Ireland’s Rachel Nolan on her epic win over male rivals in 2,113km ultra race – Stickybottle
Posted on: September 24th,
Fresh from an incredible win in the 2,113km Transatlantic Way ultra race, Rachel Nolan said she was delighted to add another chapter to the unfolding international story of women winning ultra race events in mixed male and female fields.
Her victory in the Irish ultra race, mainly down the Wild Atlantic Way, follows on from German cyclist Fiona Kolbinger’s spectacular win in the 4,000km Transcontinental last year. And the pattern of women beating men in ultra racing is not limited to cycling.
Also last year, British athlete Jasmin Paris won the Montane Spine Race – 268 miles non-stop running along the Pennine Way – beating 125 male competitors in the process; the closest to her some 14 hours off her 83-hour winning time.
Another woman, Maggie Guteri, last December won by Big Dog Backyard Ultra in Tennessee in the United States; a “last man/woman standing” format running race in which she ran 60 hours, doing 250 miles to win the male-female event.
“It’s so amazing to see so many strong women pushing out in front and leading the pack and having the confidence and opportunity to do this,” said Irishwoman Nolan of her Transatlantic Way Ultra Race win on home turf earlier this month coming after the success of other female ultra athletes.
“We might not have same sprint power as the boys but for the longer events, it’s all about knowing your body, planning logistics and just getting on with it having the right mental attitude to deal with adversity.
“I think women seem to know their limits and don’t suffer so much from ‘ego syndrome’: we always keep a bit of reserve in the tank rather than blowing up – it’s in our genetic makeup”.
Rachel Nolan’s main competitive interest is in multi-sport adventure and expedition racing. The 35-year-old Sligo woman runs Rachel’s Irish Adventures, a bespoke adventure business.
She began doing some ultra-bike events from 2016, included the Wild Atlantic Way Audax and London-Edinburgh-London.
Nolan only decided in June to do the Transatlantic Way event and then got a coach for 12 weeks of focused, woman-specific training.
Transatlantic Way is a one-stage self-supported road bike ride between Derry and Cork. largely following The Wild Atlantic Way.
Nolan described her race as “a friendly battle with Peter McColgan and Donnacha Cassidy the whole way from Bangor, but I largely rode my own race to plan and didn’t deviate from it.”
She had her 35th birthday going through Connemara and described the second checkpoint at Killary as the game-changer in the event: “I reckoned they would have a rest there but I had planned to just keep going.”
However, while her summary of the racing looking back on it now sounds relaxed; it was anything but in the thick of the action.
“The wind and rain were relentless in Donegal – the hills and being constantly wet take their toll,” she said.
“But I didn’t race the guys in front and I knew I would be fine and back on home turf once I got to Sligo.”
In addition to the winds, she felt the delayed 2020 event – the race is usually held in June – was one of the hardest editions as there was less daylight in September and sourcing food and accommodation was harder due to Covid-19.
She averaged 355km per day – at an average moving speed of 18kph – and was stopped for only 25 hours over the five days and 22 hours her winning effort took.
During that time she had to cope with two crashes, ‘Morton’s neuroma/hot-foot’ (a painful condition effecting the ball of the foot), a urinary infection from day three, and the onset of Shermer’s Neck over the final two days – difficulty holding the head up while cycling.
The self-supported race was initially scheduled for June but was postponed until September due to Covid-19, with entries greatly reduced to just 12 Irish riders.
The race started in Derry and largely followed the Wild Atlantic Way to Kinsale over 2,113km – with 25,225m elevation – with a shorter option of 1,540km, which feature 17,400m elevation gain.
In spite of the small numbers, Nolan’s victory cannot be seen as a ‘soft win’ as she saw off leading male contenders in what was one of the toughest and most attritional editions of the event. Her times would also have put her towards the front in other years.
The race started in Derry on September 3rd and a leading group of four emerged over the first 24 hours; never more than an hour or two apart.
It was led by Benny Cassidy from Killarney, who covered 470km in that period and was one of the favourites having previously come third in the race and finished fourth in the Donegal 550km at the end of August. He also had a very impressive 15th position in The Transcontinental last year.
The four early leaders also included Jason Black, another strong ultra racer who’s accomplishments range from summiting Everest and K2 to winning the 1,100km Race Around Ireland in 2017.
Peter McColgan was also among the four early leaders. He had prepared for a cycle around the world that didn’t go ahead because of the pandemic.
As the first day unfolded in the race, Rachel Nolan was 70km behind Benny Cassidy after 24 hours, pacing herself and biding her time.
Conditions through Donegal began to tell early on and it is a notoriously difficult region in this event, with over 7,000m of elevation in the first 500km, much of it very steep. With loaded bikes, it usually takes its toll on the riders.
This year’s race brought the additional challenges of prevailing headwinds of 25-30kph, along with rain. Benny Cassidy stopped in Sligo with knee problems, and Jason Black abandoned later in Mayo.
Donnacha Cassidy went into the lead after 650km. He is a brother of Benny’s and both are nephews of double Rás winner Philip Cassidy.
Donnacha Cassidy was a leading junior mountain-bike rider with Killarney CC before taking up ultra racing and had previously finished 2nd in the Kerry Way Ultra.
He based himself in Leadville in Colorado for a number of seasons and completed both the Leadville 100 MTB and running events. The famous Tour Divide through The Rockies was his main aim for 2020 but it was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Back to the race; Rachel Nolan gradually made ground through the second day and took the lead from Killary at approximately 1,000km.
She traded places at the front with McColgan down through West Clare, with Donnacha Cassidy also very close.
Poor conditions continued in Kerry with Donnacha Cassidy, for example, opting to run parts of the Conor Pass when his bike speed dropped to 5kmph against wind and rain as he could run at 7kmph.
The finishing section over the last 150km along the south Cork coastline came down to a head-to-head between Nolan and McColgan, with both crashing during the night and McColgan getting to within 8km of the flying Nolan.
But Rachel Nolan eventually pulled out a bigger lead and won in a time of 5 days, 22hrs, and 20 min. McColgan was 2nd just three hours behind, while Donnacha Cassidy finished 3rd in a time of 6 days and 4 hours.
The only entrant in the short 1,540km course was Tom Daly from Killarney CC who was also the oldest entrant at 65 years.
He finished in six days and nine hours in spite of crashing at night in Co Clare and suffering some facial injuries .
Gerald Herradura took the lantern rouge in 7 days and 19 hours, and only eight of the 12 starters finished.
Race organiser Adrian O’Sullivan, who was commended for putting on the event in the very difficult circumstances, said he was proud of all those who had finished.
“Although a small field, this year’s ride will be hard to beat form an organiser’s view point given its toughness and the reaction the event received,” he said.
“The support out on the road for the riders was incredible and I felt like the red carpet had been rolled out from beginning to end”.
- If you fancy it, the event is already open for entry for the 2021 edition, just follow this link to find out more
Where did the name come from?
A stickybottle, put simply, is the knackered cyclist’s best friend. As a rider is being dropped from a group, the team manager or support worker in a following car holds a bottle out the window to hand it up. As the handover is taking place, the rider grabs the bottle tight, as does whoever is handing it up, enabling the rider get a good tow and push from momentum of the car. It’s known as a stickybottle because it appears neither the rider nor the person handing it up is able to take their hand off the bottle; it looks stuck to their hands. But please don’t try this at home. We’ve been slyly cheating this way all our lives; it takes a while to perfect.