Billy Parker penned another of his epic accounts, this time it's the SKT that you can experience with him! And we have a video!

Seskin Hill, Powers the Pot, Mahon Falls. These unusual, yet increasingly iconic names and climbs, had been circling, spinning and pedaling around in my head for a few weeks as I contemplated my second last sportive of the year and possibly one of the most challenging to the newcomers like myself.

The Sean Kelly 160k is spoken of in somewhat different terms to the others. Even the web site creates a sense of foreboding and trepidation to the uninitiated:

"The Kelly Comeragh Challenge is the tough, tough part of the tour and not for the fainthearted. Almost 160 km (100 miles) in length, it includes two Category One climbs Seskin Hill and Mahon Falls. It follows, in large part, the route of the Kelly Legacy but dips into the Comeragh Mountains on a couple of occasions to fully test the strength, perseverance and stamina of the riders."

And if that does not plant a doubt in your mind as to your state of readiness, they almost casually and hedonistically add

"The 160km Kelly Comeragh Challenge is only for the very experienced, the very fit, and, maybe even, the foolhardy. It requires guts and ability in abundance. "

I read and re read these paragraphs. I was definitely not very experienced, I was reasonably fit but not very fit, I was not remarkably foolhardy or even unremarkably foolhardy and I was certainly not possessed of anything that would qualify as being in abundance, other than perhaps an over supply of Fr Peter McVerry charity cycling jerseys.

As I hesitatingly pressed the send button for my online application I was comforted by the fact that on the day I could always switch to the 90k. This coastal route seemed very attractive and the adjectives on the web site did not suggest that you had to be mad in the head, slightly deranged or have anything in abundance to take it on other than a good level of fitness and decent miles in the legs. Very sensible indeed.

The Orwell touring machine was in full drive for this one and numbers, accommodation, restaurants and all other manner of logistics were filling the network pages as the weekend of the Sean Kelly approached. The cycling ordeal ahead seemed to diminish for a spell as we read of the extraordinary and super human achievements of Dave McLaughlin and Paul O’Donoghue on the Paris Brest Paris challenge. They covered 1200k in around 56 hours. My mind cannot even begin to contemplate the enormity of those numbers. To me this is akin to contemplating the size of the universe. I pondered on the adjectives and descriptions which must have been used on the PBP web site and the fact that you would need just about everything and anything in abundance to complete that. But I bet they had no Powers the Pot to occupy their minds.

We arrived in Dungarvan on Saturday evening in time for registration and also in time to see the great man himself, Sean Kelly, mingle with the organisers and participants, signing autographs and having his photo taken for the umpteenth time . A local, national and international hero, and surely one of our greatest sportsmen. He looked fit and well groomed. He had flown in from London where he was commentating on the Vuelta a Espana. We collected our green goodie bags, passed a cortege of camper vans and watched Sean sign yet another autograph.

Sunday morning 28th August. Sunny but cool. Arm warmer weather. We rendezvoused at Lawlors hotel on the main street at 8am. We rolled down to the starting line as a group and took our positions amongst the gathering thousands of fellow cyclists from every part of the country for the 8.30 start to the 160k. The web site description of experienced, fit and foolhardy cycling folk seemed slightly exaggerated as I surveyed the shapes around me and noted that the abundance of guts, a necessary requirement it seems, was perhaps a passing subtle and discreet reference to the waistline of a few of the slightly more rotund gentlemen (non Orwellians of course) that surrounded me.

The sea to our right shimmered and glistened in the early morning sun and precautionary sun cream was applied as we became ever more hopeful of a fine day’s cycling. It brings a mild dilemma, this cycling business, as to what to wear when the day has not quite made up its mind what to do with itself.

As our numbers swelled, Free’s biggest hit, All Right Now, blasted from the speakers and the man with the microphone repeatedly informed us that we were about to start. Eventually he was right and away we went, a slow rolling and expanding mass of shapes and colours snaking and sliding its way through the town and out onto the N25, heading north, where we seemed to happily and comfortably occupy both sides of the road and where the mechanically propelled vehicles that were unable to make any progress due to our passing presence, calmly and graciously offered no protest and nodded in admiration at the splendour of it all.

The first 40k to Carrick on Suir was entirely memorable due to its lack of anything to remember other than effortless riding, free wheeling, humming, chatting, easy breathing. But lurking in the shadows was a growing niggle that this was all going to come to an abrupt halt. I had a general idea of the route and with the assistance of an actual route map that was handed to us at registration I was aware and increasingly so that the first climb, Seskin Hill would be soon upon us. The sign post for Carrick on Suir flicked passed me, followed by a number of curious signs telling me and everyone else that we should complete one circuit only of Seskin Hill. Once only, it boldly stated – and reminded me more than once. I pondered briefly on the calibre of foolhardy yet presumably very experienced and very fit rider who would contemplate more than one circuit but I left it at that.

The time for pondering was soon over and with a few twists and turns through a housing estate we were on Seskin Hill, a category 1 climb. I was not sure if I had done a category 1 climb before. It occurred to me that I should know something as significant as that but for some reason I didn’t.

Seskin does not mess around. It gets straight down to business. The much respected business of being a cat 1 climb, the deceptive business of being innocently and somewhat naively called a hill. I could almost hear it sniggering at me. The gradient was significant from the beginning and as the road was narrow, it was necessary to pick your way through large numbers of puffing and panting cyclists as they weaved and angled their way up the slope. I heard a man exclaim behind me that he had run out of gears and we had just started. I watched in complete admiration as Charlotte powered her way upwards, in racing gears. Nevertheless I was quietly very happy with my compact and loads of rings at the back. Paul’s steady pace kept me plugging away as I tried to stay on his wheel. There is a sharp left hand hair pin turn half way up and then up it goes again. This was harder than I expected but then sooner than I expected we had levelled out and reached the summit. But no. It was not the summit but a momentary respite in the hill and up we went again. This was not Seskin Hill but rather Seskin Hills, plural. A devilish twist and entirely unexpected. I had read it was a short but sharp climb. The sharp was still there but the short was becoming elongated with each pedal stroke. For a fleeting moment, as I passed more and more walking wounded, I was overcome with the thought that these perambulating cyclists were entirely sensible, sane and logical men and women and those of us who were still pushing the pedals were truly for the birds and suffering from altitude sickness. This took me by surprise. Perhaps this was an out of saddle experience. Thankfully the moment passed and I carried on, reaching the top with enormous gratitude. John H was already there with a big grin on his face, immensely satisfied, as he should be, with his efforts. Denis had his derailleur still intact and so he too had a grin.

I smiled to myself as I thought of the once only signs. Perhaps the most superfluous yet most obeyed signs of the day. Once only… fine by me, just this once.

Orwell members gathered and murmured and once all were accounted for we headed down the incline and arrived at the first water stop of the day. Toilet breaks, water filling and general banter ensued and after a goodly break of 20 minutes we rolled out in the direction of Clonmel.

We had the first opportunity to form a peloton and we rolled over the gentle slopes and through the rich green valleys of the lower foothills of the Comeraghs. The Suir river peeked at us as we whizzed along and the bales of hay appeared to be hand painted onto the yellow cut fields. No wonder Clonmel is really “Cluain Meala” or honey vale.

We were a fine group of about 12 Orwell at this point - Denis, John H, John Twomey, Richard, Tom, Charlotte, Peter, Emma, Justin, Dave and his friend Niamh, Paul, Siobhan and her boyfriend. A good many others were also on the road but ahead of us to varying degrees, John L (well John L was miles ahead) Stephen, Donnacha, Leo, Aurora, Paul, Brendan, Gert and of course Eileen and Seamus who were the sensible ones on the coastal route. We attracted a few others along the way who attached themselves to the group and happily participated in the up and overs. John H, John T and Denis kept the discipline in the group in their wonderfully firm but engaging manner and they effectively acted, directed and produced. Tom, defying his age in magical style, kept pace with the fast action and mixed it with the young guns.

The Clonmel food stop presented itself exactly where the route map said it should be and we engaged enthusiastically with the quality fare on offer. Not having tasted or even spotted an egg sandwich on any sportive all summer, I was overcome to see rows of said egg delights parading in front of me. I swallowed with emotion and then swallowed as many sandwiches as was publicly permissible. This was a mighty fine food stop to be sure. And the best was yet to come. Wagonwheels!! I had not sampled one for years and had assumed they were but a memory buried in the recesses of my taste buds and long since out of production. Yet here they were, begging and beseeching me to travel back in time, which I most certainly did. It was now immediately elevated to a premier food stop, without question.

We departed in a peculiar manner across some grassy field and track which thankfully lead us back onto the road to Powers the Pot. Now in the old days when a person went to a well for water, the bucket invariably stirred up sediment from the bottom. And so the local Power family stuck a huge old cast-iron cauldron into the well. The water flowed through the 'pot' and was clear of sediment. As hundreds of the Power clan lived in the region, this particular branch of the family became known as 'Powers the Pot'. And so we were about to cross into their territory, into the heart of the Comeraghs. We had arrived there via the Nire valley, a water stop at Ballymacarbury and a most enchanting section of the route. No member of the Power clan made himself or herself known to us or thankfully brandished any form of pot or otherwise and so were we left to tackle this long slow drag of a climb. While we all arrived at the base of the climb as one unit, we quickly separated into smaller groups as the climbers, comfortably led by Peter, John T and Richard, strode on and the rest of us searched for a comfortable rhythm. It is not steep at any point but it does drag, in every sense of the word. I was very glad of the company of Dave and Niamh all the way up. It started to rain as we approached the summit and once there we gathered as a group. Rain jackets were unfurled from jerseys and fastened with haste and once we were all safely on board, the Orwell train rolled on.

On and down through more breathtaking scenery and enthralling uplands, leaving the rain behind and arriving at the village of Rathgormack, a water stop and to our surprise another food stop. Mahon Falls, I thought, must be some horror of a climb if they are feeding us again. The last supper perhaps. But not a wagonwheel to be seen and while a grand stop it was, I did not allocate douze point or premier status on account of the absence of the round delight that had reawakened pleasant palate memories. We lingered a while in the afternoon sunshine until it occurred to a few of our leaders that there was a cut off time at Mahon bridge. This galvanized us into movement and following a quick head count we rolled out. And so we were all still together and there was a real sense now that we would finish this as one group and encourage and support each other to the very end.

Mahon Falls now beckoned. Signs started to appear to remind us. We turned right at Mahon Bridge. I was beginning to dread this one. My momentary doubt on Seskin still lingered. That was at 40k and now we were at 120k, facing another category 1 climb. But we were in fantastic company, experienced riders like John T, Denis and Richard, all who had climbed this before and knew how to tackle it and survive. They would guide and encourage us up the slopes and cheer us at the top. We made one sharp turn, followed by a sharp climb, followed by another sharp turn and then the incline eased a little. Ok, now what. The what was a very very long narrow road, steep in places, but not outrageously so, with thankfully very little views of the top until you are well into it. As you would expect, and as is invariably the case, there was a head wind which grew stronger as we climbed higher.

Peter, Dave, Niamh and John T set the pace and quickly put significant road between them and the rest of us. We each retreated in search of our own reservoir of resource to find the physical and mental strength and energy to keep battling the wind and the incline. Strangely and to my growing surprise and delight, I was feeling strong on this climb. Having received reassurance from Richard that apart from a sharp ramp at the very top the rest was similar to what we were now on, I felt the weight of the absence of an abundance of guts and ability lift off me and I actually began to enjoy the process, in some kind of perverse way.

So I pushed on, into the head wind and slowly passed some gear challenged riders. As we emerged from the lower slopes and the tree line the full extent of the climb expresses itself before you and the sensible reaction is to keep your head down. So I looked up and as we got closer to what I thought was the summit, I began to understand the reference to the angled ramp at the top. What appeared to be the summit was in fact a small car park at the beginning of a very steep slope which turns back on itself. I could see what looked like ants clinging and moving along this slope at a very slow pace. Heads and helmets of riders in the distance. Not an encouraging sight but I still felt strong and knew I was going to make it.

At the turn onto the last ramp the wind mercifully landed flush on our backs and while the slope increased the effect was well diminished by the assistance of the wind. And so we arrived at the top of Mahon Falls. It was cold and windy but bright and rain free. The views were spectacular. One by one we appeared over the top and instinctively merged into our Orwell group, congratulating each other on the achievement. The greatest achievement of them all rested with and awaited the man to whom it was the greatest challenge, John H. He crested the summit in style to the cheers of his fellow travellers. An Everest conquered. Great stuff.

The descent was very fast and potentially dangerous. It was expertly marshaled, as was the entire route, and we all safely and securely arrived in Kilrossanty, the last water stop on the route. Job done now, I thought to myself. Not quite. There was one last climb which up until now was the forgotten, unmentioned and unspoken one. It was not so much a climb as a very long drag. We turned onto the Mama Road and it began to feel like the longest road in the country. There was no ending to it. Thankfully we engaged in plenty of up and overs to keep our minds from numbing. You do feel like all of the hard work is over after Mahon Falls so this was unexpected. A short sharp climb would have been preferable. Mercifully it did have an end and we dismounted at the top in the sunshine and the purple heathers. An ambulance was discreetly parked here as well, which gave credence to my view that this road had no end and could also end you. While we were not in need of its services thank God, the crew supplied some much needed water and with this we polished off the remnants of food in our pockets.

Less than 25k to go we figured and mostly downhill. We scooted off in good form and enjoyed speeding through the village of Kilbrien, down through Colligan Woods and and back onto the N72, where upon we realized we had fractured into a few groups. With only 15k to go we all engaged in time trial mode and sped on smooth roads back into Dungarvan and a welcome finish, greeted by a relieved Eileen and Seamus who were beginning to wonder if we were will still circling around Seskin Hill and ignoring the once only signs, just for the laugh.

A great day, a great Orwell crew, a great event and a great relief to have all finished safely and in good shape. A memorable end to my first sportive season and my first season with Orwell. An abundance of newly acquired leg muscles, new cycling bling and most importantly, fine new cycling friends.