An unexpected start!
I had never ever considered riding the Tour de Munster. I have been aware of the event for a number of years and I’ve always admired the cyclists that participate. (I still do!) I had too much respect for the event to think I could ever ride, let alone finish it. I’ve been cycling all my life, and I have an understanding of what 600km (actually it proved to be 618km) in four days is like. I’ve done six Maracycles back in the day when it used to be Dublin-Belfast-Dublin, 200 miles in two days, and I know how I used to feel after the second day, very happy, but definitely not to sit on the bike again on a third or fourth day! And the Maracycle is flat! The Tour de Munster is two of those Maracycles, back-to-back, over some of the highest roads in Munster. That’s just a different level.
On Monday 10th August I emailed Phil and Vinnie to wish them well on the Tour and to donate a few bob to the cause. I had first met the two lads on the Stephen Roche Tour de Cure 200km sportive in May this year. We met on the climb of the Vee that day after 50km and ended up going the rest of the route together, on the way gathering more and more company, including notably Louise, who teamed up with us in Clonmel. We had a great day that day, with Vinnie doing a lot of the driving in front. An email flashed back within minutes from Phil saying there might be a place if I was interested and he would ask Paul at the final training run that night. Within hours I had permission from home to disappear for four days, and an invitation from Paul to ride the Tour. The nervous energy started to flow and I was buzzed about the whole thing. I’d never done this kind of distance ever in four days, even in my twenties, when I considered myself a fairly decent cyclist. I flashed off a text to one of my cycling pals for his opinion – he immediately came back with “are you really sure you want to do this?”. Of course, he likes three hour races, whereas I’m more a distance man. I had done no training with the Tour de Munster crew in 2009, but I was aware of the training log, the kind of overall distance people had in their legs and the average speeds. At that point, independent of the Tour training, I had 2,200km for the year at an average of just over 25kmph, a good proportion of that solo, so I was there or thereabouts in terms of preparation. I didn’t think anymore about it, I was going for it.
Thursday – Stage One: Cork to Killaloe, 179.46km, 6hr 25min, 27.9km average speed.
The Tour began at Silversprings Hotel on Thursday morning. It was great to meet a few of the cyclists at breakfast before we headed off. I met Phil and Vinnie, and Micheal Corkery, who gave me an official TdM jersey – I had been too late with my entry to be guaranteed one. I felt part of the team now! Sean Kelly walked in for breakfast. Out with the camera. Incredible. To me, Sean is Ireland’s greatest sportsman ever, in any sport. He dominated professional cycling in the early-mid 80s like nobody else. He was the world no.1 ranked rider for 5 years in a row, which I don’t believe anyone has ever emulated since. Only four other professional cyclists have won more races than Sean in their careers. Outside of his golden years, the other years of his long career were very fruitful too, including his breathtaking Milan–San Remo victory in 1992. A living legend, and we get to ride with him for four days! Where would you get an opportunity like that? What a privilege.
We rolled out as a group into town to the City Hall for the speeches and photos, and to meet the team of volunteer collectors and basket shakers who would collect from the public in the various towns along the route. After a ceremonial lap of Anglesea St and the City Hall, we were finally off. The weather was sunny, the spirits were good, the legs were strong.
One of the challenges for me was not knowing too many people starting out on the Tour. I knew Phil and Vinnie, and Paul of course, I’d been paced by Louise on the Tour de Cure up the Mountain Road out of Clonmel in May, and I’d had some email exchanges with Dec and Fionn about accommodation in the days leading up to the Tour, but that was about it. So almost all of the people were new to me. I had to concentrate to remember the names as some introductions were made en route to Rathcormac, the first coffee stop of the Tour after 32km. Only 590km to go! We rolled on into Fermoy, out the other side and on to Lismore.
The first climb of the Tour was coming at The Vee, and my first hammer-drop experience. Now I’m not a total novice at this cycling lark, and I know how to keep safe. I also had a game plan, which was to ride in the first twenty riders all day in order to conserve energy and to minimise the risk of an accident. Up toward the front there is less acceleration and deceleration, something which can be a factor at the rear of a long line of cyclists. That kind of thing saps your energy. The strategy was working very well and I had good legs as we turned north up the climb. Paul called the hammer drop 10km from the top, a long one. I decided I may as well get up the road so I hit the pedals for a few km’s and eventually settled into a steady tempo, letting the hotter action go up the road ahead. I was flagging a little about 3km from the top when Mick Howard came up behind and linked up with me. Mick made the pace and I sat on to the top. First climb down, probably top 25 over the top, feeling great. I had been worried about holding everyone up on the ascents, as climbing is not normally my forte. One of the highlights of the day for me was flaking down the other side into Clogheen with Sean Kelly, Gerry Murray and Scott McDonald at 65kmph. With 2km to go my left calf muscle started to cramp so I could push only with one leg and inevitably I slowed. I noticed Eileen passing me and I eased up and cruised into Clogheen to the shop stop, where I met a number of others including Dave and Catherine.
The lunch break in Cahir dragged on a bit, and is probably best forgotten but we got fed in the end! I met Raedi, Margaret and David the Belgian lad there. David was on a borrowed road bike, being a mountain biker. Brave man! Margaret was doing the event as part of her army training, and Raedi was riding her second Tour (hope I’m right and it’s not more!). We had 80km left to get to Killaloe and I was still feeling strong. Great. The big train powered along the roads of Tipperary and into Limerick, kept safe by the careful attention of the Garda outriders. One stop had to be made at a lay-by to let the two-mile vehicle tailback pass the Tour. We certainly had priority on the roads on that day, and I’m sure a lot of motorists weren’t as happy on the roads as we were. The scone stop at Boher was first-class, lovely scones and coffee, and only 30km to go.
As we rolled, again I tried to stay up towards the front, and conserve energy for the unknown tests that would come over the next few days. I’ve had the experience of feeling extremely good before on the bike, burning up a stretch of road, and finding that feeling can disappear very quickly! There’s little room for heroics on the Tour de Munster. However, when we got to Birdhill with about 6km to go the pace increased significantly and lots of riders were moving towards the front. 6k to go – I thought what the hell – I’m not going to fade now. I went with the pace, in excess of 45kmph average, for 3 or 4km and we got into Ballina before long. Everyone was happy and I think it was Dave who took the stage (Phil was looking good for a long while) but really it wasn’t contested too strongly. I was thrilled to be right there at the end of a 180km ride, and still having good legs. Maybe my 300km in a day ambition can be realised sometime.
The Lakeside Hotel was great. Despite a reminder, I’d forgotten my togs, so I had to settle for a good soak in the shower in the leisure centre. Great to get cleaned up. I was rooming with Mark Winning (lots of Marks on this Tour) and we chatted about the day and what lay ahead. At dinner later I met Eva, John Slattery, Kevin, John Kelly and Mick Howard and Will. Lovely food and a few scoops as well in great company. We were all very warm in the dining room so some of us headed outside after dinner. There Catherine, Dave, Mike and I had great amusement watching the traffic lights on the bridge between Co. Clare and Co. Tipp. [You had to be there to appreciate this]. We must have been watching them for half-an-hour before they went green. Nobody going from Clare to Tipp that night. Absolutely fascinating. The Coronas were good too; the alcohol must have been having a stronger than normal effect on dehydrated bodies. We were convinced nobody in the bar was having as much fun as we were. Louise joined us but I’m not sure if she was treated to a green light display!
And so to bed. No sleep till at least 4:30am as the wedding crowd spent hours singing in the courtyard – I think I know all the words to Raglan Road by now!
Friday – Stage Two: Killaloe – Castlegregory, 150.77km, 5hr 51min, 25.7 kmph average.
Stage two was supposed to be the easy day by my analysis, no real climbing and really just a transitional stage to get the group into Kerry safely to tackle the Alpine third stage on Saturday. The weather wasn’t as good as the first day but it was still reasonably fine. As it turned out, the weather didn’t co-operate with the Tour for the whole day, and presented a challenging finish to the stage.
At the start, Paul split the peloton into four groups to minimise traffic disruption for this stage. I was in Group 2, led by Dave McCormack. Sean Kelly was in our group too, along with Louise, Ray, David, Donal, Micheal Corkery, Paul Sheehan, John Kelly, and Brian among others. I can’t remember all the names, sorry lads!
I got my first proper opportunity to talk to Sean Kelly on the road to Limerick. What do you say when you meet your hero? I was slightly dumbstruck I have to admit. I’m sure he has been asked the same questions thousands of times over the years. What was clear was that he has no airs and graces about him and was just trying to be like anyone else on the Tour, riding and enjoying it. His bike handling was impressive, no problem changing clothes on the run for example. He was also able to carry out some more routine servicing from the bike, which required everyone else to stop and line up against the ditch. I’ll never master that. I didn’t see it, but there’s a story about him flying along in the group, leaning over to pick a stick up from the middle of the road, storing it in his jersey, a few hundred metres later bending down again to grab a stone from the road, taking out the stick, volleying on the stone and sending it over the bar of a nearby GAA pitch. I wouldn’t say there’s much exaggeration.
After a brief stop at Paul’s homeplace outside the city to say hello to his parents, and a collection stop in Limerick city, we rolled on out through Adare, along the Rathkeale bypass, Newcastlewest and towards Templeglantine for lunch. Just before Templeglantine there was a hammer drop on the climb – again my strategy of going with the speedy gang was applied and I was able to kick up the road for a good bit of it, letting the business end of the ‘race’ off as we approached the top, riding tempo, and then tearing it down the other side to lunch. Great buzz. It was good to see some of the heavy hitters not too far away from me too.
Onwards after lunch through Abbeyfeale and to another hammer drop speedfest on the climb before Castleisland. I felt OK to go again, the surface was good and the incline not too severe. I teamed up with Mick Howard again a few km from the top. Even though the top was in sight Mick knew it was further than you would think, so we paced it out together doing bit and bit for 200m turns. We linked up with Mark O’Donohoe at the top and one or two others and screamed down into Castleisland at full tilt. A lovely descent. After a quick stop we processed the short hop to Tralee as the clouds gathered. We were going to get wet today. As we left Tralee and turned west at Blennerville the heavens opened and an extremely strong crosswind blew the peloton sideways across the road anytime there was a gap in the ditch at the side of the road, which was offering some small protection. It was quite hairy at times, with those on the left hand side of the group bearing the full brunt of the conditions. I started to feel a little queasy and tired, perhaps as a result of not hydrating enough earlier – I had been finding the stage relatively easy earlier and as a result probably wasn’t taking proper care with the hydration. I found it difficult to find a rhythm in the group and was definitely suffering with 25km to go in the harsh conditions. I know the important thing at times like this is not to panic. I was better off in the group than riding alone, so I sat in, drank half a bottle of liquid and hoped some kind of recovery would kick in before I had to do a turn at the front. Luckily after about 5km or so I was feeling a bit better and knew I’d survive to the finish. The whole group was absolutely soaked through and cold at the end in Castlegregory. Threw the bike into the shed and hopped on the bus to the B&B, The Shores, about 8km out the road towards the Conor Pass which was looming large in my mind by now. I was rooming with Phil, and Arthur and Mark O’Driscoll were also staying there. Arthur and Mark had a room in the eaves of the house and with his height Mark had serious difficulty getting into the ensuite!
After quick showers we bussed it into Castlegregory to The Ship Inn for dinner. Adi Roche joined the group and reminded us of why we were doing the Tour. Some wrenching photographs of kids who have had the surgery to deal with Chernobyl Heart were passed around as she spoke. A number of people had to get up and excuse themselves to go somewhere private to reflect, cry, whatever. It was tough stuff, especially for anyone with children, but inspiring at the same time. Adi’s pep talk came at the right time – we had all been drenched earlier that day, the prospect of another miserable and hard day on Saturday was looming – it was still lashing as we ate – but having seen the photos and listened to the message what we had to face was mild in reality. I ate with Phil, Arthur and Mark and we had a great laugh at the table. Not being familiar with everyone mentioned in the stories that were being told I listened and took in the flavour of this great event, the lore and the craic of previous years that was related. Arthur held court on racing tactics too, and Mark explained how he’d never been beaten yet on a descent (although he did acknowledge the possibility that Sean might do it on this Tour)!
We were joined later by Catherine and Eileen and the craic factor went up a ‘notch’ [aside: when I first heard ‘notch’ called in the group I was up the front and I thought it meant push it out a bit more, which I did, to much annoyance! I know now of course it means to ease off a bit, sorry folks]. I was getting tired, and being nervous of the Conor Pass the next day I decided to call it a night just after midnight so I took a taxi back to the B&B where I had the best night’s sleep ever. Well, until Phil came in about 2am and switched on the light (I’m joking Phil) ;-)) The rain was still belting off the dormer window in the ensuite and it didn’t seem possible that we would sit on the bikes the next day.
Saturday – Stage Three: Castlegregory – Lauragh, 147.42km, 5hr 39min, 26.0kmph average.
Awoke to The Buggles ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ on Phil’s ipod. Cool. Looked out the window – the sun was shining. Yes!!! Downstairs to the most wonderful breakfast ever, prepared by Annette, the lady of the house. She had also washed and dried our gear and had it ready for us when we were going. The Shores comes with my Highly Recommended stamp as a top place to stay if you’re touring in the area.
Today was the ‘jewel in the crown’ stage of the Tour. An alpine profile, reasonably long too, and it would certainly ask some questions of the legs. The entire stage is in Co. Kerry, the only stage of the Tour to only feature one county.
Bus back to Castlegregory to grab the bikes. Dave had broken his pedal and looked like he was in trouble for the Conor. Emergency plans started to be called in and a new bike was found somewhere for him to ride.
We were splitting into two groups for the Conor Pass, with a plan to regroup in Dingle. The first group were going off half-an-hour before the second group, who were the hammer drop merchants. I’d never ridden the Conor Pass before and I’d studied the profile on mapmyride, knowing the kick up was coming towards the top. I know my limits, and 10% climbs that go on for 5km are beyond me if I’m racing up. I live at 80m elevation, and that 80m rises up from more-or-less sea-level in about 800m, so I know what 10% feels like, and I don’t like it at the end of most of my rides. So if I don’t like 10% for 800m, imagine what 10% for a good few km feels like.
The Conor Pass in profile: 330m of ascent in 5km
I was sensible and decided to go with the first group rather than attempt the impossible. The pace was nice and steady (and brisk enough too) out the road and we hit the climb proper after twenty minutes or so. After we’d climbed for a km or two Paul allowed anyone that felt like it to ride off the front at their own tempo. I had some strength so I went with a small group that accelerated a little off the front. The group fragmented a little and within a km we were all more or less riding our own pace. I was enjoying it, getting up there slowly, but I knew I’d make it. Eventually I topped out, 408m elevation, delighted. The legs never gave up. The average speed by the top was 15.4kmph for the first 17km of the stage.
I stopped and took out the camera to get some shots of the race coming up behind. Very impressive power being demonstrated on the high slopes by the likes of Paul Sheehan who took the KOM, and those coming up behind too. Sean Kelly was third at a canter. I’d love to be able to climb the heavy inclines at serious pace, but one step at a time, I’ll have lose a good few kg’s to make it more possible … but it is possible. Last year I was over 7kg heavier than I am now, and my hill climbing has improved substantially as a result. Watch out guys, I hope to contest this big one next year!!!
Beautiful descent into Dingle and after a stop on the outskirts of the town we took advantage of the tailwind and flew east along the peninsula towards Castlemaine, making huge progress. The weather had improved substantially too, the day was glorious now. Speed was rarely less than 30kmph.
Stop in the petrol station in Milltown. Got my photo taken with Phil Liggett, another legend, who had joined the tour today with his wife and was going to complete two stages. What an event this is. Back on for the short 17km ride into Killarney, where we did a lap of the town before lunch in the International Hotel, where we got a great reception from the management who made sure the service was brisk and attentive. Superb.
Back in the saddle and out along Lough Leane towards Molls Gap, the next bit of climbing to be done. Molls isn’t too bad, certainly not anything like the Conor. The steepness is there, but split into two shortish sections with a false flat in the middle, so when the inevitable hammer came down I reverted to my old plan of going with the speedy people for as long as I was comfortable, before setting into a rhythm below Ladies View. I met up with some of the Gaeltacht lads, particularly John Horgan, who I went to the top of Molls with and we descended together into a very busy Kenmare. Some guy passed us at speed on the descent (not from the TdM group), and some km later we picked him up again easily (Ha, who says this is not competitive, it felt good). The annual Horse Fair was on in Kenmare and the place was thronged. Hopefully the basket collectors cleaned up!
We turned on out the north of the Beara peninsula for a few kms. I was chatting with Mick Dineen who was the only other guy in the Tour riding a Cannondale (Am I right? There certainly weren’t too many). Felt really exclusive! I don’t know why there aren’t more in Ireland, they make great frames. Mine’s an aluminium CAAD9 R1000, and very comfortable for distance rides. Dave had said to me earlier the rarity is because Cannondale don’t allow them to be sold online. I’m considering an upgrade to a carbon steed next year, thinking of a Pinarello – didn’t see any of those on the Tour mind you, although there were some lovely Cervelos and some finely honed TT machines (which must have been uncomfortable over the distance).
We stopped at the diving centre where the whole group reconvened and took over the place for a coffee break. Some sight! The sun was strong now and conditions were beautiful for cycling. Only one climb to come, a deceptive 150m of ascent before Lauragh, less than 10km from the finish. I was delighted to find Phil Liggett on my wheel as I went up. That gave me an added boost, and we topped out together – I’d climbed the 4.5km long, 150m ascent (3.3% average gradient) at an average speed of 18.3kmph. For people who participate in regular Tour training sessions, it’s an ascent quite like the Airport Hill from the Cork side, but going on for another 1.5kms. I don’t normally go up that at 18kmph, so after 130km I was thrilled to be again in good form. The usual hell for leather descent at 50-60kmph ensued and I was once again delighted to be able to mix it with those mashing their pedals in their big rings and low sprockets. Before we knew it we were at The Sibin in Lauragh.
I reset my speedometer here at 147.5km for the day, but of course we had another 4.3km to ride out to the hostel at the lake, which I didn’t record. For a day with some great climbing, we’d averaged a not too shabby 26.0kmph.
I was staying at the Pier in Kilmacalogue with Arthur, Donal, Jane, Eva, Mick the yank, Mick Landers, Micheal Corkery, Paul Kelly, Brian and a few others. Quick showers again and the bus dropped us in for dinner in Josies. I’d heard a lot about Josies and the food and craic lived up to all expectation. Wonderful. How the place caters so well for the numbers I don’t know. Donal and Jane were telling us about their adventures in triathlon, swimming oddysseys in Switzerland and the like, and Mick was wowing us with stories of the fabled Marmotte and turbo training in the garage. What an amazing spread of activity and experience everyone has, all combining to make up what is a unique collective and very positive endeavour, the Tour de Munster. From not knowing many people a few days previously, I really was beginning to feel part of something now.
We had a great time in The Sibin later. I was talking to Mark Winning for a good while about cycle tours in the past we’d both done, to my climbing partner Mick Howard, to Paul Sheridan who was beaming and introduced me to Frances, the landlady, and then Paul took the opportunity to ask me if I liked writing – hence this piece – which I’m honoured to contribute. About 2am the bus arrived to take us back to Kilmacalogue. Up the stairs and into bed for another great night’s sleep.
Sunday – Stage Four: Lauragh – Cork, 140.16km, 5hrs 1min, 27.9kmph average.
Up at 8am for the final stage. I cannot believe the legs, they seem to be getting stronger day by day if anything. The weather gods are smiling again too. It’s just all good. Off to the start point at the hostel, where we found a lot of people had gone up the road before us to get the Healy Pass done. We set off, Dave, Vinnie, Catherine, Louise, Ray, John Slattery, Brian and a few more. John set a nice pace up the Pass, enough to open up the lungs, but not enough to make anyone struggle. We went over the top and into Co. Cork together and the very technical descent was next. I’d been over the Pass in May so I knew what to expect. Evidently though I hadn’t learned too much as I almost took the first hairpin too hot and just about got the bike around. I took it a bit more cleverly from there, but by the bottom in Adrigole my hands were tired from pulsing the brakes. On the Tour every part of your body gets a workout!
We regrouped in Adrigole and tore off with the tailwind for a few kms towards Glengarriff. About 6km from Glengarriff we reached the top of a drag and were presented with what I call ‘The Wall’ – I normally approach it coming west, where it’s an effort to get over, but this time we got to go down. It’s about a km long, and goes down at 10%. There was a big kick and down we went, letting gravity do some work once we’d reached 130rpm in our 53/12s (or those lucky enough to have 53/11s). When I looked at the clock later I’d set a new personal speed record on a bike of 75.4kmph (47mph). Comparing notes with Vinnie, he’d hit 74kmph so I was pleased with that! Someone said that Sean Kelly’s all time speed record on a bike is 124kmph (77mph). OMG.
The road continued flattish for a little while, and then dropped nicely again, and my fastest km of the whole Tour was set on this stretch approaching Glengarriff – 1km in 63 seconds. Flying. One of these days I’ll average over 60kmph for one whole km, but I’m not quite there yet. Almost though.
We had a great coffee stop in Glengarriff at the Maple Leaf Bar. Gerry Murray arrived in on his Giant, sans saddle. Turns out his aluminium saddle clamp had snapped off and he had ridden for over an hour out of the saddle. What perseverance. I hope he didn’t forget and try to sit down, it would have been an experience he’d have regretted! Philip Cassidy did a few laps of the town with a plastic patio chair as a saddle as a practical suggestion for Gerry.
I began to feel as if the four days had gone by very quickly and would have liked for there to have been even more to come.
The Pass of Keimaneigh cuts through the Shehy mountains which straddle Cork and Kerry. It’s a good drag for a good few kms. Group 2 was rolling nicely on the approach from Ballylickey, Pearsons Bridge and Kealkil. As we hit the climb proper Sean Kelly was up the front driving the pace. I was feeling very strong here and delighted with my form on what was the last climb of the Tour. Once over the top, a short speedy descent took us to the turn for Guagán Barra, the last mile to the lake and lunch. It took a little bit of effort over the two or three digs that had to be surmounted on the way to the lake.
Lunch was good, got another photo with Sean Kelly and took a few photos for others too. Everyone was feeling great about the Tour and the achievement of finishing. The sunny day and the tailwind was generating a huge feelgood factor in everyone.
It was a short hop after lunch to Ballingeary where there was a pipe band reception waiting in the village. The local Muscrai Gaeltacht area had a good number of cyclists represented in the peloton, including Francois Mousset, Mick Dineen, John Horgan, Carolyn O’Leary, Matt O’Leary, Tadhg O’Duinnin, Paudie Dineen and Connie Moynihan. The reception was a nice touch and I met with a good friend of mine there too, which was nice.
The run into Cork was nice and fast with the tailwind. The last stop was for “99s” in Lissarda and from there it was 35kmph home. Sean Kelly took a photo of me leading a section of the field coming in the south link road, which I’ll treasure. He also commented that he was impressed with my bike handling as I was texting and taking video from the bike in the last 20km. Sean and the ladies led the peloton into Silversprings, and suddenly the cycling was over!
618km, 22hrs 57mins, an overall average of 26.9kmph
The above is a summary of some of my experiences of the Tour, everyone will have their own, and there are many other moments I could recount too but I’ve gone on long enough! I certainly had a very fulfilling four days, it was wonderful to meet so many great people and new friends, spend time with my all-time sporting hero, and raise money for a very worthy charity. It’s days like these and events like these that life’s all about. Sincere thanks to Paul for the opportunity to ride in the Tour, to Dec and Fionn for fitting me into the logistical exercise with just two days to go, to Phil and Vinnie for the initial encouragement and assurance that I could do it – they had more confidence in me than I had myself at the start – and to everyone that I met along the way. Roll on 2010 – I’ll be first in line.