Gran Fondo Northern Ireland 2017
My (not allowed to say the anymore!) wife is from Northern Ireland. More specifically a town next to the Mournes. A mountain range found in the south east corner of the country full of hidden lakes and valleys. At the bottom of her family's home, the River Bann runs past which has made it's way down from the Mournes. It really is a beautiful part of the world here. So when the Giro D'Italia began in Belfast a few years ago and as past of the legacy of this famous race, Northern Ireland was to host a closed road sportive beginning from Belfast looping the Mournes then heading back to the capital. Straight away, this was on our cycling bucket list. The sentimental value was the main reason. We had got engaged to our wonderful wife in the forest of Tollymore and then married in the neighbouring Hilltown. The mountains, a closed road sportive, passing personal landmarks, all we needed now was a riding buddy. Someone who is punctual, someone who can keep the pace, someone who you would be happy to spend a 1000 days in a dark room with because you know you would just get on, someone who is the master of changing handlebar tape...Ali didn't fit any of this criteria but he could get the time of work so he would do!
This epic journey began late 2016 when we both set ourselves a goal to do something different for the following year. Cycling abroad had been discussed but I pushed for us to do this. It was close enough to travel so the logistics wasn't a pain, it was a closed road sportive and it was a challenging route. The entry fee I believe was £50-60 from what we can remember but this included an official Castelli journey for the ride which turned out to be a great bit of apparel. So how would we get there? It's only across the Irish Sea and the idea of flying was discussed but after reading so many stories of people's bikes being totalled or as worse lost, didn't fancy that. Plus, once we touched down in Ireland, we would be a bit stuck of getting around (yes, we have bikes but you should of seen the amount of food Ali had brought along!). So we would hire a small van which turned out to be pretty cheap in comparison of flying. It cost roughly £120 for the 3 days hire including petrol. We would share the driving duties as it would be a good 11 hour drive up to Stranraer because the van would cost more if we had crossed into an EU country (bloody Brexit!).
So early Friday morning, we picked up the van from Heathrow, threw the bikes and kit for the weekend and set off on our adventure. I took the first post as driver mostly because I knew where we were going. Ali had his unlimited data ready to spin the music off iTunes (just don't ask him how much his phone bill is each month!). Now Ali's taste in music is like a bag of revels, everyone loves a caramel or the peanut ones but somewhere you know there's a coffee one lurking in the dark corners about to spring it's bitter taste onto your tongue resulting in a lot of retching! He went from some funky electronic spin music to Kenny Rodgers! Wtf?!! 'Tonight Matthew, I want to be every country singer all rolled into one!' And when I gave him the face of disapproval, his reaction was like I just shat on his bike! Payback would be mine as further in the journey, I whipped out my old iTouch which had a DJ app where you can upload your music so you can dabble in a bit of mixing and scratching! Cue Linkin Park being mixed with Starship being mixed with Michael Jackson being mixed with Limp Bizkit! We didn't talk for a while after this...
After a scenic drive through the Lake District and a ferry crossing full of a very loud group of school children (nothing wrong with that, just not what we needed after a mammoth drive!), we made the short journey from the port of Belfast to a little community nestled next to the UK's largest lake of Lough Neagh. Our lovely sister in law had kindly agreed to put Ali and I up for a few nights. Hannah and Greg follow in their families footsteps as their hospitality was second to none. We had a theory that they were using us as a guinea pig for a bit of Air BnBing!
We conked out for the night but awoke to a smell of a fry up (Mrs Notinthepeloton, you taking note here?!). Our Saturday was a prep day which included going up to Stormont to collect our race numbers and jersey which we had ordered with the entry. We were greeted by a small cluster of food stalls and tents but the organisation for signing in was quite impressive although there was a huge queue which we had assumed was for late entries. Before we left, we spotted a chance to grab a photo opportunity with a replica of the Giro trophy guarded by a lonely steward who ended up being everyone's photographer, it kinda felt he was becoming annoyed at all the requests!
I wanted to show Ali the gems of the Mournes and do a little recon of the route. So we had a little walk on the beach at Murlough Bay which has one of the best views around of the Mournes. Think Ali was impressed but his face dropped a little when we drove up the S to Spelga Dam. I don't think he realised how long the climb was and we both discussed our tactics for this ascent, Ali would just bomb ahead and like the tortoise, I would plod along! The rest of the day was filled with tuning up the bikes which included Ali making a massive mess of his new bartape. I lent a hand by changing his tube as he got a puncture on his way to mine the day before. I was a bit concerned that he has never replaced a tube, this is something we still need to see! Even more worringly was Ali's obsessions with Hannah and Greg's dog Parker, a lovely but lively chocolate labrador, everytime they played together, Parker would show Ali his favourite lipstick. That night, Ali wanted to let Parker in to sleep next to him, we warned him we would call the RSPCA on him if he didn't control his emotions...
A quick check that Ali hadn't snuck in Parker in the middle of the night and we were ready to roll. It was an early start and I was slightly worried about parking. We had passed quite a few riders as we were getting closer to Stormont and after a van check by security (it is the home of the Nothern Ireland Assembly after all!), we easily found a space and went through our pre-ride rituals. Ali was his bubbly self, he used to the real early get ups from his day job. It was a fresh but stunning morning. Now I knew it's Ireland and the weather can turn in an instant but we opted just to go for arm warmers and oversocks. Ali had the whole works, underlayer, rain jacket, gas stove, sleeping bag, he was ready to camp in the Mournes! One of us would be laughing at the end...
Rolling up to the start, the organisers had called for faster riders to go near the front. There wasn't waves as you get with other major sportives, it was just one huge rollout. 7am was the time given to everyone to be ready, Ali was eager to go up the front but I had argued just to hold back and we would pass slower riders. I always go into an event with a mindset of finishing it, we were not at the level where we can pose the question can you finish it well? So the peloton rolled out under the pink inflatable banner lead by a police escort. Some locals were up early to give everyone a wave passing through and so it began. You can't describe the surrealism of riding on closed roads. You have the whole road to yourself and naturally everyone was keeping left. Straight away I thought why? Grab the opportunity of being a rebel and ride against traffic! So I brought Ali up the outside (he was sucking my wheel already!) and we began to pass groups. For those who have not ridden in a large group before, drafting comes into play on a large scale. Put yourself in the middle of a group and you're protected from most things wind related. The thing you have to watch out for are potholes and others swerving around and in between. We noticed there were quite a few clubs that had entered and were forming their own chaingang and would squeeze through some gaps which weren't always there. Fortunately, it all felt quite safe. The levels of riders were definitely a standard higher than I've seen on past sportives which does make it safer in our opinion. You will get better and more experienced bike handlers and although we are not at all putting off novices from entering any event because everyone needs to get experienced somewhere, it just made riding in large groups and trains a lot safer. I think a few independent riders noticed myself and Ali riding past some groups and tagged along. A quick look back and we had about 15 riders on our tail. I wanted to take it easy as usual but had a reputation to uphold now as a domestique for the rest of the squad!
The first 25 miles were undulating but because everyone was still together, it didn't feel like we were exerting much energy but the first
major climb of the day was approaching. Before this was tackled though, we did pass a rider who's chain had snapped. That's just extremely bad luck and doubted he would be able to rejoin again. At the same time, everyone's ears had piped up like a pack of guard dogs. Some crazy fella had brought a mini sound box along with him and was blasting out some classic rock. Think this gave everyone motivation to push on further as not to be stuck by the mobile rock festival! We would be climbing Slieve Croob twice this day and turning into the climb, you could see the road rise up in the distance with your usual problem at this point in any major sportive...bottlenecking! Straight away, we all knew it was going to be likely that we would be clipping out and walking. Myself and Ali did try to ride through but I had got caught behind someone who decided they couldn't climb it and myself and many other managed to clip out before we decked it onto the verge! So a walk to the crest of the road but as the riders started to disperse and find somewhere safe to clip back in, the road snaked off again. The climb was not over. I had spotted Ali in the distance and found a cadence my legs thanked me for. I managed to catch up with Ali and pass as he was held up on the other side of the road. The view coming over the actual top was stunning. The landscape in this part of the world is underestimated. Croob itself is not classed as the Mournes, it's a small collective of peaks in the middle of County Down but it's beauty was still impressive.
I had lost Ali for a few minutes and because he wasn't answering his phone, a thought did cross into my mind that I wouldn't see him now until the finish! But fortunately/unfortunately, we grouped back together and set off to our next landmark, my wife's hometown of Rathriland. The plan was for me to ring Mrs Notinthepeloton so she could venture out and we could meet up in the town. Now, I don't know how long it takes to get between towns because of the topography and being on a bike, it's difficult to calculate because you don't know what hidden climbs are there in between. So I rang the wife after Croob and told her to start making her way. Rathriland is a little town nestled on top of a hill which you can see from miles away due to it's old school water tower. The climb is short but very steep and I showed Ali this the day before so when everyone started to push squares, we knew what gear to be in and where to push. As we passed into the town, my eyes were on the hunt for our wife but she was no where to be seen. Our heart sank! She had left just before because she thought she had missed us. No worries then, I'll just ring her at the feed stop in Hilltown...
Oh...my...What the hell have we rolled up to?1 Quite possibly the worst feed/drink stop we have ever come across. Just a few marquees were put up offering a bottle of water. The bars and bananas that were on offer were all gone! The car park itself was littered with rubbish everywhere. It was a really sad sight. Me and Ali looked eachother thinking who has organised this?! It was a shambles and put a damper on where we were, this was the town we became married in, not the memory we wanted to take away with us. We had a few gels on us and managed to top up the bottles with water but riders were still streaming in oblivious as to what they would be presented with. To make matters worse, I had spotted the broom wagon. Now on the site, it did clearly state cut off times for some of the road closures, I guess they were only licensed to have the route closed to traffic for so long. So just as we rolled out and about to head towards another climb in the Rostrevor direction, the police and marshalls had closed off the junction for this section and directed everyone towards Spelga Dam. One guy who was so irate threw his race number at the marshalls and pushed past them. He had a point because I couldn't see how they could not let people choose to ride on if they wanted to. Whats stopping non-event riders cycling down there? It was now open to motorists so surely the risk is on the rider rather than the organisers. Some had managed to squeeze their way through the barricade but Ali said let's just cycle on to Spelga. Annoyance and frustration was in the air, everyone we rode with couldn't understand why they couldn't let people ride on. So everyone from this point on and there were hundreds would have an asterix above their ride as in 'not fully completed'!
On the plus side, I had managed to ring the wife at the feed stop and told her we were heading towards Spelga and to wait. But once again, she gave up early and our heart had been broken twice! (Hope you're reading this love!). So Spelga was on the horizon, Ali had set out his gameplan and I would watch from afar. It was all about the S bend, get past that and it's a constant grind all the way up. Shame we couldn't cycle up it backwards as the view behind us was another stunning one. At this point of the ride, my bike starting to make a grinding noise from the rear when we had to push in a big gear so there was no need to ask others to move over, they could hear us coming! Unlike the first climb, riders were spread all over which meant there was safe gaps to pass through and we kept to the right of the road as again, naturally most people chose to ride on the left. I had spotted Ali up ahead. He had a roughly 50m advantage on me when he bolted off at the start so he started to be my marker and we were gradually reeling him in. We were about 2/3rds up when we caught up to his wheel but we chose to sail by. All I heard was 'Go on Benny!'. The gradient kicked again into the teens just before the small house by the dam's wall and most of us were beginning to push squares. Ali dug deep and caught up and we reached the reservoir together. We pulled over and I think Ali knew he was in the red zone. The climb though kept on going although the gradient had levelled out. We would reach a height in excess of 1200ft which made it one of the biggest climbs we've done. Remember we are surrounded by the Surrey hills so are limited as to what height we can climb to.
With that over, it was onto the long descent down into Bryansford and past another personal landmark of ours. Tollymore Forest was not just the setting for Game of Thrones, but also for the life changing moment of when we asked Mrs Notinthepeloton to marry us. So you could see how badly we wanted to do this ride for so long. The descent was fast and our forearms were taking some strain for it. The road surfaces weren't too bad, just a bit uneven in places. When the roads would bend right, we would take the shortest route like the pros would but think some forgot it was a closed road sportive and stuck to the left. But the road started to rise again up to Castlewellan, home of a great maze if you're ever in the area. Castlewellan had a few more spectators around encouraging the riders through and no matter what people say, it does help immensely. They didn't have to take time out of their day (although they might have been locked in because of the closed roads!) to cheer the riders on so we really appreciated it. It wasn't before long that we realised we were greeted with the final major climb of the day, a reverse ascent of Slieve Croob. This side wasn't as steep but just as long. The fields were so green and untouched, it was like cycling into someone's pristine back garden. Just as everyone was getting into a rhythm, there were signs for the second feed stop. Personally, this wasn't needed here. You know the legs were going to get stiff. But we decided to stop and see if there was anything better on offer. It was only a slight improvement. I think the banana delivery must of been off loaded here because there was plenty of them. There was also on offer some bar which I can't remember the brand but it wasn't very nice, straight into the bin that one went. I also took the opportunity to ring my wife again to tell it was over...I mean the feed stop was over, not us! She was flying back to London that evening so it was a real shame we didn't get to see each other on the ride but ho hey! (wedding song!).
Legs felt heavy to get going again and this way over Croob wasn't that hard but we now had 65 miles in the legs and I started to feel a twinge in my right knee. Great! I had to ask Ali to drop the pace off a little just so I could spin an easier gear. I thought of our good compatriot Richard here when his knee went on Whitedown on The One v2.0. My focus now was to manage this and not to over push. Well after the most boring section of the route where the route was just rolling up and down for a good 15 miles (that's no exaggeration!), we started to feel the road decline in gradient and naturally the pace picked up. About 5 of us created a group all tucked into each other's wheel with me and Ali doing turns on the front. No one came through to offer a wind break for us so telepathically, we both raised the pace again to drop them. One by one, they died away and on my last turn, I turned around and I had dropped Ali too. I thought I was the one with the dodgy knee!
Coming up to Stormont, Ali threw the idea of a sprint down the home straight. I wasn't too sure about my knee and how much I had left but when we turned into final road rising into the distance to the assembly building, I was sucked into Ali's little game. Like a scene out of a sprint track event, Ali slalomed across the road and I kept a couple of metres from his wheel. When he pulled to the right, I kicked. I think the adrenaline took over because the barriers and people cheering took over the background although it was all a blur because of what was at stake! I could feel him coming on the right but I managed to keep the cadence high focusing on my calves doing the work rather than the quads in the hope that the knees would get an easier ride in. The finishing line came and I threw the bike forward like Cav and laughed, a good little end to a great ride!
We collected our medals and proceeded to collect our free pasta from the base area. Think it was free for a reason. Wasn't expecting gourmet but a bit of sauce and a generous serving would of been appreciated. Just as we put our feet up inside the marquee with a well deserved beer, the heavens had opened and we both looked each other with a touch of luck! We avoided a good old Irish soaking! After picking up a t-shirt for the wife and some goodies for Hannah and Greg to say thanks for hosting, we made our way back towards Lough Neagh with our legs still in tact. That night was spent with a Friar Tucks (if you're Norn Irish, you'll know!) and saying his last goodbyes to Parker (he has asked about him lately!). The drive back turned out to be not bad which included a stop off to see Ali's Dad in the North where a Scottish sausage bap was waiting for us. The drive from Scotland was mostly spent in the rain with Ali snoring. He took over after the M6 toll and after dropping him home somewhere near Balham (I can't remember, I was shattered at this point!), it was finally my turn to go home.
That was some weekend. So much travelling but very much worth it. I think with events like this you have to overlook the negative parts. The feed stops were a shambles, never say anything like this but who ever organised that part of the event should be ashamed. Compare it to when we did the London Revolution with a similar number of riders on route not closed to traffic, it fails big time in comparison. At that event, you were given plenty of bars, fruit, snacks and sandwiches with different fillings. It's the little things on events which do go a long way. The route itself was stunning, the climbs were a good test and having the experience of having the roads all to yourself, can't beat it, you do feel like a pro now and then! We just hope other Gran Fondos are organised a little better and with a bit more of a spark, the London Revolution has the right idea about turning the cycle into a little festival, this felt it was thrown together to tick boxes. It just felt a little bit underwhelming for what we expected. The broom wagon was unfortunate and although we can see why they were closing off the junction to Rostrevor, it didn't give the majority of riders a chance to complete what they had set out to do. Oh, and the official photography, just check out Ali's picture! What's missing is the great backdrop behind! Who wants a picture of yourself half behind another rider with a verge as the background?! Cant fault the jersey though, we still wear it on our long rides and will stay with us permanently in our collection. Ali, for all his wind ups and Parker loving, was a great riding buddy as always, can never get bored on a ride with him and I like to think we have similar strengths in our cycling attributes so we are always able to push each other a little further so thanks son for a great weekend. Now, do you want to give Hannah and Greg their dog back?!!!
*slight confession here, we would of had a great video from the GoPro to share with you but numnutt here had the camera pointing down on my chest harness for the entire ride so unless you want to see my handlebars for 6 hours, it's in the bin!
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them”