With the bike industry still booming and the gravel sector continuing to see a huge increase in uptake, we are seeing this reflected at club level, with 300% more gravel bikes in the club than this time last year! Fair enough, this might only mean we’ve gone from 1 to 3, but it’s an increase nonetheless. Great to be supporting the local bike industry too, with 2 of the 3 gravel bikes in the club from NI brand Fustle and the other from UK brand Kinesis. With the increase in uptake, we’ve also witnessed more and more gravel events being organised, but it’s fair to say that none (certainly in NI at least) compare with the Lakelander Gravel Grinder. With 84% of the 100km ‘Big Dog’ route on gravel roads, to make up 1880m of elevation, it was never going to be easy.
The 3 of us travelled down to Belcoo on the Friday evening for event sign-on, staying in an AirBnB a few miles outside the village. We were joined by local cyclist Peter Nedelcev, who cooked some fantastic pasta for us, to set us up for a tough day on Saturday. Richie’s porridge provided additional fuel on the morning of the event, before we cycled the few miles over to the event start. With over 800 cyclists taking to the start line, the mass start was a bit hectic – having taken part last year, I knew the importance of getting a good start on the neutralised section, in order to make good progress on the initial climbs through Ballintempo forest. Thankfully, it went pretty much to plan, with myself and Richie towards the front of the groups.
While extremely challenging, the route really is fantastic. After the initial climbing, the groups continued along some rolling forest ‘roads’ before a short reprieve on tarmac to cross into Boho forest. The reprieve was short lived before starting to climb again – initially tackling a fairly steady gradient before hitting a steeper section to reach the summit of the forest. A sharp descent over some pretty deep gravel was the ‘reward’ for the effort, before returning to Ballintempo forest and continuing to follow the forest roads. While I had packed plenty of food, the rough surface and rolling terrain required a lot of concentration, meaning opportunities to grab a bite of a bar/banana were few and far between, so I was starting to get pretty hungry approaching the first food station of the day. I couldn’t call it a food stop as such, as I don’t think I witnessed anyone getting off their bike – it was simply a case of reaching across to grab what you need, before continuing on.
Tim had been suffering with an injury for most of the year, which unfortunately continued to play up on him during the event, so he made the wise decision to revert to the mongrel route at the food station, to complete approx. 65km. I had made the same decision last year, so was well aware that it certainly didn’t make the event ‘easy.’
Continuing on from the food station, the route followed a longer tarmac section for a while. I used this an opportunity to try to re-gather myself and get some food/water on board, knowing that I was approaching the ‘Navar Ending Climb.’ Aptly named, it’s basically the better part of 5miles of climbing on fire roads, pretty much all of which is in double figures in terms of gradient, certainly reaching 20%+ in places. I was feeling a bit uncomfortable prior to this and the climb really put the nail in the coffin for me. Richie and I reached the food station at Lough Navar at the same time, but while Richie topped up and left in probably 30secs, I had to take a bit of time to stretch out my back before continuing on. Even though it was mostly a descent from here back to the longer tarmac section, I was finding it difficult to pedal. Seeing a ‘damsel in distress’ stuck fixing a puncture at the side of the road, I stopped and helped her for a few minutes, which was enough to take my focus off the pain and I was able to push on again relatively unhindered for the next while.
I came across a mate struggling with a mechanical a few miles further on (gives you an idea of the nature of the event) so stopped with him. Unfortunately, this one didn’t go quite so smoothly, so it took a bit of time to try to sort, before we eventually had to give up and I continued on. The last section, from the final food station (which I didn’t stop at) onwards, was hard work. A few long climbs were using up what was left of my energy and even the ‘easier’ parts seemed to be much harder than they should be. However, once I knew I was in the last 5miles or so, I got a bit of a second wind and began to enjoy myself again – I felt much more relaxed than I had all day and certainly felt like I was riding faster and rolling over the gravel more smoothly.
Crossing the finish line is a great feeling, handing back the GPS tracker and receiving the finishing medal. I was also greeted by Fustle ambassadors Darren Tapp and Tommy Magnenat and even managed to get 15secs of fame on the Fustle facebook page (while my mouth was stuffed with cake).
A short spin back to the community centre, to get some refreshments and catch up with the other competitors, before cycling back to the AirBnB for a shower. Overall, a fantastic event and I’ll definitely be doing it again next year (we already have the accomodation booked)!
Thanks to Tim for organising the accomodation, Peter and Richie for their cooking, Rowan Macmahon and his team for all of their organisation and the volunteers from Mallard Flyers for their marshalling of junctions, manning of food stations, etc.