Tri Athy 2019 – Race Report

 

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It’s been 3 years since my last triathlon race. Until last weekend.

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On 13th August 2016, I did my first and only Ironman 70.3 event in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin. I’d signed up to the event in early 2016 when planning out my year’s racing. However, as luck would have it, I ended up getting injured in April 2016 and was ruled out of all running for the rest of the year. As a result, I had to resign myself to not taking part in all of the running and tri events I had already signed up for (and paid for!), which was really bloody difficult. To say it was a struggle would be an understatement. More like a frenzied, demented wrestle with myself…

It was the first time in my life I had ever signed up to an event and then not taken part. I managed to tie myself down for the whole summer, except when it came to the Ironman. My rationale was that I’d already paid the 300 euro registration and I really, really did not want to miss out on the whole experience so I reached a compromise with myself that I would just do the swim and the cycle and then tap out. Needless to say, when it got to that point, I thought ah sure, I’ll just do a little bit of the run, just one lap and leave it at that. I passed my Dad and waving enthusiastically at him to convince him I was feeling great at that point… I shouted to him “Just gonna do one lap, Dad, I’ll see you shortly.” Of course, the runner in me couldn’t quit after one lap and I ended up doing the whole thing.

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Whaaaaaattt?

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The 70.3 was a great experience, but I effectively ran the half marathon having done zero running training. I hadn’t run at all for 4.5 months. This is something that I would absolutely always warn other people against and was not something I ever remotely would have done previously. I was a desperate person and I reached for a desperate solution. I absolutely advocate that if you want to run a half marathon (or any other distance) you 100% must train for it properly. Otherwise you risk picking up an injury, or at the very least, you are just going to be incredibly miserable the whole way around. It will feel uncomfortable, uncoordinated and unending. In a word, horribl

 

I don’t regret doing the Dublin 70.3 but I would l love to have the opportunity to do it again, on the back of proper running training.

I haven’t done any triathlon events since that race, that is, until last weekend when I took part in the TriAthy 2019 in Athy, Co. Kildare. This is a big event on the Irish triathlon calendar and it includes 4 distances starting at Double Olympic, Olympic, Sprint and TriAthy, which is like an introductory event for people new to triathlon. I’ve tried a number of triathlon events in Ireland but I’d never opted to do TriAthy before, mainly because it was so near to home and I was always looking for an excuse to travel to another part of the country. I was also conscious of the size of this event, knowing that it typically attracts a large number of participants. The more people there are, the more feet and arms there are to bash you in the water… But a friend had signed up to do the beginner event and he convinced me to give it a go.Image result for triathy 2019So there I was last Saturday morning, the beginning of June, standing on a riverbank, wearing a wetsuit, bracing myself for submersion into fresh Irish waters and 3 hours of go, go, go. Ah yes, there’s a feeling I remember. The smell of neoprene and plastic swim caps. The tightness of the wetsuit across your chest, magnifying the increasingly quickening tempo of your breathing as the time to jump grows nearer. All familiar. All terrifying, but at the same time, exciting. 

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The river Barrow, Athy, Co. Kildare in all its glory

Triathlon has always been, for me anyway, a matter of getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. And I’m not just talking about letting all of the locals see you putting on a wetsuit. And flailing about indignantly as you wrestle about trying to get the damn thing off…

The whole event – the three separate legs – is quite terrifying when you think of it as a whole. Each event is difficult enough on its own, but put them all together with timed, tricky transitions, and do them back to back, can feel like an overwhelming concept. The participant is stripped down and challenged in the most fundamental ways. You have to use your most basic fundamental survival skills just to get through from start to finish. Can you swim? How fast can you swim? How comfortable are you in the water with 100s of other people vying to get past you? Do you know how to use a bike? Are you better than the others? And after all that mania, what do you have left? Because even if you’re a decent runner, if you don’t have a strong enough mind and an iron will, you won’t make it past the 3km of jelly legs that inevitably follow after you dismount from the bike. Running on fresh legs is one thing, but running on jelly legs which are tired and stupidly uncoordinated after 2 hours of swimming and cycling is a different animal altogether.

So yes. You have to learn to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

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So many unpreditable variables with triathlon!!

As I stood on the riverbank of the Barrow last Saturday morning, I remembered that feeling. I missed it more than I knew and I breathed it in deeply, ready to rock and roll.

The event was brilliant. It was a very well organised event from start to finish. Registration was in the Athy GAA club and I was in and out in minutes. Then a short walk down to the transition area, which had been divided up in different sections for each different race distance, thereby keeping each race separate. Each event started at a different time which meant there was a constant stream of people coming and going from the whole transition area the entire time. At first I thought this would never work, but it worked seamlessly, with no mix ups with all the coming and going and it was just excellently marshalled and controlled by the race organisers.

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The transition area worked well, with each participant being allotted an assigned space on the bike rack according to their race number. This is a simple thing but it works brilliantly. In a lot of races I’ve been to in the past, it’s just a free for all in the transition areas with no allotted space – you just rack your bike where there’s a space and set up your station there. You have it all set up, looking good and ready to go before some last minute twit comes along 5 minutes before transition closes and rams their bike in beside yours and shoves all your gear out of the way. Inevitably, you’ve already left transition to drop your bag off so you don’t actually realise the arrival of said twit until you come back from the swim leg to find all of your gear all over the place. It throws you off, you lose time, and it pisses you right off. So I was well happy with Athy on this note!

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I chose to do the Olympic distance, so the swim was 600m upstream, around a buoy, then 900 m downstream. There was a rolling start, which worked very well, allowing three or four people into the water at a time. The water was fairly cold so it was important to keep moving and keep it as short as possible. It took me a while to get into it and find a rhythm and the water was very cloudy which meant a lot of sighting was necessary to stay on course. Not gonna lie, I was very happy to finish and get out of the water!

T1 was going well until I had some issues getting out of the wetsuit… for some reason I couldn’t get the sleeves over my hands. Not something that has really been an issue before but I’d out down to being out of practice and also being quite cold… Once out of the suit, I was quick getting my bike gear on and out of transition.

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I hammered the bike. This was the leg I was most looking forward to. I used to be brutal at the bike and I was always that person getting passed by everyone else, before getting to the run where I would pull myself back up the rankings. But having adopted cycling as my number one sport in the last year or so, I was keen to see what difference it would make. I went all out and thoroughly enjoyed myself, for once being the person overtaking others. What was particularly nice (and new!) was one section when the course turned back on itself at about 30km, such that the flow was going both directions and you could see all of the people who were behind you. I noticed a lot of people with very good bikes who looked like good cyclists and I started to think I was pretty deadly for being ahead of them! In a moment like that, it doesn’t matter that I’m not pretty deadly, but it does give you a nice boost and it spurs you on for the last 10 km home. I averaged about 31 kph for the 40 cycle and I was happy with that.

T2 was quick and I was happy that I did this pretty fast. The only issue with T2 was despite having been no more than about 20-30 seconds changing my gear, my T2 time was about 2 1/2 minutes due to the run out of transition to the start line of the run being sooooo long. Not sure why they didn’t just bring the start line back nearer to the transition area and I thought this could have been better.

The run course was out onto the main road for approximately 3km where the cyclists were still coming in (again, a great psychological boost!) The route then turned right off the main road into a field/ cross country which led down to a path running along the riverbank. Two laps of this and it was over the bridge onto the main street of the town and across the finish line.

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Total time was 2 hours 52 minutes, a PR of 15 minutes! Happy out. Ice cream, drinks and chicken curry till your heart’s content at the end! This was a really well organised event and I would highly recommend it for beginners or veterans alike. It was great to be back doing a triathlon again and I can’t wait for the next event at the end of June. It probably won’t be a PR that day, but what it will be is another day to smell the neoprene, feel the buzz and… swim. Bike. Run.

Total Time:  2 hours 52 minutes

Swim:     34:42               T1: 3:18             Bike:   1:17:31           T2:   2:31                Run:   54:24

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Am I A Cyclist Yet?

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A friend recently asked me the above big question. Cycling along side by side on a Sunday morning club ride having the chat, he turns to me out of the blue and asks “So, are you a cyclist yet?”

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This is a big question and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I was slow to answer at the time because while the obvious answer after 2 1/2 years cycling 40 km to work every morning, competing in triathlons and regularly doing spins over 150 km, would be yes, obviously I am cyclist… my inclination is to answer no, not quite yet.

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I remember writing an article way back in the day when I first started running entitled “Am I Runner?” which described my initial year of running, feeling out my running legs in the dark when no one else could see me (or recognise me), wearing long sleeve, long-legged everything to hide every bit of me and when 5 minutes continuous running felt like a marathon achievement. It took months and months, races and races, horrendous weather conditions, many big hills and at least one marathon before I felt I had earned the right to call myself “a runner”.

I have always felt strongly that to call yourself a runner, you have to earn it. It is not something you pick off a shop shelf because you like the look of it, swipe your Visa card and hey presto, it’s yours. You’re not a runner because one day you suddenly decide to  go to the Nike Shop, buy an expensive pair of running shoes and all the latest running gear, and proceed to tell all your friends about the big races you’ve signed up to and about all the great training you’re going to do. Nope.

You. Have. To Earn. It. Miles after miles, day in day out, week in, week out. Rain, wind, sun… In the mood, not in the mood.

This applies to any sport. Those people who you see out running at 6am before dawn or 9pm after a full day’s work, day after day, sun or wind or rain, whether you’re not in the mood or bloody sick of running. They lace up, put on their gear and get out the door. It’s the rower on the river at 5 am. The swimmer waiting outside the for the pool to open at 6 am. The hard core open water swimmers down at the sea every morning, with nothing more than their togs, cap and goggles. These people earn their kudos and they own their titles.

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We all know people who talk a good race. You know – the type who ask you about a race you’ve just done, only to immediately jump in to tell you all about all the great training they’ve done, how fast they can run a 10km and how they used to be able to run a 2.5 hour marathon… Or there’s the wannabe types, who spend a horrendous amount of money buying all the high end gear (the best bike, turbo trainer, high end brand shorts, carbon shoes, etc) and explain in painful detail all the training they are PLANNING on doing but strangely, every week there is a new excuse for why they didn’t manage to get out that weekend. I know a few people who have done exactly that – bought new bikes, all the gear and no less than 2 years later, they still have not managed a single bike ride.

I don’t care what other people do or don’t do – I say whatever makes you happy, go for it. Do you. If some folks like to buy lots of cool stuff, go for it. If you have no interest in running or cycling, that’s cool too, I’m sure you have other interests. But what makes me crazy is people who pronounce themselves as a runner or a cyclist when they are NOT. When they have not earned it. I’ve always innately felt this is disrespectful to real cyclists, true runners.

If you run, you are a runner. If you cycle, you are a cyclist. That’s it. The rest is just bullshit.

You don’t have to be fast. You don’t have to have the physique of an elite. You don’t have to be extreme or obsessive about it. But you do have to DO it.

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So when I was asked lately “So are you a cyclist yet?” I had to think on it, I had to be sure in my own heart and soul that I had earned the right to call myself a cyclist.

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I came to cycling undeliberately (not a word…) and reluctantly. It was the third, unwanted, unloved leg of triathlon, but at the same time, inevitable and unavoidable. I used to dread the cycle leg of triathlon events. My swim would be okay and my run was always where I made up ground and found my stride. But I was no good at the cycle and it was always just about getting around and getting through it. But then I injured my feet as a result of marathon overtraining and I had to shelve running for nearly three years. This left me with lots of extra time and extra energy, along with an unhealthy dose of frustration and heartbreak as a result of not being able to run. So I started cycling. Once a week became 2/3 times a week, with Sunday spins gradually increasing to 50km and upwards. I was still slow but I was starting to enjoy it. The peace and freedom of it was something I hadn’t noticed or appreciated before. Plus, it was so much less hectic than running – who knew sport could be like this?? You can actually look around you at the pretty fields and animals, eat real food and oh yeah, breathe. AND there’s coffee stops!

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Will cycle for scones. I really am that simple.

After a year of pedalling about on my entry level road bike, I knew cycling had become part of my regular life so I decided to upgrade my wheels and I bought a carbon frame Liv Envie. I loved this bike immediately, once I got over the initial feeling that the bike was tiny and I was going to fall over the handlebars… So much faster, so much more responsive, I started to love cycling and really started to enjoy it.

I joined a cycling club last February and it’s easily one of the best things I’ve done in the last few years. As a runner, I was so used to always training on my own and doing my own thing, so I wasn’t sure if I would take to the group rides. I also was nervous that my cycling wouldn’t be up to the club standard and I was worried I wouldn’t be able for it and I would be holding people up or not able to cycle in a peloton. But the people in the club were fantastic from day one – couldn’t be more welcoming and friendly and the support and encouragement from everyone has been only brilliant. Since joining the club 15 months ago, I’ve gone from my longest cycle being 90km (and felt epic at the time…) to 226km and 4000m of climbing just over a year later.

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Hanging out in sunny Mallorca.

Last month, I took part in a cycling endurance event with my cycling club called the Mallorca 312 and I completed the 225 km course. There was in or about 4,000 metres of climbing, it was hot and there was a time limit which required you to reach certain points by certain times or you would be deemed out of the race. In short, it was definitely up there as one of the tougher endurance events I’ve done and it was without doubt, the hardest cycle I’ve ever done. But I loved it. And even more shocking than that, I was able for it.

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Food stop at the Mallorca 312 – pure chaos! Check out that blue sky though…

The club group put in months of long training rides over the winter months from about October to April, which saw us take on Sunday spins between 100-192 km(some guys did more than me!) every week, over and back over the Wicklow mountains in shocking rain, big winds and there was more than one occasion of bloody snow. In short, much hard toil and inglorious graft was given by all, each earning their place at the starting line in Mallorca.

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Over 11 hours on a bike and still smiling – life is properly awesome sometimes.

Every weekday morning, my alarm goes off. I get out of bed, get washed and grab my jersey, shorts and cycling shoes. I roll out the door 5 minutes later and whatever the weather might be, whatever my mood might be, I cycle the 40 km to work. I look forward to the weekends when I can go for a longer, bigger adventure on the bike, with big hills to climb and fast descents to master. I have cycled in 30+ degree heat in the south of France on the Col de Aubisque. I have cycled 192 km in the depths of winter, 132 km of which was unrelenting rain, wind, hail and eventually blinding snow. Wearing shorts. I have been knocked off my bike by a car who drove off leaving a badly concussed me and my lovely bike sprawled all over the road. I have had many arguments with bad drivers about the rules of the road. I have had many, many punctures, most of which I have managed to repair, some I did not. I have had to carry my bike on my shoulder for long distances due to irreparable mechanicals experienced out in the middle of nowhere. I regularly say hello to and talk to complete strangers as if we are old friends just because they too are riding a bike. My purse has become a plastic sleeve that slips neatly into the bag of a cycling jersey. I spend more money on bike maintenance than I would on my car. And I don’t go anywhere anymore without pressing start on my Garmin.

Am I a cyclist? Yes. I am a cyclist.

Are you?

Would you call yourself a runner? A cyclist? At what point did you feel you had become one?

Am I Back?

Am I Back? Dare I say it…

F, no.

I’ve been on the longest rest from running since picking up foot injuries in April 2016. That’s absolutely no running for over 2 YEARS. If you’re a runner, this is an incredibly long time to be out of running completely and I’d be the first to admit that I have had a few crazy, send-for-the-men-in-white-coats moments during the last two and a bit years. But luckily, I’ve somehow managed to cling to my sanity and come through to the other side.

The Bad News

Always better to start with the bad news right? I am not fully recovered – my feet still give out to me occasionally and the injuries are still not gone away completely. Although the pain in both feet has definitely abated, my left foot still has days where there can be a lot of discomfort and sometimes quite sore. The right foot (touching wood…) is no longer giving me pain for the most part. Because of the ongoing discomfort and pain in my feet since April 2016, I have taken a complete break from running but in the last few weeks, I decided to test my feet and take them out for a few very short runs to see how they would fair out…

Which brings me to…

The Good News

I’ve gone for a few runs lately!! Woohoo!! And boy have I missed it. Since being injured, I took up cycling like a demon. I cycle to work everyday, I cycle on weekends and I even joined a cycling club like to feed my newfound obsession. All the lycra, saddle sores and cake a girl could handle! As much as I enjoy cycling, I have not found that it brings as much as satisfaction and joy that a good run does. Cycling is more relaxed, even when you’re belting along on a long 100 km group cycle, you can still hold a conversation with your buddies, take a drink, eat something and BREATHE quite easily. Whereas with running, your whole body is working hard the entire time, such that any of the aforementioned drinking, eating etc., are no easy task. You come back from a long run feeling like you could collapse on the ground and happily lie there for a while. Every muscle reminds you of the hard work and achievement of your run, which in turn gives you a glow, or a high, for the remainder of the day. To contrast with cycling, I have to go very, very far for very, very long and even then when I get off the bike after 130 km, my legs and my back may feel tired, but the rest of me is pretty fine. I’m not bragging here – it’s just easier for the body to do this.

I’ve been doing two-three 5km a week for the last few weeks and each time, though awkward and uncoordinated… has been wonderful. As my very good friend Forrest Gump once said…

“I was running!”

It felt so good to have that hard breathing in my chest. The constant struggle with my legs and the never-ending battle between my legs and my brain, one telling the other to stop, stop, stop. And to push past all that and feel the wind in your hair, the quick tap-tap-tap of your feet on the pavement and oh, the sheer joy when you finish.

I. Love. Running.

Having gone without running for over 2 years, I’d forgotten how much I love it. At times, I thought maybe I’d exaggerated how much I love it  or maybe that I’d just imagined it or created this idea in my head that it was something so much more than it actually was in reality – because I couldn’t have it.

Have you ever had relationships like that? An ex who you move on from, only to later get the idea that actually they were really wonderful and you wish you could have that person back again. All fluffy white clouds, sunshine and wonderfulness – floaty ideas. Not so realistic.

No. What I’ve realised from these short few runs I’ve dared in the last few weeks, is that in my heart, I am a runner. When I run, I feel alive like nothing else. I feel more like me in my mind, in my body and in my heart. I am in control. I can think. I can breathe. I can be me, away from all the nonsense, stress and crap of daily life. It allows me to gain perspective and it makes me feel strong.

Running makes me a superhero.

So, I may not be back to running marathons or training for the next Ironman event, but I am making baby steps and if I can have running back in my life, even in the teeniest way… then I will take that and run away way, away with that. Way, away. Away.

Away.

Also, I got new running shoes. My last pair were fairly beat up and it was time for some newbies.

Boom.

And some other newbies… there was a sale, what can I say?

Happy running!

 

It Has Arrived – Again

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Something I’ve been really looking forward to for ages is the new “It” movie. You know the one – the Stephen King story about a creepy clown who kills children, appears everywhere and seems to be immortal, ensuring that generations of children are terrorised by this creature who represents everything children fear most in this world.

I saw the original “It” movie at my very first sleepover (slumber party, if you prefer). Picture a sitting room crammed with 11 year old girls who were experimenting with the most badass, rebellious thing any of them had ever done – rented an over 15’s movie.

Bold, or what?

So, we turned off all the lights, piled up all the snacks, snuggled together in a wodge of sleeping bags and pillows… and pressed play.

I have no hesitation in admitting that I was honestly never as scared as I was watching that movie for the first time. I had no real issues with clowns before then but that movie completely unnerved me and I couldn’t sleep for weeks afterwards. It was probably the first time I had properly and completely scared by something. It was months before I stopped looking over my shoulder, checking under my bed and always ensuring there was a wall behind my back when I walked just in case something might creep up on me from behind.

After a few more horror movies and sleepovers, I slowly started to get braver and eventually I actually became a big horror movie buff. There was an old movie rental shop in my town and they had a great horror section so when I’d go babysitting, I’d rent out three movies for a fiver (oh, for the good old days…), turn off all the lights and watch them by myself – see how hard core I became 🙂 From teen slasher movies like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legends, to classics like Psycho, Candyman and Silence of the Lambs, I could watch them over and over again.

So it was, that when the trailers were released for the remake of It, I was suddenly right back in that moment of anticipation, excitement and complete fear. Really want to see it, really DON’T want to see it – because I know I’ll have to sleep with the lights on, check under the bed and make sure I’m not alone for a single moment lest It should appear when he gets me on my own…

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Ahhh… turns out I’d nothing to worry about. The It remake was disappointing and not scary at all. The plot is slightly different, which is not a bad thing but the story they replaced it with was too simplistic and the movie was too long given that very little actually happens in the movie. Then there’s the clown – Pennywise – he’s on camera a lot, which is unusual for horror movie stars. They usually exist in the dark or are invisible for the majority of the movie and typically don’t make a visible appearance until the end. Not the case here. I thought they did a good job from a filmmaker point of view of not making Pennywise laughable when he appears on screen – the new Pennywise is positively demonic in appearance and the makeup/ outfit is to be commended. However, I cannot say that I found new Pennywise even remotely as creepy as the original. Original Pennywise had a genuine clown look going on and it was only when he suddenly became evil or you noticed his eyes (or the hideous teeth) that you suddenly became aware that this was not about to be a happy clown experience.

I have to give a mention however to the kids in the movie, who are just brilliant and easily the best thing about it. Great cast and exceptionally entertaining.

New It merits 3/10 stars from me. Old It merits 8/10.

It’s okay. I probably wouldn’t be recommending this movie for anyone to go and see. Instead, I would without a doubt, be recommending you find an old DVD of this movie (or online if you can), pull the curtains, turn out the lights and have a good night scaring the life out of your good self.

Off you go now…

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Riding Around (this wee country)

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There are lots of reasons to like cycling. Exercise, fresh air, environmentally-friendly way to travel, genuine tanning opportunity and people tend to think you’re pretty hardy. I’ve also mentioned the coffee stops too and the inevitable accompanying piece of cake. But the best bit about cycling, for me anyways, is speed. That feeling of whizzing through the air, preferably down a hill, wind bellowing past your ears and bringing tears to your eyes as you soar through space feeling like a superhero.

It’s utterly childish and utterly wonderful.

One of my most vivid childhood memories is taking my bike out for a ride one afternoon after school and homework had been completed (I’m nearly sure it was a Thursday afternoon and I reckon I was 10-11 years old). It was hammering rain outside and I just suddenly got the urge to get on my bike. My Dad, you see, was very liberal in his child-rearing views so he wouldn’t have objected to my apparent lunacy of going for bike ride when it was pouring rain outside. What I remember is pedalling, standing up on the pedals and going absolute full throttle down the road from my house, no rain jacket, no helmet (wouldn’t advise this now, mind you!), rain spitting up from the road and coming down from the sky and it felt amazing.

Pure unadulterated, unrestrained freedom.

I felt free, I felt invincible and I felt I could do absolutely anything.

I don’t do stupid things like cycle about without a helmet anymore, but I do still have moments of speeding down hills as fast I can go on my bike, big stupid smile across my face and feeling thoroughly heroic. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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I’ve also taken to being more adventurous with my cycle routes in the last few months – trying out different areas and even driving to a start point a bit further away so that I can explore new areas and unexplored territory. Not gonna lie, it hasn’t always proved a roaring success and there have been some not so good road surfaces and just predominantly boring areas of Ireland that I would quite happily not miss ever seeing again. But mostly, it’s been great seeing new parts of the country and enjoying different landscape and towns of our fair green isle.

 

Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine dominate most of the coniferous woodlands of the Slieve Blooms, the largest cover of forestry in Ireland

Today, I took a venture around County Laois. I started from Monasterevin in Co. Kildare and headed towards Emo (because I always wanted to visit this place with it’s very cool name…), then Mountmellick  and on to Clonaslee and the Slieve Bloom mountains. I passed through quite a few small towns and villages along the way. Most of these towns were old, delapidated, small towns with not more than the usual old pub, shop, church and great looking GAA club. I was hoping there might be a coffee shop somewhere along the way but if there was, I didn’t see one.

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I like seeing these small towns, as there is something reassuring in the way there are so many towns around Ireland that are exactly how they were 30 years ago. Sure, the cities are modern and progressive with all their fancy dancy wifi, frappuccinos and chic male haircuts, but take a short ride out to the countryside and let you be in no doubt whatsoever – you won’t be getting no fancy wifi down here.

Lest you be getting notions about yourself 😉

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This is Rosenallis, not far from the Slieve Bloom mountains. Quaint, you might say.

It was nice to see rural Laois and they did have some lovely cows and friendly locals, but some of the roads weren’t the best (poor road surface makes for gritty cycling…), the scenery was not special and the towns were disappointing. I probably wouldn’t return here again unless there was a cycle race in the area. Rather, I think I’ll be trying out another area the next time.

The good news? It didn’t rain, I didn’t get lost and I had a little weekend adventure – and that’s good enough for me to feel just a little bit heroic for the rest of the day.

Happy weekend!

Trip to Pau: Tour De France Holiday

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Freshly back from my recent trip to the south of France to follow the Tour de France as it made its way from the Pyrenees across to the Alps, I posted last time about my general Tour de France experience. I’m not going to plague you with lots of posts about the trip but I did think it would be helpful to run a few posts about the places I stayed in, particularly as there are not too many guidebooks or tourist information of any kind about either Pau or Rodez.

And it is the holiday season, after all…

I was naked of information on my trip, but you needn’t be. Or at least, you could be bikini-clad after this… not promising anything mind you 😉

First off, and ahem, most importantly…

Good Boulangeries

You think when you go to France there will be bakeries on every corner. True but also just not true. They seem to be one of those kinds of things – you seem to see them all the time when you’re not looking but then when you want one, you can’t find a single one.

Now, Pau does have a few excellent boulangeries so I would like share this valuable intel. The ones I would recommend are:

1. Brioche Doree – Avenue de Lattre (Just off Boulevard des Pyrenees)

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This was the best croissant I sampled while in Pau and also, probably overall during my entire south of France excursion. It was slightly more expensive (at 1.20) but I grabbed a coffee and croissant deal for 2 euro which I was pretty damn impressed with given that you wouldn’t get either a coffee or a croissant of this quality for less than 2 euro in Ireland. You can also sit outside and enjoy your brekkie if you like. Or you can do what I did and wander the half a minute down to the Boulevard des Pyrenees and enjoy your breakfast while admiring the stunning views into the mountains.

2. Boulangerie at corner of Rue Cazaubon Norbet and Rue de Camot 

If you happen to be staying anywhere around Rue de Camot, this is a great, traditional, small bakery and they do excellent bread and croissants – again for pennies. This place was half a minute from where I was staying so it was my go-to. However, if you don’t get here before 10:30am, don’t bother. The croissants will be gone.

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3. Le Pain Pascal – At the corner of Rue de Liege and Rue Bayard

Good croissants, bread and some gorgeous other baked goods, including fruit tarts and patisseries. Again, you need to get here early for there croissants or you’ll be leaving empty handed. Or with hands full of french patisserie… Up to you, really.

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Getting to Pau

Pau is a place I probably never would have visited (or even heard of, if I’m honest) if it hadn’t been selected by the Tour de France organisers as the finish/ start point of a stage of the race. It’s a small french town in the South, not exactly used to the same flow of people as say, Paris.

Impressively, however, you will find that Pau is very accessible. There is a solid train station and a regular train service, with trains travelling from Biarritz, Toulouse, Paris and most other large cities in France – the train service in France is generally excellent. I have found that you can pretty much make up whatever route you like and the rain service will work with you to help plan your trip. Unlike the Irish rail system, the french trains are brilliantly well run, very regular and the system operates wonderfully. I accept that I have limited experience, but I have always found it a good experience.

The train station is located 5 minutes walking distance from the Boulevard de Pyrenees and the main town area. I would however, point out that there is a breath-taking climb from the train station up to the town – don’t be shocked when you emerge from the station and see what’s facing you. Either embrace it and heave ho….or take the funicular. Your call.

Pau also has its own airport, if you’re less into trains and more into the easy-get-me-there-quick options. It’s not far from the town and there is a shuttle bus that leaves from the airport every hour. On return to the airport, the shuttle bus departs from the train station again every hour, from 7.05 am onward and tickets cost a massive 1.50 euros.

What to do in Pau

Pau is a beautiful old french town perched on top of a hill with stunning views of the Pyrenees mountains. If you like to cycle, I’d recommend bringing your bike as you’re so close to the mountains that you’ll find once you leave the town, you’re into the mountains within about 15 minutes.

Needless to say, the climbs are good and the views are worth the effort.

Pau is a what you might call “a big town” – small enough to be able to walk around to everything but big enough that there you won’t find yourself always eating in the same restaurant or drinking coffee from the same place every day. By day three, I had got my bearings and knew my way around pretty well. There is a big shopping area, if you like to shop and there is generally a nice buzz about the town, full of people and a nice atmosphere.

In terms of what to expect from Pau as a destination, it’s a pretty, relaxed, quaint French town and somewhere to chill out for a few days. Bring your “ready to relax” hat, a book and pick up some great local wine, cheese and fresh bread from the town and you’ll be well set to recharge the batteries.

Bon chance!

A Day at the Greatest Cycling Event on Earth: Tour de France

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A day’s stage of the Tour de France looks a bit like an instalment of the Hunger Games -an unsympathetic game of elimination in which 198 riders start together and ride progressively faster for 150-plus kilometres until a combination of tired bodies, nasty crashes and mechanical mishaps leaves one small group of riders out in front.

The finale inevitably involves either a flat all-out sprint or an unfathomably steep climb up some ridiculous mountain, where the roads narrow and the riders enter a human tunnel of overexcited fans who lose all sense of self-control, screaming and running around the riders like they’ve completely lost their minds.

The riders battle through the crowds, fighting fatigue and their own mental demons, wrestling with each other as the tension rises and team rivalries start to spill over. Bodies are forced to the absolute max, as riders begin to drop off one by one, ultimately leaving one rider who can grind it out to the line pushing past everyone else, pushing past all the pain, fatigue and aching limbs to say screw you all, I am the strongest today. I am the strongest despite the ultimate test of hell you just put me through.

Fail to make the time cut, don’t bother coming back tomorrow. If you do, you get to go home, rest up and come back tomorrow and do it all again. And every other day after that for the next 23 days.

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It’s the toughest endurance event on earth, without question. My own feelings on the Tour de France have always been that if you make it onto a Tour de France team and finish the three weeks, that in itself is a massive achievement. Putting aside placement or any thoughts of winning stages or, dare I say, one of the coveted jerseys. Just finishing the race – is HUGE.

This is a race with no sympathy. No room for moaners, wusses or posers. This race will weed out the weak and spit out the pretenders. It’s part of what makes this race truly great. It’s the hardest and the best of cyclists, competing against each other on some of the world’s toughest climbs across the French Alps, Pyrenees and Massive Centrale.

Brutal.

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I’ve wanted to go to the Tour de France ever since I read David Walsh’s book on Lance Armstrong – Seven Deadly Sins. Not for the reasons you might think! David wrote about driving around following the tour as a journalist from place to place, day after day and just being apart of the tour story. Feeling the drama as it unfolded around the French countryside.

This year, I went.

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I didn’t follow the tour for the full three weeks, because of work… and other boring reasons. I followed it for a week. I greeted the tour as if came into Pau, witnessing Marcel Kittel soar to victory in a sprint victory, before then moving eastwards to Rodez and Laissac. It was magic. The atmosphere in the french towns on the day the race was due to arrive was fantastic – pure joy and like the biggest parade you could imagine. Old and young come out, all day to line the streets and raise the atmosphere.

What You Can Expect Spectating at The Tour…

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You will stand for four-five hours under a hot sun if you want a good spot next to the barriers at the finish line… and you will only see the cyclists for five seconds (ish). If you’re clever, you pick a spot along the route with some sharp corners or on a climb where the riders are forced to slow. That way, it takes much longer for the riders to move past you and you get to see them for longer. Also, these spots are much less populated so you don’t need to arrive here until maybe 30 minutes before the peloton is due to arrive.

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You will get close enough to the cyclists after the race to hug them!

It’s good craic waiting for the race to arrive so don’t be put off by the long wait time. You can chat to the other people waiting and get to hear lots of good stories. There’s also the caravan which always arrives ahead of the peloton, which is basically a big parade. The finish line area also has lots of big screens showing the actual race, which you can watch as you wait. If you’re the chilled variety and are not fussed about being right next to the barriers, you can also bring a fold up chair, your book and a picnic and just sit at the side of the road and chill out until the race is about to arrive.

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The boys doing their cool-down bit. Bora’s Bodnar was THE break of the day, having been in the break from the beginning and then going solo from 25km from the line, he so nearly managed to hold off the peleton only to eventually be caught in the last 400m. Hate that!

My experience of being apart of the Tour de France was fantastic and I loved it. The atmosphere was definitely worth travelling for and is something special that I will always remember. And as for the south of France, in general, I’m happy to report that it was beautiful, relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable. In fact, I’m already thinking I may be making this trip an annual event.

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Tomorrow, Chris Froome will ride his bike from Montegron to Paris with a glass of champagne in hand, tipping his hat to his fourth Tour de France victory. This will be the fourth time he has proven himself to be the toughest, grittiest, strongest cyclist in the world.

Or just the most stubborn.