Part 2: Cycling Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way
Day 1: Kinsale- Kenmare 326km and a lot of big hills.
4.14am on Friday, the epic journey begins..
A couple of buckets of museli and 2 coffees, on the bike and a nice roll down to the centre of Kinsale. We were all anxiously hanging around till the ‘GO’ at 6am. It was like a scatter of wild lions ready to be realised. 3,2,1, GO.. Woppeeee, we were off and starting with fresh uninjured and clean legs. Once people have a helmet on, it’s like going to confessions; you can say and admit to anything as it feels like the person can’t see you. We were all bunched for the first couple of kilometres, Linda was one side of me, we were never more than a metre apart for the entire 2100km, and to the other side was a lovely man I got chatting to. At one point, he yelled out, oh no I forgot a spare, I thought he meant a spare tub. He continued, with all these bumps on the road if they fall out I don’t have a spare set and won’t be able to talk to anyone.. Yes you guessed right, he was talking about his teeth. His concern was losing his teeth on the ride and not being about to chat to everyone. This English man, AKA the Teddy bear is a true character, possibly in his 60’s, big white beard and an amazing positive energy. His favourite time of the day was choosing a bar to have his daily pint of black stuff, I caught him and his buddy a few times when we were in the bars loading up on coffee, it was like they were just on a Sunday spin.
The first few hours were all very sociable, the sun was out and the skies were blue, and then…. the ‘big hills’ started….
The route was just spectacular through Timoleague and beyond to the golden sand of Silver Strand where there was a man with a horse and cart enjoying a morning gallop, Discover Ireland couldn’t have scripted it better. Many stopped to take a photo to keep this precious memory and not mistake it for one of the hallucinations that would occur later on during the 7 days endurance holiday. The images, smells and feelings are so vivid and personal when you are on the bike, we got an intimate experience of the Wild Atlantic Way that you can’t read in a book or get on a tour bus.
One of the places that stood out for me along Cork’s Wild Atlantic Way was the beautiful view of Glandore and the yachts at the harbour. The water was so calm, there wasn’t a person in sight, we had it all to ourselves, it was like discovering hidden treasure.
Baltimore was the first campervan stop at 120km and we grew to look forward to seeing this campervan each day. There were three controls every day to ensure we were sticking to the route if ever our tracker failed, this could involve getting a receipt from a shop, taking a picture of something, answering a question such as a pub name on the corner of a town or getting our card stamped at the campervan. The final control was at the end of each day, it was a welcome sight and a focus for the day.
At the campervan, they had coffee and fruit cake. I ate my body weight in the buttery fruit cake and drank a litre of coffee each time. People kept asking me where I was putting all the food, I was like a wild animal, an eating machine, all these endurance events are a great excuse to have an endless number of picnics. But in saying that, we did burn around 40,000 calories in the 7 day and yes I possibly consumed the same or more!
Following this control stop, we joined forces with two other randonnees, Jim and Albert and continued together onwards to Mizen head, the most southerly point in Ireland. We then went onto Sheep’s head where we stopped in a lovely pub in Kilcohane for a coffee and toasted sandwiches. The guys were great company and we shared stories and talked about how fortunate we were to be sharing this experience. From here, Linda knew the road well as we were in her back garden en route to her home town, Kenmare. We headed onto Bantry, Glengarriff and finally up the Healy Pass which is a lovely twisted long uphill climb with a stunning reward at the top- breath-taking views and a big downhill, which I managed to hit 64km p/h, what an adrenaline rush! The final climb was coming out of Lauragh and just near the top I was forced to stop, I felt faint and knew I needed salt. I pulled in at a layby, ate 2 babybel cheese and a packet of salty tuc biscuits. With the sun beating down on us, my face was now out in salt crystals and my jersey was white. I’ve had previous serious issues with salt, one where I finished in a coma for 40 hours (you can read this story in my blog on nutrition and hydration) so I knew that I needed to consume large amounts to keep the balance. Within a minute the salt seemed to have been absorbed in my body and we blasted off again.
Spinning through the colourful town of Kenmare was such a rewarding feeling, 327km done and over 4000 metres of climbing, this was officially a lot more than we had ever cycled and this was just the end of day 1. Wow, what a huge sigh of relief and feeling of achievement when we cruised into the control at Kenmare GAA club house. We had contemplated on going to Linda’s house to get sleep in a real bed, just 10 km away but even that seemed like too much unnecessary effort.
After getting our cards stamped, we hobbled upstairs to a gym that was now a mini Audax eating area. From the balcony, we could see that the basketball court with an array of blow up mattresses and had already a few bodies panned out. The evening savaging started, soup, pasta, Irish stew, apple pie, chocolate cake, bars, biscuits, breads, this was not the menu, this was what we ate. There were only a few other soldiers that had arrived in before us, so we knew we possibly went to fast and may feel the effects later on during the week. My favourite part of everyday was meeting all the participants in the morning at breakfast, during the day and in the evening, sharing the stories, the laughs, the aches and pains. Some people we met quite a lot and others less, the randonnees mostly like to ride alone so they can keep to their own pace and logistical planning. This is something we both learned a lot about during the 7 days, from pacing to gear to just been relentless. Both myself and Linda were just novice to ultra-distance cycling and although we have a lot of experience in endurance events but doing one discipline for 7 days requires a different type of mental and physical strength. After filling up, I asked one of the volunteers if the four ladies mattresses could be discretely put into a changing room. I’m the lightest sleeper ever and with a snoring orchestra, there would be no hope. After a cold shower and jumping onto a soft air bed, I went on conscious.
4.15am and it was time to get up. We had a good 5 hours sleep, the most I got for the week. We were so slow in the morning, even with everything prepared, we took ages having breakfast and once we started chatting with everyone and having a laugh, the time just flew by. We met Ray Curry that morning, he too if from Ballina and we’d been out for a few exploring training cycles together. He’s a great long distance cyclist and a serious entertainer by trade; you don’t have to be from Cork to have the gift of the gab!
It was 5.30am before we got onto the bike, the morning was just glorious and our plan was now to slow it down, take the hills very handy and basically put the foot to the floor on the downhills and flat. From day 5 onward, I realised that this strategy wasn’t very wise and we would both pay for it. Our warm up on day 2 was the 180km of the Ring of Kerry which happened to be Linda’s longest event and distance she had ever spent sitting on a saddle. The scenery was fabulous and until 9am, we had the road all to ourselves. Then the tour busses started, as I’m now working in the tourism business, I was very curious of how Kerry are so far ahead and seem to get all the tourists. It soon became very evident, every 400 metres they were selling something, from holing a lamb to meeting a stone age man to having a stop sign outside a pub so tourists come in for an Irish coffee, they know how to sell and their customer service and community spirit is really impressive. Having nearly completed the Ring of Kerry and almost getting knocked down by 5 tour buses, the rain started. This was a game changer as we still had over 150 km to go and there were a lot more hills involved. There was a strong head wind and we were getting cold. We decided to break it up and stop every 50 km for a quick coffee, food, and toilet and rub cream all over the place stop. I never drink coke or Lucozade much before and I don’t have a very sweet tooth, well this all changed during the WAW cycle. We ate every 30 minutes, bars, packets of tuc biscuits, tayto, rock shandy, scones, anything really, we were wired on sugar and coffee. The caffeine and sugar sends me nuts, I think it sent us both a bit ‘wild’. There was a lovely 10km drag up the Conor Pass on the way out of Dingle and the fog, wind and mist was so bad on the decent that we had to put on our high vis and bike lights to get down safely. It was tough to imagine that some of our Audax friends would be going down this in the dark in these conditions.
After another fantastic day on the bike, 325km and once again over 4000 metres climbing, we arrived into Ballyheige before 8pm. Once again we were one of the first to arrive into the community hall, either we were strong on the hills or just not pacing ourselves correctly. It was such a lovely feeling of satisfaction getting off the saddle and all the volunteering congratulating us and pointing us in the direction of food + shelter.
The Ballyheige community hall was overlooking the beach and the spread of food was once again, fit for royalty. I can’t compliment the volunteers enough, they were just outstanding, always in good humour, so kind and thoughtful and worked long hours to ensure everyone was fed and looked after at the end of each day. The comradery among everyone was indescribable, we had a special connection. It was not a race, there was no competition, we were all sharing this experience together, all on the same journey and having our own highs and lows each day, we just needed to keep ahead of that cut off point. This bond was not even about communication, it was in the atmosphere, it was in the hobbling off the bike, the dirty gear, the look of shear sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, we respected each other and we always will.
The next morning was due to be a sleep in, waking at 4.45am and leaving at 6am to cycle 60km and catch the ferry from Tarbert to cross the Shannon and bring us on our way to Kilrush. However, the mattresses were right beside the kitchen and there was a continuous noise throughout the night with people arriving in and getting fed, I don’t think I slept 5 minutes. Myself and Linda didn’t talk about sleep or pain, we just laughed it off and got on with it, what’s the point, we were going to cross that bridge in Derry no matter what so we might as well stay positive, embrace the pain and enjoy the journey. As usual we took well over the planned one hour to get ready but we were in no rush, we gave ourselves lots of time to get to the ferry. Once again, we went to fast and arrived 30 minutes too early for the ferry, the consequences were being freezing cold and out in the rain. We weren’t alone, most of the other randonnees arrived soon after. It was really nice to get on the ferry, a bit like we were heading off on holiday. I went straight to the ladies toilets, took off my jersey and base layer and started drying them under the hand dryer. There was a tourist bus full of French and I got chatting to them, they insisted on staying there to dry my clothes for the 15 minute ferry crossing. I think they felt sorry for me and were impressed that I could speak French and knew all the villages where they lived.
Once we got off the ferry, it was a short 7km cycle to Kilrush where there was a second breakfast. Yes, we delayed there and ate like it was going out of fashion, we had chicken curry and rice, lots of sambos, cake, coffee, bananas, coke, choclate and it was only 10am.
The rain persisted but we didn’t care. We were excited that our friend Sinead was coming to join us for the next 100km. I have only recently become friends with Sinead and Linda just met her that day for the second time, but we all share the same passion for adventure and exploring and connected straight away.
To say the day was soft was an understatement and the head wind was there to try and zap our energy but we just ploughed on. Only 6km outside Kilrush, we realised I had a slow flat puncture. I wanted to ignore it but that doesn’t work, this was my first ever flat tyre and I have to admitt I have never changed a tyre. And to add to the drama, it was the back tyre so a little more action needed. We pulled in and within minutes myself and Linda had it changed and we were back on the bike. I had previously watched a few Youtube videos on how to change a tyre and practiced once in the kitchen before leaving, it was suprisingly easy.
The rain and head wind got stronger and the talking was limited. We just needed to keep moving forward and our focus was on getting to the Lighthouse. We were nearly blown off the bike by a few erratic gushes of side wind, the coast line was so exposed, at this point I was counting each peddle turn in my head to keep focused. I didn’t wear my sunglasses that day and little did I know it would lead to swollen eyelids for the next 24 hours. We made it to the Lighthouse, now we just had to turn back and do another 100km before contining along Clare’s Wild Atlantic Way and bypassing the famous Cliffs of Moher. Sinead left us after 100km and myself and Linda continued on towards Lahinch, a lovely coastal town. We went into a Centra shop and got a sandwich, coffee and more snacks. This was the only bad experience I had along the Wild Atlantic Way, they wouldn’t let us use the toilet and told us not to eat inside, they sent us out into the rain to fuel up. This is not Irish hospitality and thankfully very uncommon.
Lonan and David then arrived and joined us for the rest of our journey into Ornamore. I met these guys once before, we cycled Galway’s Wild Atlantic Way by night and trekked the Manturk mountains together. It was so nice to meet people along the way to have a chat and share the adrenaline and madness. Cyclying up through north Clare, you could see a significant difference in the roads and money but into ammenities, this is possibly due to the volume of tourists visiting the Cliffs of Moher.
We cruised up alongside the Cliffs of Moher, there was a deep fog and heavy mist, it was all very mystic. Looking at all the carparks, I wondered if I could get all these ‘tick the box’ tourists up to the wilds of Mayo to discover the unspoilt and spectacular landscape and get them off the beaten track with Rachel’s Irish Adventures. The Wild Atlantic Way took us on a journey where we experienced the coast line of each of the western counties of Ireland and it was clear where the tourist traps were and were the mystery and charm had not yet being discovered. I thought I had already discover my favorite county’s Wild Atlantic Way but I didn’t know what was yet to come and what jewels were left to be revelled.