As usual the last Sunday of August begins with an early start for both cyclists and volunteers. Just like many of the cyclists who were travelling from all parts of the country, as a volunteer I was on the road before the darkness of night had passed into the brightness of dawn.
A fiery red sky looked ominous as I approached Dungarvan, but it was still managing to convey a smattering of blue with the hope of sunshine to follow.
The first of the volunteers arrive at the Sports centre just after 5am and by 6.30am there is a hive of activity going on. As I arrived, cyclists too were now arriving, some looking resplendent in their Sean Kelly Tour jerseys whilst others looked like they would have preferred to be still in their pyjamas.
Bowls of hot Flahavans porridge were being consumed with great vigour as the carbo loading went on.
The Jack and Jill foundation and the Waterford hospice, both fantastic charities, were this years beneficiaries and were well represented with their teams of volunteers.
By 7.30 Eamon Duffy was on duty, creating an electric atmosphere via the PA System, as only Eamon can.
I was now being entertained by the famous Ger Grant regaling tales of past adventures with his brother in law. We also noted that none of this would have been taking place if the seed of cycling greatness had not been planted many years earlier by Ger’s father Dan. The founding member of a cycling club in Carrick that led to the discovery of what was to become the fourth greatest cyclist of all time.
Dan drove the length and breath of the country and beyond ferrying young cyclists from Carrick to races that they would never otherwise have been able to take part in. A favourite proclamation of Dan’s when arriving at a venue far from Carrick would be ‘Right lads, have ye anyone new for us to beat today?’
John Coleman and his photographer son David arrived. John handed me an event radio which was very handy to have during the day.
My time was now being taken up with last minute adjustments, pumping tyres, tuning gears, tightening headsets, diagnosing clicks and removing buckles.
Shortly after 8.30am the 160k Sean Kelly Comeragh Challenge was led off by the great man himself to the cries of U2’s ‘Where the streets have no name’.
Normally I don’t get far past the start line without having a puncture to fix, but this year was different. I made it as far as ‘the pike’ before my services were called upon. A tube was all that was needed and a shot of air from the track pump.
Before Leamybrien a free-hub decided to seize. This could well mean a quick end to a long day but luckily it was repairable. I kept an eye out for the rider and bike for the rest of the day and was happy to get a final glimpse of the KTM just before Kilrossanty where the bike and rider were almost home and still going strong.
A large group from The Tour de Munster were stopped awaiting one of their number in Leamybrien. As I slowed to check that everyone was OK a voice proclaimed that my van wasn’t big enough to fit them all. This group often place themselves towards the rear of the event on the road but are exemplary in how they conduct themselves. A good mixture of men and women form two tight lines and are always aware of traffic on the road. They single out in one long straight line when the road narrows and always look out for each other. They make great ambassadors for their own event in aid of Down Syndrome Ireland each August.
A few more punctures before Carrick but no major mishaps and I pondered how much the quality of bikes on the event has changed over the 8 years. Back then with much smaller numbers taking part we had two vans flat out relaying all the way to Carrick. Now Ray and John from Worldwide Cycles go straight to Carrick in the morning, to carry out any emergency repairs at the first water stop.
Stephen Burns from Sportactive was on board too this year so we were well covered for mechanical mishaps on the 160k. Tony O’Mahoney from O’Mahoney Cycles in Dungarvan and Brian O’Donovan from Kilgrews cycles in Cork cover the 100k whilst Gearoid Fraher of O’Mahoney Cycles and Cormac Sweeney of Cycle Sports in Dungarvan cover the 50k.
Shortly after Carrick the phone began to ring. Just like the weather, the calm had evaporated and the storm had begun. By the time I reached the foodstop in Hillview in Clonmel over 15 people were awaiting with mechanicals. Twice that amount of volunteers are giving up their Sunday morning to feed the cyclists. Almost all of the mechanicals were repairable but for one poor soul whose day was over. Unfortunately, threads sheared on a bottom bracket axle are not a fast roadside fix.
A touch of wheels before Kilmanahan resulted in a broken chain stay for one rider and a few cuts and grazes but there was no serious injury thankfully. A shuttle to the water stop in Ballymacarbery where bike and rider could be ferried directly to Dungarvan followed. Then I turned left for the Nire.
This is usually where the number of cyclists on my part of the course diminish and my admiration for these lone survivors grows. Passing by them on the way towards larger groups up ahead the determination on their faces always argues with their style of riding the bike. Some pedal with their heels, others with their shoulders but to a man and women, I now know that each and every one of them will complete the challenge and make it to the finish.
A few more punctures and a few tyres are all that are needed before the next food stop at Rathgormack. It feels like the entire village has come out to volunteer to feed the cyclists and help them on their way once more.
A couple of more repairs and I am soon on the road once again. The junction with Daruas cross sees another team of volunteers standing in the rain directing traffic and keeping riders safe. This is a feature of almost every junction throughout the event. Without these volunteers, there would be no event.
The wet roads are causing more punctures on the road to Killrossanty. By now the riders are stretching out more and more. On a final sweep back to Mahon Bridge without meeting a rider for 20 minutes I decided to do a sweep up Mahon Falls, just in case. As the Navy Seals say ‘you should never leave a man behind’ and even though Mahon Falls had been closed off, there was a small possibility that a cyclist may have ventured up.
Cresting the summit under the Flahavans flag which was buffeted in the blustery wind I noticed a hi viz jacket down below. Initially I wondered if it were a walker or hiker but as I closed in I could see a number on the Hybrid handlebars.
One determined Cork man was going to finish out this event as he had a demon to slay. Three years ago he crashed out of the 100k. This year he returned with friends to ride the 100k but decided that he was up to the challenge of the 160k. A determination found in the depths of an ordinary soul compelled him to plunge into the bottom of his reserves and not once did he walk or contemplate giving up. This was a man I admired.
Up ahead Ray and John were picking up the remnants of a crash on the Mama descent. This is never good news, especially when a rider is brought to hospital with an injury but I wish him a speedy recovery.
Just after 6pm the Lone Survivor arrived at the finish with a smile on his face, having faced the worst conditions of the day and continuing to forge on ahead alone over nine hours after last seeing Dungarvan.
The event was once again a huge success. Johnny Brunnock, Rosarie Kealy and Karen Phelan put in trojan work throughout the year but especially in the weeks preceding the event itself. The committee meet once a month throughout the year and it really does take twelve months of planning to make it work. Sean Kelly himself plays a huge part, attending and contributing to almost every meeting. His attention to detail is incredible and he never tires in his quest to improve every single aspect of the event.
Every one of the seven hundred volunteers is just as important as the next and as the event committee chairman I want to say that each and every one has earned a huge thank you from the organisers and from the cyclists themselves.
At the end of the day the cyclists create the great atmosphere of the event. So many thank the volunteers at the roadside, and smile and wave. This makes the volunteers feel that their efforts are appreciated.
Every cyclist who took part deserves a huge note of congratulations on completing their individual challenges all in good spirits. Even when the weather dampened the roads the spirits of the cyclists never diminished.
Well done one and all, and roll on 2015