So I decided that this year I would actively work towards my years long goal of some day doing the Leadville 100. So on top of the Blitz series, I signed up to some gravel races. The first one was held on August 27th in Moycullen. I decided to sign up to the short version, 65km with almost 800m of climbing.
While this wasn't technically my longest ever cycle, that honour goes to the The Greenway spin in Waterford back in June. It would certainly be my longest race, and probably the most challenging ride overall. Looking at the profile of the race we were being eased into it with a 30km rolling route followed by two long climbs and a final drag back up to Moycullen. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the morning of the race.
So the morning of the race we were staying an hour and a half away at my aunt's house. We hit the road shortly after 8, which we assumed would have us up in time to register without stress. This, it transpired, wasn't true thanks in part to a tractor or two, and me forgetting to properly attach my bike to the bike rack. We arrived with enough time in the end. Hannah parked the car and I ran off to register. Once registered I found Hannah and got dressed for the race. This was my first time using chamois cream, but being a long day I knew it was need. All kitted up and ready to go myself and Hannah headed over to catch the rider briefing. This was a little more different than others I've heard. It turns out the spirit of gravel is a thing that the community pride themselves on. Never leave someone behind, and always be courteous to all road users.
After a count down we went off on a neutral roll out. We exited the carpark, turned left, turned right and crossed the main road. We headed out from Moycullen in a Northerly direction and on the outskirts of the village hung a right down some boreens and headed out across the open fields and through a wood. It was fun to be part of such a large mass start event that didn't have the pressure of an opening sprint. We all found our pace and let the day unfold as it would. It was on this neutral roll out that I started to notice the true diversity of bikes being used. I spent a while talking with a guy on a 1980s British made steel mountain bike he's converted to be his gravel bike. It was an awesome looking rig and to see it still out bringing joy to someone after 40 years was something else.
I set off at a fast pace. The excitement of the days adventure had me pedalling and out of gears very fast. Maintaining the pace I had at the start was not going to last over the 64km, so I started to ease off and let the race come to me. To give an example of how fast the pace was, while heading down a road the trail narrowed and crossed a bridge. The conditions on the bridge weren't great, a couple of long muddy puddles and high edges to the center strip of grass. The race came to a complete stop at this point. So many people were trying to get through, we just had to slow up and wait our turn. It was after this that I began to think I should find a smaller group to ride with. As I dropped back down the field I was able to maintain a pace that I could hold a conversation at. This, I felt was good. Sometimes I'm have to go quiet, but if I wanted to talk, I could.
The rolling hills around Moycullen are beautiful. The roads we took, which were mostly back roads, afforded us some lovely views. As we passed various houses people were out in their front gardens cheering us on. It was great to witness such encouragement from the community and certainly kept my spirits high. We briefly passed by Lough Corrib before we headed west again aiming for the town of Doon West, in a roundabout way. We crossed the N59 at Killarone and back back down towards Doon West. In this village there was a section of footpath that we had been granted access to for the day. We were advised to walk as conditions were slippy. When I rounded the corner what I saw was mossy wet concrete and no sign of letup in the 14% gradient. I maybe got one pedal stroke in before my wheel spun and I was walking. As I hiked up this section I promised myself that I wouldn't walk any other part of the race. Little did I know how much of a challenge that would be.
Now the far side of the N59 we were getting close to the meat of the race. The halfway point for us was a feed station in the middle of the wind farm on the next hill. We crossed some beautifully barren looking landscape, scrub and bare rock as we made our way to the gravel proper. Through this section from Doon West to the feed station I was cycling with a young man who'd only recently gotten into biking. He'd picked up a road bike and entered the race, not knowing that it was mostly rough roads. A new set of tires and he was going to give it his all. As we climbed I saw Hannah ahead. She had said she wanted to watch some of the racing and we had learned through the organizer that this section at the base of the first draggy climb was the best spot for her to see some action. I think it was actually about a third the way up, but it was right outside the wind farm park area anyway. She cheered us on and snapped a couple of photos. I smiled and thanked her letting her know I was feeling surprisingly good at this stage. It was at this point my cycling partner turned left. Hannah quickly corrected him and pointed him back up the hill. I think he just didn't want to climb it. He passed me, being on a road bike limited his gearing, so I was pushing a much slower gear up the hill. I kept going though, along the grey access road. Slowly covering the distance until finally I had crested the hill.Glancing at my watch I was surprised to think that I was passed the halfway point and still under 2hrs. The descent was a welcome relief. Fast, wide open, and surrounded by gorse and barren rock, you sped along to the feed zone. As I arrived, my watch said 2hrs elapsed.
Feed zone tactics are a thing all of their own. Some won't stop, most will. If you stop for too long though, you risk losing the warmth in your muscles. If you stop for too short, the fatigue barely wears away. I feel I timed it well for me. I stopped for around ten minutes here 35km into the race, but most importantly for me, 2hrs in. This meant I was keeping to my schedule of eating on the hour. Sufficiently fueled, water topped up, and having thanked the people manning the desks I set off once more. We climbed through a thin strip of forrest before crossing a wide barren section along the saddle of the hills. You cross through a gate, and start a slow climb out toward the masts.
This latter half was where most the hard work would be done. Plenty of long winding wide gravel roads to service and construct wind turbines. The trail traversed a saddle in the mountains. With a forrest on our left and various construction equipment on our right we carried on. This section was two way and it was great to see riders on the return journey whizzing passed me. The road snaked around a couple of gates and we were back through felled forrest and open hillside. A drag uphill started and then the was a marshall. He directed outbound riders to the right, as inbound came in from the left side of the Y junction. He helpfully let me know that the next section was "steep, but short". He certainly wasn't wrong on the first count. Starting at an elevation of 100m we climbed about 80m in 1.4km. This section was grueling. As I slowly spun my way up the hill I passed a couple of people pushing. They shared some words of encouragement as I pedalled alongside them. Once I'd crested the climb and turned right I felt a great sense of achievement. I'd the worst of it climbed. That was, I assumed, likely the toughest part of the race. What followed was a lovely, if sketchy, descent along some loose fire roads through a wooded section of the hill. At one point I came into a left corner a little too hot and almost ran out of road. Thankfully I kept it upright and on track. Here several people flew passed me as I passed others. Some, like me, were polite and warned you they were passing on your left or right. Others, were not. That was a little unnerving, but all in all the road was plenty wide enough for all the users.
Quickly enough I found myself passing the marshall again, this time in the homeward direction. Traveling up the section of two way trail I prepared myself for the climb back to the turn off point. In reality, this was not much to worry about. Passing yet another marshall the trail turned right beside the edge of the forrest and we were only a few kilometers from tarmac once again. This section was one of my favourites. A simple forrest track it wasn't manicured at all. Branches strewn across the path created a soft trail under your tires. I glanced at my watch, another hour gone. I stopped for food, snacking on jellies as riders I had passed once again passed me. I hoped to catch a few as I set off once again. When we rejoined the tarmac we were back into the open bog. This final section was going to be a hell of a slog.
The road undulated over the ground and no single point was flat. I caught one of the riders who's passed me taking a break before a particularly steep short section. We had a brief chat as I rested, but I didn't hang around long. I was still on track to far exceed my goal time, if I was complacent I risked watching it slip away. I trundled up the climb, and then there was more rolling hills. I cannot remember exactly which came first, but I remember a lovely, very steep and fast descent through a chicane that weaved through a farm yard. That was a lovely section. Also during this portion of the race I passed another rider leaning against a wall at a junction. They were half way up another hill, and I used the guise of asking if they needed help to grant myself an extra breather too. They didn't and were just looking for their phone, so I continued on. Before too long I found myself on the road back to Moycullen. This had the final sting in the tail of a long draggy climb back to just outside the village. Someone overtook me and kindly asked if I wanted a pull. If I had had the energy in my legs to keep up with them I would have happily worked with them to get to the end. I honestly told them I didn't have the power left to keep up, but thanked them all the same.
Cresting the final climb, I descended into Moycullen. The last bit of that road is fast and I managed to trip a speed reading sign entering a 50kmph zone at 47kmph. According to Strava I hit 51.3kmph at some stage. As I flew in the road a marshall stepped out and directed me right back to the start. Here more marshalls directed me onto the path and across the finish line. I was cheered across the line by Hannah and the race organizers. The guy who sent us off stuck a medal around my neck and congratulated me. I thanked him, and the rest of the marshalls before clearing the line before anyone came up behind me. I told the organiser that I was hoping to tackle Leadville. He smiled and said "Leadville isn't the goal. Unbound XL is the goal." I'll have to really think about that one... that's no small ask.
To say I had a blast would be an understatement. This will hopefully become an annual event and I'll try to make as many of them as I can. Next year I think I'll go for the mid-length distance of 100km. I can definitely see the attraction of this type of racing. And I'm already looking forward to the next one.
Trail Length: 65km
Finish Time: 03:51:17
Finish Position: N/A
Special thanks to GalwayGravelGrinder.com for organising this race/ride and running a lovely, family friendly, and novice friendly event. Next race is the Gravel Goes West on September 18th. Hopefully I'll see you on the trails, and best of luck.