The second best decision I ever made was getting a 34/50 compact to replace my 39/53, three days before the W200.

Having said that there were times during the 9 hours in the saddle when I had the distinct feeling that maybe Dave Tansey, in a well intentioned but entirely mistaken belief that it was not in my best interest, cunningly left the 39/53 on the bike and that the plastic bag he casually handed me in the shop actually contained the new compact and not my old crankset.

I did check when I got home on Sunday evening and he didn't.

It was clear from at least 4 days out that Sunday 12th June was not going to be a warm balmy light breeze lazy casual mid summer's day, ideal for my first W200. No matter what web weather forecasting site I checked and then re checked, the predictions for Sunday 12th June were for almost biblical conditions.

As a keen golfer who keeps a close eye on weekend weather, in my golfing experience, it is never quite as bad as predicted and also never as bad when you are actually out in it. In my short cycling life, comprising the first 6 months of 2011 with Orwell, the converse applies. I need only mention this year's Mount Leinster and Mick Byrne 160.

So when every weather station informs me that it will rain for almost the entire of Sunday 12th June, having played golf in the sunshine the previous morning, I believe them and accordingly stuffed a spare pair of socks and gloves into my already food laden bulging pockets of my gleaming new Orwell short sleeve shirt. I was only missing the Viper energy drink that Rob somehow acquired. Perhaps in an emergency he would spare me some.

My experience of Orwell Wheelers so far, as a new member and Sunday beginner spin novice, has been just amazing. In terms of organisation and commitment it is unsurpassed. Wonderful selfless people like Denis Gleeson, John Twomey, all the other Johns, Stephen, Celeste, Aideen, Julia and all of their colleagues too many to mention, have guided us from fledgling tentative pedal pushers to well drilled responsible proud Orwell enthusiasts with a great blend of fun, encouragement and dedication. We have got faster, fitter and made friends. Thanks to these ingredients I attempted a few sportives and my big ambition, the Wicklow 200 was now just minutes away.

A loose but reliable arrangement had been made by a group of Orwell (fast beginner/step upish  level) cyclists to meet at 7am with a view to heading off shortly thereafter. In the absence of some of our leaders and experienced mentors who seemed possessed of psychic powers and went on holidays, Garret stepped forward in his understated and modest style. He also had done the W200 the previous year and so qualified in our group as vastly more experienced than anyone else. He did a fantastic job for the entire day.

The first challenge, having arrived at Shoreline, was to actually spot the Orwell members as rain jackets, not surprisingly, were the universal clothing of choice that morning. The early starters were certainly the clever ones as they got a few hours rain free and it would later appear, all of the egg sandwiches at the food stops. A group of about 10/12 of us gathered which included Garret, Donnacha, Dave, Rob, Paul, Alan, Conor, Jacqui, and some special guests Linda and Matt.

The plan was to leave at 7.30 or before if possible. Life intervened in the form of a puncture for Matt in the car park. The first of 5 that befell the group that day. As the skies darkened above us, Matt, upon advice and in the knowledge that he had 2 punctures the previous day, progressed from a change of tube to a change of tyre. As we waited, excitement coupled with anxiety, the soft rain began to fall and I secretly had 2 thoughts -  firstly what the hell was taking Matt so long and secondly, would I get to sample the Viper.

We agreed to stop in Manor Kilbride to re group if necessary, also Hollywood for the same reason and then Donard for the main food stop. We also agreed to take it at a gentle steady pace and that it was entirely acceptable and indeed to be actively encouraged to shout at anyone who did not adhere to this fundamental rule. As the oldest member of the group by at least 15/20 years, this was a rule that was dear not only to my heart and but also to my legs. Indeed and in fairness, apart from a few predictable calls to the young enthusiasts in the group, there was overwhelming compliance.

Matt eventually got his new tyre fitted and we departed close to 8am, one of the last to head off on our journey. As we gently climbed out of Greystones and through the various roundabouts, the rain fell but more on our backs than our faces and we sped along the N11 to Kilmac. We were a well drilled tight unit and the up and overs were called regularly and confidently. I thought to myself Denis and the other mentors would be very proud of us. I also thought that a bicycle is a most curious vehicle in that the passenger is also the engine and I was hoping this engine would see the N11 again sometime before sunset...with the same passenger on board.

The division decision point for the 200 came upon us quickly and with a few quips including Monty Python's freedom or crucifixion, we all veered right, legs spinning smoothly and the group already well formed and performing effortlessly.

We passed "the Wall" on our left and ignored Garret's humorous (but possibly serious) suggestion that we throw in a quick climb. The first warning sign of the conditions was a few rear wheel spins as we hit the sharp short climb past Powerscourt waterfall. On up through the valley and we gently passed various late starters like ourselves but unlike us, they were on their own or in twos, and without the benefit of a rolling Orwell peloton.

Past the Liam Horner memorial sign and left at the top where we picked up my mate and cycling legend Brian, who, having cycled from Lucan, had been sitting in the rain for 30 minutes patiently awaiting our eventual arrival. The rain began to fall with greater enthusiasm matched by the fall in temperature as we worked our way to the Sally Gap cross roads and our first descent to Manor Kilbride.

With wet roads and cold air, it was not a pleasant descent even with the wind in our backs. I somewhat ominously calculated that a tail wind to Manor Kilbride could mean a head wind up Slieve Maan. More ominous was the chilling sight at the bridge on the descent of 3 ambulances with 6 road bikes leaning against one of them and no cyclists in view. A nasty pile up. Instinctively we dropped our speed for the remainder of the descent and prayed that no one was seriously injured.

While we had intended to re group in Manor Kilbride, such was our discipline that this was achieved before we reached the village. However as hypothermia had also arrived we pulled into the shop and supped hot tea and coffee while Dave furled on his arm warmers and Matt wandered around with his old tyre asking for any takers. With Jacqui's shivering limbs back under control and a quick decade of the rosary, we headed off once more. Our group got dispersed for reasons still unclear, though the cycling strength of Paul and his brother Alan may have been a contributing factor, however Garret quickly brought order back and the reformed peloton washed over the rolling tumbling hills along the lake drive, sweeping up Hollywood hill and down again. No need now to stop in Hollywood to re group as we were all as one with our bikes and with each other and so we pedalled through the wind and rain to our first food stop at Donard.

Egg sandwiches have always been my favourite.  Alas, thanks to the early birds, I was obliged to settle for ham or cheese. I selected a well wrapped and sealed cheese sandwich and a welcome cup of coffee. Apart from the absence of egg, there was no shortage of food, bars, drinks (no Viper to be seen) and all in all it was a fine place to be at that time.

Departure was inevitable as was the very unpleasant moment of re mounting the bike entirely wet from top to toe and hoping that the heat that had been preciously captured in Donard would not drain away too soon. It did of course, almost before a shoe was clipped into a pedal or a saddle wiped, however a few miles down the road and we were back in the swing of it. We were also sustained, as we had been from the start, by the infectious laughter of Dave and Rob as they entertained each other and by extension us all with their chatter and jokes. The spirit in the group was powerful and a bond was forming as it does when there is a coming together of fine men and women who face a challenge and know they can depend on the support and encouragement of each other.

That challenge now loomed in the form of Slieve Maan. The rain was still relentless but we were almost oblivious to it at that point. The wind was still howling but not as ferociously as expected. Slieve Boy was an appetiser and quickly dispatched. Garret warned the group of the dangers ahead with loose gravel on the descent. Having safely negotiated the boy, the maan now appeared. Another quick decade of the rosary and so began the climb.

Raising our head upwards we could only see mist and rain, interspersed with the faint shapes of cyclists slowly winding and weaving as they vanished into the swirling cloud. Someone mentioned hell and another responded that at least hell was warm. This was Dante's winter inferno. I was more reminded of Mordor, the Land of the Shadows, from the Lord of the Rings. I had visions of Gandalf, the great wizard leaping out from behind one of the bushes, hair bellowing in the wind and eyes squinting against the rain, clasping a handful of energy gels and with a Viper drink strapped to his mighty staff.  

Brian and Donnacha lead the way, quickly followed by the troika of Dave, Jacqui and Linda. They all seemed to glide upwards with effortless power, happily conversing in that mildly annoying manner as others, including me, struggle for breath. I, on the other hand, seemed to be consumed with powerless effort and was at a point where my lack of forward movement almost allowed me to count the teeth on my inner front ring. My first mental note to check the contents of that plastic bag I left in the shed which allegedly contained a 39/53.

A few swift pedal strokes had Brian and Donnacha, the aforementioned troika, and the enviously steady and consistent climbing skills of Paul and Garret all disappearing into the gathering mist ahead. Mist, it occurred to me, is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that you cannot see the enormity of the climb ahead and a curse in that you cannot see the enormity being diminished by your efforts. On balance I think I prefer no mist. Indeed I also prefer no rain and no cold and come to think of it, no wind. I know – emigrate.

However by some miracle which involved one grinding pedal push after another I progressed towards the summit  despite the temptation to dismount which floods into your system when you see cyclists on their feet pushing their bikes and there were a few. Through the mist, close to the summit, there appeared moving shadows and some mechanical formation which eventually emerged as some form of mobile power drink vehicle from which was dispensed - the said power drink. I can't even recall what it was.

We gathered at this eery place and silently congratulated each other. No need for words. Just a nod or a movement of the eyebrow conveyed all. Once satisfied that everyone was safely at the mountain top and another gentle warning from Garret, we began the descent.

My fingers worked as hard on the descent as my legs did on the climb. Braking most of the way down was essential to survival and more so than ever as we passed another accident with some male cyclist covered in a rug and being spoken to reassuringly by a friend. A lady in an Orwell shirt was off her bike and watching for oncoming traffic. Again we slowed and prayed.

A toilet break in the Glenmalure hostle was availed of by a number of our group and once that most serious of business was attended to we set off in search of Shay Elliott. Once again the troika made a mockery of the gradient as Dave's new cassette impressively powered him along in Pantani like fashion. Not in any way less impressive was the climbing skills and power of Jacqui, Linda and Donnacha at which I again marvelled from an ever growing and depressingly expanding distance. My engine and passenger continued the heated debate that had commenced at the foot of Slieve Maan and was still unresolved.

A keen photographer greeted us at the summit but did not have sufficient persuasive powers to get us to move ourselves a few feet over to the Wicklow 200 sign. We can be viewed in a huddled but smiling manner, beside a large pool of water, barely visible through the low cloud, on the Wicklow 200 photo section. A stark reminder of the conditions. You can just tell from this photo that Garret is our proud leader.

Wickow 200 - Summit of Shay Elliott

A quick Our Father and off with us once again. Sadly we lost one of our group at Shay Elliott, but not in a careless fashion. Brian, who had joined us at Sally Gap turned left for Laragh and home to Lucan. We missed his company and his steady spinning lower limbs but we had the benefit and privilege of both on the toughest parts of our journey. We had also lost Alan and Matt due to their superior leg power however Paul, I expect with similar genetic leg power, displayed great humility and stayed with the group. By this stage he was a puncture expert and one was not too far away.

A final wait at the bottom while the final puncture of the day was repaired and on to the food stop.

Rathdrum was like an oasis. A respite from the relentless rain and wind. Also, like one of the coffee stops on Sunday spins, warm, friendly and inviting. As this was a stop for both 100 and 200, I did not waste any energy searching for the now mythical egg sandwich and so set out in search of one of their cheesy delights. Somewhat concerned at my failure to find one, upon enquiry I was informed that there was only ham or chicken. The lovely lady who gave me this news could obviously read the disappointment on my rain swept face and with genuine concern in her voice enquired if I was a vegetarian. Now while my legs were not working so well at this point, my brain was still functioning at a reasonable level. I answered correctly and enjoyed one of their carefully guarded, secretly stored yet finest cheese sandwiches. I recalled it fondly later that evening as I tucked into my spaghetti bolognaise.

Outraged that I had the foresight and the socks to prove it, Dave and Linda watched as I headed off to remove and ring out the dripping items clinging to my feet and replace them with the most glorious pair of dry ones. Rob protested that this was an automatic disqualification and could not possibly be allowed. All such protestations fell on deaf ears (and dry feet).

Bidding farewell to Rathdrum was very different to our departure from Donard. Our hard climbing of the day was very much behind us and the rain seemed to at last be loosing its intent. The downhill and seemingly downwind well surfaced road to Avoca almost qualified as pleasant at that point. We glided along with ease and some abandon and swept through the sleepy yet famous village. I was quietly aware that there was some climb out of Avoca to Redcross but naturally assumed that this was a mere infant compared to the boy and maan we had earlier conquered.

No so. Not so at all. The previous morning I had cursed the evil green keeper and his wicked pin positions for the monthly golf medal. Clearly his cousin works as the route planner for the Wicklow 200 as we were subjected to evil, wicked and entirely unreasonable climbs for the next 30k. To compound matters the mist again descended as we ascended and it appeared that if there was a twist or turn left or right that would make the route more challenging, then that is where the W sign would lead us. Once again my ability to propel my bike forward was under cross examination and not only was I worried that I could count teeth again (second mental note) I was now able to read the best before dates on the High Five summer fruits energy gel wrappers that trailed the route. If the ingredients came into focus I was definitely getting off the bike as I would walk faster.

Nonetheless and throughout, the group stayed together and instinctively reformed quickly if we broke up. Eventually we saw the signs for the N11 and as we crossed the over bridge the long lost prodigal sun emerged to greet us. We returned the smile and forgave it's lengthy absence. This warm feeling was matched and indeed surpassed as we reached the roundabout that signalled the wonderful and staggeringly welcome downhill glide to Shoreline.

We arrived at 7pm. Eleven hours of laughing spinning singing grinning grimacing cursing coughing calling eating drinking freezing frowning nodding swearing repairing resting clipping unclipping draughting passing slowing braking slipping sliding wishing thinking and dreaming.

More importantly we were all in one piece. Most significantly we finished as one. One group. One big hand shake. One big smile. One long hot shower. One shiny medal. One Wicklow 200, done.

At the finish