On your bike
Half of all Irish adults now own a bicycle, a figure that looks set to grow. A recent convert to two wheels, writer Joe O’Shea explores the nationwide cycling revolution that is sweeping our roads
From commuter routes to country lanes, on our suburban streets and along the rapidly growing network of Greenways and dedicated cycle routes, Ireland is in the midst of a two-wheel revolution.
Half of all Irish adults now own a bike. Of those, one in three cycle at least once a week. For many, it's a recent return to a transport of delight we may have thought we left behind in our childhood.
Incentives such as the Bike to Work scheme - added to increasing congestion on our roads - have seen growing numbers of commuters turn to the humble bike. Some 14pc of us now commute by cycle every day, according to a 2017 survey for National Bike Week.
Cycling is increasingly seen as a low-cost, environmentally friendly, healthy mode of daily transport.
However, it's in the leisure cycling area that we have really taken bikes to our hearts. Three in four Irish adult bike owners say they mostly or only use their bikes for leisure cycling.
And the strong growth in local cycling clubs - there are now over 450 nationwide - points to our new-found love of getting out on our bikes for exercise, wellbeing and, very importantly, a way of socialising that is not focused on the pub.
The past five years or so have seen the rise of the MAMIL - or Middle-Aged Man In Lycra - the born-again two-wheeled road warriors clad in tight-fitting, space-age fabrics, riding expensive, carbon-fibre steeds along our streets and roads.
Commuting by bike is a strongly male preserve. Three out of every four cyclists who use their bike every day in Ireland are men, according to the Department of Transport.
However, in the area of leisure cycling, there has been very strong growth in the number of women taking part, and clubs around the country report a growing cohort of new women members.
And this network of local clubs - which usually cater for all ages and grades of cyclists, from novices right up to regular amateur racers and triathletes - are setting the pace in bringing more and more middle-aged enthusiasts into the sport.
Gearóid Moore helped set up the Cork County Cycling Club, which runs regular 'spins', 'sportifs' and trips abroad for a growing membership of cyclists in and around Cork city.
"We started about five years ago, really as a way to bring like-minded people together to do something we all love," says Gearóid. "We now have four different groups, from people who are just starting out, right up to regular racers."
Gearóid says a big incentive for many people is the chance to get regular exercise in a very social environment.
"The social factor is really big. We'll do regular weekend runs, maybe a 40 or 70k loop, stop off for coffee; the craic is great on the road as well, and you can find your own pace with the different groups."
A self-confessed MAMIL himself, the 39-year-old engineer and father of two young children says he became a born-again biker in his mid-30s.
"You go through the team-sports phase, and that's great," he says. "But there comes a time when you really can't do a contact sport every weekend, and you don't want to just go to the pub on a Friday or Saturday night… Cycling is great exercise: you're out in the countryside having the craic with great people; it's perfect. And once you get going, it can become really addictive."
Cycling is a low-impact, high-intensity exercise and suits those who may no longer be in the first flush of youth but still want to keep fit and active.
And many devotees also point to the mental health benefits. While six in 10 Irish cyclists list 'health and fitness' as the main benefit, some 22pc say it's the mental health side - meeting new people, improving their mood and clearing their head - which they find most beneficial.
Civil servant Niamh O'Neill only started riding regularly with the Cork County Club last year.
"I wanted to do something that was social, outdoorsy and not pub-related. And cycling ticked all the boxes," says Niamh.
"I got on the Bike to Work scheme and then I found my local club. And it's been brilliant. I did go to the gym before, but you don't really get to interact with people, and you are bored after an hour. Now I can do three hours on the bike, do 120km, get great exercise... and you are always meeting new people in a really relaxed and friendly environment.
"That was very big for me, the social side. When you get into your early 40s, it's difficult to meet new people. With the club, we have been abroad on cycling trips; there's great craic on the road and after you get off the bike."
Gearóid and Niamh both say they find that a few hours on the bike can wash away a week's worth of stress.
"With a lot of people in the club, I don't even know what they do for a living," says Gearóid. "That's not because I'm not interested; it's just that we meet up, we take a spin and we forget about whatever's going on: work, stresses, whatever. You are on your bike for half an hour and your head just clears. It's a great feeling."
Ireland has been slow to catch up to the modern European model of urban cycling. Cycling groups have warned that our often haphazard or poorly thought-out cycle lane network - along with the attitude of many motorists - can make Irish roads an unwelcoming or even hazardous environment for cyclists.
However, growing numbers of leisure cyclists have found a haven in the expanding network of dedicated cycle paths, routes and Greenways.
The most high-profile new route is the Waterford Greenway - a 46km dedicated walking and cycling route along an old coastal railway through the stunning scenery of Ireland's Copper Coast.
Almost a quarter of a million people have used the Waterford Greenway since it officially opened in spring of last year. And 141,000 or so of those have cycled all or part of the route, which cost a relatively modest (given its impact) €15m to develop.
John Brunnock is the trails officer for Waterford City & County Council and he's seen the immediate success of the Greenway at first hand. A born-again biker himself, John says his own involvement in cycling - he has been the event co-ordinator of the Sean Kelly Tour of Waterford since it began in 2007 - has given him a keen appreciation of just how popular the pastime (or sport) has become.
"Growing up in the heart of Sean Kelly Country in the '80s, almost everybody seemed to cycle," says John.
"Nowadays it is a fantastic and enjoyable way to keep fit. I also enjoy passing on that love of the bike to my children, and by helping out with local cycling events throughout the year, such as Bike Week."
The Waterford Greenway was a long time in the planning, beginning as a dream for local activists and eventually gaining the support of local and national bodies and funding agencies. John says the impact - even after just one year - of the new Greenway has been immense.
"In 2017, Waterford and the surrounding area was swept up in all things Greenway. You could scarcely go outside your front door on any given Sunday without seeing cars laden down with bike racks and trailers making the way towards one of our 11 car parks dotted along the Greenway.
"This not only meant that people were out enjoying a good healthy pursuit, but it also meant a fantastic economic spin-off for the local towns and villages - with local shops, cafés, restaurants, bars, accommodation providers, bike shops and bike hire providers all directly benefiting from the 'Greenway effect'."
The lesson for the rest of the country is clear. Cycling has become the boom leisure pastime, seen by huge numbers of us at all ages and fitness levels as a fabulous way to get fit and active, to get out into the countryside in an environmentally friendly way and enjoy the great outdoors.
Dedicated pathways, such as the Waterford Greenway and those now in development or planned elsewhere, would seem to be the way forward for a country that is falling in love, yet again, with the way our grandparents once got around.
Getting on two wheels
It has never been easier - or made more economic sense, given the cost of motoring - to take to two wheels for your commute or your leisure time.
The Bike to Work scheme allows employers to help you get up to €1,000 towards the cost of a new bike and equipment (for more info, visit biketowork.ie).
Local clubs are always looking for new members of all abilities - you can search for a local club at cyclingireland.ie/page/membership/clubs.
Local and national authorities are now giving grants to local cycling clubs to encourage expansion, and there are resources available from a number of bodies for those who wish to set up their own clubs.
And clubs such as Cork County Cycling Club are keen to bring in people of all ages and abilities.
You don't need to be super-fit or own an expensive carbon-fibre bike and all the latest gear - it's possible to get on the road and get going on a relatively modest budget; club members will advise you on what you need and where to get it.
■ The Waterford Greenway is the most high-profile new dedicated biking (and walking) route - but there is a rapidly growing network of smaller routes graded for all abilities across the country.
■ Cork Harbour is about to see a big expansion on existing routes, with investment in pathways from the city to Crosshaven and Passage West - part of plans to upgrade or build 12 new dedicated pathways across the county.
■ A highly ambitious cross-country Dublin-to-Galway Greenway is already taking shape, funded by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, while Dubliners and those in surrounding counties have the Royal Canal Greenway, which is linking up to other pathways in the region.
Irish trails: Websites such as irishtrails.ie are a great resource. But the best place to start if you are looking for regular events, advice and a very social setting, is your local club.
Discover the Wild Atlantic Way: Explore nine counties along this unforgettable coastal touring route: see wildatlanticway.com