The plan was fairly modest: to cycle from Derry city to the village of Gortahork in Donegal. On paper the route is not an especially difficult one: less than 60 miles, with 3,000ft of climbing. So what has been holding me back from making the trip all this time, even as I would sigh wistfully at the thought of doing it "soon"?
The region itself is daunting. With mountain-framed swathes of bogland and nowhere to shelter for miles and miles, Western Donegal is a harsh, temperamental place, that makes rural County Derry feel tame and cuddly by comparison. I've cycled lots in the area since moving here and know it fairly well by now. But most of the rides I do are loops, or figure 8s, or various other shapes that keep me close enough to home at any given moment. If only psychologically, a 60 mile trip in a straight line would feel quite different.
Which brings me to another point - the main point, probably - that I am more than a little embarrassed to admit: It has been a while since I've cycled any notable distance on my own. I blame it on having friends and a husband who, increasingly, enjoy keeping me company on two wheels. Because, wonderful as that is, somewhere along the line my sense of independence has dulled. I now get "lonely," when I go out on the bike by myself - an emotion I never used to experience. More worryingly, I've noticed myself questioning my very ability to handle cycle rides on my own (but what if something happens?), putting them off until such a time that someone else could join me.
This weekend, though I'd decided this had to end. The forecast looked decent. The distance was manageable. I had a prototype roadbike on my hands that needed testing and a friend whom I wanted to see on her birthday. That morning I woke up to blue skies and balmy air, got dressed, and set off.
Alas I did not get far. Just outside Derry an outburst of rain, sudden and violent, sent me scrambling off the bike to hide under a bridge, to avoid getting drenched. But I remained optimistic. We've had a few days with short and heavy bursts of rain like this, and I've learned it is best to wait them out and keep dry - they pass quickly enough. So at first, I waited under the bridge sticking my head out now and again to check the sky. But the more I waited, the more it started to look as if the rain was't passing. It seemed to only be getting worse.
I checked my phone for the live weather report in hopes it would contradict what my eyes were seeing. But the former forecast of cloudy/ 12mph winds was now replaced with thunderstorms / 19mph winds. Feeling betrayed by the weather, I wanted to write a strongly worded letter. No, I wanted to shout at it, to shame it, to make it feel guilty. Demand that it keep its promises.
My phone was now buzzing with text messages.
thinking of you and a bit worried...
weather's turned crap!
weather's turned crap!
listen, conditions have changed:
strong winds, storms; I suggest abandon.
strong winds, storms; I suggest abandon.
Well, there was my mistake, I thought: telling people my plans! Did I secretly want to be dissuaded from doing this ride? Has it really come to that?
The temperature dropped and my teeth began to chatter - in rhythm, it seemed, with my waves of frustration.
Just then a crowd of club cyclists, dripping wet as if they'd emerged from a swimming pool, ducked under the bridge beside me. Once they had finished swearing and wringing out their jerseys, the mobile phones came out. Spouses were phoned for a rescue.
Somehow seeing them do this was the last straw, and I knew that I too would have to abandon my plans. I decided to make a run for the cafe across the road, have some breakfast, then brace myself for the soaking and make my way back.
The cafe - which I'd never been to before - was fancier inside than I had imagined, with leisurely sit-down service rather than ordering at the till. With nothing to do while waiting for my food I took advantage of the wifi and looked over the weather again on my phone, just to be sure. Derry: severe thunderstorms. Damn it.
But as I poked at my Eggs Benedict and black pudding, I suddenly had a thought which I immediately felt stupid for not having earlier.
What about my destination? And the points along the way? With renewed vigor I scrolled through the latest forecasts.
Gortahork: partly cloudy, chances of showers after 5pm
Dunlewy: cloudy, chances of showers after 5pm
Letterkenny: cloudy, chances of showers after 2 pm.
Newtown Cunningham: showers.
Right. So if I could tolerate cycling in pretty severe rain to start with, chances were it would taper off after mile 10 and end altogether after mile 20.
I gave this some thought. I had nothing to prove, and certainly if I wanted to turn back I could. It was just me after all, not some organised event. On the other hand, if it was only rain - no lightning, hail, or locusts - where was the harm? It wasn't as if I'd never gotten soaked on a bike before. And so, energised by the food and two cups of coffee, I abandoned my decision to abandon.
From the moment I resolved to push on, I tried not to think about it too much. Here's the bike. There's the road. Point it west. Go!
It's true what they say: You get used to cycling in the rain. Even in severe rain. Even with no mudguards. Even without proper rain gear. Sure it feels strange at first, to have streams of water running down your face and to feel yourself drenched to the bone. But after a while it just becomes the new normal. I promise!
As my tyres hissed through running water and a massive headwind assailed me, I relaxed and told myself reassuringly: The stuff that is happening now? It is already happening! Conditions can't get any worse and I'm doing just fine. (This, of course, I knew perfectly well wasn't true: The weather, like life itself, could always get worse in new and inventive ways. But just then I chose to forget this fact for the sake of my sanity.)
To counteract the temperature drop I increased my pedaling cadence, and this worked surprisingly well to keep me reasonably comfortable in my soaked wool/lycra layers along the rolling terrain.
I climbed out of Derry via the backroads toward Newtown Cunningham, immediately crossing the North/South border (identifiable only by the road signs changing from miles to kilometers). I then descended to join the main road to Letterkenny - a dual carriageway with high speed traffic, which was the part of my route I had been most nervous about. However, in weather like this the main road proved rather fabulous: an uninterrupted super-wide shoulder meant that cars were now passing within several feet, rather than several inches of me. Somewhere on my right, I knew, was Lough Swilly - obscured now by all the waterfall action and cloud cover, yet somehow still sensed out there, beyond the flow of multi-lane traffic. The miles flew by as I pedaled alongside its imagined banks. And before I knew it I was nearly in Letterkenny.
Now, as anybody local will tell you, the industrial sprawl nightmare that is the town of Letterkenny - aside from being one of the least scenic places in Donegal - is a horror to navigate in any vehicle. Aclutter with misleadingly signposted roundabouts, logic-defying one way roads, and aggressive drivers grown deranged by circling the place endlessly due to both of the former, a cyclist would do best to avoid Letterkenny like the plague. Unfortunately this is quite difficult, as practically every route through Donegal wants to take you directly through it.
Nevertheless there does exist a "secret" backroad. It skirts Letterkenny coyly, approaching here, retreating there, without ever going directly through it; a tree-lined paradise with exactly zero roundabouts and hardly any car traffic. You do pay for this with a bit (okay, kind of a lot) of climbing. But the height gain also means that you get a surprisingly lovely view of the town from a vantage point that somehow actually manages to make it look nice.
Thus bypassing civilisation entirely, I continued along the back roads through Church Hill, to the Glenveagh National Park. Somewhere along the way the rain had stopped, and I hadn't even noticed. When I finally did notice, it was almost with regret. We had grown to be friends, the rain and I; it had kept me company. Was that a crazy thought? At mile 30 it was really far too early to be raving.
An aside on milage in Ireland: As I have mentioned a few times before, there is something about the roads' surface here that makes them noticeably more effortful to cycle on than, say, paved American roads. One experienced cyclist I know who rides in both New England and Ireland regularly, reckons you have to mentally add 50% to the Irish milage to calculate "equivalent American milage." So in other words, cycling 40 miles in Ireland feels like cycling 60 paved miles in the US. Cycling 60 miles in Ireland feels equivalent to 90 miles in the US. And so on. In my own experience, this is fairly accurate. So, if you are planning a cycle tour here and are trying to get a sense of what kind of distances you'll feel comfortable doing, just be aware of this.
Around this point I began to grow a little tired on the stretch of backroads to the Glenveagh National park - a continuous climb through (the name should have tipped me off) Church Hill. It was then I realised that I hadn't actually paused to rest the entire ride. So finally I stopped and took a little break on the side of the road and sent some texts to let people know I was doing fine. After that I was good as new. The only real discomfort I was having, was that my shorts, having gotten thoroughly wet in the rain, were chafing a bit. But otherwise I was grand. It was all coming back to me now - what it was like, to do this - to go off on my own into uncharted territory, with no one's company for reassurance. It was "me," this kind of trip. More so than the social ride, the club ride, the organised brevet, even the lovely couple rides I had grown so fondly attached to. It was this lone, explorative type of ride that drew me into cycling in the first place.
As you travel west through Donegal, the Glenveagh National Park is where it really begins. It being: the bogs, the mountains, the vastness, the isolation. The general heathery peaty mossyness with zero buildings or even people as far as the eye can see in any direction. The miles upon miles where there is nothing to indicate to the eye that you are actually moving. Once they appear in sight, the two iconic mountains become quite important here - the pointy, quartz-tipped Errigal and the lumpy, flat-top Muckish. They act as orienting markers, and the eye hangs on to them for comfort, for anchoring.
My mind wiped clean by this landscape, I felt in a strange sense renewed as I prepared to climb the Muckish Gap - a stunning, winding backroad along the edge of this steep-sided mountain. This road would take me finally to the coast, to Falcarragh and Gortahork, via what is known as the Bridge of Tears - a place where, in centuries past, emigrants out of Ireland would pause to say their final good-byes to family, before persisting in their long and tedious trek to the nearest seaport. Whenever I pass this bridge, in the reverse direction, and usually on a bicycle, I am always conscious of being the opposite: an immigrant, coming in rather than wanting out.
And just why do I like it here anyway? I don't know, except that I do. I like even the harshness of it. Even the wind and the rain. Even (especially) the bog.
I found it interesting to learn that in Irish the word "bog" means soft. It's a nice word that gives the boggy landscape a positive connotation. Relaxing and gentle, not menacing. Pliable, not tyrannical. Inviting, not dirty.
In the final stretch, I mulled this over, thinking how happy I felt to not have abandoned my plans to do this ride on my own after all. Can every harshness be reframed as a softness, I wondered? Every pain as just a different type of sensation? Maybe not. But sometimes it is worth it, to try.