The roads less ridden: An Ireland not seen in brochures
Visiting cyclist Mike van Niekerk discovers an Ireland we rarely see
When you reach the end of Killary Harbours' long finger of ocean past Leenaun on the road to Westport and take a sharp left turn off the N59, you find yourself on an up and down road that clings to the fjord's north shore for nine kilometres before you're forced inland by the looming bulk of Mweelrea Mountain.
I took a last-moment decision to turn left, having cycled out of Clifden that Sunday morning with the intention of lunching in Westport before heading back down to Galway for the evening train to Dublin. Which is how I discovered the Doolough Pass.
In two years of weekend adventures on the roads of Ireland I've cycled some lovely highways and byways, but long after I've gone home to Australia I will remember the stark beauty of the wide, lonely valley between Mweelrae and Ben Gorm and the road that skirts Doolough on the way to Louisburgh and Croagh Patrick.
When you cycle a lot, you become a connoisseur of roads. My Instagram feed features a stream of friends, acquaintances and interesting strangers riding and commenting on roads all over the world; roads to savour, roads to dream about riding on.
Nothing in my experience will ever beat riding up the Mortirolo and the Passo Gavia in the Italian Alps or the Col du Galibier in the French Alps. The 18km climb to the top of Mt Hotham, four hours north of Melbourne, comes close to that same sense of awesome grandeur.
Then there's Mallorca's Sa Colabra, the most whimsical and delightful 13km of tarmac anywhere in the world, introduced to me by four excellent Irishmen I met on the Ryanair flight from Dublin to Palma de Mallorca.
No where had I read anything that promotes Ireland as a cycling destination and I had no expectations before a temporary relocation here. But that's one of the joys of a lifelong passion for cycling: discovering the road less ridden.
My first revelation was the proximity to Dublin of a vast, lumpy, scenic upland on the edge of the southern suburbs. The Dublin Mountains, and the Wicklow ranges beyond, less than 30 minutes from the city centre, offer some of the finest training and touring routes I've ever enjoyed.
Every road that converges on Sally Gap, for instance, is a delight, whether from the traditional tea stop at Laragh; from the high road above Lough Tay under the dark mass of Lugnaquilla; or from the Blessington direction, weaving up a skinny finger of rough tarmac alongside dark runnels of water where the Liffey rises out of the bog.
My second revelation was Ireland's west coast; fabulous I'm sure by car or coach but heaven on two wheels.
The physical experience of a new landscape is one of the reasons I love to ride. Hauling myself into Kerry's Black Valley through Moll's Gap and out again over the Gap of Dunloe, rounding the Dingle Peninsula with the Blaskets looming through an icy fog and racing at speed across the Burren's cracked limestone plateaux while trying to hang onto Sean Kelly's wheel during a sportif, are experiences I'll never forget.
Sportifs were another revelation. For Ireland's hardy community of club riders and for its growing numbers of leisure cyclists, there is a rich selection of organised distance events. Sometimes in summer you are spoilt for choice.
Through the middle months of 2014 I took part in sportifs from one gorgeous corner of Ireland to the next, seeing some of the same faces and renewing transitory acquaintances each weekend. These were folks taking the opportunity and the pleasure of a physical challenge in a different and, perhaps for them as well as me, unvisited region of the land.
It's true that the roads here are often bad - none worse than the way up to Moll's Gap, where a group of us on a sportif skirted both bone-breaking holes in the road, and tourists in pony traps.
"The Americans would think we'd run out of tar in Ireland, like," said a lad in the group as we bounced and rattled along.
The weather is also a challenge: wind and rain in summer, leaden skies and black ice in winter.
Yet I had fair skies more often than not. Returning to Connemara one weekend I took the train to Galway, followed the coast to the ferry at Rossaveal, crossed over to Inishmore, doubled the island, returned to the mainlaid and continued on to the beautiful little village of Roundstone where by 7pm I was standing at the top of a sloping road with a pint of Guinness in hand, enjoying the evening sun and the friendly crowd clustered outside the local pub.
It seldom gets better than that. Close though, would have to be backing it up the following day by a meander over the magnificent Sky Road beyond Clifden towards Omey Island, where teenage boys were racing horses on the ocean floor between tides, and finding myself again at the end of the day on that sloping road in the sun with a glass of stout.
I could go on, with an honourable mention to the east coast and a day of delight going down to Dunmore East, stopping at one point to look into a big top outside Gorey where the world sheep-shearing and wool-handling championships were in full swing, weaving through Wexford and crossing Waterford Harbour on a flat ferry at Passage East.
Nothing in the east, however, compares to the scenic drama of the west, and particularly the entrancing, wide brown world of water and rock north and west of Maam Cross in the Connemara. If you live and cycle in Ireland, there's a lifetime of enjoyment there. For cycle tourists from abroad, Failte Ireland have another good reason to promote the Atlantic Way.