‘We’ve been through, some things together,

With trunks of memories still to come,

We found things to do in stormy weather,

Long may you run,’

This is my personal mini memoir of the sportive season just past. It was neatly bookended by two very different sportives in the Mournes.  The first one in February being an undulating run through the key towns of this part of Down, whilst the last one in October, The Etape Mourne, was a series of unrelenting climbs and descents in ferocious headwinds.

In between these vastly contrasting events lay a whole array of sportives, each with their own little quirks of route, weather, and participants.

For those not familiar with the cycling, the sportive is not a race but an event for mass participation of cyclists with an entry fee paid, part to a charity and to the organisation of the event.

Coastal2012-218 Pasrky in the background

The exception was the Etape Mourne at the end of October which was billed as a race but became a test of endurance.  Generally the sportives are organised by the cycling clubs or an organisation as is the case with the Causeway Challenge.

Here are some of my highlights of the Sportive season, my participation being as a member of North Down Cycling Club.  Having joined the club in November 2012, after spending most of the 2012 season participating in sportives either on my own or with my brother, I was looking forward to participating with club members in the 2013 season as a whole new experience.

(2) Tour of Down with NDCC 16-02-2013

So it proved, on the very first one held in mid February on a cool damp morning from the village of Katesbridge.   A sizeable ensemble of NDCC members ensured there would be company as the bunch headed off to towards Castlewellan.  As usual with these events, the bunch took off at great speed and for awhile it felt like the lungs were going to explode before sense prevailed and the pace settled down into a steady rhythm.

This event, organised by Banbridge CC if I recall rightly, is billed as a reliability trial and participants must navigate the route using a map.  Apart from a crash involving 3 guys in our bunch of approximately thirty due to a pothole just outside Newcastle, everything was proceeding swimmingly.

Our group from NDCC were still together by the time we reached Kilkeel, the first alleged food stop.

(1) Traybakes

I say alleged because we never actually saw the food stop due to a right turn up a hill for about a mile and then downhill approximately the same distance returning to Kilkeel’s main street having travelled approximately about 100 metres further up the road we turned right on.

NDCC’s propensity for getting lost was evident from the start of the season and would be a feature of 2013.  Fortunately we found a rather salubrious cafe in Rostrevor where cakes were scoffed and coffee consumed.  There was a further delay due to 3 consecutive punctures on the one bike whilst managing to travel about 200 metres from the cafe.

At the top of climb through Rostrevor forest a fork in the road caused consternation for the navigators.  In a startling re-run of our MLA’s having talks about talks it was finally decided to bear left and by some miracle we found Castlewellan still in the same place we’d left it.

Arrival in Katesbridge saw everything locked up and the promised soup and sandwiches non-existent.  Not surprising since it was about 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon.   All in all a good day out with the club and as would be the case on future sportives a learning experience.

The lesson this time was to remember to bring plenty of money in case you pitch up at an expensive coffee shop!!

(4) Kings Moss - the NDCC train

Further sportives came and went, mostly featuring lots of rain until the Kings Moss in April when a new experience unveiled itself, the four seasons in one day sportive.

A sizeable North Down contingent pitched up at Ballyclare Rugby Club on a very wet Sunday morning to participate on an approximate 60 mile event which travelled north to Broughshane, down to the coast at Glenarm and back to Ballyclare via the much talked about Shanes Hill.

Pre start, I occupied myself by checking the bike over.  A neighbouring cyclist started talking about Shanes Hill and it soon assumed the proportions of The TDF’s Mount Ventoux in my mind by the time he’d finished.  At this stage in my sportive career it had never occurred to me to check routes, elevations and terrain for these events.


I was left wondering if my legs would be able to carry me up, in my mind at least, the legendary Shanes Hill climb.  The terrain varied from short steep hills and a rapid descent down into Glenarm to the relatively flat road along  the coast to Ballygally in hazy sunshine.  The temperature on this section of the rose to around a heady 17 or 18 degrees.

A short food stop later we were at the foot of Shanes Hill and climbing.  With hindsight of having tackled far harder climbs, this wasn’t the worst  hill I’d ever taken on but what made it stand out in my mind later, was the way the temperature dropped as the elevation increased to 900feet.

Towards the top, the wind and rain which began to turn to sleet at one stage made this a nightmare to ascend.  The Kings Moss sportive finished in sunlight, blue skies and drying roads.  I dreamed I had just experienced four seasons in one day and it was true, I had.  As the scouts say, be prepared!

NDCC bunch

As April blended seamlessly into May amidst rain and cold, one man assumed legendary status.   As one associated with bringing wind and rain to all sportives he participated in, he assumed the almost mythical powers of a shaman.

I was sure some North Down sportive riders were checking the start list to see if Eric Blayney’s name was on it.  So great were the number of biblical proportion floods on these events that there were thoughts of sacrificing Eric to assuage the gods and clear the clouds.

As May segued neatly into June the rain-swept sportive became a source of reminisce and Eric was cleared of any mischief as the sun beamed benignly down on the cycling fraternity.  Then he drove a bus, not that he should be blamed in any way for subsequent events!

(4a)The end of the line

Hereafter followed one of the more ignominious events in my short history of sportive participation.  The club had by now purchased a minibus, renovated it and decorated the exterior in a graphic cycling montage.  It was in this splendid rejuvenated vehicle that 9 of us set out to participate in the Tour of the Orchard County.

Perhaps it was the lure of cycling amongst the orchards but bottom line was, eight of us from the bus never reached the Orchard County Tour grand depart, because it broke down irretrievably 9 miles from Armagh city.

As the rain lashed the windscreen and the engine coughed but would not start, several passing NDCCer’s stopped to offer assistance. The bus was not for moving until a recovery vehicle finally arrived and towed us slowly along the hard shoulder.

Our humiliation was complete when a caped cyclist pedalling into a headwind overtook the bus as we were being towed.  Eventually the recovery vehicle loaded the whole lot of us, still strapped into our seats like astronauts on an aborted mission, unto the low loader and drove off in the direction of Portadown.

There we unloaded the bikes and set out for Bangor, first circumnavigating the Portadown, Craigavon, Lurgan triangle via numerous roundabouts not once, but twice due to the eponymous getting lost!!  55 miles later and we were back in Bangor the bus still marooned in Portadown!

(4b) Club minibus

Someone suggested putting the bus on a bonfire, seemed like a bright idea!

In mitigation to the NDCC penchant for losing direction, the Portadown, Craigavon, Lurgan triangle is the Bermuda Triangle of Northern Ireland. Somewhere were one could disappear for a considerable length of time whilst circling interminable roundabouts!

Into July and Summer really was atoning for the weather’s bad behaviour earlier in the year, with tan lines being firmed up and short sleeves de rigeur.   The next sportive to make my headline was the MAD charity cycle up the coast from Larne to Cushendun and back.

Simples, except that at Waterfoot our group of 8 NDCC’ers decided to branch out and upwards towards Glenariff forest park on a 3 mile plus climb.  The choice of diversion was based mainly on the recommendation of veteran tourist Trevor Belford and we ascended the climb past the forest park at a decent rate.

From there things went downhill, then uphill and kept going up and down all the way to Larne across the Antrim ‘Hills’.  The usual navigational errors crept in and the group soon split into mountain goats, (two hills ahead), the in-betweeners and the odd donkey, several inclines behind.

More MADness near Broughshane 06-07-2013

One donkey even walked briefly due to the heart rate going off the cardiographometer, the less said about that the better!   Rarely, I would say, I was glad to see the power station chimneys, the ferry terminal and the Larne to Belfast dual carriageway but on this very hot and strength sapping afternoon I was almost delirious at the sight of it.

(6) MAD smiles all round 06-07-2013

The lesson learned from this was that apart from the NDCC navigational ability being endemic and flawed, sun tan lotion wears off amidst the midday sun.

Much of late July into August was spent cycling various sportives along the north coast of County Antrim.

Me near Ballyclare 14-07-2013 - Copy

This area features historical sites, a World Heritage site, scenic beauty hailed as unique with a series of headlands, cliffs , limestone rock cascading to the sea and crowned with a road that winds its way over headland and round bay..

The route of the 2014 Giro will churn it’s way down this coast and one can imagine that even the most seasoned professional will pause from the race to take in the view.  As for cycling it in a sportive?   When the sun shines and the wind drops there is no better world than to lose yourself amidst the splendour of this rugged region.

MILF run 28-09-2013 - Copy

By the time the Causeway Challenge came around in early September, the warmth of our unusually sunny Summer had evaporated amidst driving rain and high winds.  Setting out early morning for this event was not for the faint hearted.

Some backed out and who could blame them when you stepped out of the car into a small lake in the car park and the wind blew little wavelets in it.  NDCC were once again represented in numbers although not as a bunch, with riders leaving in dribs and drabs from the Ballycastle car park.

I was in the company of NDCC colleague Sandra Adams for this one, known as Team Adams/Irwin for ease of reference, we had planned to do the 80 mile route and miss out Torr Head, (it was closed at the start of the event!) and cycle the ‘easier’, euphemistically named Easy Street.

Sandra at top of Cuskleake Road 07-09-2013

Sandra, who had started cycling with the club in late February had never cycled over 60 miles before or on this type of terrain.   I had made a point of checking it out beforehand on one of the apps available and it featured category climbs from 5 up to cat 3.  A new experience for all involved.

The howling wind and rain which had been a feature at the start soon subsided but the conifer forests were still swathed in light drizzle and mist as little lines of fluorescent jacketed riders could be seen winding their way up on the twists and turns of the road through the trees.

towards Glenariff 07-09-2013

As a team we were tactically naive, missing a food stop in Glenarm, by choice and attempting to find a coffee shop in Cushendun.   Tactics really went awry at this point when we entered a half lit, ‘tea shop’ which had a front door left ajar and a light on. Tables and chairs abounded but there was no-one at home and the scene reminiscent of an abandoned fairground at Chernobyl.

A pub across the road stood in as a reasonable substitute with some hot coffee.  It was only after re-mounting the bikes that we discovered there was an official food stop, literally around the corner from the pub!

This would come back to haunt us at the top of the 3 mile plus climb known as Easy Street, the suspiciously named alternative to Torr Head, which had been opened once the mist had cleared.

A minor crisis for Sandra due to depleted energy levels was sorted and the team made it back to Ballycastle having completed the 80 miles in a time of…. Ok, it didn’t really matter, the Sandra part of Team Adams/Irwin had surmounted a challenge and another small step along the cycle path by completing 80 miles in a day.

(12) Sandra and me at top of Cushleake Road 07-09-2013

Everyone has their goals and targets to meet depending on their fitness, ability and determination.  Sportives are an excellent way of measuring up to challenges and challenging yourself to go one better than previous.

Sportives continued throughout September into October culminating in a couple of events in the Mournes, these proving to be ideal preparation in the build up to Etape Mourne.

Granite challenge 07-10-2013

Much new experience had been garnered over the course of the events in 2013 and new friends found in NDCC as a result of cycling in the club colours on the Sportives.  Some I have already mentioned, other regulars on the sportives were David McKeague, Chris Ward, Dawn Henley, Marcus Lemon, Rachy Sinnamon and Denise Hart.


Apologies if I haven’t name checked you but there are too many to mention, the photos just a small selection of the many club members who participated in the sportives throughout the season..

By the time the Etape Mourne loomed figuratively and literally in late October I had a bagful of experience under the handlebars and a little trepidation in the mind having checked out the route and elevations.

For those of North Down CC reading this, who are long in the tooth veterans of many more years competition than they care to remember this may all sound a touch elementary.  For me though I had been naive to think as a fledgling cyclist that you simply mount a road bike and pedal off sedately in a bunch.

I did find out, albeit without serious injury or mishap that serenely cycling along chatting amicably whilst flicking through the gears, watching the wheels in front, the road ahead, the scenery and all the time avoiding numerous manholes, potholes and ragged verges, is harder than it looks.  All that and I haven’t even mentioned the weather!.

The Etape Mourne is billed as a race.  Paramount for me was surviving the course and of course the hills.  Early Sunday morning approaching the Mournes along the coast, the granite hills brooded behind low slung cloud and mist that almost reached to the sea in sweeping fashion.


A thunderstorm just prior to the grande depart, left me trying to peer through the car windscreen which remained stubbornly opaque due to the sheets of water scudding across it.


With the club cyclocross event on the same day, NDCC representation was reduced to just two competitors, myself and Rachy Sinnamon, a very fit and talented cyclist.  The 70 mile route had been cut to a mere 60 miles due to weather conditions, presumably due to the strength of the wind on the lower part of the course near the coast.

There are two sections of flat, the half mile from the Annalong car park to the start of the climb to Silent Valley resovoir, and the same stretch at the end with a seemingly endless raft of hills and climbs in between.  Factor in a 20mph plus headwind and this was always always going to be toughest sportive of the year.

Etape Mourne 2013

Sometimes you can learn a lesson the hard way.  I adjusted the rear brakes the night before but to my horror as I descended the down past Spelga Dam, the bike had a mind of its own going round the stone wall and found myself atop bike precariously wobbling along the white line in the wet trying to take the bend.

Rachy passed me, a look of terror on her face.  Safer to be in front seemed to be her inaudible message and who could blame her!

Finally arriving in Hilltown after descending into Rostrevor through the forest and along the route I had climbed in February, the Chain Reaction mechanic adjusted the brakes much to my relief.  Here another lesson was learned as I should have checked the mechanic’s work, because belatedly I found the brakes rubbing the rim and only after the climb up past Spelga.

CRC mechanic fixes brakes @Hilltown27-10-2013

Well alright, that’s my excuse for seeing Rachy’s back tyre disappearing up the climb as though I were standing still.  The sight of a timing mat marking the start of the King/Queen of the mountains segment seemed to activate her as she ‘sprinted up round the ‘S’ bends giving the assembled photographers a cheeky tongue out on the way past.

Rachy - Etape Mourne 2013

They were still in a state of flux when I ambled past on my way up the climb.  The rest of the event was uneventful, a near tumble at plus 40mph apart.   Rachy and myself finished together with her outsprinting me the one metre to the timing mat, earning a 5 second bonus and 44th out of 124 starters.  For the record I finished 46th and Rachy won Queen of the Mountains, a Chain Reaction shirt and the club respectability.

Rachy & me at the finish Mourne Etape 27-10-2013

A satisfying end to the season signified by the sun burst through the clouds over one of the coastal towns as we descended towards Annalong on the last leg of the event, by which time there was a chance to draw breath and admire the view.

This has been a great cycle season for me personally and joining NDCC has been a hugely successful move, with all the experience senior members of the club can bring to bear on your cycling.    Although I have 2 and a half years and thousands of miles under my wheels, it is still a learning process.


It has been a great learning curve amongst a  bunch of club cyclists, the whole tempo of the group is a far cry from tagging along with a couple of leisure riders.

It all looks so easy from the footpath as the bunch sally’s through Ballywalter, pedals whirring, club livery gleaming and shouts of ‘left’, ‘hole ‘and what’s for breakfast!  It was through Ballywalter to Portaferry on the Harry Adams/Wilf vets run that I got used to riding in a group in proper fashion.


For newcomers to the club my advice would be to challenge yourself by going on the club runs and sportives and if the competitive spirit really takes hold, time trial or race.  First it’s important to have the fitness.  As I say, it all looks so easy from the footpath but with the fitness you can progress to new challenges and reach new heights both figuratively and literally.

Here’s to 2014.

Peter Irwin.