Eccentric customs abound on these islands. Whether it's cheese rolling in the Cotswolds or Dorking's annual wife-carrying race, we all have our local quirks and have learned, like the marooned castaways we are, to make our own fun.

Here in Rostrevor, one such quaint tradition is the Slieve Martin Slaughter mountain bike challenge.

Now running for 15 years, the Slaughter is an anthropologist's dream - a modern day equivalent to the reputed Aztec practice of throwing virgins into volcanos as sacrifice to the gods, but with more mountain bikes and fewer virgins (probably).

Dreamed up by the village medicine man, former GP Henry McLaughlin, the Slaughter involves four ascents of Slieve Martin.

At 485m Slieve Martin is a decent sized hill in the Mourne Mountains overlooking Rostrevor, but don't let the modest elevation fool you - its slopes are steep and this is a tough challenge.

The numbers are daunting to a road cyclist: 2200m of climbing condensed into less than 50km?

That's roughly equivalent to a half Marmotte or Etape du Tour, but with the boring flat and downhill bits cut out. Oh, and you won't find more than a few metres of smooth tarmac here either - the terrain ranges from gravel forestry roads at best to wild and boggy open mountain, and plenty more in between.

View to a hill... The Slieve Martin Slaughter is an annual MTB challenge in County Down.
View to a hill... The Slieve Martin Slaughter is an annual MTB challenge in County Down.

The Slaughter is an annual rite of passage for the masochists of Not The Sunday Run, the local MTB crew, and while it's open to all comers Henry has never sought to cloak his "non event" in the merest whiff of formality.

Entry is free, and its timing each year is more or less decided on a random whim based on how fresh Henry's feeling on a given weekend.

You won't find timing chips, feed stops, t-shirts or medals. As he says himself, it's not a sportive, "it's a day out".

Slieve Martin Slaughter XV

The fifteenth edition of the Slaughter took place on October 16th this year, as I discovered after bumping into Henry and his wife Liz on the street a few days earlier.

I made some noncommittal noises about seeing if my bike was in order, but the Slaughter had been on my to do list since I first heard of it last year. I was in.

My MTB cassette had been swapped over to the gravel bike for summer, but a quick bit of fettling and I soon had my mountain bike (a full-suspension Bianchi Methanol) more or less ready for action. As for my own readiness, that would be filed under "to be determined".

Saturday rolled around and I rolled out of bed late for the 9am start. Half a breakfast and I raced out the door. The advantage of a local event is that the start was just three minutes ride away at the forestry hut handily located at the entrance to the wooded mountainside.

I arrived at the hut about five minutes late. There was no sign of anyone although the car park was packed with cars. I knew this first part of the route so set off up the first climb in pursuit.

Passing through a gap in the fence I noticed what looked like an autumnal advent wreath with an incense burner - I just had time to read "Sisters by the Sea..." on a small placard as I rolled through. Another local cult hosting their ceremonies today?

The first section of the Slaughter was the only of the four ascents that I'd ridden before and knew well. After an initial climb through oak forest it skirts the lower slopes of the mountain almost out to Killowen, 3km to the south east, dropping through a section of boggy, whin-festooned sheep pasture. Here the proper climb begins, with a couple of short but punishing 25% ramps through Ballyedmond woods before passing through a gate onto the open hillside for a long, draggy ascent on a rocky but eminently rideable track.

It was on the first of those steep ramps that I caught up with the tail end of the Slaughter. I slowly reeled in the two back markers as they stopped to wait and catch breath. The rest of the gang, it turned out, were just around the corner at the gate.

One of the nice things about the Slaughter is that unlike a race, or even a sportive, the riders regroup at regular intervals with Henry and his trusty lieutenants Liz and Cormac ensuring no one gets left behind. Or to put a more sinister interpretation on it, to make sure no one escapes!

Riders pause to regroup on the first ascent of the Slieve Martin Slaughter.
Riders pause to regroup on the first ascent of the Slieve Martin Slaughter.

We set off en masse up the winding track known as Sally's Yard. On a clear day the views across the lough here are fantastic. Today, the mist reduced visibility to a few hundred feet and we climbed in a mist-wreathed tunnel of companionable chat and heavy breathing.

Listening in to the pair just ahead of me, I realised they were talking about the previous weekend's Lakelander Gravel Grinder challenge. The Lakelander could be described as the Irish version of the Dirty Reiver - one of the new breed of gravel rides, in this case with a choice of tough 100km or 50km routes through the hilly lakelands of Fermanagh in north west Ulster.

It turned out the rider ahead was none other than Rowan McMahon of Primal Challenges, the event director. We chatted for a few minutes as we climbed, about the success of what is still a relatively new event (2021 was the third edition). There are moves to establish a UCI-endorsed gravel series, Rowan noted, but would that be a good fit for the Lakelander?

The chat was a welcome distraction from the climb, which took about 30 minutes winding up the hillside on a loose grassy gravel track. At last we emerged by the mast near the summit. Here bikes were downed, and our peloton took to their feet for the final scramble over a stile and across the springy turf to the cairn that marks the summit of Slieve Martin.

We gathered around the cairn for a photo - tradition dictates that each summiting is marked with photographic evidence - and then teetered back over the wall to our waiting bikes. One hour in, first climb done!

Riders down bikes to hike the last few metres to the summit.
Riders down bikes to hike the last few metres to the summit.
View from the Cairn at the summit of Slieve Martin.
View from the Cairn at the summit of Slieve Martin.

What goes up must come down...

Now for the tricky part...getting back down again.

As tough as the climbs are on the Slieve Martin Slaughter, for me the fear lay in the descents. I have the descending skills of a newborn calf on roller skates, and years of road riding on relatively tame gradients and predictable surfaces have done nothing to prepare me for the insanity of mountain bike descents.

Sure enough, two minutes into the descent off the mountain I found myself sprawled over in the turf when I lost the front wheel in a hummock of wiry grass.

Taking the optimistic view, you couldn't hope for a softer landing. I was also grateful for the reactions of the rider behind, who managed to brake to a stop with a good two inches to spare before running over my head.

Now, where was the route again? We were looking over open hillside towards a wood, with no apparent track in sight. A couple of riders plunged onwards through the bog and skirted the boundary of the wood looking for the gap in the wall to enter.

I followed after, tentatively picking a path down and crossed the stream into the woods. Here the trail back to the start point was a fast, well-made gravel fire road and we flew down.

Back at event HQ, aka the forestry hut, the group reassembled and took a quick break for drinks and food before beginning the second ascent. Another great thing about this event - although there are no formal feed stations, several riders had brought along trays of bakes and drinks and offered them around. Special shout out to Niko, who was passing around some amazing treats created by his neighbour, aka Skinny Bakes of Kilkeel.

I also enjoyed the chance to put a face to a few names previously only known from the top of Strava leaderboards - Peter Nedelcev and Chris Bloomer being two of the more prolific. Chris was fresh off the ferry from a week's touring in Scotland, the man must be half bicycle by now if Flann O'Brien's atomic theory is correct.

Take two

Not too much time for chat though, Henry runs a tight ship and was soon flogging us on to the second ascent. We rolled off again into the oakwood, this time taking the left fork up to Fiddlers Green and then doubling back. This route offers a couple of short breathers, but you pay for it with a ridiculously steep section after the viewpoint towards the top.

It was too much for me, not helped by my bike refusing to shift into the 45T bottom gear (a failure in my inept last-minute fettling). But the trail was so steep that I was walking at almost the same speed at those troopers still in the saddle, and we emerged at the Cloughmor Stone still closely grouped.

The viewpoint offers a brief respite between 30% gradients.
The viewpoint offers a brief respite between 30% gradients.
Sisters of the Sea with thought for the day at Cloughmor.
Sisters of the Sea with thought for the day at Cloughmor.

This local landmark - known as Cloughmor or the Big Stone - is the finishing point of many a walk, but it's not the summit and we had more work to do.

Now, there is a perfectly good purpose-built mountain biking trail that leads almost to the top via a series of gently graded switchbacks, but Henry eschews such newfangled luxury: instead we followed a much steeper walking path, and once again I had to walk a good amount of it.

We skipped over a wall and zig-zagged up the grassy crown to the summit. The gradient here proved the downfall of one of our group, or at least for his chain which exploded under the torque as he winched up the incline.

At the cairn we assembled for another photo, two fingers gleefully directed at Henry (possible ambiguity as to the meaning of said gesture at this point). Two hours 40 minutes on the clock, halfway there...on paper at least.

Ah...the descent. True to form, the Slaughter found a way down the hill that was actually worse than the climb. A nice little grassy descent was followed by a short climb to the summit of Slievemeen (525m).

So far so good, but from here the route plummeted off the side of a cliff, almost literally. This part of the mountain is known locally as "the end of the world" and with sections tipping 40% I decided that even with Cormac's kind tips, it was strictly not for roadies.

"Most of us at least own a road bike too," he laughed by way of sympathy, disappearing downhill faster than a runaway wheel of cheese.

At least the walk gave me a chance to appreciate the spectacular views.

MTB cred in tatters but limbs intact, I was relieved to be back on the gravel path and soon coasting back down to the forestry hut HQ.

The edge of the world. Too steep for roadies.
The edge of the world. Too steep for roadies.


By now we'd done just 24km but already stacked up about 1000m of climbing. Legs were starting to feel it.

I popped down to my parents' house to refill my water bottle and returned with a handful of small, tart black grapes from the vine in their front yard. Some of the guys politely accepted a sample - a sign of the lows we'd sunk to when a handful of mystery berries from a stranger seems a reasonable snack.

The third climb is a steady ascent for 3km, followed by a little respite as the route skirts around the back of the mountain along the same way we'd come on the first descent. So we crossed the stream again, and set off up the grassy, boggy hillside where I'd come a cropper on the way down.

The way up was, typically, only slightly slower for me and we passed some stolid shaggy cows to regroup at the mast. At this point there were the first rebellious murmurings - "We're at the mast; do we really need to go to the cairn?"

But Henry is nothing if not a respecter of tradition, and so we dutifully trudged the extra yards.

If I'd thought the second descent was hair-raising, it barely prepared me for part three. Again it started off pleasantly enough, ripping along on a wide grassy path with sweeping views out across the sea. But once again things (de)escalated fast, and soon I was hauling on the brakes as the mountainside seemed to disappear beneath us.

Scooting along using my bike as a crutch, it was a far from dignified descent and at the bottom I discovered Henry, Chris and a couple of the guys waiting - not for me, but for Cormac. Where had he got to?

A seasoned veteran of these hills, Cormac knew the route well so an accident or puncture was suspected. After a few failed attempts to get through to his phone, Peter heroically set off back up the cliff face we'd just descended on a search and rescue mission.

Henry, Chris and myself forged through a narrow trail through chest-high ferns - the aptly named Fern Gulley.

There they go again...
There they go again...
Somewhere down there is fern gulley.
Somewhere down there is fern gulley.

Foliage pulling and snagging on the bars, we traversed the hillside and emerged at the gate we'd passed through on the first climb - Sally's Yard. The route back from there was far from easy, with a gradually steepening climb up a narrow sheep path before hopping the wall to the relative luxury of the Burma road and a rapid gravel descent back to base camp.

There we discovered Cormac safe and well, a puncture the cause of his delay. I had a slow flat in my back tyre too, but managed to get it pumped up to a serviceable pressure.

FOUR - one more for luck

At this point with just one climb to go, the end was in sight and spirits were high even if energy levels were low.

We'd lost one or two riders along the way - Rowan was summoned home on family duties - but a head count revealed some 19 riders still standing. A new record?

And so to the final ascent: this one was the killer, featuring The Switchbacks - a section so steep and gnarly that even the seasoned crew from Not The Sunday Run couldn't be assured a clean run.

Before that though, there's a fairly steady climb on a wide gravel track. We cranked up en masse, and not for the first time that day I marvelled as Liz, Henry's wife, chatted easily as the rest of us laboured and wheezed alongside. She is a formidably strong rider, no doubt about it. With training rides like these on her doorstep it's no surprise!

Enjoying a brief bit of flat before hitting the switchbacks.
Enjoying a brief bit of flat before hitting the switchbacks.

And then we hit the switchbacks.

Conversation soon ground to a halt as almost everyone dismounted. The greasy conditions allied with 1800m of climbing in the legs meant few if any were fit for the ramps today - Strava measures gradients touching 48%, but aside from being insanely steep the switchbacks are a technical challenge too, with off camber roots and loose rocks simply too much for tired legs and minds to negotiate.

After some 700m of trudging in grim silence up the wooded trail, we emerged on to the mountainside for the final push to the cairn. I say push - I wheeled my bike up most of the way, but a couple of riders did manage to find a rideable route and valiantly pressed on for the top.

At the summit, there was a triumphant photo and then the architect of it all, Henry, sauntered over with a glint in his eye. "How was it?" he enquired cheerfully.

"You're an evil man..." is all I could muster in reply.


The fourth ascent is the end of the ride (although one or two did enquire cheekily about the prospect of hot showers back at Henry's). After three buttock clenching descents I was only too happy to make a beeline for the easiest way down the mountain.

Mission complete! Heading downhill after the fourth and final ascent.
Mission complete! Heading downhill after the fourth and final ascent.

With a total time of just under 7 hours (5 hours ride time) the Slieve Martin Slaughter is indeed as Henry says, "a day out" - but beware the lack of adjectives in that description.

You'll think of plenty, both for the ride and its evil mastermind, before the day is out.

Nowhere to hide on the Slieve Martin Slaughter.
Nowhere to hide on the Slieve Martin Slaughter.

A week or two later, the aches have subsided; just the, err, glory - and flashbacks of a couple of those descents - remains.

With a challenging, varied route amid spectacular scenery and great company, Henry and his crew are onto a winner here. The relaxed nature of the ride is a big part of its appeal - no one gets left behind, it really has the feel of a friendly group ride, and while plenty of the regulars are more than capable of throwing down a blistering time that's not the aim on the Slaughter.

All told, easily one of the highlights of my cycling year. Not bad, for a "non-event"... but I wonder could we persuade Henry to look into a less painful tradition.

Cheese rolling next year, anyone?