My Ride: A challenging ride across the Wicklow mountains
Distance: 200km (124 miles)
Total climbing: 2,500m
Challenge: Completing the 4km Slieve Maan climb
If you fancy a long hilly ride in the UK you’re spoilt for choice. There are now hundreds of cyclo-sportives being held throughout the length and breadth of the country.
Over in Ireland they may not be awash with such challenge rides, but for more than 20 years they’ve been running a cyclo-sportive that will rival any of the best the UK has to offer.
The Wicklow 200 was created by the Irish Veterans’ Cyclist Association in 1981, and has been increasing in popularity ever since. It traverses throughout the county of Wicklow, south of Dublin, and criss-crosses the Wicklow Mountains en route. Being a veteran cyclist myself, a chance to visit friends in Dublin and ride the Wicklow 200 for the purposes of Etape training was just too good an opportunity to miss. I couldn’t wait to join the 1,300 other participants and ride Ireland’s premier cycling challenge.
On Sunday, June 10, I got in among the nervous smiles and knowing looks of the happy Lycra-clad folk outside the University College of Dublin (UCD) sports centre. We waited for a few minutes and, just after 7am, rolled away under the starting banner. It was a glorious summer morning; there were swathes of commuter bikes mixing it with gleaming road bikes, mountain bikes and, of course, the obligatory recumbent.
Once we hit the main road we headed south in huge pelotons. I rode briskly, hopping from group to group on the slightly undulating Dublin Road. There were lots of guys in club jerseys and, although I know it sounds hackneyed, there appeared to be a genuine sense of camaraderie among the riders. Be honest, when was the last time you heard someone say, “you’re welcome” when you shouted out “on your right”?
After an hour’s riding, we had encountered nothing more demanding than a short, sharp hill; an espresso climb, no doubt included to kick-start our climbing legs. Unlike some of the hilly rides I’ve ridden, it was quickly apparent that those responsible for spray-painting the route directions had strategically placed the signs where they could be clearly seen by cyclists. In fact, the W sign merged with an arrow was comfortingly ubiquitous throughout the whole of the ride.
Just after the initial eye-opening ramp, the route came to a junction where a split took place: 100km riders to the left and 200km riders to the right. I veered to the right for the long, hilly option and was soon locked in 39/23. It was time for the serious business — climbing the first of the four main climbs, Sally Gap.
I reached the top feeling pretty good and soon began a fast, if slightly, jerky descent back down the mountain. At the bottom we briefly passed through the village of Laragh, and the first opportunity to pick up refreshments. Most riders, myself included, didn’t stop but forged ahead.
Next was the Wicklow Gap climb, a feisty beast that required some effort at around threshold pace. Indeed, despite the legs doing what was expected, I had to change gears a few times just to find the perfect rhythm. After a good few minutes of climbing, another fairly safe descent was ticked off and it was time to stop at the first official checkpoint for timing cards to be scanned.
By now we were only 100km into the route, but some riders were suffering a little judging by a few sweaty, red faces and weary-looking bodies. Three energy bars later and we were back on the hills: Donard, and then the ‘bad boy’ Slieve Maan. Yes, this was to be the steepest and hardest climb of the day and it was time for the suffering to really begin.
Suffering, pure and simple
Now forget all that aesthetic cadence nonsense, there’s basically two types of climbing: shallow breathing or heavy breathing. Fitness levels dictate which one you’ll be doing the most. The former type is preferable of course, and superficially at least, indicates that you’re climbing well.
However, the four km ascent, blessed with a few tasty 15 per cent sections, left me heaving so loudly on Slieve Maan I’m sure they heard me in Dublin city centre. Gearing-wise I found it just about manageable in 39/25. I should point out that despite it being a brute, you actually start the climb through some truly idyllic tree-lined mountain countryside.
At about 1km from the top I rode up alongside a guy who was clearly struggling — zig-zagging all over the narrow road. “Keep going mate,” I shouted. “My knee is bloody killing me,” he wailed and then asked if he could take my wheel. For a few brief seconds our breathing patterns were syncopated, much like the beginning of Kraftwerk’s seminal electro hit Tour de France. Alas, our musical interlude was destined to be short and I left him tracing letter Z patterns on the sloping tarmac.
At the top of Slieve Maan came some much-needed refreshment in the form of the yellow PowerBar stand. A quick pose for the cameraman, then on with the sticky refuelling business, thanks to energy bars, gels and SIS drink. The long drawn-out descent that followed was just what my body ordered, but concentration was imperative because the occasional vehicle would appear from time to time heading back up the mountain. As things levelled out, finding a rhythm was again tough work. This was not helped by the road’s general wobbly nature and some rough tarmacked bits. For a few kilometres I was joined by a great bunch of friendly local riders who were also using the Wicklow as Etape training.
We soon arrived at the second checkpoint and within five minutes I was back on the Dublin road. But it wasn’t for long. There were various sets of crossroads to negotiate and I was soon riding over long stretches of chip-stoned roads, which seriously shaved my speed and kept me pegged at 24kph.
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Just before the final mountain, Djouce, I linked up with another bunch of serious-looking riders who seemed to plough along with consummate ease. Fortunately for me, they didn’t climb and descend with such alacrity; so perhaps annoyingly for them I was mostly able to sit in for the last 20km.
Now, relationships in cyclo-sportives are made on a strictly ‘What can you do for me for me now?’ basis. So with five kilometres to go I dropped my now garrulous acquaintances and hooked up with a big guy on a Trek. We then ‘two-up’ed it all the way back to the UCD. Ride time seven hours 10 minutes, official time seven hours 20 minutes.
So what makes a good cyclo-sportive? Food and water stops. Check. Excellent signage. Check. A safe but challenging course. Check. Timing system. Check. And most importantly — glorious sunny weather. The Wicklow 200 has it all — what are you waiting for?
Leave Belfield via Dundrum to Stepaside and Enniskerry. From there it’s straight on past the gates of Powerscourt, and then a few kilometres after Enniskerry the route turns right to climb past the entrance to the Powerscourt waterfall and on towards Glencree. At the top of the valley it’s sharp left and a further climb up to Sally Gap.
From Sally Gap take the long, winding mountain road down past Glenmacnass waterfall to Laragh. From Laragh climb up to the Wicklow Gap, and then across to the village of Hollywood, on the N81 on the west side of Co. Wicklow. From there it’s through the Hollywood Glen to Donard. Then go to the town of Baltinglass and turn left to Rathdangan. Then to Mullen Cross roads and on towards Slieve Maan.
Descending from Slieve Maan, pass Drumgoff, at the mouth of the Glenmalure valley, and then climb the Greenane drag to Rathdrum. Turn left at the exit from the village, and leave the main road to go to Moneystown and then via Tomriland Cross Roads to rejoin the main road at Roundwood. Just after Roundwood go left and up over the shoulder of Djouce mountain, before descending to rejoin the road back to Dublin.