I needed the wind in my hair - that much I knew. I'm an aid worker and radio journalist and would normally be travelling around Africa or the Middle East or volunteering in Sicily. But I'd been grounded by Covid for months and the summer was nearly over.
I don't drive; usually a break in Ireland would involve buses and trains and, if I was out of options, I would stick out my thumb and see what happened. But hitching and Covid aren't a good match and public transport didn't appeal.
So I hired an electric bike, a Moby Pro - a black bike with chunky tyres and 'Rad Power' written on the side. The bike is marketed to delivery drivers, and I chose it because Deliveroo cyclists looked relaxed on it, and for its back carrier, which is sturdy enough to carry a rucksack full of books. The battery's range is 60km, although it could go further, depending on how much boost I used.
I had a plan to take the Royal Canal from Dublin as far as it would go in Longford. I hoped then to find quiet roads to the Greenway in Mayo, without making too many plans like buying maps or booking hotels.
It wasn't a sporty holiday that I was after. I'm a leisurely cyclist: my Dublin bike has no gears and no speed; you'll never catch me in Lycra talking about beating my best time. As for planning, I made just one booking: two nights at Bloomfield House near Mullingar… I could always come home by train from Mullingar if the bike wasn't for me.
It was a Sunday morning when I left my house in Dublin and set off towards Phibsborough, turning onto the canal opposite the Bernard Shaw pub, using the bike's boost to glide from the road up to Lock 6.
The canal's first section is mostly through industrial estates and parks. It was a late summer day - no rain and a bit of sunshine, plenty of people out walking and cycling.
I had heard about an area called Deep Sinking just after Castleknock: an overgrown area with sheer sides into the water. I tried to avoid it by cycling for a few kilometres through a housing estate, but when I got back on the path it was still quite bumpy with tree roots, so perhaps I hadn't skipped Deep Sinking after all. No matter, the fug accumulated from months of Covid constraints was starting to lift as I headed westwards.
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Cycling along the canal requires no navigation; there is no fear of getting lost. I had a sense of gliding along the green landscape, taking in the reflection of trees and bushes in the water, the stonework on the bridges, counting off the numbers on the locks.
An aqueduct carries the canal across the M50. High above the motorway, a couple eased their barge along the narrow stretch of water as I slowly overtook them on the tow-path; below us vehicles were a blur of speed.
Fields and cows replaced motorways and housing estates as the canal path gently transitioned from suburban to rural, sometimes curving down under a bridge or lifting you up and over the road, occasionally switching sides, as if to offer its best views.
The saddle wasn't soft so I stopped every hour or so to ease out my hips. At Lock 18 I stopped at Nanny Quinn's pub to have a salad and charge the battery. But the charge didn't last; by the time I turned off the canal path for Bloomfield House, the battery was low; it gave up for the last few kilometres, which meant a heavy haul to the hotel.
The next day I wandered around Mullingar. I'd done more than 80km the previous day, and reckoned I could easily get to the end of the canal, which was another 60km. I stocked up on waterproof trousers and extra face masks.
The canal path seemed quieter when I set off the following day. I felt more in tune with the changes in the terrain, from bog to bushes to lush fields to forestry. It started to drizzle and I spent half an hour watching a heron standing by a sign on the canal, as if waiting for a bus.
Some heavy rain hit and I turned off the canal to Keenagh in Longford for excellent bacon and cabbage (€8.50) at Macs Shack, where the waitress hung up my anorak and placed a tea towel under it to catch the water. Once the rain lifted, I got back into my wet raingear to unlock the bike, only to discover a flat front tyre.
I went back inside to ask for help. "Run after him," the waitress told me, gesturing at a man getting into his tractor, "he will know what to do." He directed me to the hardware store, who couldn't help but rang a taxi to get me to Longford for a repair.
Taxi driver Dan had served in Lebanon, and we bonded over memories of the country as we drove - with my e-bike - the 14km to town. A tyre service station plucked a sharp stone from the front tyre, slapped on a patch and packed me off for €10.
When I got to the end of the canal in Cloondara in Longford, it was still raining and there was nowhere to stay. I headed a few kilometres on a busy road to Tarmonbarry, where I found a room at Keenan's Hotel (€85, B&B).
My socks were squelching with rain and I was freezing. I headed straight for a bath. My rucksack had let in water, but as I arranged my damp clothes along the heater, I realised how energised I felt after many static months in Dublin. I had everything I needed with me: books, tea bags and my togs.
I had worried about feeling lonely, but that fear was unfounded. I was meeting more people on the road than I had seen for months in Dublin. I decided to aim for Sligo and enjoy a seaweed bath in Enniscrone before making my way to the Greenway in Mayo.
The next morning Google Maps pointed me along the main roads towards Sligo, but I turned away from the busy routes; if a road had a green stripe of grass down its middle, I would take it. If it brought me far out of my way, I always had the boost to get me back on track.
I met walkers, slowing to their pace to hear stories of missed weddings and bored kids. Farmers would stop and talk, thoughtfully assessing my bike while they answered my queries about the weather. Cattle tuned in to the hum of the battery and turned their heads to watch me passing.
After passing through Drumshanbo and Leitrim village, I took a short cycle path that floats pleasantly over Acres Lough before ending the day in Carrick-on-Shannon, where I found a B&B above Topper's restaurant (€40).
The next day, I decided to push as close to Enniscrone as possible, booking a room on Airbnb (€45) in nearby Easky, about 80km from Carrick. Thursday's farmers' market was on, and I stocked up on excellent pastries with wild garlic from Donegal Craft Bakery; I learnt that it's worth hanging around the stall as Franck is likely to offer you samples of his exceptional breads.
The views opened up as I headed north-west into Sligo. I found myself using the battery quite a bit on the hills - the bars were steadily going down. On the last hilly section before the descent to the sea - somewhere around the Ox mountains - I ran out of power.
Padraig spotted me heaving the bike up a hill and stopped his van to help. We put the bike in the back and he drove me to his farm, letting me in on the politics of milk co-ops on the way. I watched tractors circling a field for an hour while the battery charged, before setting off for Easky.
Another puncture greeted me the next morning, a soft one this time. My host called a mobile tyre repair service, who drove over, found a thorn in the tyre in 10 minutes and wouldn't let me pay.
I made it to Enniscrone in time for a soak at Kilcullen Seaweed Baths (www.kilcullenseaweedbaths.net; €25 for as long as you want; book in advance). As I floated in clusters of seaweed, the hot water up to my neck, I took stock: I had crossed the country in five days, something I would never dream of doing in normal times. All I needed was to keep going, to be open to the twists and turns of the road and where it would take me. But no more 80km days, I decided: stick to a slow spin through the back roads to Mayo and beyond.
I booked rooms in Airbnbs as I made my way down Mayo, stopping at Pontoon, Foxford and the National Museum of Country Life in Turlough, taking the short Greenway from there to Castlebar, where I bought new hiking boots. My old ones had never dried out and reeked; I dropped them into a wheelie bin behind an office in town and walked away in a new leather pair.
I picked up the Greenway in Newport. It lives up to its hype; it's a glorious 40km cycle out to Achill. On to Westport, past Croagh Patrick for a swim at Old Head beach and onwards to Louisburgh. There is a cycle track of sorts on this route, but it's capricious, appearing and disappearing and pushing you into oncoming traffic at points.
At Louisburgh, my friend Ailbhe arrived to meet me on her electric bike. After a plate of battered fish with basil aioli at Tia cafe, we set off together for Leenane, taking in the harsh Connemara landscape of lakes and sheer mountainsides. Cream clusters of sheep on skinny black legs dotted either side of the road.
There weren't many cars passing but those that did were often speeding; we passed one poor sheep lying at the side of the road, a trickle of blood at the corner of its mouth.
We were close to Killary Fjord when we came across a farmer leaning over his Jeep, binoculars pinned to his eyes as he looked for lost sheep on the mountain side. He gave my bike a go, turning around us in circles with a gleeful expression on his face - the electric bike seems to bring out joy, memories of the buzz of learning to cycle the first time around. I could take it out to check on the animals in the evening, the farmer said.
I came to a full stop in Leenane. One of those late August storms had hit nearby Clifden. My arse was sore. I had sketched a route to Rossaveal, the Aran Islands, the Burren and beyond, but I felt I had had the best of our Greenways so far - the busy Connemara roads were making for a less enjoyable cycle.
It had been 11 days of cycling on the back-lanes and canal path; it had been just right. The feeling of missing out that had dominated the previous months had dissipated. My batteries had been recharged.
Louise rented her e-bike for €50 a week, plus €100 deposit, from Moby Bikes (www.mobybikes.com/moby-pro/). The battery takes eight hours to charge fully, and has a range of approximately 60km. She made just one hotel booking ahead of her journey at Bloomfield House, Mullingar: www.bloomfieldhousehotel.ie/ and relied on Airbnb for most of her other overnight stays
Sunday Indo Living