Giants Causeway Coast Sportive

As Larry Gogan would say, They didn’t suit you” as he offers a sympathetic voice to the contestants on the RTE Just A Minute quiz. That could be said for me during the Giants Causeway Coast Sportive. Not just 1, but 3 routes are on offer for any keen cyclist. I opted for the ‘medium’ route, a 136km / 85mile route around the Glens and Coast of Co. Antrim in Northern Ireland. If you’ve never been to this part of the country you’re missing out, there are sights to cherish and behold.

I fell in love with Cushendall and Cushendun during the summer when I took a staycation (a holiday without leaving the island) and headed up to Northern Ireland for a few days. It’s hard not to like a village when the locals you meet are friendly and welcoming. There’s a real community feel in Cushendall and Cushendun has a few hidden gems. The first is a cave beside the beach which features in the Game of Thrones television series, a friendly goat and Torr Head. A 16km narrow road that features 4 sections of steep, pulsating ascents and max gradient reaching over 20%. This road hugs the coastline and you're rewarded with spectacular views across the North Channel.

The Giants Causeway Coast Sportive was in my head for almost a year. The day had arrived and I headed off on my own to do the medium route and I was anxious. I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone so I chose not to go with a group. My head wasn’t in it and safe to say neither was my body, I woke up with lower back and tummy cramps. A gentle rain had begun and the haze was drifting through the sky, the various shades of green in the landscape resembled a Crayola colouring kit. Riding through the Glens of Antrim I was upbeat but a little cautious, I find the wet roads unpredictable.  

The first food station was at 38km/24miles in the village of Cushendall. Just like a kid I went straight for the brightly coloured jellies and then picked up a chicken and stuffing sandwich along with a nice cup of tea. Topped up with some fuel and comfort from the tea I set off. I wasn’t long down the road when I stopped to put on my rain coat, it was coming down hard and heavy and it didn’t let up. Undeterred I kept going! I’m disappointed to say but the rest is a blur, the surface water on the roads distracted me. At 53km I glanced at my Garmin while simultaneously feeling my toes immersed in a small puddle of water. My winter overshoe covers could no longer protect me from the rain. For over 25km I just kept going, couldn’t eat, couldn’t stop, grinding up the road and taking every short descent with such ease as parts of the roads were flooded. By this stage my layers of insulation had no effect. I was wet throughout; my back was aching and I just felt damp. I was losing my love for the outdoors.

As I arrived at the second food station on the Glenarm Estate the sun decided to make an appearance. By this stage I was cold and my teeth were chattering. I just about managed a half a sandwich and two chocolate and toffee squares before deciding to hit the road. The ride along the Coast became refreshing and upbeat, my spirits began to lift as I got with a group of cyclists. The fresh sea air and the white horses crashing against the coast line reminded me of how much I love it up here. A blink of the eye and I was back in Cushendall. I said thanks to the lads I was with and let them off. Thawed out a little, I took the Layde Road to Knockacarry at my leisure, stopping to smell the roses.    

Finally, I’m back in Cushendun at the last food stop. There in black and white I was reminded of the gradient of Torr Head. To date, I’ve done Wicklow Gap, Mount Leinster, Glenmalure and Bendradagh to name a few, but could I do Torr Head now? No, sadly the determination in me evaporated somewhere over the Glens of Antrim. I was a broken woman with over 100km in the legs. I took the easy route and opted for Easy Street. A long drag, bit of a hill in parts but enjoyable despite the roaring head wind. As I came to the crest of the road a deep voice shouted, your shelter has arrived. With that I jumped on and grabbed a much-needed respite from a group of lads from Dromore Cycling Club. We worked together and before long I could see Ballycastle in the distance. At this stage, all I could think about was a hot shower and bed.   

With a little disappointment, I completed my first Giants Causeway Coast Sportive. Hats off, despite the day I had physically and mentally, this one should be on your bucket list. There is something for everyone. The medium route is a tough and hardy course. I would love to have experienced the roads during better weather conditions, especially the descents. The scenery around these parts is breath taking. This event is very well run, well marshalled (easily the biggest fluorescent flags ever), excellent food stops during and post ride and the finishers goodie bag from Chain Reaction Cycles was over flowing with goodies along with a well-deserved finishers medal. Ballycastle is the headquarters for this event and it also hosts an after party which takes place in O’Connor’s pub on the main street. Brilliant craic, super music, great atmosphere and the Guinness is mighty!

The gradient of Torr Head features in the medal

I’ve two regrets; not stopping to take a picture with the marshal who sat in his deck chair on the Altarichard Road and who cheered me on. Massive chapeau to all the marshals on the day. The second regret, for not going with a group from my club. We’ve a golden rule, we always wait at the top of any climb, I wouldn't have been a burden like I thought. I know riding with a group I would have been spurred on to try Torr Head. Every ride is different, some conditions suit you, some don’t but I always feel I learn something. Now more than ever, I'm gunning for Torr Head and I will be back!