In the interest of honesty, I should say this up front: I would not have considered riding Lap the Lough had I not been invited to cover it. There are several reasons for this. First, it's a sportive. And in my seven years of cycling, I have avoided sportives as some might avoid poison ivy, or jellyfish, or malaria. I am a cautious, risk-avoidant cyclist. And sportives (aka charity rides, gran fondos, or whatever you want to call them), reek of danger: a heady cocktail of riders with mixed handling skills trying to go fast in very large groups, without necessarily knowing how to ride in groups. In addition to this, I am generally not a fan of crowds. Crowds make me panic. And crowds on bikes just seem like a special kind of nightmare that I want no part of. A club ride, a niche dirt road event, or a local brevet, are just about the height of what I can cope with. A "famous," mainstream sportive in which 2,500 cyclists are expected to take part? Oh goodness me.
The other thing about Lap the Lough is, well, the lough! Or rather, its absence. I had visited Lough Neagh once before. The countryside is pleasant enough, even though by Irish standards it is, frankly, somewhat lacking in drama. But the most curious part, is that the lough itself is mostly invisible from the road. So, while it's true that Lough Neagh is the largest lake in all of UK and Ireland, the satisfaction of lapping it requires some capacity for abstract thought, since the actual body of water would remain hidden from view.
So, in summary: 100 miles, in the company of 2,500 other cyclists, around an implied, but mostly invisible lake. I was about to thank the lovely organisers (whom I've met, and who really are lovely), and politely explain it was not my cup of tea. But first I mentioned the ride to my husband, Gary. And he stunned me with a degree of enthusiasm I had not thought him capable of for such an event. He had never shown interest in organised cycle rides before. And he wasn't too keen on distances either. When I took part in my last brevet, he was happy enough to send me off with a friend, helping us load our bikes in the car and muttering "not in a million years!" under his breath. But now, for whatever reason, this particular ride attracted him. And, before I knew it, we were both signed up to Lap the Lough on the 28th of August.
An eventful summer followed. At the start of it we cycled lots. In July we even did a mini-tour through scenic County Kerry. But following that I had some minor surgery. Consequently, I was off the bike for 4 weeks, and was cleared to cycle again only days before the event. Getting back on the bike after a month's absence, I had definitely lost fitness. But a couple of training rides later, I could tell that if I took it easy I could manage the ride. Lap the Lough was on!
Now, in case I have not made it clear already, everything about this type of cycling event would normally make me nervous. But for better or worse, my husband has an animal-whisperer/ large dose of valium type of effect on me. And even though I should know by now to take his "ah, you'll be grand!" assurances with a pinch of salt, I fall for them every time. Hypnotised into an unnaturally lighthearted attitude, I hummed contentedly as we got ready the night before. The morning of, I hopped out of bed at an ungodly hour, chirpy and excited for the long drive. Sure, it would be grand!
On approaching from the west, we did not even need directions to the Dungannon start, so thick was the road with vehicles carrying bikes. In the car park, alongside many others, we stealthily changed into cycling clothes, whipped out our bikes from the back seat of the car, popped in the front wheels, checked that we had everything with us, and, along with a steady procession of other cyclists, headed toward the Hill of the O'Neill. Somewhere between all the commotion and Gary's mischievous grin, I forgot to feel nervous.
The ancient capital of Ulster, the Hill of the O'Neill rises up sharply from the otherwise tame local landscape, offering an expansive overview of surrounding lands. In more recent times, the site has served as a British army base during the Northern Ireland conflict, complete with helicopter pad and bomb disposal garages. Access to the hill was barred to the civilian population throughout this time, until a decade ago the land was finally handed back to the local council and turned into a historical park, its castle ruins restored.
Considering this history, it was quite a sight to behold the hill now being "invaded" by hordes of cyclists and their bikes, rushing toward the registration pavilion. With our wrist bands and helmet stickers affixed, we took our place in the lengthy queue down the cobblestone hillside toward the starting line.
I was surprised right away not only by the sheer number of cyclists still queuing up for the start (considering that many waves had already gone ahead in the fast group), but also by the variety of Irish, English, and even continental European accents I could hear all around us. This was not a locals-only sportive by any means! Did I mention 2,500 people were taking part?
The event start was staggered, so that the fast group (17mph+) would take off first, the medium group (14-17mph) second, and the casual group (10-14mph) last. And within each group, the start gates would open to let 20 riders out at a time, with pauses of several minutes in between each "release." This made for a rather drawn-out, but remarkably un-chaotic start to the event, with plenty of space for everyone and no need to jostle for position. Having arrived on the late side, we set off at the tail end of the medium group, with plenty of breathing room to get our bearings as we followed the road markings out of town in a civilised cluster of cyclists.
What happened next was very interesting, as I had never experienced such a thing before. Without any overt communication having passed between us, there seemed to be an unspoken consensus in our group of 20 riders to:
(1) immediately form a non-rotating double-paceline,
(2) crank up the speed steadily, until we caught up to the group in front of us.
And once we did catch up with that group, it became clear that they had done much the same, as had the group in front of them. So in fact, we merged not only with the 20 riders who had immediately preceded us, but with an enormous echelon.
We sat in this group for a while, in a remarkably neat double paceline without anyone changing positions. And when I use the word "sat," it seems apt, as it did not feel like we were doing any work at all. I looked down at my computer, and the speeds that were registering were just surreal, especially considering that I was mostly coasting.
After a while, and once we were out on wider open roads, the nature of the echelon started to change: A third column of riders began to form on the righthand side, and in single-file procession to slowly but steadily overtake the two columns on the left. We fell in with this faster stream, until we had emerged along with them from the main echelon and formed our own, smaller bunch, that surged on ahead.
In this smaller group we then plowed on ahead until we caught up and merged with the next large echelon. And then the same same thing would begin again - the echelon forming slower and faster "streams," the latter of which would eventually separate and surge ahead to catch up with the next larger group. It was like some organic process of cell multiplication/ mutation, except with bicycles. And my one regret on this ride is that my handling skills are not good enough to have snapped a photo that shows what it's like to be a part of this organism.
Somewhere in the midst of this, and once the novelty of the situation began to wear off, it suddenly dawned on me that we were moving ahead through group after group at a rather fast pace. Was this a good idea, considering the milage still ahead of us? I should mention perhaps that Gary had never done a 100 mile ride before, 60 being his previous limit. Me, I have done many 100 mile rides, but was out of shape from a month off the bike. When I first suggested we should perhaps slow down and just stay put with a steady group, the husband smiled and winked in a que sera, sera sort of way. Falling for it yet again, I kept pedaling.
If I have to trace when the trouble began, it was when we both had to pee some time after mile 20. The rest stop would not be for another 10 miles and we agreed we would not be able to hold it in. So we pulled over at a service station. We were very efficient. We peed, and were back on the road in no time. Still, the stopping meant we were now well behind the group we had separated from. The reasonable thing to do would be to wait and fall in with whatever group came along next. But the husband had this brilliant idea that we put in some effort and attempt to catch up with the faster group. And, like an idiot, I agreed.
It took us some time and effort, but we did catch up with the faster group. And when we finally did (in a headwind, no less), I was so spent that despite the drafting benefit I had hardly the strength to stay with them. By the time the first rest stop came along, it felt like I'd spent all the reserves of energy I had for the entire 100 mile ride, on those first 30.
At the rest stop, I pulled Gary aside: "Listen. I can finish this ride one of two ways. Either we both slow down. And I mean, way down, I'm talking 14mph, not the 19mph we are doing now! Or you go on ahead with a fast group, and we do the rest of the ride separately. Who says we have to ride together anyway? We can meet up at rest stops and share impressions, it'll be fun."
With a mouthful of banana he was straight out laughing at me.
"Look I'm wise to your tricks by now. You don't like to suffer and you pull this stuff at the slightest hint of discomfort. But you're fine. You look fine! There's no way we're doing this separately; you are my fast group."
My head nearly exploded. "You're wise to my tricks? It's you who tricked me. We said we would take it easy, have picnics. What the hell is this?"
"We'll have a picnic at the lunch stop," he said, planting a banana-smeared kiss on my cheek. "Come on, it's only 20 miles up the road!"
What can you do with a fellow like that? For the next 10 miles my legs were propelled by sheer frustration. Then suddenly the frustration flipped to uncontrollable laughter. We rode in a very tight bunch for this stretch, along back roads, and the sun was beating down on us hard as morning transitioned to noon.
There was something surreal to finding myself in this situation - the tight echelon, the fast pace, the mere fact that I was riding a friggin' sportive! - and suddenly I was able to enjoy it all despite putting in what felt to be an absolutely unsustainable level of effort.
For the first time since the ride's start, I even caught glimpses of Lough Neagh once or twice along this stretch. The Lough, we were lapping it!
The lunch stop in Antrim Gardens was lush and inviting, in a forest clearing type setting. There had been a tent put up, and remarkable amounts of hot soup on tap, since the forecast had promised rain. But as instead the day was scorchingly sunny, most riders were sunbathing on the grass in various states of undress and guzzling water while waiting for their soup to cool.
Some riders' families had arrived to meet them here and cheer them along, and family picnics - complete with Frisbee games, cooing babies, barking pets, and the like - were in progress throughout. I should mention here also, that all through the ride there were, here and there, spectators cheering us on along the roads, with noise makers and balloons! And while some of them were clearly family members of ride participants, others seemed to be local residents whose houses happened to be along the route. I have never experienced being cheered along on the bike before, and must say it is not entirely disagreeable!
After having a rest and some soup, I actually felt as if I'd recovered a bit. And we both agreed not to dawdle too long at the lunch stop, lest our bodies get used to all this lounging about and refuse to go on! We refilled our water bottles, used the fine portable toilet facilities, and set off as marshals directed us out of the Gardens back on the main road.
"And how are you feeling," I asked before we went on.
But I could see without him having to tell me that the 50 miles had hardly made a dent in him. He had trained for the event by doing short, intense rides, and clearly this tactic worked well for him.
By contrast, I had "trained" for the event by not cycling at all for 4 weeks, then doing two moderately paced rides at the eleventh hour. But I tried not to dwell on this as we continued around the lough.
Technically more than half of the way through at this point, we expected to join with a well-paced group once again and enjoy that "moderate tailwind," that the weather forecast had promised. But the character of the ride had changed somewhat on the return leg.
Firstly it seemed that a good portion of riders were starting to tire at this point. There were cyclists pulled over at the side of the road every few miles, just sitting and resting. The promised tailwind turned out to be a headwind. And the mild, but not infrequent climbs that began along the return leg also had the effect of breaking up groups. As a result, groups grew smaller in size, and were strung out far apart.
We found it quite difficult to get in with a bunch of the sort we were able to take advantage of on the first leg of the ride. Every time we would join a seemingly large, steady group, a hill would come along and half the group would be gone. Then a cyclist or two would pull over to the side of the road to rest. And suddenly we'd find ourselves in a cluster with 2-3 other riders battling a headwind. We would then all do our best to catch up with another small group and join forces, only for the newly-formed bunch to implode in the same manner.
And so for the next 30 miles we spent much of the time riding either alone as a pair, or in very small groups. And although the rest stop on the return leg helped, I was not immune to the effects of the headwind and hills. I was clearly not in good enough shape to tackle this ride at the pace we'd attempted to do it in, and as a result I was now suffering pretty badly. How the event photographer [credit: Industry Image] managed to get this shot of me grinning, I honestly have no idea. I assure you that I was having a terrible time of it at this point. Terrible, I tell you!
To my credit, I did hold on a good long while past that point, at mile 30, when I first declared that I couldn't sustain the pace. But somewhere between mile 80 and 90, my body finally gave up. It was no longer a mind over matter thing. The mind had checked out long ago and left the body alone. But despite their best effort, my legs simply couldn't turn the pedals anymore. I slowed down considerably. And then I slowed down some more. Until, with 7 miles to go, I was barely churning 12.5mph into a headwind despite putting in every grain of strength I had left.
And then the climb to the finish began.
While most of the Lap the Lough route really was comparatively "flat," by local standards, the final 5 miles featured a sustained, at times quite steep, climb into Dungannon, culminating in a cobblestone(!) section straight up the Hill of the O'Neill. While for those of us "lucky" enough to live in the northwest of Ireland, the climb was really nothing unusual (and really a rather fine way to end a 100 mile ride, if you ask me!) others were quite taken aback by this twist to the plot at the end. A few people got off their bikes and walked. Unprintable words were uttered.
Me, I just got into my lowest gears at this point, tried to turn my brain off completely, and resigned myself to fate, as Gary surged ahead for the final stretch and waited to greet me at the top. The final cobblestone section was brilliant, as I'd never ridden on that sort of texture uphill before.
At the end, there was much hormone-induced weeping and hysterical laughter, in rapid succession. And some delirious lolling about on the grass, before we finally calmed down.
On the ancient hilltop a brass band was playing to celebrate the finish. And apparently, medals were being handed out - although we'd somehow managed to miss this in our dazed state, and returned home empty-handed!
Aside from sore leg muscles and some saddle-induced skin abrasion, I cannot report much bodily damage (I was fine to commute on my upright bike 15 miles the next day). And there seems to be no damage at all to the husband... unless you count a sudden desire to ride more sportives (oh god help me!).
As far as logistics: Our overall moving average was 16mph, over 96 miles with 3,500ft of elevation gain. This may not be impressive by roadie standards, but for me it is unprecedented to sustain that speed over that kind of milage, and I couldn't - simply wouldn't - have done it without Gary's influence. Now, whether it's a good or a bad influence, I still can't decide!
And as far as Lap the Lough 2016 in of itself... Well, they don't call them sportives for nothing. It was not a leisure cycle, and not a parade, but an all-out athletic event. Most of the participants were quite fit. The majority rode carbon fibre racing bikes. Many treated the ride as an unofficial race. It was basically like a club run, on steroids. And with food stops, roadside cheerleaders, marshals, support vehicles, plentiful road markings, and a festive vibe. So, as far as sportives go, this was an overwhelmingly fun and friendly one. And a safe one, with all the riders attracted to this particular ride apparently being endowed with excellent handling skills and knowledge of group ride etiquette. I should also stress again how comparatively "flat" the route was, for what you'd normally get in Ireland, and in that sense it is a good choice for cyclists of all abilities. No doubt it is for all these reasons and more that the Lap of the Lough is such a cult-status event, with 2,500 cyclists eager to circle a largely invisible lake!
From a personal viewpoint, perhaps the most satisfying part of the event for me was how much my husband enjoyed it, and how amazingly well he did on his first 100 mile ride. Gary absolutely loved Lap the Lough; he is already planning next year's event, telling his friends. It melts my heart to see him enjoy cycling on his own terms.
Me? To be honest, sportives really are out of my comfort zone, so perhaps once was enough. Although who knows! Admittedly, being out of my comfort zone isn't all bad.
The Lap the Lough event is run by the Upbeat Agency - a non-profit organisation aiming to increase cycling participation and improve conditions for cyclists throughout Northern Ireland. These folks are also behind projects such as the Fred Festival. Profits from Lap the Lough go toward future cycling events and activities.
With thanks to the Lap the Lough organisers, designers (check out Victory Chimp and Donard.CC), volunteers and participants for a wonderful day. And, as always, with thanks to you all for reading.