The Transatlantic Way is a 2500km unsupported single-stage road bikepacking race from Dublin to Kinsale via the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW), a stunning coastal road route which hugs the west coast of Ireland from Derry to Kinsale. Roulers must first self-navigate around 150 miles from Dublin to Derry before joining the WAW. The course basically then hugs every inlet and coastal peninsula until reaching the southern coast, predominantly riding into the prevailing headwind and with the odd gravel section for good measure.
I’ve ridden the route twice before, once on the inaugural race in 2016 where I finished within the top ten in a much smaller field and again in 2017 where I was ahead of my finish time but suffered countless issues surrounding my wheels which forced me to stop about a third of the way through the course. I decided to ride again in 2018 to leave me with positive thoughts of the race and knowing I’d already bagged the Italy Divide race a couple of months earlier to boost my fitness as a good training run.
Waking up at Trinity College to beautiful sunshine was a stunning start to the race. Fears of torrential rain from previous years seemed remote and a quick breakfast and good lucks swopped with friends before a group ride to the start line was chilled and relaxed.
The race started in waves set apart by first name, with a lot more riders than in the previous two previous years. As usual the plan to have a relaxed start went out the window as soon as a short neutralised section was cleared. Karen Toast quickly broke away from the group start and knowing she was a strong rider I was keen to stick nearby to her to set a strong pace. Perhaps the universe was trying to put me back to my original place to take a relaxed start as not long after passing her I took a wrong turn at some roadworks and don’t think I saw her again for another week!
My route to checkpoint 1 at Derry made for some nice cruising on quiet back roads, I stopped quite a bit to top up on cold drinks and it wasn’t long before the first ice cream of the race had been scoffed! The sun was rising higher and it would have been easy to think we were riding in the south of France as temperatures soared. On heavy bikes carrying luggage and rolling hills it was important to not get too carried away trying to race people in the start pack as a trade-off for using fluids.
I felt strong still from the Italy Divide a few weeks earlier, but the heat was really getting to me. A large climb in Gortyn Glen Forest Park sapped my energy and early on made me question whether I’d made the right call taking on a race this big so quickly after Italy. I dropped my pace though and rolled into checkpoint one with Dave Fortis after calling into a takeaway to pick up some chips ! As in previous years I knew that the next section was one of the toughest of the ride and the area where most people get carried away and get injured, so I stopped very early and slept in Derry at 142 miles, planning to set away early with a fresh start on those who may have burnt themselves out during a fast paced longer day one.
Early morning I passed a rider looking lost and pointed them in the right direction and quickly made my way around 20 miles to the first of the Mike Hall King of The Mountains Challenge climbs. Rustling out of the long grass I saw a friendly face, Phil Wiggins climbing out of his bivi bag. We would ride (and walk!) on and off over the next few days. Phil is a strong upbeat rider who has strong motivation so I knew from the start he’d make the finish whatever may happen during the ride.
After putting in some distance, I had lost Phil around the stunning Malin Head area but stopping for coffee and food outside Letterkenny I saw him and Rishi Fox both pass me. I wolfed down whatever petrol station rubbish I was eating and cracked back on, pushing into a headwind towards Glenveagh National Park. My original plan was to take this section very cautiously. It had triggered a ton of wheel issues for me in 2017 that ended my race, but keen to catch Phil I rode hard through the gravel track that runs through the park on my fast rolling road tires. I cleared the section still in one piece and found Phil and another rider refuelling at the castle. Rishi had pushed on ahead and I rode towards the coast stopping for pizza with Phil at a gas station before calling it a day at 157 miles and 11,000ft of climbing in Derrybeg.
Having only slept a few hours, I knew it was an important day to hold back my miles again and had a 134 mile route plan to Sligo. I’d miscalculated how much food I’d need though and found myself early morning on a long stretch to Adara with other riders who’d done the same.
A big feed before the mighty Glengeish Pass wasn’t ideal but did the job. The amazingly fast decent paid off for period of fasting and ice cream with Rory Kemper and Phil was a great reward at the bottom. Just as in previous days, Rishi also crept past during this stop. As with Phil she’d become another rider for a cat and mouse chase over the following days.
With a very early morning start, I decided it was time to start getting the big miles in and try and sneak up on some of those ahead of me I figured would be starting to get injured or tired. 207 miles was ahead of me to Westport which was where I’d spend the night.
The coastline became quite spectacular around this area, the climb from Ballycastle over the moors being my favourite of the whole race. With a slight tailwind now I was flying and flew to Bangor Erris where I found a ton of bikes I’d not seen before outside the Centra store from where I’d scratched from the race in 2017. The orange frame of Jesko Von Werthern’s bike stood out though, I’d been keen to catch and race my good friend since the start and was ecstatic to have caught him up after he’d put in a very strong performance in the first few days of the race.
About 4 riders set off together but we quickly separated before finding one another again at Achill Island. Achill is stunning but with an out and back route it plays a tough mental game with the second of its two route loops being especially hilly. I’d spied a takeaway at Achill Sound on the way onto the island and managed to catch it on the way back for a curry and naan bread which I basically drank from the container. I’d passed Jesko a little while back but he’d pushed through the wind and crept back up in no time, ate quickly and took off with everyone else. We rode a long gravel greenway powered on wine-gums and caught up with Karl Speed. Karl had taken some damage to his wheelset and was riding a bit more cautiously over this section.
The three of us cruised at similar speeds towards checkpoint two, but as darkness fell Jesko put in a strong effort and disappeared into the night just outside Westport. I shared a B&B with Karl and between the two of us I think we ate an entire family sized walnut cake we’d spied on the table. A quick shower as neither of us were smelling particularly fresh and then 2 or 3 hours sleep at most before setting back off again.
After an hour or two riding in the dark and seeing the sunrise, a rather broken me fell through the door into checkpoint two at Connemara. Having the last bits of leftover cake for breakfast I was pretty hungry and quickly locked onto cereals, coffee and toast with enough jam to make me diabetic. I ran into Dave Fortis at breakfast too. I’d not seen Dave since day one and wasn’t quite sure how I’d caught him up, he’d had a bad crash on Achill Island though and like a hero had pushed on with gritted teeth.
The next few miles seemed to take a while but slowly they disappeared, taking in the beautiful “Sky Roads” from Connemara and then taking in peetland all the way to Galway. This section seemed to be pretty fast paced, sneaking up on Vin Cox who also had been riding really well and been ahead of the game from the start. It was another big morale boost finding another face I recognised before pushing up the pace for a sprint into Galway with Karl. Traffic was a little scary for this leg, probably the only time during the race really and although I was pretty tired I managed to keep alert and avoid being squashed by a bus who overtook and then drove me off the road (ironically with a cyclists do not undertake on the left sticker on the back).
Someone who I can only assume was a dot watcher snapped a photo of me on a back road out of Galway and I got a little excited and rode in some big gears along the highway. I knew I was burning calories fast and that there was little chance of catching the last ferry so slowed myself down a bit and took in a couple of petrol station stops to eat some hot food before calling it a night at Ballyvaughan on 164 miles. Phil Wiggins, Dave Fortis, Rishi Fox, two American riders and at least two others seemed to do the same and so an early alarm was set to escape the pack.
At 5:19am the sun was just rising and I broke out my iPod for the first time in the race. Some classic rock tunes had a good beat and had me in the zone and powering up the Cliffs of Moher. From what I remembered they’re pretty gradual climbing up and then just one final steep section so I knew I could pace myself comfortably at the speed I was doing. The 34 tooth cassette I’d brought along made a huge difference in the early days of the ride and as I’d not pushed hard early on I had plenty of power left in my legs.
As I dropped over the top of the pass, I spotted Rishi in the distance on the descent. She was on her drop bars about half way down, I shifted my gearing into the big ring and dropped onto my aero bars for an early morning downhill race for the ferry. Ordinarily I’d have said hello but I knew it was going to be tight to catch the boat. I jumped off my bike in the next village where a grocery store was just opening up, I bagged a hot sandwich and filled my bottles and rode quite hard back up the road, asking a delivery driver if Rishi had passed me yet. I think she must have only been a few minutes behind.
The next 15 or so miles to the ferry were relatively flat but it was still early and I’d not really eaten much yet for how far into my ride I was, I found some leftover wine-gums in my bag and intermittently snacked on those, spotting one of the media vehicles passing me as I came up to the ferry. I said a quick hello to Breifne who drove alongside me and necked the last of my water just catching the ferry as it was about to lift its ramp. Nick Cannon, one of the support team, was onboard to welcome me and another rider who’d missed the previous boat.
Departing the ferry I rode about 4 miles up the road and found a Centra store that was open, I topped up on coffee, strawberry Ribena for my bottles and a family sized trifle as a second breakfast with another sandwich to take away with me. I had a couple of chocolate bars too for snacking on during the climb up Connor Pass later in the day. It was here that I spotted George and Victoria, fighting the Americans for the 1st place in the pairs category. They were both looking super lean but like me I think they were struggling in the heat, they’d wisely found some shade at the side of the road as I passed them. I’d see them on and off during the rest of the race but they’d always be very consistent, both of them really know how to pace themselves properly.
Descending off Connor Pass, the highest paved road in Ireland was a lot of fun, I had a close call when tourists in a hire car decided to stop in the road to take a photo during a near 50mph descent however and was thankful it wasn’t wet as I squeezed past them and a dry stone at about 40mph. I passed through Dingle quite quickly as its usually touristy places like this where time gets eaten up and rode about another mile out of town for a coffee and a sandwich with another rider from Northern Ireland. We chatted for a few minutes and then both pressed onto the Dingle peninsula. With stunning views of the Skellig islands, where Star Wars was shot, it made for a breathtaking wind down to the day as the sun dropped over the 30 mile Dingle loop.
With at least five hours to go until it would technically be day seven, I started riding again at 4:58am. Today would be the Ring of Kerry, one of the toughest sections of the route. Little did I also know that an Atlantic storm, Storm Hector was quickly moving in on the Irish coastline and I was about to take a battering.
The headwinds through the Black Valley and slims such as the Gap of Dunloe and Molls Gap were incredible. I was thrown around the road like a rag doll and the good weather lifted for torrential rain. I found a hardware store where I was able to buy some cheap hiking overtrousers and lend some scissors. I cut off the knees and wore them as waterproof shorts, cursing myself for leaving my fancy Goretex mountain bike shorts at home!
Storm Hector seemed to quieten as I hit Kenmare around 10:30pm , I figured it was only about 400km to the finish from here and I could push through the night if I cleared the next peninsula. I had some pizza slices, another trifle, coffee and for some reason a large chocolate rabbit, and rode into the storm until about 3am. It hadn’t died off and simply got stronger and stronger until I was physically unable to push my bike against the wind. I took shelter in my emergency bivi bag behind a brick wall at a school and sheltered out of the wind for a few hours. I’d ridden 12,000ft of climbing and 195 miles since waking up. The rain had killed my phone and I had no idea if those behind me were still moving or if as I’d hoped , they’d stopped early to shelter from the storm. The wind was roaring and I was pretty scared as even my bike was being blown along the ground as if it was tumbleweed.
When morning broke there was still a lot of wind, but in the sunlight everything seemed a lot less scary. It was 4:35am and I climbed onto my saddle for the last time.
There was now 217 miles between me and the finish line in Kinsale. Since Dublin I’d carried an emergency caffeine gel that was supposed to be for an overnight push to the finish, but with no energy left in my body and completely exhausted from fighting the wind the previous night, I necked it and watched my legs spring back to life slowly. Further ahead there were cows in the road where a fence had blown down. As I reached the end of the next peninsula and doubled back I was surprised to see so many riders behind me who’s faces I’d not seen since the start line. My gamble pushing into the storm had paid off and I’d gained a lot of ground.
A series of headwinds on remote peninsulas took me to lambs head peninsula, spotting faces like Phillipa Battye, Gavin Scott, Karl Speed and Nick Underwood. We’d separate out a few times but mostly this pack was relatively nearby to the finish. Philippa got out in front and Nick, Karl and I took off at a fast pace towards Mizen head, the last of the big climbs on the route. 2nd place finisher Bernd Paul came out to cheer us on in a car on this last section before we broke away for the finish. Gavin crept up fast out of Mizen Head and with Karl, Nick and I, the four of us seemed to ride to our limit aware there was still about 95 miles to go.
This race within a race gained us ground back on Philippa who was just stepping out of a store, I’d been keen to catch up with Phillipa since the start after seeing how strong she was. I dropped onto my aero bars and chased her down. Almost like a crit race, we had our knees down on corners and sprinted up a few small climbs along the coast. I was able to get in front of her just the once before a call of nature allowed her to creep back past me. Having put in a fair bit of distance between us and the guys behind us at the rather ridiculous pace we were doing so far into such a long race, we dropped the pace and chatted for a bit. I figured this would let me recover and who knows I could maybe get back in front on one of the last climbs, the realisation then set in that she’d just stopped for resupply and I still had about 50 miles to go with 500ml of water left.
I’d been careless and she was still thinking sensibly – about half an hour later Gavin passed me on the climb out to Downmacpatrick Castle on the Kinsale headland. I crawled to the top of the final climb and then descended fast hoping I could catch him but with no luck. As I entered Kinsale it was late in the evening and the pubs and bars had folk music blasting and people spilling out of the doors, I was worried this would be where I’d make a mistake and crash and kept myself alert as I hit the final climb, about 100 metres of what must have been 22% to the finish line. I don’t remember what gears I was using but I can only assume there wasn’t many left as I used the last of my energy to ride up the final hill and spill over the finish line.
“Never again!” I think were my first words before someone passed me a beer and a well done handshake from photographer Jim Imber and a handful of other riders and friends like Jack Peterson. I don’t really remember what happened after that but Phillipa told me she gave me a pizza and I fell asleep on the sofa before refusing to go to the bed I’d been allocated, don’t remember any of it!
A brilliantly exciting end to an epic race.
- SPOT Trace satellite tracker x 1
- Garmin 820 x 1
- 10,000mah Pebble cache battery x 1
- Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone x 1
- Exposure Blaze Rear Light x 1
- Supernova E3 Pure front light x 1
- Charging cables x 1
- USB wall plug (UK fitting) x 1
- Sol Escape emergency bivi bag x 1
- OMM half-length sleeping bag x 1
- half-length sleeping mat x 1
- Berghaus down gilet x 1
- Hi vis tabard x 1
- Bib shorts x 1
- SS jersey x 1
- Gilet x 1
- Arm warmers x 1
- Socks x 2
- Shoes x 1
- Helmet x 1
- Sunglasses x 1
- Pump x 1
- Tyre boot x 1
- Tyre levers x 2
- Puncture patches x 1
- Tubes x 2
- KMC chain quick link x 1
- Summer gloves x 1
- Waterproof jacket x 1
- Merino leg warmers x 1
- Wet chain lube x 1
- Multi-tool with chain breaker x 1
- Rag/buff for chain cleaning x 1
- Travel tooth brush x 1
- Travel toothpaste x 1
- Chamois cream 9ml x 8
- Pro Plus x 1
- 2016 Scott Solace Disc frameset (56cm)
- DT Swiss RR511db custom wheelset with SP Dynamo hub (KB Cycles)
- Profile Design T2+ Carbon aero bars
- K-edge alloy Garmin mount
- Shimano disc hydraulic calipers
- 160mm center lock disc rotors
- Hutchinson sector 28mm tubeless tyres
- Shimano 11-34T casette
- Shimano Ultegra medium cage derailleur
- Shimano Ultegra 50/34 crankset
- Shimano SPD MTB pedals
- Syncros race saddle
- Specialized side entry bottle cages
- Tacx 500ml water bottles
- Custom bottle cage height mount (Carlos Mazon)
- Altura prototype compact saddle bag
- Altura prototype top tube bag
- Miss Grape Node frame bag
Since finishing the race I’ve not had an opportunity to look at all the stats, I think I might have been in the top 40 riders, but if not top 50. I shaved a lot of time off my previous attempt in 2016 and I’m really happy with the way I rode the race, holding back at the start saved my knees and achilles as expected to let me have a stronger finish.
This is a race I’d encourage anyone to do, its more a battle of the mind than the body but whether you finish or scratch you’ll take something powerful away from the experience. The sense of community both before during and after the race is fantastic, with riders buying in beers and food for the next finisher and encouraging each other on the course. Blogs such as this are left as lasting advice for the following years roulers and well wishes made for the next race.
After the race finished those who didn’t have to shoot off for flights home or were still on the course ate together and shared stories, Guinness ice cream floats became a “thing” with the 2 tons of ice cream that race winner Bjorn Lenhard left behind for everyone and green cycling caps took over Kinsale for an evening of drinks and barbeque for a finishers party sat directly on the course to cheer on riders like Laura Scott were determined to make the party!
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