Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way Audax
I was so tired that as I slid into the passenger seat of the old car, I bumped my helmet into the frame of the door. With a few twists of the knob, the seat was comfortably reclined. I could hardly believe my luck. Moments earlier, I had finished my ascent of the Glengesh Gap in County Donegal, in the middle of a dark and foggy night. Ahead was a winding descent — usually a prospect to relish, but my eyes were tired and playing hallucinatory tricks, sending me in the wrong direction several times. Worse, they were heavy from sleepiness. It was just too dangerous. I needed sleep.
That old car, God bless it, was my refuge for the next forty minutes. When the alarm on my iPhone buzzed (after what seemed like only five minutes) I fought the strong urge to press snooze. These internal battles had been happening regularly for days now and were becoming harder and harder to win. I’d taken to using food to coax myself out of sleep; this time, I tucked into a rain-dampened ham and cheese wrap. Staring blankly through the windscreen, chewing like a zombie, I slowly became more alert. Taking it all in, I shook my head and laughed. This is insane, I thought as I opened the door to the gale blowing outside. Forty minutes of sleep near the end of a 300 km ride (the sixth of seven 300-km rides in a row) just recharged the batteries enough to get safely to the sleeping contrôle in Lackenagh, where warm food and a couple more hours of rest were possible. My body, of course, yearned for much more sweet slumber (and food as well) but wouldn’t get either in significant quantity for another day at least.
This is just one snapshot from my adventure on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way Audax. The route, stamped onto the gnarly west coast of Ireland, has evolved over time and in 2014 was relaunched by Fáilte Ireland (Irish Tourism). At 2,100 km, the Wild Atlantic Way bills itself as the world’s longest coastal touring route. 55 of us set out from Kinsale in County Cork, along the seemingly never-ending route to Derry in County Donegal.
I’d first heard of the route from an Irish cyclist named Paddy Griffin, whom I’d met at the previous year’s Paris-Brest-Paris. His sales pitch was brief and ominous: “The weather will not be good.” But something about it captured my imagination. Back home in Canada, I researched the route and traced its red line along the Atlantic coast. Certainly, we would never be far from the ocean. It was indeed a Wild Atlantic Way. Rather than considering the wind and rain that might be thrown in my face, I envisaged picturesque Irish pubs and windswept fishing villages filled with fresh-faced lasses in Aran-knit sweaters pouring Guinness. Eagerly, I signed up.
The Audax was to be tackled in seven stages, each of about 300 km, between sleeping contrôles. The time limit was a staggering 175 hours. This worked out to 12 km/h (night and day) for a week. Assuming a typical ultra-cycling pace of 22-25 km/h, I calculated there would be time to eat, sleep, and socialize after each stage. A very civilized, fair proposition. Just before the event, in a moment I would end up replaying hundreds of times in my mind, local legend Jimmy Fitzpatrick, from Kilkenny, cautioned me: “Meyrick, there’s a lot of heavy roads. You might look down and see that it’s only giving you 10 miles an hour, or you might look down and see that you’re getting 12. Either way, that’s all you’re getting and you can’t fight it.”
Audax riding isn’t about winning and losing, though Jimmy would go on to ‘win’ the event by a mind-boggling margin. On the Wild Atlantic Way, one’s relationship with time and speed on a bike is different to when we ride back home. In a single word: slower. I came to truly understand this on Achill Island, County Mayo. It was day four of the WAWA and after two and a half hours of sleep on an air mattress in a gymnasium, we were to begin our 300 km day with an 80 km loop around Ireland’s biggest island. The wind on this exposed rock in the Atlantic blew with such fury that every rippling green, white, and orange flag had been torn to threads years ago. For all of its beauty, it may as well have been Greenland. I half expected to see penguins and puffins amongst the rocky, sheep-dotted landscape. We stopped momentarily to collect photos of the white-capped waves crashing onto the rocks below. Concerns about speed tend to slip away once you give up on creating it. When the first 70 kilometres of a 300 km day take seven hours, you know you’re in for a long one. That day’s section of coastline would take more than 18 hours to cover.
Pedalling 2,100 km of the rugged Irish countryside requires a certain dogged determination. The mind-set of the successful randonneur is one of steel-willed resiliency. The first time I considered quitting was on day one. I had broken spokes from the rough roads, and despite having brought replacements, my repair work had failed to produce a wheel that would spin true. It was badly warped and I was side-lined. I watched rider after rider go past, my frustration building. Neutral support (a friendly chap named Eamon) was hours away. I sat at a pub and ate, and waited, for hours. Then, bored, I decided to try to fix it one more time. Off with the tire, off with the tube, tightening spokes here, loosening spokes there, until… Success! The difference? I’m not sure. A full belly perhaps? A calmer demeanour? Or maybe the WAWA was just toying with me. I was miles behind, but unconquered. In fact, I was quite proud that I’d been able to save myself. Most importantly, I was still in the game.
Day two brought rain and mountains. Knee-exploding climb after knee-exploding climb. If you’re planning to ride a bike in Ireland, bear in mind that beautiful patchwork quilt of emerald fields and stone fences has mountains — lots of them. More thoughts of quitting. Everything was soaked. My Garmin wasn’t charging, there was too much water, and the climbs were lining up one after the other. I stared down at the Garmin and remembered Jimmy’s words about the heavy roads. I was doing 9 km/h. I couldn’t even calculate how long the 300 km would take me at this speed. Maybe I should quit, I thought. Then, my response: just keep going — it has to get better.
On the third day I woke up in a near-empty gymnasium. Most of the other riders had set out earlier than me, leaving me with only a few others who’d run into trouble and got in late the previous evening. Exhausted, but aware that I’d not yet clawed back any of the time lost on day one, I jumped out of bed, got organized, ate breakfast, and threw my leg over the bike. 600 km into this adventure and my undercarriage was starting to feel the effects of the distance. I lowered myself gingerly upon the worn leather saddle, trying to perch lightly. Eventually one has to settle into that pain, and let it normalize. Like the heavy roads, you can’t fight it.
Two minutes down the road, in a flash rainstorm, I broke two more spokes and my freehub seized. Slowly I limped back to the contrôle where the problem was diagnosed by the organizers. It can’t be solved here, they told me. I exhaled, unbuckled my helmet, and prepared to declare my understandable and honourable withdrawal from the WAWA. But then a helpful gent burst through the door with a near perfect replica of my rear wheel. “Here, take mine!” I didn’t know whether to hug him or hate him.
Rolling again. Still in the WAWA. Mentally, I was hanging on by a thread — but I was hanging on. I felt like a boxer that had gone four or five rounds and was a long way down on points. Bloodied, swollen, swaying, but still in the ring.
As the day progressed my mind-set changed. Nothing was going to take me out of this event. I wanted it too badly now. Not even the extra 24 km of hills three of us had to endure due to a navigational error, not getting in late again. None of those things were enough to shake me. I was locked in a battle and I was determined. By day three, I stopped considering quitting. The challenge did not, however, let up. The coastal beauty was undeniable, and the pictures show the charms of the landscape, but the gales, and the rain continued unabated. The sheer distance and lack of sleep began to take its inevitable toll on my body.
From day five I needed to find sleep on the course to fight off accumulating fatigue. The venue didn’t matter — the car, a child’s playhouse, a sofa in a corridor of a hotel while my clothes were in the dryer. My adventures pale in comparison to some of the stories from my fellow randonneurs. One cyclist, rising from sleep in a roadside ditch, sleepwalked half a mile away — losing his bike completely. He called the organizers to help him find it using the tracking beacon. Paddy slept wrapped in an emergency blanket tucked away in a small grotto under a statue of the Virgin Mary. One cold night near Malin Head, County Donegal, I came across a rider walking his bike — he was suffering from Shermer’s neck (an ultra-cycling ailment derived from holding one’s head up too long). Another cyclist stood nearby, bewildered and shivering in the middle of the road with genuinely no idea which way to go. By comparison I was in good shape but worried about whether I would make it inside the time limit.
The final day started slowly. Soreness and fatigue were ever present, but as the kilometres ticked by, I noted that these weren’t the heavy roads I’d been riding on all week. The distance piled up quickly. It was all mental of course, but perception is a powerful motivator. I turned the pedals a little quicker, I felt the burn a little more, and allowed it to stay. With 150 km to go, I was legitimately giddy, elated about life and feeling fresh. I noted the exact moment I passed 2,000 km and announced it aloud to nobody in particular.
The map showed a final run along the banks of Lough Foyle into Derry, which sat at the head of the inlet. On the Garmin it looked like it would be flat, fast, and 20-30 minutes. As I rounded the corner and took my first look, I couldn’t even see Derry in the distance. It was the final mental challenge of the WAWA — that final stretch along Lough Foyle would be much longer than I had guessed. It was my strongest stretch of the entire 2,100 km. I was time-trialling! I was filled with pride in accomplishing what seemed truly impossible a few days earlier, something torturously difficult. It was so intoxicating all my pain ebbed away.
Finally, the Peace Bridge in Derry came into sight. It’s a beautiful, new piece of symbolic architecture, linking two communities that have been at violent odds for centuries. Catholics and Protestants in a divided city with two names — Derry and Londonderry. On this day, for me, the jutting stanchions and the graceful, curving lines of the bridge deck couldn’t have looked more majestic. As I slowly pedalled across, savouring each of the last few meters to the finish, I felt the enormity of completing the Wild Atlantic Way. I respectfully dismounted my bike and sat down upon the top tube with a tear in my eye. I was weathered and worn, tired and sore, but changed permanently by the magnitude of what I had done.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 16 where it was first printed.