Thursday, May 29, 2014

In Search of the Unpaved

Skinny Tires, Hidden Trails
If there is one thing I miss about cycling in New England, it is the abundance of unpaved roads. Dirt, gravel, flat, hilly, wide, narrow, technical, tame - you name it and it's there if you know where to look. It took me a couple of years to get comfortable cycling on unpaved terrain, as well as some time to develop a decent mental database of nearby routes. But once I did, riding on unpaved back roads became second nature. I enjoyed them tremendously and took their availability for granted.  

Roadster on the River Roe
When I first began considering a move to Northern Ireland, I was warned about the lack of unpaved roads - both here and in the Republic. "Decades ago, sure - practically the whole thing was dirt roads. But it's as if, in their enthusiasm to modernise, Ireland went overboard and just paved over everything at some point. Even the teeniest backroads are tarmacked or poured over with concrete."

Seawall Path, Myroe
At first glance, I found this to be true in the Roe Valley area where I now live. There are stretches here and there: dirt roads and forest trails up the mountain, a gravel path along the Seawall, some grassy right of way tracks through farms. But overall paved roads and paths seemed the norm, and locals confirmed this.

Skinny Tires, Hidden Trails
But as I grew bolder and began planning my own routes along roads I did not know except on the map, something unexpected happened - I began to "discover" unpaved roads. My first major discovery was of a network of gravel roads near the border, to the west, as I progressed along a 100 mile ride I'd mapped out myself. As I followed my route, the road I was on changed from the chipsealy surface it usually is in these parts, to plain gravel, sprinkled loosely over hard packed dirt. On the map, this stretch had not been marked any differently than the paved roads nearby, yet in practice it was not the same category of road at all. The narrow gravel roads went on for some miles, and I could see them continue in the opposite direction from where I was headed. Unfortunately, my GPS commanded a turn toward a larger road that brought me back onto tarmac, and I was too short on time to go off on an exploratory tangent. 

Later I made similarly accidental discoveries closer to home. Most recently I had routed a 50 mile ride over back roads I had not previously taken. One of these roads - again, marked completely normally on the map - quickly turned into a gravel lane with moss down the middle, featuring a daunting climb and a steep winding descent. It was a little challenging on my skinny tires, but overall fun. The friend who rode with me was a little shocked though, despite his wider tires. Many colourful curse words in relation to the gravel were used. 

"Do you know," I said, "in the US there are rides where the entire route is gravel? It's very popular now." 

"But surely not loose gravel like this what we just did! That's plain dangerous." 

"Loose gravel" is such a funny expression. I imagined gravel, on the loose, running amock. "You think this was loose gravel? Let me tell you about the Kearsarge Klassic…" 

River Path, Tyrone
Increasingly, I am starting to suspect that there are cool unpaved routes here if you know where to find them. They are neither promoted nor marked on maps. Even the local cyclists may not know them, simply because deliberately riding on unpaved terrain is not part of the culture here (unless it's technical mountain bike trails, and even that's not all that popular). But dirt and gravel lanes exist, and little by little I am stumbling upon them. Perhaps over time a database of routes could be made and shared among likeminded enthusiasts. After all - if there isn't a map, why not make your own? My optimistic search for the unpaved continues.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Last Days of the Lilacs

Last Days of Lilacs
My favourite flowers are lilacs, and I've been fortunate enough to live in places where they thrive. Though the delicate clusters of four-leaf blossoms are pretty, what gets me is not their look but their scent. And the scent of lilacs is more than just nice. It is alluring, intoxicating, disorienting. It does something to me, like a drug, activating what must surely be a lilac-specific pleasure center in my brain and inducing an intense, blissful high while making me crave more. Come the month of May and the scent follows me around as I walk and cycle the streets - sharp an dewy in the morning, thick and musky in the evening, and always driving me mad. I hardly know whether to be sad or happy that the lilac season only spans a few weeks. I want them near me year round, but that might be too much of a good thing. So I content myself instead with taking some home every year from a local park and enjoying their fleeting bloom while it lasted. 

Last Days of Lilacs
This year, however, proved tricky. I've kept my eyes peeled for lilacs in the parks and forests of the Roe Valley, but the only ones I've come across have been on private property. Neither bold enough to knock on strangers' doors and ask for their flowers, not criminally-minded enough to steal them under the cover of night, for weeks I continued searching for lilacs in the wild with no result, until the mauve four-leaf blossoms began to wilt and thin. The last days of the lilacs had come, and it looked like I would miss out on gathering them this year. 

So I thought on my way to an errand early this morning. My eyes still half-shut with sleep, I rolled into the courtyard and coasted right past them at first. Then I nearly slammed the brakes and backtracked. An enormous hedge, overwhelmed with fat, fluffy lilac clusters, stood right beside the house I'd come to. "Could I buy some of those from you?" I said to the man I'd come to see about a thing. "You want a bush for your garden?" "Oh no, just to put in a vase." "Ach take as many as you like, they'll only be wilting now anyway."

Last Days of Lilacs
With a silly grin, I pedaled home with lilacs in my basket. They were past their prime now, fragile and losing petals easily on the bumpy road, releasing bursts of scent laced with hints of a pre-rot sweetness. 

Last Days of Lilacs
At home I removed the withered brown blossoms, cut the stems down and arranged the bunches in small vases around the house, filling it with the dizzying scent.

Last Days of Lilacs
And the petals that had shed in transit did not go to waste. Did you know that lilacs are edible? Their sharp herbal taste makes for an especially nice garnish on eggy-cheesy dishes. Here's to an end of a beautiful Spring, and to Summer's impeding arrival. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Three Times a Lady: the Lives and Times of Modified Vintage Bikes

1960s BSA Roadster
Last year I wrote about my ethereal friend Clive and his bicycle Lady Huck - a 1960s BSA roadster in a lovely dark shade of racing green. Sadly for me and her both, Clive moved back to New Zealand a few months back. Too costly to transport, Lady Huck was left behind in a shed. "What ever will become of her?" were Clive's tearful words as he boarded the steamship, Huckless.

1960s BSA Roadster
But fate has a way of bringing bikes and people together. For around this same time, my boyfriend (Wait, what?! Yes. Moving on now...) spoke those magic words I'd been longing to hear for months. 

"Listen," he said, astride his rusty mountain bike, eying my Brompton thoughtfully. "Do you think I need mudguards and something over the chain? I keep getting my clothes dirty." 

"Well," I said, as casually as possible, fantasies of him in tweed already running rampant. "If you don't mind an old bike, I know where we can get one with all of those things straight away."

"How old are we talking about here?" he asked suspiciously, recalling the non-functional rod brakes and decomposing tires on my Triumph. 

"Oh don't worry, this one is years newer. You remember, Clive's green bike. It's practically cutting edge."

Lady Huck Under New Ownership
Several days later Lady Huck was under new ownership. 

1960s BSA Roadster
Because of their rise in popularity over the past years, there is now an interesting new category of vintage bicycles on the market: Those that, in addition to their original life span - and, possibly after several decades of languishing in a shed - have lived a second life in modern times. 

1960s BSA Roadster
Typically these bikes will have been cleaned and at least partly refurbished or modified. Deteriorated saddles, tires and grips may replaced with new ones. 

1960s BSA Roadster
Caked dirt and rust removed with diligence.

1960s BSA Roadster
New cables and brake pads might be installed.

1960s BSA Roadster
Perhaps the handlebars are swapped, the levers' position altered, or the gearing modified.

1960s BSA Roadster
Or rod brakes replaced with calipers (though on this bike this was apparently done in the factory). 

1960s BSA Roadster
Sometimes the updates are dramatic. But even when they are subtle, the Second Life vintage bike will have a look to it that sets it apart from the untampered-with originals. And it's fun to try and spot all the little changes the contemporary owner had made. For those seeking the comfort and charm of a vintage bicycle with modern updates, some excellent deals can be had when these bikes are put up for sale by the second owner. On the other hand, there are those who derive pleasure from doing all the cleanup and mods themselves. My boyfriend is more in the latter category, but as Lady Huck needed a home he was happy to oblige.

Lady Huck Under New Ownership
The bicycle being functional and ready-to-ride also gives him a chance to decide whether he even likes vintage roadsters. Last time he rode one was as a child, before he got into motocross and road cycling, and that was decades ago. The geometry and handling are dramatically different from what he's used to ("the front wheel is miles away!"). But he loves the feel of the old Sturmey Archer hub and the upright position. And, riding the BSA down the busted-up farm lanes, he can't get over how cushy the bike feels over rough surfaces - better than a mountain bike with fatter tires.

Lady Huck Under New Ownership
The BSA is too big for me to try, so I cannot contribute any feedback, but I'm glad he's having some fun with it. His position needs tweaking I think, and the bike is screaming out for a large saddlebag… but I'll not interfere and see what he gets up to on his own accord.

1960s BSA Roadster
Perhaps Lady Huck will stay just as she is, or perhaps she will be altered further. Either way, she has been given a 3rd chance at life.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The One Who Taught Us


It's always interesting, when reading books that have nothing to do with cycling what so ever, to come across such passages, casually thrown in. The world of bicycles permeates the text suddenly and then, just as abruptly, it is abandoned. It was, after all, only a snippet. A literary device. Usually a means of conjuring up a childhood memory, replete with symbolism.

Oddly enough I've stumbled upon these types of narratives in several completely different books I've recently read. Each time the passage had to do with learning how to ride a bike - or, more precisely, with the person who taught the author how to do so.

This makes me wonder whether most people - whether they go on to be cyclists in their adult lives or not - have such a memory, and similarly to these authors, feel the incident to be somehow pivotal to their life story. Is it an important memory, the kind of which we have a very vivid sensory recollection? Does it serve to illustrate either the character of the teacher, or the relationship between them and the fledgling cyclist? Furthermore, are there specific persons who tend to play this role in our lives? When I surveyed my friends, grandfathers and uncles made repeat appearances.

Reading and listening to the stories of others, I realise I may be an anomaly. No one taught me how to ride a bicycle. I figured it out myself, on a borrowed bike, alone, in a city park. New York City in springtime. Saturday afternoon. Cherry blossoms. Orthodox Jews strolling. Children's squeals in Spanish from the swings and monkey bars. And me, apart from it all, a clumsy curious child with messy hair, wearing something stripey, made of a terrycloth fabric. I do have a vivid memory of it, and in particular, of the moment I went from pushing off and coasting for several seconds at a time, to knowing, with a breathtaking certainty, that I could keep the bike in motion indefinitely and, aglow with this knowledge, planting my feet on the pedals. This moment went hand in hand with the awareness that no one was there to witness it, to congratulate or encourage, like I'd seen the minders of other children do. But it wasn't a sad feeling. To know that this unbelievable thing I'd just done was my secret only added a layer of depth to the magic.

In retrospect it would have been nice to share a special bond with a family member or older friend through the act of being taught how to cycle. But being my own teacher, however clumsily and haphazardly, makes for a nice memory as well.

PS: text excerpt from Birchwood by John Banville.

Monday, May 19, 2014

What Is the Point?

Point Road, Magilligan
In the northwestern corner of Northern Ireland lies the Magilligan peninsula - a jolly, stout little triangle that juts out into the North Atlantic toward the Republic's County Donegal, to form the pool-like Lough Foyle. From base to tip, the peninsula is bisected by the aptly named Point Road, which winds through 4 miles of grassy dunes, then dead-ends at Magilligan Point. Because it is not a through-way, there is only a handful of reasons to be on this road. One is to access the ferry, which sails across to Donegal every couple of hours. Another is to visit the popular Point Bar, beloved by locals for its steak and Guinness pies and seafood chowders. 

Point Road, Magilligan
Then there are those who require access to the Magilligan Prison half way down the road.  

Point Road, Magilligan
As well as to the adjacent military firing range/ nature reserve - its sprawling grounds tranquil and golf course-like, with only discreet little flags and bits of terrifying signage warning that the range is sometimes "active."

Point Road, Magilligan
Aside from these attractions, there is not much reason to be on the Point Road. Unless you are a local cyclist doing interval training - in which case the flat, wide, gently winding, practically car-free 4 mile stretch makes for the perfect playground in which to let yourself go and push your bicycle's speed as far as your legs and lungs and gears can take it. To see a cyclist slingshot past you in this manner is exciting enough. To do it yourself - or at least try - is an otherworldly experience. 

Point Road, Magilligan
Though I've heard of interval training before, it was not until last summer that I actually tried it, on this very road. My casual imitation of the practice is to go as hard as I possibly can for several minutes, then soft-pedal until my breathing and heartbeat return to normal, then repeat, until I exhaust myself with just enough energy left to roll feebly home. Last year I would do this sometimes, on days when too busy for longer rides. This year I tried it again for the fist time last week. I am out of practice and couldn't go as fast and in as high a gear as I could at my "peak" last Autumn. But it was breathtaking nonetheless. The speed at which the scenery flashes past, sky blending with earth and water. The feeling in my legs from this special flavour of acceleration, when I no longer feel the effort of pushing and instead the gear appears to push itself, taking my legs with it. Finally, the teleportaion-like magic of fixating on a distant object - say, a flagpole ("firing range status: Active") - then finding myself passing that flagpole with no sense of time having lapsed in between. 

Beside such a flagpole, after my last interval, I now spot a figure that's vaguely familiar. I roll past and recognise a prison guard, now off duty, taking a walk. Our usual banter consists of him reminding me not to point my camera at the prison buildings directly as I attempt to capture their unique greenish hue at sunset - in response to which I test how loosely I can interpret his definition of "indirectly." But today I don't have my camera and he is not standing guard, and only grinning glances of acknowledgement are exchanged between us in the sun's golden glow. 

Point Road, Magilligan
Later, I stop and a cyclist I know pulls over beside me. He asks if I'm racing this summer. Last year I said to myself - and also, apparently out loud - that, if I stayed here, I would try time trials "next season." But now this next season is here, and I am not feeling the inclination. I tell him this, and he nods understandingly. Going to give road racing a try then? God no, I say, not with my handling skills. Sportives? I shake my head. Out of ideas, he looks at me quizzically. Why are you training then? I mean, what's the point of killing yourself for nothing? For a moment I feel defensive and almost tell him about my 300km audax. That should make for a satisfactory answer, I think. He would say "Ach!" finally feeling he has a handle on what's going on, and then we'd move on. 

But that would not be an honest answer. Because, in truth, my flying down the Point Road till my vision blurs and I can't feel my legs has nothing to do with this audax, or potential future audaxes, or any local races I may or (more likely) may not ever take part in. There is no point to what I have just done. I simply felt like doing it - my heart so full it had to be done. There was no point, only an impulse. And though I enjoyed it, I cannot really tell you why. So I don't mention the audax, and instead smile stupidly and shrug, and we go our separate ways with the matter unresolved. In the setting sun, the Foyle shimmers behind us. And in the distance ahead looms the compact and jagged Binevenagh Mountain - standing slightly apart from the rest of the Sperrins, like a lone guard tasked with watching over Magilligan's tip.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Front Load on a Mid-trail Road Bike?

Seven + Dill Pickle Handlebar Bag
For the past couple of months, I have been experimenting with carrying a front load on my road bike. It is generally agreed that low trail geometry is preferable for transporting weight over a bicycle's front wheel. However, what does that mean in practice, when applied to bikes with standard road geometry? Will a small handlebar bag make your mid-trail road bike unridable? As someone who's ridden low trail bikes with front loads extensively over the past several years, I would like to share some notes on my own experience.

What allowed me to finally adapt this setup on my road bike, was getting my hands on a handlebar bag that I found acceptable for the purpose. When a bag hangs from the handlebars, I am not comfortable carrying weight in it no matter what the bike's front-end geometry is. If I'm going to put a handlebar bag on my road bike, I want the bag to be (1) low over my front wheel, and (2) sufficiently well-secured, so that it does not sway. At the same time, I do not want to affix a heavy front rack or bulky hardware to my lightweight bike in order to accomplish this. This new-ish handlebar bag from Dill Pickle addresses these concerns. It attaches not only to the handlebars, but to the fork crown, resulting in a setup that is remarkably stable without requiring front rack support. Because my bicycle has a short headtube, it also sits low over my front wheel. All in all, the placement and stability of this setup are comparable to that on my low trail dirt bike.

Seven + Dill Pickle Handlebar Bag
Having affixed the bag (to my titanium road bike with a carbon fork), I first rode with it empty - which amounted to a front load of 386g (13.6 oz). At this stage I could not discern any change in my bicycle's handling at all. However, a bag is not much use when it's empty. So next I loaded it with one of the heavier items I would normally want to carry: my DSLR camera, with one of my larger lenses attached. I also threw in a banana and lightweight rain jacket. I estimate the total weight of this setup, including the bag itself, to be 5lb.

As soon as I set off I noticed a difference in my bike's handling, and continued to notice it in the course of a 30 mile ride. In simplest terms, I could literally feel the weight bearing down on the front end. It wasn't so much a bad sensation, as a distinct one - like riding a different bicycle altogether. As far as I could tell, the weight did not have a destabilising effect on the bike, either on climbs, descents, or turns. So I felt quite safe cycling with this setup. What it did seem to do was make the front end slower to react, as if adding a slight but discernible delay to my bike's normal responsiveness.  More than anything, it changed the "personality" of my bicycle, making it feel slightly tamer and more sluggish. After several photo expeditions, I grew accustomed to the weight. But every time I'd ride with the bag emptied, it would feel like an improvement, like "Aaaaah I have my bike back!" So, while  carrying 5 pounds on the front of my Seven certainly does not make it unridable, the bike simply feels better - sportier, lighter, more responsive - without those 5 pounds. By contrast, the low trail Rawland feels no different with the front end loaded versus unloaded.

Seven + Dill Pickle Handlebar Bag
But hauling camera equipment in a handlebar bag is a different scenario from that of a long-distance brevet. In the latter case, the bag would be kept comparatively light with items such as clothing and snacks. On the 300K brevet I rode recently, I had this bag filled with such items, but its overall weight was perhaps half that of the photo-expedition setup. With these lighter contents, I did not notice the effects on handling to nearly the same extent. There was a little bit of weight on the front, but the bike still felt like My Bike. And the handlebar bag was ever so convenient for extracting items on the go.

Since affixing this bag to my road bike, I have carried in it items including clothing, gadgets, cameras, books, even groceries. Over short distances, I've probably ridden with close to 10lb in the bag. As far as handling and overall feel, the formula seems straightforward enough: The less weight on the front, the better and more like itself the bicycle feels. Depending on one's use case scenario, that may or may not be acceptable. For my purposes, it is good enough.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Ode to the Pseudo-Wall, Its Joys and Hidden Dangers

As cyclists grow familiar with hills, in their countless iterations and guises, a reliable favourite is what I shall call here the Pseudo-Wall.

Recall those times you've cycled, at a good clip, on the rolling terrain of a vast open road as yet unknown to you - perhaps as part of a brevet, sportive or other organised ride - when suddenly, in the distance, you see this very road you are on turn vertical. From your vantage point it looks not so much like an incline or even a steep hill, as literally a wall - stone gray and perpendicular to the ground beneath you, pointing heavenward and of an impossible height.

The first time you encounter such a sight, it fills you with dread and panic. Perhaps a strange taste builds up in your mouth. For surely what looms ahead is unscalable. Oddly, the other riders beside you are not screaming, writhing, or turning back in terror. Perhaps they are made of stronger stuff than you.  Or else they hide their true emotions, just as you attempt to do.

Contemplating this, you advance toward the fearsome giant and stoically brace for impact - for the burning pain in your legs, for spinning wildly or standing on the pedals and stomping, for the possibility even of having to unclip and walk. But as your approach continues, something rather odd happens: The point of impact never comes. It is as if the transition toward the wall's gruesome incline blurs and softens as you draw nearer. And just as you start to wonder When will I finally reach this knee-breaking monster?! you glance over your shoulder and see you are already half way up it. In no particular order, you cycle through feelings of joy, surprise, suspicion, relief and anti-climax. And by the time you are done with those, you've reached the very peak. Did you even climb a hill at all? The dizzying view behind you says yes indeed. But your body does not feel anywhere near the anticipated effects.

Such is the wondrous phenomenon that is the pseudo-wall. Some call it a false climb, for it is a climb that looks far worse than it feels. Possibly the effect is a visual illusion, having to do with perspective and limitations of the human eye. Like when we see a huge setting sun and excitedly snap a picture, only to capture a tiny spec. It can also be that we underestimate our momentum on approach, which proves sufficient to carry us over the steep parts. But no matter what we call it and how we explain it, what a rush it is to know, when we see the thing ahead and recognise it for what it is, that we can conquer it with relative ease despite its menacing facade. Once familiar with the pseudo-wall, we storm it with fearless confidence. And it is then the new riders who steal glances at us and wonder how we can be so calm when heading toward that thing.

In that implicit, visceral way that bypasses rules and checklists, we learn to recognise the pseudo-wall, to tell it apart from hills that will truly feel brutal. We get quite good at this over time. But on occasion, mistakes are made. Unlucky is the cyclist who encounters the False Pseudo-Wall. Doomed is the cyclist who attacks it blithely, only to feel their speed and energy drain so quickly it leaves them breathless even before the pain hits, even before the cold panic of having misjudged their gearing sets in. Having witnessed cyclists fall prey (literally falling over, having failed to downshift in time!) to the false pseudo-wall, I will never underestimate its sinister ways. With respect I eye every new looming hill, for their power to surprise is awesome.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Cycling Scent-sations

Amidst the Whim and Rape
Cycling the maze of Roe Valley's coastal farm roads, everything in early May is yellow. The dark golden warmth of thorny whin hedges borders the lemony coolness of rapeseed blossoms, and together they're fringed by generous sprinklings of matte creamy buttercups. Rolling past these swells of subtly-altering yellowness, I realise that I can parse out the plants, even from a distance, by more than just their hue. I can smell them each individually, even before I can see them. Coming around the bend, the honeyed scent of the whin flower heralds a prickly wall of yellow ahead. Strange, since I can't ever seem to smell this plant off the bike - even if I walk right up to the hedge and sniff the flowers up close. 

It is not only flowers that smell more strongly from the bicycle. On sunny mid-mornings I pick up on scents of freshly washed laundry hung out to dry. 

In the evenings the smells of peat fires being lit and dinners being cooked taunt me as I hurry hungrily home in the rapidly cooling air.

I can smell horses and farm animals, and other warm farmy scents, and increasingly I can tell what exactly they are.

I can smell the sunbaked stone of village centers and housing estates.

And the damp, musky stone of dilapidated structures reclaimed by new growths of forest.

In the distance, but sometimes up close, and sometimes beneath me over a cliff's edge, I can smell the sea, with its salty slimy growths, pale grasses and petrified shellfish.

I can smell the rich soil.

I can smell the coming rain.

I can smell that exquisite sentimentality up at Ballyhacket mountain at dusk that is probably moss and peat heated up by the slow-burning sun, then released in subtle vaporous doses through the evening hours. 

It is reasonable to assume that this heightened awareness of scents comes from being outdoors, not enclosed in a car or building. But I think it goes beyond that. After all, my sense of smell on the bike seems keener than when merely lounging outside or walking. It also seems to grow stronger the harder I go, the more I exert myself. A friend has noticed this in himself as well, and his thinking is that cycling - with its strain, its focus, its heightened appetite, and its reliance on intuitions - sharpens the senses, making the rider more animalistically attuned to the layered nuances of scent. After hours on the bike, pushing their limits, the rider is no longer simply a person on two wheels. No, something is added in the process. Slowly the rider is transformed into an altogether different animal - one that is gifted with a richer and deeper olfactory experience. The effect may only be temporary, but the memories and secret knowledge it leaves us with remain ours forever. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Peloton Vanishes

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Up the winding coastal road framed by stark, peaty hills, walks a man in Tinkoff Saxo cycling kit, carrying a pole topped with a cluster of flags. As he makes his way up the incline, the pole flexes and the flags flutter frantically in the wind that's been picking up since morning. The bursts of colour in the gray drizzle commandeer the attention of roadside onlookers. On top is the green, white and orange of the Irish tricolour. Below it, the bright pink of the Giro inscribed "Giro d'Irlanda." And beneath those, a yellow flag with the cryptic "John 3:7".

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
As I kneel at the side of the road and photograph his journey's progress, a police car slows down beside me. "Is that your car parked over there?" says the officer.

"It's not," I reply, continuing to compose my shot.

"But I think it is," replies he. "The fellows there say 'That girl in pink with the camera just come out of it'. Look if it's your car, you need to come with me."

"It's not my car," I say.

From across the road a group of people watches intently.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Since the early morning, we are on the Antrim Coast between Ballycastle and Cushendall, by the spooky, mist-covered Vanishing Lake, waiting for Stage 2 of the Giro d'Italia. The idea is to get the peloton coming through an unmistakably local landscape. Not the prettiest landscape with the most dramatic coastal views, but one that captures the feeling of what cycling here is really like. Perhaps we do too good a job in that respect. The sprinkles of pink against the otherwise bare, green-gray-brown background only accentuate the surrounding emptiness and surprising lack of festivity. The crowds are thin, the police unfriendly. There is a vague but unmistakable tension in the air. And that's before the drizzle becomes a downpour.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
On a grassy bank a cluster of spectators attempts a picnic, now clasping soggy clumps of food under their ponchos.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Others fare better under the canopies of enormous caravans that seem home to entire cycling clubs from nearby counties.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
The road has been marked with words and slogans, including tributes to Irish riders Nicolas Roche and Dan Martin

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
The flags are slowly making their way to the hilltop.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Cyclists - solitary and in groups - parade up and down the car-free road in anticipation.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Until they too are told to clear out. The breakaway is 20 minutes away. 

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
The air grows thick as we wait. We wait for the riders to overwhelm us with the power and energy and colour of their presence, while at the same time worrying that they will not - that it will all be over too quickly, that it will make no difference at all, that nothing - not even the 2-wheel stampede of a magnificent world-famous race - can stir this ancient, tense place. 

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
When the first team cars go by it is a welcome change from the echelons of police vehicles, tow trucks and vans peddling pink t-shirts which no one wants to buy. People begin to shout. They get close to the cars, run after them.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
When a Movistar car pulls over to the side of the road, it is politely swarmed. The tanned men inside roll down the windows and speak in bemused tones with thick accents to the crowds who ask rapid-fire questions and seem unable to stop themselves from touching them. 

"When is the break-away coming?" 

"Ten-eh minoot-ehs." 

Ten minutes, ten minutes!

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Things happen quickly after that. First we hear sirens and the sounds of a hovering helicopter.  Then we see them, in quick procession. The red lead car.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
The black motorcycles with pink "Race" decals on their windshields.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
And immediately after, a string of 4 skinny riders, pedaling hard up the long incline, as the helicopter circles above. 

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
This seems to go on in slow motion, and at the same time it is a blur. I am not the only one who has no idea who the riders are, as the spectators can be heard referring to them by the colour of their kit. First comes the neon yellow one, with the green one close behind. Then after a gap, comes the red one, followed by the black one. More team cars and motorcycles go by, and in the distance we can see a dark cloud that is the peloton.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
What do I expect the peloton to look like as it goes past? I am not exactly sure, but not the way it does. Perhaps I expect it to be long, narrow and orderly - a drawn out echelon of maybe 4 riders abreast, vying for position elegantly. Instead it comes at us in one fat messy clump that takes up the entire width of the road, and looks unexpectedly haphazard. 

The riders in the bunch appear not so much tired from physical exertion as weary, even a little bored. Some are chatting and chuckling about something that must have annoyed them, with a shake of the head like "whatcha gonna do." A few are glancing around and actually yawning. One smiles and another winks at me. Which ones are doing all these things? I have no idea. The entire peloton looks to be wearing black with the exception of the refreshingly smurf-hued Astana guys, so those are the only riders I can even identify by team. 

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
I do not get my bearings in time to smile back, or wave, or shout anything encouraging. I am using a big film camera, advancing the knob at a rate I would not have thought possible, clicking away and hoping for the best in the 5 seconds it is all happening. 

It is over as soon as it starts. 

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
After the peloton I expect more. Small groups of stragglers, a drawn out procession of some sort. But after a colourful blur of team cars, the road is empty and silent again. It takes me some time to realise it is actually finished. 

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
Before long, people are walking and cycling on the road again. Cars are permitted to leave. And, just like that, off everyone goes, encouraged by the lashing rain. Was I hoping for a street party? Hardly. But the speed at which everything reverts to its pre-Giro state is more than a little anti-climactic. The Giro has been through the Antrim coast and all I got is this soggy hair and water drops on my camera lens.

Giro d'Italia in Antrim
The peloton has vanished, and with it the spectators, and the scraps of pink, and the bicycles, and the Irish flag on the hilltop. Only the Vanishing Lake itself, near-invisible earlier that morning, now swells and deepens into its brooding ripply-gray existence, nestled contently amidst the soggy peaty glens.