Embark on a bicycle adventure along Ireland's coastline
When self-confessed beginner cyclist Amy McPherson signed up to tour Ireland’s wild coastline by bike, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep up. But as it turned out, it was ok to go at her own pace
My relationship with bicycles has always been pretty disastrous. As a teenager, I crashed into my neighbour’s garden enough times that he stopped planting delicate pansies in his flower bed.
A park ride would see me come home covered in scratches and bruises, and even in my mid-twenties a side swipe from a turning car as I travelled to sports practice had me arrive already bloodied and sore.
Considering my history, it was to my own surprise that I signed up for a seven-day cycling tour with Wilderness Ireland to explore the country’s wild north-west on two wheels. I suppose the words “at a leisurely pace” made it sound like it would be within my capabilities. I imagined relaxing rides through lush green fields on a pastel coloured bike fitted with a basket full of flowers and kittens. And the security of knowing that there would be experienced tour guides and a support vehicle convinced me that this could be a good idea.
We began our journey from Sligo, a town three hours’ train ride west of Dublin. I was picked up by Warner Wilders and Donncha O’Brien, our two guides who would spend the next six days teaching me how to ride a bike. And I will admit it now – day one was pure misery.
Low clouds hovered over Sligo Bay, delivering rain as we set out on the path that hugged the coastline. From a distance, we saw seals lazing by the muddy banks. The landscape shifted from the low-lying seashore to hills that rise and fall, predicting tough cycling paths ahead. “We’re just going to go round this bay, through that village, over some bridges and up that hill to get between the ranges,” explained Donncha (pronounced ‘Dun-neh-kha’). “Off we go!”
There is something very special about this part of Ireland. Its countryside is almost Scandinavian, the people are friendly and the roads are quiet – it’s one of the least populated regions of the country. I was instantly taken by the landscape, but within the first couple of hours, my shoulders hurt and my legs were fatigued.
Rain had drenched me head to toe, and the tail of the cycling group ahead of me disappeared over the horizon on a steep uphill. I soon found myself alone as my own peddle power diminished with each gear rotation. I had no time to admire the surroundings.
I felt guilty. Out of the group, I was the only person who didn’t cycle regularly, who didn’t come prepared with cycling-worthy clothing and who didn’t have the technique, strength and stamina to tackle the rise and fall of the hills. Thankfully, I was in good hands. When not guiding tourists around his favourite spots in Ireland, Donncha is a personal trainer and knew how best to motivate hopeless souls like me.
Cyclists see considerably more of this beautiful world than any other class of citizens. A good bicycle, well applied, will cure most ills this flesh is heir to.
“Remember Amy, you’ve got to keep spinning!” Donncha’s voice rang in my ear, trying his best to encourage my progress. “You just have a bit more to go!” The soft and persistent rain smeared despair on my face and I saw doubt clouding his eyes. If I was struggling on the first day, how would I survive the week?
The itinerary included daily yoga practice, and I took solace in this hour when we stretched away the previous day’s effort and gave thanks to our bodies. Our yogi Blaithin Sweeney tailored the routine to ease the stress from cycling, resetting our muscles every morning to face the challenges ahead. Warner and Donncha took turns in accompanying us on the bike and following the group in the support van, which picked me up more than once on the uphill. I began to refer to it as my knight in black armour.
Over the days, we saw the expanse of the stunning scenery. Famous Irish poet William Yeats, who spent many of his childhood summers here in Sligo, loved this countryside so much that he called the area ‘the land of heart’s desire’. Natural beauty surrounded us. Even in the rain, the hills and the fields oozed a mystical charm that surrounded us as we rode.
We explored the bay, spotting seals and sea birds at play, and passed prehistoric tombs that told legends of a warrior queen and ancient tribes that settled on this land.
Tableaus of silvery grey limestone mountains rose all around us, their slopes covered in crisp, green grass dotted with specks of sheep, set against mirror-like lakes, tumbling waterfalls and sleepy towns.
The only issue with this perfect setting was that I was too exhausted to enjoy it. “C’mon Amy! It’s just another hill!” rallied Donncha on one of the tougher home stretches. There was always another hill to go. Just as you mounted one, the next bump appeared along the horizon.
“Couldn’t we have picked a flatter route?” I moaned at Donncha as I finally made it to a checkpoint, where he was waiting patiently.
“But it wouldn’t be a very interesting ride,” he replied, already by my side to push me on. “If you ever find yourself in a part of Ireland with no hills, it’d be a very boring part of Ireland.” Of course, I knew he was right.
Being the slowest, I was often left behind with plenty of moments with myself. The solitude allowed me to reflect on why I really came on this tour, and whether I did believe in my cycling curse, or if I was just using it as an excuse not to try again. The more I thought of it, the more determined I became.
I vowed to improve, and Warner and Donncha helped by pointing out the little things I could do for practice. I altered my hand grip, I learned how to use my arms and shoulders and that counting my breath, the line markings on the road and the passing trees would help me to put mind over body. With each small improvement, I also learned to banish my doubts.
Without the barrier of a car window, I had the opportunity to experience Ireland differently and I felt at one with the landscape. Everything hurt but resilience slowly built within me and I didn’t want to stop. The idea of cycling was actually growing on me!
“You are doing well,” encouraged Warner as he slowed his pace to level with mine towards the end of the tour, “don’t give up now!”
On our last day, I was finally confident enough to let go of the brakes and freewheel down a steep slope. I believe that was the exact moment when I truly felt exhilarated by cycling. A wave of unexplained joy burst out of me – I felt free.
Later, I asked Donncha what he loved most about cycling. “It’s the joy of the wind on your face, the feeling of freedom,” he replied. “There’s also the challenge of the climb and the thrill of the descent after. It’s all very satisfying.”
By the time we pulled in at our final destination at Rossnowlagh Beach in County Donegal, my blood flowed with a new found love for cycling. Just as Donncha said, the challenge and the thrill have now seeped into my bones.
On this journey I learnt not to let past failures limit my confidence. I no longer see cycling as my curse. In fact, I’ve got back on a bike just so I could feel that wind on my face as I rode around the park, and to re-live the joy I felt on that last day. Stay tuned – I might be investing in that lycra jersey and padded tights outfit yet.
Places to start cycling
Inspired to take your own cycling tour? Amy shows us where to get on our bikes
Wilderness Ireland offers a 7-day Cycling and Yoga Escape tour around north-west Ireland, with prices starting from €1895.
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