While chatting to a contact I know through work the conversation quickly turned to our mutual love of cycling.
We were discussing the various sportives we had ridden and he mentioned Lap the Lough, assuming I had heard of it. I hadn't. As he elaborated, it was immediately an event I was interested in.
Lap the Lough is a not-for-profit sportive that involves cycling 97 miles around Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland, the largest lake in the British Isles.
The 2016 event on 28 August was the 11th 'Lap'. Although the entry process had closed in April, the organisers re-opened registration in July with 'Limited spaces available'. I signed up with four other members of The Rossi, a local cycling group I train with.
The online registration process was quick and easy; the only dilemma was what speed to enter at. The event had a staggered start depending on your average speed. I happily entered at 14-17 mph.
I had a solid spell of training under my belt, and although not specifically training for this event I had been out twice midweek with a long run each Sunday for the month leading up to the event and I had been putting in steady miles all season.
The Lap the Lough was starting at 7.30am in Dungannon, County Tyrone at the Hill of The O'Neill, an historical site overlooking the nine counties of Ulster where the O'Neill Clan used to rule. This was an early start for us, as we were travelling over 40 miles by car to the start line that morning.
Sign-on on the day was straightforward and well organised. You queued next to the first letter of your surname and signed a box beside your name on the list. You were handed a small zip bag containing your number, a wristband to be swapped for food at the end and some energy bars and sweets.
A beautiful sunny day was forecast, and the meteorologists got it right on this occasion. The sun was low in the sky over Lough Neagh in the distance. This high vantage point allowed us to survey landscape and the size of the task ahead became clear.
We decided not to hang about, and as we approached the starting pens the first group (17+ mph) were at the start line. We bravely entered the pen and before we knew it we were off at breakneck speed.
We headed eastwards along the main road to Moy and on to Portadown. I had planned to rest in the week building up to the Lap, but I was invited to cycle with a tour group on the Friday before the event, putting in a tough 40 miles. My legs were like jelly for the first 20 miles, which we covered in an hour flat. I was beginning to wonder if this was a leisure ride or a time trial.
As we turned northwards, riding along the eastern side of the lough, a headwind greeted us. With this leg lasting 35 miles, I was beginning to think we were burning the matches too early.
It was just before 9am and the sun was shining. We were 25 miles in as we reached the southeastern shore of Lough Neagh. The course would take us along the roads adjacent to its shore for the next 60 miles.
As cars came towards us, half the peloton shouted "Car up", the other half yelled "Car down". Debate broke out as to which was correct.
The first feed station was due to be at 32 miles with a lunch stop at 53 miles and the final feed stop at 75 miles. We had agreed beforehand that we would stop at the first stop and for lunch and see how we were going when we came to the third stop.
After 30 miles I spotted bottles of water and a few boxes of bananas on a picnic table outside a pub on the opposite side of the road. I braked suddenly, only for The Rossi to whizz past along with the rest of the peloton.
This wasn't the plan. I thought we were stopping! 53 miles at that speed without a break was too much for me.
As I caught up with the bunch to my relief the actual feed stop was clearly signposted on the left, and it transpired that the feed stop further down the road was for another sportive passing in the other direction.
There was plenty of gels and bananas, a water station to refill your bottle and ample toilet facilities. There was also a bike mechanic on hand tuning up any bike if a rider felt there was a problem.
We didn't stop for long. The large group we were part of until that point had broken up at the feed stop as some chose not to stop and others took the stop at their own speed.
We were now back as a group of five, and for the next 20 miles we zipped along scenic back roads. The sun was out but the firm breeze from the lough was keeping us cool.
We were changing at the front quite regularly due to the headwind, working well together. As I got to the back of the rotation, I realised there were about 10 others in the bunch. We were going along at a decent pace and for this reason I assumed that everyone was a regular cyclist with lots of training done in advance. I spoke with one cyclist and he informed me that this was his third time on a road bike, although I felt better when he said he was from a professional rugby background and did plenty of mountain-biking.
Further along, an elderly gentleman dressed in his Sunday best was sitting on a bench overlooking the lough on this late summer Sunday morning. He had a Sunday paper and a flask with him and I wondered if this was a regular Sunday ritual or was he just out to watch the cyclists plod along.
The lunch stop was after 53 miles at a park in Antrim. We reached the stop at 10.30am, mid-morning for most but a welcome early lunchtime for the cyclists. A large marquee was erected and plastic furniture was dotted around the parkland in the shade of the large tent.
We queued for a portion of vegetable soup in a paper bowl and a bread roll to accompany it. There were also plenty of tray bakes, Cliff Bars, energy gels, crisps, jellies and fruit.
After a stop of about 30 minutes we were now on the westbound leg of our journey, and thankfully out of the headwind.
A number of cyclists had passed us as we regrouped after lunch. I noticed quite a few of them were wearing cycling jerseys with a large picture of a different animal on the back of each one. I assumed they were zoo employees or fundraising for an animal welfare charity, but when I got talking a guy wearing an awful giraffe jersey he informed me that he and a number of friends signed up for the Lap and searched the internet for the most outrageous kit they could find. It was certainly that.
We passed the magnificent Randalstown viaduct, one of the highlights of what was a scenic ride overall. We traversed yet more backroads towards Toome, and swung left onto the southbound and last leg of the route.
My legs were starting to hurt as we kept up the relentless pace. There were no arguments against stopping at the third stop which was at a park and marina right on the shores of the lough.
An ambulance was parked at the stop and plenty of jokes were made as to whom it was here to pick up. Thankfully it was not required!
Prior to the event, the overriding remark from past participants was that it was a flat course, and while I wouldn't say it was exactly flat there was no major climb to this point. But unbeknownst to me the organisers had changed the route this year, adding an additional 10 miles which involved a long drag of a climb back into Dungannon.
To make matters worse the wind changed and we didn't get the anticipated wind at our backs on the final leg.
Dungannon is famous for its chicken processing factory and we passed it after 93 miles, halfway up a 10 mile hill that seemed to last forever. The smell of poultry was nearly enough to make me sick, or maybe it was just the hill!
The final flourish to the finish line was a short, sharp hill over cobbles back to the Hill of The O'Neill.
We finished the 96.7 mile course with a moving time of 5 hours 25 minutes, an average of just under 18 miles per hour.
At the finish line we were presented with a goodie bag. There was a medal (more like a pin attached to a ribbon), an event cloth cap and a set of plastic hand clappers branded with the sponsor's logo.
We parked the bikes and headed for the visitor centre.
Each finisher got a choice of a wrap and a tea or coffee. I opted against the chicken wrap as the smell of poultry from the home straight was still fresh in my mind.
We reflected on a brilliant day while listening to a live brass band. There was a fantastic atmosphere and I caught up with fellow cyclists I knew or had met along the way, swapping stories from the last 97 miles.
In summary, I really enjoyed this event. However, the distance bothered me as I'm sure they could have found 3 miles from somewhere to make it 100 miles!
The Lap of the Lough was well coordinated and the volunteers did a superb job. The food stops were excellent in terms of facilities, food and drink offerings, and the distance between each one was spot on.
The route was well marked, however it seemed that there were only marshals on the first half of the course and you were on your own after the lunch stop. The roads were not closed, adding to the need for adequate marshaling. I feel that they could have taken some marshals from the beginning of the course, where they were at every turn, and placed them at a few of the trickier junctions on the second half of the route.
My final minor criticism is that there didn't seem to be any showers. In the registration pack, we were advised that there would be showers in a nearby leisure centre but no one we asked seemed to know where this was and we headed for home rather than try and find them.
We paid £37 to register for the event but there was an early bird offer for £25 - I feel that this is fair value for what you get, a wonderful day's riding and a great atmosphere at the finish.
Roll on Lap 12 in 2017 - I will definitely be back for seconds.