Category - Sports

Marathon effort

Swords FF/P Paul McGurrell has added the three RAWULTRA ultramarathons to his list of achievements.

If you’re searching for a figure to inspire a new fitness regime, Paul McGurrell is your man. The last time we spoke was in the summer of 2014, after he had completed the gruelling Marathon des Sable (MdS) – a 254km ultramarathon in the inhospitable environs of the Sahara desert.

Three years later, Paul shows no sign of easing the pace. This time he’s finished the series of three RAWULTRA ultramarathons across Ireland – Varty Lakes 100, Western Way 100 and Wicklow Way 100 – in a calendar year, the first person to complete the grand slam. These are by no means simple events – apart from the fact that each covers 100 miles, the terrain is usually difficult, and as the races begin during the cooler night-time hours, you can easily lose your bearings.

“I was the only one to complete all three. You have a combination of people getting injured, they just couldn’t physically complete [the races], or they have other commitments. It took up the year to a certain extent – you’re just recovering from one and you’re getting ready for the next,” Paul explains. “The first one in Vartry was in April, then the Western Way was July, and the final one – the Wicklow Way – was in December. It was a fair commitment from a training point of view.”

Marathon

Ultramarathons are nothing new for Paul, and so his training regime for the three Irish races was no different than other similar events. Fitness is obviously important, keeping the body fit and strong, and Paul begins winding down the running two weeks before a race, trying to regain weight that will be lost on the day. But a lot of the preparation is psychological – you need to be in the right mindset to get through a tough 100-mile race.

“You’re training your body for so much, but after a certain amount of time in these races your body just reaches [a point], you’re sore. It’s just where your head is at. You just have to suck it up and keep going, battling the fatigue and tiredness and lack of sleep,” Paul says. “The stomach becomes a big issue as well – it’s doubtless that you’ll be vomiting at some stage. You need to keep getting food going in, that’s key. If you don’t keep eating, you’re not going to make it and, as you can imagine, you end up getting sick after a while. It’s about keeping your mind in a good place, staying focused, and keeping the food going in as best as you can.”

So how do the Irish ultramarathons compare to the endurance race in the Sahara? The Marathon des Sable, as Paul explains, is a different beast. The heat and terrain are the key aspects in the MdS, but hydration may be the most important facet. Fail to properly rehydrate or keep your salt levels up and your race will be over before you know it.

Marathon

Race director Don Hannon presenting Paul with the grand slam champion trophy

“In terms of the distance, the 100-milers are tougher,” says Paul. “Psychologically, you have to push through the fatigue. Your mind starts playing tricks on you, it’s a lot more draining. There’s a lot more taken out of you doing the 100s, especially through the mountains. You’re doing a lot of climbing, you’re trying to concentrate on your navigation, you’re running through the night. And obviously the Irish weather is not always nice to us.” Still, when the weather conditions are just right, you’re cocooned in a bubble surrounded by some truly spectacular surroundings. Paul describes the Western Way 100 as “spectacular”, recalling running through the mountains at

Still, when the weather conditions are just right, you’re cocooned in a bubble surrounded by some truly spectacular surroundings. Paul describes the Western Way 100 as “spectacular”, recalling running through the mountains at 4am with a clear sky and a blanket of stars overhead. “From an aesthetic point of view, it was fantastic,” he explains.

Pushing limits

As a sporting endeavour, Paul explains that although the time commitment is considerable, ultramarathons are becoming increasingly popular in Ireland – a few of his colleagues in Swords are among those who have since taken up the challenge. Increasing numbers are also taking part in the annual Dublin City Marathon – last year’s event was the first year an organised group from DFB took part in the race. Paul is no stranger to the Dublin Marathon, and ran it twice in the one day before taking part in the Marathon des Sable. I ask Paul about his motivation – what keeps him inspired to continually push his body and mind to the limits? He considers the answer for a moment.

“It’s just to push yourself. It’s about when your body is completely exhausted and you’re absolutely shattered, and every bit of you just wants to sit down and stop and you just don’t – if you push through that, it’s amazing what you can feel like after it,” he explains. “It’s amazing what you can do with your body if you just have a good attitude towards it and you keep pushing on. It’s the challenges, and it’s [also] the people you meet. There are some great characters who do these races, because they’re all a bit nuts. The bottom line is I love running. It’s my hobby, it’s like my medicine. I’ve got a lot of friends into it, and it’s a nice social thing.”

Transforming lives: Operation Transformation

RTÉ’s Operation Transformation celebrated its tenth anniversary this year, setting another five leaders on the path to a healthier lifestyle. Conor Forrest caught up with S/O Dave Connolly to learn more about Dublin Fire Brigade’s involvement in the show.

Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, RTÉ’s Operation Transformation returned to our screens last January and February, with five new leaders put through their paces through an intensive eight-week programme in a bid to radically change their exercise and eating habits. For the third year running, Dublin Fire Brigade partnered with the show to set the leaders a series of physical and psychological challenges, this time with two firefighters in the form of S/O Dave Connolly and FF/P Stephen Howard, pushing them to their limits each week.

For Dublin Fire Brigade, the show represents an opportunity to showcase the depth of experience within the brigade, alongside the types of incidents they regularly respond to. The bar was set high (literally and figuratively) at the end of the first week: the leaders assembled at La Touche House in Dublin’s docklands, an imposing 100-foot building. Here they had to undertake a psychological challenge, climbing the 100-foot turntable ladder to the roof, followed by a leap of faith – stepping into thin air while suspended in a harness. Other challenges tested the leaders’ willpower and encouraged them to work as a team – ziplining from Tower A to Tower B in the OBI, or dealing with the fallout from a simulated traffic collision while simultaneously fighting a number of fires.

“We were trying to highlight different aspects of what DFB does – we included road traffic collisions, highline rescue work and swiftwater rescue on the beaches,” explains S/O Connolly. At one point the pressure proved too much for Seán Daly, a leader in his twenties, who clashed with S/O Connolly on the drill yard and was (temporarily) given his marching orders. “The exercises were designed to put them under pressure. The logic was, when they left us, the next time they’re put under pressure they can use their [newly developed] coping mechanisms,” he added.

However, S/O Connolly admired the enthusiasm and effort displayed by Seán and the other leaders, who were being pushed to their limits and beyond. “Seán – you could never doubt his effort. Chris, an amputee, he moved better than some of the other leaders, and his attitude and mindset was right,” he says.

Operation Transformation

Dave Connolly and Stephen Howard. Images courtesy RTE.

Looking back

Devising, organising and implementing these challenges is a tough process, one that begins several months before the show begins. However, despite long days of planning and preparation, long hours to produce just a few minutes of TV time, S/O Connolly thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “It’s been fantastic – I get to push boundaries. I’m very passionate about DFB, and to be able to highlight it on a national stage is brilliant. It’s all very challenging, but I love it,” he tells me. “This year I was working with Stephen Howard, a firefighter from D watch Kilbarrack. He’s a qualified physical therapist – that was great when we were warming up the leaders, making sure nobody got injured. He was an absolutely brilliant asset.”

Clearly their hard work was a success – a combination of a healthy eating plan and new-found willpower meant that the leaders collectively lost almost 10 stone during the two months. “By embracing a healthier way of life they have inspired thousands of people around Ireland to transform their lives. Already the leaders have lost a serious amount of weight, but more important is what they’ve gained – a love for exercise and a healthier relationship with food. It would be hard to find five more inspirational people to be the leaders for the tenth series of OT,” said proud host Kathryn Thomas.

The leaders also performed admirably in a final race in the OBI against a team of All-Star leaders from previous series. The head-to-head competition was a tough test featuring an amalgamation of the challenges this series – ziplining from a raised platform; loading from an equipment dump to a DFB jeep; pulling the jeep from one end of the training yard to another; and racing to unload a tender to extinguish a fire. Though the race was close, the current leaders won the day.

“This year’s five leaders were working together as a team for a period of weeks at this stage – they had gelled together and were working very well as a team,” S/O Connolly explains. “But the All-Stars, when you brought them together they were five individuals, and they just hadn’t got that time together to perform at the same level. And the proof was in the pudding.”

Surf rescue

Surf rescue

The Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club is saving lives in the water and on the beaches along Ireland’s west coast. We speak with co-founder Peter Conroy to discover more.

Surfing isn’t just a sport for warm weather water, it’s a global passion. In fact, Ireland’s reputation as a surfing hotspot continues to grow, despite weather that is somewhat different to Australia or California – places like Lahinch, Bundoran and Tramore are all ports of call for surfers from Ireland and beyond. Though undoubtedly exhilarating, surfing can be also a dangerous sport. There’s a very real chance of drowning, of being overcome by waves that are stronger than they appear, of being caught in riptides or washing up on the rocks. However, if you get into difficulty on the west coast of Ireland, chances are you could be rescued by a Dublin Fire Brigade firefighter or one of his colleagues from the Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club.

The club was co-founded by Peter Conroy, a firefighter based in No 3, who joined the brigade in 2004 after completing a Master’s in International Disasters Engineering & Management from Coventry University. Water was always in his blood, growing up as a competitive swimmer and discovering the world of surfing while lifeguarding on the beaches of Clare. During his down-time, Peter would take a board and hit the waves around the Cliffs of Moher, quickly becoming hooked on the sport.

As the years went by he began tackling larger and larger waves, surfing both in summer and winter, and five years ago he was nominated for one of the top five biggest barrels (the hollow part of the wave when it is breaking) surfed in the world, representing Ireland at the XXL awards in LA. “It was the Oscars of surfing, featuring the best in the business,” Peter explains. “I had pictures on my wall of people who were over there, and I was in the same category as them!”

Club members with Coast Guard Rescue 115. Photo: Peter Conroy. Main image: Team members in the sea at the Cliffs of Moher, where some of the most dangerous rescues are carried out. Photo: Clem McInerney

Tow rescue

The Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club was born out of his love of surfing, founded in 2006 after Peter began tow-in surfing – surfers are towed into a breaking wave by a partner on a jet ski in order to catch higher and faster moving swells. Surfing one day beneath the Cliffs of Moher, Peter was trapped and was forced to swim through 20-foot waves to safety as the jet skis were unable to reach him. Relaxing in a pub afterwards, he and his friends realised that they should be able to rescue themselves, and others. A trainer from England was brought in to demonstrate the uses of the jet ski beyond its towing capabilities, and the group realised that the skis could be used for rescue purposes.

“With my degree and my work in the fire brigade, I started to implement more procedures that would allow us to be much safer out there on the water,” he says. “I broke my back a few years ago – we had a ski out there and the sled on the back could be used as a spinal board, so it’s very handy that way.”

From there the club’s reach began to expand, rescuing surfers in distress along the west coast and putting rescue boxes in place at the bottom of cliffs containing medical supplies, a VHF radio, survival suits and other useful items, ensuring that the team could access medical supplies in places unreachable by the skis. The group also began installing defibrillators in local hotels, which benefits both surfers or others in distress in the water or on the beaches, as well as the local community. They also coordinate with other voluntary emergency services like the Coast Guard, working where they cannot go or assisting rescues when required. Regular training exercises are carried out with the Coast Guard in Shannon, though the Club tries to involve the Coast Guard as little as possible, dealing with minor incidents on their own.

“We mainly concentrate on whitewater work, anything from the beach to 300 metres out, that’s our speciality. The Coast Guard isn’t allowed in there anymore – in the summertime there are lifeguards on the beach from 11am to 7am to deal with that area, but once you reach rocks and similar terrain there’s nobody really to cover it,” says Peter. “We’re trying to promote the Club in such a way that the Coast Guard can call on us as a speciality operator to implement rescues. They know we can do it, because they’ve called on us on occasion in the past.”

A training session with the Danish Lifeguard Federation on jet ski familiarisation. Photo: Peter Conroy

Developments

Looking ahead, Peter hopes that the club will continue to grow, welcoming new members alongside vital financial support to fund their operations, equipment and training. The club is now certifying people in Rescue Jetski Operations, a three-day course on Friday evening, Saturday and Sundays that trains competent rescue jet ski operators and swimmers.

“We’re pushing that more, and we’re also doing more with different organisations, like the Coast Guard helicopter,” says Peter. “We were down at the EMS Gathering in Kinsale [this year], working with them to demonstrate that the jet ski and the rescue sled on the back are the only thing that a water rescue needs, because it’s the only thing you can transport a spinal case on without compromising C spine. There is no way of putting a person with a spine injury onto a boat without comprising C spine, and if the helicopter comes they’ll winch with a broken back. We have a sled we can transport them on and bring them back to a harbour while keeping them secure.”

For more information on the rescue club or how to join, search for Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club on Facebook.

Sarahs’ record row

Sarah Good

Dublin Fire Brigade’s Sarah Good and rower Sarah Doyle have set and smashed a world record for tandem rowing this year.

On St. Patrick’s Day 2017, while most of the country was celebrating our national holiday with a pint and a parade, one of Dublin Fire Brigade’s personnel was down in Passage West Rowing Club, Co Cork. Taking turns over the course of the day, Sarah Good (a nine-year veteran working on A watch No 8) and Sarah Doyle (a friend of Sarah’s from outside the world of DFB) managed to set and break an Irish and world record respectively for the 100km tandem row, finishing in an impressive time of 7 hours 29 minutes and 22 seconds. “Another in a long string of ridiculous ideas!” Sarah Good explains with a laugh.

Though it’s quite the achievement, the two Sarahs’ record-breaking effort wasn’t simply a matter of personal pride. As firefighters tend to do, they were raising funds for a very worthy cause (which undoubtedly provided some motivation) – children’s hospice and palliative care provider LauraLynn. As Sarah explains, her fiancé Doug’s nephew passed away several years ago, having received a lot of love and care from the team at LauraLynn. “Obviously the family feel very strongly about the organisation and try to give back as much as possible,” she says. “I try to row in when I can, try and do a bit of fundraising whenever I can. It’s an unbelievable organisation – it’s one of those charities that you don’t have to work very hard fundraising for, because people want to give to it. It’s just extraordinary.”

Training day

Although Sarah is no stranger to rowing machines, her friend Sarah Doyle is the rower, and regularly competes in events around the country. However, despite completing a number of half marathons and marathons, she had never competed in a 100km distance event before. Given that Sarah Good was in the same age group and weight class – and willing to give it a go – team LauraLynn was formed.

“There was about four months of prep,” says Sarah. “I do a lot of other training for other disciplines and sports, and with that your fitness and strength stands to you. It was just about incorporating rowing into my training programme. We have a rower in the station thank God, so I was able to get miles in while I was at work.”

Facing a 100km row might seem like a daunting task (and there’s no doubt that it is), but the key to overcoming the hurdle is by breaking it into small chunks. Both rowers worked in 2km intervals, swapping over roughly every eight minutes while trying not to lose any momentum. “The structure of the event was different than anything I had done before, because we were working as a tandem team. She was going, then I was going – it was a really long event where half of it you were active, and half recovering. It was unusual. The transitions were a bit chaotic, but it was great,” says Sarah. “We had in our head [to finish in] eight hours. I knew fairly soon into it that we would be able to get seven and a half hours, and we really just got that in our head then.”

World rowing record

Record confirmed

The team’s efforts paid off – as the odometer clicked past 100km they had set an Irish and world record in their category, raising almost €1,000 for LauraLynn. “We named the team for the day LauraLynn, so the record will go into LauraLynn’s name – something nice for them to hang on the wall. It was brilliant, really cool,” Sarah explains, while noting they weren’t alone down in Cork. Both of their respective other halves provided support from start to finish. “They were there for the entire time – Doug drove me down, drove me back up from Cork to go to work straight after it, gave us physio on the day and more. The two of them were just brilliant, they were great. It really is a team of four for a two-person event,” Sarah adds.

Now that she’s had a taste of success with oars in hand, does Sarah see herself taking up rowing on top of her other sporting interests? “I would have an interest in doing the odd thing for sure,” she says. “It would be something you’d tip in and out of, try another event, especially as Sarah is involved in it and likes to compete in events as well. It’s something different, it’s good.”

Care and support

LauraLynn provides palliative care and support for children with life-limiting conditions and their families, allowing parents to act as parents rather than full-time carers. Supporting children from birth to age 18 for free, LauraLynn is also piloting a home care programme in Dublin North-East and Dublin Mid Leinster, providing hospice care for children in the comfort of their own homes.

To learn more about LauraLynn or to donate/fundraise, phone 01 289 3151, email [email protected] lauralynn.ie or visit lauralynn.ie.

 

The Italian Job: Part II

Brendan Lodola reflects on a recent cycling trip to Tuscany, a wonderful physical tonic, and an extraordinary outing in the beautiful Tuscan countryside.

Tuscany is one of the heartlands of Italian cycling and, having cycled in Italy for the past few years, an opportunity to share my wonderful experience is precisely what I had in mind when I decided to try gather a group of enthusiastic cyclists from DFB to ride through this beautiful part of the world. The group who came on this trip could be forgiven for thinking that this would be a leisurely spin over rolling hills, dropping into Tuscan village cafés, sipping Italian morning espresso, lazing over lunches in medieval towns and sloshing back one or two glasses of Chianti Classico in the local vineyards. That wasn’t quite my plan!

Little did they know that they would take in the four corners of Tuscany, conquering sections of the eight and ninth stages of the 2016 Giro D’Italia, stepping in and out of the Strada Bianche professional route (which starts and finishes in the medieval town of Siena) and covering part of the terrain of the L’Eroica amateur route over its white gravel roads which starts and ends in the town of Gaiole, not far from our base. With six months of training in Dublin, the Wicklow Mountains and further afield, we were ready for the challenge, or so we thought! These hills are described as rolling, but include climbs of over 20 per cent and long drags that go on for miles with decent gradients. This was going to be four consecutive days of cycling, more than 400 kilometres right in the thick of the hills.

After our journey from Pisa airport it was great to arrive at our base, Norcenni Girasole, warmly greeted by Paulo and his staff. Villa Norcenni, a rustic Tuscan villa and villino, is set in the heart of the Chianti hills with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. We settled into our rooms and headed down to the restaurant where we were greeted by Claudia, Maria and Oanna who would look after us for the five nights. We had been travelling from early that day, so we were hungry and ready for some local Italian cuisine and we were not disappointed – traditional food at its best, washed down with a glass of Chianti Classico.

Siena

The next morning we strolled down for breakfast, the sun taking the edge off the early morning chill. Sitting, discussing the day ahead over coffee, there was a buzz in the air. Everyone was excited with what the day would bring. Our bike supplier Marco was spot on time again to set up everyone with their full carbon road race bikes. We had Jimmy and Domo (the backup support team) ready and waiting with the support car full of food and water – nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for the day’s cycling. We were off! As we left Norcenni we took a left, straight onto a 10km drag, climbing past the small villages of Ponte Agli Stolli and Dudda. We were immersed within the historic olive groves, honey-coloured stone farmhouses and immaculately maintained rows of vines down sloping hills, with dense forests as far as the eye could see. What an opening to a day’s cycling.

We pushed up past our first peak, with Ciaran and Barry biting on the bit, then prepared for our first long descent into Greve! Dave O’Toole wove in and out, changing positions, capturing each rider as they descended down the winding roads at great speeds with the GoPro fixed to his seat post. It promised to be a special piece of footage, hopefully available on YouTube soon. We would get to climb up this 20km descent another day. Greve in Chianti was the finish of the ninth stage of the 2016 Giro D’Italia and we were about to cover a good section of that stage through the towns of Panzano and the fortress town of Castellina in Chianti. This is where we would try to contact our support team while taking a couple of snapshots of Mick and his big Gallo Nero on our way to Siena.

Piazza del Camp, Siena

Eventually we got on our way again with some big climbs towards a region between San Leonino and Topina, which I have to say took my breath away. A classical image of Tuscany rolled into view, with lines of cypress trees standing tall on driveways leading up to hillside estates, small olive groves sitting next to symmetrical lines of vines sloping down the rolling hills towards us, and hilltop houses and towers covered in terracotta tiles with fading hills behind. Did our multicoloured mob of road cyclists know we were, and would be for the next four days, riding through one of the most beautiful parts of the world? With all that in mind we still had 35km of hills to climb before lunch in Siena. Piazza del Campo, the venue for the Palio di Sien, where jockeys ride bareback circles of the piazza on thick layers of dirt, was a welcome restful haven. This magnificent medieval piazza is a focal point for the Italian cool with its narrow cobbled streets and stylish coffee shops surrounding the piazza. After a few tellings off from the locals because we were cycling on the pedestrian streets, we arrived at the Ristorante Alla Speranza. The sun beamed down as we had a few moments to absorb the historic Gothic architecture of the arena.

After much needed sustenance for the homeward stage, and with some tired legs, we gathered our bikes with a little encouragement from the local carabinieri. They didn’t like our 15 bikes propping up the historic pillars! We eventually reached our destination after a bit of assistance from Garmin, through challenging hills and parts of the L’Eroica route. This is a vintage race held every year from the town of Gaiole where cyclists dress up in vintage gear and ride vintage bikes over white gravel and tarmac roads. As we made our way down long descents towards Montevarchi the light was starting to fade, so we pushed it hard on the flat through San Giovani and on home to Norcenni. We covered nearly 140km with an elevation of just under 2,400m, with a lot of tired legs.

 

 

Caprese Michelangelo

Another beautiful day greeted us the next morning as we were about to take on a round trip of 150km to the birthplace of Michelangelo in Caprese Michelangelo. This was to be a route with a few drags and then a steep climb before we reached Caprese. Little did we know how much of an adventure the day was going to be!

We started out from Norcenni and turned right down the 4km descent into Figline Valdarno, the local town, with everyone feeling good after the spin yesterday. With barely 10km completed we came across our first obstacle; a road that finishes on one side of a stream and starts again on the other, without a bridge! And so the slagging began. We crossed the river with bikes over our shoulders and continued our spin on our first taste of the controversial gravel roads. “Do you know where you’re going Lodola?” echoed more than once from the back of the double line of 15 cyclists. “Of course I do, and I didn’t even charge you extra for the gravel,” I replied. You can imagine the response.

A little more concentration was required on the 5km of gravel before we reached a smooth surface again. We continued on and had our first bike casualty. Five of Barry’s spokes failed (nothing to do with all the bunny hopping he was doing) and we had to pull in and call for the backup team who were on the scene in minutes. After they finished their cappuccino of course! With the bike and rider in the support vehicle we began a section of stage eight of the 2016 Giro from Quarata to Anghiari with a little unexpected detour.

After contacting the transport department and arranging to meet them for a pit stop near Chiassa Superiore, we were fuelled up and began to head towards our first taste of a real Strade Bianche road (which I have to say was not in the original plans). I felt an air of disbelief from the group as the Garmin was bleeping for a left turn off the smooth surface. There were a few expletives heard in the background, not mentioning any names, but we pressed on. On such a bright day the white gravel really reflected back at us as we steadily munched our way along its surface. I was hoping that this would just be a few hundred metres and then we’d get back to the smooth stuff. It wasn’t to be. It took a while to adjust to the uncertain feel beneath the tyres. The road started to kick up in the thick of the forest and it became more difficult to control our bikes. “I’m expecting a bear to jump out from the trees and give me a hug,” a concerned Peter White explained.

Tuscany

Our first experience of a Strade Bianche road

This road had concealed sloping edges that could send you slipping off the road into the ditch if you strayed too close to the edge. The tight cambered corners have ridges embedded into their surface from the weight of heavy farm vehicles, which force you to ride wide rather than lose speed and rhythm on the bumpy inside line. This forced you to relax your body using your arms as natural suspension. You also learned to pedal smoothly and stay seated, which was more difficult – standing out of the saddle was not an option as the rear wheel would spin. Anticipating and absorbing any changes in the surface without overreacting or disrupting your tempo was a must or you ended up on your backside.

The only sound to be heard on the car-free road was laboured breathing; we had climbed over 500m in only 8km. We regrouped at the top of the climb with some pretty tired legs and a few looks of disbelief that we actually took that on and got to the top unscathed. Fausto Coppi and his arch-rival Gino Bartali would have been proud of us. They are probably the most famous Italian cyclists who raced in arguably the most famous Giro of them all, the 1949 Giro D’Italia. Tuscany was the home of Bartali, Coppi was from neighbouring Piedmont, and they were fierce rivals. With a few punchy climbs and a couple of steep sections of descent, which were pretty challenging, concentration was a must as we approached Caprese. Not surprisingly Michelangelo was not at home and the town was having a nap, so our lunch stop would be a short one.

Time was not on our side so a steady but determined mindset was needed to set off positively homeward bound, as this would be one of the most challenging sections of the day. Not only were we tired from our morning climbs, but we would encounter some more significant hills. Searching for somewhere to eat on the way home we came across a welcome osteria which could cater for 15 very hungry cyclists. A delicious bowl of pasta ragu freshly made by our host, some local chunky pieces of bread and aqua frizante (sparkling water) was just the tonic to recharge our batteries as we prepared to beat the fading light. With one more pit stop near San Giustino Valdarno, Dave P Byrne and Mick Whelan would get on their way with the transport team to get the other cars.

The final stretch of the day’s ride was about sheer determination and the group pushed hard along the relentless rolling tarmac, but we were forced to succumb to the light and pull into a mountainside town called Loro Ciuffenna and wait for transport. This was certainly a longer, more lively and interesting day’s cycling, where fitness and skill on the bike was very evident. There would be some very tired legs in the morning!

Montefioralle

The weather on our third day was once again sublime. There was a slightly pensive mood over breakfast brought about by our increased awareness of what we were about to let ourselves in for. On paper, this was to be the most difficult of the four days, with a loop of over 125km with nine big climbs and a total elevation of more than 3,500m without too many flat sections. As arranged the day before, Marco arrived at reception with a new wheel to restore our group to full strength. Between one thing and another we were behind time. With a sense of joy because of the fantastic countryside, and apprehension because we knew the terrain, we set off left up the Via di Norcenni, our legs adjusting again to a hard day’s cycle. We had covered this climb on the way to Greve on the first day and we looked forward to the upcoming long descent. In the arched loggias of the main piazza in Greve, while sipping on our espressos and cappuccinos, it was apparent that time would not allow us to get to reach San Gimignano before dark. Disappointed in not being able to see this medieval town, a decision was made to do a much harder but shorter course. Some would do hill repeats into a beautiful little town called Montefioralle, while a few others would, let’s say, have a longer brunch, then head back and practice for the evening tennis match. A likely story!

Tuscany

The Garmin facing off against our transport department’s trusty map

The transport team had already done a recce to the town of Montefioralle and beyond, warning us that even the support vehicle found it hard climbing the hills which led to this town. They weren’t joking – in 32km we climbed 930m. To take a passage from Dino Buzzati’s coverage of the 1949 Giro: “Surely it was a crime, in a sense, to make use of such enchanting scenery for such unrewarding, bestial labour”. I thought there would be a crime committed when we reached the top with the looks I was getting!

Once again vineyards, cypress trees, hilltop villages and villas were regular features of the surrounding countryside, providing a welcome distraction from the relentless hard pedalling! Montefioralle (sometimes claimed to be the birthplace of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci), is a magnificent medieval village with narrow cobbled streets lined with small entrances to traditional shops and restaurants. Aromas of local Tuscan cuisine filled the air as we painfully climbed these great hills, giving us something to look forward to on our way back down later for lunch.

We welcomed the sight of the Taverna del Guerrino where we stopped for some lunch. Sitting on the veranda, we had a few moments to absorb this postcard-perfect part of the Tuscan landscape and enjoyed a well deserved meal of pasta, antipasti, dolci and a small glass of vino. Fuelled up and ready for the 20km climb on the way back that we had come down on the first day, we set off knowing the pool was waiting, not to mention the Dún Laoghaire tennis aces ready to give us a display of their ability. The two professional players were brought in to give the group a tennis demonstration – Domo ‘Statue of Liberty’ Campbell and Mick ‘Good at Corners’ Whelan.

It was obvious from early on that the opposition wasn’t up to much, with Dave ‘Good on the Dance Floor’ Kenyon and Ciaran ‘Shep’ McConnell not returning any serves. It was decided to split the teams up with one professional playing with one of the novices. This livened the game up a bit and drew a small crowd of onlookers. The serves were cutting and the slagging was quick and accurate. It wasn’t long before both teams warmed up and got into the cheating at full match pace. This encouraged the onlooking crowd to join in the banter much to the amusement of any passing onlookers. Eventually, after a couple of fiercely disputed sets, a ceasefire was called with all parties retiring to the bar for some well earned wine tasting.

Tuscany

Overlooking Florence from Fiesole

Fiesole

The final day’s cycling would be all smooth roads, as I knew this route from previous years. We would cycle an 85km loop with a 1,250m elevation gain – flat compared to the previous three days. We were heading north into a town called Fiesole which overlooks the city of Florence. With some tired legs and bodies out there a casual pace would be a welcome relief. But we were in the Chianti hills after all, so there were still hills to climb. “Pull it back half a click” was heard more than once through the group and the ones who didn’t say it were thinking it!

A long downhill brought us to the start of the mayhem of Florentine traffic. Surprisingly we got through without incident, apart from a few expletives from the local drivers. One more long drag would get us to the finishing town of the 2014 world championships, Fiesole. The mystical beauty of Fiesole, less than 10km outside of Florence, encompasses centuries of history and it is amazingly well preserved. Largely unknown by many, this small town hides a wealth of surprises including the green hilltop where Leonardo da Vinci first experimented with the concept of flight, and the Roman amphitheatre that still serves as a stage for the Estate Fiesolana summer events. We were greeted with O Sole Mio by a local while having lunch, and we sang along with our version, Just One Cornetto! The last stretch of the final day’s ride would give us some nervous -15 per cent to -20 per cent descents out of Fiesole, with very tight hairpin turns requiring alł of our concentration. We cycled back for the last time to Norcenni in relative silence with the occasional bit of encouragement shared. There was just one more kilłer 3km climb left up to our base and there was still a lot left in some legs for a token race. The jury is still out on that one!

This was definitely a trip to remember. After what had seemed like torture at times, I think that there was a great sense of achievement. This group covered more than 400km over four days, on very tough terrain, with more than 20 hours in the saddle conquering some of the steepest hills you can find. Pretty heroic I think! So with that in mind I’d like to say that it’s the group that makes the trip, not the trip that makes the group, so well done everyone and thanks a million.

Tuscany

Hard earned refreshments in Siena

On behalf of the group, I’d like to say thanks to Dublin Fire Brigade, Dublin City Council and Dublin Fire Brigade Sports and Social Club for their support. A big thanks to Liz Hanley for organising the fabulous cycling gear, to Mick Whelan and his brother-in-law for their support, and to Jimmy and Domo from the transport dept. Thanks also to CFO Pat Fleming, the Red Torch Restaurant, and everyone at Norcenni Girasole for looking after us so well. Next it was time to have a few well deserved drinks and maybe a twirl or two on the dance floor. Until 2018 then, salute!