Scott-Orwell Wheeler Danny Moriarty gives us insight into what it's like to take on the challenge of a 300km audax in the form of the Priest's Leap and Devil's Elbow...

Priest's Leap and Devil's Elbow

A behind schedule arrival in due to being held up for a rare Liebherr crane section convoy on the Tralee road left things a little hurried and I missed the main peloton start as twenty or so cyclists rolled out in staggered groups of three or four. I got on the road at 6:15 on my own leaving 2 or 3 stragglers who were also delayed by last minute parking issues.

Rolling solo through Killarney town centre just before dawn I received some well intentioned slurred encouragement from a late night reveller - I smiled and savoured the goodwill as I thought to myself that given the terrain and territory that lay ahead - human interaction would be pretty limited today. Dawn and its chorus broke as I rolled out past Muckross, and I, just like the birds in the forest canopy was starting to wake up fast.

The temperature while cold was not too bad and I knew the pipes would soon be warm as I had the Molls Gap climb starting after just a few km. I could not get the route to show on my Garmin and gave up after several attempts ñ navigation was simple anyway for first 60/70km and the scenery simply had to be absorbed ñ so much so I stopped for some photos and removed head snood as I was warming up. I passed Strong man Seamus O Dowd who had punctured after about 10 km. Paul who I never had met before had also pulled in to adjust rack bag (he was to bunny hop me several times in the first 60km as he continued to have trouble and ultimately suffer a snapped rear-mech cable).


Molls Gap in the morning

Previous spins up this side of Molls Gap were always pretty easy and this time round was no exception as it is a very forgiving climb. Cresting Molls Gap I zipped up the high-vis gilet for an easy, rewarding and fun descent. As the descent panned out we turned left on a L road for Lisseyclearig and came within 20 metres of my Uncle Paudie and Auntie Carmelís house. I regretted I wasn't passing at a more opportune stage and time. Through Kenmare and on to Kilgarvin where we turned right - signposted Bantry onto a country lane that hugged the small but impressive Slaheny spate river.

For a while a little bird fluttered in parallel with me, I think we may have caught each other's gaze for a brief moment as it in piqued curiosity, me in pure joy. The burgeoning sun meant a few stops to adjust clothing but it remained cold in the rare sheltered spots as we ascended the valley on the sunny Westside. At this stage I was as happy as the proverbial pig and felt privileged to be part of this event and this day.

I stopped to see if Paul was ok as he was on the roadside for about the fifth time. It was at this stage his gear cable snapped and he set about replacing it. The stop presented a chance to ride with AI secretaire extraordinaire Niall Diamond and pretty soon I developed titanium envy as I admired Niall's steed. We crested the summit after approx. 60km and 700 metres in the legs - the descent into the Borlin Valley was a little tricky given the grassy/gravel median and the chance of animals - a small flock of sheep reacted to my shouts while a jack russell dog tested my nerve and steel as he came at me from a driveway like a bullet - a good eyeballing and a straight line saw me win that game of chicken!

At the bottom there was a bridge with three options off it and I took the incorrect lane signposted Priests Leap (that was to come later). By the time I realised my mistake and was back on course I figured Niall would be hitting the bridge, so I looked over my shoulder and saw him about to make same mistake as I had. I let out a roar to alert him, its strong resonance highlighting the lack of wind amongst the towering mountains in this nirvana-esque wilderness. It also succeeded in catching Niall's attention and he followed my trail.

Soon were back on the coast in Ballylickey and stopped for tea/grub at the first control in the local Centra. The regrouping took full advantage of the table and chairs that were for sale outside the sun drenched shop front. After Ballylickey we had a little group of four going. With Seamus studiously taking notes for the pending WAWA (over 2000km Audax along the Wild Atlantic Way!), Niall and I drove on at the front.

The banter was good as we were joined by Conor 'Sandals' Daly (easily recognisable as he always cycles in Sandals regardless of weather conditions it appears). Conor works for Met Eireann and I told him to phone HQ to update the forecast from moderate northerlies to fresh. We were glad to turn off the coast road and head inland for sheltered roads and the event titled Priest Leap climb. The climbing legs were summonsed immediately and it offered no mercy. The road was tight with a grassy/gravel median for much of it. I suppose it was what we call in Audax circles a 2-Cow Ronnie Road. The climb had a false summit about half-way up which only revealed the remainder of the climb in the last few strokes as the true summit was hidden by a rocky bluff.

Most stopped here for a breather and to take in the panoramic views of the valley. It was fun to see the crestfallen face on the stragglers when they realised we were not standing at the summit and were hardly halfway up this monster. Apparently mass was held at the summit in Penal Times - going to mass must have been a full days excursion for the faithful congregation. I had to dismount 3 maybe 4 times on the latter half of the climb as the 15 % kicks were too much for me in places - there were plenty wheel spins and at one stage the front wheel came off the road as I was throwing the handlebars all over the road. If ascending tested the legs, then the nasty dangerous descent stretched every sinew of forearm muscle as I used all my nerve to navigate what was effectively a two and half foot trail as crossing the grassy/gravelly median would have been lethal - even with my 28mms! (I would not recommend this descent ever in the wet on anything less than 32s).

A few of us regrouped by the Sheen River and followed it back to Kenmare where it found the sea and we found some tea. Seamus showed he was far stronger than Hendrick and I as he towed us along the coast, through Templenoe before turning off at Blackwater Bridge for the Ballaghbema pass. This was an enjoyable climb with a marvellous tarmaced section that aided the effort - it does have a nasty kick at the end where we were greeted by event organiser Dan Flavin - the secret control nicely positioned at 140km! Despite the gusty wind that was blowing helmets and gloves around the place, the stop was very sociable. I spent way too much time at this control having the craic and goofing around. I noticed experienced riders like Niall come in more than 5 minutes after me but was well gone before I got my act together. As I descended alone, I made a mental note to myself to be more disciplined with time at stops.


The secret control at 140km on the Ballaghbema pass

The windy descent brought us due north into the heart of the Iveragh peninsula before it swung left along the flat grassy plain heading west for Waterville at approx 170km. En-route I negotiated the Ballaghisheen Pass albeit the last 20 metres forced yet another dismount and walk over the summit. Shortly after the pass we kept left for Waterville which had a fantastic approach as we skirted alongside Lough Currane which I initially took to be the sea but it is in fact a rare picturesque glacial lake that borders the sea. This section from 140-170 seemed to pass with ease. After a few photos and navigation check in Waterville I continued on into a strong headwind to embark on the Skellig Ring.


Waterville

Surprisingly I had never set foot in this part of my native county and I was relishing the opportunity. Unfortunately the strong headwind and the cumulative effect of the climbing was taking its toll on me physically and mentally - the fact that my body (back) was adversely reacting was no surprise given the lack of spins and in particular hilly spins I have done since last August. This ride was selected with the aim of kick-starting my audax season that hopefully will culminate in a 1000km on the August Bank Holiday weekend. What was surprising was that my head was not strong given I was just on the verge of the 200k and ten hour mark.

The warm sun hovering on the horizon reflected a champagne coloured westward highway while the Skelligs stood mini-shard like off centre. It was my first time seeing the Skelligs in the flesh and the whole vista was jaw-dropping spectacular as the Ballinskellig peninsula revealed itself. Despite the dopamine effect of the landscape I was starting to tire mentally and the stiff on-shore winds were tormenting me. I pulled in at the roadside before the Cuamaneaspaig climb that zig-zagged up the mountain, took my first caffeine gel of the ride and tried to re-set myself. Niall passed at this stage and seemed to be going well. The pending climb was to get the better of me on the last zag and I suffered the ignominy of having to perform a clumsy walk in my cleats up the last 100 metres. I still could not resist punctuating the walk by look backs at the Skellig coast - it was truly awesome.


A view of the coast from Cuamakishta

Descending alone into Portmagee, I hit the control point at 199km but the food offering was poor in the shop. I just had a banana and lucozade before powering on to Cahirsiveen, a mere 15km away that would surely have a Centra or Spar. Rolling along the road I saw signs for Maurice Fitzgerald auctioneer and I spent time reminiscing about one of my childhood heroes. I also realised I was rolling through the home roads of Ironman Mick Murphy who died last year. The thought of one of the legends and arguably the hardest figure ever in Irish cycling proved a source of great inspiration at this juncture.

The kind lady who was finished the deli counter in the Centra in Cahirciveen made exception and a roll for me as I prepared for the night ride by changing baselayer and getting lights ready. John McElroy landed in as I was about to leave but he had no luck with the lady. Leaving town I stopped briefly on two occasions to adjust clothing as I was over heating on the gentle drag. After the drag however I entered the best phase of the day in terms of progress. I clipped along in the big ring at a great pace aided by a wind that had abated considerably and a good surface. I soaked in the last of the scenery for the day as Dingle Bay was just visible to my left. In no time it felt like I had got to Rossbeigh beach where it was fully dark and the potent smell of the sea suggested the tide was out. Conscious sea air makes me tired I didn't hang about. In nearby Glenbeigh I passed Niall tucking into a feed from a roadside chipper trailer as I powered along turning off the main road for a loop along dark sheltered country lanes around Caragh Lake and into Killorglin.

In Killorglin I picked up a comrade who was heading the wrong direction and when I alerted him he said he was jacking it in and heading back to Killarney. I cajoled him into following me as it was the same 30km going home the audax route (by-roads naturally) or by taking the main N70 road back to Killarney. The last control was at 290km in a bar in Beaufort where we had to ascertain what date it was established. My comrade had decided he needed to stop and assured me he was ok so I rolled on. As I passed the pub I saw Paul for the last time exiting the pub - maybe a hot one for the finale?

A couple of km later, I was going over the bridge at Fossa and I glimpsed a barn owl flying against me - it's white face, under-wing and chest reflecting my front light - this was unquestionably the sight of the day and a rare gem. Until this ride the Inner Ring Audax 200 was my favourite day on a bike. That ride has been usurped by this tough, long, hard but most rewarding and fair ride- no coincidence that there is significant overlap between the two rides. Minutes later I rolled in by the Cathedral in Killarney just after midnight to be greeted by Dan. Technically finishing a 300km the next day is a dirty metric but the key measure to paraphrase Audax Ireland supremo Paul O'Donoghue is that I finished smiling.

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