The Big Italian Irish Bike Ride.

228km in Northern Ireland ahead of the Giro
By: Peter Bennett

Let’s talk about the pink elephant in the room. The weather. And before I bore everyone to death about it too. Let me sum it up thus: On Wednesday at the final stage of the Tour of Friendship with the finish near Bangkok it was 34C according to Mr Garmin, and it peaked on the previous Saturday at 41C when your hero was at the front trying to control the pace of the bunch. Ahem.

Roll forward to Thursday and the temperature had dropped to 9C, topping at 12C that afternoon. On the day of the Big Italian Bike Ride Grand Fondo it blew a minor hurricane (okay, it didn’t but it was a hurricane by Sg standards). So yes I know I should Harden the Whatever Up and so on but I can’t stand the cold. I live in Singapore for a reason for god’s sake.

Anyhow. The day dawned bright, sunny and warm. Not. It was pissing down and dark when I started off from home to the start line and I was detecting early stages of grumpyitus setting in. This just got worse when I realised I was ridiculously early and then had to stand around in the polar vortex for 30 minutes before anything started to happen.

As soon as it did my condition deteriorated as the spray from said rain began to kick up. This is ultimately the reason I never became a professional cyclist by the way – all those training rides and races in Belgium in February put me right off. It had nothing to do with a total and complete lack of ability like you all think.

The Big Italian ride in Ireland is a replica for this Saturday’s Stage Two in this year’s Giro, which I, Alan Benson and former ANZA member Alastair Barr all entered. It’s a replica in every way, except for the complete lack of respect of the Cycling Rules by the locals – especially the fashion-orientated ones – while it was done in about half the speed of the real race and I don’t think the Giro will have four forced pit stops for tea and cakes.

On Saturday, the first couple of hours of Stage Two in the Giro will be pretty dull – it’s flat, it’s straight and even the helicopters will have a job spotting anything of interest once they get outside Belfast. Stage start will be alright; you’ll see not-uncool pictures of shipyard cranes, hillside vistas and the commentator dude from Eurosport will bang on about “who’s dreams will hit an iceberg in this year’s race?” when the copter zooms over the Titanic museum. Guarantee it.

[By the way, to the person who has already asked me why there is a Titanic museum in Belfast, go hang your head in shame]

One thing the television cameras won’t pick up on Saturday is the smell. Northern Ireland smells of shit. You can sniff it as soon as the aircraft doors open and in the first 50kms the smell was everywhere. The shit really is shit – it is cow manure the local farmers spread on the fields at this time of year and anywhere there isn’t concrete or stone, you get this. The accompanying flies are of note too – mayflies – they are as common as sea lice in Sentosa and get everywhere – brake levers, gears, nostrils etc. The interesting thing about them is that they only live a couple of weeks or so. Or about as long as Cadel Evan’s challenge will be this year in the Giro to put it another way.

The only other fondo I’ve ever been in before was in Perth a few weeks ago. There, A$3,000 in prize money meant it was in all sense a race, particularly when Travis Meyer turned up and most of the NRS racers who had been in town the previous day. Here, slightly different. When I got close to the front and was riding at a steady 38kmph, the same speed as we were riding in ToF when we wanted to cruise, the lead riders were told off for riding too fast and ‘didn’t we know this was a 225km ride?’. “Ja und…?” I calmly and considerately replied back in my best German.

This fondo was characterised by a number of annoying things beside the weather, the smell of shit, the mayflies, the weather, the weather and the weather. The most annoying thing of which I’ll get to in a minute. But a small pebble in the Sidi shoe were the forced pit stops where everyone but me seemed to know that we had to stop, not to sign anything or whatnot, but for a “wee” cup of tea. I’m not sure why this particular cup of tea was marketed to me by a local rider as a “wee” cup as it looked normal sized to me. Unless it was made from…

Oh jesus.

I drank it anyway.

Ballintoy Harbour, where Theon Greyjoy landed in the Iron Islands and I stopped for a pee. He later had his best assets stripped from him.
Ballintoy Harbour, where Theon Greyjoy landed in the Iron Islands and I stopped for a pee. He later had his best assets stripped from him.

By the fourth and final pit stop I stopped being annoyed by these halts as I was at this point bursting for the loo (for about the fourth time on the ride – this is what cold does to your bladder if you’ve just been drinking iced water in Thailand for five days as prep) and needed the cheese sandwich they were serving literally by the tray load. But back at the first stop, I didn’t really know what was going on and I stupidly expressed my mild annoyance to a local rider, getting scolded in return for daring to criticise the organisers. Fair enough. Maybe. In hindsight.

The cycling gods got their own back as they normally do on a cyclist who rants needlessly by serving me a flat tyre shortly afterwards, somewhere between Ballythis and Ballythat. And here was my first lesson from the day:

Pitstop works and is actually worth the money.

Eventually, I was caught by the second group that were a full 15 minutes down on the first. This group was huge – I reckon about 60-70 strong and all riding in a pre-Somme military formation of two abreast (contrast vs abovementioned Perth race) and at about the same walking pace as those poor buggers in 1916 who were ordered to go over the top at “Irish Gran Fondo Pace” into a line of German machine guns. This picture was compounded by the ride captain, who no one dared to question, and who blew a loud, shrill and intensely annoying (when he was right behind you for an hour at a time) whistle to indicate when the rider at the front should move left (yes, just like our revolving rides).

Why no one questioned him I don’t know. I did ask a yocal this and was told sharply, “you’ll get red-carded” or pushed into a ditch I think he means.

Here’s the problem with this daft system. You only get a maximum of 30 seconds on the front (I counted) so a social conversation went thus:

Strange looking yocal seeing my ‘foreign’ cycling jersey: “Where are you from?”

PB: “Singapore”

Strange looking yocal: “That’s a long way to come, are you here for the Giro?”

PB: “Yes, I came in on Thursday and am staying until………”

[Whistle]

Repeat seven times.

After seven hours of this constant whistling, I was ready to shove it up somewhere where the sun never doth shine.

Don’t ever do this ANZA Cycling Singapore. Please. Dear god. Just don’t.

For 20km post my flat before Whistle Boy caught me I rode solo – you’ll identify this bit of the road on Saturday as the bit you go off and make some dinner and check your email cos it’s flat and straight and really rather dull. It’s where Sean Kelly will be introduced and you get your first shot of this season’s Gaelic undertones and you consider suicide by dentist drill. But the route is only trying to get somewhere and this is the quickest way to go about it. But when it does get there, crikey do things change.

We enter a patch of road which must be up there in cycling nirvana territory. It doesn’t have the mountains of the Alps or the Pyrenees as backdrops; nor the majesty of the Stelvio, or the drama and history of the pave. But what it does have is a vista. For all 100km or so. From Portrush in the north to Larne in the south, this is simply a stunning bit of tarmac and has got to be one of the most beautiful cycling roads on planet earth. The view from the helicopter on Saturday will be breathtaking.

Near Ballintoy, whose harbour was used in Game of Thrones as a landing spot for the Iron Islands, I was caught by the second group on the road and it’s where my fizzing annoyance with the whistle began. But is also where the road gets interesting and we had to climb in, out, up and down steep little hillsides. If a cycling road could ever be classified as “cute” this is the time.

image001But the grand views from the copter won’t catch this. They’ll concentrate on the bigger picture from 100m up and rightly so. On our left side, we have the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean and then the Irish Sea, intercut in quick succession by Dunluce Castle, the bizarre yet amazing Giants Causeway and then Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. On road level we pass through villages and towns that have gone to enormous lengths to paint buildings, tractors and mayflies pink for the Giro. Then once up and over the fourth-cat climb outside Ballycastle, the road descends for about 10km through moorland, then forest, then a steep valley known as a glen. All the time the air smells of wild garlic and fresh pine. I hung off the back of my group just to take in the view and the experience. It is beautiful.

The Giants Causeway, built as a road to get to Scotland by one Giant to get to another Giant. Clearly not by bike. Even a Giant bike hahaha!
The Giants Causeway, built as a road to get to Scotland by one Giant to get to another Giant. Clearly not by bike. Even a Giant bike hahaha!

Once on the east Antrim coast, the road of course flattens but then begins to weave in and out of the headlands like a snake round rocks all the while with a cursed side wind. On Saturday, if this blows, the field could potentially split to smithereens if anyone decides to gas it at the front. With the sea continuing on our left, stunning ‘v’ and ‘u’ shaped valleys (eh, your hero wrote a geography essay at school on “The Effects of Glacialisation”) appear from nowhere. Then closer to Larne, grand limestone cliffs ride majestically from the sea with only a slim strip of road to stop the battering waves.

I can’t think of a gag for this one but you’ll see it on Sunday.
I can’t think of a gag for this one but you’ll see it on Sunday.

On Saturday, it’ll be either a group finish sprint or a small group will manage to get away and as I say above, if it blows a hoolie, it may split up. For my fondo, my grandmothers’ paced group stayed together until the second cat-four climb near Whitehead when – at last – someone decided to ride more than 300 watts at the front. The stronger riders stayed together but it was still a group of maybe 40 who rode into Belfast together. It was here, 1km from the finish, that the annoying bloke with the whistle for reasons best known to himself rode into the back of a stationary car then gracefully fell into my path.

I gently tapped him with my right shoe that I’d unclipped and even more gently enquired what he was thinking of and whether he had, in fact, been born a girl when he started moaning (with all due respect to our female readers). But I stayed upright. At least sort of.  My front wheel pivoted on his back and after standing on some part of him that was soft and squidgy I just sort of stood bolt upright with my bike in hand. It was all a bit weird and at 227km on the clock I got to the finish line as quick as I could before hypothermia set in. For all I know, he’s still lying there. Yes, I’m a caring person. You should get to know me.

So my first and probably only 228km ride in Ireland to celebrate the Giro D’Italia’s Big Start is done. I do begrudgingly admit that the slow pace of the group I did the bulk of the ride in probably meant I was able to stand up at the end. But if ever 228km was going to be an “easy” ride, this may have been it. I can’t imagine for a second that Stage Two on Saturday will be as slow or as easy for the Giro riders. But I bet you a million dollars they’ll think it just as beautiful.

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