I’m not a stranger to long distance riding or racing, but I’ve been wanting to dip my toes into the world of ultra endurance racing for a couple of years now. The Pan Celtic Race, starting 15 miles from home almost seemed too good an opportunity to miss. The word race in the title ticked a second box. Visiting Northern Ireland, Ireland and Wales, three countries I’ve never visited ticked a further box and the Celtic connection ticked the final box. Being an adopted Highlander I have an affinity with the Celtic lands having spent a large part of my life in the far North. The Pan Celtic Race seemed to have it all, so if the cap fits….”
Chris Pitblado, 2019 Pan Celtic Race winner.
It was an overcast Sunday morning in July.
A young boy dressed in traditional highland attire played the bagpipes with gusto as 84 cyclists rolled out of a nondescript carpark in the centre of Inverness.
The inaugural edition of the Pan Celtic Race had begun.
For the days and nights that followed, riders would journey over 2000 kilometres through Scotland, Ireland and Wales – crossing countries, mountain ranges, and seas – in pursuit of the maiden Pan Celtic Race victory.
Rupert Hartley, photographer and one of Albion’s founders, followed the race as it made its first journey through Britain.
Below is the story of the race, told in his photographs.
(With thanks to Chris Pitblado, Neil Lauder and Lee Grieve for their contributions.)
“The race route from Kylesku to Ullapool, which I’ve previously ridden or driven in reverse in the past, I now consider one of the finest cycling roads in Scotland if not the UK. It has it all, thigh burning climbs, eye watering descents, swooping single track and stunning scenery that you’ll never get tired of.”
“It was so wet I’d not stopped for more than 90 miles for fear of getting cold. I’d started to make my way through the field but the McDonalds was like an oasis in the torrential downpour. I just had to stop.”
“When I got hit by the car, I laid in the ferns where I landed with my bike on top of me, I was unable to move for a short moment and thoughts of home ran through my mind. At hospital waiting on X-ray results, I kept thinking my race was over and my emotions were all over the place. It had been a long few days and although I was drained I didn’t want it to be over. I checked the bike and knew I could sort it.. if the results come back ok, could I race again? I was advised to go home and rest and not continue the race. The next morning I dragged my bike onto the ferry headed for Belfast unknowing how the next few days would pan out.”
“Fortunately for me, I had pushed on to reach checkpoint 2 with a good buffer between myself and the second place rider on the road. Working out the sums in my head meant that the sedate 100km roll down to Rosslare would give me a good 6-7 hour sleep, which meant I’d be fresh(ish) for the ‘sprint’ through Wales. My Nemesis for the previous two days would arrive at the ferry terminal giving him a 2-3 hour rest, whilst the 3rd place rider on the road would eventually reach the ferry with only minutes to spare after a mammoth 27hr ride with no sleep. Waiting in line for my fry up, my Nemesis introduced himself to me. The dot I’d been cursing for the previous 48 hours turned out to be a gent and damn nice bloke. You’d be hard pushed to tell we were currently racing for first and second place as we stood there bobbing about in the Irish Sea.
The enforced downtime gave me a chance to have a stress free wander up on deck and enjoy the morning sun and fresh salt air. I eventually succumbed to tiredness and found myself a comfy recliner in the cinema room for a quick 40 winks. After a relaxing sleep I finally met 3rd dot on the road. Craig joined Stephen and myself in the lounge for a last coffee before hostilities commenced. Another gent, we all got on fine, however his 3 hours sleep was not near enough after his superhuman effort to reach the ferry, he was a shell of a man. We nervously chatted whilst we waited for the ferry to land. My big worry of the excruciating knee pain was eased as Stephen strapped his with KT tape and Craig complained of similar pains. We were all literally in the same boat…..
On any other day, nothing would have pleased me more by sharing a ride up through Wales with these two fine chaps, but a race is a race. We shook hands after a food resupply not far out of the ferry terminal and they returned to being another two dots on the map.”