Friday 23 August 2019

There's a mountain to climb for this club

This Saturday, eighteen members of Dundrum-based Orwell Wheelers cycling club face the challenge of a lifetime in the French alps.

We'll get by with a little 'alp' from our friends: The Dundrum-based Orwell Wheelers Club. left to right: Louise Keane, Sinead Kennedy, Gerard Coffey, Gerry O'Connor, Rodney Phelan, Derek Handley, David Hendron, Aga Niemiec, Garret Connolly and Barry O'Donnell. Photo: El Keegan
We'll get by with a little 'alp' from our friends: The Dundrum-based Orwell Wheelers Club. left to right: Louise Keane, Sinead Kennedy, Gerard Coffey, Gerry O'Connor, Rodney Phelan, Derek Handley, David Hendron, Aga Niemiec, Garret Connolly and Barry O'Donnell. Photo: El Keegan
Louise Keane of the Orwell Wheelers Cycling Club. Photo: El Keegan
Gerry O'Connor of the Orwell Wheelers Cycling Club
Tom Weymes of the Orwell Wheelers Cycling Club

Fiona McBennett

Eighteen members of the Dundrum based Orwell Wheelers Club are jetting off to France on July 5, not for a relaxed cycle to a vineyard but to tackle a distance of 174km and a climb of 5,180m, as they take part in a race that is anything but leisurely – La Marmotte.

La Marmotte is the pinnacle race for many dedicated amateur cyclists around the world and is famous for its several Tour de France mountains, including the legendary Alp d'Huez. It isconsidered one of the toughest races on the cycling calendar.

High altitude, intense heat and extreme climbs are not enough to deter the thousands who take part in the annual one-day race that has been taking place since 1982, and this year, 7,000 cyclists have signed up take part.

"We started talking about the race last October," says Sinéad Kennedy, a cyclist on the team. "Then emails went around in December to see who was actually serious about it."

Sinéad and the others attempting the race are part of a Saturday cycling group, aptly named 'It's not a Race'. They take to the roads most weekends and always make time to stop for a chat over coffee and cake.

However, with the race on the horizon, the group have recently had to up their game. "We would have always cycled very long distances but over the past few months we have really pushed ourselves," she says.

The group hired a coach and have been training in all weathers which, during the harsh winter, made for some less than pleasant cycles.

"January and February were awful months to train in," says Sinéad.

"We had gale force winds and heavy rain to battle against and one time, we just had to call it a day as we were being blown across the road on our bikes."

To their credit, the group stuck it out and now feel prepared for the big day. However, there are some aspects of the race that they haven't been able to train for. "We are definitely concerned about sunburn and dehydration in the heat," says Sinéad. "You just can't prepare for those things here in Ireland."

Tom Weymes is in his seventies and is the oldest member of the group. Far from struggling, his training has been going well. "Being the oldest in the group is definitely a conversation point," he laughs.

"I did a lot of hill walking throughout my life and that has kept me in good nick. I only started serious cycling with the group about three or four years ago.

"The most important things are to have good cardiovascular health and to be free of injury which, thankfully, I have been."

Tom, like the rest of the group, is very humble about his level of fitness and is keen to emphasise he is doing the half version of the race.

Officially named "La Mi-Marmotte" this slightly shorter race still covers a staggering distance of 76k and two enormous climbs.

"To be honest I'm a bit of a messer really and not your serious fitness fanatic," he says. "I'll just be glad to be able to say that I did it."

With the team being out on their bikes so much, the risk of an accident occurring is inevitably increased and, for Louise Keane, a pleasant training session in the sun ended in near-disaster.

"The sun was shining, I was in my shorts, everything was wonderful; then a car pulled out in front of me at a roundabout without seeing me," she explains.

"Luckily I saw what was about to happen before they hit me, so I was able to turn my bike a bit and protect myself as best I could. It could have been a lot worse."

Apart from a few scrapes and bruises, Louise was unharmed, however, the incident left her apprehensive about getting back out on her bike.

"That's when the team were really great," she says.

"They all told me to get back on my bike again as soon as I could and within a few days I was out doing gentle cycles."

Louise says that she is more safety conscious now after what happened. "I have only been back to where it happened twice since, whereas before I would have been out that way a lot.

"I'd been cycling for years in London and in Dublin without ever having an incident; it definitely makes you more wary of traffic when it does happen."

Of course, a setback is a big worry for any athlete taking part in such a demanding training schedule but Louise is happy that the accident hasn't affected her as much as she had feared.

"There were definitely some weeks where I should have been doing longer, harder cycles and I couldn't," she admits.

"Now, although I still feel a few niggles in my lower back, I am back on track again and excited about the race, as it's my first time to do it."

Gerry O'Connor wasn't so lucky, as he ended up being off his bike for almost three weeks due to a knee injury he sustained due to the intensity of the training.

"Training was going good up until about March, when I suffered a muscle imbalance.

"I had a problem with my kneecap, which meant it was difficult for me to even walk down the stairs."

Gerry had no choice but to stop cycling for a few weeks, to allow the injury to heal.

"When he did initially get back on his bike, he was limited to shorter distances.

"I could only cycle for about an hour at a time," he says. "I had lots of physio and did exercises to help correct the imbalance. I'm back on the bike about five weeks now."

With so much time away from his strict training regime, Gerry was worried the injury had quashed his dreams of taking part in La Marmotte, but his good performance in a recent race has restored his confidence.

"I recently did the Mick Byrne 200 after not doing a long distance on the bike for a while. It went well and I'm now feeling good about La Marmotte again."

Gerry says his injury has made him change his perspective on the race. "Before I was injured, I was aiming for a silver medal but now I'll just be happy to have completed it."

While cycling as a team has multiple benefits, there can be drawbacks.

"Being part of the group has been great, as we have all encouraged each other and there have been emails back and forth between us, but it can get a bit competitive at times and it's easy to get caught up in it. For the most part, it's been very motivating," says Sinéad.

To make sure that there is no pressure on the day, the team have a plan that will allow everyone to go at the their own pace.

"We will all start together but we have agreed that it's our own race, so there will be no pressure to be waiting on each other or to try and keep up with people.

"There are so many doing the cycle that nobody will be alone."

One of the biggest challenges facing the cyclists on the day is the final ascent to the finish line on the iconic Alp d'Heuz, which operates as a ski resort for most of the year.

"There are 21 hairpin bends in the gruelling lead up to the top and the descent, due to its steepness, will also be a test of nerves.

"I'm bringing spare brake pads," Sinéad laughs.

"I know there will be tears going up that final bit but it will definitely be scary coming down too."

A big party has been organised to celebrate after the race but the group are not sure how much energy they will have left to paint the town red. "There is a party planned for the night of the race but we will probably be too wrecked.

"We have arranged to go for a meal together the night after the race so we can celebrate when we are bit more rested," says Sinéad.

The team have a simple request once they complete the race. "All we will want when we are done is a medal, a beer and our beds," says Sinéad.

After what each of the cyclists will have achieved, it will certainly be well deserved.

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