So where was I? I was now sat looking at my efforts of weeding in the Chinese Garden contemplating driving up to Killarney to watch my wife cross the finishing line of this remarkable race. If I left around 9pm I would be up there for 11pm which would give me plenty of time if I wanted to stop along the way and to find where the finishing line actually was, sunset is around 10pm so I should be well into the mountains of Kerry by then.
Bantry is one of the main towns on the road to Killarney from my place and it is well represented in Irish music, singing the praises of the Bay, overlooked by Bantry House and the canons facing towards incoming ships. From Bantry you drive along the coast to Glengarriff there is almost a sub-tropical climate and it is the home of both the Bamboo Garden and Garnish Island Gardens which we visited in an earlier blog. The road then climbs out of the shadow of the woods to the rocky outcrops and the full drama of the mountains. You really know you are going somewhere special as you pass through the tunnels which open up to the mountains of the Kingdom. Of course coming back the other way you are also going somewhere special, the long finger like extremities of the peninsulas, the bays and the hidden coves of West Cork.
The road leads down past Druids View and over the bridge and on into Kenmare. I love Kenmare, we had a very happy time around there when I was around 12yrs old and recall the cart rides we took into the hills for the day and rowing out the small flat bottomed boat in search of Mackerel and Pollock and the odd crab hauled up on a simple hook and line. Summer days were slow and long and the sun shone all the time! And we are having one of those summers where the heat on your back evokes the memory, simple pleasures of haymaking and cooking over an open fire.
These thoughts and more came to mind as I travelled up once again into the mountains leaving Kenmare bustling with visitors sitting outside sharing pints in the warm late evening. I wanted to get through the pass and see the iconic Ladies View before the sun fully set, I would normally avoid this road during the summer, the surface has improved since I last went this way and the sheep fencing seems a bit more secure but the roads during the day are usually full of coaches negotiating the mountain roads and since the Wild Atlantic Way has brought even more visitors I imagine driving this road during the day could be a little frustrating but at 10pm on a Tuesday night it was a cruise on the open road, with only the occasional motor caravan but they were parked up in one of the many lay-byes.
I got to Ladies View, I think its name has something to do with Queen Victoria’s ladies walking up to take in the view over the lakes of Killarney on her famous visit to Muckross House but I might be wrong. I wonder what those women would have made of a female cyclist in Lycra shorts and sleeping in fields?
The view is lovely especially in that light, I couldn’t quite capture it on camera the full moon on one side and the fading pastel sky reflected off the surface of the lakes, the imposing mountains, shoulders of stone and just below the gateway to Killarney through ancient woods. The road narrows significantly and twists its way along the lake shore line. Always good to take that slow so you can appreciate the lake light through the trees but also to avoid getting in the way of any stag darting across the road at dusk.
I find Killarney itself a bit of a disappointment. Killarney is without doubt the centre of tourism in Ireland challenging even Dublin as the number one destination. Its reputation for being surrounded by breathtaking scenery is well founded and Muckross House is a great place to visit and in order to cater for this level of interest the town has to accommodate a lot of Hotels and Bed Breakfasts, the place is wall to wall with them, a bit of a jolt for me who had been lost in the grandeur and magnificence of mother nature for the last couple of hours. In college my tutor mentioned that Killarney in the Irish language Cill Airne, meaning “church of sloes” and sloes are the berries we collect off the blackthorn in the Autumn, they are great for making that lovely pink demon Sloe Gin but that’s another blog.
I had timed it just about right and the last of the evening faded away as I arrived at the hostel outside Killarney that Audax Ireland was using as their central hub a simple and unglamorous beginning and end to an event set to challenge the will, the body and the spirit of the participant to their very limits.
As I pulled into the entrance of the hostel I recognised the chipped and weathered concrete pillars and the potholed bóithrín from the video of the start of the event posted on Saturday morning 88 hours or so earlier. If I’m honest I was a fan but I have come to think of cycling as a drug riddled commercialised narcissistic and somewhat comic pursuit and in my case that is down may be unfairly to Lance Armstrong, someone who to me was to be admired and then who fell from those heady heights, I felt betrayed and my image of cycling has been tainted, how your heroes can fall.
But Audax Cycling seems a bit different. Audax comes from “audacious.” It started in Italy as a day-long challenge, how far can you go in a day? I found this out when talking with Senan Burke, with the very grand title of President of Audax Ireland. However I don’t get any of that grandeur off him or in Audax which does to me sounds like some kind of cleaning product. These Audax people or what I think is more evocative randonneurs are not a flashy breed, this is not glamorous, this is tough, gritty down and dirty cycling. Randonneurs are bold, brave and courageous, there is a whiff of a delightful valiant endeavour with subtle undertones of madcap, wild, reckless and eccentrics thrown in. A band of brothers and a few sisters. This is not competitive in the usual sporting sense, I didn’t get any indication that first over the line was of any priority it was more competing against your own physical and mental limits. To push yourself to your limits, to go to the mountain and return a better version of yourself and everyone wanted to help that happen in the time allowed.
That damn clock, I know I wouldn’t see Kate for at least another hour but I kept checking to see the time and hoping she had managed to keep her average speed up enough to make the 2am deadline. My friend Eamon came across very confident in his text. But he had also said that she had 124km and it was flat. I overheard a few of the randonneurs recounting the awful climbs they had done that day and how tough the course was. That didn’t sound like “flat” to me and Kate had to have kept up a 20km/hr average. I believe Kate’s riding style is more tortoise than hare, while others fly past there’s Kate still peddling, still going, still moving, never give up and by my reckoning she had just kept going on 5 hours sleep while those rested in the wee small hours, there was the tortoise, just keep going, just keep turning, 89 hours complete.
It was past midnight, I must have dozed off on the bench opposite the entrance to the youth hostel. Another arrival, the shuddery headlight and crunch of gravel of another randonneur crossing the line, greeted by a quiet hand clap from the two volunteers helping them off their bikes. You could feel the quiet sense of pride and achievement, an understatement and a release of exhaustion. Just through the doorway and into the old building their details were checked and cards stamped. I could see them one by one or two would arrive together, it reminded me of those old black and white films waiting for the pilot to return from a mission over the channel, one engine out as they limped home to their loved ones. It was late and my mind had little to do other than to get lost in more and more imaginings, where Kate was, how far down the road, is she just turning into the drive, it better be soon, is that her there with the crunch of gravel and the glare of headlight? No he’s an American and he is very relieved to be back staggering a little as he dismounts.
I can hear your man, the American as he enters the canteen and there is a buzz of applause that must be where they are gathering and recovering. There are a few walking around the car park outside talking on their mobile phone, telling their girlfriend, partner, family or friend that they are home safe, yes they completed it in time, yes I am alright, just a bit tired, sure tell them I love them and I’ll be home tomorrow or I’m staying on a couple of days, me and a couple of the guys are going to see some more of this country while we got the chance.
Be safe, be safe Kate. God she really should have been here by now she is cutting it very fine. What if she doesn’t make it? How is she going to feel to come so close? Wow just to finish is pretty amazing, even if she doesn’t do it in time. Time, she has to be here in 15 minutes. I had my camera ready, there was one bright light glaring across the entrance way to greet them as they arrived I and the finishing control was illuminated in such a way I might be able to take a little bit of video when she arrived, if she arrived, two more are pulling up, it’s not them I can hear their voices joking about leaving it to the last minute, a habit with these two by the sound of it as they joked their way inside.
There is no one about now it is very quiet and there are only a couple of minutes left as I look at my phone checking the time counting the minutes. There is the sound of a drone a man launched a couple of minutes ago, strange he would leave it so late in the day, just hanging there above the finish its red light winking in the night sky. Nearly everyone is back only a handful left out there, somewhere in the dark, knowing they are not going to make it before the clock ticks over the line, how does that feel? Is it so close but so far or I nearly made it, its ok, I might try again in 4 years time.
Was that the gravel, no must of been the wind, no that is gravel and there is a headlight and another, there’s two heading up the drive, come on, please be Kate, please, please, that’s Beaky, bloody hell that IS KATE, its 1:58am, they made it, they made it, God damn they did it! Well done girl, that is amazing, go on get inside, you done it, you done it!
There are times in life, special moments, those emotional sweeps you know will stay with you forever. To some they may not be significant, someone has nearly always done something bigger, longer, quicker, greater but to set a goal, to test yourself against yourself and to return a wiser, stronger person, is that the reason they put themselves through this? These Grande Randonneurs, this happy breed, to feel alive, to face the challenge, to sleigh the demon, to endeavour and to be audacious.
My view of cycling has definitely changed. I as always will continue to smirk at those lycra legends who are scattered all over West Cork these days, I will always slow down and make sure I give at least 1.5m distance when overtaking but now I will also wonder if they could have the heart of a Randonneur, my amazing and totally mad wife Kate does.
I would like to add a special thanks to Kate’s friend Beaky. He trained with Kate over the months leading up to this event, he had to pull out of the event at an early stage when he got heatstroke and he spent the next day in bed recovering but it was Beaky who I saw first that night leading Kate up the garden path, he stuck with her, he drove her, brought her back home safe. Thank you Beaky.