Part 3: Cycling Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way
We cruised up alongside the Cliffs of Moher, with a heavy fog rolling around us, 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 where the mystery and charm had not yet been discovered. I thought I had already experienced my favorite county’s Wild Atlantic Way but I didn’t know what was yet to come and what jewels were left to be revealed.
The mist got heavier and at this point we were just excited to get back to base. Lonan and David kept us entertained, they work with the fisheries and have lots of stories where they were catching poachers through the night and how the Irish fishing industry has drastically changed in recent years. We had two more quick stops on route to Ornamore where we filled up on cans of coke and jelly babies, once we were wired on sugar again we were like mad goats let loose.
We were relieved to reach the Ornamore community centre, the base for the night. However, we had not yet finished our journey, we had decided to go 15 km further to sleep in our friend Sinead’s house. The idea of a nice shower and real bed was enough of a motivation to brave another 40mins in the cold and rain, that and of course the warm welcome from Sinead and her charming boyfriend Kieran!
While getting our cards stamped in Ornamore, I spotted Michael Hopkins, the owner of my local bike shop and a good cycling buddy of mine. I proudly boasted that I changed a puncture and after quickly analysing the bike, he told me I was lucky to get so far on it, that the tyre was not in the rim correctly. He kindly fixed it and assured me ‘Nico’, my Van Nicolas titanium beast was in perfect shape to get me across the bridge which was the finish line!
It was difficult to get back on the bike after seeing people settled in and devouring curries, pasta, crisps and anything else edible. We scoffed down as much cake and salty crisps as possible, washed down with a coke and coffee, before hopping back on the bike. OK none of this is my usual diet but you just do it, the WAWA turned us into wild eating machines with no limits.
After a gentle cycle through Galway city and up another little hill, we arrived and Sinead and Kieran’s house. They had just moved in and we pretty much took over with our gear all over the place. They were so kind and understanding and treated us like celebrities. It was the best shower, pasta dinner and sleep I had ever had. Only 4 hours sleep but it was gold quality.
Day 4: At 3.45am we are up and ready to attack another day on the bike.
Attack may seem like a strong word but at this point we were in attack mode. The knees started to ache, they were loaded due to the constant peddle motion and all those hills in the rebel county and the Kingdom were now taking their toll on the body.
We loaded up on a cereal breakfast and coffee, taking more than an hour as usual even though we had everything ready the night before. Myself and Linda enjoy taking our time at breakfast, we are a bit like camels loading up for the day. When we travel together we usually buy a box of museli every morning and finish it between us and that is often just a starter!
The morning light on Salthill beach was post card perfect. Today’s route took us into the wild’s of Connemarra before reaching beautiful county Mayo which is the county that has the longest coastline along the Wild Atlantic Way. Our first interesting sight was one of our Audax friends wrapped in his jacket asleep in the side of a ditch, I was almost jealous that he was still asleep, he possibly attempted to cycle through the night but the sleep deprivation got the better of him. We broke the day down into managable blocks and the first task was to get to Clifden. There was never a dull moment, we sang everything from Eurovision classics to Spice Girls to Ireland’s Call, reminisced about our past adventures, plotted out some future explorations but mostly we just enjoyed the moment, letting our eyes wander and discover what was before us, listening to the birds and waves crash and focusing on that end goal, the Peace bridge in Derry.
The sun came out and we were delighted to reach the bustling tourist town of Clifden. I asked some young fella to mind our bikes while we waddled into SuperValu and got sandwiches and coffee. We bumped into our Ballina buddy Ray Curry, he was having serious issues sleeping and every time I say him, we both just went into fits of laughing, how mad the whole situation was and the adventure we were undertaking. At this point everyone looked like they were dragged through a few bushes and were on a bike escape after breaking out of prison. With the sun warming up the bones, I sprawled our across the bench and just thought how nice it would be to have a glass of wine and just chill out. The dreaming soon stopped and we were back on the bike with the next focus point being Louisbourg. From here I was really in home territory, passing by Kylemore Abbey, Ashleagh Falls and the beautiful Doolough. I was singing the Green and Red of Mayo at the top of my voice and chatting away to the sheep. Linda said the Mayo sheep sound like they’re constipated but she was just jealous that they were talking back to me and possible fed up of me singing and making up my own words to songs.
Before we got to Louisbourg, Frank, a friend of Linda joined us. He was a breath of fresh air, a clean cut Cork gentleman kitted out in Rapha and certainly kissed the blarney stone a few times. His lovely girlfriend dropped him off with his bike and then met him in Achill. This was their romantic weekend break away and here he was out with us two lunatics who at this point were not moving at any great pace. There was a control point in Louisbourg where we had to get a receipt from a shop, it was the perfect excuse to get a couple of packets of salty Tayto and fill up the water bottles.
Every time I entered a pub, my bike shoes sounded like I was part of a new tap dance show in town. However once I created the scene, people were intrigued as to what I was at, looking at my weather beaten body as I hobbled towards the bar, I was often asked, where are ya coming from. They were puzzled by my response when I said Kinsale and more then once I got offered a whiskey.
It turned into a lovely evening and although we were both in pain with our knees, we were in great form and enjoying the evening. An adventure racing friend Denis, joined us for the last few kilometres into Achill, he’s from Erris so we were lucky to have a local energetic tour guide.
There were a few nice hills a strong head wind coming into Achill and the sight of the Audax control flag was certainly welcome. We had the option to go and do the 70km loop so we wouldn’t have to do it the next day. My mind was saying yes, let’s go and have less tomorrow but my left knee was in serious pain and I could no longer get up off the saddle. After over 300 km we decided to call it a day and start again at 4am with the Achill coastal cycle.
The spread of food in the community hall was just unreal. There was a stage area filled with every type of nut, cereal, bread, bar and whatever else you needed. There was an option of dinners, I had a bit of everything but the stew was just delicious. The volunteers were once again out in force and the people in the local community dropped off a huge amount of homemade treats, what a welcome! Bernie was there and helping out too, it was nice to see a familiar Ballina face. She’s married to Eamon the WAWA organiser, we just met a week previous but her kind energy shines through and makes you feel as ease. We were driven down the road to shower in the local GAA changing room. It was cold and woke me up but it didn’t matter, I felt fresh after and ready to get some sleep.
Day 5: We knew we were taking the long road to Ballina but our reward at the end was my Mam’s salmon dinner, cakes and more than enough food for 10 armies.Denis kindly met us and cycled with us for the first part of the day. We chatted about everything from training for ITERA, which is a 5 day expedition races the three of us have entered into, to the meaning of life and what path we are on. I know Achill island very well and have often done this cycle. It’s also part of the Quest Achill adventure race in September. The scenery is just spectacular and every time I descend looking onto Keel beach, I just have to say WOW!!
After 50km, we spotted the campervan control, got stamped and loaded up on cake and coffee. We were exhausted, aching and certainly not the best company for Denis. When we arrived back at the Achill base again, we ate a second breakfast and headed off again. Frank joined us and had two knee supports for us, my left knee and Linda’s right knee were both feiced, well at least we were matching and it made us look tough on the bike or so we thought! This time our focus was Bellmullet, we were getting slower and slower, on day one we were on an average of 28km ph with all those hills and we were now at 22km ph and less at times. Erris has a stunning rugged coastline, it’s unspoilt and is full of hidden treasures around every corner and yes, I now know why they won ‘Best Place to Go Wild’. It is seriously exposed, the wind shaping and carving out the coastline and doing the same to those exploring by bike. We joked saying that they could do with getting Coilte out there to plant some trees to help us cyclist have a bit of shelter.
Passing by Ballycroy National Park and down onto Bangor where we had a toilet and coffee stop in Centra. I often stop here on my cycles, simply because the staff have got to be the friendliest in Ireland, it seems to be the areas sociable meeting spot. Here we met another Audax rider, he was suffering both physically and mentally and said he was finished, that if he continued he would do serious damage and it wasn’t worth it. I told him to listen to his body and go with what he felt was best for him. I regretted saying that for the next two days and wished I had been more encouraging and brought him along with us. Maybe this too would not have been the best solution but it played on my mind and I thought of him for the rest of the day. We now had 1300km in the legs and were on day 5, we were all suffering but we all voluntarily signed up so there was nothing to complain about, just embrace the pain and take on the experience.
We got to Bellmullet and we decided to take a lunch stop before heading out to the Light house. I knew the route and the head wind that we would be battling against. Myself and Linda got a salmon bagel and coffee and sat on the foot path. We said goodbye to Frank as he escaped by car with his girlfriend. Denis is a local celebrity in the town and knew everyone, his family owns Bellmullet’s award winning hotel, the Broadhaven.
It was back on the bike for a slow 20km uphill fight against the wind before arriving at the lighthouse. This route is known and dreaded by cyclists, it has to be the most exposed roads in Ireland. The head wind is fierce and the sand and spay from the waves can hit you at anytime. The talking stopped and we just focused on each peddle spin, taking in the scenery and digging deep. This is the Wild Atlantic Way and this cycle certainly did release the wild within us.
It was a free wheel back to Bellmullet with the wind on our backs, adrenaline kicked in again and I even chased a big truck and managed to sneak in behind it, speeding off at near 60km ph, it was a fast spin back to Bellmullet. I had to have a quick pee stop in Bellmullet so wandered into a pub while Linda went into the pharmacy to get some magic potions to rub on the knees. As usual, my clacking entrance into the pub created a show and I got the usual how ya, where are ya off ta? I told them I was going to Ballina and but I’d love to spend the evening with them.
The barman recognised me and said, you’re Rachel, can I offer you a whiskey on the house, go on? I was so tempted to say yes but my balance on the bike was already not the best and I’m not sure Linda wouldn’t be impressed if I delayed us more. The barman had seen the article in the Western People back in January. He filled my water bottles and gave me a free packet of tayto and I even got a clap from everyone when I was leaving. Now, this is the Irish welcome, the Mayo welcome, and why we are renowned for it all over the world!
The route from here along north Mayo’s Wild Atlantic is nothing short from awesome! This is home for me and it was like someone gave me a new engine, I was pumped. We thanked Denis for his company and apologised for our unlady like state, peeing behind trees, talking to the God’s and so on, I now took over being the tour guide which I’m sure kept Linda entertained. We cruised up past Balderrig church and on towards the Ceide Fields, where we had a control stop, to take a picture. We met one of the Audax riders, an Australian man that came over to take on this expedition and discover Ireland’s hidden gems on two wheels. He too was awestruck by the spectacular views overlooking the cliffs edge and onto Down Patrick head and Dun Briste, the sea stack lying peacefully in the ocean while the wild Atlantic waves carve it’s future. I was proud to inform them that this is the region where I’m from and boosted about all we have to offer in the area.
Before arriving into Ballycastle, we were met by three Ballina buddies of mine, local sports star Lorraine Carey and super models Brendan Egan and Ivan Kelly. It was such a pleasure to see them and we really appreciated the company. I was now totally pumped and even raced them up the hill in Ballycastle town which was a daft idea as I would feel the effects the following day. Linda was now really suffering with her knee and was in serious pain. She didn’t complain but I knew it, we only had 27km to go so the days finish line was in sight. Soon after, Scott, another buddy joined us. I was delighted to see him and as he’s a doctor, I blasted him with questions asking if he could suggest drugs or give us something to catapult us up to Derry. Just as I thought, there was no rescue remedy, we just had to persevere and keep moving the forward. Coming into Ballina was a welcome sight, coming down the Quay road and passing my house to stop at the rugby club after a 312km day on the bike was just bliss!
There were a few locals waiting to greet us at the rugby club, including my parents, my housemate James, local kayak adventurer David Horkan and Ballina CC friends Mary and Oiliver. After a couragous sprint up the rugby club hill, we jumped off the bike and after getting our cards stamped, we lined up for a massage. It was like winning the lotto and thanks to Dean for offering this to the ban jacked Audax riders. I was eager to get back home to Bigown B&B, where I knew we could have a hot shower and a big meal waiting for us. It took us over an hour to get out of the rugby club, we were sharing stories with the other riders while getting in a dinner before the dinner. Just before 11am, we hobbled up to the back door, a fresh salmon dinner and table of all my favourite homemade treats, would I really want to get back on the bike in 4 hours?