Daniel joined the club in spring 2015. In a few months, he was riding regularly with the Amber and Red groups. With an enthusiasm for cycling bordering on the religious, we thought he should have his own blog...
13.6km, 1032m and a 7.5% average gradient. The biggest climb I've ever done, and by some distance.
Col du Chaussy was a remarkable experience. It was my first time cycling in the famous Alps (or indeed, France) and if there's one adjective I would use to describe the day it would have to be 'breathtaking'. The roads were excellent, traffic was close to non-existent and the weather was warm, but not too hot (ideal for an Irishman). The Alps are special, I would advice every cycling enthusiast to make the pilgrimage at least once during their lifetime.
The scenery on view is unlike anything I've ever seen on a bicycle (yes, I mean it). As you rise into the mountain, the surrounding massifs, which are gorgeously topped with snow, become more and more imposing, and eventually the valley floor bellow can be glimpsed. It's only only here that you really get a sense of just how high you've climbed. Resisting the temptation to pause and admire everything is a challenge in and of itself.
The well known Col de la Madeleine, which the professionals would be racing up (Criterium du Dauphiné) on the following day, was my original plan. I switched away from it after careful consideration of a few issues.
Firstly, there was the fact that I was on my own, in a very unfamiliar part of the world and with close to zero knowledge of the French Alps. Getting lost, or more likely, being unable to return to my starting location, would be an easy achievement. Secondly, the GPS signal on my phone wasn't brilliant, and the battery was draining - quickly. What would I do if I had an accident, with no phone and nobody nearby? Ask the sheep for assistance?
Thirdly, there was the bike I was using. It was a rental and it took me a good 15 minutes in a carpark to get used to it - the different gear changing system in particular. At one point the pedals ended up jamming on me, and though I had the mechanic resolve this tension problem, I was concerned that something similar might happen again. Lastly, and likely the most decisive factor, was my form. It hasn't been brilliant of late, I've been quite disappointed. As much as I would have enjoyed going up a monster mountain pass, I realised that with little riding time in the previous month, it would be beyond me. And by that I mean completing the climb without having to get off for rests!
Les Lacets de Montvernier, which was only 8km north of my starting point, and had caught my attention during its debut on the Tour de France last year, therefore represented a great alternative. If I could make it up that steep 3.6km climb, I would continue uphill on the Col du Chaussy, for an additional 10km. I don't remember any severe, Priests's Leap style ramps, but what was very evident was the sheer length of the whole thing. The kilometres keep on coming, unceasingly, and as a stone marker popped out to alert me that the next one would be '9%' I could only gasp. Normally the prospect of a 7% incline doesn't excite me, but when you're after riding consecutive 9 percenters, it comes as quite a relief. As the pedals began to move around more easily for me, I even felt giddy.
While the summit of Chaussy doesn't offer the grand panoramic views you might associate with the top of other cols, it does offer a lovely café. I had coffee at the terrace and settled into a well deserved break. I got chatting with a fellow cyclist from Germany, who would double up as a photographer, and together we would take on the long and winding descend back to La Chambre. He was a fascinating guy, in his late 30s, and with a lot of experience of riding the Alps, which meant I could rest assured that I wouldn't go off track for the remainder. It was great to have the company, I'd definitely been missing it at the start of the the cycle, when the signposting had me confused and close to giving up.
We rode the descent at a fairly moderate pace, 29kmph, which allowed me to to sit back and enjoy, and take in my spectacular surroundings. I found descenting consistently, for about 15km, complete with numerous hairpins, to be another brand new experience. The descent of the Healy pass is the only thing from Ireland I can compare it with, but even that with maybe 3 switchbacks is over in a flash, whereas here you're forced to pay attention for as long as a half an hour - a proper test of your breaking ability. I followed the German's lines so I suppose I had it a little easier. It's the first time I could truly sense the impact of braking on the tyres - the effects of friction, like heating and vibration were noticeable.
At La Chambre, back on the valley floor, we faced different, but vaguely familiar terrain - flat roads. I retuned to the picturesque town (or commune as they say prefer in France) of St-Jean-de-Maurienne, my starting point, and to the bike shop where I'd taken the rental from. At 52km I hadn't covered a serious distance for the day, but at 1,617m I was certainly had in the elevation department. I look forward to returning and taking on many more grand cols.
I can only highly recommend St.Jean as a base of operations for an Alpine cycling trip. Found in the heart of the Maurienne Valley, it couldn't be more centrally located with many of the most famous climbs from the Tour de France within its doorstep. These include Col du Galibier, Col du Glandon. Col de la Croix de Fer, Col de la Madeleine and Col de L'Iseran. After descending down the Galibeir, and then heading west, Alpe d'Huez can soon be reached. There are a lot of opportunities for creating loops, with three or more cols in one route being very possible; just take a look at what the Tour de France did in 2015.
This Sunday's club spin was quite a long one. At a total of 121km and not far from 5 hours riding time, it was easily the most I'd done with the WCCC this year yet. The club ride would begin at 8am from Drimoleague, but rather than drive in I decided I would cycle in the 7km I live from there. There were multiple distances on offer, ranging from 110km to the full 160km. Cycling in from 7.40am I decided I would alter the route slightly to cater to my needs, and depending on how I would perform on the day I could do extra if I was feeling strong.
With 90km being the most I'd done in the last few months I quickly realised that the 160km - aimed at the Malin-Mizen riders, but open to all - would be a little too optimistic. A figure of 120km, something which would see me climb the famed Healy Pass and then return the way I came, was within my grasp and I let my clubmates know my plan in advance.
The 62km I had ridden to the coffee stop at Adrigole, at Peg's shop just before the Healy Pass, which I shall label as the 'first half' of the club spin, went remarkably well. I knew I had been going well in the morning, being able to lead the bunch from the front during my turns without difficulty, but what I didn't expect was to see how high the average speed was for those two first hours. It was 29.7km/hr, which I was landed by because I usually associate such a speed with a heavy work rate. Whether due to increased fitness or making better use of the back of the group (the latter I suspect), I didn't really notice it.
The weather was pleasant today, but it was disappointing in the sense that it was far from the sunshine and 17-18 degree heat the forecast I had read in an online forecast on the previous day. It was persistently cloudy, and even though rain appeared far away, and only did arrive until very late in my spin - only as a light shower - I couldn't help but feel somewhat cheated. There are a lot of cyclists who could nearly be described as oblivious to the weather, but for me, and in many ways due to my agricultural background, I can never seem to take my eye off it. Everything from the variation in the wind direction to cloud formation will interest me, and sometimes even frighten me!
The Coolieriagh climb was one of the more memorable parts of the day. When you first glance at in the distance, coming from the west, it appears to be veer up at a very intimidating angle, almost like 45 degrees. While this is technically untrue, at a 10% gradient for 400metres it is a 'punchy' climb that is so easily dismissed, particularly when you're on it. I hadn't travelled up the climb since last summer, so while I knew what the expect, I tried not put too power into my effort as I'd have nothing left for the Healy Pass otherwise.
I'd done the northern side of the Healy Pass (twice) with my club as part of of last September's 160km Rebel Tour sportive, so doing the south side with them this weekend for the first time was really nice. Again, I'd done this climb on my own on two occasions last year, so I used that to my advantage in an attempt to pace myself adequately. The club stuck entirely together right up until the bridge, which is where the gradient starts to noticeably increase, and with this being the 2.5km mark of a 5.8km climb I have to say it is impressive. We're a club who cater to all cycling abilities, so to have everyone in the group chatting for a good part of a climb does help to shorten things. I managed the climb quite well, and while not surpassing my PB, I was a lot closer to it and much nearer to the leading climbers on the day that I would have thought yesterday. I've been averaging one spin per week over the last 2 months, so to be competitive with cyclists who are putting in 200km+ as part of the Malin-Mizen training programme is a surely a positive thing.
The return journey was much more difficult, and though slowing down was inevitable, having another club member join me made a significant difference. On the road to Glengarrif there is a slight, but long lasting incline, and it played havoc with my mind a few times. It's the sort of road where you think you can see the crest ahead, but once you get there you realise there's more ahead. Dónal and myself had a short stop in the picturesque village of Glengarrif, and from there it was all the way back to Drimoleague. The rain came upon us on the way out of Bantry, which with over 110km in the legs, wasn't something we welcomed.
Well if ever there was a cycle to harden a person up, I think I've just experienced it. Departed from home in Caheragh with lovely sunshine to set me off. By the time I made the 3 lakes on road to Dunmanway the clouds had moved in, and I was soon greeted by a hailstorm. As I moved out of Dunmanway in the direction of Rosscarbery torrential rain met me. Between Leap and Skibb I was met with my second hailstorm of the day. I felt almost like a lunatic with all the puddles of water of water surrounding me, and truck drivers struggling to find visibility so they could overtake me. Heading north of Skibb and a familiar pattern from earlier in the day emerges: a blue sky. Turns out there hadn't been one drop of rain in Caheragh while I was on my bike for 3 hours. Irish weather, huh!
In today’s weekly club spin we had an impressive attendance of 17 riders. The conditions were great: it was sunny and the lack of winter chills was fondly welcomed. There was also little, if any, wind, which in cycling is always a massive plus. Wind direction and wind speed isn’t just something that affects the sensitive, average Joe rider; it affects the day-to-day tactics of professional racing teams and has affected the outcome of many Tour de France stages.
We took off from Drimoleague village at 8am and went on our way for a proposed 100km anti-clockwise loop that would see us take in both the Mizen peninsula and the Lough Hyne area. As we made our way west I felt a terrific buzz within the group: everywhere I turned and looked there was another cyclist, eager for a chat and with the same glee on their face. Before I knew it, we were stopping in Dunbeacon for a brief break, and of course, the obligatory nature break. I used the opportunity to take a couple of snaps and to catch up with a member I hadn’t seen in some time. In doing so I had taken my eye off the ball, noticing that the rest of the group had taken off. So the two us took off together and I quickly turned my attention to pursuing the breakaway. It was, inevitably, a lost hope, and as much as I could put ‘pedal to the metal’, there was little chance of me reining in a bunch of 15 committed riders who could share the workload together, a luxury I did not have. My big effort ended backfiring and not only did I get dropped by the cyclist who was with me, but I ended up hurting my knees. Though highly frustrated, I kept going and recalled one of the greatest qualities a cyclist can have: perseverance.
I arrived in the sea side village of Schull and met up with the rest of my club for our ‘half-time break’. A lovely group photo was taken here and the riders discussed whether they would complete the full 100km route or omit Lough Hyne as part of a shorter option. I normally choose the former but on this occasion, with my knees a little stiff, rather than face the prospect of being dropped a second time, I wisely choose to go for the latter. There were several others who went with the same option and we headed off east together toward Skibbereen. Considering I had been performing poorly up until Schull, I was really pleased to see myself going much stronger on this final leg of the journey. A total of 80km for me today, and though not a bad day’s work, there is an important lesson I will be taking from it.
(Ed.: Daniel's spin that morning was with the Red Group. The Green Group is more relaxed, and no one gets dropped. The Amber Group lies somewhere in between. So all you budding cyclists need not worry about being dropped. Come out with the Green Group for a relaxed introductory spin.)
Today’s weekly club cycle consisted of a 75km loop which would see a group of 8 riders, including myself, depart Dunmanway at 9am. Despite the cold weather, possibly the lowest temperatures I’ve experienced on a club ride, everyone was in good form and it was nice to see faces I hadn’t seen since last September’s Rebel Tour. As we headed east to Enniskeane, it was very evident that the conditions were not going to prevent any club member from kicking off their new year strongly. This Sunday’s route didn’t contain any major climbs and so I wouldn’t consider difficult, but in the context of January - the coldest month and with the post-Christmas adjustment - it does become challenging even for the more advanced cyclist. In the summertime, when our rides are typically between 100-130km and often very hilly, this route would be fairly easy.
When the group exited Clonakilty on the way to Ardfield we were met a small, but testing, climb just south of Muckruss strand. I happened to be going quite well here so I decided to move towards the front of the group, quickly being met with encouragement. That’s the thing I really enjoy about cycling with the WCCC – if I’m doing well, my clubmates will not simply stare into the distance, oblivious, or snigger as happens in many ultra-completive clubs, rather instead they will urge me on, and usually with great humour too.
There was some fantastic West Cork scenery on view as we passed along the coastline, including the Red strand, the Long strand and Owenahincha. I always welcome cycling along the sea, I feel like it can help propel me faster on the bike. I would definitely think so today, for everyone, because it was a good couple of degrees warmer than it was further inland! I didn’t suffer any mechanical problems with my bike this morning, which I am delighted with because during the winter, with the added debris and potholes on the roads, problems are much common.