Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Of Miles and Mountain Vistas: A Spring Initiation Ride

View from Burnfoot
Having told myself I would not stop until at least ten miles in, it worried me that I was already tired so early into the ride. But when I rolled into the center of Burnfoot - with its view of the Pointy Mountain and its titillating village shop selling 60p sausage rolls - I saw it was mile 15 already. Somehow the time, or the distance, or both, flew faster than I realised. So far so good for the first big ride of the season. With my piping hot sausage roll and electrolyte-laced water, I sat by the stream and took in the landscape that spread out in front of me. It looked far. And it was where I was headed. 

I've tried not to whine about it too much. But, as far as road cycling goes, winter in Northern Ireland was disappointing. Because it rarely snows here, I hoped to ride year-round without breaking stride. But the powerful winds put a damper on that. From mid December through a good part of March, I was lucky to get out once-twice a week, and even then for 20 or so flat miles at a time. I had not done any significant hills or milage since before the winter holidays. When finally the weather turned enough for proper cycling to commence, the expression "Two steps forward, one step back" came to mind. I panted up climbs and panicked down descents that I had come to think of as easy by last summer's end. Good thing I did not start with the intermediate ones!

Farm Road to Garvagh
Last spring I worried about working up to longer rides and even put together a training schedule. This year I did nothing of the sort. The feeling of readiness happened organically. One day I just knew: Tomorrow. I sat down and planned the route, a meandering 60-odd miles along the shoulders of a couple of local mountains, through the villages of Drumsurn and Garvagh. The route would begin with some flat miles, followed by a warm-up climb, then two long climbs and descents, before turning flat again for the final stretch home. I designed it mostly along back roads and to maximise mountain views. The climbs were a side-effect of that, rather than the objective. Still, I saw this ride as a sort of jump-start to the season, as a shot of adrenaline, as something to shock my system and jog my body's memory, to establish a reacquaintance with the miles and the climbing. As part of this spring initiation rite, I accepted that, along with the beautiful views, some degree of pain and misery awaited me. 15 miles in and already tired, I braced myself for what was to come. "This will be difficult. But get it over with, and future rides will be more enjoyable."

Legavallon Pot
But as flat roads gave way to rolling hills, which gave way to the first real climb, I began to feel better, not worse. Somewhere from deep within, an energy emerged, as if out of winter hibernation. The energy did not come in bursts, but seeped out in measured doses, at once calming me and waking me up. The eight mile climb along Legavallon Road wasn't difficult. It just Was. It didn't hurt or feel miserable. It was merely slower than a non-climb. And this slowness was a welcome one, affording plenty of opportunity to study the valley that spread out to my left more dramatically with each foot of elevation gain.

They call this part of the country the Legavallon Pot. Cycling up a mountain ridge in Drumsurn rewards with a dizzying view of a round gap, green with pastures and milky with low cloud, like an enormous bowl of matcha. Interestingly, the official observation point does not show off this feature of the landscape particularly well. But the stretch of the road that does is awkward to stop at. The best way to observe it is from the bike itself, rolling through the view.

Tree House Mural in Drumsurn
In addition to the natural landscape, the country roads that criss-cross these hills are full of fascinating oddities. My favourites are the mysterious murals in the middle of nowhere. 

Here a boy dangles a giant spider over a group of other children and one green alien, who respond with an impressively realistic variety of emotions. Some look amused by his antics. Others are terrified. Others still appear aloof, or saddened by being on the sidelines of the game rather than at its center. I thought it a nuanced portrayal of child group dynamics. The tree house and mural were not near any sort of residence or child care center, as far as I could tell.

Garvagh Museum Gate
The village of Garvagh is an old one and deserves a post dedicated to it exclusively. While tiny, it boasts a surprising number of attractions - including a forest, a museum, its very own pyramid, and a history of vampirism. But on this occasion, I was more interested in its eating establishments. I stopped at a fish and chips shop and ate a late lunch as school children in their uniforms descended from buses, staring at my bike and attire with undisguised curiosity. Allowing for the school run traffic to die down, I set off for home. 

Descent to Limavady
The second big climb was on the return leg and steeper than the one before …which, when I noticed this fact, made me think of Pamela Blalock and her signature rides. She is known for, shall we say, throwing in some wake-me-up hills at the end of a long ride. And while at first I dreaded this, eventually I not only got used to it but began to look forward to it, feeling disappointed if a ride did not feature a good so-called Pamela Climb at the end. 

With a mental salute to my friend, I cycled up the mountainside appreciatively. My legs, however, were now growing heavy and I could sense the wilting point on the horizon. It also grew unseasonably warm, and soon I was sweating under my jacket. But seven miles later the descent came, and with it the cooling rush of breeze against my face and chest. The mountain views ahead grew dense and layered, like overlapping bits of construction paper in subtle shades of slate blue and lilac. Of course during the beautiful parts I was going too fast to want to stop for pictures. But seeing this landscape I made a mental note to return here via a more direct route soon, specifically to photograph it.

The descent went on and on. And to think that I had almost forgotten over the winter that dream-like sensation of falling. Now it came back to me in full emotional force. Miles and miles of plunging down a mountainside. On descents like this, the bike becomes something other than a bike. A flying carpet?

A day and a short recovery ride later, I still feel buoyed by the sensation of that last descent, by the rush of following the curves of the road while staring ahead at those layered hazy mountain ridges. That sort of descent really does feel like a dream. Or like a long swoon. The 60 miles and the climbing and the feel of being out of shape are not what I remember after this ride. Perhaps that is why I want to keep going further. 

23 comments:

  1. Lovely photographs in your post today, Velouria. Stuck on the Canadian prairies and waiting for the ice to melt — soon, according to the forecast — I am sighing and dreaming of the green lanes of Britain…
    ~ David

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  2. Starting to commute again with some regularity. Nice to feel a little improvement here and there.

    vsk

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  3. Your excitement and joy in this seasonal challenge and its beauty is infectious! Almost like a gamboling spring lamb. Thank you for sharing. Jim Duncan

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  4. Those temperature charts can be a funny thing; Northern Ireland is on the 55th parallel north and thus on the same latitude as Novosibirsk in Russia and Alaska in the states. Allright we do get quite a bit of wind here in the north west corner of Europe were lucky to have the gulf stream making the temperatures not quite so alaskan or siberian as they might have been...

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    1. My ideal kind of weather to ride in is when it is overcast, with temperatures around 10C and winds under 15mph, rain optional. For a good part of the year, that is what it's like here pretty much every day. Thank you, Gulf Stream + 55th parallel!

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    2. hmm and I thought that was rather particular

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  5. Me too I feel buoyed by your nice prose: well done.
    L.

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  6. I would love it if you posted a guide to cycling in your part of Northern Ireland. The place looks absolutely stunning in your photos. Would you recommend it as a cycling vacation destination? Useful tips, like not to come in the winter, would also help with planning.

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    1. I don't know about a guide, but I'll post something about my experience once I've been here a full year continuously.

      As far as being a cycling vacation destination, it could be ideal - but only if you don't mind the ever-present chance of rain and cold spells (think 40s F in July).

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    2. There are plenty of guides to cycling in Ireland, Cicerone Press Cycle Touring in Ireland covers the area near V. I have the book but can't vouch for its accuracy as I've not made it over yet, but I have a few Cicerone books and they are all good. The Giro d'Italia comes to Ireland next month and covers the Antrim coast, so you'll be able to see it on the telly.

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    3. I have not seen that guide in particular, but I know that typically guides to cycling in NI tend to focus on Antrim and the Mourne mountains. The areas where I ride (the Roe Valley and West Tyrone/ North Sperrins) are virtually unknown to tourists.

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  7. But where is the Triumph? :((

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  8. This seems a little strange, but these pictures remind me of home which is Upstate New York, green rolling farmland with hills. A beautiful place to ride. Just started riding for the season here in northern New Hampshire; still waiting for the snow to melt and the mud to dry on the dirt roads.

    Mark

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    1. 60 mi in the mountains is a rather impressive way to dust off the Winter cobwebs. It inspires me to get out and do my 60 mi loop here in SoCal. I'm just coming off a brief bout w/the flu but was able to get out a bit yesterday. And though no 60 mi days on the road bike recently I have done quite a few 40 mi days on the mtn bike. And the real isnpiration is for me to get out and ride Palomar Mtn soon. Wonderful writing as is usual - thank you. Doug

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  9. The first photo makes me wish I were there!

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  10. You captured the essence of why we ride bikes! I couldn't have said it better.

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  11. Have you tried the ice-cream from Usher's in Garvagh? The shop doesn't even have a name above the door, but it's at the southern end of town and sells sweets, model toy tractors, bizarre DVDs about local farming in times past and ... home-made ice-cream with optional "flavouring" which I'm dying to hear your opinion of. We always stop for one on the way through ... I'd love to ride with you sometime - we're often up in Portstewart. Damian

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    1. Have not gone inside, but I know the shop you mean. Will try. And I assure you no "flavouring" will surprise me, having tried lobster ice cream in Maine...

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    2. OK - it's not as weird as that! It's not the actual flavour that will surprise, but the untouched-by-time nature of the whole shop that it encapsulates. Or something like that!

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