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.

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.