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It’s not a disgrace to be lapped in cyclocross – there are a myriad of reasons why – but damn it when you’re overtaken by a newbie riding a hybrid bike pedalling like he’s late for mass well that’s just not the look you’re going for. But like the American electorate it was all my own fault. It started with a text from AJ Murphy:

  • “Was thinking if you can’t make Aghada I might borrow your cyclocross bike”

  • “Well the good news for you and me is that I’m racing myself but I bought a second hand CX frame and could build it if you’re stuck

  • “This is my bike for Sat it’s an old hybrid I had anyway so worth a shot just ordered set tyres mtb pedals and shoes should b fun oh and I’m blaming you for this madness. Where could a fella practice?”

  • “I’ll have kids at home but was going to put up some planks in the garden for practicing the jumps. Seriously!”

Seriously became Saturday morning and as I gave the Aghada route my usual non-chalant courtesy practice lap I noticed an absence of AJ. Had he chosen against the madness? If he had wisdom would forgive him. I got distracted by the children’s race where my son collected his medal and third place. “I was third Dad” he beamed. “There were three in the race” his sister happily chimed. The image of the three U-10 competitors shaking hands and backslapping is a great way to thank all those involved in the CX league for organising the kids races. Thank You All.

‘Thanks’, though, is through gritted teeth on this tough CX lap to De Ronde CC, Tom Mulqueen and co. Different to last year it rode the East Cork Adventure Grounds anticlockwise and while it lost the punishing crazy golf it gained paint balling and as close to a ski slope slalom as you’ll find. Starting with an uphill push on a gravel path, the course traversed hardcore dash and into a leg-sapping quagmire. All the paint ball was missing was paintballs, but it would have been like shooting fish in a barrel so slow were the wood chippings. Then back down to the stones and through a gap in a hedge a farmer would have blocked with a pallet. If only the farmer would have levelled the way too, it was like cycling through a bowl of sugar lumps. Then onto the grasslands, the planks and toward the ski slope. A switchback or two brought us over chickenwire bridge and then to log jump and more fieldwork. Finally back onto the gravel path, past the pits and the supporters and shouters.

Our B-race group was only 20 competitors, but there he was, the one newbie, on the parish priests bicycle. His very presence doubling the Midleton CTC entry, I gave him the benefit of my knowledge which didn’t take long. I inexpertly reduced the pressure in my rear tyre and we were off, heeding the Cycling Ireland Commissaire’s advice to be kind to each other, there’ll be plenty of time for over taking. Well Commissaire they didn’t take their time overtaking me! Despite my determination for a good start I seemed to be on the back pedal from the get go, but never one to let my own failings get in the way of a damn good excuse I pinch punctured quickly and ended up riding the first lap on a flat (a fate to befall MCTC’s Peter Meaney in the A-race too). Meanwhile, somewhere ahead of me, on his flats, AJ pedalled on.

Pretending or hallucinating I entered the pits like I was Lewis Hamilton and called upon my untried unbranded spare steel CX bike. This 70’s machine had cost me the same amount as most of my competitors would pay for a spare tyre but in value terms it was the difference of paying an entry fee for 10 minutes instead of an hour. I roared out of the pits – no I didn’t – I was still trying to get my SPD shoes into toeclips – but hoped I could possibly find a backmarker and reset my dream from a good start to a good finish, or at least not to be lapped. I set off again and the untested bike felt comfortable underneath, but I was careful not to press it too much, nor did I have plans to puncture. Up through pallet gap I decided to test it a little bit and it took the first lump well, but unlike the song, these lumps of sugar didn’t make the medicine go down, instead I did. Tyre in gloop, bike in ground, head in ditch. Elsewhere AJ had already ditched the competition.

I wish I could write more about my competition, but I hardly saw them, and I need to seek their forgiveness maybe for even calling them that. Still I reckoned I hadn’t been lapped but listening to the loudspeaker telling some competitors they had 2 and others 3 laps to go made me fear the worst. Instead I focussed on my ride, pitiful as it was, but was admiringly happy with my steed, this old French cross bike which on such short notice was balancing perfectly and upstaging the even more beautiful Alan. I must have got distracted as soon after I felt AJ looming and he was catching me. Damn it. If only I could hold him off. No chance. He was on his way to his first vicxtory. On his hybrid. I let him through, and thought to myself

‘after you sir, AJ before beauty’!

“There will be four laps” or words to that effect and “anyone lapped will finish on the same lap as the leader”. Seemed reasonable and considering the beauty of a cyclo-cross race is you’re never dropped miles from home and if you puncture, and are still inclined, there’s a spare bike and well-wisher close to hand. Being a bit alternative too it allows host clubs any amount of options for word-play. And so it as with St. Finbarrs CC ‘Crossbarrs’ event in the wildlife park. Personally I would have preferred ‘Fotafinish’.

The width of the start line reminded me of the junior national championship at the Phoenix Park with all the riders lined out behind a single rope line and a terribly tight bottleneck 300 yards up the road. Alone, elbows resting against the barrier, stood a woman with a single white flower, awaiting the inevitable. My plan, I told anyone who would listen, was to get through the bottleneck before the crash came. Able students as they were they all dashed off after stealing my line, leaving me an under-geared understudy, but thankfully it wasn’t a crashing blow as I listened to crunching gears, rubbing tyres, shouts and cowbells around me.

Have you ever noticed the way in Top Gear they have pet names for the corners of their racetrack? Well amongst ours we had ‘bottleneck bend’, ‘the moving tree’, ‘spaghetti’ ‘whipping branch’, ‘wildlife’, ‘savannah’ and ‘Switzerland’. Switzerland was a movable feast though as obviously Aldi got a job-lot of cowbells from the winter Olympics which our spectators deftly rang to us. More ‘campanology than Campagnolo’ and glorious as that wordplay is there was little time to think. Bottleneck bend wasn’t the worse, but being the finish line it accrued the most spectators…and children. The encouragement of the adults was knowing, that of the kids less so as you heard their seniors remarks translated into enthusiastic pity. When a 6 year old shouts ‘good-man’ the writing is on the wall.

Past ‘bottleneck’ came slight relief and then down to ‘moving tree’, the first taste of front wheel slippage and tree root reminds us why we are here. Up the hill and another straight and on to ‘moving tree’. It had moved to a dustier descent which wanted you to fail, badly. The knobbly tyres foraged for grip and the brakes screamed to keep a grip tight, but you had to release. Who knew what was in the undergrowth. ‘Spaghetti’ was long, twisty and sticky until back toward the moving tree and the final suck in, dismount and run. You could only lick your lips when reunited with pedals and saddle.

The route meandered with ups, downs, twists and turns and finally around some flats. ‘I’m not concentrating’ I realised when I started pondering the number of white stakes which held up the directional tape. The flats suited, but I might make more time on the tricky stuff. Taking the corner quickly my lead rider combined with foliage to christen this corner the ‘whipping branch’. “Twak” it slapped off my helmet and did so for the rest of the race. One word for the future: secateurs. Not quite a straight line to the bunny hops but as good as. I eyed the height of the low boards, checked my gears, felt my cleats clutch the pedals, arched my back, gripped the drops, increased momentum, checked my line, bottled it and dismounted. My pride ensured a theatrical running jump, thankfully not captured for posterity.

Heading for ‘wildlife’ I was glad I had traded my shades for my normal specs. The bright light of day was shuttered out and blinking widely I sought out lions between the trees. Well it was wildlife. The dry earth showed tracks, the tracks of cross men who sought out unchartered corners amongst more marking ribbon. Tight bends beckoned and there of a sudden lay hidden, camouflaged, unforgiving mounds of earth. They bury their dead over ground here. The bike shouted its war c(x)ry and stuck it’s 48 teeth into the 3 crypts, one, slowly, after, another. I’ll try and do that better next time I grimaced and sped away, shaken. The next bunny hop forbad theatrics and after another un-picturesque dismount we returned to civilisation and came out on ‘Savanna’. Like Gazelles of old (mine was a borrowed Ridley) we sped through the low grass and around the corner, back to Bottleneck bend. The woman with the flower headband and camera had moved on. No Fotafinish for me. The children held the sign up that read 6 more laps. I sighed. Four would have been just fine!

So it all started after burger followed by a few pints followed by a few cans on the eve of SKAR, the Skibbereen Adventure Race last October. ‘Jeaz...naw, I’ll never manage it’ says Ger Sweeney… ‘C’mon to F&#k, you’ll be grand, there’ll ne no fear of ya’ replies Jonny Waterman. ‘Sher why not’ says Hogan ‘if Barry Mc can do it, anyone can.’ And that was that, the start of a long sleepless night….not from the drunken banter and discussion and how to train for Gaelforce 2016, but from the mysterious sound similar to the Roches Point fog horn emanating from the back of the camper.

FF to the 19th August, Bags and bikes packed, we headed ‘Into the West’ to see what was in store for us. Book into the Pub (which also happened to be our B&B). Pack the lunch for the following day. Register and sign on, send the bikes off on the transfer service to transition. Back to the Pub/B&B, head out for a bit of Dinner and a few sociable drinks and off to bed nice and early for the early start. What was your favourite song again Ger?

Up at 05.00 for breakfast and on to the 06.00 bus and out to the start line for the 07.30 start on Glassilaun Beach. The first run, 14km went off without a hitch. A mix of road, trail, mountain and a bit of bog for good measure and everybody got to the kayak transition point in Killary Harbour glad to have it behind them.

Buoyancy Aids on and off we go, across Killary Harbour. A couple of capsizers on a few other kayaks due to the strong westerly wind blowing and a few renditions of ‘Row Row Row your Boat’ and before we knew it, that stage was done. Ger and Barry’s Mc’s did have a slight advantage as they robbed a Kayak reserved for OAP’s but Barry Hogan and I were hot on their rudder across the harbour and caught up with them on the start of the next run which was a 5km run, half bog and half road to the bike transition area at Delphi Adventure Centre.

A hang sangadge, can of Coke and a gel later and we were all on the road together and heading for Croagh Patrick, 33km away. Good road surface, good weather, good crack and good company all ended abrubtly with about 3km to go. The road surface changed to forest track, the weather changed to driving wind and rain, the crack changed to ‘Why the f&#k did I listen to Jonny Waterman’ and the company well...kind of fell apart. It was everyman for himself at this stage until we got to the transition for the Reek.

More Coke, bars and gels and up the mountain we go. Knees, quads and calves were beginning to ache at this point but morale and spirits were high, though not as high as were we were heading for. Barry Mc's calf muscles even done a bit of a dance for us! Disappointment then struck when we were informed that the summit was closed to race entrants due to the rain, fog and gale force winds. Oh shucks!!...we were only allowed to climb as far as the shoulder which was also hidden somewhere in the fog. Onwards and upwards we go, dib in at the shoulder, a fist full of jellies and back down the way we came.

Back on the bikes and head the last 11km for Westport Harbour. Lovely road surface, wind behind us, happy out. Round the corner and a marshal directs us up a road to the left known locally as ‘The Skelp’. Tarmac road turns to forest road and in about 1km it turns road!. Bikes on shoulders and up over the top of the track and down the other side to tarmac road once again. Westport here we come...finally.

Bike racked and helmets off, only a 2km run to go, happy days, nearly there. Run turned to walk and walk turned to crawl as there wasn’t much left of the woodland path due to rain and footfall. Plod along until about 400m to go, brave faces on and out on to the street in Westport town to cross the finish line as a group. GaelForce 2016 done! Handshakes and hot soup, coffee and tuna hotpots....on to the Pub and #Rehydrate like a Pro.

Pints, showers, snoozes, more pints, dinner, more pints, Jameson’s and G’s n T’s rounded out what was a fantastic day of fun, camaraderie, good crack, questions of sanity and hatred. All this followed by crack, banter and discussion about GaelForce 2017 and a long, well deserved, sleep filled night with the occasional blast from the mysterious but familiar sound of the Roches Point fog horn.

Whose coming next year???

All smiles before

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