Wednesday 21 March 2018

Cycling the Wild Atlantic Way on a wooden bike: Week #1

The adventure begins!

Mark Graham (inset) and a photo he took along the first week of his Wild Atlantic Way cycle.
Mark Graham (inset) and a photo he took along the first week of his Wild Atlantic Way cycle.
Mark Graham's wooden bike in Donegal.
Mark Graham with his wooden bike
Malin Head, Co. Donegal. Pic:

Mark Graham

Mark Graham is cycling the Wild Atlantic Way on a wooden bike. No, seriously - here's his first dispatch from the road.

Since beginning a trip that will see me cycle all 2,500km of The Wild Atlantic Way on a wooden bicycle over eight weeks, I’ve received a lot of advice.

Most of it involves Vaseline.

My favourite words of wisdom came from a fella I always enjoy meeting, who also happens to be a constant cyclist - Mick The Buddhist.

As we bobbed in the ocean, both of us enjoying a swim, Mick told me he'd spent two months doing the exact same cycle in the early 1970s.

“The best thing you can do after a day's cycling," he said, “is have two dinners and seven pints." He’s a sagacious soul.

One week into the cycle, and myself and the wooden bike are going strong, even under the pressure of increased fuel intake.

But I’m not going to lie to you - there have been some hard miles, even at this very early stage. I’ve stopped regularly on the hills of Donegal to catch my breath, and every time I stop, there’s a nagging voice in the back of my mind asking why I’m doing this.

After I made it over the mountain from Greencastle to Kinnagoe Bay and freewheeled towards an impossibly gorgeous beach, the nagging voice fecked off to put on its togs, and enjoy the fruits of my legs' labour.

mark graham, wooden bike.jpg
Mark Graham's wooden bike in Donegal.

Mark's trusty wooden steed

Kinnagoe is a new entry into my Top Five Irish Beaches.

It has that ideal mix of secludedness, crystal clear water, soft sand and an atmosphere that drains the life out of even the most incessant nagging voices that might exist in your head. I felt at home here instantly, and after a swim and a leisurely lunch on the beach, the voice in my head whispered: “Can’t we just stay here?”

I told the voice not to worry, we’d definitely be coming back.

One of the wonderful things about cycling The Wild Atlantic Way is that no matter how much effort it takes to push the pedals and get over the mountains, the reward is always far greater. Even though the route hasn’t been designed specifically for cyclists, there are some things you can only experience while traveling by acoustic motorbike.

The reassuring and musical thud of a mallet on wood rang out as I freewheeled past a shipwright in Greencastle, for instance. A shrew ran across the road as I made my way along a bohereen with a grass mohican median.

Later, a sparrow swooped from over a ditch and raced me down the side of a mountain (the sparrow won), and I heard the unmistakable crek-crek call of a corncrake as I made my way back from an evening swim at Pollan Bay in Ballyliffin.

As I write, the night is punctuated by the plaintive cry of a curlew.

All through the hills of Donegal, the smell of honeysuckle, fir, gorse and bracken were bonded by the scent of freshly fallen rain and slowly warming tarmac. The patchwork of smells was whisked through the air by a salty breeze and underscored with the sweet earthy tone of turf.

But it hasn’t all been a landscape scene from The Quiet Man. The stretch of road from Buncrana to Ramelton is very busy, for example - part of it dual carriageway, and this doesn’t make for a wonderful cycling experience.

malin head.jpg
Malin Head, Co. Donegal. Pic:

Malin Head. Photo: Visit Inishowen

The pay-off is massive, however.

It might be the sunshine talking, but the 43km looped cycle around Malin Head is up there among the best spins I’ve done anywhere in the world.

One of the things I’ve discovered is that you don’t have to be obsessive, trying to visit the entire route in one go. If certain sections are approached individually it can also make for an enjoyable trip, and there are sections I will definitely be revisiting.

As well as the loop around Malin, the peninsulas of Fanad Head and Rosguill also offer the casual cyclist or walker a chance to take on a moderate half-day jaunt with the reward of a swim at one of the painfully picturesque coves and a meal in the likes of McGrory's in Culdaff or The Olde Glen Bar in Glen at the end of it.

If you’ve worked up a particularly hefty thirst, might I suggest treating yourself to a visit to the Kinnegar Brewery in Rathmullan on Fanad Head.

Their beer is as celebrated in these parts as Jim McGuinness.  

When I started this cycle I imagined that things would have changed quite a lot since Mick The Buddhist covered these same roads in the early 70s. But secluded beaches, stunning scenery, the addictive reward of cresting a hill only to have your breath taken away all over again by what is revealed, and the almost demented friendliness of the Donegal folk is the same now as it was then. Cycling the Wild Atlantic Way on a wooden bike: Week #3

I still haven’t managed two dinners and seven pints, but it is only the first week.

Follow Mark:

Day 1 - Muff to Culldaff: click here.

Day 2 - Culdaff to Ballyliffin (Malin Head Loop): click here.

Day 3 - Ballyliffin to Carrickart: click here.

Day 4 - Carrickart to Gortahork (Rosguill Loop): click here.

More info on Woodelo wooden bikes:

More info information on Mark's gear:

You can hear Mark talk about his adventures every weekend on RTE Radio One's Marian Finucane Show. See also

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