortable tempo.
My usual navigation view on my Elemnt doesn’t show speed, so I didn’t realise at the time, but I was comfortably sitting at 25mph and accidentally opened quite a gap, despite getting stuck at several long lights for construction. It wasn’t until an hour or so later when I tried to check the tracker and tweeted to see if anyone could let me know what the field looks like that I realised I was in the lead!
A bit of support from my followers and a huge kick of confidence from leading the race without having really tried to race saw my plan to ‘take it as it comes’ extinguished. I was going to get to CP1 first – that would be a small victory and enough to make me feel like I’d done something to animate the race… it’d be a nice birthday present to myself too!
The first hundred km or so was pretty flat, so I easily held the lead and continued churning out the miles at pace. It wasn’t until Northern Ireland that the terrain became bumpy and I had to work a bit harder to stay ahead, ceding some time to Bjorn and Berndt. Bjorn and I took a pretty lumpy ‘scenic’ route and Berndt found a flatter route along a river. I was pretty convinced his would work out faster, but fortunately it didn’t seem to give him too much of an advantage.
After a bloody steep climb and quick descent, I hit CP1 safely in first place, had a quick chat with the team and rolled off to find a petrol station, grab some dinner and re-assess my race plan. It was definitely time to slow down… but how much?
The Beechams was holding the worst of my symptoms at bay. I’d been coughing a bit during the day, but no headache… just some aching in my joints and the inability to pedal smoothly (which didn’t seem to be slowing me down too much!). I saw Bjorn roll past as I was finishing my sandwich and figured I’d hop back on and try to stay in the top three for a while.
At some point, Bjorn must have also stopped for food or a drink as I ended up back in pole position without passing him anywhere on the road. The route started getting a little lumpier and I was definitely slowing down, but I couldn’t see him anywhere when I looked over my shoulder on the longer straights, so I kept the pressure on and worked to maintain the lead…. until the route suddenly swung left and the road shot skyward.
What a shock to the system. There’d been some climbing in the day, but I don’t think I left the big ring at all… this first climb saw me dropping straight into the granny ring and my poor aching joints screamed in response. I had a quick look at the tracker, saw Bjorn was right on my tail and decided to stop at the first easing of the gradient so he could pass and I could give him a cheer.
Only Bjorn didn’t seem too keen on that plan! He slowed to check I was OK and seemed surprised when I shouted ‘allez, allez, allez’ in response. I gave him long enough to get out of sight and jumped back on the bike – pressure off, determined to be sensible… at which point I saw Bjorn off his bike at the top of the climb. Bugger. I was back in first place!
Shortly after, Bjorn caught back up and we rolled along having a chat (while I gently tried to encourage him to hurry up and take the lead so I could give in to my cold!). Eventually he rolled off down the road and the evening settled in. We saw each other twice more, once when he briefly stopped for water and again at Malin Head where the route overlaps, but the pressure was off and I stopped for about 30 minutes at the last open village shop and again for what felt like nearly an hour at Malin Head, enjoying the sunset.
As night fell, my regular stops saw some of the field beginning to close the gap and Bjorn and Berndt pushing out the lead. I was now teetering in a weird no man’s land – ahead of the field, but out of touch with the leaders. In response, I floundered a bit – riding easy and waiting for something to happen.
The first thing that happened was an oppressive shadow appeared on the horizon, with car headlights occasionally appearing near the top. I knew Manmore Gap was coming, but I’d made a point of not researching the bigger climbs and I couldn’t make out much in the dark. I’m convinced this was a good thing. I hit the base of the climb pretty gently, sitting and spinning out the granny ring. Only the granny ring quickly wasn’t enough and I had to stand and start stamping and pulling on the pedals.
And the climb just kept going. Every time I felt my legs would give out, the gradient eased just enough to allow me to recover and by the top, I was so determined not to put a foot down that I ended up weaving across the road to flatten out the gradient as much as possible.
Reaching the top was a huge relief. My sick body was coping with the climbs, so maybe I’d be able to finish this ride after all. There are only four of these bad boys in the KOM challenge – how bad can the route be?
On the descent, a car appeared behind me, gave me an encouraging nod when I looked over my shoulder and turned his high beams on. Amazing. The descent is dead straight and with the driver behind lighting the way, I got in the drops and flew down. Sadly, it was marred by the next driver I encountered refusing to drop his high beams (driving toward me) and driving me off the road. luckily I managed to keep the bike upright, despite not being able to see a thing and got my foot down before any harm was done.
Riding on through the night, the Apidura car pulled alongside and asked if they could take a few shots. Everyone knows media car attention is an immediate +100 watts and he stayed with me for ages, following me down a long, straight, rolling road where I was sat on the extensions between 25-30mph and getting out of the saddle on the slight inclines… vanity, thy name is Chris.
The down side of this attention was that I also neglected to stop at the last open shop I would pass until about 11am the following morning… and my food and water supplies were already low.
By early morning, I was slowing considerably and Gavin Dempster was bearing down on me. I was pretty keen to hold onto third, but also pragmatic about the fact that if I got caught, it didn’t really matter and I’d got CP1 in the bag already.
I actually sat down at the base of the Glenveagh gravel section and waited for him, having seen his dot right on top of mine just before the turn. He never showed though and the incessant mozzies saw me moving on pretty quickly!
I spent most of the morning desperately searching for taps. The previous sector was pretty barren and the only cemetery I’d passed that morning had high fences and a locked gate. It was about 9am before I finally found a petrol station with an outdoor tap and managed to refill my bottles… with water I’m not entirely convinced was potable.
The day blurs in my memory – it got increasingly hot as the day continued and I spent much of my time looking at the tracker to see how close GD was and trying to do the bear minimum to maintain my lead. Throughout the day, he came very close to catching me at several points, but always spent long enough stopped in the next town that I was able to push the lead back out.
The first climb of the day was a beautiful, but steep, road out of a valley. I remember entering the valley and thinking, who would be stupid enough to stick a village at the end of this thing? Before spotting the road back out snaking straight up the hillside behind.
The climb was incredible, but I was very slow and when I stopped at the top and checked the tracker, GD was right behind me. No time to rest, I attacked the descent and pushed hard up the next gentle slog into town, refuelled and got straight back on the road.
The coastal roads were beyond stunning and, while trying to make good time, I took it pretty slowly and drank in the sights.
By this point, it was absolutely sweltering and the route moved back inland. Without any sea breeze, it was getting pretty uncomfortable. I was coated in sweat, burning through water and desperately seeking shade. The perfect time, then, to ride a circuit of an exposed bowl, with no trees or shade!
The tarmac was sticking to my tyres and I rode on the wrong side of the road, trying to catch whatever shade I could and feeling my skin burning. Heat aside, the road was absolutely incredible. It somehow continued to climb even after the turn and there was a real fairytale vibe, with hidden mansions, ruins, dark woods… huge kudos to Adrian finding such an incredible road!
The heat had done a real number on me and by the time I reached the next town and stopped to refuel and drink a few litres of water, Gavin had made the catch (although I never actually saw him). Thankfully, he must also have been pretty wrecked as he stopped for much longer and I put good time into him on the run into Donegal (where he subsequently stopped, leaving me to push on into the night).
Due to the sleep rule, I had to stop at some point in the next 10 hours or so, but I was keen to continue riding while I felt pretty good. I also know I’m rubbish at riding in the early morning, so figured I’d time my three hours so I woke up with the dawn. This worked pretty well, as it meant by the time I was looking for a bivvy spot, I was in a small town with an open takeaway opposite a closed service station. I grabbed as much food as I could carry, pulled out the sleeping bag and settled down for a kip out of sight.
Waking up, I felt rough as hell. The takeaway hadn’t completely agreed with me and my cold was back with a vengeance. I freewheeled out of the town and rode very gently into the sunrise, stopping regularly to fight off the dozies and try to get my head back in the game. The faffing saw a trio of riders beginning to eat into my lead, creating a gruppetto of chasers behind my third place.
As the sun came up and the route leveled out, my power slowly came back and I started settling back into the groove. I also managed to track down some more beechams and fight the cold back into submission.
At my last stop before heading for Achill, a local on a bike with a tent and various other bits and pieces strapped to it flagged me down and asked if I was part of the race. He’d ridden with Bjorn earlier in the morning and was shocked by what we were doing. He’d just come across bikepacking and decided to give it a go for the weekend, strapping whatever kit he had to hand to his bike. He was a really nice guy and his enthusiasm was contagious. I set back out with renewed vigour.
By Achill, I was starting to suffer from chafing in my shorts. I’d sweated a lot over the past couple of days and salt deposits had built up and started rubbing against my skin like sandpaper. When I finally found a petrol station with a toilet, I found a fair amount of blood, did my best to clean out my shorts and picked up some sudocrem, which was liberally applied… and regularly topped up over the rest of the day.
It was tempting to change into my spare bibs, but I was intending to ride the full race and it was still quite early. The plan was to shower at CP2 and change them there, after a short sleep.
On the way out of Achill, I saw Pawel and Karen heading in and gave both a cheer. He didn’t have a working tracker at the time, but based on relative timings, I should also have passed Brendan somewhere around here.
With my family jewels chafed and the temperature remaining high, I took the run in to CP2 pretty steady and was almost disappointed to find that the road went through the hills, rather than over them.
Worth it though for the fjord. What a stunning location for a control.
I remembered reading that there was no food at the control, so stopped at a pub on the way up and grabbed a cheeky drink and some supplies for later. I set off with an ice cream and was stopped by an American couple who said they’d seen Bjorn and Berndt and didn’t understand why I was riding along eating an ice cream when it’s supposed to be a race. Oops!
At the control, I was given a warm welcome by Adrian and Jack, who made me question my resolve not to race. Adrian felt I was dragging the chase around and animating the race and I felt pretty guilty telling him I wasn’t really feeling it. I also knew Karen was right behind me and told Adrian to tell her I wanted he to take third, but that I wasn’t going to make it easy for her. She was riding an incredible race and would have been fully deserving of third overall, but had her own setbacks to deal with as the race continued.
I ate, grabbed a shower and threw myself in a bed, with an alarm set for 3 hours (when the next riders were due to arrive). Somehow, I (and everyone else in the room) slept through the alarm and I woke up a few hours later than intended.
I felt awful – my joints hurt so much I could barely walk and my head was so bad it took me about an hour to track down all my kit and work out what I needed to do to get back on the bike. I delayed leaving and lay on a comfy sofa eating and waiting for my body to come back to life.
Three riders went off down the road and I eventually decided I had to get back out there and stop ceding places. It took me four attempts to clip in and get the bike rolling in the car park and I was barely moving all morning, doing just about enough to hold time against the riders down the road, but nothing more.
As the sun came up, my legs began to come back and I decided to start trying to close the gap and make things more interesting.
I was out of the saddle, pushing hard over climbs and then down on the extensions on the flats pushing 20mph+ and before long the first rider was within catching distance. I eventually found him stood at the side of the road, gave him a cheer as I went past and concentrated on reeling Pawel in next.
The tracker suggested I was right on top of him, but it took a while before he came into sight. He was on his bike and looked to be enjoying a second breakfast, so I passed wide and fast, giving him a quick ‘allez, allez, allez’ on the way past… he didn’t seem too impressed!
Just one more rider to catch now. I stayed locked into the extensions, pushing hard for Galway and taking huge chunks of time out of Brendan. Eventually my dot overtook Brendans and I celebrated with a quick stop behind a bush to reapply sudocrem. By the time I had finished, Brendan’s dot had reappeared a good 10km down the road. Bugger. Oh well, time to get back on it.
I spent the rest of the day pushing just as hard as I had in the morning, but being unable to reel him in. On the long coastal roads, I had a full view for miles, but no sign of any riders. My motivation was fading fast and when we started hitting the steep climbs up to the Cliffs of Moher I decided to knock it on its head and calm back down. I was feeling pretty rough and hadn’t eaten much yet, so stopped at the next petrol station for a proper feed.
Despite bimbling around, Brendan didn’t extend his lead and when I got back on the bike there was a consistent gap for the entire run into the ferry. I did some simple calculations and worked out that even if I pushed hard, I wouldn’t be able to get the same ferry, so was better off taking it really easy and aiming to arrive just before the next one.
The plan worked perfectly and I arrived with just enough time to grab some food and drink before spending the trip over chatting to Rich Marshall. I also had a look at the tracker and saw Brendan had stopped just past the ferry terminal, so I was once again going to be right on top of him.
On the far shore, I stopped for a while to pull myself together and then set off at breakneck pace to finally close that gap. I scored a top 10 up a steep climb, despite the 1,000+km in my legs, 15kg bike + kit, etc., and was averaging not far off my FTP, but it still wasn’t enough. Worse, I was now coughing so hard I was weaving all over the road and my head was a total wreck. I couldn’t concentrate and was beginning to ride in a way that felt pretty dangerous. I actually coughed so hard I came off the road and landed in someone’s front garden. I lay down for an hour or two and contemplated what to do.
The sensible choice was a B&B and it looked like there were a few just up the road at Ballyheigue. I rolled down the road ridiculously slowly, found a B&B with a room and retired to the pub for double dinner and a cheeky pint… after which I was out for the count.
I wheeled the bike out onto the road, but couldn’t lift my leg over the frame. Eventually I tilted the frame right down and forced my leg over, clipped in and tried to pedal. Nothing happened. I literally couldn’t turn the pedals, could barely support my upper body and was still coughing violently.
I half climbed, half fell off the bike, sat down on a park bench and tried to decide what to do. It didn’t take long. My race was over. I sent out a defeated tweet, messaged Adrian and lay down on the bench to get some more sleep.
I kept hoping that as the day went on I would start feeling better and be able to ride, but it just wasn’t going to happen. Adrian eventually picked me up in the afternoon and tried to talk me into getting back on the bike… I was even offered a lift back to Ballyheigue the following day if I woke up feeling better. So many hopes to cling on to! It wasn’t going to happen though – I woke up just as messed up the following morning and headed straight for the airport.
It’s taken about three weeks to start feeling human again. Lesson learned from next time – when Josh Ibbett tweets that he has a virus, so isn’t racing, pay attention and copy what the experienced guys do!