Woman (Man) of Sperrin

Last Wednesday I saw an article on Stickybottle (Irish cycling website); ‘is this new 100km sportive the toughest in Ireland’. As I read through it I became more intrigued, I was like a bright-eyed bunny rabbit gazing at a golden carrot. I had to have a bite of it and just like that I was registered.  

Man of Sperrin the 5 peaks challenge boasts 6,000ft of climbing in 100km, climbs include Benbradagh, The Birren, Slieve Gallion, Ballynagilly and The Brown Knowes. I checked out the gradient map and it looked alright, 5 peaks, nice descents I was looking forward to it.

Saturday afternoon and I must admit I wasn’t looking forward to driving up to Derry. I had found myself a B&B just outside Dungiven. Killunaght House B&B where I received a warm welcome from the hosts Dolores and Sean, it was literally a home away from home and the welcome, tea and chats were just what I needed before hitting the hay. Thankfully I slept well, I was excited and nervous I was doing my first sportive on my own. Dolores looked after me and fed me well so I set up for the morning.

When I got to the Owenbeg GAA centre it started to lash down, thankfully I had all my winter gear (just in case). As cyclists came to register the buzz around the centre started to build, just before 8.50am the MC took to the mic to remind us all the rules of the road.  The rain eased off and bang on 9am 3, 2, 1 we were gone. Not long down the road, I’d say less than 4km in we were cycling up towards a mountain, Benbradagh. In the distance, I could see fluorescent yellow, the colour drew my eye to the road as it curved its way around the mountain, I began to laugh to myself, the road was rising in height like a parallel line. This was no joke, I was approaching a serious climb. I got myself into a rhythm as best I could and made my way up the narrow road, occasionally clocking the gradient percentage on my Garmin, continuously rising. I began to look at my surroundings in more detail, I approached a gate to the left side of the road and stopped to just take it all in, I wasn’t in any rush. The views were stunning and stretched as far as the eye could see. 

Back on the bike the road became steeper and steeper. The fluorescent yellow became more visible, locals were out cheering, goat bells were ringing. Was I in the Alps, no I was ascending a steep stinger of a climb, at this point I had reached 27% gradient of the climb. Two words were going through my mind, which I won’t repeat here. If my body and face could talk, you would know just what those words were. Out of the saddle, in the saddle, cheering, bell ringing, welcomed smiles, encouraging words being shouted out, paparazzi clicking. Next minute I called out, ‘give us an aul push’ and just like that a young lad, did just that. This is when I really felt like I was in the Tour de France. There was no way I was getting off my bike, because if I did I wouldn’t have been able to get back on and there was no way I was walking. Oh God, just let it end and in doing so, it did, one down 4 to go.

The descent down from Benbradagh I was a little worried, a mixture of moss, grass and gravel for a short period, cross winds whirling at my right side, I just must get down here safely I thought. Thankfully it wasn’t too long and I was met with tarmac and the road became one long descent, down into the drop handlebars and I free wheeled down, electrifying. 

Descent down from Benbradagh

The next climb The Birren, wasn’t so bad except for the head wind, pretty much head wind the whole morning. I wasn’t long out of Slieve Gallion before hitting Ballynagilly. This part of Derry is rural, remote in places and at times you feel as if you could be on the set of Heartbeat, a reminder of the Yorkshire Moors.

This was my first time to cycle in Northern Ireland and what I noticed driving into Dungiven and cycling around the Sperrin mountains is that this part of the country is chocolate box cover perfect. Almost like a best kept secret, the landscape is wild, natural, untouched and simply beautiful. At times, you feel a sense of solitude. Lower grounds are filled with livestock and planted around this part of Derry are wind turbines, lots of them. To me as a guest to this part of the country they don’t appear as an eye sore. Cycling on the roads around them they become almost like hypnotic robotics silently working away or maybe the noise was blocked out by the strong head winds.   

The Man of Sperrin is a locally organised event in Derry and any funds left over from making this event go directly into supporting GAA in Derry. It really is a well organised event, for me the marshals stood out, they were on hand at every critical corner and junction to direct cyclists through safely. There were two foods stops on the 5 peaks route, more than enough and at the end a BBQ.

Throughout the day I cycled on and off with different groups, they were all so friendly and many cyclists offered me encouragement and praise. One of those groups were 3 lads from Emyvale Cycling Club. As I had completed the last climb, The Brown Knowes the lads pulled up behind me and said grab on. We motored over the last drag before making our descent down from the climb. A mixture of strong winds, warm air brushed passed me, at times I felt my front wheel sway. Open to the elements we were exposed one last time to the beauty that surrounded us the whole day.

Delighted with myself having completed my first solo sportive I received a finishers medal, got the necessary podium picture, a welcomed leg massage, a cold / hot shower and then I was ready to dig into some grub, who doesn’t love a good meaty burger and locally sourced sausages. 

The lads from Emyvale Cycling Club

Was this Ireland’s toughest 100km sportive?! Rating it against what I’ve done in the past (Wicklow 100, Tour of Inishowen – i60, and Mount Leinster 105km) I would say yes but only because of the savage climb you have at the start, Benbradagh is a beast. You can
expect this sportive to be juicy just like a satsuma.