Why are Northern Ireland’s cyclists so fast?

Strava data reveals Northern Ireland's riders are the fastest in the United Kingdom. Dave Nash takes a closer look

The Giro climbs towards Stormont House on stage one of the 2014 Giro d'Italia. Photo: Graham Watson
(Image credit: Watson)

When Strava published its annual End of Year Insights for 2016, the majority of the stats were easily explained, but there were a couple that left some cyclists in the UK scratching their heads.

How could it be that the three top spots for the highest average speed and highest average ride length were claimed by regions of Northern Ireland?

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The Ards region, to the south-east of Belfast, rode away with the top spot for highest average speed (25.4kph), narrowly beating the Banbridge area, situated a little further to the west, with Coleraine, in the north of the country, rounding off the podium.

Banbridge, however, secured the title for longest average ride, 44.9km, though Ards was again their nearest rival, with neighbouring Newry and Mourne clinching bronze.

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It’s actually counter-intuitive to clinch titles for both fastest and longest rides, so is there something in the water that is propelling the cyclists from across the Irish Sea?

“I’d like to say we are just stronger cyclists over here!” says Alastair Martin, long term member of Ards CC, but he concedes that the roads in this quiet corner of Ireland are wonderfully free of traffic, with few towns to negotiate, which makes the riding a little more fluid, facilitating higher average speeds and longer rides.

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That, however, is not the full picture and Martin alludes to the concentration of clubs in the area, all with a healthy, competitive membership and a proactive approach to organising events in all disciplines.

There is also, undoubtedly, a strong pool of talent in the region.

“We have 77 adult competition licence holders out of a total membership of 150” says Paul Hannigan, secretary of Banbridge CC. With many cyclists competing at a very high level and many veterans still smashing the local segments, it’s not surprising that high average speeds are the norm.

Strava stats

UK women’s averages per ride

  • 34km long
  • 19.8kph
  • 287m of climbing
  • 1:44 in the saddle

UK men’s averages per ride

  • 41km long
  • 25.6kph
  • 375m of climbing
  • 1:53 in the saddle

Philip Dickenson, Secretary of North Down CC, concedes the Ards Peninsula, which hosts several big races, is relatively flat “so even training rides get very, very quick.”

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So why has this corner of Northern Ireland eclipsed many other UK cycling hotbeds? Dickenson’s suggestion that the benign terrain may have helped to bolster the Irish figures provokes a bullish response from Martin: “I don’t think that’s a big factor. Most roads are rolling all the time and the Mourne Mountains are within striking distance, which encourages longer rides.”

A valid point that may go some way to explaining the long ride lengths.

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So will the Strava findings introduce a further element of competitiveness into an already feisty club scene?

“I think a lot in the club will want to ensure Ards retains its title next year,” Dickenson says, “So we’ll try and encourage the slower riders not to sign up to Strava just yet!”

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