The Clan’s calling: A Pan Celtic race across Scotland, Ireland and Wales

by CyclingTips

“Childhood adventures were the genesis of the Pan Celtic Race – moments that make you feel alive and that stay with you forever, until you grew up and forgot how to do it.

Cycling long distances, reliant solely on my own wit and knowledge helped remind me how much I missed the adventures. If I missed it then maybe others did too, but just didn’t realise it.

I was gifted and reacquainted with the spirit of adventure and wanted others to experience it too. For me, it was a calling. That ever-present vibration and rhythm, that lies within all of us. The thing that gives us a twinkle in our eye, and a skip in our step. ‘The Pan Celtic Calling.’” – Matt Ryan, Pan Celtic Race Director.

On July 7th 2019, 84 riders set out from Inverness to race across three Celtic nations – Scotland, Ireland and Wales – in the inaugural edition of the Pan Celtic Race. This was the first race in a planned five-year Race Series which will take riders on roads less travelled, tracing ancient paths and eventually visiting each of the six modern day Celtic nations (also including Cornwall, Isle of Man and Brittany).

This year, there were two route options: a ‘Full’ route of 1,476 miles (2,375km), with 88,260ft (26,901m) of climbing, and a ‘Shorter’ route of 838 miles (1,348km), with 48,533ft (14,792m) of climbing.

The ride would encompass Celtic history as well as scenic splendour, as riders pushed their physical and mental limits to reach the finish line in Llandudno in time for the party 10 days later.

Our aim was to create something truly special where people from all over the world would come together to form a Clan. A family of racers and tourers, sharing the same sense of adventure and ‘belonging’, whilst battling the elements, the environment and their minds astride their beloved steeds.

Young Scottish piper bids farewell to the riders at the start in Inverness.

At registration, the day before the race commenced, it was immediately clear that this process had already begun. We had 100% attendance, and the kind words being spoken were truly humbling of our efforts so far. One of our Clan members was 14-year-old Will Neale who would be competing in the Shorter route category with his riding partner, 22-year-old Alex Harvey. A record, perhaps, for the youngest ultra-endurance race competitor?

The race started on a cool Sunday morning and as the Full route headed north toward the Highland coast, the Shorter route headed south along Loch Ness. The races spread thin pretty fast as those intending to win pushed ahead. A lot of matches were being burnt early on.

Mass start of the Pan Celtic Race at Inverness.

The routes were simultaneously breathtaking, beautiful, brutal and unforgiving, taking riders past stunning sights such as Durness Beach and Bealach na Bá. Solid headwinds and undulating terrain began to take their toll early on. Barren landscapes and limited resupply options forced the change of well-laid plans.

The lead of both races continually swapped hands at the pointy end, while behind, races within the race emerged. Battling the terrain and each other, the Clan were friends and foes alike.

Scotland would provide our riders with their most brutal test on the Full route, with heavy rainfall on day 3 continuing into days 4 and 5. Some thrived; others scratched.

A rider leaving checkpoint 1 at Ullapool (Scotland)

The Shorter route made its way across this dramatic landscape over the course of two to three days. Those who rode on headed for the ferry at Cairnryan that would take them onto stage 2 and into Ireland.

Arriving in Belfast, the Full route once again headed north while those on the Shorter route heading south. The northern coastline and Torr Head awaited those aching limbs to arrive before punishing them with savage gradients. The reward of this endeavour came along the stunning cliffs of the Giant’s Causeway, before the route turned south to the haunting majesty of the Dark Hedges.

Ryan Flynn climbing the hard slopes of Torr Head, Ireland.

There was a brief respite from the continuous undulation as both sets of riders made their way through Ireland along canal lines and past ancient sites such as Newgrange, en route to the Wicklow Mountains and a checkpoint at Glendalough. Here many would rest up before another dash to the ferry terminal at Rosslare, where they would be spirited to Fishguard in Wales for the brutal final leg.

Now, the weather changed and the sun shone hard. The gradients of each Welsh hill punished the weary legs of the riders, as they made their way through the ‘Desert of Wales’ and on, along winding paths dwarfed by ancient mountain ranges. Gravel tracks and endless roads would again test riders to the limit as both routes journeyed through Snowdonia towards Llandudno on the north coast.

The natural closet of Ryan Flynn after sleeping in the woods at Wicklow Mountains (Ireland).

As riders rolled around the final hurdle of The Great Orme, family, friends and Clan members gathered at the finish ready to welcome them with open arms and celebrate a truly amazing ride and experience.

In one respect, the end of the ride had arrived. However, for some of the riders, the beginning of their Celtic journey had only just begun.

Find out more about the Pan Celtic Race and see race results here.
Feature image: The colossal scale of the Scottish highlands, RupertHartleyPhoto
Photography by Tomas Montes

Matt Ryan, race director, keeping an eye on the Clan.

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