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?’
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.