Borris Viaduct

Borris Viaduct
Borris ViaDuct

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Nerve Damage - Cycling to Kilkenny with JJ

This was a completely different experience to previous attempts at cycling home from Dublin. For a start this was not in the middle of the summer, March in 2013 was effectively still the depths of winter in our fucked up climate. Secondly this wasn't planned with obsessive weather forecast monitoring in search of the perfect day - we had a picked a date we were both available, and we were going no matter what! Thirdly, for the 1st time ever I was cycling with someone else, someone who hadn't cycled in 5 years....

Well that last bit is a lie - JJ actually had cycled to mine the day before, his 20km trek across Dublin surely adequate preparation for this 130km adventure! I met him the last 6km of his trek over to guide him to my place - he told me much later that he was wrecked after that cycle to mine, probably just as well he didn't tell me at the time!

The Plan

JJ's plan for his Berlin cycle at the time was that he was going to use a bike he had acquired from his older brother. It wasn't a bad looking bike by any means, but it had definitely seen better years! I had suggested that he get a bike specifically for purpose, but I was not going to push any agenda - getting a good bike is a bit of an investment, and at this stage we just wanted the get out on the road cycling, I figured he'd realise what he wanted from his bike soon enough...

I was glad I was onboard for JJ's first cycle, as early on I steered him away from mistake I had made on my 1st ever attempt of cycling along familiar driving routes and instead we were going take the route I had taken 2 years before with some slight modifications. The plan was still to get on the N81, but instead of going to Bunclody and then over the Leinster Mountains, we were going to turn off slightly earlier, go around the Leinster Mountains and get to Graiguenamanagh via Myshall and Borris.

I now had an Iphone with a decent GPS app (Navfree - I would highly recommend it) as well as a mobile battery pack that had 4 full charges in it (Powerbee Executive Solar Phone Charger - probably one of the more useful gizmos I've gotten for cycling), so felt we were pretty covered on the disaster front. I also had an action cam now which I thought I would start to use more on these long cycles to get better souvenirs of these trips.

JJ was going to cycle his hand-me-down bike with pretty much no luggage, and as I was cautiously confident from doing this before  I was going on the hybrid, with 2 fully packed panniers (1 with JJ's luggage, 1 with mine). JJ was not so keen on the whole "get up at silly o clock to maximise daylight hours on the bike" philosophy, so we agreed we would get up later in the morning than I usually would, a bit of a risk as the clocks hadn't even moved forward yet.

Also I was paranoid about my mishaps the years before, and thought nutrition was the key - I had been having protein shakes post workout which really helped me recover quickly, so I thought it might be good to take a supply of that along the trip too - pretty ludicrous when I think back on it! We had a few beers the evening before the cycle "so we could get to sleep easier". We were models of appropriate preparation.

The Cycle

We got up and had a hearty breakfast, and with bags packed the night before, we were out the door pretty quickly and on the road. This was probably the 1st time I realised we were actually doing this - I just didn't seem real until then, I was so used to psyching myself up for these things for weeks beforehand!

The early parts of the cycle were fine, apart from the brief stretch of dual carriageway on the way to Saggart, where we just felt exposed. I tried a slightly different route from Saggart to the N81 which ran almost parallel until joining it 5km up the road. This proved to be quiet hilly, the extra descents making the climbs more intense than if we had went the other way (note to self, never cycle that way again.) This was the 1st point of the cycle where JJ started to fall behind quite noticeably, which would result in my slowing down substantially or sometimes stopping completely for him to catch up - I think this would prove crucial for my longevity on this trip!

It was a bitter cold day that day, 6 degrees Celsius I think with strong Northerly winds, which had a real wind chill factor. Luckily for us, we were cycling with the wind -another thing that really aided our lack of fitness at the time. Going up those climbs out of Saggart, I actually felt warm and played with idea of taking off my jacket when we got to the top. Based on some of the experiences we had later that day, I'm really glad I didn't.

JJ was very happy to cycle at a pace he was comfortable with (basically more aware of his self preservation capacity than I was of mine), and I was still of the mindset of cycling at the pace that I do my short distance commutes, so our cycle to Blessington continued as it had began, with me regularly pulling away, slowing down and stopping, with some occasional cycling abreast and chatter, which was a nice change from previous attempts that I had done solo. As a result the journey seemed a bit more manageable to Blessington. I started to think about what a mental challenge it had been doing those solo cycles the years before.

We rolled through Blessington town and continued until we got to the lakeside car park I had stopped at previously, to refuel. At this point, JJ made a funny realisation - the front brakes had fallen off his bike!! Another thing he realised, unfortunately, was that JJ had left his phone back at my house! Oops - this wasn't going to backfire on us, surely!

We had some bottles of lucozade and some snacks, but very quickly for the 1st time we felt the effects of the northerly chilly winds , that had us shaking to the bones, despite the fact we were both well layered up. We were quickly on our way again. JJ was ready before me, so I told him to go on ahead and I would catch up.

Blessington Lake, before the cold got to us!
When I did catch up, I decided to stay behind him, and let him dictate the pace for a bit - it was easier this way, as when I was in front was I had kept pulling away without even realising. In hindsight, this was probably one of the 1st steps I took to understanding what a sustainable touring pace actually was. Occasionally we did switch, but as I still found myself pulling away, JJ led the way mostly to Baltinglass.

On thing I noticed during this stage (apart from the fact that JJ wasn't wearing a helmet!!) was that JJ seemed to be sitting upright a lot and loosening the shoulders quite a lot, he was clearly starting to feel some discomfort. Luckily this stretch was predominantly downhill and we would soon be in Baltinglass for a well deserved lunch break.

When we arrived in Baltinglass, I waited outside while JJ went into the supermarket to sort out some rolls. It didn't seem so cold here while I was waiting, so I cleverly suggested we have our lunch in the riverside park, ignoring the fact that the street I was waiting on was pretty sheltered - oops.

We very quickly realised it was FUCKING FREEZING while sitting in the picnic area of the park, but we stubbornly persisted and had our lunch there, as we just wanted some food in us at the this stage. We even, quite comically, made some protein shakes for ourselves with our shaking numb hands before heading on. I couldn't get over just how quickly we got so cold - we literally had uncontrollable body shakes by the time we got to leaving. My hands really were absolutely numb when I got back on the bike again, it must have taken the following 6km, or 20 minutes cycling, to Rathvilly before even the tingling feeling started to come back, and maybe another 20 minutes before I had full feeling back again.

Rathvilly was quite satisfying for me this time around. Apart from being reassured by that tingling sensation that I wasn't going to lose my fingers to frostbite, I managed to get up the steep hill into the village, were I had felt the hint of cramp 2 years previously. I don't think it was so satisfying for JJ however, who turned to me when we got to the top said, grimly "I think I actually have nerve damage in my ass."

Right so, only 70km to go!

On the windy draggy roads to Tullow, we just got through, it counting down the 20km distance, telling ourselves  we were going to stop to have dinner there (or lunch Mark II?. It was only going to be an hour after our lunch!) I don't think either of us had recovered from our flash-freezing in Baltinglass. Apart from getting the sensation of feeling back, we were struggling to heat up again.

On arrival in Tullow, I realised I could barely remember this place at all from my cycle through it 2 years before. That kind of tells you everything you need to know about Tullow really. However, I will always remember it now for the respite we got from the cold during the pub lunch we had there. It was glorious - we sat by the fire, had 2 pints of Guinness a warm bowl of soup and a hearty main course and really took our time, as our cores heated up again. We were in no rush to leave! During this break, I noticed that my action cam which had been recording pretty much the whole time was a bit low on battery, so I charged it off my power pack. My phone which would be needed for navigation later but which was also tracking the cycle, was at about 60% so I didn't think much about that.

After much hesitation, we left for the cold again. At least the steeply descending main st was a nice launch pad, and we were on our way again. Like I've described before, the roads from Tullow are pretty tedious, but we got through them. One highlight was getting over that hill were I met the wall on my previous attempt. These little victories were great for the psychological boosts! Almost immediately after that hill, we took our right turn for Myshall and we were now in new territory until Graiguenamanagh (though JJ had some familiarity with Borris). My phone was in a handy bike mount so it was pretty handy to get the GPS going and be sure we were going the right way. I was however starting to feel the effects of carrying the panniers for distance, as my hamstrings were tightening and the left knee was starting to feel stiff and sore. Hills were beginning to be a struggle now, but I thought I was confidence I had enough to get me through to the end. JJ probably wasn't feeling the same at this stage, I think he was a lot more uncomfortable than I was.

Following tertiary country roads, we eventually got to Myshall and stopped for 'dessert' and some water. We were actually in reasonably good spirits here, knowing that Borris was about 15km of 45minutes cycling away. I was surprised to see my phone was already down to 30%, but thought it would get us to Borris at least. Again Myshall gave us a nice downhill starting point and away we went.

This stretch of road was a mixed bag with some nice descents the reward for some tedious climbs. As we advanced I knew we would need to be to be looking for a vital turn to get on the road to Borris, so I went to check my GPS - to my dismay the phone was dead! How had it dropped 30% in 10 minutes? I stopped to make sure, while JJ overtook me & I barely had the chance to explain the situation, before he was making distance away from me. I realised the phone was truly dead, and would take a bit to get rebooted by my phone charger, JJ didn't have his phone so I knew I had to catch up with JJ and stop him, before I got the phone up and running again.

I chased after him, over the climbs and descents. With my legs tiring on the uphills and really feeling the weight of the panniers, and despite JJ being in my sights, it must have easily taken 20 - 30 minutes of cycling and burning my legs to catch up with him. I passed plenty of junctions, none of which were signposted. Ironically, as I was in his peripheral vision, I don't think he thought anything was up so never slowed down. Anyways, eventually I caught him and we stopped. The phone had just rebooted (back to 30% bizarrely). After eventually picking up the very weak internet signal, we found out to our dismay that we had missed our left turn and cycled 10km in the wrong direction. This realisation was incredibly demoralising, and took with it about 90% of our remaining willing energy for this trip!! As the phone was on the blink, I left it charging in my back pocket, and we got directions off a passing driver.

Luckily it was straight forward enough to rectify our mistake - just back track about a kilometre, take a right and go through a number of crossroads until we hit a main road, which was bound for Borris. We were back on track again, but that mishap was a massive psychological blow for us. Mercifully the roads were straight with a slight descent and pacey, so we got some consolation from that.

The Route (See if you can spot where we got lost!)

There was a steep uphill to Borris, which we struggled up and we stopped at the main crossroads and weighed up our options. We were morally beaten at this point, and physically not in great shape. JJ was a miserable sight and physically nearly spent, and my legs were really stiffening up in the knees. Eventually I called my Dad and agreed he'd pick us up in Graiguenamanagh. I think I was willing to stubbornly finish it, but the thought of going over the hill between Graig and home (that I had to almost walk entirely on the previous attempt) didn't appeal to me too much. Also our mishap had cost us with daylight - it was about 6 o clock now, and only about an hour of brightness left. Long story short I didn't require too much convincing to cut the trip short!

We still had to get to Graiguenamanagh though. We left Borris by going steeply downhill into a valley which we had to climb back out of again, the view Borris picturesque viaduct was a nice distraction but we just wanted to get the climb over with. At the top of the hill, we delighted to see Graig was only 6km away. I had a bit of a second wind at this point, and it helped that we came into a wonderfully long descent. I did see that JJ was standing on the bike a lot, not to minimise sitting on the saddle. Oh dear.  The descent ended with a steep forested climb which rose above the river valley. It was really quite scenic. My rejuvenation meant I got up the hill rather quickly, and I pulled over to admire the scenery. JJ was not so rejuvenated however, and it was minutes before he struggled past me on the hill - he wasn't so willing to stop for the scenery as he was trying to hold onto the little bit of uphill momentum he had! Once we got to the top, we must have joined the road from the Leinster Mountains I had taken before, as we soon mercifully, found ourselves on familiar descents which took us all the way into Graiguenamanagh to get picked up.

It was a bit disappointing not to finish our trip as intended, but we knew it was the mature decision to pull out when we did, and not physically wreck ourselves for the sake of stubbornness.! JJ had been broken-in in the hard way, but I think he could still acknowledge, fitness aside, that he would need to get a more suitable bike as well if he was to cycle this sort of distance every day for 2 months!

 We had a long way to go, but we had to start somewhere! I didn't realise it at the time but cycling with JJ was the starting point in what turned out to be a great year in cycling and triathlons for me....

Friday, 1 March 2013

Oh alright then, you twisted my arm!

I hadn't done any long distance cycling at all in the 2 years after my second cycle home - In 2011 I had gotten into Boot Camp training in a local park, and in 2012 I well and truly caught the triathlon bug which kept me busy to say the least! This and the fact the weather was pretty dire those two years ensured I didn't really even entertain going on a long cycle, even though it was still definitely something I wanted to do.

In early March 2013 I was talking to my good friend JJ, and he revealed plans he had to cycle to Berlin in the summer (he had already booked his Ferry to Cherbourg!). As a self employed landscape architect, work had dried up a bit for him in what was turning out to be a pretty extended, long & miserable winter, and among other things he wanted a change of scenery. The thing about JJ, while he is a pretty fit and physically capable guy, I'm not sure he had been on a bike in any capacity in about 5 years! He is no fool though and was well aware that he was going to do a bit of training, and mentioned he was going to try cycling to Kilkenny a few times.

Now that got my intention!!

At this stage of my life, I had been on a 2-day week (the sort where I still worked for 5 days a week, but had finally arranged to only work the days I was getting paid for starting March - I worked for my Dad, long story!) with work for about 3 months, and was trying to muster some enthusiasm for applying for architecture jobs again. Training-wise, things were not going great either - I was getting repetitive calf injuries for the last 3 months also (coincidence, eh?) as I tried to change my running technique (based on good advice badly remembered). So all I had been doing was cycling the work commute which was 6km each way every day. I'm pretty sure JJ mentioned his cycling plans to me, as he knew that was the sort of thing I was into- but I don't remember any specific invite to join him. I don't think I gave him the chance, I pretty much invited myself!! Not on the Berlin trip mind - I simply couldn't afford it - but definitely the training. I was fairly excited about having a cycle buddy for the next 6 months - pretty much 100% of my cycling (ever) had been solo to this point!

Things moved very quickly from this point, and within 2 weeks we were throwing ourselves in at the deep-end - we were cycling to Kilkenny!