This is what travel dreams are made of.
Two Aussies, two Germans, four Irish and a couple of English gals converging on the picturesque Irish village of Kenmare in the lush green hills of County Kerry, ready to ride the 110-kilometre Ring of Beara bike race.
A disparate group with an age range spanning well over 20 years, we’d met 12 months earlier on a small group cycling tour of Cuba, (thank you G Adventures) exploring the tobacco growing countryside of Cuba’s north-west.
As we conquered steep hills and celebrated our daily successes over a few post bike ride beers and mojitos in the Caribbean, we floated the idea of meeting up again and doing a bike ride somewhere, sometime in Europe in 2017. We were having so much fun we fantasised about recreating the magic in a different location.
Turning travel fantasies into reality
We all know what happens to those travel fantasies: they remain just that and are generally consigned to the large pile of what-might-have-beens.
But thanks to the endless energy of our Irish ringleader, Gemma, our travel fantasy became a reality. She conceived, organised, managed and executed the whole Ring of Beara deal, nicknaming our group the Cuba Cycle Social Club.
Ireland’s a long way to go from Australia for a one-day bike ride. But JJ, my travel partner, was on board from the get go, determined to be there. On our Cuban trip he’d fallen for the spirit of the Irish, shared their love of beer and a good time, and wanted to be part of the European adventure.
As for me, I hadn’t been to Europe in almost 14 years, had never visited Ireland, and rarely say no to a travel opportunity.
Training for the Ring of Beara bike ride
We had plenty of time to train for the race and the Ring of Beara Cycle even provided a detailed 12-week training program to get fit for the event. Yet despite getting a new bike to inspire me, somehow my training never happened. I had a whole lot of excuses – work, wet weather, wet rain (an Irish thing), sickness, you name it.
And so I found myself on the main street of Kenmare, collecting the rental bike Gemma had organised from the only bike shop for miles.
I know very little about bikes – I generally just get on and go – so I’m not a great judge of what’s good. JJ seemed impressed with the rentals but when I hopped on mine to try it out for size, I realised with a mild sense of panic, that I’d never ridden a road bike before.
Crap! They’re totally different to a mountain or hybrid bike. By the time we reached our Airbnb abode I was in full-on panic mode, wondering how the hell I got into a situation where I had to ride 110km on a totally foreign bike in a foreign country.
Pacing ourselves on the Ring of Beara Cycle
It was a very grey, overcast and rather chilly start to the ride. We took it out slowly, concerned that if we didn’t pace ourselves early on we’d be totally stuffed for the tail end of the race.
Everyone seemed to cruise past us. Young, old, serious riders, groups of Club riders all went wheeling past. Within a short space of time the tough, hard, streamlined bike seat was causing me serious pain and discomfort. I longed for my spongy, cushioned bike seat from back home, wishing I hadn’t been so strict about travelling light.
The first 35km were relatively easy. Only a few slight inclines as we snaked around the stunning Beara coastline – beautiful little bays, charming countryside villages and lush green farmland sprinkled with contented cows and sheep.
It’s an Irish heatwave!
There were set stops throughout the race, at the 35km, 50km and 85km marks. By the first official stop, the sun had come out from behind the clouds and we were feeling good. Fit, positive and still pretty fresh.
By the second stop, in good old Irish fashion, we were feeling blessed. Sunny days are seriously numbered in Ireland and we had scored one of the best. With temperatures over 20 degrees Celsius, this was an Irish heatwave! Talk about the luck of the Irish.
At the 50km mark, we basked in the heat of the sun as we refuelled with sandwiches, muffins, mini chocolate bars and cups of tea, all provided for the event. As we compared bike notes with each other, we were all incredibly impressed at how well organised the event was. There were 4,000 cyclists taking part in the ride and no-one was going hungry.
Focus on the fun – the Ring of Beara cycle is a social event
The Cuba Cycle Social Club team was determined this should be a ‘fun’ adventure; it certainly wasn’t about racing or winning.
We all rode at different paces but our one commitment was that we waited for the whole group to arrive at each of the stops. It reinforced it as a social event; after all, some of us had travelled a long way to share this experience with the group.
The first real hill of the ride came in the third section. It was a long, slow climb, the focus on steadily pushing one pedal after the other up the long hill. By the 85km mark we were all starting to feel it. My lower back felt stressed and bent out of shape, not to mention my extremely sore undercarriage, which I feared might never recover.
JJ commiserated with a fellow rider who was lamenting his very sore ‘town halls’! (Now there’s an expression I’d never heard before).
The Ring of Beara’s killer 10-kilometre hill
Gemma was brave enough to have a beer at this third stop. We were almost home. It’s all downhill from here, right? What’s an extra 25 kilometres when you’ve done 85? How hard could it be from here?
She soon regretted it. The toughest part of the ride was the 10km never-ending hill between the 85 and 95-kilometre marks. It went on forever. Each time you approached a corner you hoped the crest would be right there, waiting patiently for you; instead, all you could see were riders in the distance, still climbing around yet another long, slow bend.
It felt mean and cruel to save the worst till last.
By the time we reached the top, we were buggered. The sense of relief was palpable and the sense of achievement enormous. The sun was burning down upon us, riders had stripped off their layers and there were red faces and red bodies scattered everywhere, a mixture of exertion and what would later become painful sunburn.
For Caroline in our group, a determined, tenacious Irish girl, the peak brought pain and disappointment. She’d somehow punctured her rear tyre and despite help from lots of different riders, was unable to fix it. She was determined to finish so resigned to riding the last 20 kilometres with a dead flat tyre. Ouch.
Camaraderie and collaboration
The incident highlighted the extraordinary sense of camaraderie that pervaded the event. So many riders offered her assistance and were willing to try anything to help get her on the road again. But with about five kilometres to go, Caroline pulled up and admitted defeat. She just couldn’t keep going with a flat tyre, the bone-jarring ride had beaten her. The pain and discomfort were too intense. She was devastated.
Somehow a support vehicle, brandishing a message ‘Feeling ****ed. Hop on board’ chose that moment to drive past. A rider on board had cramped up and couldn’t go on. In an incredibly generous gesture, he gave his bike to Caroline to ride the remainder of the race. She cruised over the finish line, so chuffed to have made it, and so grateful for the gift of kindness.
Celebration – we made it!
As we celebrated our achievement, with sunburn and sore muscles, we still all couldn’t really believe that we’d done it. That we’d met in Cuba a year ago and fulfilled our dream of riding together again.
Most of us hadn’t trained very much at all. The focus was on the fun, discovering a new country while pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone with a group of friends from around the world.
The quest for 2018 is now on. Where will we meet? What tour could we join, what race could we ride in?
Let’s hope we can make it happen again.
The cycle: The Ring of Beara Cycle offers a 110km and a 140-kilometre ride. The route runs around the beautiful Beara Peninsula, part of the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500-kilometre journey along Ireland’s west coast.
This part of Ireland is very popular with cyclists – we passed many on our drive to Kenmare – although the roads are very narrow. It’s very pretty countryside and the locals are extremely friendly and welcoming.
The 110-km ride has three main rest stops at picturesque local villages on the route: at Ardgroom, Castletownbere and Glengarriff.
Bike hire: We hired bikes at the only place in town, Finnegan’s Cycles, where Brian looked after us and was one of the tech support crew on the ride.
Where to stay: We stayed in an Airbnb house a few kilometres out of town. We had to drive in for the start of the race. For convenience sake, we wished we’d been closer to town and could have ridden our bikes in for the race. We went into town for dinner to celebrate after the race and managed to find a local driver to cab us home.
Where to eat, drink, get coffee: There are lots of cafes, pubs and restaurants in the Kenmare village. We ate at the Jam cafe, the Lime Tree restaurant, and had great coffee at Mick and Jimmy’s where a harpist played live music on the Sunday morning.