On Wednesday evening, Dad told me about the 70 km Step Up Cycle for NI Chest Heart and Stroke, and that he was thinking about competing. Nice idea, I thought, but then he asked me if I would be interested in doing it. Not a chance. I would love to be able to, but cycling a semi-long distance over hilly terrain with no training wasn’t something I would be capable of. My cycling experience consisted of twelve miles a day on the flat along the Comber Greenway to and from the Ulster Hospital. I have done more cycling in the last year than I had ever done before, but most journeys were between two and six miles, with a few 20 mile runs home, but that was my absolute limit.
So when I tell you we didn’t just cycle 70 km, but the full 100 km route instead, I hope you’ll understand how much of a feat that was for me.
I was ill prepared for any organised cycling event. My current day to day kit is rough and ready, with a Dawes hybrid as my daily commuter, and worn out cycle clothing, but luckily Alan was well supplied with equipment. I borrowed Dad’s Specialised Sequoia hybrid/tourer as it was fast, but easier to get to grips with than a racing bike. I’ve only ever ridden about a mile on a racing bike, and I nearly crashed it, so the middle ground was a better choice and more comfortable for a long cycle.
The morning of the cycle began at 6.30 am. We got up and breakfasted on Weetabix and banana to try and build up the glycogen stores, and loaded up the car. The hour and a half drive to Portballintrae was a nervous one as I was contemplating the challenge we were about to undertake. The weather was not looking very promising, and getting caught out in a heavy shower early on could be disastrous for us finishing the event. Dad was giving me cycling tips, but even he admitted it had been a long time since he had done any comparable distance. We decided that it was best to take our time and focus on enjoying the day without taking ourselves too seriously, because it wasn’t a timed race. On arriving at the assembly point at Portballintrae we were confronted with some serious kit. Giant. Specialised S-Works. Boardman. There were a lot of high-end bikes, and fully kitted out riders. Club riders made up a significant proportion of the entrants. Apollo from Lurgan and Portadown Cycle Club had a significant presence, along with some of the Belfast clubs. Team Douglas was going to have a tough time keeping up.
We registered at the village hall then went to the shop next door for sausage butties, which were glorious. Gotta build those energy stores in the healthiest way possible. It was time to assemble ourselves, and do last minute bike-checks. Before long we were called in for a safety briefing by 26 Extreme, the event management company.
And we were off! It was a slow start initially as we were lead out of Portballintrae by one of the 26 Extreme pick-ups, and Dad and I were at the back of the pack. We overtook a few of the slower riders in Bushmills and made it into the peloton. Once were were in the pack, cycling was a breeze. The first 20 km was over like a flash, and we were averaging 15 mph when we made it to the first stop, Gracehill House. Time for more food. We loaded up on coffee, Twix bars, and bananas, then left alongside the Portadown Cycle Club. Cycling in a pack offers a dramatic reduction in drag of up to 40% in optimal conditions. Additionally, it has an undeniable psychological effect, boosting your morale and is a much more social experience. This was my first big event and my first experience of cycling in a pack, and I can’t wait to do it again.
The Dark Hedges were our first big landmark, and by far the most disappointing. A confused jumble of cars and bus tours ruined the whole look of the area, and made it a nightmare to cycle through. Dad had broached the idea of doing 100 km instead of 70 km at the first stop, but I wasn’t entirely convinced it was a good idea. I was surprised at how well I had coped until that point, but the full 100 would be pushing it. We came to the all important turn off – riders on the 70 km course go straight ahead, and the 100 km turn right. We turned right. And it was worth it.
The main difference between the routes was the addition of a trek up Slieveanorra mountain. It was a long, slow slog but offered stunning views over the Antrim hills, and the second stop was near the top. Time for fruit cake, sweets, and a water bottle refill. The photo above was taken on my phone and should give you an idea what it was like. We were ascending from sea level to around 500 metres, so it was all about the slow and steady. Before long we were off again, and after a short final climb, it was time for the descent. And what a descent! We were travelling at over 30 miles per hour, with the longest downhill stretch lasting over five miles. Insanity, but amazing fun. I had no real experience of proper descents until Slieveanorra, but it made the long climb worthwhile.
The second half of the ride was tougher, with a number of steep climbs leading up to the final rest stop at Ballycastle. That was the 45 mile/70 km point, and time for more food. My knees were starting to feel it, and I wasn’t relishing the prospect of more hills. Only one more hour to go. One…ish. Another 15 miles and we would be at the finish. We still had Carrick-a-Rede and Giant’s Causeway to pass, and some thoroughly stunning scenery. The weather was just getting better and better, and biking is the best way to see the North Coast. Our resolve was waning as the hills kept coming, but we would make it. Then the first minor setback came. Dad had a flat. A slow puncture. The mechanics at Ballycastle pumped the tire up, but we didn’t change the tube. That lasted another ten miles, then once again, it was flat. We stopped, pumped up the tire, and we were off. For about a mile, then the pump was out once again. This wasn’t going to work.
We were within a mile of the end, within running distance. Dad changed out the tube for the spare Alan had packed, and we were up and going. Then all of a sudden we were rolling into Portballintrae and to the finish line. Or table. Yes, we had to look around a bit but we stopped at the table of folks who were clapping, and happily received our medals. We did it! It was an amazing experience, and definitely worth doing. It’s surprising what you’re capable when you put your mind to it. Sixty miles. It’s a tad further than six.
I know Granda would have been proud of us. He would have thought we were completely mad, but he would have been proud all the same.