An extract from the book 40 Strange Groups
There are 8 whisky distilleries on the isle of Islay: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig. The IWC holds an annual cycle Race between all 8 distilleries. The public roads are shut for the day and the cyclists are only allowed to eat food once they have crossed the finishing line, though few people manage this feat and most of them don’t remember doing so.
The race begins at 8am in the capital of Islay, Bowmore. The cyclists are only allowed to drink a maximum of one pint of water during the race. Each of the distilleries is visited in alphabetical order in even-numbered years and in reverse-alphabetical order in odd-numbered years. At each stop, the cyclist must drink an eighth of a pint of whisky from that distillery before getting on their bike and wobbling off towards the next distillery, which is signposted. Cyclists can stop and wheel their bikes or even fall asleep at the side of the road for an hour, if they wish. Cyclists must finish with the bike they started with.
The race is restricted to 24 riders, who have qualified either by finishing in the top 8 in the previous year’s race or who came in the top 8 in either of the two qualifying races, the Speyside North or the Speyside South. These two qualifying races are run on the same day, one heading north and the other heading south. They visit the same 8 distilleries and things can occasionally get a bit hectic at the midway point where cyclists in both races meet. There has not been a repeat of the 1972 incident when there was a massive punch-up, started by an English cyclist who tried to look up a Glaswegian’s kilt when he was resting by the roadside.
Sam MacDonald, one of the founders of the IWC race, won it 5 times although these victories have always been in the alphabetic race rather than the reverse-alphabetic race. He explains it this way: “The problem is when to drink the water – when you are in the race in the alphabetic order, you know you have to drink most of the water after you leave Kilchoman as the last two whiskies are the strongest, but in the Reverse Race these two are first, which means drinking the water at the start of the race is probably the best bet. However, I have never finished the reverse, so mine is not the best opinion. In the reverse race I rarely reach Bowmore, let alone Ardbeg. There’s a very nice grassy bank near Bowmore and I normally collapse on to that. No one has finished the reverse race since 1997 – it’s tough.”
In instances where no one crosses the finishing line, the judges go along the course in reverse to find the 8 cyclists who will qualify for the following year’s race. Normally they are found asleep in ditches or draped over a fence looking extremely ill. The riders are all given a pint of water to drink and an aspirin to help with the headache.