Top 20 cycles in Ireland: From family spins to off-roaders and those who want a challenge
There's never been a better time to cycle in Ireland, says the author of a new biking guide
With cycling booming in popularity around Ireland, cyclist and author David Flanagan picks 20 of his favourite routes.
The following routes are short, flat and largely traffic-free — ideal for families who want to enjoy an easy cycle together.
1. Lough Boora, Co Offaly
Distance: 22km (height gain: 60m)
This route follows a network of traffic-free gravel tracks around Lough Boora Discovery Park. The 2,000-hectare park was once a commercial bog, but nowadays is home to a sculpture park and five signposted trails. Three of those — the 9km Mesolithic Route, the 6km Farmland Route and the 16km Turraun Route — are open to cyclists and can be combined into a 22km clockwise circuit or done individually.
Pit-stop: The coffee shop in the visitor centre has a timber deck where you can sit overlooking Loch an Dóchais and Boora Lake. It’s open daily (weekends in winter). Bike hire is available, with a range of bikes for children and adults as well as tandems and trailers. See loughboora.com.
2. Muckross Lake, Co Kerry
Distance: 10km (height gain: 130m)
This flat route loops around Muckross Lake in Killarney National Park. It follows traffic-free paths and tracks through beautiful ancient oak forest, offering amazing views over the lakes and surrounding mountains. While the route is short, there’s so much to see that you could easily spend a day meandering along it, soaking up the spectacular scenery. Note that cyclists are requested to follow the route around the lake in an anti-clockwise direction.
Pit-stop: There is a large café at Muckross House (heritageireland.ie) and the Dinis Cottage Tea Rooms near the midway point serves tea and coffee.
3. Cross Lake, Co Mayo
Distance: 8km (height gain: 40m)
This gentle loop takes in a variety of terrain, including sandy beaches, tracks and very quiet roads. It follows a variation of the Cross Beach Loop, which is signposted with blue arrows. A hybrid bike is ideal for the mixed terrain, but most road bikes will manage the grassy tracks and sections of hard sand. As you cycle south along the beach, there are wonderful views over to the Inishkea Islands and the tiny island of Inishglora, the resting place of the mythical Children of Lir.
Pit-stop: The nearby town of Belmullet has a good variety of shops, cafés and pubs. There are plenty of really nice potential picnic stops along the route, too — look out for the picnic tables on the northwestern shore of Cross Lake.
4. Newry Canal, Co Down
Distance: 32km (height gain: 80m)
This linear route follows the canal towpath between Newry and Portadown. It should be within the abilities of even the most casual of cyclists as it’s dead flat and mostly traffic-free; however, it isn’t ideal for very small kids due to the proximity of the water. The route passes a number of restored buildings that offer an interesting insight into the history of the canal. As both ends of the canal are on the Dublin-Belfast line, you can take the train back to your starting point.
Pit-stop: The tea room in Scarva Visitor Centre is open daily (except Mondays) from April to September and at weekends until Christmas. There are also plenty of places to eat and drink at both ends of the canal in Newry and Portadown.
The following routes are relatively flat and are ideal for riders still building or looking to step up their cycling fitness.
5. Dublin Bay, Co Dublin
Distance: 37km (height gain: 500m)
A gentle spin along the shore of Dublin Bay starts with a lap of Killiney Hill and finishes with a climb over the Ben of Howth. With the exception of the two (optional) climbs, this is a flat route with plenty of traffic-free sections. Work is ongoing on a continuous cycle path that will link Sandycove to Sutton and large sections are already in place, particularly on the northside.
Pit-stop: There are dozens of places along the route to stop for a bite to eat or a coffee. See visitdublin.com for tips.
6. Slea Head, Co Kerry
Distance: 43km (height gain: 580m)
This circuit of Slea Head at the tip of the Dingle Peninsula is one of the most spectacular cycles in the country. It follows the coast west from Dingle town around the spectacular Slea Head before returning via quiet backroads. It’s a gentle route, well suited to cycling, as there are so many places where you will want to stop and take in the view. Cycle it in a clockwise direction, so that you are moving towards the best scenery and are on the sea side of the road. Take care in traffic.
Pit-stop: There are lots of places to eat and drink in Dingle and also plenty of options along the route in Ventry, Dunquin and Ballyferriter (dingle-peninsula.ie).
7. Casla, Co Galway
Distance: 17km (height gain: 110m)
Mid-Connemara, where a vast expanse of blanket bog stretches from the coast to the foot of the mountains to the north, has a huge network of quiet boreens and tracks perfect for cycling. This short, flat route starts in the small Gaeltacht village of Casla near Rossaveal and heads north through the bog on a series of tracks before returning along the rocky coast on quiet backroads.
Pit-stop: There is a shop, café and pub at the start/finish in Casla.
8. Cavan Lakes, Co Cavan
Distance: 32km (height gain: 220m)
This route explores Cavan’s unique glacial landscape, formed during the last Ice Age, when glaciers deposited large quantities of boulder clay that were moulded by the movement of the glaciers into oval hills, known as drumlins. The route weaves its way through this maze of lakes and hills and, as you might expect, there are plenty of steep but very short climbs.
Pit-stop: There aren’t any facilities on the route, but it passes close to Killeshandra and Milltown, both of whom have a number of shops and pubs (thisiscavan.ie).
The following routes take in a variety of terrain, from flat, smooth towpaths to steep, rocky singletrack.
9. The Royal-Grand Canal route, Co Dublin, Kildare, Meath & Offaly
Distance: 111km (height gain: 300m)
This largely off-road route follows the Royal Canal west from Lucan before heading south and following quiet roads to Edenderry, where the Grand Canal leads east back to the start. Over 80pc of the route is on towpaths, which are a mix of tarmac, gravel and grass. A lot of work has been put into improving the surface of the Royal Canal and in the near future it will be entirely paved (see waterwaysireland.org).
Pit-stop: Edenderry, near the halfway point, is well positioned for a break and has a number of cafés, restaurants and pubs. The Royal Canal passes through a few towns, including Kilcock and Enfield, while the Grand will take you through Robertstown and Sallins.
10. Ballyhoura, Co Limerick & Cork
Distance: 35km (height gain: 720m)
The relatively low-lying Ballyhoura Mountains straddle the border between Limerickand Cork and are home to one of the largest mountain-bike trail centres in the country. The extensive network of signposted trails follow a mixture of forest roads and winding singletrack with sections of boardwalk, berms and rock gardens. The trails are organised into five linked loops. As each loop is slightly more difficult than the last, there’ s something for everyone, from beginners trying out mountain biking for the first time to experienced riders looking to test their endurance on the longer loops.
Pit-stop: The nearby town of Kilfinane has a good range of places to eat and an excellent hostel (visitballyhoura.com).
11. Inishbofin, Co Galway
Distance: 16km (height gain: 180m)
A varied loop around the coast of this small island, which lies just off the Connemara coast. Only a short ferry ride from Cleggan, Inishbofin has amazing views of the mountains of Galway and Mayo. This route combines sections of three signposted trails into an anti-clockwise loop around the island. It follows roads, tracks and a few sections of rough path, so a mountain bike is ideal but a hybrid will manage the vast majority of the terrain.
Pit-stop: There are a couple of pubs and restaurants on the island. If you are planning to stay overnight, there are a number of hotels and B&Bs, a campsite and a hostel. See inishbofin.com
12. Castlewellan Trail Centre, Co Down
Distance: 15km (height gain: 320m)
This compact trail centre, which is set on the grounds of a Victorian castle, makes excellent use of the park’s modest hills, and each of the trails features plenty of flowing singletrack. The green and blue trails are perfect for beginners, while the red trail and its black variations will test more experienced riders. Away from the mountain-bike trails, there is plenty to entertain the kids including a pump track, maze and picnic area.
Pit-stop: There is a café at the trailhead as well as plenty of other options nearby in Castlewellan village. Life Adventure Centre (onegreatadventure.com) offers on-site bike hire.
While none of the following routes are particularly long, they all pack in plenty of climbing.
13. Mount Leinster, Co Carlow & Wexford
Distance: 43km (height gain: 1,090m)
This is a very demanding route that tackles one of the longest road climbs in the country. Looping clockwise around Mount Leinster gives you a chance to get warmed up before you start into the 665m climb. The second half of the climb from the Nine Stones to the top is extremely steep (I certainly walked more than I cycled) but the views are excellent. And then it’s downhill all the way back to Bunclody.
Pit-stop: The only stop en route is in the village of Kiltealy, which has two pubs and a small shop, but there are plenty of options at the start in Bunclody.
14. Priest’s Leap and Borlin, Co Cork & Kerry
Distance: 55km (height gain: 1,170m)
A tough route with a remote feel that takes on two of the hardest mountain passes in the country. The first, Priest's Leap, is a brutally tough climb and while the second, Borlin, is a little easier, you still need to keep plenty of energy in reserve. There isn’t much traffic on either of the passes and the views are excellent. As a variation, you could swap either of the two climbs with the Beara’s Caha or Healy Passes.
Pit-stop: The only facilities on this cycle are at the Kilgarvan Motor Museum (kilgarvanmotormuseum.com), which opens Tuesdays to Saturdays from April to October. Alternatively, you could divert the short distance to the village of Kilgarvan, which has a shop and a few pubs or to the town of Kenmare, which adds about 5km.
15. Ox Mountains, Co Sligo
Distance: 35km (height gain: 590m)
This figure-of-eight route starts and finishes in Coolaney (not to be confused with Collooney, just to the west) on the southern slopes of the Ox Mountains. The route follows a series of narrow boreens, some of which can be a little rough, back and forth over the mountains with excellent views north to Benbulben and over Donegal Bay.
Pit-stop: There is nowhere to stop along the route, but there are a few pubs and a café in Coolaney (sligotourism.ie).
16. Torr Head and Glendun, Co Antrim
Distance: 58km (height gain: 1,070m)
This tour of the Antrim coast and glens combines very tough climbing with spectacular scenery. From the seaside town of Ballycastle, head east over Torr Head, tackling a number of brutally steep climbs. After descending into Cushendun, it then turns inland to climb Glendun and then descend Glenshesk, two of the famous glens of Antrim (visitcausewaycoastandglens.com).
Pit-stop: There are plenty of good options in Ballycastle including Thyme & Co Café and the Bay Café. In Cushendun, there are a few pubs and a café.
While very fit riders might complete the following routes in a day, mere mortals will need to spread them over a few days.
17. Grand Canal/Barrow way, Co Dublin, Kildare, Laois, Carlow, Kilkenny
Distance:168km (height gain: 600m)
This linear route takes the Grand Canal west out of Dublin as far as the Barrow Navigation, which it follows south for over 100km before heading west to finish in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. The route is very flat but it is still demanding, as the towpath, which is a mix of tarmac, gravel, mud and long grass, can be slow going. Rain will turn the grassy sections into mud so a reasonably wide tyre with a good tread is essential. From the finish in the village of Thomastown, you can take the bus or train back to Dublin.
Pit-stop: The route goes through a number of villages and towns including Sallins, Monasterevin, Athy, Carlow and Graiguenamanagh.
18. Tour of Iveragh, Co Kerry
Distance: 207km (height gain: 2,780m)
This loop through the mountains and along the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula is my favourite of the 80 routes in the book. It combines a number of epic mountain passes with dramatic coastal scenery and quiet backroads. It’s a very worthwhile alternative to the Ring of Kerry, as it takes in many sights that aren’t on the Ring, such as: the Gap of Dunloe, the Black Valley, Ballaghbeama Gap, Ballaghisheen Pass, Coomanaspic and Valentia Island.
Pit-stop: Knightstown and Valentia, near the halfway point, are good places to stop but there are plenty of other options.
19. Achill Island, Co Mayo
Distance: 82km (height gain: 1,600m)
This is a figure-of-eight loop around the coast of Achill, the largest island on the west coast. Renowned for its rugged mountains and wide sandy beaches, Achill is home to three signposted cycle loops, and this route combines sections of all three to create a long but reasonably flat (with the exception of the optional out-and-back to Keem Beach) cycling tour.
Pit-stop: There are a supermarket and a few cafés in Achill Sound. You also pass through villages with pubs, shops and cafés. During the summer the island is busy but it can be quiet in winter.
20. Causeway Coast, Co Derry & Antrim
Distance: 155km (height gain: 1,720m)
This route traverses the coastline of Derry and Antrim linking Coleraine with Belfast. It follows the well-signposted National Cycle Network Route 93 and is ideally enjoyed over a over a few days, stopping to take in world-famous sights such as the Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills Distillery and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The first half is increasingly hilly, culminating in the tough climb over Torr Head, while the second half is much flatter.
Pit-stop: The route passes through many towns and is well served with places to stop. See discovernorthernireland.com or read our guide to driving the Causeway Coast here.
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!
On EASY routes, bring a phone (fully charged), helmet (every time — no excuses), high-viz vests, water and snacks, a mini bike pump and puncture repair kit/two spare tubes, sunscreen, shades and light waterproofs.
On MODERATE routes, bring the above plus padded cycling shorts/bibs, cash for pit-stops along the way, high-energy snacks (banana, nuts, protein bars).
On HARD routes, bring the above, but also consider cycling gloves, a proper jersey (that back pocket comes in handy) and an extra lightweight layer (something small that can fold into that back pocket).
How to do it
David Flanagan’s Cycling in Ireland: A Guide to the Best of Irish Cycling (€25) is available now from all good bookshops, including Easons and Dubray, as well as directly from the publisher, Three Rock Books, at threerockbooks.com.
Read more:The Irish Adventure Bucket List: 25 days out to try before you die!