By the time last October rolled round I found myself sitting on a personal record mileage, but I still hadn't ridden an actual sportive all year.
It was time to put that right before Zwift season set in - and no better way to do it than on the Lakelander Gravel Grinder.
Billed as Ireland's premier gravel ride, the Lakelander has been running for a few years now and is easily the most high-profile gravel sportive on the Irish cycling calendar.
It's run by Primal Events, whose director Rowan McMahon I've met on many a local spin here in Rostrevor. Rowan is typically the one pushing the pace, suggesting detours up gravelly climbs and generally dishing out the hurt - a necessary and (I think) generally appreciated role, whatever the grumblings may be at the time.
The event is based in the forests of County Fermanagh with a start point in the small village of Belcoo near the border with Donegal. Two routes are on offer, the 100km Big Dog and 50km Little Dog, with a bailout option - the 60km Mongrel - for those who start big and realise they've bitten off more than they can chew.
Belcoo is a couple of hours drive from home, and a part of the country I'd never cycled in before so I had little idea what to expect. In the days leading up I revisited Henry's report from last year, and scrolled through the Strava archives to check out how a few friends had fared in years gone by. Crunching the numbers, I set myself a loose target of under 5hrs for the 100km course, with a "stretch" target of 4hrs 30.
As it turned out, that would be a stretch too far.
Washing my bike outside the back door the evening before, prep took a turn for the worse when I managed to embed a loose staple in the brand new front tyre. Offers of spare tyres and patches flew in from other members of our Whatsapp group despite the late hour, but I decided to put my trust in the sealant and check it in the morning.
Sure enough, the next morning the tyre seemed sound. After a quick coffee and breakfast I loaded the bike onto the roof of the car and set off on the drive west.
It was a beautiful October morning, crisp and clear with blue skies overevent HQ at Belcoo Community Centre. I parked up on a grassy verge just past the building. Registration was far quicker than I expected, all done in five minutes - most riders had probably done their admin the night before. With 45 minutes until kick-off, I met up with Patrick, Henry and Martin for a coffee and chat and watched as the road gradually filled with dozens, then hundreds of fellow riders and their bikes.
The Grinder attracts a phenomenal field, over 800 cyclists from across Ireland signed up this year. It's quite a sight, and the capacity of the venue's small car park was soon stretched well beyond bursting with riders spilling out into the road. The Lakelander marshalls eventually realised the futility of trying to push toothpaste back into the tube, and the lead car set off on a neutralised start until we reached the entrance to the course proper at Ballintempo forest.
As we approached the first of the woods the pace was slow, enforced by the sheer weight of numbers on the narrow road. Things got tighter still once we turned off the road and crossed the timing mats onto the course proper, with riders jostling shoulder to shoulder on the loose gravel climbs and a steady stream of faster riders trying to pick a way through the pack to the front.
I'd started with my three pals from Rostrevor but it was impossible to keep together in the melee. One rider wobbled and dismounted right in front of me on a climb, prompting a hasty unclip from the pedals, but gradually the bunch thinned out as the punchy climbs forced a selection and after about 10-15 minutes we could pick up the pace.
The Lakelander parcours could be described as lumpy; that goes for the loose gravel surface of the forest roads, but also the constant climbs that litter the route. It's a puncheur's delight but with flat sections few and far between there's little chance to settle into a rhythm.
The gravel wasn't as bad as I'd been led to expect. Yes the forest tracks were laid with loose, fairly substantial rocks, but the course had clearly seen a bit of motor traffic recently. The result was two distinct, parallel lanes created by jeep tyres and by sticking to these relatively smooth lanes the worst of the rocky stuff could be avoided.
What you can't avoid however is the climbs. These are frequent and savage.
The first feed appeared and I stopped for a moment while Teresa - a seasoned triathlete and adventure racer from Rostrevor on volunteer duty today - filled my bottle and stuffed a wedge of cake into my hand. I was maybe a minute or two ahead of Henry and Patrick at this point, but slightly wild-eyed with the effort. I rolled out of the feed stop in a hurry, where in hindsight a couple minutes' break might have been wiser.
I wasn't long waiting for a break as it turned out, although not in ideal circumstances. Just a few minutes later I overshot a right hander; hauling on the brakes, I heard a ping from the front wheel. Inspection revealed a spoke had torn loose from the hub and was now dangling from the rim.
Game over? Not quite yet. I managed to weave the spoke alongside its neighbour to at least allow the wheel to turn unimpeded. With another 40km to go, I wasn't optimistic about completing but the alternative was to limp back to the feed stop and wait for a ride back to HQ. I decided to roll on a bit further and see how it held up.
After a few more tentative descents and with the wheel showing no signs of getting worse, I gradually stepped up the effort again.
The course was fantastic, I marvelled at the sheer expanse of gravel trails - I'd not seen anything like this since Kielder Forest, home of the Dirty Reiver. But where Kielder's endless pine steppes can feel monotonous at times, the Lakelander course packs enough variety by way of climbs, loughs and woodland to keep things interesting and riders constantly on their toes.
There was even some roadside diversion in the shape of hand-painted signs bearing encouraging slogans like "You paid for this", and at one point we passed a motley crew in ghoulish halloween-style horror costumes leering and cheering on passing riders.
I assumed this was all part of the event, but Rowan later told us he'd been as surprised as anyone; apparently it was some locals who'd taken the initiative to get involved with their own brand of slightly gothic support.
The second feed stop is located at the top of the Big Dog course, overlooking Lough Erne. I rolled into the car park to find a stall laden with treats. I'd no sooner pulled up than Patrick and Henry appeared by my side - I'd been caught! Henry was gone again in 10 seconds flat, while Patrick and I took a few moments longer - and were rewarded for it, when the woman at the stand produced a box of mini chocolate bars from her secret stash in the van.
We rolled off together heading south on the home stretch, chatting when we had the puff to talk. Fair to say we were both feeling the effort by that point, Paddy was nursing a niggling knee injury and I was looking forward to the finish line and handing my wheel over to the bike doctors.
Patrick was on a lightweight hardtail - a popular choice on the event - and while he had the advantage of comfort the bike probably gave away a little in terms of speed on the climbs and flat. We lost touch on one of the longer climbs and I found myself riding solo in pursuit of a small bunch just in sight in the distance. I could see a couple of yellow jerseys in the group and suspected one of them might be Henry, but no matter how hard I chased I couldn't seem to close the gap between us.
The chase wasn't helped by my bottle bouncing out of its cage on a washboard descent, prompting a sweary brake and 20-metre trudge back up the track to retrieve it from a ditch. When it happened a second time I was tempted to leave it where it lay, but had visions of a following rider swerving to avoid it and ending up wedged in a tree so decided to take my litter with me.
With my screen approaching 100km I reckoned the end must be near; the group in front was getting closer and I put in a final dig just as the finishing arch appeared. As I rolled over the line, I saw that the yellow jersey was indeed Henry - he'd beaten me over the line by a mere 30 seconds or so, and was grinning like a Cheshire Cat!
As for me, I was delighted to have made it to the finish on my battered wheel. Riding time was around 4hrs 45, which I was reasonably happy with; it gives me a target for next year.
We waited a minute for Patrick to finish, watching as weary riders caked in grit cracked into smiles as they crossed the line. The faces said it all: a day to savour.
Back at HQ - a downhill spin from the finish, to my relief - we sat and enjoyed a beer while the day's grime slowly crusted on our legs. Rowan himself, calm amid the mayhem, popped by for a cheery debrief. By the looks on our faces and the filth on our bikes, I think he was satisfied that his work here was done.
Entries to the Lakelander 2023 are open now, and my name was among the first on the list. Gravel rides are few and far between in Ireland, and the Lakelander stands out as a real classic.
If you're wondering what all the gravel fuss is about, dust off or borrow a gravel or mountain bike and get yourself to Belcoo this October - it's a ride not to be missed for any cycling fan.
The Lakelander Gravel Grinder returns on 7 October 2023. Find out more and enter at lakelander.co.uk.