What and where is The Cooley Thriller - and has there ever been a better pre-ride briefing than that witnessed by riders on the 2023 edition?
To take care of the "what" and "where" first: the Cooley Thriller is a mountain-bike marathon set on the fabled, forested mountain slopes of the Cooley peninsula on Ireland's eastern seaboard. The mountains here are laced in legend - duck into the Co-op cafe in Greenore and ask for Anne if you've time to hear a few of them - and for cyclists, the Cooley Thriller is itself something of a legend too.
It's now been running some 18 years, but retains a homespun vibe while attracting a couple of hundred of Ireland's keenest XC riders to Carlingford each summer.
It was my first time, so I was entirely unprepared at the start when a lithe gent in lycra leapt atop a wall and addressed the mustered riders. It was a rousing, poetic battle cry of a sendoff by Johnny McCabe of the Cuchulainn Cycling Club, gesturing up at the brooding hulk of Slieve Foy, shrouded in a gauzy grey mist looming over the town, and urging us to write a new page in the history of the Cooleys.
I've since found a video of his speech on Facebook, so here it is in full for your pleasure:
"You're gonna be riding where Cooley legends have roamed for years and years, and they're singing a song today: a song of hope. A song of courage. A victory song that flows through the Cooleys like a red mist. It'll descend off the top of Slieve Foy, like Cuchulainn's silver cape at the minute, it will flow and crackle with the spirit of 190 riders gathered here today.
"It will blow over the history pages and find a blank page waiting still to be written. What will you write on it? And you? Dare you write your name at the finish line?
"We haven't waited 365 days to be afraid of her, Slieve Foy! She looks down at us, she thinks we're weak; too small, too full of fear. But we're here!
"So let's ride as one peloton to the Gullion, and we'll look across and we'll glance her in the eye as she crumbles, we are here! Let's rock and roll!"
As pre-ride briefings go, it sure beats "ride safe and follow the yellow signs".
I didn't feel too small, but I did feel a bit damp. I'd ridden to the start, taking the ferry across Carlingford Lough where I'd caught up with ferryman and old friend Clifford. Clifford is a Scotsman now settled, if that's the word, in County Down. His CV so far defies easy description, he's done everything from moto racing (including a win at the Isle of Mann TT) to self-taught luthier, and now crews the ferry that plies the oyster and mussel rich waters of the lough during the summer months, then spends the winter bikepacking wherever the fancy takes him: South America, Asia, the Himalayas - he's been everywhere.
The crossing passed quickly as we chatted and with a cereal bars from Clifford in my pocket I was soon rolling off the ferry and directly into a squall. A lone car of classic looks stood beneath the towering cranes on the windswept dock awaiting the ferry, a broad silk ribbon festooned the bonnet - a wedding party.
I rolled past into the incoming deluge and was quickly drenched as I paced along the shore road into Carlingford to register and catch up with some familiar faces at the Foy Centre.
And now, drying out in the sunshine and listening to McCabe's rousing speech, I was excited at the challenge ahead.
There were smiles among the assembled riders, gathered in the sunshine and we sallied forth with those words ringing in our ears for a lap of the narrow streets of the town before cutting up onto the mountainside.
The routes had been revised for 2023, but were still advertised as 52km for the full course and 19km for the short course.
It wasn't long before the smooth tarmac was replaced with the crunch of gravel and not long after that our tyres were digging into soft grass for traction as a trail of riders snaked as far as the eye could see up Slieve Foy's slopes.
The track was narrow and, as is the usual way, it only took one rider to falter and unclip to bring the entire peloton to walking pace. No drama, as the steepness made it slow going and those still in the saddle filed slowly past those trudging up.
A hardy handful from Not The Sunday Run, Rostrevor's local MTB crew, had crossed the lough for the event and I chatted briefly with Hugh Brennan and Teresa Parr - a little later I caught up with Henry and Liz too. I'd chatted briefly with Tim Lewis at the start, but wouldn't see him again - he flew around the course.
I grew up looking across the lough at Slieve Foy and the Cooley mountains. My dad would point out the long profile of Finn McCool lying on his back along the ridge of the Cooleys, and on recent road and gravel forays I'd climbed to the mast on Black Mountain, taken the views at Flagstaff and Long Woman's Grave and occasionally crossed the Tain Trail where it intersects with the road. But I'd never ridden a mountain bike here, nor hiked to Fox's Rock or the famine village or any of the other multitude of historical and legendary sites scattered across these hills. So this would be a day of discovery.
One of the first things I discovered - or rediscovered - was that my mountain bike skills are sorely lacking for an open mountain event like this. I've barely been on the mountain bike this year as it is, this was its first outing since May, and I was soon wishing I'd managed to fit in a few refresher loops of the Rostrevor trails before undertaking the Thriller.
We'd rolled out in sunshine but the far side of the mountain saw clouds descend and the wind pick up; the ground was sodden and rocks slick and greasy making for treacherous terrain. My bike handling is suspect at the best of times but in these conditions I was more hesitant than usual, and as the ribbon of trail ducked and dived into gullies and streams cleft into the hillside I found myself unclipping every few minutes.
There were a couple of unscheduled dismounts too, where I lost the front wheel and found myself dumped face-first into the heather or into a breathless heap on the side of the trail. I was soon covered in mud with trickles of blood on my elbow and knee from grazes and the grasping brambles.
The first feed stop came after about 10km, shortly after a muddy section through conifer woods where we met with the faster riders on the short course already heading for home. I was surprised to see the feed so soon, but it was welcome; cups of Coke were waiting already poured out, along with bowls of salted nuts, Haribo, Snickers, Jaffa cakes and bananas.
The next section was on road, as we bowled on smooth tarmac past Long Woman's Grave and on to the longest climb of the day, up Clermont Carn aka Black Mountain. Although the longest, it was the easiest with most of it being on rough tarmac. I know this climb fairly well and gradually passed a dozen or so riders by the time we reached the fork near the top, but here was a catch: instead of following the road left to the summit, we were sent briefly downhill to the right, before picking up a rough and steep single track trail to the mast. After an early dismount I managed to ride most of the rest of the way up and over, but the descent off the windswept peak was a different story.
I was quickly off the bike and scampering down the precipice on foot, kidding myself it was good trail running exercise as all the riders I'd passed on the climb - plus a few more for good measure - bombed past me, elbows out and backsides thrust low over their dropped saddles.
When I get home I am definitely going to fit that dropper post, I swore to myself. Promises promises, it's been sitting in its box for over a year now.
I'd thoroughly lost my bearings by the time the trail levelled out again, the route had my full attention. On one section a ribbon of muddy grass and rocks skirted a barbed wire fence to the right, while immediately to the left a hillside plunged down some 20 feet to a rocky river gulley below. I passed the time trying to work out which side it would be less fatal to fall on, until thankfully we emerged onto a rough farm track for a short break.
The 2nd feed stop came after about 20km and I didn't stop long, just another cup of coke and slice of banana. "Don't tell me you got your shoes dirty?" laughed the cheery crew member as he lifted my bike over a gate for me.
I was making hard work of this, average speed around 10-11kph. It wasn't so much that the course was physically demanding (although it is that), my main problem was a shortfall of MTB skill. I was passing and being passed by the same small group of riders for much of the course, and couldn't help noticing that my peers were guys with some 20 years and/or 20kg on me, who didn't look what you'd call race trim, but were more than able to keep ahead of me by dint of their greatly superior technique and confidence on the rough terrain.
I wasn't the only one, mind you. At one point I kept company with a gent with an English or South African accent, who clearly had the same problem as myself; we'd come to a steep or technical section and each would wave the other ahead, not wanting to get in the way, until we realised we were both roadies in disguise.
"You can always tell the road men when it comes to the river crossings," another rider grinned at me, having watched me dismount and walk my bike over a steep sided five-foot trench that to him probably looked no more formidable than a speed bump.
I took to stopping before the bigger descents and trying to take a photo or two, because the views especially north over the lough were often incredible despite the mist - or "Cuchulainn's silver cape" as Johnny would say. On one of these I was photographing a rider going past when he suddenly lost control, leapt off his bike as it crashed into a divot hidden among the heather, and somersaulted head over heels down the mountainside in a series of tumbles. I instinctively stopped snapping and watched in amazed disbelief as he stood up, dusted himself down and clambered back up the hillside to retrieve his bike.
"Did you catch a picture of that?" he asked as he saddled up and rode off.
Eventually we emerged suddenly onto a road, and I realised we were just a couple of minutes from the first feed station. From this point the course would track back along the opening section in reverse to the finish; I was expecting another 12-14km, so was surprised but not disappointed when the women at the feed announced cheerily that there was only 7km remaining.
The climb back over Slieve Foy wasn't too arduous, and soon enough we were haring down the far side with Carlingford and the scent of a pint in our nostrils.
The planners had a final twist up their sleeve, as the route plunged down a steep narrow chute to finish abruptly on the outskirts of town. Event crew snipped the race number off my bars while photographer Fran Hollywood, whom I'd spotted lying in a thicket taking photos earlier on the course, gave a look of recognition as I greeted him.
"I thought that was a road bike!" he said; probably a fair reflection of my handling skills that I made my hardtail look like a TT rig.
I'd have liked to hang about for a debrief with the NTSR but I'd already exceeded my time slot so headed back to Greenore for the ferry home. There was just time for a coffee and a chat on the crossing with Clifford, who had a good laugh at my mud-spattered bike and self.
I only discovered afterwards that there was a hot curry awaiting riders back at the Foy Centre. I'll have to remember that for next year - because yes, I will be back for another crack at the Thriller.
Just maybe a few more MTB sessions first to bring on the skills a notch or two, because this is a course that can only get more enjoyable as your confidence and technique on the bike improves.
Even for a relative novice mountain biker, the views, the course and the craic ensure this is a great day out and deservedly a leading fixture in the Irish mountain bike calendar.
The Cooley Thriller, come ride it for yourself - there's a blank page waiting for your story in August 2024.