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 Way
    Ireland’snewest tourist trail, the Wild Atlantic Way,
    stretches for 2,500km, tracing the rugged western
    coastline from Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula in the
    north, all the way down to Kinsale, in County Cork.
    Tackling such a route by bike would take ages and
    would involve long hours of serious pre-planning.
    However, we decided to sample just part of the Wild
    Atlantic Way, in a single day, by teaming up with Blaise
    and Michael who run Cycle Inishowen. And from a nine
    am start, we had the ride done and dusted well before
    teatime.
    Based in the town of Carndonagh at the south-western
    end of the peninsula, Blaise and Michael hire out hybrid
    Ridgeback bikes and offer a range of guided bike tours,
    including the spin we’d chosen, up to Malin Head. At
    latitude 55.38N, it is of course Ireland’s most northerly
    point – and its name will be familiar to all who regularly
    lull themselves to sleep at night, listening to the soothing
    tones of the Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio Four.
    Used to riding road bikes in London, we’d asked if we
    could take our Look and SPD pedals with us. And
    Michael quickly fitted these onto the Ridgebacks while
    we discussed the route over coffee with Blaise.
    Her typical Donegal hospitality was matched by the
    typical Donegal weather which we were exposed to for
    most of the ride. It remained overcast and blustery
    throughout but thankfully we were spared the ubiquitous
    summer rain which drenched the rest of the county that
    day. The 60km route starts gently enough and Blaise
    adjusted her pace to match ours.
    The Wild Atlantic Way boasts 157 so-called “discovery
    points” and our guide, who grew up on the peninsula,
    added a few of her own, stopping to show us the high
    cross which stands by the roadside in Carndonagh, at
  • the very start of the ride. The artefact – known as the
    Donagh or St Patrick’s Cross – and its two
    accompanying stones, were found half buried in a
    nearby field, Blaise told us. Some estimates date them
    back to the seventh century.
    Easy pedalling took us onto our first stretch of coast
    road between Malin and Lagg. We cycled along the
    shore with Inishowen Peninsula to our right and Doagh
    Island, across a narrow stretch of water, to our left. With
    the tide out, Blaise drew our attention to the rows of
    black, barnacled rocks on the exposed shore. She
    explained that farmers in the past used to position these
    boulders in a grid pattern this way, to mark out growing
    areas, like underwater fields, for the seaweed, which
    they then used to fertilise their crops – a practice which
    has died out. Now the ‘fields’ were of interest only to the
    oystercatchers and other sea birds which frequent the
    shallow waters.
    The ride from Carndonagh to Culdaff, via Malin Head,
    boasts only two substantial climbs. The first starts near
    the impossibly picturesque, St Mary’s church at Lagg.
    Dating from 1784 it’s one of the oldest Catholic chapels
    still in use in Ireland. It’s a winding road with several
    significant ramps but the climb is neither too long nor too
    steep. Needless to say, the views over the Atlantic from
    the top are sublime, regardless of the climatic
    conditions. We even encountered a jaunty group of wild
    goats – a rare sight we were assured. However, we
    didn’t see any of the basking sharks which are often
    spotted from the shore.
    Descending towards the eastern edge of Inishowen, we
    were offered a choice. We could go straight to lunch, or
    cycle to Malin Head and back first – or, pedal to Malin
    Head and then continue on, to describe an extra loop
    which would bring us back, eventually, to the lunch stop.
    In time-honoured fashion we opted for the scenic – and
    longer – route.
  • Choosing to ride those extra miles did not disappoint us
    though. At every turn, the landscape we passed through,
    resembled scenes from a Failte Ireland promotional
    video. The weather wasn’t perfect – but as ever in
    Donegal – the blustery conditions and lowering clouds,
    added to the drama and grandeur of our stark and
    remote surroundings.
    As we approached Ireland’s most northerly point – we
    were following in the footsteps – as opposed to pedal
    strokes – of the Vikings, the ancient Celts and Saint
    Columbkille; who was born in Donegal in 521, and was
    reputedly, Ireland’s first missionary to Scotland.
    We were now facing the ride up to Banba’s Crown on
    the very tip of Malin Head and the second major hill on
    the route. Short and twisty, it’s nevertheless quite steep.
    As we pedalled up toward the 19
    th
    century watchtower
    which sits on the top – sheathed now, in unsightly
    twentieth century concrete – the wind started blowing
    menacingly.
    The road has just two or three hairpins and there’s little
    in the way of creature comforts on offer to reward those
    who muscle their way to the summit. Bleak World War
    Two emplacements are still evident; built, again out of
    concrete, to protect Irish neutrality during the war. The
    coffee stall was closed, all hatches battened down – a
    sure sign that the winds were strong Blaise told us.
    In fact, as the gusts built to a crescendo, throwing a
    hapless rider completely off her bike onto the grass
    verge, it felt as if Ireland has its very own Mont Ventoux
    albeit in extreme miniature, complete with the wild
    Atlantic version of the Mistral wind.
    We bade farewell to mythical Queen Banba and pushed
    our bikes DOWN the hill, rather than up it, such was the
    ferocity of the howling gale. No wonder they have a
    weather station up here.
  • An undulating ride on slightly more sheltered, but
    absolutely deserted roads took us round the coast and
    back to the start of our pre-lunch loop. Finally we
    headed to the Malin Head’s Seaview Tavern at
    Ballygorman for some welcome sustenance.
    The homeward stretch was gentler on the legs. We
    retraced our tyre tracks for part of the way – passing
    Lagg church once again and speeding along the coast
    past the seaweed ‘fields’ until we got to Malin town.
    It was then time to cut across the peninsula towards
    Culdaff and our journey’s end.
    There were more points of interest to be explored before
    we got there however. Blaise stopped by some houses
    and leant her bike against a fence before walking up a
    path into the field.
    She led us a short way towards a smallish stone building
    without a roof. This was Clonca Church, site of another
    impressive stone cross. It also boasted an old carved
    headstone.
    Ireland may have produced some stunning professional
    cyclists, in the forms of Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and
    Dan Martin. But centuries ago, of course, the bicycle
    hadn’t been invented. By contrast, the headstone at
    Clonca showed that Gaelic sport was present way back
    then.
    Blaise pointed out what looked like a hurling stick – or
    hurley – and ball clearly carved into the large stone.
    Speculation had it that the grave marker was that of a
    Gallowglass – a Scottish mercenary. However, other
    sources, say the ‘Magnus and Fergus’ grave slab was
    not brought from Scotland, as legend has it, but is of
    Irish origin.
    It felt apt to be viewing this early representation of a
    quintessentially Irish sport, when our visit coincided with
  • the Donegal – Dublin semi-final in that year’s All-Ireland
    Gaelic football competition.
    After Clonca Old Church, it was an easy pedal on quiet
    back roads to our final destination on the seashore at
    Culdaff – where we were picked up by Michael and
    driven back to Carndonagh.
    If you want a bracing day in the saddle which includes
    some of Ireland’s most dramatic scenery, with a
    smattering of its ancient and unique local knowledge
    thrown in by Blaise, this ride is definitely for you. But if
    you want to work on those ruler-straight, cycling jersey,
    tan lines, there’s no guarantee the Wild Atlantic Way will
    prompt you to get the sunscreen out.