Lambs, Calves and Puppies – Cycling in Ireland

By | Category: Travel destinations

The fun starts as John has a "mock" disagreement

Ah, to be sure, it took me a trip to Ireland to learn that I was born a “masher.” John Heagney solemnly shook his head as he told me this and said that he too was a masher. John, the owner of Cycle Holidays Ireland, should know. Operating scores of cycle trips over the past 14years thoughout the gloriously beautiful western coast of Ireland, John is an avid cyclist himself and knows a masher when he sees one. “A masher uses the high gears but pedals slowly,” he explains. Good for the heart, but not for the knees. And so, on my Irish cycling tour, I learned how to spin and use the full range of gears. My knees, after five days of thirty-plus miles cycling per day, were grateful!

Travel writers learn early on that “charming” is a no-no word – overused, trite, etc. Yes, this is the first and most apt word that comes to mind when describing western Ireland. Tiny villages seemingly out of children’s books, with clay-tile-roofed, yellow, green, red and blue houses, narrow twisting lanes and lace in every window. Pubs filled with grandmas and grandpas in peaked hats, teens in motorcycle jackets, and every age in between enjoying Celtic fiddles and banjos along with their Guinness. Road signs in Gaelic and people really speaking it. Lambs too adorable to believe and too many to count along the roadways—all this is Ireland and its touched with the wit and humor we’ve all come to associate with the Irish. To be sure, charming IS the word.

the gorgeous west of Ireland

Western Ireland, indeed, is called the “Croc Cultura na Heireann” – the cultural heart of Ireland. Gaelic, the native Irish language, plays a significant role in the living heritage of the region, with its wide range of year-round festivals and events (visit www.irelandwest ie for a full listing.)

Having never have taken a cycling trip before nor even having measured mileage, I was doubtful about my own abilities to make the trip. I was pleasantly surprised (and a bit proud!) that I did, in fact, measure up to the demands, as did all of the others in the group. Cycle Holidays Ireland’s flexibility and creativity allows for a wide range of cycling abilities and tastes. Just about anyone can be accommodated “as long as he is willing to accept his own limitations,” John notes.

As a nervous novice, I had decided to go on an organized tour with an experienced operator. I really had no idea how many miles I would be able to ride every day, and I felt secure knowing that Cycle Holidays Ireland would accommodate my needs. Our group contained all levels of ability and experience, however. Most in the group had taken group cycle tours before, and John has many repeat customers each year. Obviously, one could travel to Ireland independently, rent a bike, buy some maps, and go for it. With a guided cycling tour, however, tourists benefit from the operator’s expertise and knowledge of the area’s terrain, culture, history and cuisine – as well as equipment and maintenance. Cyclists leave all those worrisome details behind.

not quite what we thought we'd be doing

John, whose original occupation was – and still is – a dairy farmer, became enthralled with cycling as a youngster. A supremely organised and energetic man, he manages to handle both of his operations magnificently while maintaining his keen wit and friendly, easy-going manner. Looking for the quintessential, stereotypical Irishman? You’ll find it in John. Oh, and about that dairy farm? John will give you the opportunity to milk his cows if you’d like which makes for a rather unusual addition to a cycling tour.

Cycle Holidays Ireland’s average group size is fourteen. A drinking-water-stocked bus always travels behind the group, so that cyclists can fill up their bottles or catch a lift at any time – with nary a grimace from John or his staffers. Riders can ride together, or alone, as they choose. They all end up, somewhat miraculously, at the same place, in time for lunch and for the pub break at the end of the day.
The company’s tours meander along the banks of the Shannon River, take in the austere yet majestic beauty of Connemara and show you the incomparable serenity of the Burren, with a side trip to the remote Aran Islands (where you will hear Gaelic more than English!) as a common option. This part of Ireland seems little changed from yesteryear. I was treated with infinite sightings of fluffy white lambs scurrying across the road to hide in the brambles as I approached, their watchful parents off to the side.

I saw the remains of “famine cottages,” those sad stone dwellings that were home to the Irish who suffered death or forced emigration during the tragic famine of the mid 1800’s. I also passed storybook homes with lace curtains in the windows, red doors and sometimes a friendly dweller waving hello. I saw tiny hamlets, sweeping purple-blue moors and vast boglands. I didn’t see a billboard, fast food joint or rubbish in the road. This country welcomes you with pride, respect and gratitude – tourists are embraced and treated as friends.

What’s it like cycling with John Heagney’s groups? You won’t feel pressured to ride like a Tour de France contestant, and you won’t have others coming up on your heels. You’ll have the choice of cycling between about twenty to fifty miles a day. I loved the solitude and peace of cycling alone, and then to join up later with the group for conviviality at meals.

oe even this!

What will you see? You can choose from various options. Our group visited the incomparable 800-foot Cliffs of Moher, Ireland’s most visited tourist site, as well as Dunguaire Castle and Polnabrone, a 5,000 year old tomb, along with other prehistoric sites, as well as delightful pubs and villages along the way, and cozy inns to spend the night and rest up in.

Connemara, the beautiful region of western Ireland, replete with cliffs and coastline, mist-shrouded pastureland, and looming mountains, was one of the hardest hit in the disastrous potato famine. To this day, mountainsides appear to have lumps all over them. Those lumps are actually from the blight-affected potatoes that were never dug up a century and a half ago. Many pre-famine cottages are still around, haunting in their simplicity and desolation. Indeed, in Connemara, mentions of the famine are still part of conversation – the devastating impact is so much a part of the collective memory of all those whose ancestors managed to survive. The majestic beauty of this region lives on, and thousands stayed or emigrated here, entranced by the wilderness, the mystery, the wit and exuberance of its residents, and the enchanting landscapes that go on forever.

When your cycling tour ends, ‘tis sure you won’t want to say Slan leat (goodbye) to this land of Cead mile failte (100,000 welcomes.) You’ll be forever grateful that you got to experience it up close and personal while cycling. There’s no place better than Ireland to do that.
www.cycleholidaysireland.com, 001-353-878-321-200.

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