It’s 8:30am on Sunday 21st June 2009. It’s Bangor, we’ve got pockets full of bananas and energy bars, it’s raining and we’re wearing Lycra. It’s got to be the 2009 Bangor Coastal Challenge!
The day had finally arrived. After months of training and wittering on about it on this blog, I was about to attempt my first “metric century” cycling event: 100Km around the Ards Peninsula. One. Hundred. Kilometers. 62 miles for the Imperially inclined. It’s far enough to travel by car, never mind by bike and in the rain (did I mention it was raining?)
Dave and I arrived at registration at around 8:30am and the car park of the Bangor Sportsplex was already beginning to fill up. After unpacking our bikes and registering, we loitered for a while until we found the other Lards in the overflow car park. We had a great turn out for this event, with me, Dave, Graham, Phil, CB, KB and a couple of others all weighing in.
Like many others, we set off early to avoid the crush of the mass start at 10:00am and were threading our way through the back streets of Bangor and on to Groomsport by around 9:45am. It was raining quite heavily and there was a stiff breeze coming in off the Irish Sea, but we were making good time all the same and overtaking quite a few slower groups who had set off ahead of us.
For a while at the start I was concerned that I might have to drop out altogether. I’ve been getting treatment for some back problems that give me referred nerve pain and deadness down one leg, and this condition got steadily worse for the first few miles of the run. Luckily though it settled down at a manageable level and I was able to continue.
We kept our speed through Donaghadee and on to Millisle, but it was here that I realised that no-one had seen Phil or Dave for some time and dropped back from the main group to wait by the road and see if they passed. Phil appeared after a few minutes and relayed instructions from Dave to go on ahead without him. Dave was riding a hybrid on quite chunky tyres and couldn’t match the speed of the road machines, so decided to continue at his own pace. Sensible chap.
Phil and I continued together until Ballyhalbert, where I pulled off again for a couple of minutes as my dad was waiting in the rain taking photos of all the cyclists going past. In all, he took about 90 photos over the course of an hour, and on Father’s Day too. It was only polite to stop for a while and say hello after that sort of effort.
Hitting the road again on my own, I attempted to catch a fast group that had gone past, but the increasing headwind made progress difficult and making any impression on the group impossible. It was tough going, but extra motivation was provided by a passing cyclist (in better shape than me!) who stayed with me for a few miles before speeding off again. I ground on against the wind and a couple of minor hills, eventually joining another group, as the route took me on through Portavogie to Portaferry and the lunch stop.
Lunch was a bowl of stew served up soup-kitchen style (that’s not a complaint!), a chocolate bar and a banana. The other Lards who had gone on ahead had been stopped for some time and were getting cold, despite an ample supply of tea, so I just had time to shovel in my food (plus a couple of extra energy gels) before we set off again.
The terrain turned a little hillier on leaving Portaferry, but at least the rain had stopped! I kept pace with the group for a little while but as I struggled to digest lunch I had to back off and let the gang speed on ahead again. I struggled with low energy and a threatening thigh cramp for the next section as I headed, more or less alone, along through Ardkeen and Kircubbin. I did however manage to pay back the karma from my earlier motivational riding parter by doing the same thing for another rider who looked like he was struggling too!
Energy returned as I passed Kircubbin and headed on to Greyabbey and I managed to stick with another fast group along the whole coastal section from Kircubbin to Newtownards. I was surprised, and I’ll admit a little relieved, to have my trip odometer tell me there was less than ten miles to go at this point.
Moving through Newtownards town, we came to the largest hill of the whole route. This is a sting in the tail near the end of the event, with a mile-and-a-bit at variable 2-8% gradient climbing up the A21 Bangor Road.
Unfortunately there seemed to be a some broken glass on the road here and a number of cyclists stopped at the top of the hill with punctures. I escaped unharmed, but I did stop to help a young rider who was struggling to remove some very tight racing tyres. Proper form on these events is to ask any and all stopped cyclists “All OK?”, to which the expected reply is “Yes, fine!”. But this young man answered with a plaintive “NOOO!” so I just had to stop and help! Good manners, as your mother probably told you, are free.
After this Samaritan stop I set off again along the fast downhill section of the A21 past Conlig and into Bangor again. I’d previously managed 30mph on the flat here but the conditions on the day prevented anything much over 25mph being achieved. It’s not a race anyway, I kept telling myself.
Once past Conlig we turned on to the Rathgael Road and I suddenly realised that the course was nearly complete! With only a few miles to go I cranked up the speed as best my tired legs could managed and made it back to the finish line in just under the four hour mark. I’d done it! And I very much deserved a burger from the finish line barbecue – just as soon as Dave arrived with some cash (thanks Dave!)
So my first 100Km event was complete. What did I think?
I finished in 3h57m, traveling 61.8 miles (not quite 100Km – grr!) at an average speed of 15.6mph. This is roughly what I wanted to achieve, but on reflection I think I could have gone a lot faster despite battling against cramps and trapped nerves for periods. I could have rested longer at lunch and at times I was sitting comfortably in groups that I now know I could have outpaced if I’d put some more effort in. However, this was my first event at the 100Km distance and I therefore didn’t know the level I could sustain for the duration, but I now have a marker down for next time and I’ll be aiming to beat it. I’m still happy I came in under the psychologically important four hour mark though.
I hereby award myself a B+ : good effort, but could do better.
Over 700 riders took part in this year’s Challenge. It was great to be riding in large groups of cyclists for long periods and I was surprised at just how much of a boost I got when tucked in at the back of a line. More than once I checked my computer and didn’t quite believe the speed it was reporting given the effort I was putting in at the time. I was also surprised at just how motivational it can be to have a fellow cyclist ride along with you when you’re struggling, as I was approaching Portavogie. I wasn’t racing and I’m generally not a very competitive pers0n (honest), but there’s a deep seated urge not to be left behind that can drag up a bit of extra speed in this situation.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Bangor Coastal Challenge ride and was actually a little disappointed when it came to an end, despite having just been out in the rain for four or five hours. I’ll definitely try to do it again next year – I have to beat that 3h57m time no matter what! The event was well organised and marshaled from start to end by the North Down Cycling Club, with police escorts, motorcycle escorts and breakdown vans patrolling the route throughout. Some signs about what to do when we reached the finish (or indeed an actual finish line) might have been useful though – apologies if I missed them.
I’ve uploaded all the photos from the day to my Bangor Coastal Challenge 2009 Picasa web album. Maybe you can spot yourself in the crowds!
There are a couple of pointers for further training that I’ll take away from the Challenge. I need to work on hill climbs, as I tend to get left behind on those. Fitter and lighter is the key here I think – enough said. I’ll also try to do more tempo rides, where I ride at “maximum sustainable” level for longer intervals of 15 minutes or more. I should be able to fit both those styles of training into my regular commute runs as well as doing ever longer endurance rides and (maybe) the odd hill session on Sundays.
The Bangor Coastal Challenge was the second of the three sportives I’m entering in 2009 to raise money for RNIB to help blind and partially sighted people across Northern Ireland. If you’d like to support me, please visit Sponsor John! and make a donation!
My next major target is the Lap The Lough ride at the end of August. It’s another flat course, this time around the shores of Lough Neagh and at 140Km it’s 40% longer again than Bangor. I’ve learned a lot from taking part in the Bangor ride and will probably learn a lot more on the day of The Lap too.
But for now, it’s rest and recuperation.
Did you take part in the 2009 Bangor Coastal Challenge? How was it for you?