Lap the Lough is a not-for-profit cyclosportive that involves riding a 96-mile circuit around Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland, the largest lake in the British Isles.
When I rode "Lap 11" in 2016 I was so impressed that I was immediately keen on doing it for a second time.
Although doing a cycle that incorporates a lap of Lough Neagh has been a pilgrimage for most cycling enthusiasts in Northern Ireland for many years, the first official sportive, 'Lap 1', was in 2006.
The 12th Lap took place on 27th August 2017 and I signed up along with 2,499 other cyclists of all ages and abilities.
I joined a cycling club midway through 2016, so 2017 is the year I transitioned from a leisure rider to racer. I've been competing in races and time trials since April and this event was well timed at the end of the racing calendar, with many club cyclists using it as an end-of-season day out.
My legs were well tuned to a fast paced 60 to 90 minutes on the bike but the longer distance was making me nervous. I had completed a century ride four weeks earlier and the lack of longer days in the saddle really took its toll, but I was hoping that those miles would stand to me and that this sportive wouldn't be such a shock to the system.
I drove for an hour to get to the start on the morning of the event so it was an early start for us.
The sportive was scheduled to start at 7.30am in Dungannon, County Tyrone at the Hill of The O'Neill, an historical site with a panoramic view of the province of Ulster where the O'Neill Clan once ruled. Unfortunately, due to the weather conditions, the view was restricted to the damp streets of the town below us.
Sign-on on the day was straightforward, you simply signed beside your name on the sheet and were given the next available number pack which was filled in by the organisers beside your name. This made the process very quick as they didn't have to search through packs to get your number.
The small clear bag contained a number for your helmet, a wristband to be swapped for lunch halfway around and some energy chews.
The weather was grey and overcast with some showers forecast, but this is Ireland and any kind of weather is possible.
As I passed through the start line I realised I had forgotten my glasses in the car; it would be a long day sitting behind wheels on wet roads. Luckily the route went straight past where I parked the car, and after a brief search of my back pockets for a key I was suitably bespectacled for the day ahead and on my way once again.
From the start in Dungannon at the south west of Lough Neagh the route travels easterly adjacent to the southern shore through the town of Moy and into Portadown. I found myself in the middle of a large group and just as the speed would build, a hill would bring the bunch almost to a standstill. The first 20 miles were very stop start as the riders took time to sort out themselves into groups with others who could ride at a similar comfortable pace.
Streams of impatient later starters burst past our group on dangerous bends, some very risky manoeuvres considering they were passing inexperienced cyclists.
After approximately 25 miles we reached the south-eastern shore. The first feed station was not far away after 33 miles at "Gawley's Gate". This stop was more than adequate with toilets, water refills and bananas on offer. There was also mechanical support for those wishing for a tune up. This was a quick stop and I was on the road again. Thankfully the riding was more orderly and our group was riding steadily and we had open road ahead.
The 20 miles from the first feed station to the lunch stop seemed too short in advance, and we quipped that we would only be up and running before we had to stop again. In reality these were technical sections of narrow back roads that were wet and mucky. The road conditions were bad enough but there also seemed to be a tractor around every second corner.
It may have been late August but mudguards wouldn't have gone amiss and as I pulled into the lunch stop at Shanes Castle in Antrim I was caked in muck as thick as the soup I was about to consume.
There were plenty of bins and toilet facilities available, however the bike parking left a lot to be desired: find a section of the limited amount of temporary railing erected to protect the small trees in the park, chance leaning the precious carbon machine against a bin or lay it on the mucky grass. Thankfully I managed to find some railing and keep the bike upright.
The lunch stop was well organised, and we were directed to the back of an orderly queue for a hot bowl of the aforementioned soup and a roll. My hands were full at this point, and walking on a wet surface in cleats proved difficult enough but still cheery volunteers piled an energy bar, a bag of crisps and a wedge of iced sponge cake into my awkwardly folded arms as I passed them and carefully made my way to the seated area outside that was already full of cyclists.
After the brief stop I got going again, cleaning the grass and mud out of my cleats like a Sunday league footballer to avoid a dreaded clip out fail further down the road.
My group reconvened on the road and we pedalled the westbound leg of the journey along the top of the Lough past the historic viaduct in the town of Randallstown before navigating the beautiful web of backroads towards Toome; always looking to the tarmac at a junction for a yellow arrow to show us the way.
The pace had slowed as we stopped and started at each junction and slowly a large group had formed behind us. A strong headwind at the front meant no one stuck their nose in the breeze for long, and the group rotated quickly.
We were now in a group of perhaps 30 riders and someone up ahead lost concentration. Milliseconds after hearing the familiar, dreaded sound of carbon crashing against tarmac I was swerving to avoid a pile-up. Boxed in on the inside I was headed straight for the kerb and my brain was getting ready to engage a bunny-hop; a skill I am terrible at and surely, I thought, would end in disaster.
Luckily for me, a break in the kerb appeared in the form of a perfectly timed driveway and I managed to stay upright. After a brief stop to check if everyone was okay we were assured that there were enough people on the scene to take care of matters and we were encouraged to keep going.
As I was recovering from the shock of what had just happened, I spied the sign for the last feed station at 73 miles up on the left. I felt at that point that I had just enough sustenance to last me to the end. Each stop before had been welcome but it was a cold day and in damp conditions the thought of trying to get started again was enough to put me off stopping at all. I was hoping I wouldn't rue the decision before the end.
The next 20 miles were a series of windy roads that got progressively quieter and the surface worsened with every turn. The countryside was spectacular in this rural quarter of County Tyrone.
The route looped back onto the main road and the lap was complete; there was just the small matter of getting back into Dungannon. This was undoubtedly the toughest part of the day. It is a five-mile uphill drag before the town itself, followed by a short, steep climb over extremely wet and slippery cobbles to cross the finish line.
I finished the 96 mile course with a moving time of just over 5 hours, averaging exactly 19 miles per hour.
I parked the bike (on a proper bike stand this time!) at the finish area and headed to reception at the visitor centre where each finisher was given a medal and an official event cap. There was a brass band playing upbeat songs, and the tables were already half full of riders.
More importantly, or so it seemed at the time, we were fed! There was a choice of wrap with various fillings and a tea or coffee which was ideal as I was starving.
I got talking to some of the group that were involved in the crash and thankfully they reported that the riders had only minor injuries and that all bikes had survived intact.
On reflection, I really enjoyed this sportive. It is obvious why it is so popular as it is a fantastic route. There aren't any big climbs, but that meant applying power to the pedals for the entire day; there was very little freewheeling or opportunity for the legs to recover. It was tougher than some other longer sportives I have done with more climbing.
The parts of the event where you are stopped were well coordinated. The food stops were exactly what is expected for a large scale cycling event such as this in terms of facilities and food on offer.
The route was very well marked out, large arrows at each junction left the rider in little doubt where they had to go.
My only criticism was the lack of marshals on the route. Apart from the start/finish area the route was not well marshalled. The roads were not closed and I felt that several junctions turning from quiet roads onto main roads required a marshal, not to stop the traffic, but to warn the riders of oncoming traffic.
Ultimately though, Lap the Lough offers a great day's cycling and I would advise any sportive rider to give this one a go. It is well worth the trip to Northern Ireland to experience it.
Lap the Lough returns on 26 August 2018 and earlybird registration opens on 1 January. For more details and to sign up visit www.lapthelough.org.