Cycling the Wild Atlantic Way on a wooden bike: Week #5
The waters and the wild
Mark Graham's 2,500km cycle continues with a surprising revelation, and a spot of cloud-chasing on Loop Head.
After five weeks, 1,559 kilometres, six counties, one crash, a puncture and a lost phone charger, this is probably be a good time for a confession.
I'm not a cyclist.
Let me explain. A couple of years ago I met a lady called Anja playing harp at a festival. We struck up a conversation and I asked how long she'd been a harpist.
“I'm not a harpist,” she told me. “I’m a harper”.
The difference, she elaborated, was that a harper travels the roads, playing their instrument as they go - more in the folk tradition of O’Carolan than the polished presentation of a concert performer.
My quest to cycle all 2,500km of the Wild Atlantic Way over eight weeks was never going to be about performance or speed, and Lycra really doesn't suit me. I tend to stop for chats, swims and refreshments too often to qualify as a proper cyclist.
Ergo, I’m a cycler.
Clare's most famous cliff-top
Meanwhile, whoever said that there's no such thing as bad weather - just varying levels of appropriateness of clothing - obviously never tried pedalling against a 50kmph gusting gale along an exposed Co. Clare cliff-top.
There have been times on this trip when I’ve felt that no clothes at all and the application of a layer of goose fat may be the path of least resistance. But when the tables turn, and the wind lays her hand on my back, offering some gentle encouragement, I've exhaled heartfelt words of thanks.
As a tornado of race goers swept into Galway on Monday, I headed south towards Clare, following the Wild Atlantic Way from Ballyvaughan to Doolin along Black Head. Flanked on one side by the alien-like limestone of The Burren, and the vast mercurial pallet of the Atlantic on the other, it felt like I'd backed a winner. A shady looking cloud rocked up and started playing a three-card trick on the horizon with sheets of rain, making The Aran Islands disappear and reappear.
You'd be a fool to bet on the weather here.
A mix of piebald, palomino and shetland ponies grazed lazily on the cliffs. The equine equivalent of cyclers. None of us were built for racing.
A curious onlooker in Clare
The best way to experience the unique landscape of The Burren is by walking it. During the second weekend in September, The Ballyvaughan Fanore Walking Club run The Burren Peaks Festival. All weekend there are walks led through the hills by knowledgeable guides who provide a deep insight into the area.
At The Cliffs of Moher a coach driver laughed when I complained about the breeze.
“There's days here when you’d need a compass to find the door of the interpretive centre, never mind see the cliffs,” he informed me. “One day I opened the door of the bus, and the back window blew out."
It seems I’d been getting off lightly.
The traffic has begun to increase notably since I cycled south from Clifden - with the volume of coach tours peaking after Doolin. The Wild Atlantic Way wasn't designed as a cycle route (and this can be hair-raisingly clear at times), but there’s plenty of pay-off for caution and perseverance.
Loop Head is a breath of fresh air, providing respite from the main tourist trail and views that feel like the director's cut of The Cliffs of Moher Experience.
The wind came back to flutter her eyelashes, whisking the sea into a froth, sweeping it up the cliffs, and making a briny snow-globe of the road. The whoosh of a turbine from a wind farm was like the rev of a boy-racer's engine. I raced the shadow of a cloud down a hill, the breeze backing us both.
Looking across from Black Head, The Twelve Bens and Connemara seemed a continent away. I'd cycled that coast less than a week ago. As I sat on the ferry from Killimer to Tarbert, crossing the Shannon Estuary into County Kerry, I scanned the ground I’d covered that day in the distance.
The road I've traveled has become as difficult to fathom as the journey that lies ahead.
Monday: Galway to Kinvara: click here.
Tuesday: Kinvara to Doolin: click here.
Wednesday: Doolin to Ballylongford via Loop Head: click here.
Thursday: Ballylongford to Tralee: click here.
More info on The Loop Head Cycleway - loophead.ie/discover-ireland-cycling
More info on Burren Walks - burrenpeakswalkingfestival.com
More info on Woodelo wooden bikes – woodelo.ie.
You can hear Mark talk about his adventures every weekend on RTE Radio One's Marian Finucane Show. See also wildatlanticway.com.