The Wild Atlantic Way runs down the wind-harried western coast of Ireland and plays host once a year to the TransAtlantic Way race. Rich Marshall photographed the 2018 edition.
Mirroring the fine line between suffering and joy, the narrow road winds relentlessly across mountain passes, through small villages and past battered sea cliffs. Aptly named the Wild Atlantic Way, the route plays host to Ireland’s TransAtlantic Way (TAW) race, a 2,500 km single-stage road race from Dublin to Kinsale, outside Cork.
Over 160 riders took on the challenge this June. Following the tradition of Trans Am and Transcontinental races, the TransAtlantic Way is a completely unsupported bikepacking adventure. From the start, the clock never stops ticking. Everything now requires efficiency.
Months in advance riders agonize over route plotting, equipment choices and bike set-ups, decisions of equal importance to fitness training. While some riders plan their stops to include a few hours’ sleep in a B&B, others ride on into the night, clocking up as many miles as they can before sleeping the next day. Bus shelters, barns and petrol stations all offer immediate shelter. Björn Lenhard, a veteran of ultra races, explains how sleeping away from the comfort of a hotel room enforces urgency, “You wake up cold outside, so you really have to hurry up and get on the bike.” He spent his last night of the 2018 race sleeping in a large concrete pipe.
As physical strength, effective planning and fate play their part, the riders string out along the route and tales from the road are shared during impromptu meetings.
“I was lying in my bivvy bag on the toilet floor of a rugby club. It wasn’t comfortable, so I gathered my kit and wheeled my bike outside onto the beach. I wrapped up like a cocoon, my face covered to avoid the flies. Exhaustion gave way to valuable sleep until I suddenly felt nudges in the ribs. I was being jumped on! Quickly I unzipped the cover – a wet dog was an unwelcome alarm,” remembers John Love.
Storm Hector threw a dramatic curveball into the centre of what was a hot and dry race. Riders were forced to take shelter or battle on into the darkness. Laura Scott experienced head winds so strong she was forced to push the bike uphill, her worn out cleats providing so little grip she opted to struggle on in bare feet. Meanwhile, Jason Woodhouse, after 310 kilometres that day, took cover behind a brick wall in his emergency bivvy bag, “The wind was roaring and I was pretty scared as even my bike was being blown along the ground as if it was tumbleweed.”
Trackers attached to every rider’s bike ensure their location is visible as a dot on an online map. The fans of this strange discipline are called ‘Dotwatchers’. They follow the race from afar, but as rider George Bennett (no, not that one) explains:
“There’s always someone catching you up or getting away from you. Every time I stopped I kept looking at the app on my phone. It can play havoc with your mental state. ‘I saw you yesterday. You looked dead! Now I see you're riding through the night!’”
In stark contrast to the harsher elements is the warmth of the Irish people. Often, upon meeting riders as they enter villages, friendly locals offer free accommodation and food. Riders call them ‘road angels’.
Despite the sleep deprivation, storms and saddle sores, the TransAtlantic Way rewards riders with an unforgettable experience. Chris Jackson poignantly reflects back on the race.
“Many people may struggle to understand the appeal of racing such a distance. For me the attraction of an event like the TAW is the opportunity to totally explore my limits and fully commit to a single thing without the many distractions and compromises of normal daily life. It feels kind of primal, like being in survival mode.
“At the close of day five, when my neck was starting to give out, I knew I had to take a long break and nurse it to the finish or face having to scratch from the race again as I did in 2017. Priority number one for this year was to finish the race. I’d achieved my initial goal of making it to the ferry on day four. Now my priorities had to shift. I could so easily feel down, frustrated and angry, or I could reframe the situation. There were many positives to be taken from slowing down. Now I’d be forced to have more days to enjoy the event. I was still in beautiful Ireland and I was still going to finish.”
This year, Björn Lenhard successfully defended his 2017 title in five days, three hours and 38 minutes. Unclipping from his bike for the last time, he simply said, “I’m done.” Karen Tostee won the women’s race, crossing the line in tenth place overall after six days, six hours and 22 minutes. Americans Matt Roy and Bradford Smith won the pairs competition in seven days, 15 hours and 42 minutes.
With the stunning changes in scenery, the unpredictable weather and the kindness of strangers, the TransAtlantic Way is much more than a race.