Coolaney in Sligo is another trail center we've never been to. We had no idea what to expect when we loaded up the car and drove over for the race weekend. The weekend of the race there was some fairly strong winds. As we drove over we chatted about tactics for the race and Hannah suggested we treat it like Derroura and pedal around together. I agreed.
When we arrived we bumped into some of the same people we've been seeing and talking to all series. We had a great chat with Martin in advance of the race, and Kirsty gave us some pointers from her practice lap on Saturday. There is a particularly tricky rock section at the top of the climb, when you're fairly tired, that you need to be prepared for. She also explained the track layout a bit better. It's a figure of eight, with a shared transition section. We lined up along with the rest of the field and awaited the whistle.
The whistle blew and we were off. As usual we were pointed up a fire-road and sent chasing after other riders. There was some lovely trail to our right, so normally we wouldn't be heading up this way, but you have to thin out the field before the single-track. The climb was brutal and I was promptly dropped by everyone. Hannah pulled away for a bit, her being far better at climbing without even thinking about it, and I figured I'd catch her by the next descent. After you crested the climb there was a right turn over a log and you were back onto the trail proper. I spotted Hannah waiting up ahead and we tried to stick together again. The climbing trail to the transition section is a nice wide almost double track trail. Well maintained with some very nice corners and a steady climb. It's out in the open with high gorse either side, then it crosses the fire road and goes into the woods proper. The trail narrows a bit and you can see where two descending trails rejoin. I made a mental note to be aware of racers coming behind me whenever I got to this section again and pushed on.
We'd been warned that there would be a marshall, and that marshall would be at a Y junction. The way to navigate this was first time right (to go to the top), second time left (to descend to the start finish), and the same pattern for subsequent laps. So I turned right and started the climb. I would occasionally catch glimpses of Hannah and Kirsty battling up ahead. I was becoming obvious that the course didn't suit us cycling together. All of a sudden I hear tires behind me and a man in the elite category and an Irish cycling jersey approached, passed, and essentially blew my doors off. He sprinted on up the hill. I glanced at my watch, 25mins. This put my head in a bad place, I was already being lapped. Who knows how many more elite riders were behind in hot pursuit. I continued up the climb, but kept a keen eye behind to ensure I wouldn't affect anyone else's race. Nobody came. As I climbed up and started to battle the wind in the wide open top section I figured that person must either be miles ahead of the competition, or have taken a wrong turn and had a lap and a half of a first lap. Either way, I battled the winds and pushed on. The trail at top of the hill was beautiful with some spectacular views. The cross winds and head winds made it far more challenging that normal, I suspect. I spotted a nice fade-away drop and thought "Yeah, let's add some fun". As I popped off the top the wind caught my wheels and pulled me hard left. I managed to stay upright, but I decided there and then to be more careful in the open. Soon I found the rock garden bit, which was definitely technical given how tired I was, and we started to go downhill again. Sections of the trail with hairpins clearly had areas where the expected people to stop and take in the views of the Atlantic. Not today though, today was no breaks and not walking. I pushed on.
The descents are really good fun. If the wind was lighter I'm sure they'd have been a proper highlight of the trail. There are a couple of rock slabs that you have to navigate, some rock gardens and steep corners. A lot of it is shaded. Here we passed a trail called Baywatch that was taped off but looked like a lovely section to ride. We descended Buzzard Aldrin and that was an absolute blast. There was one particularly tricky entrance to a hairpin where the trail had eroded away from the backside of the rock you were rolling over on the outside of the corner. I would later learn that this is where Hannah had her one and only fall. You come off the trails with some nice little tabletop jumps that, in less blustery conditions would have been great fun, and cross the fire-road back into the forest. From here the trail weaves it's way back to the transition area and you approach the Y junction turning left. At this point I had caught Hannah and we were riding together again. As the trail pointed back down I was in my element. I popped off jumps, railed around corners, and made my way back down to the start line. I slowed up after some tricky descents and kept an eye out to see if Hannah made it okay. When I knew she was back with me, I'd sprint off again at pace. As I exited the trails and headed around for the start/finish line the announcer told me "There's one more lap if you want it." Do I want to do another lap? Do I want to drop out, hell no. I've got this. Pointed back up the hill I went after it again.
Lap two and Hannah blasted past me on the climb again. At this point we'd realised attempting to ride together was pointless so our second lap wouldn't include any waiting around for either of us. Herself and Kristy continued their battle and disappeared off into the distance. I put my head down and kept pedalling along. I kept an eye out behind me as I climbed as I knew I'd be getting caught proper now. A few people passed me on the wider sections of trail. Everyone gave me encouragement as I made my way up. Everyone was equally patient as we went through sections of trail where I had difficulty creating room to allow the pass. I remember being passed by two people as a pair and then, maybe 20 seconds later, a person on their own. I let them know that the competition weren't too far ahead, and they'd be able to bridge the gap if they pushed. He smiled as he said "Oh no, no they're far too far away for me. But thanks!". The rest of the climb I spent basically in the rear view mirror. Constantly watching for riders approaching from behind. At one point I pulled over to allow a few riders pass me and my phone was ringing. I answered it, had a brief chat with a friend who was collecting something from our home, and hit the road again. Was this a break? Was this resting? I don't think so, it about a minute all told. I pushed back on the climb and and soon was on the descent all over again.
The final descent was tough. The winds were still high across the top of the mountain and a lot of my energy was sapped from the traverse at the top. But I did what I could to enjoy the descent. I was tired, and fully convinced I was the last person still on the track. I pushed as fast as I could, exited through the final rock garden and turned back onto the final fire-road section. I pushed as hard as I could being cheered on by the spectators present and crossed the finish line. Total time, 1hr 56. Hannah got around a solid 10mins faster than me. We swapped war stories with a few friends who were still around, and grabbed a coffee from the little trailer shop that was at the trail head.
We will definitely be back to the Coolaney trails. There are several sections we haven't hit and want to explore. It's a lovely place to explore by bike, and being so close to Sligo town and the coast there's plenty else to do. It's a long drive, but we went away happy. We'd strongly suggest people go give it a shot.
The below photos were snapped by Colm O'Sullivan. I did crop them slightly from the full images he snapped, just to make load times a little quicker. If you're interested in seeing more of the course I'd advise clicking through his gallery. Thanks Colm, it's great to see you at the races.
Trail Length: 21.85km
Finish Time: 01:56:06
Finish Position: 38 out of 38 finishers