It began as a wonderful idea. A solid plan, reasonable and simple. You see, for years now I had wanted to try bicycle touring. And why I had not done it already, I cannot quite explain. I mean, I have done long rides on consecutive days. I have covered distances upward of 300km in one go. I have done dusk to dawn rides, cycling through the night on no sleep. But the idea of cycling to a destination, then (gasp!) staying there overnight and continuing the next morning, intimidated me beyond all reason. There is something about the logistics of it all - the what ifs of the weather, of bringing the right stuff, of planning where to stay, of having the strength to do the miles intended on the days intended - that would inevitably send my neurotic mind into overdrive, ultimately short-circuiting it. And so I continued to fantasise about bicycle touring, yet put off actually trying it.
Then one day, my companion came up with this brilliant plan. Since his problem was enduring distances and mine was whatever existential nonsense I had going on (I am paraphrasing here), why not join forces and take baby steps by trying a teensy-weensy little mini-tour together? Just one night. We pick a cool place we've always wanted to visit, a reasonable distance away. Then we cycle there, stay overnight, and cycle back the next day. Just to get used to the feel and logistics of it. Yes? Okay!
Lest we overthink things and change our minds, we made plans right then and there. Destination: Ardara! A coastal village in Donegal known for its tweed manufacture (more on this in a separate post), lively pubs, music festivals, and a thatched cottage B&B I had long wanted to visit. Quickly I planned out a scenic route some 50 miles in length with what looked to be a reasonable elevation profile. It was a Wednesday afternoon, but my companion had the week off work. We checked the weather, packed some overnight necessities, and set off at 3pm just as the heat of the unusually warm day was subsiding.
Dressed in cycling clothes and shoes for comfort, I packed with me in addition: a wool jersey dress, a pair of wool tights, a pair of flat walking shoes, a rain jacket, some basic toiletries, sunscreen, insect spray, and my camera. All of this fit into my handlebar bag, with room to spare for food.
My companion, rejecting my offer of a large saddlebag, opted to carry most of his things in a backpack. Now, we have between us an unspoken gentlepersons' agreement not to criticise each other's choices in equipment. So... no comment. No, really. None at all. A lovely backpack it was!
But joking aside, the important thing was not what we took with us, or even where we were headed, but that we did it: No matter what happened now, we had taken the plunge; we had broken free of the shackles that had held us back from attempting a bicycle tour! We felt this very keenly as, with each pedal stroke and with each quickly-passing mile, we moved further and further away from familiar territory and closer to an exciting, new and unexplored world.
In particular, we both liked very much the idea that the destination we picked was not one either of us had been to before. We had no idea what awaited us there or what the route would be like. We would be discovering that for the first time by bicycle.
Although the hills began immediately and the heat remained surprisingly oppressive despite the late afternoon start, the first leg of the trip went by so quickly and painlessly amidst our excitement that before we knew it we were a third of the way in. The landscape was idyllic, with lakes and fields and forests, and lovely winding roads, and distant coastal views glimpsed from hilltops.
By the halfway point, we grew more generous with our stops and explored off the beaten track.
We photographed our bikes next to thatched cottages. We lingered beside megalithic stone formations.
There was no end to our good humour and energy, and in my head I was already composing a post about the benefits of just such a mini-tour, with reasonable distances and a leisurely riding pace and good company and no pressure.
And yet.... If I'm truly honest, at the back of my mind I had an inkling even then to be suspicious of these easy good times. And even as we giggled with delight, our legs strong and our bellies filled with yoghurt-covered almonds, I sensed that we were being lured into something altogether different. But with only a third of the route remaining, how bad could whatever was in store for us be?
I had no idea. And stranger still, I still don't. We have since examined the last leg of our route this way and that, and the extent of the havoc it wreaked on us makes no sense.
What happened first was the landscape changed abruptly. Varied terrain gave way to a monotonous expanse of brown bog, with long, energy-sapping climbs, as the temperature rose to 30°C. This could not have lasted long - 5 miles at most. But it had the effect of quieting us, and of draining that dose of excitement-based energy which must have masked our exertion. All at once we could feel not just this climb, but all the climbs we had done thus far. All at once we became aware of having gotten dehydrated from the heat. All at once, we felt tired.
And that was when the fun really began. The next portion of the route consisted of a narrow, forested mountain road with sharply winding ascents and descents so steep and so tight, it felt akin to being on some sadistic rollercoaster. For what felt like endless miles my heart was beating in my throat, either from the scary descending or from the strenuous climbing, or from the confusion of not knowing which way was up and which way was down and which way was left and which way was right. It felt as if this went on forever, and I began to question whether my nerves could take it. Just then my companion, his face somehow simultaneously flushed and pale, said to me in a dry-throated voice that betrayed he'd been suffering in silence for some time: "When this descent is done, let's stop and check the map. It feels like we've been on this road for hours and we haven't seen a single sign for Ardara, I wonder whether we've gone off course."
According to my GPS we had not gone off course. But the strange thing was, this portion of the route did seem to be taking a long time and I had no explanation for why that was. We pulled over to the side of the road and I double-checked the map. We were on the right track, and in fact there were only 10 miles to go now. In a bit, we would come to a crossroads and turn right. Then a backroad would lead us straight into Ardara.
I should have known that I made a horrible mistake in my route planning when I saw the sign. That treacherous little sign indicating that this back road we were about to take was a "bicycling route." I mean, seriously. Having lived in Ireland for 2 years now, I know very well that when something is labeled as a bicycling route, what it really means is "Cyclists: Seek alternative route if at all possible, because this one will kill you!" I had come across some rather staggering roads labeled as cycling routes in my time here. But with this one, the cycling network mappers had really outdone themselves. Barely wide enough to fit an average car (which nonetheless did not stop cars and farm vehicles from driving along it), the "road" headed straight over a mountain at what must have been a 20% gradient in places. Immediately I was in my sub-1:1 gear, tackling a climb so vertical that I pedaled facing the clouds.
Wondering how long I'd be able to take such a gradient without collapsing and giving up on life, letting the buzzards eat away at me in this godforsaken deathtrap of a place, behind me I heard "Fuck this, I'm walking," followed by the sounds of furious unclipping.
"I am sorry," I said - genuinely meaning it, as it had been I who'd put together the route - "but I think the entire 10 miles will be like this!"
Here my companion mustered up some much needed optimism whilst demonstrating an altogether superior understanding of geography: "Unless mountains work differently here, the last 5 should be a descent!"
In the interest of time I will fast forward a bit now, sparing you the part where, following the near-vomit-enducing crawl up the mountain and the blood-curdling descent down it, we - led astray by some sadistically misleading signage, which we were foolish enough to believe over the GPS - could not find Ardara despite being right next to it and did at least 5 gratuitous "bonus miles" before finally rolling into the village just after 8pm - too tired and bewildered to even care what the place looked like, let alone feel excited about being there. Stumbling into the famous Nancy's, we ordered something and were served with uncharacteristic haste and looks of genuine concern. We ate, and we drank, and then we started laughing. Only now it was not the carefree laugh at the start of the trip, but a laugh of maniacal, embarrassed exhaustion.
"For heaven's sake," I moaned, "it was only 50 miles! What the heck happened?"
"Ah but it was Irish miles. Donegal got us baby; it got us good!"
I bet you are about ready for this story to be over now. But jayzus, dear readers, if only it were! Having fortified ourselves with dinner, naturally we proceeded to the Green Gate B&B, which I had understood to be situated right beside the village. And well, technically it was. What I'd somehow failed to pick up on, however, was that it sat on top of its own private mountain.
As the narrow paved lane winding up said mountain turned to moss-ridden gravel and again we faced a 20% gradient, this fact gradually sank in and we nearly wept. "Should we even bother, or just sleep here in the ditch?" The idea was given serious consideration.
But finally, and just as the sun was setting, we made it to the top.
And then, just like that - or nearly - all was forgotten. We've been to some lovely places, but this was paradise.
A weird paradise, with old land mines and a rusted-out Citroen and a sculpture of some disembodied buttocks scattered about the garden for ambience. But weird is the best kind!
And did I mention the thatched cottage?
My dream of staying in one has finally come true!
And I loved it -
which is fortunate, as instead of staying there for one night as planned we ended up staying for 3 - stranded when a storm, complete with flash floods and hurricane-like wind gusts, hit Ardara the following day.
Our bicycles sheltered with surprising efficiency under a thick rosebush archway, we spent 3 entire days hanging out in Ardara village and at the Green Gate's cozy kitchen - meeting people, visiting tweed weavers, walking about in pissing rain, drinking hot whiskeys, listening to live music (incidentally - check out these guys from San Francisco, who happened to be jamming at one of the pubs), meeting more people, and just ...well, relaxing for godssake!
And the trip back, when we finally made it? It was easy, pleasant and relatively uneventful, just as a 50 mile bicycle ride should be for two experienced cyclists. It goes to show you, that with "Irish miles" you never really know what you are getting yourself into. Cycling around these parts can be a twilight zone of sorts. And if that sounds too cryptic, you will just have to come to try it for yourself (and be sure to bring low gears).
Well, it's probably fair to say that our mini-tour was a "FAIL." But it was also a roaring success. Will we give it a go again? You bet. The unforeseen can be worth embracing.