Any Hozier fans in the house?
The Wicklow-born singer introduces one of his songs with the observation, "Usually the only time you hear about the Wicklow Hills is before or after the words 'A body has been found...'"
That's the thing about beauty spots, they attract people for all manner of reasons - and early each June, some three thousand bodies can be found in the Wicklow Mountains, straining in close-fitting lycra, as Ireland's cyclists gather to test themselves against the picturesque climbs of the Wicklow 200.
Billed as Ireland's premier cycling challenge, the Wicklow 200 has been running since the early 1980s. This year saw a new route, and a few bonus miles to boot as the organisers tacked an inflation-matching 8km onto what was already shaping to be my longest ride in over a year.
It had been a long time since my last road sportive but the Wicklow 200 is a must for any Irish cyclist: a classic hill-fest that takes in a trio of iconic climbs.
Two courses are available, with a shorter 100km offered as an alternative to the 200km headline act. A new 150km option for 2023 was quietly abandoned for reasons unknown.
I was in for the 200km, and my preparation, as ever, included some scatty mistakes. The obvious error was fitting a new (to me) set of cranks to the bike the day before, only to discover on a shakedown ride that there was zero clearance between the left crank arm and the chainstay on my Cannondale Topstone gravel bike.
So 10pm saw me in the garden, straddling the hapless bike with a plank of wood and hammer in hand as I attempted to beat the offending crankset - stubbornly stuck in place - out of the bottom bracket.
At one point I honestly thought I'd have to ride my MTB instead, but I finally got it sorted and retired to bed, sweaty and stressed, at midnight.
The alarm went off at 5 and after a quick breakfast I was off on the drive south to Dublin.
Event HQ is Bray Emmets GAA club, where marshalls were directing queues of cars into the overflow car park in bright morning sunshine when I arrived.
Registration opens the day before for those who arrive in time to spend the night locally (recommended), but it was a quick and painless job to collect my number from the desk and fill water bottles.
I knew a few of the Rossi posse, our local loose-knit gang of roadies, were doing the ride too but I'd not coordinated with them. I loitered a couple of minutes by the start in case I could spot any familiar red and black jerseys, but as the designated depart time of 7am ticked by I decided to make a start.
It was a laid-back rollout with riders free to set off as and when they were ready rather than launched en masse. I soon found myself among a steady stream of fellow sportivistes as we set off into the traffic-free green lanes of Bray's hinterlands.
My pink EF Education First jersey soon drew a few humorous comments as I rode along - "There's Ben Healy!"
It's safe to say few would have recognised the shirt a couple of years ago when I got it, but Ireland's freshly crowned national champion is becoming a household name and there's no point now me trying to explain that, actually, I'm a Lachlan Morton fanboy.
It occurred to me that I'm probably old enough to be Healy's dad, and here's an interesting tidbit: Healy senior - Ben's father, Bryan - has been known to ride the occasional sportive. I don't know if he was at the Wicklow 200, but he did ride the Ekoi Stone Circle gravel ride a couple weeks later, complete with EF team socks.
I don't know if it was misplaced pressure to live up to the jersey, but I found myself making the effort to steadily pass long strings of riders as the road climbed towards the first summit of the day, Sally Gap. This climb is a double header, two peaks of around 500m elevation with a short descent into the 'gap' in between; at the top we were treated to expansive views of the Wicklow mountains and Upper and Lower Lough Bray to our right.
It was an overcast, muggy sort of day and in similar mug-like style I was cracking along from one mini-group to the next in search of the elusive Goldilocks group going at just the right speed - but with little thought of fuelling as I went.
At 68km we came to the first feed station, and I decided to roll through it and continue without stopping. Bad decision. I thought from my cursory look at the route that there was a second feed at 100km, this turned out not to be the case.
On we rode, occasionally I'd tag on the back of a group for a while, and at another time I looked behind me to find I was towing a half dozen or so riders. I wasn't going completely mad, I was trying to keep a steady, sustainable pace - but it may have been wiser to stick with a group. Even if it meant easing off the gas a touch I'd be faster and fresher in the long run.
At one point a fellow rider who'd been tucked behind for a km or two, a woman with a French accent, called as she passed: "Ah, you are not Irish - you are a smart cyclist!"
I think it was meant as a compliment? But as it turned out, I wasn't as smart as all that.
Four hours into the ride, 112km and a significant amount of climbing in the legs, and I was starting to get desperate. My bottles were down to the dregs, I'd eaten a banana and half a Rawvelo bar but energy levels were plummeting into the red.
On the plus side, we'd reached the most southerly point of the course in Tinahely and were now headed north for home. There was just the small matter of two major climbs, Drumgoff - aka the Shay Elliott - and Slieve Maan to get over first.
These come back-to-back at the 139km mark in this year's revised course. I've never ridden in Wicklow before so was totally unaware when the climbs would appear or how to recognise them when they did, but you couldn't fail to notice once the road began to point upwards in earnest.
Approached from the west, the climb up Slieve Maan is about 3km long. I was cooked after less than half that distance. I unclipped and pulled over on the verge, shook the last drops of water onto my tongue and had a gel.
For dessert I ate a solitary bilberry I found growing in a roadside bush. I lay back on the foliage, stretched weary limbs and waited for the gel - a blood orange-flavoured number by Rawvelo - to kick in.
All the while other riders trundled past in various states of degradation, but still rolling on and up. There's nothing worse than watching other cyclists pass you on a sportive while you're lying in a ditch; after a few minutes I couldn't take any more of it and got back on the bike.
The gel and a rest worked wonders and it was as if I'd found a couple of extra gears as I spun up the remainder of the climb. At the top I found a water refill point, where event volunteers grabbed my bottles and quickly filled them for me. As I was having a drink, I heard a voice behind me - "That looks like Oisin... that is Oisin" - it was the Rossi!
I fell in with Henry, Liz and the two Johns and we chatted on the descent. It turned out they'd started early - almost an hour before me, in fact - in a canny bid to snag all available KOM points and the pick of the feed station fare. Henry Jnr and Paul were further up the road, having sped off with a faster group.
I was delighted to have caught them up, but it had come at a high price. While the guys seemed pretty fresh, I was still gassed and the climb up Shay Elliott which followed immediately didn't help matters. It's not that it's terribly steep - few road climbs hold much fear in terms of gradient after a few seasons MTB and gravel - but it's steep enough, and the pace over the 3km was slow in the midday heat.
I'd been oversharing fantasies about an ice-cold coke with Henry on the climb, and lo! At the summit there was a van with an enterprising salesman selling chilled drinks and snacks in a lay-by. I pulled over for a can of coke and downed it while the other Rossi gang mustered a little further back, before rolling off into the descent.
I don't want to do my trader saviour out of future business but if you're riding the Wicklow 200, it's worth noting that the second feed station is just five minutes down the road after the descent off Shay Elliott. You can save yourself a few pennies and minutes by hanging on, but, needless to say I regret absolutely nothing.
The lay-by where I'd stopped was just a few metres from the memorial to Shay Elliott, the groundbreaking Irish cyclist who was the first irishman to ride the Tour de France - and the first English speaker to win stages in all three Grand Tours in the 1960s.
Elliott died in 1971 aged just 36 in mysterious circumstances. His story is a fascinating and at times murky one with more or less rampant race fixing and deals being done between riders - including, it's alleged, between Elliott and Tom Simpson on at least one occasion.
As I was pulling over to enter the feed zone I met Henry Jnr and Paul on their way out; I told Henry his folks were less than a minute behind.
The feed station was a festive little oasis on a GAA pitch surrounded by trees. Drinks and treats - cups of coke, crisps, sandwiches, chocolate bars and more - were in abundance, with seating at picnic tables and a line of portable toilets: a delightful rural scene set to a deafening pop soundtrack thanks to a snappily dressed DJ whose volume dial seemed to be jammed at 11.
I sat at a table and munched through my picnic squinting in the sunlight for signs of the other Rossi. It later turned out that Henry and Liz had met their tearaway son at the entrance to the feed station, just behind me, and decided to eschew a second stop and ride on together.
So, alone once again, I rolled off to words of cheery encouragement from the marshalls. The staff on the Wicklow 200 really deserve a special mention, they were without exception fantastic, the best I've encountered on a sportive. It's an open road event, but we encountered little to no traffic on the vast majority of the route and every junction had marshalls not only stopping cars to allow riders to pass but with a cheerful smile and word of support too. They were a credit to the event.
We were now at the 155km mark, with a little over 50km to go to the finish. It sounds like nothing, but even a 20-minute break at the feed stop hadn't been enough to compensate for my exertions earlier in the day. I had very little left in the tank and it was a case of nursing my reserves to the finish as best I could.
This is not a situation that really allows you to enjoy a ride, so the remaining scenery and sunshine of Ireland's "garden county" were sadly wasted on me as I trundled along in my self-inflicted suffering, wishing every hideous, lovely hill would be the last.
On the upside, there was plenty of opportunity to reflect on what I might improve next time. I think the issue wasn't so much that I'd gone out too fast, but rather that I'd neglected to eat and drink enough in the first 4-5 hours. A recipe for disaster. My training rides tend to top out at four hours, which I can do on a banana, a bar and a couple of bottles then binge at home; but when you're riding double the distance you can't get away with such meagre rations.
The finish back at Bray Emmets was a welcome sight and I rolled over the line for a time of 8hrs 36 minutes (moving time 8:07:53). Average speed was 25.7kph, average mood - well, depends which half of the ride you're talking about: first half 9 out of 10, second half 4!
Medal tucked safely under the pink jersey, which was now matched by pink face and arms after a long day in the sunshine, I parked up my bike next to Liz and Henry's and wandered in a daze over to the food stands.
Henry, Liz & Jnr were already there. Henry had maintained his 100% record of finishing every sportive ahead of me (the other occasion being the Lakelander Gravel Grinder), and bought me a brownie by way of consolation. Over the next half hour we sat and compared notes over complimentary curry followed by coffees and cold drinks while the rest of the Rossi rocked up in ones and twos.
I was more or less catatonic, a craic void as per usual after these things, and at length pulled myself together enough to wheel my bike up the hill to where the car was parked. It was a glorious afternoon, the hot sun had long since burned away the morning clouds from the hills, and I lay down on the grass for a quick power nap ahead of the drive home.
When I came round maybe 15 minutes later a group of Cork riders whose car was parked nearby were keeping a watchful eye on me and offered to help lift my bike onto the roof of the car. "A body has been found" ...or found out? I must have looked even worse than I felt.
Wicklow 200: the verdict
A few weeks later and with the dust and tan lines settled, the Wicklow 200 must go down as an epic day out on the bike. I would certainly recommend it; the route winds through some gorgeous scenery, the climbs are challenging but not ridiculously so - as in, say the Alps or Dolomites - and the organisation is exemplary.
The route was quite different this year compared with past editions, and I heard a few veterans comment that the end section was more difficult than previously but conversely, less busy with traffic. I don't know if the organisers will revert to the classic route or keep this one, but either way it's well worth the entry fee for a tour of the magnificent Wicklow countryside.
I hope to be back again, in an attempt to pace myself a little better and improve my time - and more importantly, to finish ahead of that man Henry for once. He can't keep beating me forever...can he?
The Wicklow 200 returns on 9 June 2024. For more details and to register interest, visit wicklow200.ie.