Are you coming for a journey? OK let’s start with a dream. There’s a strange light in the room, in fact, the whole room is strange and you’re pleasantly bewildered. Gradually you realize you are away from home, in a quaint cottage in the town Ballyvaughan on the west coast of County Clare.
This article was originally published in the July / August 2018 print edition of Ireland of the Welcomes magazine. Subscribe here.
It’s going to be a great day. Your first big spin of the summer, a 70-kilometer loop over the hills and back by the sea. You’ve got a wonderful bike and you’re fit as a fiddle.
You have a good breakfast, dress for the unexpected, check the brakes and tires, and take one last look at the map. Today’s cycle has lots of ‘new material’ - previously unexplored routes and interesting places to visit. It’s a dream ride.
Off you go pedaling away; out the road signed for Lisdoonvarna.
As usual, the first few minutes are slow and mildly uncomfortable as your legs and muscles gradually grow accustomed to the bicycle. You don’t want to put too much pressure on at this stage. ‘Steady now and ease yourself into it’.
You know from the map there is a left turn to look out for. It’s only about three kilometers out. It’s clearly signed for the Aillwee Cave. When you find it and swing off the main road, there is a noticeable wind in your face.
You pass the entrance to the visitors’ center for the cave and an exhibition of birds of prey. It would make for an interesting visit but today you’re on another mission. The road gets steeper.
You remind yourself of the first law of cycling ‘if there’s a wind it’s against you’ and the second law ‘if there’s a hill there’s another one’. These laws keep you in the right frame of mind. You control your thoughts and body; the other factors like the gradient and the weather belong to the course. It’s you against the course and you’ve got to take what’s coming. It’s already beginning to bite.
The land rises and you need to increase the pressure to complete each pedal stroke. Keep your head down, now, to protect from the wind. Every few seconds squint up the road to make sure it’s clear. Check the line ahead for potholes or stray stones. Do the work, push! You’re privileged to be out here, this is your choice, do the work and push again.
Onwards and upwards but also inwards as you retreat to your cycling self. Your world narrows, all that matters is making the next stroke. Then stroke and stroke again. It’s getting steep now and your breathing heavier. Stand out of the saddle and push hard for twenty seconds. Sit again and steady. ‘That ridge is not the top’ – keep saying this and you’ll never be disappointed.
And then it comes, the trees fall away on either side. You turn again on the corkscrew road but this time you get a gentle push from behind as the wind shifts. You notice rivers of blue sky beginning to break between the grey clouds. The unmistakable mottled stone landscape of the Burren reveals itself all around.
You’re climbing now with greater ease. You look back over your shoulder at the distant coastline of Galway Bay, miles away and far below. Beautiful all the same.
Occasionally the bicycle rushes forward and seems to power itself. It’s easier now and you cover greater distances with each turn of the pedal wheel. These roads are lumpy, up and down, short bursts of climbing vigor followed by moments of freewheel exhilaration. You’re elevated in mind and body and your dream continues.
Spinning now, the gradient is gently downwards as the hard work is done. Time to increase the pace. No sudden bursts mind you; just steady increments as you make your own wind. It’s a nice wind, ‘keeps you cool’. The faster, the cooler.
You’re heading south across the Burren uplands; surely the strangest landscape in Ireland. Weathered limestone hills where fissures and cracks shelter exotic wildflowers and unique alpines.
Soon you arrive at the Poulnabrone Dolmen, the oldest dated megalithic monument in Ireland. It’s certainly worth a stop and look around. A Dolmen is an ancient tomb made from rocks; essentially it looks like a kitchen table for giants, a great flat stone held aloft by single rock pillars. It’s a marvelous piece of engineering. It is also a sacred place and human remains excavated from the site reveal it was built over five thousand years ago. It stands today as a reminder of our ancient heritage and as an example of the many wonders of the Burren.
You need to be on your way. Back on the bike and pushing along nicely. The plan is to get to Leamaneh Castle and then turn right for Kilfenora. You get there sooner than you think. And it’s a nice feeling to know that you are turning westward toward the sea.
There’s still some work to be done. The road is relatively busy but it’s wide. There are hills but they are manageable. There is a wind but the sky grows ever bluer.
You whizz through Kilfenora, home to the famous Céilí Band, with music in your mind as the rattle of the bike keeps time with a jig ‘keep going, keep going, de-de, de-dum’.
Onward towards the coast, staying on the inner road long enough so that when you swing around and descend to the sea, the wide Atlantic shoreline lays itself before you.
Stop briefly at Doonagore Castle to take it all in. Smell the sea in the breeze and feel the growing warmth of the sun.
Lose the outer clothing, down to your shirtsleeves and put your sunglasses on. Set the bike in the big ring and fly off up the coast road with the wind to your back and the ocean by your side.
You pass through Doolin as the tourists gather in the many small cafes. You steam over coastal paths and fringe the long beaches. Pace gentle hills that rise slowly north. Zip along with no effort. And all the while, like a succession of picture postcards, magnificent views present themselves before you and you take it all in. Northward now, past Doolin Cave and Ballinalacken Castle – so many places ‘leave some for another day’. Stay with the coast all the way.
Around the headlands at Craggagh, Fanore and thence to Black Head. Stop again and take in the views. The grey lunar landscape of the Burren meets the turquoise sea and you join with others to admire the spectacle.
Come on. Time to get going again. It’s dream time and you’re right in the heart of it. You are Superman and Finn MacCool and your bike is magic and no one can see you. It’s a rush of joy as you break the world record for exhilaration.
No need now to hold energy in reserve. You are eight kilometers out from completing the loop back to Ballyvaughan. Put the pressure down. Spend all that energy. This is what you’ve trained for. This is why you cycle. To be here, to be flying along, to enjoy the ride. Sprint now for the last kilometer, open those lungs, take it all in. You arrive in Ballyvaughan with nothing left to give.
What a high, what a dream ride, take a bow and enjoy the rest of your sleep.