Get on your bike and head to Donegal

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Hugh Dougherty

AS KEEN cyclists, a couple of summers ago, herself and I decided to cycle to Donegal—catching the P&O ferry at Cairnryan for Larne—pedalling all the way round the Antrim Coast Road, and arriving, finally, at Malin Town, 120 miles and plenty of hills later!

We took pannier-laden bikes across with us as foot passengers, and the most exciting part of boarding at Cairnryan, was being sent off up the ferry ramp before all the cars, but pedalling like fury to outrun the revving vehicles the loadmaster had sent off right behind us. Not great for the nerves, but good for the leg muscles.

Once off, we were on the spectacular Antrim Coast Road, with views across to Scotland in plenty, as we headed north, through Glenarm and the green Glens of Antrim to our first stop at Cushendall. We’d bowled along at first, but a fierce head wind came up, and we were down to 3mph at times, as the wind whistled through the coast road tunnels. If you’re not a cyclist, you won’t appreciate just how tiring pedalling a full-laded bike, head down, into an Irish north west wind can be, but, let’s just say that there was some discussion as to whose idea the trip was in the first place!

Twenty-five hard miles later, saw us comfortable in our Cushendall B&B, and happily full after a hotel dinner of Ulster proportions, to satisfy the sort of appetite that you work up on a bike, with the next day taking us on through Ballycastle, to Portstewart for our second overnight.

Spectacular scenery
This was a ride of spectacular views across the Sea of Moyle to Kintyre, and many equally challenging hills on the long climb out of Cushendall, but a bike ride such as this, gives you a unique connection to the stunning, Antrim countryside, Irish fresh air in plenty, and a real sense of achievement.

Stopping to look across to Innishowen—our ultimate destination—from a viewpoint near spectacular Dunluce Castle, of Game of Thrones fame, was the highlight of this section, a sense of anticipation of eventually making Donegal, mixed with a feeling that we had arrived outside Portrush, under our own steam.

We’d wanted to catch Vigil Mass in Portstewart, and our B&B hosts couldn’t have been more helpful, for, not only did the lady of the house tell us the time of Mass, but insisted on driving us to the church door. My fears of Portstewart being unlikely to offer anything as Catholic as Mass, disappeared. I think it was the life-sized Sacred Heart statue that greeted us, arms outstretched, as the B&B front door opened, that did it.

Challenging cycle
On Sunday morning, we were into Coleraine and out, past spectacular Magilligan Strand at Downhill, before an easy ride across the flat land to Magilligan Point, where we caught the ferry across Lough Foyle to Greencastle, and, so on to the terra firma of the County Donegal homeland.

From Greencastle, it was 15 miles over to Malin, but Innishowen is a series of challenging hills, so we had our work cut out before we subsided in a comfortable bedroom at the Malin Hotel, and enjoyed a superb dinner in the restaurant, tired, but proud to have made it all the way from Larne.

This is a cycle that offers spectacular views of mountain, moor and sea, and, the best bit is that you can stop anywhere, anytime, to enjoy the view, or take that picture, something you can’t always do in a car.

You also connect with nature, and people stop for a talk with you when you’re on a bike, although the four youngsters sitting on a wall in Glenarm, who, mistaking us for foreign tourists, made less-than-complementary remarks about us in Irish, got the fright of their lives when I replied in the native tongue, as we pedalled by, and gave them better than they’d given us.

Overall, car and lorry drivers gave us plenty of room, and, although we travelled on the 12th weekend, the roads in the North of Ireland weren’t too busy, only Portrush being crowded, with a segregated cycle track into the town, suddenly disappearing, as all cycle tracks seem to do on these islands, leaving us to cope with heavy traffic.

But, this was a novel way to reach Donegal, and we spent three days there, cycling up to Malin Head and over to Tullagh Bay, before pedalling back to the ferry at Greencastle, and riding on to Bellarena, where we caught the train back to Belfast.

If you’d like to try, then do, but, remember that you can’t just climb on a bike and make a trip like this with no preparation. You need to be able to cover 25 miles a day, and be able to slog away up substantial hills—but our computers read 40mph on the down stretch into Ballycastle—and, if, like us, you’re a regular cyclist, your rear end, with the benefit of padded cycling shorts, won’t be too sore!

So, get on your bike to Donegal. The sense of achievement is wonderful, and you’ll travel in a very green way, through the green island of Ireland. Get into training now. 

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