We get grinding on the glorious coastal roads of County Antrim with the Ballymena Road Club
- Words: Patrick Trainor | Photos: Dillon Osborne
“There’ll be a few tired riders out today,” says John McKillop, the club vice-chairman, as we arrive.
“Our member Eileen Burns was riding the Commonwealth Games road race last night, so a few of us were here at the clubhouse until the early hours.”
A short statement that illuminates the make-up of Ballymena Road Club — that is to say, the high quality of its riders, the camaraderie and the fact that the members are fortunate enough to have a clubhouse of their own.
Three groups mustered by club chairman Paul Murdoch depart separately and we’re soon on deserted back roads in increasingly rolling terrain. There’s plenty of chat in my group as it rotates.
Derek Dougan is in charge of the changes today and everyone is doing a stint on the front, with no shirking. There’s always a designated leader for each group and
ride, a person who knows the route and controls the group.
“We have a lot of very strong riders coming in at A4 level and we teach road craft so they can move up. We’ve got great racing heritage and we’re keen to preserve that,” says Derek’s son David, leading the B group.
Racing has been very much a part of Ballymena RC since the club was formed in 1954. The legendary Billy Kerr won many national titles and major stage races as well as riding in several Commonwealth Games and the 1980 Olympics. Andrew Moss and Ryan Connor continued the tradition and most recently Eileen Burns, the Irish TT champion.
The racing heritage also extends to organising quality races. The Wallace Caldwell Memorial Road Race Trophy and the Red Hand Trophy are two of the most popular races in the country. The club is rightly proud of these races’ excellent reputation as they are all real club efforts with all members pitching in, as well as the local community.
It’s not all about racing, the club has an excellent initiative for attracting new members that has been running successfully for over 30 years: the Fun Tour Series.
This series of weekly beginners’ training rides take place every Saturday morning for 13 weeks between September and December, and is supported by the local council. Riders of all abilities can participate and can achieve Bronze, Silver or Gold certificates and medals, dependent on the number of rides completed.
Our route today takes us to the coast. After a quick stop at Carnlough it is a super-fast ride along the coast road, with a strong tailwind taken advantage of, before hitting the climb of Glenariff. It’s such a shame that the weather was bad when the Giro d’Italia passed through here in 2014, as it really is such an enchanting area.
The climb is known as the Queen of the Glens, a long, steady five-mile rise up through a natural amphitheatre with high stone crags and waterfalls.
Today it offers a chance to talk to Neil Kerr, organiser of the Billy Kerr Sportive: “I wanted to do something to honour my father, so the sportive was born a few years ago. It has raised tens of thousands of pounds for local charities and is the biggest project the club undertakes alongside the open road races.”
Regrouping at the summit, it really is downhill all the way to the finish over 10 miles away and everyone gives it a go regardless. “This is what I love about the club,” says Adele Kennedy, the club secretary.
“It’s excellent at helping new members. I joined for the touring and am now in the B group. We’re working with Cycling Ulster to become a Clubmark accredited club, and also developing our Sprocket programme to bring more young riders in.”
Judging by the speed of today’s ride it’s not hard to see why this area has such a rich pedigree of racers as well as many happy club members. Perhaps this is the secret to them being the fastest area in the UK on Strava last year? Maybe, but they’re not telling.
The club was formed in 1954 and has a rich history of top-class riders. Billy Kerr is the most successful member to date. He won the Tour of the North, the Rás, and the Irish road and time trial champs.
Sammy Kerr was the club’s first champion with Irish time trial titles in 25, 50 and 100 miles in the 1960s.
Andrew Moss rode in two Commonwealth Games in the 1990s, as did Ryan Connor in the early 2000s.
There are two strong para-cyclists in Steven Workman, who won the National Para-Cycling League in 2016, and Darrell Erwin, who holds the Irish national 25-mile handcycling HC3 record.
Eileen Burns is the current women’s Irish national pursuit and time trial champion and has just ridden at the recent Commonwealth Games in Australia.
Rex Bonar has been a major contributor to the club both financially and as an official for many years and the club cannot emphasise his contribution enough. His company has sponsored the club since the 1960s to this day. It was the first sponsored club in Ireland.
The club has three major annual promotions:
The Wallace Caldwell Memorial Road Race Trophy is held in April in memory of the young and successful Ballymena RC member, who was killed racing in England.
The Red Hand Trophy Road Race is promoted by Ballymena RC and is now part of the Irish National League.
The Billy Kerr Sportive — taking place this year on August 18 — is ridden over three distances in memory of Billy Kerr, legendary Ballymena RC road racer.
Club member Q&A: Sammy Connor
Sammy Connor, 80, is a lifelong member and has held a number of committee positions over the years.
Why did you join the club?
I joined the club in 1955 with a few of my friends who had bikes and we were already doing our own time trials against each other for fun. We all started riding time trials in competition, as well as seeing more of the country on club rides.
I was more of a TT rider and still hold the record for a tandem ride from Derry to Belfast. I also rode many races. I rode the Tour of the North the year Sean Kelly won it. We’ve always been a racing club and attracted and developed good riders like my grandson Ryan Connor and most recently Eileen Burns, who joined as a relative novice and has just ridden the Commonwealth Games.
You must have seen some changes over the years?
The biggest change that I’ve seen is the development of kit members use. Nowadays people are riding £10k bikes but not racing. When I was younger, the racers had the best kit and the leisure cyclists had more comfortable, average bikes. The one piece of kit I’d say that has had the biggest improvement has got to be triathlon aero handlebars. I wish I’d had them in my day.
Ride highlights: Ballymena RC
Picturesque former fishing village, with a popular harbour offering boat trips round the coast. The bridge over the main street was a tramway built for the local quarries.
2 Antrim coast road
Regarded as one of the best tourist routes in the world. The road follows the north-east shoreline with uninterrupted views out to sea and incredible
3 Glenariff climb
Known as the Queen of the Glens due to its beauty. A steady five-mile rise through a stunning landscape.
Favourite cafe: Glenarm Castle Tea Room
Where better for a coffee stop than a historic castle beside the sea? The touring group visits regularly as they love to cycle along the coast road and appreciate how lucky they are to be within cycling distance of the coast. There is a designated cycle parking area and staff are very friendly. The food is gorgeous too, with home-made wheaten bread and scones being two of our favourites. It has plenty of room inside for our group to sit together and debate the route home. 2 Castle Demesne, Glenarm, Ballymena BT44 0BQ 028 2884 1203