7 Amazing Cycles in Ireland: Fresh air for every fitness level!
There's never been a better time to swap four wheels for two in Ireland.
From short, à la carte greenway spins to epic circuits of Slea Head and the Comeraghs, we've lined up seven amazing cycles (scroll down) to highlight Ireland's amazing cycling potential, whether you're up for 10km or 100km.
"I have travelled all over the world," as pro racing cyclist Josie Knight says. But Ireland is still home to "the most beautiful place I have ridden".
Cycling is about 'slow tourism'. It's about being part of the landscape, hopping on and off at leisure, chatting and burning calories as you go.
You can bomb down a mountain bike trail in Ballyhoura, take an electric bike around the Boyne Valley, or bring your kids to the park. Greenways, hubs and bike hire companies are growing (ingeniously, many are happy to collect you when you're done...) and the number of UK and continental cycling tourists is on the rise.
Of course, we can't get carried away. Ireland is no cyclist's paradise - traffic, theft and both driver and cyclist behaviour remain real issues. Like many cyclists, I've had bikes stolen in Dublin. Like many drivers, I've been stuck behind pint-sized pelotons on the Ring of Kerry. Traffic-free cycling is still a minority sport.
Things have improved in Dublin "but a lot of Irish rural roads remain intimidating for non-experienced cyclists", says Damien Ó Tuama, National Cycling Coordinator with Cyclist.ie - The Irish Cycling Advocacy Network.
Cars are bigger and faster, and it's no coincidence that almost 75pc of comuting cyclists are adult males. Changing driving culture - and introducing legislation for safe overtaking distances - is essential to make cycling safer for all adults and kids.
We've a way to go, then. But imagine the rewards if we get there: from health benefits to traffic congestion and tourism wins. Daylight is stretching. Irish trails are growing. It's a good time to get on your bike in Ireland.
1. The Pedal-friendly Peninsula
Hook Head Loop, Co Wexford
by Turlough O’Brien
This is a fairly easy, flat route which makes it achievable for almost everybody. It’s full of mystery and history, with amazing coastal scenery and plenty of stopping-off points along the way.
When I cycle, I see and experience the real Ireland, at a pace that means I can enjoy the sights, the sounds and smells. Happiness truly is about the simple pleasures in life: all I need are the open road and a picnic in my pannier. The Hook Peninsula ticks a lot of boxes; it’s a most enjoyable and memorable route that will keep calling you back.
Start in Duncannon on the coast, a quaint little seaside village 20km south of New Ross. It’s very simple to navigate — leave with the sea on your right and keep cycling south towards Hook Head Lighthouse, your furthest destination point.
Along the way, you’ll pass through mysterious Templetown with its Templar church. Loftus Hall is reputedly the most haunted house in Ireland. You can see the sea on both sides along this road, as the peninsula is quite narrow at this point.
Hook Lighthouse soon comes into view, standing tall at the very end of the peninsula, directing seafarers to safety, as it has done for generations. It’s the oldest working lighthouse in the world, and there are guided tours too (hookheritage.ie). Hook Lighthouse is really worth visiting and completing the tour if time permits. The rest of the route takes in Baginbun Beach, Fethard-on-Sea, Tintern Abbey and Colclough Walled Garden.
This is a stunning cycle, accessible for people of all ages, abilities and fitness levels. It’s a great one for people who are just getting into cycling, to start them off and — pardon the pun — get them ‘hooked’! It’s quite safe, as the roads are generally quiet in this part of Ireland’s Ancient East. Perfect cycling terrain.
Turlough O’Brien (rotharroutes.com) is the author of ‘Cycling South Leinster: Great Road Routes’ (collinspress.ie), available from May 29.
Length/time: 44km (allow 3 hours, with stops)
Start/finish point: Start in Duncannon - you can follow Turlough’s exact route here:ridewithgps.com/routes/12638232.
Refuel: Grab a lobster roll in the Hook Lighthouse café (hookheritage.ie)
2. The City Slicker
Ticknock, Co Dublin
By Niall Davis
The Ticknock mountain biking experience starts off at the bottom of Three Rock Mountain. Essentially, you’ve got to climb up to the top through the trails. There are a number of different ones — it’s all signposted and waymarked thanks to Coillte, who constructed the trails. The official route is 13km in total, but you can do smaller loops or repeat sections if you wish.
I guess the beauty of it is the fact you can just rock up, rent a bike or bring your own, and follow the trails. It’s fairly easy to navigate.
There’s something for everybody, I’d say. Obviously, you’d need to be well able to cycle, but there are quite a few different grading options. You’ve got a couple of easier tracks, then a couple with a more natural, rocky terrain for those who are into going a little bit faster.
The climb to the top used to be quite tough, but they’ve added in a few other trails that meander up the hill. You’d definitely be huffing and puffing a bit, but it’s not as bad as it once was. You used to have to go straight up the tarmac road and it was horrific! Now they’ve got two or three other trails, so it’s a lot less steep, and more enjoyable. You’ve got mini breaks in between where you can recover, and enjoy the downhills on your way up as well, if you get me.
It’s pretty incredible that you have the capital city right there, and you’ve got the sea and the mountains in view as well. It’s a special location — we’ve got the city life, but we have all these trails right on our doorstep. To have that closeness to a busy, big city, then have the peace and tranquillity of the mountains and the sea right beside you, is pretty incredible.
There aren’t very many places that can offer that.
Niall Davis is the founder of biking.ie, which offers mountain bike rentals, lessons and tours from Ticknock in Co Dublin and Ballinastoe in Co Wicklow.
Length/time: Up to 13km (1 hour and upwards)
Start/finish point: Biking.ie headquarters at Ticknock Forest, Sandyford, Co Dublin
Refuel: Call into The Blue Light (facebook.com/bluelightpubdublin), a pub popular with bikers in Barnacullia, Sandyford, for a classic cheese and ham toastie.
3. The Kingdom
Gap of Dunloe and the Black Valley, Co Kerry
by Donnacha Clifford
This cycle is amongst the most scenic in Kerry, and that’s saying a lot. It leaves the picturesque, bustling town of Killarney and heads into a cinematic landscape with jarveys offering tourists horse-drawn journeys from Kate Kearney’s Cottage — a famous pub and restaurant at the entrance to the Gap of Dunloe.
This cycle is one of my favourites because it is escapism at its best, amidst a very natural and beautiful setting. There is little in the way of traffic for much of the route. It appears untouched by modern life. After leaving the magnificence of the Gap of Dunloe, the cycle heads into the Black Valley, an area that was the last in Ireland to receive electricity.
From the Black Valley, the route rises to the towering Moll’s Gap, with the option of a short detour to the wonderful Strawberry Fields Pancake Cottage. Alternatively, you can take a break at the Avoca Café on Moll’s Gap itself.
The last leg of the cycle is the spectacular descent of Moll’s Gap back to Killarney, with wonderful scenery ahead including Ladies’ View and Muckross Gardens and National Park.
Though it’s only 56km, this would not be described as an easy route. There are rolling roads and some steep, short climbs when ascending from Kate Kearney’s into the Black Valley, and also a challenging climb up to Moll’s Gap from the Black Valley. However the climbs are generally short, and people with all levels of fitness tackle this route regularly.
The glacial landscape and natural surrounds include views of lakes, the MacGillycuddy Reeks, Purple Mountain, Ladies view and Muckross Park. The fact that this is a short cycle, but still remote, means it’s a great opportunity to go “into the wilds” for an adventure without having to travel too far.
Donnacha Clifford is the founder and co-owner of kerrycycling.com and co-author of ‘Cycling Kerry: Great Road Routes’ (collinspress.ie).
Level: Moderate/Hard Length/time: 56km (allow 3 hours)
Start/finish point: Start in Killarney — there’s a handy description of the route on kerrycycling.com/2015/05/the-gap-of-dunloe.
Refuel: Stop off for banana and Nutella pancakes at Strawberry Fields Pancake Cottage (strawberryfield-ireland.com).
4. The pro tip
The ‘Ballymac’ Loop, Counties Tipperary & Waterford
by Seán Kelly
This is one we’ve done so many times. I did it in my early days, right through my pro cycling career, and when I was in the off-season, getting ready for the new season to kick off.
It’s a really nice route, because when you leave Carrick-on-Suir, to your right hand side you have Slievenamon — as the crow flies, it’s just about two or three miles away from you. Then, at times on that road, you go along the River Suir, as you head towards Clonmel. When you cross the river, you go into Co Waterford; then, going towards Ballymacarbry, you’re in the Nire Valley, so the Comeragh Mountains are all along the left-hand side.
There aren’t too many big hills. For somebody who cycles a lot, it wouldn’t be that bad. There are a few climbs on it, though — when you go out to Ballymacarbry, there’s a bit of a climb there that goes on for about a mile-and-a-half. There’s a nice climb as you leave Dungarvan too, called the Pike Hill. The Comeragh Mountains are there for miles on your left-hand side, so you have magnificent scenery.
I think it’s nice to have some little climbs because if it’s all flat, it can be boring on a bike or on a club run. You need a few little hills, but nothing too serious. This is a nice one because you can go in a group, and if people have good fitness levels, we can all stay in there together.
I think the downhills are my favourite part, because I’m after putting on a bit of weight since the time that I was competing. So I’m better at going downhill fast — that’s what I can do best now, going downhill!
On the uphill sections I suffer a bit, but I do enjoy it.
Sean Kelly (seankellycycling.com) is one of Ireland’s greatest cyclists. This is one of his favourite routes.
Level: Hard Length/time: 100km (allow 5 hours)
Start/finish point: Start and finish in Carrick-on-Suir
Refuel: Grab a coffee and a slice of cake from O’Gorman’s Bakery & Coffee Rooms on O’Connell Street, Clonmel.
5. The Bucket List Bike Ride
Slea Head Loop, Co Kerry
by Josie Knight
The Slea Head drive is my favourite route to cycle in Ireland. It’s a coastal loop around the peninsula of Dingle, and pretty much follows the coast the whole way around. It never gets boring, as the sea is always changing — even on a rainy, windy day, it’s beautiful. The colours of the sea are always different.
The scenery is very much coastal: lots of cliffs and rock faces. You also ride by the Blasket Islands, which make for an amazing view. On a clear day you can see for miles and even get a glance of the Skelligs, where Star Wars: The Force Awakens was filmed. There are lots of sea birds and the odd sheep on the road.
Depending on the time of year, you can sometimes be lucky enough to do the whole loop without seeing a car, although in the height of summer there can be a little bit of traffic with the tourist buses on the narrow, winding roads.
I’ve travelled all over the world and raced in lots of different countries — like New Zealand, Colombia and Hong Kong — but still, this loop is the most beautiful place I have ridden, as it is so rural and rugged.
I feel totally at peace when riding around it on a winter’s day, not passing a single car for about two hours and just watching the movement of the ocean and the birds. I could never get bored of it.
It’s a steady ride, without too many climbs — but it’s definitely not flat either! More undulating, I would say. But any hills you come across are made easy by the beautiful views. I believe it should 100pc be on every cyclist’s bucket list.
Josie Knight (20) is one of Ireland’s top cyclists — and the youngest member of the Irish Track Cycling team. She divides her time between Kerry and Spain, and is on Twitter at @JosieKnight97.
Length/time: 50km (allow 3 hours)
Start/finish point: Begin and end in Dingle
Refuel: Tig Áine (tigaine.com) is halfway round, with arguably the best scones on the peninsula (opens May 1)
6. The Midlands Makeover
The Old Rail Trail, Co Westmeath
By Pól Ó Conghaile
The best ideas are often the simplest.
After the Great Western Greenway blazed a trail in Ireland, local councils and tourism groups all over the country began to wonder... why can’t that be us?
It can, and should. The first thing that struck me about the Old Rail Trail — a more recent greenway traversing 40km of the Midlands between Athlone and Mullingar — is how gentle and easy it is. At times, long, straight stretches threaten to become monotonous, but once you’re in the saddle, cruising along, you soon tune into the groove and pace of the reimagined Midlands Great Western Railway.
As with all greenways, you can do the full thing or a shorter stretch. I sampled it with Doran Harte of Athlone Bike Tours (athlonebiketours.ie) recently, and we glided by the walls of Moydrum Castle (it appears on the cover of U2’s The Unforgettable Fire), past rolling green farmscapes, beneath railway bridges and through the lovingly restored old station at Moate (above) — looking as if its flowers were freshly planted only yesterday. Unlike Mayo’s game-changing trail, here you cycle parallel to the old railway tracks for long stretches, directly connecting you with its industrial heritage.
As the Old Rail Trail matures, I’d love to see interpretative signage, sculptures and other features crop up along the route, adding intrigue and excuses for visitors to linger longer.
Here’s a direct line into parts of the Irish countryside you rarely get to see up close these days — whizzing by as we do on motorways. The Midlands have a gently enduring kind of magic, a beauty best experienced by bike.
Level: Easy/Moderate Length/time: 40km (allow 2-3 hours)
Start/finish point: There are start/finish points outside Mullingar and Athlone (the Spar at Garrycastle).
Refuel: Stop for a cuppa and a shot of culture at Dún na Sí Amenity & Heritage Park (dunnasi.ie), just off the trail outside Moate.
7. The Game Changer
Great Western Greenway, Co Mayo
by Nicola Brady
There’s only one way to get to Achill, in my eyes, and it’s on two wheels.
That final stretch of the Great Western Greenway, from Mulranny over to the island, is a visual celebration of all that’s great about the Irish countryside: forests line the path, the scent of the sea fills the air, and mountains rise in the distance, dappled with heather and stone.
The Greenway is an Irish success story, a 42km cycle and footpath that has paved the way for similar projects all over the country. You can do shorter stretches, but the full route — stretching from Westport to Achill Island — is one that everyone should do at least once.
With a few hills along the way, it’s not exactly what I’d call easy. But it’s definitely accessible to most, if taken at a reasonable pace. If you wanted a challenge, you could push yourself and whizz the whole route in a couple of hours, but it’s better to take your time and stop along the way.
The trail takes you over gorgeous stone bridges (we spotted a little seal popping his head up at one), over barren hilltops and past sheep that either ignore you or panic blindly and flail into the hedges.
Instead of bringing my own road bike, I rented one from Clew Bay Bike Hire in Westport. This was handy for two reasons: one, they shepherd you back to town when you’re finished (or knackered). And two, they’re available along the way if any issues arise, like the chain snapping on my friend’s bike as she hurtled down a hill. Despite the fact the bike in question was her own, not theirs, they popped along in the van to lend her another one.
We stayed over in Achill for the night, treating ourselves to fish and chips and a couple of pints, before spending the following day on the beach, in the unforeseen October sun. The other benefit of bike hire? They shuttle you back to Westport, so you don’t have to hop back in the saddle.
There aren’t any prizes for being too virtuous, you know.
Level: Moderate/Easy (it can also be cycled in small sections)
Length/time: 42km (allow 3 hours with a few stops)
Start/finish point: Start in Westport — there’s parking at Clew Bay Bike Hire (clewbaybikehire.ie)
Refuel: The chowder at Mulranny Park Hotel (mulrannyparkhotel.ie) is killer — pick up a Gourmet Greenway map while you’re there.
Did you know?
The brand-new Waterford Greenway — stretching 46km from Waterford city to Dungarvan — is now the longest in Ireland. Copper Coast views, arching viaducts, spooky tunnels and strangely tropical bursts are all in store for walkers and cyclists.
See visitwaterfordgreenway.com for maps and info.
What to pack
Cycling on the Waterford Greenway...
Safety comes first on a cycle, no matter how easy. Check the weather, leave word of where you’re going and when you’ll be back, and pack smart!
- Phone (fully charged)
- Helmet (every time — no excuses)
- High-viz vests
- Water and snacks
- Mini bike pump (fitted to bike frame)
- Puncture repair kit/two spare tubes
- Sunscreen and shades (you never know...)
As above, plus:
- Padded cycling shorts/bibs (you might laugh, but your bum won’t)
- Cash (for more water or food)
- High-energy snacks (banana, nuts, protein bars)
- Buff (amazing for keeping your neck warm)
As above, but also consider:
- Cycling gloves (do wonders for tingling hands
- Sandwich bag (for your phone in case of downpour)
- Jersey (that back pocket comes in handy)
- Extra lightweight layer (something small that can fold into that back pocket)
Did you know?
Cycling is nothing new in Ireland. Various cycling groups were pedalling about the place in the late 1800s, according to Cycling Ireland (cyclingireland.ie), with the Dungarvan Ramblers staging an early race in 1869.
Cycling on the web
Cycleireland.ie: Find more than 100 comprehensive cycle routes around the country, either online or via their app (€4.99), which has step-by-step directions.
Mapmyride.com: Track your cycle with this great free app, which also monitors your speed, elevation and climb. Or use the website to find routes that others have cycled in your area.
Thecyclingblog.com: A great Irish blog run by Barry Meehan, with tips for cyclists of all levels.