The Mayo XTRM 200, is a 200km gravel/ road audax event, running for the past five years or so, organised by Seamus O’Dowd and Edward Nealon. It includes 16 gravel sectors totalling 79.4km, the longest being a 17km section through Letterkeen, and comprising a mix of overgrown dirt paths, rocky slabs, forest trails, roots, singletrack, mud slides and every kind of fire road. There is also a 100km version of the event, cutting out a large chunk of the earlier sections.
I had entered for the 200km version, after being assured that the 35mm tyres on my Focus Mares CX should be up to the job, however I heeded the multiple puncture warning and put 55psi in the front tyre and 60 in the rear. The remainder of the bike was distinctly roadie in its set up, belying its primary use as a road machine, with a 52/36 chainset and 11-28 cassette.
The start in Ballina is about 45km away from where I live, and I got the idea into my head that I could ride there. That would obviously mean a long day on the bike, so I brought a hip bag packed with food and a second spare tube. Looking out at a very wet morning at 04:45am, and with an even wetter forecast, I stuffed a serious goretex jacket borrowed from my wife up the back of my long sleeve jersey as an emergency bail out, and one giant bowl of porridge later, I was ready to go, late as expected.
I didn’t worry too much, as I thought the event probably wouldn’t start on time, that I could hopefully catch up to the group, and that worst case I would be content to ride it alone.
I was cruising nicely through the misty drizzles, and felt great despite the very early hour, enjoying the wonderful tranquil bliss of the deserted roads of the already light morning. Second only to a committed mindset, I always think eating is the most important thing for endurance events, but I didn’t have much appetite on the way there after my porridge mountain..!
I finally arrived around 07:30, meaning I had missed the 200km group that had left just after 7, but saw a few riders getting ready for the 100km event, whose equipment left me seriously doubting my own choice. Full suspension mountain bikes with dropper posts seemed the order of the day.. Hmm..
I left those shock-equipped riders behind, hoping I wasn’t in for a shock myself, and set off in pursuit of the 200km bunch. I was quite happy to ride the whole day on my own if I never met anyone, but was conscious of a potential for a re-union with an old friend, and a chance to finally meet the man who sold me the bike I was riding that day.. !
The course didn’t waste much time in getting going; after only 2km on the road, the course ventured into the dirt, through a nice forest alongside the Moy Estuary, skirting over roots and hampered by making a wrong turn or two as the GPS was slow to update in the tree cover. Out the other side and with a smile already on my face, the chase continued, along part of the Eurovelo route 1, before joining the main road near Killala.
Making good speed on the road, it wasn’t long before the second gravel sector; starting on a muddy path where for the first time I could see the tyre tracks of my quarry. This varied sector then turned very overgrown, and just as that cleared, I encountered the first rider from the group; a brief chat and onwards I ploughed, now onto an exposed slabby-rocky section that called for a lot of shock absorption, where the full suspension set up would certainly have been faster..! A fast smooth gravelly descent brought me back to the road, and I continued to make good pace.
The next gravel section was where the combustion of the mind really began. A long fireroad drag, going past a quarry, through logging areas, with a full array of differing grades of gravel smoothness, catching a few more riders tailed off from the front group. The grey skies and dense cloud meant the views were limited, but here we were, in the middle of nowhere, on this endless glorious gravel highway: I couldnt wipe the smile off my face- absolute magic !
Again a short ‘road’ interlude – when I say road I mean tiny country paths, more often than not with grass down the middle, and barely wide enough for a couple of cyclists side by side, sparingly tarmaced.. ! I used this opportunity of slightly smoother surfaces to get a couple of bites of the first of my wraps prepared by my amazing far better half ❤ dziękuję bardzo mi amor!!
The gravel tracks seemed endless; I had been expecting the odd kilometer or two long stretch of track here or there, but the gravel just seemed to go forever! Steadily picking my way through 1s and 2s of other riders, asking for information for who was up the road, on the next sector I finally caught up to the man who made me aware of this event at all.. Trevor Costello! No stranger to a challenge, he had already ridden the entire route just two days before, and as we were chatting away, we rode together all the way to the first checkpoint. Here all I needed was a drop of water, and Trevor was stopping a little longer, so I continued my chase.
The drizzle that had been the order of the day so far, finally turned into a deluge that had been threatened; each rain drop a great wet dollop, so despite pushing the pace I finally stopped to put on mi amor’s borrowed thick rain jacket.
A flat, fast and massive puddle labyrinth of gravel was next, before veering back onto the road and pushing the pace a little on a rare stretch of main road, coming past another rider, who told me there were still 4 up ahead. Right, I still hadn’t met the lads I was hoping to meet that day, and I’d had an inkling they might be amongst those driving the front along..!
Finally, as they were regrouping at a stile near the beginning of the longest gravel sector, I reached the front group, just shy of the halfway mark of the event.