A great piece written by the journalist Iain Marshall for Cycling World Ireland Magazine about a day tour up to Malin Head we did last year. All the money Iain earns from his freelance work at the moment is being donated to the charity Bloodwise following the death of his brother-in-law from leukaemia: https://www.justgiving.com/GurningGrimpeurs2015
CYCLING TO THE TOP OF IRELAND
- A one-day trip taking in part of the Wild Atlantic WayIreland’snewest tourist trail, the Wild Atlantic Way,stretches for 2,500km, tracing the rugged westerncoastline from Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula in thenorth, all the way down to Kinsale, in County Cork.Tackling such a route by bike would take ages andwould involve long hours of serious pre-planning.However, we decided to sample just part of the WildAtlantic Way, in a single day, by teaming up with Blaiseand Michael who run Cycle Inishowen. And from a nineam start, we had the ride done and dusted well beforeteatime.Based in the town of Carndonagh at the south-westernend of the peninsula, Blaise and Michael hire out hybridRidgeback bikes and offer a range of guided bike tours,including the spin we’d chosen, up to Malin Head. Atlatitude 55.38N, it is of course Ireland’s most northerlypoint – and its name will be familiar to all who regularlylull themselves to sleep at night, listening to the soothingtones of the Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio Four.Used to riding road bikes in London, we’d asked if wecould take our Look and SPD pedals with us. AndMichael quickly fitted these onto the Ridgebacks whilewe discussed the route over coffee with Blaise.Her typical Donegal hospitality was matched by thetypical Donegal weather which we were exposed to formost of the ride. It remained overcast and blusterythroughout but thankfully we were spared the ubiquitoussummer rain which drenched the rest of the county thatday. The 60km route starts gently enough and Blaiseadjusted her pace to match ours.The Wild Atlantic Way boasts 157 so-called “discoverypoints” and our guide, who grew up on the peninsula,added a few of her own, stopping to show us the highcross which stands by the roadside in Carndonagh, at
- the very start of the ride. The artefact – known as theDonagh or St Patrick’s Cross – and its twoaccompanying stones, were found half buried in anearby field, Blaise told us. Some estimates date themback to the seventh century.Easy pedalling took us onto our first stretch of coastroad between Malin and Lagg. We cycled along theshore with Inishowen Peninsula to our right and DoaghIsland, across a narrow stretch of water, to our left. Withthe tide out, Blaise drew our attention to the rows ofblack, barnacled rocks on the exposed shore. Sheexplained that farmers in the past used to position theseboulders in a grid pattern this way, to mark out growingareas, like underwater fields, for the seaweed, whichthey then used to fertilise their crops – a practice whichhas died out. Now the ‘fields’ were of interest only to theoystercatchers and other sea birds which frequent theshallow waters.The ride from Carndonagh to Culdaff, via Malin Head,boasts only two substantial climbs. The first starts nearthe impossibly picturesque, St Mary’s church at Lagg.Dating from 1784 it’s one of the oldest Catholic chapelsstill in use in Ireland. It’s a winding road with severalsignificant ramps but the climb is neither too long nor toosteep. Needless to say, the views over the Atlantic fromthe top are sublime, regardless of the climaticconditions. We even encountered a jaunty group of wildgoats – a rare sight we were assured. However, wedidn’t see any of the basking sharks which are oftenspotted from the shore.Descending towards the eastern edge of Inishowen, wewere offered a choice. We could go straight to lunch, orcycle to Malin Head and back first – or, pedal to MalinHead and then continue on, to describe an extra loopwhich would bring us back, eventually, to the lunch stop.In time-honoured fashion we opted for the scenic – andlonger – route.
- Choosing to ride those extra miles did not disappoint usthough. At every turn, the landscape we passed through,resembled scenes from a Failte Ireland promotionalvideo. The weather wasn’t perfect – but as ever inDonegal – the blustery conditions and lowering clouds,added to the drama and grandeur of our stark andremote surroundings.As we approached Ireland’s most northerly point – wewere following in the footsteps – as opposed to pedalstrokes – of the Vikings, the ancient Celts and SaintColumbkille; who was born in Donegal in 521, and wasreputedly, Ireland’s first missionary to Scotland.We were now facing the ride up to Banba’s Crown onthe very tip of Malin Head and the second major hill onthe route. Short and twisty, it’s nevertheless quite steep.As we pedalled up toward the 19thcentury watchtowerwhich sits on the top – sheathed now, in unsightlytwentieth century concrete – the wind started blowingmenacingly.The road has just two or three hairpins and there’s littlein the way of creature comforts on offer to reward thosewho muscle their way to the summit. Bleak World WarTwo emplacements are still evident; built, again out ofconcrete, to protect Irish neutrality during the war. Thecoffee stall was closed, all hatches battened down – asure sign that the winds were strong Blaise told us.In fact, as the gusts built to a crescendo, throwing ahapless rider completely off her bike onto the grassverge, it felt as if Ireland has its very own Mont Ventouxalbeit in extreme miniature, complete with the wildAtlantic version of the Mistral wind.We bade farewell to mythical Queen Banba and pushedour bikes DOWN the hill, rather than up it, such was theferocity of the howling gale. No wonder they have aweather station up here.
- An undulating ride on slightly more sheltered, butabsolutely deserted roads took us round the coast andback to the start of our pre-lunch loop. Finally weheaded to the Malin Head’s Seaview Tavern atBallygorman for some welcome sustenance.The homeward stretch was gentler on the legs. Weretraced our tyre tracks for part of the way – passingLagg church once again and speeding along the coastpast the seaweed ‘fields’ until we got to Malin town.It was then time to cut across the peninsula towardsCuldaff and our journey’s end.There were more points of interest to be explored beforewe got there however. Blaise stopped by some housesand leant her bike against a fence before walking up apath into the field.She led us a short way towards a smallish stone buildingwithout a roof. This was Clonca Church, site of anotherimpressive stone cross. It also boasted an old carvedheadstone.Ireland may have produced some stunning professionalcyclists, in the forms of Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche andDan Martin. But centuries ago, of course, the bicyclehadn’t been invented. By contrast, the headstone atClonca showed that Gaelic sport was present way backthen.Blaise pointed out what looked like a hurling stick – orhurley – and ball clearly carved into the large stone.Speculation had it that the grave marker was that of aGallowglass – a Scottish mercenary. However, othersources, say the ‘Magnus and Fergus’ grave slab wasnot brought from Scotland, as legend has it, but is ofIrish origin.It felt apt to be viewing this early representation of aquintessentially Irish sport, when our visit coincided with
- the Donegal – Dublin semi-final in that year’s All-IrelandGaelic football competition.After Clonca Old Church, it was an easy pedal on quietback roads to our final destination on the seashore atCuldaff – where we were picked up by Michael anddriven back to Carndonagh.If you want a bracing day in the saddle which includessome of Ireland’s most dramatic scenery, with asmattering of its ancient and unique local knowledgethrown in by Blaise, this ride is definitely for you. But ifyou want to work on those ruler-straight, cycling jersey,tan lines, there’s no guarantee the Wild Atlantic Way willprompt you to get the sunscreen out.