Please bear with me, because I am not sure how to approach describing what happened. But I better do it now, before too much time passes and I find a way to smooth out the contradictions into a neat narrative that never was. Such as it is, here goes.
I learned about the Quiet Man roughly a month ago - a 304km (189 mile) brevet in County Mayo, on Ireland's West Coast. After last summer, I honestly had no interest in doing any more brevets. And anyhow, I thought the distance too great to tackle so early in the year. Nonetheless, I was attracted by the Quiet Man's location and description. Without explicitly intending to, I found myself cycling as if I were training for it - or at least testing the water to see whether it was even feasible to do so in 4 weeks' time after a winter of very minimal roadcycling. I also mentioned the brevet to my friend Keith, who has raced bikes for 30 years but has not done audax events before. If I was going to try that kind of distance again, and in unfamiliar territory at that, I wanted to ride with a buddy. Keith was cautiously interested. He too would do some testing-the-water training and see how that went.
Amazingly, as the weeks passed things fell into place and the 300K began to seem attainable. I did not put any pressure on myself as far as training. I simply rode my bike along hilly backroads in the Roe Valley and the Sperrins, increasing distances when it felt right. When I completed a 120 mile ride in 11 hours and felt fine the next day, I knew that I could give the 300K a try. Keith had been training differently, doing shorter, but faster rides to get his form back after a winter off the bike. But he too felt ready. Just days before the brevet, we signed up, secured accommodations, and prepared to go. I planned to ride my Seven roadbike, supplemented with a handlebar bag, fenders and LED battery lights (more on the setup in a separate post). And I loaned Keith my Honey CX bike, which he found more comfortable than his Giant TCR.
But when the following day arrived it became apparent that views might not be on the menu. We rolled up to the 6am start in low cloud and drizzle, which the forecast predicted would stay with us for a good part of the day. Another thing that became apparent at the start is that I had managed to become sick. The symptoms were stomach-flu-like, with cramps and nausea and overwhelming lethargy. But I looked at the couple dozen hardened men adjusting their bikes in the town square nonchalantly, and decided to attribute my symptoms to nerves and the early morning hour. "You'll ride it off," I told myself.
Alas, my symptoms were not due to nerves or the early start. I had caught a legitimate stomach bug that grew progressively worse throughout the brevet. You will forgive me if I do not go into details. But suffice to say, I was too miserable to be upset that the very views that lured me into doing this brevet now mocked me behind a veil of thick fog. Here an outline of a gaunt brown mountain could be discerned; there a sliver of a gray lake. Through heavy use of imagination and visual memory, I could reconstruct the invisible scenes that spread out before me. And, through gritted teeth, I entertained myself with this task for the first 50 miles in steady rain, as I guzzled water and tried not to vomit at a rate that exceeded its consumption.
At this stage of the ride, I met several nice gentlemen who tried to ride next to me and chat. I apologise to all of them if I seemed less than gregarious, and hopefully the above explains why! I should also mention that I finally met David Bayley (astride a JP Weigle bicycle), the brother of John Bayley and chairman of Audax Ireland. It is a small, small world.
Despite my comically bad form, it did not occur to me to abandon the brevet. And I think this was not so much from any kind of stoicism, as from fear that getting off the bike would actually make me feel worse. At least the pedaling motion was distracting me. At least holding onto the bike was holding me together. And besides, at this point things could not get any worse.
Ah, but they could, dear readers, they could. Around mile 60, I discovered that I'd gotten my period (womenfolk, can't take them anywhere!!). It was uncharacteristically off schedule, so I had nothing with me as far as sanitary supplies or tablets for the pain that shortly followed. And we were now in the middle of nowhere, with no shop or pharmacy for dozens of miles. Again, I will spare you the details of the physicality of this situation. But yes, I kept cycling. I admit I did experience a moment of wavering. But then I said to myself: "Girl, you live in Northern Ireland now. You're supposed to be hard as nails. Stuff some leaves in your shorts and get going."
Things got a bit better after that. Yes, I was bleeding like a stuck pig and sick with stomach flu in the middle of nowhere in County Mayo. But I'd come to terms with all that now. And the rain stopped, giving way to the sort of cold but dry-ish overcast day that fills me with energy and optimism.
By mile 120 we were two thirds of the way through and still feeling strong on the bikes. By this point we'd passed through the ominously named stretch of the route called the Windy Gap, which involved the longest climb of the brevet, followed by a horrendously steep hairpin descent. Surprisingly, this part of the ride turned out to be rather benign, and as we set off to finish the last 60 miles we could hardly believe the worst was behind us.
But of course, silly us - it wasn't. Shortly thereafter the headwinds began, growing more brutal by the minute and plaguing us nearly till the finish. On flats they were bad enough. But on the long uphill inclines, things grew so dire that I began to laugh at the effort it was taking me to push even 12mph. Keith kept telling me to clamp myself to his wheel and sit super close or else I'd blow up. I did my best, and we managed to pick up the pace, riding the next 30 miles silent with effort and suppressed frustration. We had been doing well for time so far, but the wind was sapping our strength.
Darkness fell slowly, starting at 9:30 and growing pitch black by 10pm. For this last stretch of the brevet we would be on fairly big roads with white dotted lines and reflective strips along the center and sides. This made riding in the dark a non-issue; I used only one of the 3 headlights I'd brought along and it was perfectly adequate.
Under the calm cover of night, we got into a good rhythm, as if having come to some sort of agreement with the wind: "We work hard, and you lay off a bit." But with 25 miles to go, I began to feel acutely sick again, and, for the first time during the ride, to get sore and tired on the bike. My worst moment was around mile 170, when I felt especially ill and the headwind picked up at the same time. Luckily, just then we passed an open pub, where we stopped to get water. I hung around a bit, and something about the atmosphere inside felt invigorating enough for me to suddenly feel okay again once I got back on the bike.
We had set off at 6:00 in the morning and arrived at 12:45 at night, completing the brevet in 18 hours and 45 minutes (the time limit being 20 hours). In the course of this we stopped at 5 control checkpoints, had two sit down meals, and took countless short breaks for food and water purchases, toilet use, etc. We had no mechanical issues with our bikes. We did not at any point go off course or struggle with the route. My fitness level for this brevet was borderline, in that I was strong enough to complete it, but not strong enough to relax and feel confident that I would do so. My bicycle felt surprisingly comfortable through mile 189, and aside from a small bruise from the saddle I did not suffer any injuries or pains. On the other hand, I arrived home with a case of stomach flu so bad, it required an immediate course of medication and 2 days of bed rest, making me miss the Tour of Ulster I had so looked forward to. It was a miserable, disastrous weekend. It was the worst time I have ever had on a bike. And I still have almost no idea what County Mayo looks like.
But I do have a vague memory of the drive home with Keith, when, with curious detachment, we discussed the possibility of organising a brevet series out of the Roe Valley in Northern Ireland. And he such a quiet man. It must have been the stress talking.