Wicklow 200 2014 – Sebastian Strikes Back

rain w200 2014

Readers of Dorneythoughts will have encountered already the story of our 2013 Wicklow 200 and Sebastian’s unfortunate demise right on the brink of finishing.

As 2014 rolled around there were ominous signs. Sebastian had armed himself with; heart rate monitor, cadence monitor, turbo trainer, and most importantly, an all carbon bike with Italian flag painted on the side. None of this boded well. I had since developed mild ashtma – the unfortunate product of a viral chest infection and stag weekend in Brussels – and had been off the bike for nearly two months. I noticed the return of a moderately sized belly.

When cycling I began to notice too Sebastian’s rear  wheel beginning to get away from me and to fade into the distance as I huffed and puffed up climbs. This was ominous as Sebastian is a competitive type and had long sworn vengeance on the Wicklow 200 and me in particular for the debacle of 2013. I steeled myself for a long arduous day of chasing him around Wicklow.

As it turned out though it was to prove as much a battle against the elements as with Sebastian.

One of the most difficult things about the W200 is actually its early start – 700 am in Greystones, meaning that most riders turn up knackered and sleep deprived even before it starts. So it was with us. We managed to get there in plenty of time this year, but as we did, the heavens opened. Great streaks of rain piled down the car windscreen as we pulled into the carpark, where hundreds of riders were milling around.

I went for a quick toilet break, hanging up my helmet on a coat hanger outside the cubicle but keeping on my little peaked cycling cap, which I would need to keep out the rain. After we registered and pulled away, joining hundreds of riders up the first climb of the day, the Long Hill, the rain eased off a little. During the climb (just a warm up for the real things later) I chatted with guys from the Dublin Fire Brigade cycling club. At the top the sun even came out for a moment, displaying my shadow beside me. I looked at it. Then I patted my head. I turned to Sebastian, ‘I’m not wearing my helmet’. ‘Oh yeah’ he said.

I’m not a helmet warrior, when commuting by bike (as opposed to ‘proper’ cycling) I usually don’t wear one. But (a) the rules of the W200 demand you must wear one at all times and (b) today of all days, with increasingly heavy rain and long dangerous descents it would’ve given me some peace of mind. Too late to turn back now though. I just had to put up with the odd steward shouting at me, ‘where’s your helmet man?’

helmetless w200

On the road to Laragh there was not rain. There was a deluge. We sloshed through rivers that flooded the road before taking the turn right up towards the 8km long climb of the Wicklow Gap. The previous year we had done this climb in baking sun. This year streams of water passed us going the other way as we ground up the Gap. Rainwater sluiced off our waterproof jackets. I say ‘we’ but in fact I saw Sebastian only for the first half of the climb. The previous year I had had to wait from him on this climb, but now he was dropping me. I just gritted my teeth and met him at the top.

Descending in the rain is not a joy. Particularly not when helmetless. Faster riders zipped past us, throwing up sprays of muddy water. About halfway down I realised my brakes were no longer really slowing me down and just let go. On the long flat stretch from Hollywood to Baltinglass I was for the first time, grateful for Sebastian’s increased prowess, chewing his back wheel as he rode me up to a big, fast group of club riders. I got a couple of funny looks. ‘Do you know you’re not wearing a helmet?’ Sigh. ‘You see what happened was…’

A soggy food stop in Baltinglass. So far so good. But the hard part starts now. The rolling countryside through Hacketsown and back towards Aughavanagh really saps you. Particularly in this weather. And I spend most of it chasing Sebastian, who seemed particularly keen to drop me. The hardest part of the W200 is a middle section with three climbs one after the other. First a 2km dash up Aughavanagh. Then a punishingly steep 5km ascent up Slieve Mann and then another hard 5km up the Shay Elliot (Drumgoff). Sebastian sprints up the first climb with me hanging on for dear life.

At Slieve Mann though, I had an unexpected revenge. At the bottom of this spiteful climb we stopped to take off our rain jackets – the rain had eased for now and we knew we were going to sweat. The process then begins of the long slow grind up the 10% gradient on road surfaces that feel like they’ve been bombed from the air. You have to just get into a rhythm and see it out. But after doing this for a few minutes I looked over my shoulder. No Sebastian. It seemed his efforts in the first half of the event had cost him dearly. I spun joyfully to the top and tried not to gloat when he arrived.

More hairy descending in the wet and then up the Shay Elliot climb. Again Sebastian dropped back. I silently patted myself on the back. There is no victory quite like a spiteful pointless unacknowledged one. But in fact this year he is only maybe a minute behind me on the Shay. I internally noted that the future can only bring this gap down, and shuddered.

Of the descent I can remember nothing except squeezing wet squealing brakes and hoping they slowed me down a little. But of the road to Rathdrum and the second food stop – around 150 km in – I can remember the following; rain so torrential we could not see the road ahead. The floodwater soaking through my cycling shoes so that my feet began to lose feeling. Our wheels sloshing through small ponds on the road. Sebastian and I  chasing a rider in an orange Euskatel kit. Sebastian and I looking at each other and laughing. With conditions so horrendous there is sometimes nothing to do but laugh.

Final leg – Rathdrum to Greystones. This section on the W200 always hurts the most – mainly because most riders are already spent by the time they reach it. There are a seemingly never-ending series of small climbs that sap your energy further. And of course this year there was the rain. We were constantly taking off (optimistically) and putting back on (realistically) our rain jackets.

At one point a herd of cattle crossed the road, leading to a traffic jam of riders behind it. But no one objected. We were glad of the break. ‘I don’t think this is a bad thing at all’ I remember saying. As the road leveled out we get in a fast group and gallop towards Greystones at about 30km/h. Which after all that time in the saddle is fast. Driving the group are some tough women cyclists. ‘Pick it up’ one shouts at us when we get on the front.

As we approach the final roundabout in Greystones, Sebastian is almost deliriously happy. He has erased the shame of 2013 when a mechanical failure right at the end prevented him from finishing. He sings an improvised song based on my name, then he sprints for the finish. I am too tired to chase him.

I never did find my helmet.

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World Cups

wc 1970

You can, they say, measure out your life in world cups. This now frightens me quite a lot as I have 7 under my belt. I’m now 34.

In 1990 I was 9 going on ten. For Ireland it was perhaps the best world cup ever. But for me it was not only that. It was a party and festival of football. Far off teams from far off countries. Johnny Giles explaining it all in his perm. How disappointed I ultimately was with the final – an utterly cynical spectacle. So indeed were many of the knockout games. It seemed a violation of the spirit of the game. The death of idealism somehow. And the weirdest thing is that my nine year old self could feel this as a betrayal and yet know also that in the scheme of things it didn’t matter.

But in 1994 there was still a sense of fractured idealism that had to be recovered. 1990 had seen the fewest ever goals. Everybody myself included willed it to be ‘the best tournament since 1970’. It wasn’t really but Brazil did win it, their first triumph since that fabled team of Pele and co. They even played Italy in the final, as in 1970.

But whereas the 1970 team had swept away the azzurri 4-1, Brazil of 1994 vintage stuttered to a 0-0 draw followed by penalties. Again at the end a strange sense of betrayal for me. As if the reality that you wanted to believe in wasn’t real at all. There was only sterility and negativity out there. And genocide in Rwanda which broke out around the time the World Cup was ending. The news that reported the World Cup Final led with thousands of bodies floating down rivers in the heart of Africa.

Writing this it’s interesting that I felt and to some degree still feel, with a deeply irrational conviction that the ills of the world, even of human nature could be set at nought if only the best teams, playing free flowing football could win and win in style and without bad grace. Why do I think this? What does it mean?

By contrast, 1998 seemed strangely dead. For the first week the main story was continuous rioting by English fans in Marseilles. No Ireland, which removed a degree of emotional involvement. But also many of the games seemed anaemic, many of the stadiums half empty. Brazil had great players at this time – Ronaldo, Rivaldo etc but strolled into the final with such little effort that they hardly seemed to deserve it. France also had a great team –Zidane, Deschamps, Desailly and co. Zidane then and later was probably the best all round player I’ve ever seen.

They did have a more epic run to the final – including a surging come back against Croatia (and Suker one of my favourite players of that era). And the final itself had a kind of epic feel about it, with the Marseillais crashing out and the French tricolour everywhere. Zidane’s two goals decided it but what I most remember is Petti’s breakaway goal which had that gorgeous quality of the inevitable that the best counter- attacking goals have.

2002 was a real low point. Brazil had some excellent players but never needed to really play well to win the tournament, though I was glad they did. The final was really a stroll, though I was pleased for Ronaldo who scored two goals. Ireland had the Roy Keane affair and spirited game against Spain early in the morning, going out on penalties, after which, here in Ireland, the heavens opened. The odd thing is that none of these things are my abiding memory, which is just of the poor football and the extremely irritating success of poor but hard working teams such as South Korea, Turkey and God help us, the USA. There was no glorious football, no sublime triumph of the excellent. No titanic matches. It was not the first time I realised it but the clearest example of my distaste for the plucky underdog.

2006 had at least one classic game – Germany and Italy but the final was a dour affair, to be mainly remembered for Zidane’s sad swansong. And then penalties. Italy, as far as I was concerned, were champions in name only. The same, strange cheated feeling as back when I was 9. Betrayal almost. The cheats like Matterazzi would always win. The talented, the creative would lose.

It is notable that as the numbers of participants has gone up, the quality of world cups has fallen sharply. Since 2002, the better teams have indeed generally come out on top. In 2010 Spain started slowly, but playing remorseless possession football ploughed their way through to the final. Their victory in a bad tempered final did soften the old feeling of betrayal, Iniesta’s excellent winner in particular but it did feel as if they were only temporarily staving off the forces of darkness. None of this stopped me watching almost every game, as usual of course.

And 2014? Well, there was good and bad. One of the main plus points was that it was in a real football heartland, Brazil and thousands of South Americans followed their team there. The atmosphere was somewhat less contrived than in South Africa, where armed police kept the locals a safe distance away from the stadiums.

The football? Again it had its upsides. Germany had a team of genuine quality. Messi produced just enough moments of magic to keep us interested. There was the drama of Spain’s decline and Brazil’s rather fortunate run to the semi-finals and dramatic implosion against Germany. And yet. Brazil – the country that somehow used to be the guardian of football’s soul – has lost that title forever. Their 7-1 rout at Germany’s hands was slightly sad to see but no one could say it was undeserved.

And again, there was just a lack of ‘epicness’ about it all.

The naïve joy of the World Cup seems to have gone a little, dissipated by too many games of inferior but well organised teams set up to defend. And, in fairness, too much cynical and world weary lethargy from the stronger nations. But maybe I’m just getting old.

 

My Wicklow 200, 2013

On the Wicklow Gap.
On the Wicklow Gap.

My first time doing the Wicklow 200 since 2006. It hurt.

Wicklow 200 2013

Stress. It’s 6.10 am and I get a text from Sebastian *; ‘Where are ya dude’? I was supposed to be at his house at 6.00. He comes to pick me up. But he’s not happy.

We get on the motorway after a few twists and turns and motor it out to Bray. Sebastian is not loosening up. We get there just before 7.00. After some more messing we roll out at about 7.30. Along the long brooding N11. There’s no mass start in the W200 anymore so we pass by groups in dribs and drabs and get passed too by others, including one guy in a time trial skin suit and sperm shaped helmet. It really does take all sorts. Lots of hybrids and commuting bikes as well as road bikes, but we skim by them quickly enough.

Up the Long Hill, a long but gradual climb on a good road over the shoulder of the Sugar Loaf, generally we cut through the slower riders, passing lots who’d started earlier. One or two stay with us or go faster. At the top a lot of the 100 riders on their hybrids have pulled over either to rest or maybe to wait for their friends. Sebastian is not impressed by this. Not professional enough. It doesn’t reinforce his self image of cool powerful purpose.

I’m glad to get them out of the way. On the long flat road to Laragh we try to get in a good group, but as Sebastian remarks, ‘there are no groups’. Every time we follow some fast riders into a group, they don’t settle in, but fly past them, us following. We try to sit in some groups but find ourselves going too slowly, so we hop on to the next. Same thing. In a fast group coming down through Annamoe we let the leading riders go and roll into Laragh and the turn off point for the 200 on our own.

A few more pedal strokes and it’s up the Wicklow Gap, that long slog of 8km uphill. Never very hard but not easy either. I exchange pleasantries with group of guys in black, I think we were talking about weddings or something but I honestly can’t recall now. I drop Sebastian for a short time at the steep part but drop back for him then. We reach the summit together. There’s a water stop which is kind of chaotic (there is for instance no water, just carbohydrate flavoured stuff). The sun is beating down already – it’s about 9.00.

W200 drink stop

The descent is fun and fast and we end up rolling along in a very big group, smashing down the rolling terrain towards Hollywood, led by two very strong old Northern guys. Lots of Nordie and semi Nordie riders are here including fast group of racers from Carrickmacross, Monaghan. Another climb and then a steep descent into Hollywood. Then it’s onto the Blessington Road and banging away down to Baltinglass and the first stop. We decline to match the 40kph speed of the Carrickmacross boys and plough along ourselves until we finally get overtaken by a fast, but not too fast, group led by the Blessington club,’ Reservoir Cogs’ and get dragged into the first food stop.

It’s the Wicklow so there’s queues for the check in. But everyone’s in good form, there must have been 500 riders there. The general sentiment seems to be ‘80km in, this isn’t so bad’. Experience and pessimistic nature has me telling them, ‘the tough part is yet to come’. And so it is.

There’s a long 40km stretch of rolling road between Baltinglass and Tinahely, after which the climbs start again in earnest. But first we roll through sleepy southern Wicklow and County Carlow, including a steep little hill through Hacketstown, before again facing north and back into the mountains. One little ramp downwards on this section gets us up to 78 kmph I’m told by people with the right equipment for measuring such things.

But then, as I knew it would, the fun starts. First a quick 2 km climb and descent up Aughavanagh. No big deal. Then signposts for the Glenmalure valley, which means we’re going up Slieve Mann. I just spin away and soon leave Sebastian behind. There’s no waiting in middle of hard climbs, this one c.5km at an average of 9% gradient. In other words for every ten metres you travel, one is straight up. I’ll see him at the top.

The scenery is beautiful in this quiet valley but all you can see is long lines of cyclists struggling very slowly upwards. I’m feeling fairly good and I’m passing most riders now, apart from the odd accomplished guy who spins past me. Christ it’s not easy though. The sun is scorching down, the road is steep and broken. You have to weave to avoid potholes and slower riders, some of whom are reduced to walking. Gradually, very gradually the road levels out. Around a bend is the summit and the water stop. Which is great but there are massive queues of thirsty cyclists. The strong northern guys from the road to Hollywood appear over the crest as I’m waiting and shout that they’ll get water at the bottom. But I’m completely out and it would be foolhardy to go on with empty bottles.

Besides I have to wait for Sebastian. When he does arrive, I let him skip the queue by standing beside me. But on the plus side he does persuade me out of the mad idea of getting out of the queue and continuing with no water. This is wise advice.

The reason it is so is that I had completely forgotten what lay at the bottom of the Valley – another 5 km climb, the Shay Elliot. I remember virtually nothing about the descent, just blessedly fast and easy kms and a cooling breeze. But I can remember plenty about the unanticipated Shay Elliot. The gradient is never as steep as Slieve Mann. I’m grinding away fairly handily, but I’m tired now, 130 km in, my legs ache and above all I hadn’t been mentally ready. Some riders start walking right at the bottom

Sweat stings my eyes and now my upper lip too where it’s been sunburnt. At the top riders are flaked out all over the place. One or two appear to be asleep. There’s a van selling food and drink here. I buy a can of seven up for me and two bottles of water for Sebastian, who arrives maybe ten minutes later. ‘Genius’ he says. I’m impatient to get going again. Another beautiful descent and we’re back down onto the Laragh Road, heading for Rathdrum. The surface is terrible, my ass hurts, my wrists hurts, my neck hurts. But after ten km or so we roll into Rathdrum. I meet one or two of the people I’d been talking to in Baltinglass. ‘I told you it’d be tough’. They nod. ‘It was’. Everyone seems relieved though, the worst is over. But as I recall from the 100 last year, the final 50 km or so are not easy.

At first it is. We get in a good group and fly downhill into Avoca. But then the road turns skywards again, another 3-4 km climb into Redcross. It seems like unnecessary punishment. Sebastian groans, ‘I don’t want this’. We’re all hurting though. Another water stop at the top. Another wait. On every hill I’m passing a woman in Killmallock club colours who’s not stopping.

The descent is better suited to motocross than cycling. Massive potholes span the road like tank traps, filled in only with sand. You have to either jump them or smash your back wheel into them. You know there’s one coming up when the riders ahead of you shout ‘hole!’ if they see it in time, or ‘fuck!’ if they haven’t.

The course at this point seems designed to break your spirit. Every time you think the climbing is finished you turn a bend and go up again. People are complaining. Their bodies are protesting.

But then it appears as if we’re home and dry. The terrain levels out. A good group, powering along in the big ring, headed for Greystones, less than 20km away now. I take a turn at the front, feeling really good. My phone rings, but I ignore it. I can’t reach it anyway. But I take a look behind me to make sure Sebastian is there. No sign. I check my phone, missed call from Sebastian. Oh bugger. Goodbye fast group that was going to haul me home. I pull over the side of the road. After maybe ten more minutes Sebastian appears. His spoke has broken – probably on that dodgy descent.

We limp off, losing the route momentarily before finding our way back. Then from behind me ‘FUCK!’. Sebastian’s bike is gone. His buckled wheel has snapped off his rear mech, which is now wedged in the wheel. He does not take this well. His sun glasses fall off and he kicks them into the gutter.

He hurls his bike onto the grass verge. And says something along the lines of ‘why are these things always happening to me?’ and ‘I’m cursed’. He has to call the service wagon to pick him up and take him to the finish, a mere 7 km away.

Finishing.
Finishing.

He tells me to go on. Which I do, with the relief of the unburdened. After a pleasant chat with a veteran rider I fly into Greystones, to get my card scanned, pick up my medal and get something to eat. About 10 hours have passed since we left this place. I still have to deal with Sebastian, who is inconsolable when he arrives. His chance to prove his worth to the universe has again been foiled. Still, he’s driving me home. So I make comforting noises.

*Not his real name!

First Post, February 6, 2015.

Me at a wedding. Had to put some picture up.
Me at a wedding. Had to put some picture up.

Just a little first post to whoever comes across my blog. I’ll be posting thoughts on more or less whatever interests me; culture, world affairs, sport, cycling and life in general.

The main idea is to write things not connected with Irish history, which I do on my other site http://www.theirishstory.com