The subdued fanfare that greeted Derry cyclist Billy Evans’ arrival in Navan shortly after 2.00am last Saturday morning was in keeping with the unassuming Scottish born Foxhill resident.
Billy is not one for a fuss. He deserved it though after cycling 130 Hours, 59 minutes NON-STOP across some of Ireland’s most challenging terrain and all in the name of the POCA (Parents of Older Children with Autism) charity.
Now in its sixth edition, the Foyle Cycling Club member was taking part in the 1,336 mile World Cup recognised ‘Race Around Ireland’ which has become known as the toughest Ultra Cycling event in Europe.
“Despite my injuries, lack of sleep and eating porridge until it came out of my ears, I’d have no hesitation in saying it was the best race I have ever took part in,” explained Billy, “I got to see Ireland like I have never seen it before. The scenery was so dramatic in places, and the locals were out cheering us on all hours of the day and night. It made it an experience I will never forget!”
With completion limits awarded to teams dependent on 8, 4 or 2 riders, the biggest challenge is that of the solo rider. And this is no ‘simple’ lap of Ireland with organisers seeking out every major hill the island has to offer on a course that takes participants past Newgrange, the Causeway Coast, Malin Head, the Cliffs of Moher, the Ring of Kerry, Mizen Head, the Garden County (Wicklow) and back to Navan inside six days.
So what was Billy’s motivation for taking on such a monumental feat?
“I have always been one to look for something different and challenging in life,” he adds, “Since learning about the race, I got to follow the racers that took part over the last few years, following their progress from the road side and from the tracking units that are fitted to participants. I knew then I just had to be part of it and what a challenge it was.”
Billy admits it was a struggle at times, especially after picking up a knee injury 300 miles into the race and paid a special tribute to his support team of Chris McElhinney, Geoff Reilly, Alan Harkens and Niall McElhinney who helped guide him home.
“How did I find it? Long and hard! I’d be lying if I said it was easy. I picked up a knee injury with still 1,000 miles to go, but having a strong crew behind me got me to the finish line within the cut off time.”
The movement along the course is constant with little time for rest. In fact, Billy didn’t sleep until the second night and then just three hours were allowed to him.
With family and friends following his progress via live GPS tracking on the race website, one by one the major points were ticked off until Mizen Head was reached.
Billy covered a lot of ground alongside Dubliner Ciaran Smith, a winch-man with the Coast Guard helicopter and competitors were treated to a ‘fly-by’ from the Sligo based Sikorsky helicopter in support of their man.
The Wicklow mountains were the last barrier in the way with Billy resting at Sally Gap in the misty fog at 11pm. With the 3.00am cut-off time looming large and some 50 miles left to do, Billy’s total exhaustion meant it was ‘touch and go’ whether he could find the reserves to finish.
Indeed his support team took the decision not to tell the Foyle cyclist of one remaining extreme climb, near Kilcock. Known as ‘The Lamb’ because of its tendency to weaken the legs of the strongest of cyclists, the hill had 20% gradient in its midsection that forced the event winner to walk up.
Not so, Billy as he slowly turned the pedals to come home as the last finisher with just over an hour to spare in a race that had seen numerous forced to retire.
“Would I do it again? Despite the pain I was going through towards the end, I had already made the decision to return in 2017. The whole atmosphere is something I have never experienced before, and I would love to be part of that once again.”