For Caoimhe May, mountain biking has always been part of her life.
My grandparents live about 200 meters from the entrance to Ticknock Forest,” says the 19-year-old from Celbridge. “So, once I could ride a bike, my mum and dad would take me and my brothers into the forest for cycles. I was doing laps of Ticknock from a very young age.”
From a sports-mad family, whose matriarch, Una, is a former rider and now head of Sports Ireland, Caoimhe started racing off-road for fun in the U-8 category but has tried out every other discipline of the sport.
“There were never too many in my age category in mountain-biking,” says May, who is also hot favorite to win Cycling Ireland’s Women’s Cross-Country National Series with one event to go. “I was always in contention for the win in my races so, in order to get competitive races, I had to do road racing and stuff.
“When I started to pick up different disciplines I realised that whatever fitness I had from doing all the mountain-biking transferred over, so I had enough fitness to get through most of it until I was a bit older. Then, when I did start to train properly, it was on the road. I took a bit of a turn away from mountain-biking because road racing was the thing to do.”
Since then, the Orwell Wheelers rider has picked up junior national titles on both road and track, ridden the Youth Olympics in Baku, the European track championships in Holland and even tried her hand at cyclo-cross.
“The Youth Olympics were probably a big motivation to stick on the road at the time,” she says. “I was lucky enough to be going well that year and won most of the selection races. Going to the event itself was unreal, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I loved the crowds and the atmosphere and the European track championships last year were great too. I love the big events.”
Despite her success on track and road, her heart lies in the forest trails she started cycling on.
“I’ve done a lot of road racing, track racing, even cyclo-cross, but mountain-biking is definitely my favourite,” she admits. “To be honest, it’s always been my favorite, even though there’s been a couple of years where I probably didn’t get any mountain-bike racing done.
“I think it’s just the fact that there’s always something to keep your mind focused off-road. I found with the road that a lot of the time you’re just riding along, looking at the same bit of tarmac in front of you. I find it very boring. I guess mountain biking is where I started off and because, thankfully, I have the ability to not crash too often, I really enjoy zipping through the forest, down mountains and being out in nature.”
But racing is only part of the reason she loves mountain-biking. Family days out on the trails are another.
“After learning to ride in Ticknock, we rode various different trail centers around the country and in the UK as a family,” she says. “My brother Cian was a big roadie, but in he’s in college and works in town now so he’s backed off a bit. I have a younger brother, Oisín, who’s also big into mountain-biking. It’s good to have a family who do the same sport. We can all ride together. I can wait on mum, wait on dad, have Oisín give me a push if I’m tired, it’s good to have the whole family involved. It’s a nice activity to do together.
“I think the GAP (Glencullen Adventure Park) is the best place for a fun day out,” she says. “You can go up and down as many times as you like. There’s a lovely little café there to get your lunch and there’s no limit to how long you can spend there.”
While most people try tarmac first before venturing off it, May reckons the forest trails are the best place to learn to ride a bike.
“The best way to start off cycling is on a mountain bike because you learn the basic skills and bike-handling you need for no matter what sort of cycling you are going to do,” she says.
“I know some people might think it’s a bit scary because you have rocks and roots and stuff in your way, but it’s a safe environment. As long as you pick a trail center where you know nothing you come across is going to be too adventurous or dangerous. Somewhere like Ticknock or Ballinastoe, where you can show up rent a bike and there’s always people around to tell you where to go is the best place to start. I would one hundred per cent recommend it.
“On the road you have the extra element of cars and stuff. At least with mountain-biking you can try it out on a rental bike and then buy yourself a basic mountain bike and a helmet if you like it.
“You can start off on the nice and basic blue trails before you move up to red, where there may be extra little bits like step downs but everything is roll-able and then you have the bigger stuff, the black trails, which are more advanced. Have a go, see what you like, what you can do, and go from there.”
Although she won the first three events of the Cross-Country National Series, May missed last weekend’s fourth round to support her boyfriend Kevin McCambridge on the Rás Tailteann for the last two stages. Her presence on the race coincided with 20-year-old McCambridge’s best performance of his career when he soloed to stage victory on Sunday’s final stage to Blackrock in Co Louth.
“This was so worth it,” she said, admitting that her legs were shaking more during the final lap than when she was racing. “I’m glad I missed the national series now. I’ll be back for the next round and hopefully I can hold onto the lead and win the series.”
Next up, however, is a brief return to the road this weekend in Kanturk, where she has entered the women’s elite time trial national championships.
“It was a very last-minute decision,” she says. “I still have to put my time trial bike together. I haven’t ridden it since the last nationals. Going from junior to elite though, with no kind of jump through U-23, will be a big step so I won’t be too broken-hearted if I don’t win the elite nationals. I would like to win the national mountain-bike championships later in the year though.”