This was it... the weekend all my cycling efforts were building towards had arrived - it was the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle, a 180km loop starting in Killarney, heading through Caherciveen, up Coomakista, around into Sneem, through Kenmare, up to Molls Gap and back down to Killarney. Each of these places previously meant nothing to me as I had never done the Ring before despite being half a Kerry man (my grandfather is from Kerry).
I had originally signed up to do the Ring with a gang (18 others) from work back in April. Cycling was going to be my "new thing". I had just finished my second marathon and I fancied a change. I thought the cycling and the thoughts of going 180km seems like the reasonable yet challenging next step in the evolution of me. My training in the run up to the event however left a lot of be desired. About 8 weeks ago I cycled the Tour de Connemara (80km), then four weeks later cycled the Tour de Burren (96km) with not a single bit of training in between. At 6:45am on Saturday morning I found myself at the start line of a 180km loop around Kerry, under prepared but full of the self belief that I was going to finish.
Getting ready for the whistle
Although the cycle officially started at 7:30, there were starts from 6am so being on the road earlier than the official start seems to help as we seemed to be constantly surrounded so I can't imagine what the main start was like as there were over 9500 other cyclists doing the Ring at the same time. Pretty soon after starting, I found my grove and comfortable pace and the work crew petered out into their comfort levels. Myself and Joe ended up side by side from the start and everything else just seemed to work out.
Cycle-Selfie: Myself and Joe
The first leg of the cycle from Killarney to Caherciveen (62km) took us 2 hours 45 (according to my Strava) but it certainly didn't feel like that. The atmosphere was buzzing around, everyone was in great form and the banter between cyclists was great. Everyone had the same shared respect for other cyclists on the road (well, with a few exceptions - yes I'm looking at you Mr Rude Tandem Bike Man).
As we came into Caherciveen we were wondering why the town and all of the shops had huge groups of cyclists outside, most were sipping tea and eating sandwiches from tinfoil pouches. When we turned into the Food Stop we understood why - it was mayhem, good mayhem, but mayhem all the same. There were bikes discarded everywhere like what I'd imagine a post apocalyptic car park would look like (after the petrol ran out).
Caherciveen Food Stop (in the rain)
I've never seen such an efficient setup or a wider spread in all my life. The hall of the school was bordered with table stands, each with a sign saying what sandwiches were available at that station. It's worth noting that there was a huge volume of Tuna and Sweetcorn sandwiches left while the Bacon & Chicken stations were wedged. The queue for biscuits, brack and tea was too large so after a 15 minute food and re-fill stop, we were ready to hit the road again.
The next part of the journey involved one of the two "big hills", you know the ones everyone talks about in advance. We knew we had Coomakista between us and the next food stop 70km down the road. We had met a few of the others from work at the food stop so it was nice to catch up, we all headed off together again but it wasn't long before the road separated the men from the boys and myself and Joe found ourselves nattering away while the sun shone down on us and we took in the spectacular Kerry countryside.
Just keep swimming... just keep swimming...
Our arrival at Coomakista was marked by a signpost at the side of the road alerting us to the 5.7km climb to the top and it's 3% gradient. I didn't know this beforehand but the gradient only gives you the overall % increase in height along the hill, so although 3% sounds tiny, climbing from an elevation of 10m to 209m actually took over 20 minutes to climb. The view from the top however made every single pedal worthwhile.
The view from the top of Coomakista
The top was a buzz with cyclists who had just conquered what felt like the first main challenge of the cycle (despite the fact the climb itself pretty much signified the half way point in the entire cycle). Myself and Joe stopped to refill our water bottles and take a few minutes rest while we could. It was up here, we met my favourite person we'd met on the entire cycle. An older farmer was standing at the side of the road with a milk trough full of water and with a single plastic jug, he was refilling water bottles.
People were coming up asking him if he had any chocolate for them and he did! He had a single box of small chocolate bars which he was handing out to anyone who asked. He didn't seem to be connected in any way to the official water dispensers (I could be wrong), but he was awesome! Here was this old man spending his Saturday on top of Coomakista dishing out water to us without so much as a thanks. He rocked (and was my favourite person of the entire Ring!)
Just keep peddling...
The next 8km were fun/straight down into Caherdaniel before we continued onward towards Sneem. Every 10km along the road was signposted, so as we passed the 100km sign I wooped at passing my furthest. I knew every cycle km after that point was virgin territory for me so that kept me motivated as climbed the sneaky hill into Sneem. Myself and Joe had gotten a text from Elaine (work colleague who lives nearby) who was going to meet with us as we passed Sneem.
Having never been around these parts of Ireland before, I can't believe how gorgeous some of the towns are. At times it felt like you were looking at a postcard. Part of me felt sorry I couldnt stop and take photos while the other part of me was afraid I'd run my battery down before the end of the cycle (Priorities John!). Myself and Joe stopped at the outskirts of Sneem (disappointed as we thought the 2nd food stop was there) and we met Elaine. While chatting to her, two others (Tim & John) from work spotted us (well... they spotted the multicoloured-disco kit we were wearing).
Speaking of the kit we were wearing, cheers to the lady complimented us as she passed. I've never had a hand in designing a kit before so getting the opportunity to do one for work was quite fun. Now, disclaimer alert: While I didn't personally design it, I championed the guy in Velotec to be as adventurous as he wanted when designing something for us - and while his first kit was a safe white and green, this one jumped out at me. I pushed it with the guys at work and they agreed to go with the disco one!). Also, cheers to them for getting them to us in time for the Ring!
The Work Cycle Kit!
The cycle from Sneem to Kenmare was probably the lowest point of the whole Ring experience. I'm putting this down to the fact I was expecting food (and rest) 20km before it actually came. That being said, a quick scan of the body let me know that nothing was actually physically hurting, rather I just fancied a biscuit or some time off the bike.
We pulled into the Kenmare after 2pm which was rammed with fellow hungry lycra clad cyclists all scrambling for the loo or a Nature Valley bar. It was here I had the most luxurious jaffa cake I've ever had in my life. They were so good I had to go back for more! Myself and Joe also re-met up with Tim who we'd last seen in Sneem. He agreed to cycle the rest of the journey with us which I think Joe was relieved about... surely after 7 hours he must have been sick of the sound of me nattering on about everything from Bichon hairstyles to me complaining about needed to pee to my favourite Britney Spears songs. I'd have bored myself!
We knew as soon as we left Kenmare it was up to the top of Molls Gap. I had met Edel (dellers on Twitter) at the Kenmare stop who was the only person to comfort us ahead of our final challenge. Most people had swooped in like Dementors telling us of how difficult the climb was while Edel told us to look out for the Yellow House as once we passed it, we had the hardest part behind us. With that in mind, Tim, Joe and myself started the climb... and Sweet Jesus - Molls Gap certainly didn't disappoint!
The View from the Top!
We were 150km in to the cycle once we reached the top, so like many other cyclists we took the opportunity to park up our bikes and reflect/rest before we started the 22km journey back to Killarney. Joe lay on the ground to stretch out his back while I faffed around taking pictures and people watching. We only hung around for about 10 minutes before grabbing our bikes and speeding off downhill on the epic (but speedy) descent.
About half way down, Joe turns and shouts 'I left my bloody jacket on the ground at the top!'. It was one of those moments in life you couldn't have timed better. Of all places to leave something behind, the highest point of a cycle is probably one of the least ideal places (Well, it's in the Top 5 anyway). Turning around would have been both dangerous (as cyclists were speeding downhill as the road was completely closed) and heartbreaking. Resigned to the fact his jacket was gone to cyclist heaven (a Lost & Found box somewhere), Joe sped off ahead of me soaking up the speed. We met at the 'End of Descent' sign (BOOO!) as we made the journey back past Torc Waterfall and on into Killarney. The final few kilometres were signposted every 0.2km along the way which certainly helped raise the excitement levels as you knew you were heading for the finish line.
End in sight...
It wasn't until we hit the last roundabout that I realised we were right back at the start line. In just under 10 hours since we departed we had come full circle and myself Tim and Joe crossed the finish just before 5pm. My phone battery had made it (with just 4% left)! We parked up our bikes and headed over to the Heineken Bar where all the gang from work were looking suspiciously relaxed. Turns out they had come in well ahead of us. I think the pint of beer that followed was one of the nicest I've ever had!
Tim, Myself and Joe after the Finish Line
The entire experience was amazing and I feel extremely grateful. I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to see such an amazing part of our country on a bike. I'm grateful the weather held out for us despite promises of rain. I'm grateful to the people we shared the road with, the volunteers, the food stop people, the other cyclists. I'm grateful to have experienced it with someone (Thanks Joe) but most of all I'm grateful that I was able to do it.
I honestly still to this day can't believe the things my body can and has done. From running marathons to cycling 180km, I still surprise myself with the things I'm able to do, things that had never even registered as possible as I'd never seen myself as able or capable. I've said it before about how sometimes I get sad when I think of how I'd let my 20s go by with how many missed opportunities. I'm grateful that I am getting the opportunity to do these things now!
The Ring of Kerry was awesome and I can 100% guarantee that I'll be back next year!