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Great Tour of Ulster 2021

Great Tour of Ulster 2021

A ‘light blue’ view

Sometime during 2020, when the 2km/5km cycling-in-circles thingy was over, it somehow seemed to make sense to plot a trip for 2021. Sure, after all, hadn’t we the dedicated souls of Castleknock Cycling Club earned a big pay-back, to do something a little bit special after months of ‘isolated cycling’. Another throw of the dice at the epic-spin game seemed like a good idea.

But where would we go and when? Whereas Mizen to Malin had been ‘done’ in 2019, it wasn’t so easy to find too many other ‘off the shelf’ classic routes. So, after a fair bit of messing with maps and wracking of heads, the idea of a great sweeping arc through the occasionally wild province of Ulster emerged. With a bit of preliminary scoping, it seemed ‘doable’ in 5 days – not too easy for the hardy bucks; not too hard for those with more modest power thresholds; interesting routes with a smattering of classic ‘set piece’ moments. Absolutely, we could do that.

Once offered out to all and sundry in the club, there was a steady uptake and the group had to be soon capped at 40 so as to keep it manageable. We’d subdivide into our familiar CCC 4 x pace groups, with two shades of Blue, and that would ensure there was something there for everyone.

Covid played its part in the run-in. No sooner had we settled our sights on June - hotels booked and ready to rock – than, by March 2021, it was evident that, the pandemic situation was spiralling in the wrong direction. We headed into mega restrictions, again, and it was clear those original dates would not do. So we pushed it out to September (switching hotels and destination towns in the process), assuring ourselves that ‘it’ll be fine by then…’. If it seemed to be ages away at the time, the silver lining was that the switch would give a few people a bit more time and the chance to catch up on missed training.

When the time came, we set off full of optimism aboard a coach on a Wednesday morning from the Carpenter and, upon arrival, offloaded the van – master packing of lots of cherished road bikes courtesy of the McKeon Bros - at the Meadow View Inn in Cavan. Group photos dealt with, Gerry T and Maestro McCann led the blacks out with typical purpose and resolve at 9.30 am and headed for Newcastle, only 140k away to the east. By the time each group got to Crossmaglen for the first scheduled pit stop, we were in the swing of it and the pattern was set. Tom was driving the van and Michele was charming the café staff – sure how could we go wrong? Things got lumpier through South Armagh bandit country and, with a kodak moment at Flagstaff above Carlingford, we plunged downwards to lunch in sun-kissed Warrenpoint – a old fashioned seaside village which, given the outrageously nice weather, was doing a sort of South Down Riviera impersonation. Then we muscled up and over the Mournes and spun out a great downhill run to Newcastle with the fab Slieve Donard Hotel glistening in the early evening sunshine. Andrew had cajoled half the crew into sea bathing by the time I got there – an impressive lot for sure (but then we wondered from where did Pat and Deirdre get those flash looking bathrobes?) The appearance of a TV documentary film crew only added a surreal dimension to our arrival – and delayed some of us from getting to the bar before dinner that evening – but by then everyone was smiling.

Day 2 was a sweeping arc up through the heart of the Ulster Plantation, with lots of colourful local culture. Initially, we made our way steadily through the prosperous farmlands of the Upper Bann and Lagan Valleys. Alas, the scheduled café was shut (the bean an thí was on honeymoon it turned out - ‘could ye come back next week?’ was the plaintive plea…) but disaster was averted when the resourceful Tom and Michele somehow found a quaint replacement just down the road. Onwards we pedalled, along the shores of Lough Neagh, a magical misty watery kingdom criss-crossed by deserted forgotten farm lanes, before the rude awakening of a horrible dual carriageway out of Antrim (route planner’s error!). Then came the relief and calm of turning right and up into the Antrim plateau, trekking past Slemish mountain of St Patrick fame (cue Shay taking umpteen photos on the move), to the top of Glenarm. The plan was to absorb the often magical view across to the Mull of Kintyre in neighbouring Scotland as we swept down the valley, but the sea mist scuppered that. Never mind, along the Antrim Coast Road towards the forbiddingly named but super friendly Londonderry Arms Hotel in Carnlough, which was itself a relic of a bygone era. However, they did provide a power hose for the dirty bikes which was as impressive as it was unexpected!

For day 3, though poor Jimmy wasn’t feeling the best and sat it out, the rest of us swung back into the saddle heading west at Waterfoot. We crept quietly up the beautiful climb of Glenariff (shame about the sea mist, again) before crushing it across the rollercoaster roads of the plateau and veering northwards up the Lower Bann valley. While the area did seem to exist in a cultural time warp, we managed to nevertheless land in the best ever coffee guru type place. With everyone oohing and aahing over the cakes and various roasted beans, even Barry was able to relax, allegedly. Not so bad then, and with caffeine coursing in our veins our spirits revived once more. On across north Derry in driving wind and rain, poor Ciara’s sore knee finally gave in at Articlave. We waited there for Tom, AKA the Good Samaritan, whose van/ambulance found us at the side of a windswept road. We headed on towards a promised rendezvous with a ferry in Magilligan, just beyond the legendary prison, taking to the waves to cross the narrow neck of Lough Foyle in search of lunch in the promised land of Donegal. This was starting to feel like a real day out on the bike. After refreshments, taken either in Greencastle or Moville, there was still unfinished business with the crossing of Inishowen, trekking upwards from Quigley’s Point and duking left along a fab wee mountainy road to Buncrana. It was a long day for some, with interminable slow punctures (aagh!) and delays.

Day 4 though was a different story. It was all about Donegal and from the off it seemed like it was always going to be epic. A lovely ferry ride to Rathmullan with sunshine peeking through was an idyllic start and, of course, there were lots of selfies on the boat (we even fixed Jenny’s puncture while on the waves). Then it was back to serious business, with Joe, Niall and the rest of the blacks attacking straight out of the (ferry) blocks and onto the rolling roads west of Lough Swilly. Arnie, Tony and the rest of the Yellows, travelling confidently in great numbers, followed Southwards to Church Hill (aptly named for a bloody gradient, whew…) for coffee and a warm welcome from a sleepily surprised pub owner and his two lovely teenage helpers. The next stretch of road got everyone inspired, snaking up a deserted mountain road in beautiful sunshine – Roisín was all for another photo op at the top – and a dream of a never-ending rolling descent down a long winding river valley all the way to Lettermacaward. A picturesque little deviation took us around by beautiful Portnoo – ‘mind the ramps’ - within touching distance of the Atlantic and marking the most Westerly point on the entire trip. Then we turned our faces towards the east and the long trip homeward, though initially only as far as lunch in bustling Ardara. Replenished (should we have called it the Great Eating Tour of Ulster?), it was ‘go steady’ up a proper little boreen and on over the mountain before the drop down to Mount Charles and peaceful Donegal Bay. With the destination in our grasp, poor Declan had an awkward spill on a wet and twisty descent, before soldiering on in some considerable pain to the hotel in Donegal Town. Such a shame, as it was the only accident of note during the entire trip and we all sympathised with him on his misfortune.

Sunday, the final day, we set off in reverse order with the slowest pace group going first. But, no holding back, even the light blues fairly legged it on quiet Sunday roads up over The Mullans towards Pettigo, crossing into the Fermanagh lakelands and on to lunch in elegant Enniskillen. Afterwards, as we weaved our way around endless lakes and their magical little islands, we appreciated the flatter topography, with only the occasional saucy little ramp to disturb our progress. Everyone was in great form, enjoying the sense of achievement and the final push through the idyllic lanes of Cavan. We stopped for a final time in Redhills, soaking up the vibe around the village green - wasn’t this place in a movie a while back, Rosie asked - before the final push for home. When we got to the final finishing line at the Meadow View in Cavan, the place was rocking. Its doubtful they were all there to welcome us – there was a GAA thingy going on, surely - but no one cared about that. Of course, Finbar seemed to know everyone there and good humour abounded. There was even impromptu lunch, if you were quick, and some cute uns even managed to fit in a couple of pints.

By the time we got back to the Carpenter (more pints, for some at least), we all knew we’d been on a cycle and a justifiable sense of mellow fulfilment had settled. Over the 5 days we had exceeded 700 kms, with a fair bit of that infamous ‘vertical elevation’ stuff thrown in. Someone asked why include the word ‘Great’ in the title. It was always going to be great.