Jul 192016

At the finish of the inaugural Wild Atlantic Way Audax (WAWA)—2,100km of hills, rain, and wind on the scenic west coast of Ireland, to be covered in 7 days and 7 hours—I struggled to sum up my experience to Eamon Nealon, the organiser. I’ll remember this ride as long as I live (I told him), which may not be very long if I do many events as hard as this…
So here’s my A-Z of the WAWA. I hope it’ll give you a flavour of the longest and most memorable ride of my randonneuring career.

Day 1. Looking towards the Sheep's Head peninsula. The weather wasn't always like this...

Day 1. Looking towards the Sheep’s Head peninsula. The weather wasn’t always like this…

The WAWA brought several adventures for Catherine and me.

Day 2: We’re within a few kilometres of Ballyheigue and bed. The route seems to be travelling in circles on tiny, pitch-dark lanes. Squalls of rain and wind are buffeting us from unexpected directions. Through the rain on my glasses, I’m concentrating on following the black line on my GPS when it abruptly vanishes. Ah… Turn it off and back on again. Nope, no luck. Turn the track display off and back on again. Nope, no luck. Panic. Nope, no luck.

After a few minutes of random prodding, the GPS deigns to display the track again. We heave a sigh of relief and set off.

A couple of kilometres pass without incident. On a particularly pitchy lane my headlight suddenly goes black and rejects all attempts at resuscitation. I have to share Catherine’s dynamo light for the remaining 13km to the control, calling the bends and turns from the GPS.

Day 6: It’s dark, and we’re descending the last of the big hills after Killybegs, plunging towards the coast. I’m in front, but moderating my speed at Catherine’s request. We pass a cottage. I glimpse black and white to my left, then there’s growling and a crash. A sheepdog has rushed at Catherine, causing her to fall. She’s remarkably calm, and quickly checks the bike. It seems okay.

Day 7: Breakfast. Catherine mentions that she seems to have damaged a brake lever in the fall. I take a look. The pivot of the left lever—front brake—is an ex-pivot. It has ceased to be. It has joined the choir invisible (I wonder how she made it over the many coastal lumps after the big descent). She needs a replacement lever if she’s to complete the ride safely.

Eamon to the rescue… Catherine gets a lift to and from a local bike shop, and returns eventually with a shiny new functioning lever. Mismatched, but you can’t have everything.

We set off late for the final day’s ride. There’s still plenty of time. Nothing can go wrong now, can it?

Audax Ireland
Lovely people. To a man, hard as nails and mad as a parcel of amphibians. Suffer from hill-blindness.

George was the official beard of the WAWA. That is all you need to know.

Paul Whitehead and the Official Beard of the WAWA on Healy Pass

Paul Whitehead and the Official Beard of the WAWA on Healy Pass

My body was a—ruined—temple for the duration of the WAWA. I promised myself beer at the finish, but confined myself to casting longing glances at pubs en route. Beer might dissolve my motivation. As it slipped refreshingly down my throat. Stop it, imagination!

George, on the other hand, was more sensible. He equipped himself in Kinsale with a leaflet on the breweries of the Wild Atlantic Way and visited several along the road. Mind you, I’m reasonably sure that the start was the only time George has ever entered a Temperance Hall. I was half-expecting alarms to go off as he crossed the threshold.

What to ride on the longest event I’d ever attempted? I used my Mason Definition on rides up to 400km, then rode a 600 on the carbon bike I’d used for London-Edinburgh-London. The rough chipseal roads and potholed lanes on the 600 left me feeling battered. The comfy carbon frame couldn’t compensate for the hard ride resulting from skinny tyres, and my arms and shoulders ached from the effort of hauling on the rim brakes. There would be rough roads and tricky descents galore on the WAWA. The Mason it was, then. It worked brilliantly.

My Mason in touring rig. I used a Carradice Barley rather than a Nelson Longflap for WAWA

My Mason in touring rig. I used a Carradice Barley rather than a Nelson Longflap for WAWA

The WAWA was a ride of extraordinary landscapes, and the Burren was the weirdest of the lot. Low rolling hills paved with limestone, but with lush vegetation bursting from cracks in the rock. Like riding across an alien planet.

Camper van
The camper van control was always a welcome sight.

The camper van’s first appearance was in sun-drenched Baltimore on Day 1. As riders spotted the van and homed in on tea and cake, Annette issued stern instructions to ride the loop round the village before stopping at the control. We did what we were told!

Day 2: The camper van was in rain-drenched Porthmagee. Day 3: It wasn’t at the Cliffs of Moher. Oh no! Day 4: Normal service resumed in Connemara. Day 5: The camper van was at Keel. There was no tea. We promised to say no more about it. Day 6: The van’s farewell appearance was by the roadside in Bundoran. Henceforth Bundoran shall be known as Cakedoran.

A cyclist is improperly dressed without a traditional cotton cap, I feel. And the only appropriate response to a baseball cap in the bunch is harrumphing and goggle-eyed outrage in the style of an H.M. Bateman cartoon.

I wouldn’t want you think I’m unreasonable when it comes to caps. You’re perfectly free to wear your peak up or down. But only a poseur or idiot wears his cap back to front.

Inishowen, the last night: Catherine and I are in the grip of the dozies and are looking for somewhere for a snooze. She spots a picnic table by the roadside. That’ll do.

It’s raining steadily, so I opt against stretching out on the wet bench, instead resting my arms and head on the table. Rain is dripping down my neck, so I flip my cap round to divert the drops.

The finish at the Peace Bridge in Derry: I’m feeling happy but slightly spaced. Eamon presents the WAWA medal and trophy. I say Gubbeen. Cameras click. Afterwards I reach for the peak of my cap to take it off, but it isn’t there. I’m still wearing the cap back to front. Doh!

Some poseur at the finish

Some poseur at the finish

At the foot of the Conor Pass descent on Day 2 I encountered the rider who had twiddled past me on the climb. She asked to ride along to the control with me, as we’d be riding into the dark. This was Catherine, and we ended up riding together for most of the rest of the WAWA.

We had an informal division of labour. I tracked the route on GPS and provided snippets of local knowledge derived from past tours in Ireland. Catherine double-checked against the route sheet. We talked nonsense—well, that was mostly me—or rode in companiable silence, according to whim.

As well as her wide variety of rainproofs, Catherine carried enough food secreted in various pouches, pockets, and bags to stock a decent-sized corner shop. Certainly more stock than the shop in Castlemaine… She even conjured up cold potatoes in the middle of the night on Inishowen.

Towards the end of the ride, we each contributed our shrivelled rando half-brain to decisionmaking, ensuring that one full brain was available at all times. Mostly.

We had several adventures.

She was a calm and competent presence. It was a privilege to ride—and finish—with her.

With Catherine at the Iona Inn after the finish. Believe it or not, I've slept for 16 hours by now. At least my cap is the right way round

With Catherine at the Iona Inn after the finish. Believe it or not, I’ve slept for 16 hours by now. At least my cap is the right way round

I had a single 36-tooth elliptical chainring and 11-36 11-speed block. This setup worked very well. The lack of really high gears prevented me from pushing too hard at the beginning when suffering from testosterone poisoning, and the lack of really low gears deterred me from making my knees go ping on the stupidly steep stuff. Decisionmaking was simple: Just one shifter. Even my addled rando half-brain could cope with that. The SRAM shifter also required smaller hand movements than Shimano. These small things count over 2,100km.

Cliffs of Moher
For some reason—wishful thinking, probably—I was sure the camper van, and its essential supplies of tea, cake, and sympathy, would be at the Cliffs of Moher on Day 3. After a vigorous tussle with the Hill of Moher while the Wind of Moher tried to blow me back the way I’d come, I reached the sign for the car park and visitor centre. Through the raindrops on my glasses I could vaguely make out camper vans in the car park. Was one of them “our” camper van? I headed over to the ticket office and asked the attendant if one of the vans was dispensing tea and sympathy to bedraggled cyclists. She looked blank. Drat! No cake. Proof of passage would have to be a photo of the car park sign. Rather blurry, since the Wind of Moher was trying to blow me off my feet at the time.

Abruptly, the weather cleared. The lack of cake suddenly seemed less disturbing. After all, I still had my Clif Bar (of Moher). And the road was downhill. And soon I would come to the Burren (whatever that was).

Conor Pass
Having manfully spurned the cafes, bars, and assorted fleshpots of Dingle on Day 2, I paused at the foot of the climb to engulf some calories, dripping in the murk. (I halted in front of a microbrewery, as it turned out. Cue more manful spurning…) A couple were heading into town and asked where I was going. “Over the pass and on to Ballyheigue,” I said. “Fair play to you. It’s a long way to Ballyheigue.” Ah… Good…

As I ground up the pass, the weather closed in again. No views. I was climbing in cloud. A rider clad in many varieties of waterproof garment greeted me as she went spinning past into the mist. This was Catherine, it turned out.

The ascent was wide, so it came as a surprise to crest the pass and find myself on a narrow shelf of tarmac glued to a cliff. Nothing but a low parapet stood between me and the void to my left. A gusty crosswind added to the fun. But the weather was clear on this side. And it was a long descent. And I had disc brakes. Bwahahahaha!

Random rando topics of conversation included: Food; Donald Trump; McNasty stashing food by the roadside; New Mexico; food; LEL; Irish weather; food; Georgia O’Keefe; Myles na gCopaleen and his bookhandling service; Marfa, Texas, and the Chinati Foundation; food; drugs; Brexit; the current hill; the upcoming hills; seafood chowder (may contain traces of food); ElliptiGOs and the WAWA—why?; the Waterboys; long rides we have known; stopping at red traffic lights; food; sheep, their dialects and hairstyles; Colorado; food; the different styles of houses in different parts of Ireland; the bike-mangling service offered by major airlines; food.

Dai definitely had the biggest saddlebag on the WAWA. He remained cheerful despite suffering from Knees and walking like a penguin.

Disc brakes
The hydraulic disc brakes on my Mason allowed me—a graduate of Hennessey’s School of Descending—to give full rein to my plummeting skills. The fact that I could brake strongly with little effort became increasingly helpful as the ride went on.

Top tip (specially for Jonty): If you’re riding in rural and remote areas and have disc brakes, carry spare pads.

Eamon, the organiser, had taken a vow of ubiquity and would teleport himself to random points along the course, where he would dispense, in no particular order: fizzing enthusiasm; spokes; beer; spare bicycles; and slightly misleading reassurances about the terrain you were about to encounter.

Day 4 passed through Spiddle/An Spideal, giving me Waterboys earworms for the remainder of the ride. Either Fisherman’s Blues or A Bang on the Ear. Heroically, I managed to keep the earworms internal and refrained from singing/croaking tunelessly (delete as applicable).

As Flann O’Brien nearly wrote:

“Is it about a bicycle?… No? Are you sure?… Would it be true that you are an itinerant dentist and that you came on a tricycle?… On a patent tandem?… Do you tell me it was a velocipede or a penny farthing?”
No, I came on an ElliptiGO.
“It is a queer contraption, very dangerous, a certain death-trap.”

Well, maybe not. But it’s certainly a challenging choice of steed on a ride notable for a) length; b) wind; and c) hills.

As one fruit-loop to another, huge respect to Stuart and Andrew for GOing where the less loopy would fear to pedal.

Stuart drops off on the podium... From left, Seamus, Paul O'Donoghue, Stuart, Eamon

Stuart nods off on the podium… From left, Seamus, Paul O’Donoghue, Stuart, Eamon

Most routes go from A to B. Not so the WAWA, which meandered round the rest of the alphabet in between. Several times a day we’d encounter signposts giving distances to places we were due to pass through, but inevitably our route would take an excursion or two along the way. We’d cover double or treble the distance, via peninsulas, promontories, and fingers of land sticking out to see which way the wind was blowing.

Eye bags
By Day 4, my usual long-ride swollen eyelids had appeared. By Day 6, slitty eyes had given way to pouches beneath the eyes big enough to carry a medium-sized multitool. By the finish, the pouches were filled with fluid.

It’s okay. I’ve been able to resume my modelling career since.

Father Ted
It is now my considered opinion that Father Ted was a documentary series.

By Day 5 it had come to my attention that the floor was further away than it used to be.

The WAWA was composed entirely of Fun. Admittedly, there were occasional patches of Type 2 Fun (Like Fun, Only Different) and Type 3 Fun (You Chose To Do This So You’d Better Pretend You’re Enjoying It).

Goats’ Path
There were no goats. Presumably they had left for somewhere less vertical, where they could move about without crampons on their hooves and oxygen tanks on their backs. The Himalayas, perhaps. The road must have been constructed from some super-adhesive variety of tarmac to stick on the side of the hill.

I grimped grimly up, trying not to sprain a lung. I cackled madly down the other side.

Day -1. Before the madness... A handy route reminder

Day -1. Before the madness… A handy route reminder

Boringly, I had no hallucinations on the WAWA. This may have been because I had enough sleep. Or it may have been because Stuart on the ElliptiGO had cornered the market in hallucinations, and there were none left for anyone else.

Healy Pass
In a red van, Eamon and Seamus were mounting a roving secret control on the approach to the Healy Pass. How hard must the pass be if they were going to these lengths to keep randonneurs honest?
The light was beginning to fade—like my legs—at the foot of the climb. I paused to turn on my back light, then set about spinning my way to the top. The road zigged and zagged past scattered rocks. A solitary car overtook, and I watched its tail lights zag and zig up the pass until, minutes later, it passed from view. Quite a long climb, then, but a steady one. And, eventually, a hurtle down to sea level (Yay!) followed by a draggy climb near Lauragh (Boo!) that I’d completely forgotten about.

The helpers made for a truly special atmosphere on the WAWA. As soon as you arrived at a control—more often than not ushered in by a helper who had tracked your approach—you were bundled up in a blanket of smiling hospitality. And fed improbable quantities of food. The bike butlers would deal with mechanicals while you slept.

Arriving in Kilrush on Day 3, I asked if there was a local bike shop where I could get a front light, since mine had failed in the previous evening’s deluge. We’ll see, I was told. By the time I’d wolfed down a couple of portions of lasagne—it had been at least an hour since I’d had cake on the ferry—a replacement light, complete with spare batteries, had been magically conjured up.

The hoolie is the official wind of the WAWA. It prefers travelling in the opposite direction to the cyclist.

Note angle of bike. Any more upright and it blew over

Note angle of bike. Any more upright and it blew over

Catherine was worried about colliding with a free-range sheep, but was brought off by a sheepdog.

Judo mats
Most nights we slept on airbeds or camp beds. To make sure we didn’t get too soft, Eamon gave us judo mats to sleep on in Oranmore. I never realised judo mats were made of concrete…

Mention Kenmare to me after the WAWA, and I’ll think of curry. Mmm, that curry at the control.

Just popping out for a kenmare…

Kenmare: I got out of my sleeping bag and put on a base layer, then had to have a little lie-down

Kenmare: I got out of my sleeping bag and put on a base layer, then had to have a little lie-down

Stupid running joke:

Day 4: “There was an error message this morning. Legs 2.0 could not be installed at this time. Please update to RandOS 2.0.”

Day 5: “There was an another error message. Autoupdate failed. Legs 2.0 could not be installed. Reverting to Legs 1.1.”

Day 6: “Autoupdate to Legs 2.0 installed successfully.”

We visited many lighthouses. For many, the Old Sod—sorry, Black Sod—was the lowlight since it involved a lengthy out-and-back grovel across bogland into a tearing headwind. But a Hungarian rider described the Old Sod as his favourite sight of the ride. Mind you, I don’t think they have lighthouses in Hungary…

On the wind-assisted return from the Old Sod Catherine called me to order when I tried to retrace too far.

Memo to self: Make sure you display the track for the second half of the day’s ride once you reach the end of the track for the first half of the ride.

The WAWA was a loopy sort of ride.

The ride out to Loop Head on Day 3 was like being pressure-washed on the bike as the howling headwind joined forces with lashing rain. Conditions were so extreme all I could do was laugh hysterically and swear. The much-missed Dave Lewis and Nik Peregrine would have been in their element.

Loopily, the last few kilometres to Loop Head followed an out-and-back route. I leaned my bike against the sign at the lighthouse to take a picture as proof of passage. The wind promptly blew the bike over. I had to cant it at 45 degrees for it to remain in place.

The loops around Achill Island on Day 5 provided some testing and blowy climbs and exhilarating views as the pounding Atlantic did its best to dismantle the coastline.

Catherine on Achill Island

Catherine on Achill Island

I was grovelling out towards Old Sod, deep in a bad patch. Catherine was chugging into the howling hoolie, with a taciturn French rider glued to her wheel, but I couldn’t maintain the pace. Mutter mutter headwind. Mutter mutter lighthouse. Mutter mutter Old Sod. Mutter mutter Eamon. Automatically I did the rando pocket pat. Phone, check; maturing sandwich, check; waterproof, what the… The wind had plucked my Gore-Tex from my pocket.

I stopped by the roadside and turned round, hoping to see my waterproof in the road. No such luck, but two people were walking on the road a couple of hundred metres back. Maybe they’d spotted it and picked it up? No sooner had hope sprung up than the hoolie did likewise, and a more than usually exuberant gust toppled me onto the verge, bike and all.

It took a minute or two to disentangle my limbs from the bike. Hulk angry! In a rage I stomped off towards Old Sod, vowing to look for my waterproof on the way back.

Gravelly road works on the approach to the lighthouse did nothing to soothe my savage breast. I gave Catherine a snarly account of what had happened, and stomped off again. Gravelly road works. Hulk angry! Stomp stomp.

Fun fact: The usual roadside litter in County Mayo is agricultural black plastic.

You wouldn’t believe how many bits of plastic did persuasive impressions of my black waterproof.

But there it was. Weirdly, on the windward verge of the road. Hulk not angry any more.

Malin Head
Malin Head is the End near the end. It’s linked to the other End, near the beginning, mostly by lumps and wind.

It’s all downhill after Malin Head, apart from the bits that aren’t.

Mamore Gap
Putting this climb in the penultimate leg of a ride like the WAWA, when riders at this point are on their penultimate legs at best, seemed like one of Eamon’s little jokes. It was dark by the time we reached the base of the wall, and I’d recently mislaid the ability to balance while climbing steep hills, so it was time for a hike. Even walking up was hard work, though it gave an opportunity to rest and stretch my neck. Catherine paused for a break at the top. I said I’d wait at the bottom.

One look at the descent—extremely steep, sketchy road surface, hairpins—was enough to convince me that a man with a wibbly-wobbly neck like mine had better walk down as well, especially as I wasn’t carrying spare shorts. After a couple of minutes the screech of tortured brake blocks signalled that Catherine had survived the plummet.

Day 7. Sunset as we head for Mamore Gap

Day 7. Sunset as we head for Mamore Gap

I first encountered Meyrick as I was basking in the sun outside a pub in Akahista, on the Sheep’s Head peninsula on Day 1. He was riding a rather lovely traditional steel randonneur bike but was having problems with broken spokes, and was talking of waiting at the pub for assistance. There was nothing I could do, so I wished him well and headed off for what turned out to be a tractor-paced ride to Kilcrohane. I saw him the following day in Kenmare. He’d been able to fix the problem, and his ride was back on track.

I next encountered Meyrick near Malin Head in the small hours of the last day. I was walking along the road to rest and stretch my rubbery neck. He stopped to see how I was and offered advice on strapping my head to help deal with the problem. I was too tired to explain that I felt my occasional walks and stretches were staving off full-blown Shermer’s Neck, and I was certainly too tired to contemplate jury-rigging head supports with inner tubes and zip ties. This probably came over as tetchiness. Sorry, Meyrick. I really appreciated your concern.

Ireland has midges. Who knew? The Irish Tourist Board keeps that one pretty quiet.

These aren’t your wimpy Scottish midges that snack on cyclists only in the lightest of airs. Brawny Irish midges are happy to feast on passing randonneurs even in a hoolie. Which, given the prevailing weather, is just as well from the midges’ point of view, if not from the passing randonneurs’.

Mixing of Mollycules
The WAWA provided strong evidence in support of Policeman Pluck’s theory of the Mixing of Mollycules:

People who spend most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of the parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycles as a result of the interchanging of the mollycules of each of them, and you would be surprised at the number of people in country parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles.

Even by Day 4 I was half-man, half-Mason. If I came to a halt, I had to lean on a wall for support. And I wasn’t the only one.

Mizen Head
Mizen Head is the End near the beginning. Thanks to some roads of an uphill persuasion and to the hoolie, which got particularly frisky towards the end of the peninsula, the last few kilometres seemed to take an age. I recovered with a Brunch—the ice cream, not the meal. The combination of sugar rush and tailwind led me to start out on a repeat of the Mizen Head loop, but some drinkers outside a bar soon set me right.

Memo to self: Display the track for the second half of the day’s ride only when you’ve reached the end of the track for the first half.

I thought I only found my mojo on Day 6, but it was there the whole time.

As Day 7 wore on, I gradually became aware that tarmac was filling more and more of my field of vision. It took a conscious effort to raise my head to admire the view, and, when I did, my head would swiftly droop again. By the time we reached Inishowen, I was sitting on the top tube on descents in order to see better. I realised I was suffering from incipient Shermer’s Neck, though I’d never experienced this before.

At around the same time, I began to lose the ability to balance the bike on steep ascents. This was a blessing in disguise, since the resultant uphill hikes allowed me to change position, stretch, and rest my neck.

Malin Head (as Meyrick knows) was probably my low point. Daylight on the final Friday lifted my mood and made it easier to see where I was going, obviously enough.

There were times during that last night that I was on the verge of telling Catherine to push on alone. The ride was 95% done, but still on a knife edge.

Phil: I feel your pain.

Available only in pharmacies in Ireland. This has been a public service announcement.

Old age
Rides like the WAWA give insights into the experience of old age. Difficulty climbing stairs? Yep. Difficulty descending stairs? Yep. Hands not working? Yep. Eyes all blurry? Yep. Tendency, once sat, to keep sitting? Yep. Difficulty in performing simple tasks? Yep. Tendency to forg—what was the question again? Yep.

How to pace myself for LEL+50%? Ride very conservatively. Trundle. Don’t do anything to make my legs hurt. Don’t faff. Honk as much as possible but use low gears. Do the rando hand jive to prevent tingly fingers. It worked, mostly.

On Day 6, I finally gave in to the temptation to up the pace during a good patch. On Day 7, bits of my body went into meltdown. There may have been a connection.

Day 4 gets a bit much for Richard

Day 4 gets a bit much for Richard

The WAWA never met a peninsula it didn’t like. It felt like we did all the frilly bits of a notably frilly coastline.

Pocket food
Best pocket food of my WAWA? A tie between the sandwich I made from the mountain of sausages at Curraun after the Achill loop and the slab of ginger cake from Lackenagh. Honourable mentions to the chocolate flapjack from a random garage and the succession of deli counter sandwiches (always including potato salad) that were a daytime staple.

I suffered no visitations from She Who Must Not Be Mentioned, for I was riding fancy tubeless tyres full of gloop. Catherine suffered one visitation. Front wheel. Day 6. Between the pair of us and our half-brains, it took no more than, ooh, 20 minutes to fix. After 5 minutes of fruitless flailing with a minipump, I remembered I was carrying a CO2 cartridge and inflator. As I said, it was Day 6.

There is no letter Q in Irish, so don’t go expecting it to feature in the WAWA A-Z.

Rachel was usually glimpsed vanishing Tiggerishly up the road, or downside up against a wall. If self-inversion makes you go that fast, maybe I should give it a try.

At the Peace Bridge: Catherine, Rachel (the right way up, for once), and some poseur

At the Peace Bridge: Catherine, Rachel (the right way up, for once), and some poseur

There seems to be a notorious tarmac ring in County Clare that has cornered the market in smooth asphalt. Its sinister agents have certainly stolen the consignments destined for Cork and Kerry.

I expected my saddle to get medieval on my bum, but oddly it failed to turn into an instrument of torture. I carried a family-size bucket of Morgan Blue Solid chamois cream and slathered it generously on my bearing surfaces. One morning I contrived initially to put my bib shorts on inside out after greasing up and ended up smearing chamois cream on the saddle as well. Who needs Proofide? Applied after each day’s ride, Assos Skin Repair Gel—ludicrously expensive, but it’s made from unicorn tears or something—soothed any bits that needed soothing.

The saddle is a Rivet Pearl. I had to retension it a couple of times after rough roads had shaken the tension bolt loose.

Over to Flann O’Brien, who apparently rode the WAWA:

“I found it hard to think of a time when there was no road there because the trees and all the hills and the fine views of bogland had been arranged by wise hands for the pleasing picture they made when looked at from the road.”

“The hardness of the road was uncompromising and the country changed slowly but surely as I made my way through it.”

Almost every ride has transitional sections. The WAWA spurns them. The landscapes are constantly shifting and generally spectacular. I’ve never done a ride with fewer unrewarding sections.

Day 4. Random Connemara view

Day 4. Random Connemara view

It is a little known fact that Irish sheep have regional dialects. The sheep of Donegal, for instance, don’t baa or maa like the common sheep of Cork. Instead, they enunciate clearly: “Bar! Bar!” “Mare!” This amused us greatly as we winched ourselves up the giant hills after Killybegs. Every time a sheep said “Mare!” we’d collapse into giggles. This didn’t make climbing any easier.

Fashion note: Punkish shades of fluo pink and electric blue are all the rage among the sheep of Donegal this season.

On the average UK ride, there are frequent opportunities to take shelter: porches, lych gates, bus shelters, phone boxes, verandas. On the WAWA, there was nothing in the way of public shelter, unless you count roadside shrines: The Virgin generally had at least some kind of a roof over her head.

Equip yourself with a shillelagh for the WAWA. Shake it as much as you like. Nope, there’s still more scenery than you can shake a shillelagh at…

Slea Head
Headwind, hills, rain, and—unusually for the WAWA—traffic combined to test my patience on the inland run to Dingle on Day 2. I trundled a tad grumpily through the town to begin the loop round Slea Head. Stupid loop. Want to go straight to nice warm, dry bed. Whose idea was this anyway?

The roads were suddenly quiet and rural, and my mood improved. Every few metres signs advertised prehistoric sites, but these were invisible in the murk. Now I was riding round a rocky headland, and I could hear the sea off to my left. There was an info control at Slea Head, I knew. I waited in vain for a Mizen Head-type sign announcing that I had reached the point. Nothing to be seen on the headland except some statues by the roadside. Hang on… What was the info question?

The wise randonneur reads the info question before riding past the answer.

Sleeping bags
WAWA riders were each provided with a sleeping bag bearing a name label. The sleeping bags would magically appear at each nighttime control (the WAWA was superbly organised). By the end of the ride, organisms unknown to science were incubating in my bag. Somewhere in Ireland, men in biohazard suits are dropping WAWA sleeping bags into an incinerator, with very long tongs.

Records show I drank approximately 443 cups of tea during the WAWA. Oh, gwan gwan gwan.

On Day 1 I stopped at a cafe in Schull and ordered soup, tea, and milk. The waitress looked at me oddly. A glass of milk, I explained. My tea arrived with half a pint of milk in a small bottle, plus an additional pail of milk.

Trackers were a boon for riders, friends and relatives, WAWA organisers, and helpers. As a rider heading out into thinly populated (albeit fatly sheeped) areas, it was reassuring to think the location of the ditch you rode into or the cliff you rode off would be visible for posterity. Friends and relatives could find the name of the cafe or pub you were skulking in, and send chivvying text messages. WAWA organisers and helpers could see when you were off route or approaching a control and send out a search party. Or point and laugh…

The trackers worked really well. Mine needed recharging once, in Curraun. My main problem was the cunning waterproof catches on the tracker pouch, which were a challenge for a Rider of Very Little Brain. It took about five minutes to summon the little grey cells and dexterity to extract the tracker from its pouch in the evening. And about ten to seal it back in the pouch next morning since both little grey cells and dexterity were AWOL again.

Breakfast time in Oranmore. Eamon receives a call from a rider: Where am I? Beset by the dozies, the rider has slept in a ditch but has apparently been sleepwalking. He has woken, but there’s no sign of his bike. Eamon breaks the news that he can tell the location of the rider’s bike from the tracker, but not of the rider himself.

Useful advice
If you expect that, you’re looking in the wrong place. No, hang on…

Don’t just leave the bike pointing in your direction of travel if you stop for a roadside nap. Tether yourself to it with a bungee or an old inner tube, in case of midnight rambling.

The WAWA was very long, very hilly, very challenging, very enjoyable, very scenic, very rewarding. I fear it may have spoiled other long events for me. They will certainly have a lot to live up to.

You’re very strongly recommended to ride it.

A bit of walking made a pleasant change from all that pedalling and saved the knees. What for, I wasn’t quite sure. Donation to science, probably.

I walked most of the preposterous hill before Portmagee on Day 2 as the rain misted down. Two German girls were walking down the hill and asked about the ride. We told them. They told us we were crazy. They had a point.

By midway through Day 7, I seemed to be losing fine motor control in my arms and thus the ability to balance on steep hills, which was annoying since my legs felt fine. But walking the steep hills on Inishowen gave an opportunity to stretch my neck and helped it hold out until the finish.

Weather is Ireland’s most abundant natural resource, and the WAWA exploited it to the full. Ireland has so much weather that it doesn’t confine itself, like most countries, to supplying only one kind at a time.

We were on a little lane in Donegal, on the way to Killybegs. Wherever I looked, there were green mountains with their feet in shining water. The official wind of the WAWA was blowing. Over there, menacing leaden clouds. Over there, bright sunshine and rainbows. Over there, rain shrouding the hills. Over our heads, the sun shone while squally rain bounced off the road beneath our feet.

As you will know by now, the WAWA was a full-service event, though we were turned loose each day to live off the land. So why X-rated? In token of the many occasions on which I had to deploy Emergency Swearing to get me where I needed to be…

At the statue on Rosses Point, as part-time tour guide and bletherskite-in-chief, I explained to Catherine that Sligo was not shy about its associations with Yeats. We turned round to see we were opposite the Yeats Country Hotel, as if to confirm my blethering.

A few kilometres later, the route took us past Yeats’ grave in Drumcliffe. Which was a bit of a thrill.

Sorry, I nodded off there for a minute…

I managed 4 or 5 hours’ sleep most nights—enough to stave off on-the-road dozies. After our late start on Day 7, Catherine and I had to ride through the last night. Well, walk and ride, in my case. The Inishowen peninsula at night has little to offer the drowsy randonneur. We ended up dozing at a picnic table while the Irish rain did what the Irish rain gets so much practice doing. Later we grabbed some quality ZZZs under the canopy of a garage forecourt in Moville.

I slept for about 16 hours straight through after the finish. You might almost have thought I was tired.

Day 7. Dawn of the dead

Day 7. Dawn of the dead

 Posted by at 10:13 pm

  4 Responses to “A-Z of the WAWA”

  1. thank you peter loved it, you may have won a free return visit ,to either the audax wawa rade or the wawa
    P is for more pain .your a hero of the 1st wawa 0f 2100km

  2. Great and novel write up Peter, which had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion, be it at your turn of phrase, the situation you were in, or the memories it stirred up of my experiences on the WAWA. I do have to point out that far from getting too much for me, at the camper van control I was simply using the ‘power nap’ from my arsenal of WAWA survival techniques for the first time!

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