Snow, Hail, Wind, Determination and Smiles - Donegal Part 2

Sunday Morning in the Gateway Hotel and all are down for breakfast but the view through the door is miserable and daunting. What to do? The Gap was down for a mass attack but it looked as if Mamore was saying, “Stay away from me.” The enthusiasm shown the previous morning seemed lacking as riders arrived in the foyer in dribs and drabs. Would the North Pole Women show up? Would there be a run? Meanwhile Sean was preparing dozens of bikes to ensure all were safe for the day ahead.

By 9.45 everyone was there including the half dozen women from the North Pole club along with an entourage of men wanting to help. The men had cancelled their own run due to the fact that it was too cold although young Christopher Carter was kitted out and raring to go. Mary Boyd and I put it to the women and the decision was theirs. The consensus came back – We were here to train and train we will even if it is a shorter run – what professionals.

It was down to Carl Fullerton to quickly devise the new route which would see the riders head towards Pinch and the foot of the Gap – the straight side. The King himself, Willie John McLaughlin, arrived to give sound advice about tackling Mamore if the weather was better by the time they got there. It was difficult to persuade Sean McNicholl and Warren Francis to give up their cycle to drive back-up vehicles so that no-one would be stranded. I could have sworn there was a grimace on Mark Lamb’s face instead of a smile when he was told he could cycle as he had driven the previous day!

With additional women signed on and speeches over, all were on the road for 10.00am. Conditions were hard and got steadily harder as the day wore on. However one outstanding aspect of the training run was the good humour on the road and the smiles from all taking part. How anyone could smile through the freezing conditions (about -5) was amazing.

The route was all hilly - are there any flat roads in Donegal? The women battled on climbing really well. The day before seemed to have given those who were more apprehensive about their ability a new sense of confidence and determination and they rode well. Again the back up support was excellent and although a few had to eventually give in and take the broom wagon most struggled on to the foot of the gap.

By this time there were blizzard conditions and discretion being the better part of valour it was agreed that enough was enough. Time to turn back. Anthony and Gillian Mitchell, arrived to do lead car for the group.

As the main group reformed and headed back up the climb, one eejit, whose age should have indicted common sense rode up and on. To shouts of “Come back you idiot, “ Tommy Lamb replied, “I came here to do this and do it I will.” The siren call of Mamore was in his ears and he was lost.

A few minutes later, Matthew Ward came along and saw Lamb ahead. He yelled, “Could you not have pulled that old man off the Cervelo. Now I have to do this climb. When I beat him years ago in a sprint, I swore he would never get the better of me again.” And off he too went.

Following in the car Sean and I wondered how they were going to manage in the driving snow. Then Sean spotted another cyclist further up the climb. Racing on ahead we saw Fullerton, fully kitted and bike at the ready. “If he is doing it, so am I.” were his famous last words.

At the top of the climb Warren Francis and Katherine Woods waited watching the battle unfold. Youth came to the fore and it was Lamb to the slaughter as Ward crossed the finishing line first. Fullerton was blown about so many times in the 50mph gale force winds he decided to walk the last bit.

All were freezing and as Warren and Sean tried to pull on dry gloves for them the rest of us sheltered in the cars. The run back to Buncrana was faster as a tail wind helped. Lamb and Ward rekindled their glory days of 15 years ago and did up and overs for the last 10k with the speed rarely dropping below 40mph. The two riders, who must have been suffering from oxygen deprivation, still had the energy to sprint for the 30’s which Ward took but not without a supreme effort.

Back at the Gateway Willie John acknowledged Lamb as the new King of the Gap. When asked about Ward’s feat he simply replied, “Sure he’s only a young thing and Mamore will beat him someday”.

By one o’clock everyone was dried and feeling human again and it was time to head for lunch. This time it was the very excellent Beach House restaurant. Claire McGowan had set up a private room for us complete with sea views which some of the cheekier members of the group had stolen before I got there. They will get their come uppance some day!

Claire had devised a special menu for the Ulster squad and the food was delicious. We received attentive service from all the staff who could not have been more pleasant and even the two dogs, Oscar and Poppy had a chance to play on the beach afterwards although there were no doggy bags as the food had disappeared as soon as it arrived.

While these stories are light-hearted the weekend was not a social event. Certainly there were lots of opportunities for the women from all over Ulster who attended to meet and exchange contact details, stories and experiences. However the weekend was arranged in as professional a manner as funding would allow and this was reflected in the attitude of the women in attendance. They were on time every day for talks, meetings and runs, with full kit and bikes checked. Some even followed Sean’s advice and tried to clean their bike each day despite the lack of facilities. They did not give into the elements and as most of the pics will show they smiled through it all. Many of the women are relatively new to cycling and as they meet few other are therefore unable to gauge their ability and levels. This weekend showed them that they are as good as or not far off those who have been riding for longer. They learned how others progressed and the goals which they need to set.

I would like to thank all the women who attended the weekend for their dedication and commitment. Like a mother hen I clucked around all weekend until all were home safe so they were probably all fed up with me by the end of it all.

Already Facebook and Cycling Girls on Facebook have been buzzing with offers of accommodation, invitations to sportives and races, and exchanges of contact details. There is a real desire among the women to develop their cycling despite many of the barriers faced by women in sport.

We would like to thank the David McCall Foundation, Cycling Ulster and SportNI for continuing to support participation of women in cycling and allowing us to organise such training. Finally a big thank you to all our support team and to the North Pole club for helping with the logistics of the weekend.