As a cyclist I dread the word “challenge”,I know it is going to immediately lead me astray. Mere mention of a “challenging” climb will add it to my tick list. I’ve now completed at least four “challenging” Gran Fondos and seriously “challenged” myself when cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats with little preparation or training.
I should have closed my ears to the suggestion of “credit card touring” that I overheard in conversation, especially given that the dialogue was littered with the word “challenging”. Instead I butted in and asked to know more. It turned out that the concept was simple, “credit card touring” describes the act of completing a cycle tour in absolute minimalist fashion, carrying the bare essentials for riding and a credit card to pay for accommodation. I was hooked immediately and all that I needed was a candidate cycle tour on which to live out the challenge.
To be truly challenging the route needed to be; long enough to stretch limited resources, scenic enough to maintain interest and challenging enough to push the rider. I initially considered the UK end to end but felt it had too much of the “known” about it and then my sights turned towards Ireland, Mizan Head to Malin Head, the Irish End to End. That would do nicely, Ireland a land famed for its rugged countryside, its hospitality and also its inclement weather.
Could it be ridden lightweight? I couldn’t find anyone who’d tried...
All too quickly I found myself waving “goodbye” to the Swansea Cork ferry, armed with only the cycling clothes I stood in, a bicycle a pair of shorts, a t-shirt, a few maps, a vague route plan, some cash, a credit card and precious little else.
I was committed to the ride. The task seemed simple enough, ride from Cork to Mizen Head, Ireland’s most southerly point. Next head north and take as scenic route as possible towards Malin Head. Have a brief celebration and then work out some way of getting back home to England.
I left the ferry port shrouded in early morning mist and escaped the clutches of Cork into traffic free undulating country lanes. Solitude heightened my early sense of commitment heading steadily west I began to get a feel for the Irish touring experience.
The road meandered lazily between towns and villages grabbing views as it climbed hill and dropped down to investigate valley bottom. Surface quality varied from the occasional luxury of a rumble free pristine tarmac section to the more frequent rough pitted country lane. The countryside was dotted with history, my ride was being constantly interrupted by burial grounds, ruins, vistas, stone circles and follies each beckoning me away from the road for a brief investigation.
During one of these interruptions I wheeled my bike up to the Drombeg stone circle only to find a small child squatting over something shiny in the middle. Closer investigation revealed a scattering of small change left by superstitious tourists. Smiling to myself, I looked skywards, I’d found a pot of gold and a potential leprechaun but alas the rainbow was nowhere to be seen.
My route flirted with the west coast all the way to Skibbereen passing through a procession of pretty seaside villages. The sun widened a gap in the clouds and the smile on my face. So far I’d hardly seen another car. I felt relaxed and under no pressure to let drivers pass. It was as if the roads had been reserved for cyclists.
Draped in the afternoon sun I stood at Mizen Head staring out to sea taking a severe lashing from the sharp southerly wind. The ride “proper” was about to begin I’d already covered ninety miles, I had a fair few more to go.Riding north with the wind up the West coast my legs were hurting, however, my Irish end to end had only just begun.Typical of Ireland, the scenery did not let up. After my first night's rest, I left Bantry and climbed steadily, gawping at the Caha mountains to my left. I gained an “alpine” feel as ahead of me I espied Molls Gap framed by the stone wall that lazily wound up the valley. The beautiful green/brown patchwork of rugged countryside compensated for my fatigue, what a way to begin a day's ride!
It got better, a drop down into the Black valley and switchback ride towards the gap of Dunloe. Cars are banned from this road and, apart from the horse drawn carriages stuffed full of camera touting tourists, the cyclist is king of the road. My flow was frequently interrupted. These traps take up a large portion of the narrow road, and travel largely at the whim of the horses. All too frequently I found myself standing on the grass verge watching them go by.
Riding easily through the valley all was well until the road rudely turned back on itself and headed steeply upwards. I was wondering what I had done to deserve the sudden punishment when the road relented leaving me staring down the beautiful Gap of Dunloe. High valley walls framed a crystal clear stream and lake system, sheep lazily foraged in the sun, food choice being no problem with the abundant green surroundings. With mixed emotions that I sped down the valley, buoyed by the thrill of the downhill speed, yet brushed with regret at letting the vista pass so quickly.
Tired legs forced me round the Stacks mountains and I dragged the bike on towards the Tarbet Ferry. Upon the ferry I sat surrounded by cars with a wry smile upon my face. I had earned my passage across the Shannon estuary what had they done to justify their ride? This was the most traffic I had seen all day. I leant back and mused upon a good night's sleep in Kilrush, today’s destination.
So far, the lightweight touring method had served me well. I had found no problems in locating accommodation and without exception had been welcomed in along with my bike. The lack of luggage was speeding my progress and I was covering in excess of one hundred miles a day. I didn't need to carry food as every garage or shop seemed to have a sandwich counter that made my lunchtime baguette to order. I quickly developed an evening ritual of washing my clothes and squeezing them dry between two towels. Visiting the local corner shop and buying water and food for the next morning. Heading out in search of take-away food or a shop with yet another of the ubiquitous sandwich counters and eating it whilst scanning the TV for news and hoping for another good weather forecast.
My lightweight rituals seemed to soak up so much time that the evenings were gone in a flash. Before I knew it I was dragging myself out of bed, pealing on tepid cycling gear and shoving down yet another full Irish fried breakfast.
Up to this point the credit card tour had been going well. And then, it rained, properly.
Ireland had clearly been playing with me, soaking me in nothing but countryside and treating me to tail winds and September sun. I left Kilrush in the pouring rain and headed out towards the west coast, dragged away from the direct route by the spectacular cliffs of Moher. My lightweight breathable waterproof top resisted the rain for as long as it could before giving in and tormenting me with a mixture of warm sweat and cold rainwater. Yet somehow it was more bearable than a wet autumn ride back home, maybe due to the lack of traffic and the ever varying landscape that dragged my mind away from feelings of self pity.
In fact the rain seemed to complement the rock swept landscape cleaved by the Burren coast road. I caught a rare sighting of two other cyclists at Black Head point. While I took in the lighthouse, they argued over a map. I left them and the beautiful landscape to it as I rounded Galway bay and followed a nondescript road into Cong, wet, bedraggled and in need of an understanding landlady.
Clearly Ireland was not going to let me have it all my way on this trip. Water had found ingress into everything, including my evening clothes. I learnt that double wrapping in plastic bags was mandatory if items were to stay dry. I festooned my room in drying clothes and maps whilst flicking from channel to channel on the television desperately searching for the most optimistic weather forecast. I had the mountains and loughs of county Mayo on the next day's itinerary and was in serious need of a view without any obstructions.
The weather didn't disappoint and I had what felt like my most isolated day, starting with a brief tussle with the Partry mountains followed by a beautiful run along the coast of Lough Mask. Increasingly the roads were lined by peat bogs littered with discarded gathering bags. I was disappointed not to encounter any peat cutters but caught the acrid whiff of a peat fire snaking from a moor side Inn further up the road.
I began to celebrate my credit card tour. I was cycling in near wilderness with only the wind and random thought for company. I was riding my favourite lightweight titanium bike, my pride and joy, a racing bike without mudguards or racks or anything remotely useful for cycle touring. All of my possessions were stuffed within a tiny bar bag.
Somehow this felt right, the surroundings egged me on towards further discovery rather than dragging me back for another look. The light bike relieved the effort of a high daily mileage and was a major factor in my making the north east coast above Sligo that evening. With a fair wind I'd make Malin Head the next day and my challenge would be occomplished. Sadly, I awoke to a completely unfair headwind of nearly twenty miles an hour.
There was no escaping the main road heading north east through Donegal. I had limited time away from work and needed to get the ride done within the week. On a day like this the N15 had little to offer a tired yet committed cyclist. I grudgingly put my head down and ground against the wind. All surroundings were lost on me. Views and landscapes were discarded by my fractious mental state.
Towns passed me slowly by, rain showers paid me visits of ever increasing length. Cars and lorries showed me no sympathy, forcing me to hug the hard shoulder and look up malevolently from my relentless grind. I entered an almost trance like state of suffering punctuated with bursts of mental arithmetic as I converted kilometres to my more familiar miles and counted down the slow progress towards the northern tip of Ireland.
Turning due north, the feelings of hopelessness dissipated. I twigged that my objective was within reach. I was in Buncrana, once again away from the traffic and main roads, once again in the company of mountains and grand vistas. From nowhere I summoned speed and determination, I forgot all of the earlier toiling and kicked the bike northwards with an increasing realisation that I was going to make it. The rain started to come down, but I didn't care, the wind picked up, I still didn't care. Malin Head was close enough to ride to, and that was all that mattered.
At Malin a sign told me that I had a further ten miles cycling to reach Malin Head. I'd already cycled one hundred miles in appalling conditions, so I treated myself to a hotel room. I briskly dumped as much filthy wet kit as I could, glanced mournfully at the large bed and shower then sped off to complete the challenge.
Ireland had another treat in store for me. The narrow road leading up to Malin Head twists and turns and climbs and dives around the rocky coast. It is windswept and unkempt, dragging the eye from tussles of greenery, to rocks and then out to the rough waters of the North Atlantic. I passed beautiful beaches, derelict buildings, non-plussed grazing animals and the occasional local. All of this was shared with nobody else. A fitting finale to a tour that had felt so quiet.
Ireland does not give Malin Head up without a fight. The last hundred metres were by far the steepest of the tour and after a brief aerobic struggle I was looking out to sea from the most northerly point in Ireland. I'd completed the Irish end to end.
Malin Head does not have a visitor centre. There is no signpost for you to label with your home town and point south. In fact, all Malin Head has is a couple of ruined buildings and a spectacular view of the coast and the North Atlantic ocean and somehow, that seems just right.
I dismounted my bike and stared into the wind, contemplating the challenge. The Irish end to end is a committing ride and when completed outside of the tourist season the sense of isolation is real. The variable weather, rugged scenery and ever changing riding conditions never let up, constantly reminding the rider that they are in the "real" outdoors.
I'd risen well to the challenge of lightweight touring, and found that it suited me to leave behind the incumbencies of luggage. In fact I'd relished the daily challenge of finding some suitable accommodation and smiling sweetly at the proprietor whilst either dripping wet or sweating profusely. However, this was rarely a problem, the Irish people are consistently welcoming and budget accommodation abounds. The greatest challenge I had was that the smaller B&B's did not accept credit cards. The ride had become a "credit card and cash" tour instead.
Cycling Ireland end to end offers a steady string of highlights. The ever changing surroundings, lack of traffic and my minimal resources added a constant feel of adventure. Climbers talk of conquering mountains "Alpine style", travelling lightweight with no support. I felt that I’ve ridden Ireland Alpine style, it had been a worthy challenge and Ireland deserves something out of the ordinary.
Usually I complete a long ride with a sense of relief, glad that the mileage has been done and that I'll be hanging up the cycling shoes for a while. However, it was with a huge sense of regret that I mounted my bike and headed back to Malin. I'd found a major disadvantage of lightweight touring. The Irish end to end was over far too soon.
The complete ride covered a distance of 563 miles from Cork to Malin Head, the day after completion I cycled an additional 40 miles to Derry Airport.
I completed the ride in 5 days, riding an average of 112 miles per day.
Terrain varied from coast road to mountain pass, road surfaces are not as good as the UK and occasionally very poor.
Ireland is littered with guest houses and B&B's, options will be found in even the smallest town. However, in high season it may be advisable to book in advance. Food shops and corner stores are also plentiful and often open till late. There are bike shops in larger towns, however, if stuck, ask, I bought a tyre from a friendly toy shop owner who sold me his spare.
The Swansea Cork ferry company offer a daily service from Swansea to Cork, a cabin is worth the extra on the night crossing.
Plenty of operators fly into Cork, including Easyjet, BMIBaby and British Airways
I flew home from Londonderry via Ryanair, BA also operate from Derry. The ride could be extended down to Belfast where further ferry and flight options exist.
Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI) provide the Complete Road Atlas of Ireland (1:210000). I carried my route marked upon the OSI 1:250000 series maps (Ireland South, Ireland West, Ireland North).
Further Information: -
Cycle Touring Ireland - Brendan Walsh, ISBN 0717133958
Lonely Planet "Cycling Ireland" ISBN 1740593162
Irish tourist board: http://www.ireland.ie/ (Tel: 00 353 1 602 4000 )