Almost 1,000 keen cyclists battled heavy rain to cross the finish line of a gruelling cross-border run between Belfast and Dublin yesterday.
This demanding amateur event, which covers a distance of over 200 miles, saw saddle-sore competitors relieved to make it back to the Queen's Sports Centre -- with most claiming they would do it all again.
For the not so saddle-hardened, shorter races were available to suit riders of all ages and abilities. This year's Maracycle offered the option of hopping on board at Newry, with cycle routes ranging from 40 and 108 miles between Belfast and Dublin.
Competitors set off at 8am on Saturday from Queen's Sports Centre, avoiding busy main roads as far as possible en route to Dublin via Newry. After an overnight stay in Dublin City University it was another early start to make the return journey across the border.
While it was largely fine on Saturday, rainy weather the following day meant several riders fell in slippy conditions as they approached the Belfast finish line.
First across the line was Drew Murray from Killinchy Cycling Club, who was raising money, along with other members of the club, in aid of the Hyperinsulinism Fund charity at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Official winning times will not be available until later today.
The Maracycle event was launched by Co-operation Ireland in 1984 at the height of the Troubles as a means for people to counteract sectarianism and show their support for peace. After three decades it remains a must-do challenge for the cycling community and a badge of honour for all keen bike riders.
Participants are encouraged to raise money for charity, but can take part purely by paying the entrance fee. The aim is to complete the tough journey from one capital to another and back again -- but also to raise money for Co-operation Ireland and charities of the cyclist's own choice.
Former senior police officer and community worker Peter Sheridan is chief executive of Co-operation Ireland. He said one of their major strategies was to engage with young people, and that the cyclists who raised money through their entry and sponsorship were helping to progress that.
"The Maracycle raises funds for young people programmes -- getting young people together from across the country," he said. "We have a national citizenship programme bringing young people from different backgrounds together."
I fought the river Boyne - and I won!
Colin O'Carroll (51) is a journalist with the Belfast Telegraph. He completed his first Maracycle this year and kept a diary of his training for readers.
“To cross the finish line after two days in the saddle gives you a great feeling of accomplishment,” he said. “Which is great because there was not much feeling left in other parts of my anatomy!
“All joking aside the race was a fabulous event. On the way down on Saturday the weather was kind, the wind was not too strong and the rest stops were regular. It was tough going especially around Drogheda and the Boyne valley where there are some serious climbs to test even the fittest legs.”
Colin said the warm welcome from their overnight hosts at Dublin City University also helped ease the pains of the day.
“They laid on a great spread for hundreds of hungry cyclists,” he said. “In the evening everyone got together to talk about the day and a lot of the participants met up with old friends who take part in the event every year.
“Before we knew it it was 7am and time to do it all over again.”
Colin said the weather smiled down on them initially, providing a southerly breeze to blow them home.
“Without that I think I would have struggled to make it,” he said.
“I fought the Battle of the Boyne twice and am pleased to say I emerged victorious on both occasions.
“I was never as glad to see the House of Sport and the finish line as I was yesterday.”
‘I'm going home now for a bath, a beer and a big steak'
Claire Gray (39) is a nurse from the Hillsborough area who took part in the Maracycle alongside brother Alastair Reid. She received welcoming hugs from children Charlie and Stella and niece Anna as she passed the finishing line. Claire, who is raising money for the St Vincent de Paul Society, said: “Just before Drogheda the road was really lumpy. It was tough when you got to Moira but after that there was a wind behind all the way. Our dad did it 10 times before in the late 1990s.”
Alastair Reid (46), Claire's brother, is a paediatrician at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Having competed last year, he said it was nice to have company this time from sister Claire. “Once you start this race, it is hard to stop doing it,” he said. “There was a wee bit of help with the wind behind your back coming up today. Claire and I stuck together and waited for each other. This is the first time we have done the full thing together and it was nice to have a wee bit of support. I would do it again.”
Kieran Fitzsimons (41) is from Downpatrick. In his day job, Kieran works as a security guard. Looking fairly fresh as he made it over the Maracycle finish line yesterday, Kieran said cycling was a relatively new hobby. “I do a bit of running and stuff like that but I did 1,000 miles of training from October to November,” he said. “Halfway on the way back up today it really started to kick in. I stayed overnight at Dublin City University but I woke about 4 o'clock, so I did not really sleep.”
Eamon Dalton (47) works locally in the construction industry. “I did the Maracycle last year and in the 1980s,” he said. “This is my sixth time. I did six hours 17 minutes on the way down and seven hours 14 minutes on the way back up. Coming up it was a bit dangerous with the rain and someone slipped on the road. Some woman broke her arm.” Eamon said his motivation in taking part was personal fitness. “I do this to keep fit,” he said. “The first time it seems really far.”
Chris Grant (53) is an ambulance driver from Gawley's Gate near Lurgan. Chris said he first started doing the Maracycle 25 years ago.
“I am just a 53-year-old eejit,” he joked. “There seems to be an extra 25 miles to cycle for every year you do this. Dublin seems a lot further now! I am going to go home for a bath, a beer and a big steak. This National EMS Memorial Bike Ride jacket I am wearing today is in support of American emergency services workers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.”