The TransAtlanticWay Race is an unsupported cycling race from Dublin to Derry (checkpoint 1), then along the Wild Atlantic Way to Kinsale (checkpoint 2), and then to Blarney Castle (or the pub). That means I had to carry all my sleeping gear, repair stuff and extra layers with me on my bike.
I entered this race only 2 weeks before the start date, and 3 months after breaking my ankle. I entered the race with no expectations, and thought that if I finished in 10 days that would be ace. I also knew I could always get the ferry and train back home if my ankle was causing me problems.
In the 2 weeks before the race I had to order and test quite a lot of new kit (an intact helmet, cycling shorts, light-weight sleeping bag, bivi bag etc), familiarise myself with the route (turns out I didn’t have time for that), organise transport and insurance and get a little more confident on the bike again.
Before I set off, my bike was my main worry. It’s a Scott Foil, a carbon aerodynamic road bike with an aggressive geometry, and not a good fit for my long legs and short reach. But I’d been on long rides on it before and was keen to just get on with it, so I did! 🙂
On the way to Dublin, at Chester train station, I spotted a guy who had a suspiciously bikepacking-ready bike with him. Turns out Jesko was another TransAtlanticWay Racer! I was ridiculously tired from my journey down (I had less than 3 hours sleep) and couldn’t stop giggling about what we were getting ourselves into.
Dublin was rainy and grey when we arrived, and the race meeting point, Trinity College, was easy to find. The accommodation was great and I met more riders while checking in to my room.
We wandered over to the race briefing, where a few tricky sections of the course were discussed, and we were given our trackers and brevet cards.
Day 1 295 km
The 10am start allowed me to fuel up well for breakfast and get everything ready in loads of time. Bernd Paul and I were the last ones to leave the accommodation and managed to get a little lost on our way to the start.
The route I chose to get from Dublin to Derry was pretty horrible. It was along a busy A road. I was glad that we were allowed to draft for the first bit of the trip, otherwise the A road would have been quite dangerous at the start, with all of us cyclists cycling in close proximity but spread out enough for drivers having to overtake us one by one. Soon enough I felt we were all well spread out on that road, going at our own paces. About 50km before Derry I met Jack. We were riding side by side chatting, and BANG my back tyre burst! The side wall was ripped and I was glad to have a wee tyre boot with me (thanks, Jason, for giving me your spare one before the race!), but was annoyed that I had left my spare tyre at home! I fixed it, but then realised my Lezine pump unscrewed the bloody valve of my Continental inner tubes!!! What the hell!? Thankfully, I also had some cheap inner tubes with me without an unscrew-able valve.
I got to Checkpoint 1 and was fed sandwiches, bananas and my water bottles got refilled. Thank you to Ciaran’s Family, who stood out in the wind all day! 🙂
Out of Derry, the quiet roads began – what a relief! I bumped into Jack again and we cycled side by side, chatting for a bit. When we hit the hills and headwind Jack disappeared into the distance and I tried to take it easy. Some hills were so steep I got off to walk them. Of course, this was also the moment when the media car pulled up and started filming me. Thanks guys! The guys asked me a bunch of questions, but I didn’t have any answers for them. It was getting dark and I was getting tired. I rode till I found a wee school with a little roof over it’s entrance – that was my home for the night! I slept well that night.
Day 2 315 km
I hadn’t set an alarm and woke up at about 5am, and as I was packing up I saw two riders pass me, Jack and John. Packing up took a while. I didn’t have a good system in place of where things went. I cycled out to the most northerly point of the route (Malin Head), and as I finished the loop I bumped into Michal Hampl who I gave a loud Whoooohoooo to! I realised later that what I really loved about the route was that we would always bump into other rides due to the loops and out and backs that we did! I really enjoyed seeing others on the route! 🙂
As I was cycling on, I realised that Ireland doesn’t wake up early and that I would have to ride for 4 hours until breakfast. When I finally did get my breakfast, it was the best tasting full Irish I ever had! 😉 In the cafe I made the mistake of accessing the WiFi. I got a lot of messages about my tracker not working and people who were worried about me. I tried to check the trackleaders page, but my phone was too old and not able to load the page properly. I wasn’t too sad about that because I thought I could get quite distracted by knowing everyone’s position. I switched my tracker off and on a few times to see whether it would start working, but it didn’t.
As I left the cafe I met Stephen Haines and Michal Novak. We had a quick chat about the first night and the ridiculously steep hill we all conquered in the early hours of the day.
In Letterkenny I went looking for a new tyre, but Halfords did not have any 25mm road tyres, so I just stocked up on tyre boots, inner tubes and a small bottle of oil.
I knew the gravel section would come up soon and I was worried my tyre would burst again. The gravel section was in a beautiful part of the country, but concerns about my tyre and ankle didn’t really allow me enjoy to it. I walked most of it, but walking on big gravel in super stiff carbon MTB shoes was not ideal for my ankle. Although it was over 3 months since my ankle break, I knew I didn’t have the stability back, and walking on rough ground requires stronger muscles. I went over on my ankle slightly and it started hurting… I just hoped that cycling would give my ankle some rest again.
The next part of the race was a challenge as I was told to update the media car or Michael (at race HQ) on my location so that they could give me a new tracker, I couldn’t really get into a rhythm, and I couldn’t really stay focused when I was told the media car had missed me. I got to Ardara, and it was raining and night was falling. I went into a shop and asked how far the next town, Glencolumbkille, was from here. It was 26km via the Glengesh pass over the mountains. The shop keeper tried to convince me to stay in Ardara. I should have listened. I thought it would only take me a little over an hour, so I left. When I got to Glengesh, it was proper pissing it down and pitch black. I got off to push the bike, and I couldn’t see how long the pass was. Near the top I started getting freaked out by how human sheep can sound. Did you know they cough like people? When I googled it I found loads of videos of coughing sheep, so I wasn’t imagining it! Phew 😉
I regretted pushing on and started looking for somewhere to sleep, but because it was so dark I couldn’t really see anything that was off the road. I started descending into Glencolumbkille and saw some lights in the distance. Then my lights went off. Great. I could have gotten up and charged them on my battery pack, but it was so wet I didn’t want to get the battery pack wet and I was cold and just wanted to keep moving. The next 2 or 3 km I cycled and walked in the dark. I saw a sign for a B&B, and they still had their lights on. I rang the bell and a guy came to the door. They had no vacancies. I asked if they had a shed or something I could sleep in. He looked at me weirdly. I tried to explain that I had a bivi bag and all I needed was some shelter from the rain. His wife was not happy about me sleeping in their shed, so I moved on trying to find something else. Finally I found a school, with a big roof. Yay! By the time I got into my bivi it was after 1am. I slept till 7 am.
Day 3 250km
Sunday was a rainy day. The cold and rain were good at pushing me to get on with it because stopping meant I’d just get cold. But my tyre caused me trouble. The boot had cracked and was puncturing my inner tube. I stopped to fix it a few times – not fun in the pouring rain.
The rest of the day was a battle – the headwinds, rain and traffic on the N15 were tough to deal with. Additionally my stomach started to play up and I needed regular “comfort” stops. I felt pretty shit. That night I stopped early. I needed somewhere dry to sleep, somewhere to dry my stuff and wash my shorts. I stayed in a lovely B&B in Ballycastle called Keadyville House. It was a bit too nice for just a few hours of rest. 😉 The owners were lovely and were super interested in the race I was taking part in. I found it hard to communicate to them how tired I was and that I really just wanted a bed to sleep in. The owners were surprisingly understanding, and said if I didn’t stay for breakfast then they’d make me sandwiches. I got into my room and washed my socks and shorts only to realise the heating was turned off for the night. Oh nooo!!!
Today I was told I was the only girl in the race. This news didn’t have an immediate impact, but later on, I found it hard to work out who I was competing against. In previous races I had only competed against women. Today’s news forced me to change my mindset and feel competitive towards the guys round about me. The conditions were hard and the race was challenging. Everyone who entered knew that they might be forced to drop out, for one reason or another. As the week progressed, I knew I wanted to finish because I was the only female left.
Day 4 302km
The next day I slept an extra 2 hours because the heating had come on in the morning and I really wanted a dry pair of shorts. As I left, the B&B landlady gave me 4 massive sandwiches, an apple and a banana! She really knew what I needed! Yay! Best breakfast ever!!! Thank you!
As I left Ballycastle I ran into George as he was getting breakfast! Helloooo!!!! After a tough day yesterday, and not seeing anyone, it was great to see him. I knew I would bump into him again, so I just pushed on, cycling towards Achill Island. Soon enough I stopped to sort out my gears. I couldn’t really change them anymore because everything had gotten so dirty and seized up from the rainy day before. I cleaned my drive chain and oiled pretty much everything and tightened those gear cables a little. Yay! What a differences it all made! Back on the bike, I saw George coming up behind me. We rode together for a while, talking about when we last had dry feet and how our bikes were starting to fall apart, his more than mine. His front mech had broken and he could only ride in the big ring! What a champ! TrackLeaders wasn’t working on my phone so George updated me on where people were. I knew a lot of people would have overtaken me that morning. Stephen was one of them, so I thought: Yay! I have a goal, I’ll try and see if I can catch Stephen today. George was taking it easy, so I took off. The Achill island loop was ace! The wind had died down, or maybe we even had tail wind. The roads were quiet and the views were breathtaking! At the start of the loop I met Adrian. He had just finished it, and was very supportive in his words! Thanks, Adrian.
On one of the lovely climbs I caught up with Stephen. We took pictures of each other (see pic below) and cycled along side each other. It felt like being on an amazing cycling holiday- a reoccurring feeling.
As I was trying to pull away from him, a bunch of cycling dudes shouted at me: “PAULAAA!? ARE YOU PAULA?” The guys were from the Wild Atlantic Way Audax support crew. They had heard from Adrian (big thanks!!!) I needed a tyre and gave me a spare one they had. They were really nice and offered food, which I declined at first, but they didn’t take no for an answer and so I gave in and had THEEEE BEST meal ever!!! The chicken pasta, coleslaw and potato salad was unreal!!! Thank you so much for the food and the tyre!!! 🙂 The meal fuelled me through the rest of the day. As I pushed on I saw a lot of Audax riders going the opposite way. I loved giving them a wee cheer! I was also astonished; how they could all do 300km a day, some of them on really old school and heavy looking bikes.
I cycled till the late evening (it was dark anyway) to a town called Tully Cross. As I cycled into the town I was looking for a good bivi spot. I was tired and just wanted somewhere to crash. There was a church with a nice roof over its entrance, but I didn’t dare to sleep there, right in the middle of town. I went off course and found a community centre with a wee roof, which I hoped would protect me from the rain. I got in my sleeping gear and called Ross, my Head of Communications, who by then was my only point of contact. He updated me on the race situation. I was 3rd!? I knew that wouldn’t last long, so I tried not to get too excited.
Unfortunately the wind picked up that night and despite the roof, the wind blew the rain right on to me. It was so windy, cold and wet I didn’t really manage to sleep. Whenever I got really cold that night, I’d do a few sit ups to get my body temperature up, but that didn’t help me sleep.