I have very few regrets in my life. I've always taken a life approach of 'You regret the things you don't do more than the things you do' and thus, have found myself in many situations where I wonder what I was thinking when I hatched a certain plan. But, I always emerge with a good story and with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, am generally glad I partook in various activities and events. In 2009, Single Speed World Championships were held in Durango, CO, a 6 hour drive from my home. I didn't attend. After a summer of traveling and racing bikes, I couldn't bring myself to pack up the car and make the drive across the state. I have never kicked myself so hard for missing what sounded like the event of a lifetime.
Then, the promoters of the Whiskey 50 Off-Road mountain bike race announced that the winners of the single speed category would be receiving a round trip ticket to Ireland to race at the 2011 Single Speed World Championships. I was already planning on racing in Prescott, AZ, except with gears, gunning for a chunk of the $10,000 prize purse for the pro women. I figured a ticket to Ireland would cost about $1,000 and debated whether I'd have a better chance of winning the single speed category, or placing high enough in the pro women to walk away with $1,000. I decided that even if I won $1,000 with gears on my bike, I wouldn't spend it on a plane ticket; I'd probably spend it on something responsible like rent, so I might as well try to win the ticket directly because I didn't want to miss what would hopefully be another event of a lifetime.
Long story short, I won the race, settled on a week in Ireland, and 3 months later, boarded a plane with my husband Chris headed for Dublin. We had two bikes, a BOB trailer, and camping gear in tow with the master plan of spending as little money as possible during our week in Ireland. As far as master plans went, that was pretty much all we had. We had a vaguely thought out idea of building our bikes at the airport, dropping the bike box off at the Left Luggage and pedaling to the race, which according to Google Maps, was 120 miles away by motorway. Clearly, riding this distance in three days before the race was going to be the perfect lead-up to a relatively short cross country race. No matter, with the Colorado Trail Race still a recent, three week old memory, I'd fully accepted the fact that pure speed wasn't going to be a strength of mine this trip. Instead of stressing about the post-CTR fatigue, or the nearly 10 lbs I'd managed to gain after the 5.5 day effort, I embraced the fact that only a small percentage of people trekking to Ireland, or any SSWC for that matter, were there to race. Instead, I set my sights on absorbing as much Irish culture as possible, riding across the country, and meeting as many people who loved to ride bikes as I could.
As part of the Save-Money plan, we decided to forgo renting a car and even ignored everyone's advice of taking a bus or train, at the very least out of Dublin. We pedaled into the Dublin city center and immediately found our first bike shop, a seemingly rundown shop that seemed to cater to beater bikes. We pointed to a map that had the name of our destination town, Kilfinane, on it and asked the best way to get there. We got the look that I've become pretty accustomed to getting, the one that says 'You're crazy, but if you insist...'. We got that look a lot this trip. The shop owner told us that we'd need to suffer for 20 miles to get out of Dublin but that after that, we'd be in for lovely riding. The next shop we stopped at told us there was no good way to get out of Dublin and we should take the train. The shop reminded me of several chain bike shops in the States, and if for no other reason than to defy what they deemed impossible, we pedaled out of the city.
In hindsight, I too would recommend taking the train.
We learned a lot in the three days it took to pedal the 120+ miles, and many of these observations were confirmed by other foreigners traveling across the Emerald Isle. First, and foremost, the Irish are terrible at giving directions. This wouldn't be nearly as much of a problem if they were better at signing streets, but they're fairly dismal at that as well. Several times, we'd stop and pull out our map and ask someone to point out where we were on the map. Seemingly just as many times, we were answered with a shrug of the shoulders and a circle drawn around a 10 mile radius of an area: “ Somewhere in here”. People in Dublin didn't know how to get around without the bus, and people outside of Dublin didn't know how to get around without the motorways. Major 4-way intersections in towns would have arrows pointing in seven different directions and not with street names or numbers, but with town names, small town names that weren't on our map. We learned to ride with a 70% certainty that we were going the right direction. Eventually, we just learned to navigate with the sun. If we were still riding into the sun when it set, we were going the right direction.
Our second observation was that the Irish are incredibly nice, accommodating people with a penchant for not getting up early. Our first night was spent in the yard of a friend of a guy who we'd befriended at a bar who owned a shop nearby. Steve and his wife Emma welcomed us with tea and gin and soda late on our first night in Ireland. We were complete strangers but they opened their home, and yard, to us and stayed up late with us talking about bikes, SSWC, and Irish culture. Apparently, they take great pride in getting visitors lost on their roads. In the morning, we didn't wake up until 10 and I was mortified when I found out that Steve and Emma, as well as Steve's brother and his wife, had waited for us with breakfast, which consisted of fresh soda bread and butter. Turns out, breakfast at 11 is fairly normal and no one was in any particular hurry to get anywhere that day. Just another Wednesday in the country. We'd later find out that even bakeries didn't open until 8:30 and when they did open, there was no guarantee that they would have bread baked before 10. This fact didn't seem to fuss anyone.
Our third observation was that the Irish really do like their Guinness. SSWC participants also seemed to really like Guinness. When we arrived at the host town at 1 pm on Friday afternoon, it was all we could do to ride past the gathering crowd of bike riders outside the pub to go ride a lap of the race course in the Ballyhoura Forest. Luckily, two hours of trail riding later, we were able to rejoin them, and the kegs of Guinness and Irish Cider hadn't run out.
SSWC is a unique event in that some people show up to race, and to do as well as possible. However, unlike the majority of bike races, this group of people are in the minority at SSWC. Also unlike many bike races, there are very few 'stock' bikes to be seen. Instead, the bikes lined up outside the bar ranged from beat-up GT Zaskars that were clearly pulled out of a garage, long forgotten, and converted to a single speed, to high-end carbon bikes, to a Black Sheep Ti 36'er. The sizes, shapes, and ages of people riding these bikes were just as varied but everyone had one thing in common: A simple love of bikes. It didn't matter where you were from, how fast you were, or what type of bike you were riding. If you had made the trek to the championships, one thing was certain: you loved bikes and bike culture. And
there was a high probability that you liked to drink beer as well.
South Africa had just won hosting rights for 2012 SSWC and over drinks, people reminisced over past SSWC. The event has a cult following with people traveling across the globe every year to race in a new location, but what is unique about the repeat offenders is that every year, they make a trip out of going to the event. They take the race as a reason to travel to a new place, hang out with old friends, and to make new ones. Our bike tour to the venue was unique, but the fact that we'd turned the experience into more than just a bike race was a universally accepted idea. Nearly everyone had traveled around the country already or were planning on doing so after the event. The race was just a small part of a much larger experience.
Race day dawned in classic Irish fashion. A late rise with most participants rubbing the previous night's debauchery from their eyes and a large, traditional Irish breakfast consisting of two pieces of bacon, two sausages, beans, black pudding, and two slices of toast with butter. Lucky for everyone involved, the Parade of Nations to the race course wasn't going to start until 1:30. After a brief rider's meeting where racers were given an option of racing one or two laps depending on how they felt, 600 costume-clad single speeders rolled through the streets of Kilfinane, cheered on by hundreds of locals, and headed to the trailhead.
There are many way to avoid the classic bottleneck that defines the start of most races, especially those that have 600 participants. Some have an excessively long La Mans start, others start straight up a hill to string the pack out, but in this case, riders simply turned their bikes upside down along a start chute and headed down to the start of a completely reasonable La Mans run where everyone danced to the YMCA song and admired each other’s costumes. Meanwhile, race organizers moved all the bikes around to ensure the maximum amount of confusion during the start. This also ensures that no one, even people with running fitness, has an unfair advantage. Those of us at the back of the running pack added to the chaos by cutting the switchback that we were supposed to run around and headed straight to the bikes, letting th
ose who felt the need to run fast run the entire distance.
In search of my bike, I passed piles of red bikes higher than my head, black bikes, yellow bikes, bikes in trees, etc. Eventually I found my steed exactly where I had left it and set off to pass as many riders as I could. I passed the all-male wedding party dressed in brides maid dresses, I passed the ostrich rider, I passed Dorothy and I passed so many guys in dresses that I lost count. I'm fairly sure that for an outsider, we could have passed for a gay-pride parade. The race course consisted of some fire road climbing, some twisty-turning single track climbing, some twisty-turning descending and some wooden bridge features which were more intimidating than unrideable. Unfortunately, due to park rules, there were no beer shortcuts which put a damper on my race plan since I'd been training exclusively for the beer drinking portion of the race since arriving in Ireland. After two laps, Heather Holms of the USA won the women's race and Niall Davis of Ireland won the men's race. Race rules said that if you weren't 1st, 2nd, or 3rd, you were 4th. So after two and a half hours of riding, I'll pat myself on the back for a solid 4th place finish, even though I was 5th.
It didn't take long for the masses to move back to the host village and quickly populate the bars. This was truly the highlight of the trip, swapping stories with people from around the world, from as far away as New Zealand to as close as the next village. Everyone had smiles on their faces and beers in their hands while telling stories of falling off the bridges, seeing leprechauns in the woods, and freezing on the ride back to the bar in the cold Irish rain. When the night ended the following morning, tents were packed, bikes loaded, and people started making their way out of the village and onto their next destination. Ours was the Cliffs of Mohor, a mere 50 miles of riding and a ferry ride away. We bid our camping neighbors goodbye, stopped at the nearest tourist office to ask for directions, reminded ourselves to pedal on the left hand side of the road, and continued our journey, discussing how we could make a trip to South Africa next year a reality.