A four day spin from Mizen Head in Cork to Malin Head in Donegal. (Ireland’s Lands’ End to John O’Groats).
Over 600 km in distance, this is an adventure that has caught the imagination of many a cyclist over the years. As officialdom would have it, quite simply you cannot get any further south (Mizen Head) or north (Malin Head) than these two points on mainland Ireland.
This is a challenge that I have often considered and spoke about with Aileen. Like many intended challenges it looked like one of those feats that we’d be watching from the side lines as others completed it.
But with a significant birthday as an excuse and a little determination and planning the gig was on. Start date Friday 23 June.
The drivers: Marie and Ian
Mizen-Bantry-Ballingeary-Ballyvourney-Killarney-Firies-Tralee…154 km 1,299 m of climbing 6 hours 40 mins on the road.
The adventure started the evening before as we loaded 2 cars and 8 people up and set off to Barley Cove. We decided to drive in more or less the opposite direction as the opening days cycle. In all honesty this did us no favours what so ever. The journey seemed to last an eternity, as we analysed every hill and stretch of road between Tralee and Mizen. We broke the car journey for an hour to get some sustenance in Bantry as the thought of tomorrow was starting to eat away at our stomach linings. Bellies full we finished off the journey into Barley Cove and booked into our hotel for the night.
Off we go.
The big day had arrived and with it the foul weather. From the security of the hotel the wind seemed to be blowing hard, the rain was lashing and the clouds very low. We set off by car to Mizen (not without incident) to get ourselves to the starting line. The area was deserted and seemed more like the end of November than a few days past mid-Summer. Once all the formalities of photo’s, best of luck everyone was done we hit the road at 9:09. The rain and mist still lingered, but at least the wind was at our backs. The first 40 km to Bantry was actually good. Despite the terrain being rolling, it seemed to be in our favour most of the time as we made the most of the downhill sections. At this early stage the group was a bit fragmented, with Aileen seemingly out to break the record for a Mizen to Malin cycle way out of sight in front and Humphrey the strongest ambling along at the rear. The first break in Bantry was a welcome respite from the rain, as we attempted to dry out and fill ourselves with warm drinks.
On leaving Bantry the rain stopped as we headed in land to the most hilly part of the 4 days. The Pass of Keimineigh came and went without any problems as did the Ballingeary to the mouth of the glen climb. From here on it was twisting roads through forest and bog until we joined up with the main N22 road and lunch at the Mills Inn at Ballyvourney. The oxtail soup and ham sandwich hit the spot as we relaxed knowing that day 1 was more than 50% done. The Mills to the county bounds climb was routine enough. A nice steady pedal stroke was the order of the day. The downhill to Glenflesk was welcome and with the elements helping us along, the run to Killarney went well. With rush hour very much in our midst we decided to give the final section of N22 to Tralee a miss and take the Ballyhar road as far as Firies. It was much quieter which was welcome though a good bit hillier. The relaying of the road outside Firies didn’t help our cause as we picked our way through the newly laid gravel, knowing a slip at this stage would not be welcome.
Tralee-Tarbert-Kilimer-Ennis-Gort-Oranmore-Tuam…188 km 1,199 m of climbing 8 hours 1 minute on the road.
The starting time for day 2 was 8 am from John’s house. I left a little earlier to cycle over and added an extra 8 km to the distance. Day 2 was the stand out day as it was the longest. Add to that the fact of getting the ferry which always adds some excitement and moving into relatively unknown terrain, the day was going to be long and interesting. For the first 50 km to Tarbert we were joined by our cycling colleges from the Chain Gang CC who saw us to the ferry at Tarbert in a very respectable time. This saw us safely onto the 10 am ferry and cycling in the Banner County within 30 minutes. Now I have experienced cycling in this area before and it isn’t easy. The land is one hill after the next and road improvements in this section of Ireland don’t seem to be a priority as the road surface is decidedly uneven. It resembles cycling on a cheese grater! Hence to say our average speed dropped dramatically as we huffed and puffed our way to Ennis. By now the group format was taking shape as John and Humphrey sat at the front with the rest of us taking it in turns to be the bridesmaids. As we closed in on Ennis our one and only mechanical issue of the four days surfaced. Earlier rain had covered a couple of nasty pot holes. Aileen was the chosen one, as she crashed through one of them. Immediately the back tyre hissed and fell flat as a pancake. The problem was soon fixed and as luck would have it Marie and the support car was close by to offer the assistance of a track pump.
After a garage lunch on the outskirts of Ennis we continued north via the old Ennis to Galway road. Once again we were in the ascendancy as we flew along the former main road that is now eclipsed by a motorway. One thing I have noticed in Ireland is that there are a few of these gems of roads popping up as the Emerald Isle pushes forward to compete with the rest of Europe on a motorway footing. Try the old Limerick to Portlaoise road and the old road out of Dublin towards Galway. They are lovely wide and quiet roads that prehaps the authorities should be selling to the cyclists from near and far as the way to go?
After a brief stop in Gort we joined the busy N18 which took us to Claregalway via Oranmore. In all honesty this was a section we didn’t enjoy. Busy, noisy and dirty. The final stretch to Tuam was memorable in so much as we were knackered. The finish line was a tantalising 20 or so kilometers away. In all honesty it felt like 80 km. The sight of the hotel, food, drink, a shower and some rest was certainly welcome.
Tuam-Ballyhaunis-Ballymote-Sligo-Bundoran-Donegal Town…167 km 991 m of climbing 7 hours 1 minute on the road.
Beware of the dog that doesn’t bark! Of our 4 days of cycling today was the least talked about for different reasons. Stuck in the middle of the agenda, no significant climbs an average distance. I didn’t have a good feeling about this day! The decision to avoid the main roads to Sligo was a good one. Quiet roads, nice rolling countryside and arguably Sunday the morning the quietest day of the week. By the time of the first break in Ballaghaderreen I was in bits. Nauseous, irritable and tired. At moments like this your want to curl up on the couch and flee the world, but it was a position I have been in a few times before. The only way to go is forward and in time it passes. With lots of vitamin C on board and avoiding the usual break time coffee I was right as rain within the hour.
This leg of the journey saw us pass through 6 counties and they came thick and fast with Galway turning into Roscommon and then Mayo, before Sligo, Leitrim and finally Donegal. After the relative calm of the back roads it was back to business as we joined up with the N18 south of Collooney. This soon led us onto the N4 and the run into Sligo. Now Sligo isn’t the biggest of towns. In fact it has a smaller population than Tralee. But the road leading to it gave me the impression we were heading into some huge metropolis. A big sweeping highway that cuts right through the town. From here we were mixing it with the big boys as traffic hurtled past us at over 100 kmph. Our tricky manoeuver for this section was negotiating the slip roads onto the N4. On a good few occasions we needed eyes in the back of our heads as we had to cross the various slip roads like the video game frogger. We didn’t have the luxury of three lives!
Thankfully Sligo came and went and we were all intact. Our next destination was the Davis restaurant in Yates country 8 km away. This area is dominated by the odd-looking Benbulbin mountain. A weird-looking yoke that reminded me of a sea cliff come quarry that had been dumped in the middle of the countryside. I was just glad that we could cycle around it!
After lunch we pushed ever northward through Sligo. At this point I was thinking Sligo was never going to end. I had it in my mind that the Leitrim border was soon after the Davis stop. In reality it was still 20 km and at this stage 20 km seemed a long way. Once into Leitrim we blinked and entered Donegal. Yes Leitrim is that small! Just 4.7 km at this point. Still it was another county down as we entered a huge milestone and our final county, Donegal.
Not long now! Well actually 31 km and fatigue was setting in. We skipped Bundoran town and opted for the by-pass. A nice fast road that initially ran in a downhill direction. As we moved towards Ballyshannon, then the road kicked up! By now a break was very much in order and according to our pilot a stopping off point was imminent. Sadly it didn’t seem to coming as we ploughed on past Ballintra and ever closer to our destination. At around this point the peloton was in the grip of cabin fever as moral dropped to an all time low and the skipper was left to plough a lonely solo furrow as the crew took refuge down a boreen and on the grass embankments of the N15 as we emptied our bottles and pockets of nourishment and took a well-earned break from the saddle. Thankfully our calamity didn’t match that of HMS Bounty and within 10 minutes normal service was resumed as we finally ended day 3 in Donegal Town via Robert Kee’s Eurospar supermarket.
Donegal Town-Ballybofey-Letterkenny-Buncrana-Carndonagh-Malin Head…128 km 1,089 m of climbing 5 hours 53 minutes on the road.
The final and shortest day. For a couple of days I’d prepared the troops for a biblical style rain storm for the final day. The weather experts had been predicting it for most of the week. In typical fashion we awoke to the best looking day so far as the sun shone and the wispy white clouds meandered care-free across the blue sky. As a matter of curiosity name another job that seems to tolerate getting things so wrong, yet no one seems to care? Anyway the weather people just gave us the worse case scenario and just a 15 minute dry spell would have been cause for celebration. As it happens we didn’t see or feel a drop of moisture that day!
Getting back to task in hand, I was expecting big things from Ballybofey today. I had a real emotional pull to the town as far back as 1978. My favourite team Everton drew the locals Finn Harps In the UEFA Cup. As a kid I felt I should have been there but the closest I got was a programme (creased) that I sent off for and the consolation of seeing the second leg. As is usually the way the town was a bit of a let down after 39 years of hurt and I only got the briefest of glimpses of Finn Park. This group was in no mood for nostalgia today! So I didn’t even suggest a photo call to Finn Park. For the record Everton won both games 5-0 before crashing out in round 2 to Dukla Prague.
After Ballybofey we proceeded to cause a 2 mile traffic jam into and out of Stranolar before turning onto the wider N13. For about 5 minutes we lapped up the hoots of irate motorists and they sped past in realisation as to what was causing them to crawl out of Ballybofey at 18 kmph.
The subsequent pull and then the fall into Letterkenny was something else as Humphrey hit a reported 70 kmph only to be slowed down by a roundabout and our subsequent break. Nourished and fired up we left Letterkenny on a direct collision course with Canada, luckily we realised within 200 metres and soon got back on track for a more northerly direction. This section of the route offered some nice glimpses of Drongawn Lough to our left. A surprising quirk of this trip was that we didn’t actually come across too much water/sea so to actually lay eyes on some was pleasant. As we sped towards Buncrana we came within a mile or so of Derry but peeled off in a north-westerly direction at the Bridge End roundabout. Buncrana reminded me of Ballybunion and we paid it homage with an ice cream stop at Supervalu.
Pushing on towards lunch and Carndonagh we entered an area that I would describe as a cross between a bog and the North Yorkshire Moors. Predictably it wasn’t flat and had the weather forecast been correct I couldn’t imagine a worse place to be cycling through rain and wind. As it transpired it was quite pleasant and very scenic and invited a nice fast descent into Carndonagh. My one grumble was that despite closing in on our goal the horizon offered nothing but peaks. At this stage the sight of a coastal horizon would have been welcome.
If you are going on comparisons still, Carndonagh reminded me of central Newcastle West, with its square surrounded by shops. We found probably the only French café this side of the Shannon but enjoyed a hearty leek and potato soup lunch with sandwiches, cake and hot tea.
The final 20 km was a bit of a roller coaster with the misleading Malin village coming very soon after Carndonagh. The road narrows quite considerably, but at this stage we didn’t care too much. For a good bit of the final leg you are actually cycling along a coastline, but this actually sits on the opposite side to the peninsula to where you want to be. It isn’t until you are within a few kilometers of Malin Head that the landscape actually gives way to a mountainless horizon and the Malin Tower looms large to the right. Just to add to the excitement the council was doing work on the final stretch of road. This meant spinning up 12 % gradient on loose chipping whilst dodging JCB’s and dumper trucks. Finally we hit level group and all placed our front wheels on the finish line. Once everyone was up 1-2-3 and we all crossed together. An apt ending to a memorable 4 days.
Total distance…637.9 km Climbing 4,578 metres