A rare glimpse of the sun for summer 2011 greeted the Over The Hill (OTH) riders on bright Wednesday morning in Crookhaven. Many had awoken early beating the alarm clock to the finish line for the previous nights slumber. A hearty breakfast was hastily consumed with bags, baggage, bikes and bodies soon after accommodated in the convoy for passage to the start at Mizen head. An enthusiastic group of paparazzi were assembled from the gathered friends and family to provide documentary evidence that the trip had at least made it to the site for the grand départ... Final goodbyes were said and with the click of cleats and ratchet of drive trains, Over The Hill were under way for the inaugural club tour, destination - Malin Head in Donegal. The early pace was very civilised with everyone mindful that four days of three figure distances in kilometers was unknown territory for everyone involved... This despite the fact that many many thousands of metres had been covered in preparation for the trip. Each rise and fall along the road was handled with aplomb by the OTH peleton up along the peninsula and into Bantry for the first of the days scheduled stops. As he would do so for the entire trip, Mark was on hand to provide much welcomed mechanical and psychological support for the road, but most importantly, he had the Aladdin's cave of goodies in the back of the van on hand to keep men and machines fuelled and moving. Out of Bantry, the OTH wheels were trained on the Cork/Kerry county bounds, with the promise of a hearty lunch in the Lansdowne Arms in Kenmare. Standing in the way however was the Caha Pass. The climb was billed as a ferocious beast and though the gradient pitched and arched in places along the mountain side, to a man, the OTH crew reached the summit with all the assembled heart monitors beeping a clean bill of health for all concerned. Through the tunnel the train slid then, dropping down the far side of Caha and onwards to soak up some more tarmac. Into Kenmare, then, a welcome break for lunch. OTH were well looked after in the Lansdowne, even enjoying some al fresco dining in the process! Some threat of rain in the air did make an attempt to dampen the lunchtime merriment, however it passed almost as soon as the initial threat was mounted to ensure the only moisture in our nourishment was that intentionally provided in the form of mayonnaise and ketchup... Appetites suitably sated then, the legs were thrown across the top tubes once more with the next major port of call being Killarney. A brief shower would skirt along the route but again luck would prevail and the air was soon dry again. Kerry roads it would seem are going through somewhat of a renaissance along our passage with several stretches of road works to be navigated, puncture free thankfully... Entering Killarney would see a build up of traffic that had been avoided for the majority of the day, a feature of the road that would follow the OTH crew all the way along the preferred route joining Killarney to Tralee. Through Killarney and the kilometres ticked down towards more manageable numbers remaining. Further north again to Tralee and the final resting point for Day 1 in Listowel was within touching distance. A brief break on the Listowel side of Tralee ensured the riders were again refreshed for the final assault on the remaining passages of tarmac on the N69 to Listowel. That fresh feeling that was abundant at 7am that morning was beginning to abate now and the hours were beginning to take their toll. The group remained tight however and stuck to the task rolling into Listowel and the overnight destination of the Listowel Arms. In all, a couple of hundred meters short of 187km were covered in day one and a few pints of welcome porter were covered shortly after that. After a fine meal and a brief post mortem of the day the legs were taken to a local hostelry for a final stretch, accompanied by a night cap to round out the day. Sleep arrived quickly shortly upon the departure of the midsummer sun, Day 1 complete, Day 2 spinning into view...top... Day 2 - Thursday 23rd June 2011 (Listowel -> Oranmore)
Day 2 would see the OTH riders break free from the province of Munster briefly covering some distance in Connacht before stopping in Oranmore. Before that however there was the small matter of ingesting a sufficient number of calories to power the onward journey. A breakfast befitting of our inner champions was wonderfully provided by our hosts in the Listowel Arms and once devoured, OTH were soon under way again. Weather reports for the week had predicted a sequence of frequent showers and winds contrary to the intended direction of travel. Neither element had given much cause for concern on Day 1 and Day 2 started in a similar vein. Into the sunshine our cleated feet hobbled, greeted by the sight of our ever dependable soigneur Mark, who had all the equipment checked and readied to roll out. Night time dreams hold thoughts of the professional cycling world, by day Mark provided that reality for the trip. Through the rear gates of the Listowel Arms, a final glance back at the doors that welcomed us the evening before and we were underway to Tarbert for the Shannon estuary crossing to Killimer and into Co. Clare, where the majority of day would be spent. Tarbert, through no fault of its own, has little to offer beyond the ferry that departs its shores every half hour on the hour, or is it every hour on the half hour? Regardless of timetabling, the OTH riders found themselves happening upon the shores of north Kerry in time to see the ferry departing around the confines of the harbour consigning the peleton to what seemed like an interminable wait. Thankfully, the wait was not without entertainment. Much interest was being shown in, admittedly some more so than others, the bikes we had lined up during the wait. The gentleman in question turned out to be a frequent visitor to the Emerald Isle and was no stranger to our two wheeled pursuit himself. Henk Castricum as it turned out, once made his living in the professional peleton and lived the dream the OTH crew could but seek to emulate! A ferry duly docked, we parted company with Henk & Elly and with the requisite amount of cash for the crossing. Though Chris De Burgh may have raised an eyebrow, OTH were underway again nonetheless... The profile for Day 2 was rolling, with Corkscrew hill to be climbed from the more forgiving south side. Traffic would again play a part in Clare, not from a volume perspective as one might imagine, but from the sheer lunatic quotient. In spite of one or two encounters of the Clare road user kind, we ambled on, crossing paths with a group riding up the west coast on their own challenge of completing a Cork to Galway spin. They had chosen five days for their effort and were suitably aghast at the OTH four day assault. Between Quilty, Spanish Point and Lahinch the west coast served up some stunning scenery. Showers drew some veiled curtains over the rolling hills to the north and east as the day progressed and though they were in plain view, they had the courtesy to douse the roads ahead and depart again in time for the arrival of the OTH riders. Ennistimon was chosen as the main stop for Day 2 and the Falls Hotel emerged as the venue as the town was reached. Carvery lunch was served and no doubt closed earlier than usual given the ferocity of the OTH onslaught! Stomachs full and water bottles likewise, the saddles were mounted in search of the Corkscrew decent and the N67 to Ballyvaughan. With the switchbacks and Ballyvaughan negotiated another stop was in order, the carvery weighed heavy still for some, for others there was the chance to top up the calorie stocks. Skirting the coast once again the afternoon hours began to make way for those of the evening again as the train departed Co. Clare entering the county that shares its name with the city of the Tribes. Kinvara, Ballindereen, Kilcolgan and Clarinbridge were passed in quick succession as Oranmore loomed large in the distance. 140km closer to the goal since the morning of Day 2 began, it was time to rest again in the Oranmore Lodge hotel. Quick recovery is the key to maintaining any sporting endeavour and the leisure centre in the Oranmore Lodge certainly played its part in that process. It is unlikely that the staff there will ever see the record number of bodies that shoehorned into the Jacuzzi broken, for the foreseeable future at least! Another fine meal served and gladly consumed, some fine local and imported beverages taken and a few inadvertent insults traded with fellow diners notwithstanding, all involved took to the bed in anticipation of the mammoth Day 3 ride along the famed N17...top... Day 3 - Friday 24th June 2011 (Oranmore -> Donegal Town)
Morning arrived a little too swiftly on Day 3, the Queen stage of our 4 day tour. 200km in all were to be negotiated, but before a millimetre of it could be tackled there was the small matter of securing early morning provisions in the breakfast hall... Staff at the Oranmore Lodge had gotten wind of our intended early departure the night before and duly informed us that they had a full house that night themselves. The advice dispensed was in order to facilitate a speedy departure on Friday morning, arranging the breakfast queue in advance of the 07:30 start would be essential. Several German and Italian registered tour busses were parked in the lot of the Oranmore Lodge hotel and though filled with citizens of a more senior disposition, those said passenger’s appetites and desire to satisfy them had not diminished with age. What ensued that morning was to become known simply as, “The Battle of Oranmore”. Stern opposition was offered to hold pole position at the dining hall door and a multi-pronged attack planned to aid in securing sufficient fodder for the road, prior to the execution of a German-Italian pincer movement astride the OTH flanks. Several tables and sole occupancy of the toaster secured, the mission was deemed a success. Initial ground had to be relinquished around the hot food buffet, however, this was tactically unavoidable given the sheer weight of numbers in the opposition ranks! Following this brief distraction from our main activity, we were soon refreshed and ready to occupy the N17. Rolling beyond the confines of the Oranmore Lodge, it was clear that avoiding the weather today was going to be an impossibility. Aided by an unexpected favourable tail wind, the songs and first 30km passed within the first hour, but with it came the rain OTH had done so well to elude until now. A brief stop allowed some protection against the elements to be adorned and the slow realisation that today, all day, was going to be a wet one. Moisture in the air alone of course is not much of an issue, all members of OTH are of course native to the Emerald Isle and it’s not Emerald in colour due to long hours of sunshine. Prevailing against the cause in this case was wind. North westerly winds had been forecasted and it just so happened that North Westerly was our exact plot for Day 3. Pushing on two abreast where wide roads allowed, the early morning speed slowed as the now opposing wind placed a thumb on the forehead of each pack leader in turn, as those behind sought welcome respite in the wheels. Energy was being consumed at a higher rate than in previous days today and concentration was at a premium to keep the tired bodies and minds upright. Knock was the main lunch stop for the day and was extremely welcome when it was served. Opinions on how the day had progressed and how it should continue to do so were shared, divided and laid bare in Knock. The frayed tempers an indication of the toll the cumulative effort of the previous days had taken. Out on the road once again, the weather played its part in making a miserable day in the west of Ireland even worse. The air had thickened with mist and rain to a point where riding through farmhouse vegetable soup may have been somewhat easier. Unknown roads, poor communication and terrible weather saw the second battle of the day flare. Tobbercurry was the site and a late decision saw a split in the group occur. Some riders continued through the town, more took the ring road and it would be some 70km into Sligo before the entire eight riders would be together again. Strung along the road the groups of one and two riders slowly gelled back into formation. Given the length of the days parcours a second long stop was scheduled in Sligo, under the shadow of Ben Bulben in Drumcliff. Tobbercurry was dissected and the team firmly welded into shape to see off the remaining 60km or so to Donegal Town. Refreshed, rejuvenated and wearing some dry attire, the OTH team bid farewell to W.B. Yeats’ final resting place in search of the Donegal border. Kicking once again, the wind threw the wet air in the faces of the riders. Tightening together to find the last of the shelter, each passing kilometre was gladly accepted, though it seemed as if a single figure remainder would never arrive. European structural funds have transformed the transport infrastructure along the west coast and, as the grateful drivers hissed by in the deluge, the exposed thoroughfare only served to ease the wind’s task of impeding the progress of OTH. OTH continued on as the elements imposed their will. Skirting around the base of the Slievemore Mountains hugging the North West coast bound for seaside towns that would not be visited. Place names falling along the route for Day 4 began to come into view and finally the destination for Day 3 was beginning to become the closest of them. 50km to go and the road remained perpendicular to the onrushing air. OTH persevered. The N17 had long since been departed, replaced by the N15 over Donegal soil. Memories of Oranmore, Knock, Tobercurry and Drumcliff were washed and almost wrung from the minds of the riders, this was an epic days riding. A wandering mind can be a dangerous thing on the road, today however, it served to distract and disguise the duration required to find that wonderful 10km to go sign. What accompanied the final kilometres though was much more welcome. The N15 swung to the left and in a matter of metres OTH were unshackled from the wind that toyed mercilessly with the riders for the majority of the day. In an instant the pedals freed, heads lifted and a veritable sprint over the last 5km ensued! Diamonds are frequently noted as being most friendly towards the female of the species. One particular Diamond in Donegal however was embraced and savoured with delight by the men of OTH. The Central Hotel on the Diamond in Donegal Town had been reached. The odometer stopped dead at 200km flat. Three days and more than three quarters of the country traversed, a single push remained to make it to Malin. Another feast was served by OTH’s hosts in the Central hotel that evening. A later start was planned for Day 4 and with it a later finished to Night 3, as some congratulatory beer was shared in recognition of the effort.top... Day 4 - Saturday 25th June 2011 (Donegal Town -> Malin Head)
Saturday the 25th of June, the 4th and final installment of what had taken months to plan had finally arrived. Give or take a few metres, all that now stood between OTH and Malin Head was 126km along some of the most remote roads in the country. The extra half hour sleep afforded for the last day was very much appreciated and aided in promoting a relaxed and leisurely atmosphere around the breakfast table. Stepping into the morning air revealed similar cloud cover to that which had monitored our progress the day before, the abiding difference being slacker winds and fewer droplets...! Mark provided the final morning briefing and with our jackets on and shoes still partially damp from the day before, OTH set off into the Donegal mist. Today's profile was a little more saw-tooth than previous days, but with the reduced distance there was nothing insurmountable to worry about. Out of Donegal Town and in sight of the Bluestacks, the eight pairs of wheels rolled onto the rising slopes of the Barnesmore Gap, with the glacially carved walls rising higher still to the left and right along the gradual though constant climb. While the sky had not yet fully cleared, reports suggested that it would do so and brighter skies did appear to be funnelling down from the summit of the Barnesmore. A remote service station at the top of the gap, with a little café appendage, served as the venue for the mid morning stop. It looked for all the world like a greasy spoon fried breakfast type establishment, but to the nose, Chinese fare was most definitely the speciality of the house. Despite the better judgement shown by some among our number who decamped from the café in favour of the more modest offerings in the deli section, orders were placed with the sole waitress, whose mind was more on finishing for the day than it was serving her public. It would certainly make for a long day for her, given that it was still only 11am...! After what would generally be accepted as an exhaustive wait for a couple of toasted sandwiches, sure enough they arrived. Though, they arrived a little rare on the toasting scale and somewhere between the kitchen and the table they managed to liberate themselves of all taste normally associated with cheese, tomato and onion. Lamenting the decision not to back out when the opportunity presented itself, the next few hours would be spent with a constant regurgitating reminder of the Barnesmore crossing. Back on the bikes, jackets removed, OTH rode on in long sleeves as the mercury continued to rise and spots of azure blue began to mottle the grey ceiling overhead. Just outside Letterkenny the sun asserted its authority and swept the cloud aside drenching the Donegal hills with its rays. Another brief stop to refill pockets and bottles, the occasion also arose to don the short sleeves once more. At this point only a little over half the days distance remained. Where possible, Mark had plotted a route that would take the riders out of Conflict with traffic as much as possible. This measure served two purposes, obviously the aforementioned, but it also allowed for a more picturesque experience to be savoured along the road. Several twists, turns, climbs and descents beyond Letterkenny brought OTH to the little town of Muff and the main lunch stop for the day. Another service station, but a vastly superior experience to banish that still lingering from the crest of the Barnesmore. For many of the riders, this was the furthest north on the Island they had travelled. In a few hours time they would get no further without aquatic assistance. Coffees consumed and refuse binned, uninterrupted sunshine and the warmth of the air encouraged everyone back onto the saddle bound for Quigley’s Point. At Quigley’s, a sharp left onto the Carndonagh road saw the team numbers swell briefly to nine. A local rider joined in behind for some kilometres, the accent he encountered not being native to local loop he was keen to hear of our challenge and the OTH crew were only too happy to oblige. Over the stiff rise and into Carndonagh village, some energy was expended in an attempt to impress photographers that never materialised. Still, this was a good dress rehearsal for the finale at Malin. Carndonagh to the rear OTH were now on the Malin peninsula with Malin village coming into view in the hazy distance. Into the centre of Malin the train swung left out along the Lagg Road and on up the coast. Road signs suggested that 10km remained to the head, a number that would linger for quite a while. Not because of the poignant significance of how close Malin head had become, as might be expected. Rather more because having travelled a number of kilometres beyond that first 10km to go marker several other markers claiming a similar title were also encountered. Happy in the knowledge that Malin Head was at least some 10km off in the general vicinity turning over the pedal cranks became effortless. The final metres rolled and crested, until off to the right the tower at Malin loomed large. A right turn made onto the final isthmus of pavement that would take us there and the finish line beckoned OTH home. Levelling the final climb with a torrent of adrenalin, OTH could go no further, all the available road from South to North on the island had been exhausted. Mizen to Malin had been achieved.top... Epilogue (Malin Head -> Letterkenny)
Corks popped and families embraced around the tower at Malin. Camera shutters were worn to near breaking to capture the moment in its entirety. An excursion made to the giant “Éire” sign stencilled out of local stone to warn WWII bombers where they had strayed, more pictures stilled the moment forever once again. With the formalities taken care of, it was back to Farran’s Bar in Slievebawn, Ireland’s most northerly public house to further toast the previous four day’s effort. Mammals by nature’s design and MAMILs (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) in our chosen pursuit, the locals appeared somewhat unprepared for our arrival, though they still welcomed us in despite our strange aroma and ungainly attire. Letterkenny bound then having regaled all, who would care to listen, in Farran’s about the exploits that began four days previous at a place as strange to them as Malin Head had been to the OTH riders prior to 16:30 on the afternoon of Saturday the 25th of June 2011. The Radisson Blu hotel in Letterkenny was the chosen resting point for Day 4. A celebratory meal was enjoyed by riders and recently arrived support crews. It was OTH’s pleasure to present a special memento to Mark at dinner, in appreciation of his immense contribution to making the trip such a success. Sunday the 26th was most definitely to be a rest day. Before that however, the cycling brethren turned their attention from troubling the tarmac outside to the barmen inside. Breakfast the following morning could wait.top...
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