Friday, May 18, 2012

Off Road on the Edge of the World

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
A couple of days ago I accidentally completed a 6 mile off road ride along the coast of Antrim. Without question, this was the most challenging bike ride I have done to date. I would not have attempted it had I known what was in store for me. But it was also the most beautiful, breathtaking trail I have ever been on.

dunseverick
It happened like this: One morning I decided to ride to the Giant's Causeway, which is about 12 miles away. I took the direct route on the coastal road. The first part was a tedious climb, then a long descent - both with glorious water views. When I was almost at the end, I spotted a sign for Dunseverick Castle and stopped to have a look. The setting is very interesting, and I walked around a bit photographing it. The light kept changing every 5 minutes, so the colours in all my pictures from this day are crazy and I decided to leave them that way. The landscape here really can look neon green one moment, then golden or drab olive the next.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
Like most structures described as "castle" along the coast of Northern Ireland, Dunseverick Castle is actually a ruin. There is an overview platform from which visitors can observe it from the road (people do coastal driving tours here...). And next to this platform is a sign indicating that there is also a walking trail - leading down to the castle, then continuing right along the coast to the Giant's Causeway.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
I looked at the trail. It was grassy and appeared pretty tame. The Giant's Causeway didn't seem that far off. So I decided to go for it on the bike.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
The trail ended up being 6 miles long, with no exit points along the way. As far as cycling, I would describe it is as not for beginners. I spent maybe 40% of it on the bike and the rest walking, or crawling. The initial stretch of grass quickly narrowed to a rocky, twisty single track along the edge of a massive cliff overlooking the Irish Sea.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
There were also long stretches of loose, chunky gravel. There are no flat, straight sections along this trail - it is either uphill or downhill, and all twisty. Honestly, I found the terrain extremely challenging. Going toward the Causeway, the trail is mostly downhill and the ground beneath me was unstable due to the mud, roots, rocks and loose gravel. It was scary to experience this combined with constant twists and turns as I cycled alongside a cliff. Also, at some point the hub gearing on my Brompton started coming out of adjustment (now fixed), and I did not always have use of my lowest gear. This made some of the uphill sections on loose gravel impossible, so I walked them. I also walked a couple of the trickier downhill stretches. An experienced mountain biker could have maybe done 80-90% of the trail on a bike, but I am far from that status.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
It did not bother me to walk with the bike when that was what I had to do. I had a heavy bag with me, and I was glad to roll it along on wheels rather than carry it on my person, as I would have had to do had I chosen to hike this trail. Despite the stunning views along this trail, there were not many hikers around. Most of the time I was completely and utterly alone, with no other human forms visible in any direction. I encountered three groups of ramblers total, and they all expressed horror at seeing me with a bike. "You need to turn back," a German couple warned, "it is not bike territory ahead."  I knew exactly what they meant, because I had already gone through that kind of territory.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
Along this trail there are occasional stairs built into the hills. They look like this, sometimes worse (longer and steeper). There was one particular set of stairs where the grade was too steep to walk upright, so I had to sort of crawl up them with the bike on my back. 

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
Since the trail passed through farm territory, there were also occasional stone fences with stiles to climb over - essentially wooden ladders placed over the fence. These were a little shaky, so I had to hold on to a pole with one hand (taking care not to grab the barbed wire instead - of which there is lots) while carrying the bike in the other. All through this, it was of course freezing cold and raining intermittently. 

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
Well, what can I say. One must have a sense of humour about things like this. Sure, the description of the trail could have warned there would be crawling and flights of stairs involved. But that would have spoiled the surprise element, wouldn't it. Ultimately it was more engaging to "discover" the trail this way rather than reading all about it in a guidebook first. 

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
The day was hazy and my photos don't do the landscape justice. But this hidden gem of a trail showcases the raw beauty of the Antrim Coast better than any other site I have visited so far.  It is extreme. It is dizzying. And not just the heights alone, but the colours, the smells, the forms and textures.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
And it truly does feel like the edge of the world: The trail is set back from the road by endless glens. You cannot see civilisation; only the edge of a cliff on one side of the trail and pastures on the other.

Gorse Bushes, Antrim Coast
 Gorse bushes grow everywhere, their saturated yellow contrasting dramatically with the steel-gray sky.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
It took me over 2 hours to get to the end of the trail, including all the climbing over fences and stairs, as well as constant stops for photos. By the time I reached the end point, I was exhausted and badly in need of food. The funny thing is that when I got to the Giant's Causeway itself it was absolutely unphotographable: Every inch of the majestic formation was covered with tourists. How odd that people will drive to it just to get out of the car for 5 minutes and have their picture taken on the rocks, but ignore the stunning trail that showcases the full extent of this area's beauty. Also, the entire site next to the Causeway is covered in construction at the moment. They are building a new, enormous visitor's center and while this is happening the area is a chaotic tangle of construction crews and tour buses and hordes of disoriented visitors. Dust flying everywhere. Yikes. I quickly bought an ice cream and got the heck out of there, deciding that I'd come back to see the Giant's Causeway at 6am next time to avoid the crowds.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
The trail from Dunseverick Castle to the Giant's Causeway is technically a hiking trail, not a bicycle path. In truth, it is more suitable to hiking unless you have nerves of steel and serious cyclocross skills. Still, I am glad I did it this way and I admit that I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment (I also still feel wrecked 2 days later, but that is another story). As far as the bike's suitability, I find that the Brompton rides surprisingly nicely off road and is easy to control on downhill turns, so if anything I am more comfortable on challenging terrain on this bike than I would be on others. Another obvious advantage of the Brompton on a ride like this, is that it is small enough to carry when necessary. I would not have been able to drag a full-sized bicycle (especially a mountain bike) up and down those stairs and over those stone walls. Next time I visit this trail, I might hike - or I might do it exactly the same way but try to stay on the bike more. This was by far the most difficult ride I have ever done, but it was also the most rewarding. When the two go hand in hand, it is pure magic. 

53 comments:

  1. Wow! What scenery! Congrats on the ride & the photos... often it's only the foolhardy who achieve things where those who turn back fail.

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  2. You get to see the world do`nt you? ;P
    badmother

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  3. That sounds like a beautiful place, so remote and preserved! I am making a mental note for this destination. Thank you for sharing these pictures!

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    1. This trail stretches further along the coast too, so this was just one stretch. I seriously think that this alone is worth visiting Antrim for. I can't believe it is not better promoted; even some locals do not know about this trail.

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  4. Great story.

    "And the fences looked like this. Stone farm fences with ladders placed over them." That's a stile: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stile

    Unique to the British Isles?

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    1. Stile! Thank you, I could not remember the word. Will add this to the text.

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  5. Yet again, what doesn't kill you will make you stronger, while affording photo ops.

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  6. I applaud you for your journey and also thank you for sharing it. I thoroughly enjoyed your photographs even thought you say they don't do the land justice (i guess that gives me more to imagine). your story reminds me a bit of my smaller scale skateboarding journeys in Florida. By nature, the skateboard is not a vehicle for rough terrain but sometimes I'd wander off to interesting looking side streets that'd I'd never seen before and end up having to walk most of the way due to sand/gravel. But anyway, enough about me, I'm very glad you're documenting your time in Ireland because it gives me a good look at somewhere I probably wont visit for a long time through the perspective of a fellow cyclist.

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  7. Beautiful and so interesting. These posts just keep getting better and betterm, and they are all so different. Really nice, Velouria!

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  8. breathtaking views! There must be constant high winds there due to the coast making cycling even harder.

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  9. Yes!! AWESOME!!! this is my kind of ride - challenging, surprising and breathtakingly beautiful. I too love unexpected conditions and having to adapt - wondering if you dropped your tyre pressure at all and if you folded the bike while crawling or climbing?

    I also love that moment after going through something like that to be confronted with "civilisation". yikes indeed.

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    1. "wondering if you dropped your tyre pressure at all and if you folded the bike while crawling or climbing?"

      I did not drop the tire pressure, but it was already lower than normal for this ride (I haven't topped up the air for over a week). I did not fold the bike, just carried it by the main frame tube in one hand.

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    2. Carrying a bike through the trail! If I were your spouse and at odds with you, I would have double thought before taking any physical reactions :-)

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  10. Stunning scenery! Glad you're enjoying the coast.

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  11. I'm so glad to read about this trail! I've been there before, but as I was only there for 3 days and staying with friends we just drove up the coast for a day trip. The Causeway wasn't too busy when I saw it luckily, but next time I would be all over a coastal hike like this instead. I can't say as I'd try it on a bike ;)

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    1. The odd part is that there are almost no tourists anywhere else. I think they get brought in by bus for day trips specifically to the Causeway from other parts of Ireland, then immediately go back.

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  12. The most fun day in my memory involved 30 miles offroad on a Brompton, fully loaded with camping kit, loose rocky and powdery dirt. Yes, walked a lot, but it's not so bad at all: down steep or uneven bits it's like 2-footed walking stick when you lock the brakes, and uphill you can rest your upper body on the bars as you push. And when you're riding it, it's gamelike fun to pick the line that won't force you to ditch. My ride was also on the western edge of land, by the Pacific. Magic indeed.

    Did you bump the saturation just a little bit on these photos, to make up for what can't be captured?

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    1. I actually bumped down the saturation on some photos, because the yellows and greens got "blown" digitally. That normally never happens other than with reds.

      There is a particular light condition here, when the skies are extremely overcast but there is still sunshine - everything gets surreally saturated with colour. I would need a stationary photo setup with tripod etc to capture it properly, but it kept raining so I'd sneak shots as quickly as possible.

      "down steep or uneven bits it's like 2-footed walking stick when you lock the brakes"

      Exactly!

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  13. My life is sooooooo boring!

    By the by, what bag is that on your bike?

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    1. Carradice City Folder. It is an office bag, not a turing bag.

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    2. I knew it wasn't a Turing bag, because I could tell it wasn't a person.

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  14. And we can see the magic in you!
    Jim Duncan

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  15. There is a magical costal walk from Porballintrae to the causeway past Runkerry house. Again it has very little other users. You can cycle from Portballintrae to the causeway beside a light gauge railway which is quite nice.
    KS.

    http://www.northantrim.com/Runkerryheadland.htm

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  16. Am surprised how well a Brompton handled the rough path - you don't think it over stressed the frame, as the owners manual suggests Bromptons are only designed for roads and well laid paths?

    Great blog by the way!

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    1. I don't think I overstressed the frame, as I know plenty other Brompton owners, heavier than me, who've off-roaded on them for years. See the comment above from "todd" - That's Todd from CleverCycles, a Brompton dealer.

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  18. I am really enjoying your images and blogs. Thanks for your efforts on that trail and in the weather to share your experience. Amazing scenery.

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  19. Is travelblogue a word? Just, well, lovely.

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  20. Well done; we are going back to Ballycastle in July for two weeks to stay at the Coastguard's tower. I'm interested your remarks about tourists. The development going on in that area now is for golfers and motorcyclists. There is to be a high class golf course at the Giants Causeway and the Irish Open is being played in Portrush at the end of June. Currently the North West 200 motorcycle race is on. And much of this development is focused on attracting people from the United States to come here and spend money. So, if there are any clever people in the tourist board or local government they might register your amazement at the poor development of the coastal paths and provision for cyclists.
    Myself? I quite like it the way it is; let the tourists scramble after the obvious and leave the off track wonders to those who have the energy to reach them and the capacity to appreciate them. I don't want to see Ballycastle overwhelmed. Am I right in saying it currently doesn't even have a single hotel?
    I saw a similar phenomenon in County Clare last year: where there is now a big car park at the Cliffs of Moher. People can drive to natural wonders, get out of the car and walk for five minutes to look down at the sea, then drive on. If that's their idea of a holiday, they are welcome to it. Your way is best. Now go and see the Carrick a Rede rope bridge.

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    1. Oh yes, the North West 200 motorcycle race is definitely on and the bikers are joyriding through the towns at 200mph. Today is a walking day for me.

      As I wrote earlier, I am torn between enjoying the lack of tourists and feeling bad about the depressed economy here. As I understand it, even the tourists who come to see the Giant's Causeway are bused in for the day from S Ireland, so they hardly spend any money locally other than on ice cream and trinkets at the Causeway gift shop.

      It would be one thing if Ballycastle were this pristine locals-only place that did not have a single hotel. But as you know it does have several - they are just boarded up and their rather large, abandoned complexes are absolute eyesores on the otherwise beautiful little town.

      I have lots to say about all this, but to be honest not sure whether this blog is the appropriate venue.

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  21. What is the cobalt blue on the cliffs? Is that a digital thingy or is that real?

    An "experienced mountain biker" would ride 100% of the trail, stairs and fences included. There are times when skill means more fun and times when it could not matter less.

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    1. That would be neat to see. How would they go up the near-vertical stairs? I could hardly walk up some of them.

      The blue stuff on the cliffs looks that way in real life. The colours here are crazy, you need to see it to believe it.

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    2. "Body english" and knobby tires can go a long way. I have seen local cross country riders climb stairs like the ones on the 8th picture, even though photos tend to understate declivities.

      But then... Remember Velocio's advice about never keeping on riding just to show off... There's no point in risking an injury for a simple bicycle ride...

      Plus, in a race many of these riders would have chosen to carry their bikes and run, because more often than not it is actually faster to do so...

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    3. Velouria: here is the technique:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cj6ho1-G6tw

      Scotland, not Ireland.

      (Is that a Rivendell?)

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    4. I knew someone would post a link to a Danny MacAskill video! To be fair, he is rather extraordinarily talented and not just a skilled mountain biker. Great video. No, that is not a Rivendell.

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    5. Well, sure, he has some skills, but I'd like to see him do that on a Brompton.

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    6. V @10:29

      It is very neat to see. And you have to see it in person. Moves that appear as sheer levitation and magic trailside capture on video as yawns. And I'm speaking of moves that thousands of fairly ordinary riders can do.

      Were the trail as bad as you say rather than as interesting as it looks then it would be for trials riders. Any trials rider can take a fullsize MTB places I could not walk. On their little hopper bikes they go where I want rope, harness and belay. And trials is no longer a tiny sport.

      Even MacCaskill has to work hard on shooting and editing to be exciting. There's no way to get the depth of his talent into pixels. In person you would have difficulty believing what you saw. Even at a local trials meet.

      Like I'm having difficulty with that blue.

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    7. Re wanting to see it done on a Brompton, there's: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G62gRmdIBY0

      But then, it isn't about the bike: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=W-rAv43UFnA

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  22. Mixed feelings about this post. I have been to the trail you describe and you are right it is beautiful. But it is absolutely not suitable for bicycles mountain or otherwise. Readers beware.

    Lynette

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    1. It is a challenging trail certainly. As I've written, I myself could only ride maybe 40% of it, and even that was difficult. That said, I think suitability for bicycles depends largely on the cyclist and on the bike. I have described the terrain accurately and readers can draw their own conclusions.

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    2. I think the argument should be that, because it was a hiking trail, you should not have been riding your bike on it, regardless of your ability. That is the type of behavior that angers many non-cyclists and leads to negative feelings towards mountain bikers.

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    3. Actually I asked a staff member if it was okay to take my bike on the trail and she said "I do not see why not - though it could be difficult." The handful of people I encountered on the trail were not in the least bit angered.

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  23. I walked that coastal path last year, and it is beautiful. Couldn't imagine doing it on a bike.

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  24. Funny to read people asking whether the colors are digital effects, that's how it is in Ireland, no digital effects needed. I love how the Irish light is ever changing.

    How long more are you in Ireland, because the whitethorn (by far the most common shrub in Ireland) is just coming into flower here in Co Cavan. In about two weeks the Cavan countryside will be ablaze with white flowers in every hedgerow. Quite a sight. Don't miss the chance to photograph this before you leave Ireland. If you go back down to Dublin the whitethorn in that part of the island should be in full bloom right now.

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    1. There was an American family near the Giant's Causeway and the wife pointed to the water (which was a neon bluish green) and the rocks (which were reddish) and said "Honey this looks just like Hawaii!"

      I will not be here long enough for the whitethorn sadly. But would you happen to know what this plant is?

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    2. Don't know what it is but it's not native, Ireland does not have a very diverse flora. But being a mild climate many introduced plants have done well and grow wild.

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  25. The Irish Tourist Ministry needs to cut you a check, There must be a thousand of us daydreaming about going and doing some of the things you're posting about.

    I know I'm mentally packing my bike and 2 panniers of gear and trying to figure out how to get 2 weeks of unsupervised shore leave... How much money do I need to launder from the children's savings accounts to cover, say, 2 weeks of the type of accommodations you've been describing?

    Spindizzy

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  26. One of my favourite cycling routes, I have cycled around that area many times on a large variety of bikes.

    One of the advantages of cycling is the that you can reach places that cars and buses can't.

    If it was well advertised, it would become too busy!

    BW

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  27. Wonderful post, I nominate you for membership in the RSF. Walking your bike is a great British tradition, the two foot gear.
    http://www.rsf.org.uk/

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  28. Thanks for the beautiful photos and the article. It's adventures like this that make the strongest impressions, and not just because of their roughness. Beautiful obstacle courses like this make one be more in the moment and pay more attention.
    I can say that the look of the bike complements the landscape very well.

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  29. It has been about 11 years since I have been to this part of the world. But Giant's Causeway and the surrounding areas have always stuck with me. Love being able to travel back there vicariously through you. So lovely!

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