Ulster Cycling News

Willie John all Smiley at The Gap

aWillie John McLaughlin of the North Pole Cycling Club in Donegal has become an icon of Irish cyling in the last few years.

Willie John took up cycling a few years ago when he reached his 65th birthday. Since then he has gone on to amaze his friends and team-mates as he tackles one challenge after another.

However it as the undisputed 'King of the Gap' that he is most famous.  Those who have climbed the Gap of Mamore will cite it as the hardest and steepest climb in Ireland. Just over a mile in length it is not the longest climb but with some stretches reaching 30% gradient it is certainly tough and has defeated many a good man and woman.


Willie John made completing the climb of Mamore,  from both sides, one of his early cycling goals. It was not easy for a man in his late sixties with a heavy bike, wearing trainers in those days to conquer Mamore. However just like the spider in the tale of Robert the Bruce, everytime the Gap defeated him he climbed back on his bike, went to the bottom and started again. Even after achieving his goal Willie John did not rest on his laurels and still regularly climbs for pleaure. It has been said he did it six times in one day to perfect his technique.


At 73 years-of age Willie John has moved on to better bikes and clipless pedals but still rides the Gap and is always willing to lend support and advice to anyone who wants to try it. Chairman of Cycling Ulster, Tommy Lamb, said, "The first time I tried the Gap after a long time off the bike, Willie John rode along with me and kept pace with me encouraging me all the way. I managed to make it to the Grotto before I gave up thinking I was about to have a heart attack. However it was the positive encouragement that I received from Willie John afterwards which made me come back again to conquer the Beast."


Willie John' s achievements reached the ears of a well known actor and comedian who hails from County Down, Michael Smiley. Michael now lives in London and has appeared in a wide ranging list of films, TV shows and documentaries. He has a great love for the bike and returned to his roots earlier this year where he made three documentaries about cycling and cycling personalities in the North. called 'Something to Ride Home About.' These documentaries were widely viewed and well received. As a result he is currently filming more material for new shows which should come out next April.


To ride up the Gap with Willie John McLaughlin was something that Michael felt must be shown. He described it as a "rite of passage for all Irish cyclists". On Saturday the film crew arrived and all was in place. Many of us thought that the Gap might defeat Michael but as the two of them came into view they were both riding strongly.


As they neared the Grotto, with about three hundred metres to go, Michael Smiley found hidden reserves and pulled away on the 72 year old Willie John.


The many supporters of Willie John held their breath to see what would happen.


By the time the finish line appeared Willie John was back on his wheel and they rode actoss the line hand in hand. What an achievement for both so 'Chappeau' Michael - you rode well. The locals were duly impressed.


Michael praised Willie John for the words of encouragement and advice that he provided on the way up. However he said he would not be joining Willie John on his next venture which is competing in the 100 mile time trial at Woodgreen next Sunday. This will be Willie John's sixth time to take part in this event. Michael took part in  last year's 25 mile Ulster TT Championship but decided that busy dual carriageways were not for him.


Michael continues to find interesting places and people in his cycling journeys and if you take a cycle up to Malin Head watch out for the Curiosity Shop which will be feature on the pogramme as well. Lots of interesting items here for browsers.


At the top of Malin Head Banba's Mobile Espresso Van is a must. With fresh home made cakes and really good coffee it is worh the climb up to the Head. I am sure Michael enjoyed his coffee here.

Report and Pics Marian Lamb







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