Discipline: Road cycling / bikepacking
Area: Northern Ireland & Ireland
Type: Long weekender
Distance: 500km & 4,200m elevation
Duration: 6 to 9 hours of riding per day for three days
Time of year: Summer is pleasant, though perhaps more pleasant without midges (March-May)
Logistical recommendations: Ferries are an easy and cost-effective way of getting across to Northern Ireland from England (Birkenhead) or Scotland (Stranraer)
It's with a guilty conscience that it took as long as it did to visit our Irish counterpart. The British Adventure Collective was created to celebrate outdoor adventure in every corner of the UK, and yet we’d barely stepped out of Belfast prior to this trip. Well, we wanted to change that, and what better way than to lap the whole of it in one weekend.
The long days of June seemed like the opportune time to dust off the bike packing bags for some fun on the Emerald Isle. After a quick look at the map and ferry options, we plotted a rough route that from Belfast would take in the southern parts of Northern Ireland heading west over to Donegal, before going north and then east for a coastal run in to finish. The weather forecast 2 weeks out was showing a tailwind out and a tailwind back; every cyclists dream, right?
Day 1: Ferry from Stranraer to Belfast & 200km from Belfast to Donegal
With a cloud of early morning hungry Scottish midges hastening our final bike and bag adjustments, we made our way to the Stranraer to Belfest ferry. The 2.5 hour crossing gave time for plenty of breakfast fuelling for a coast-to-coast on day 1, taking us on an inland route from Belfast over to Donegal. I had been hoping to top up on a paltry 5 hours of sleep the previous night with a quick nap, but it was not to be. Arriving in Belfast, we navigated our way on to a riverside bike path covering the first 15km to Lisburn, giving a relaxed start and allowing us to avoid busy roads out of the city.
The first 120km or so rolled by without too much trouble, with only some dodging of thundery downpours and 1 puncture courtesy of a rusty nail in my box-fresh tyres. Grappling with an ineffective mini pump, we learned that Irish midges are just as infuriating as Scottish ones when you’re trying to concentrate and they’re using your face as an all-you-can-eat buffet. The next 80km offered us much more in the way of countryside and gradients as we made our through way some stunning scenery in the steadily fading daylight.
After a welcome pause and a chat with a farmer who kindly let us refill our bottles at a tap in the milking parlor of his dairy farm, we got our heads down for the final run in to Donegal. We were all pretty exhausted by the travelling and mileage by this point, but the lure of completing the coast to coast on the first day was too much and headtorches went on for the final 15km. Fortunately we managed to find somewhere in Donegal still serving food at 11pm, and the fields surrounding the estuary offered us a secluded spot to set up for the night, albeit in rather overgrown pastures.
Bikepacking AKA bike fafing.
Day 2: 124km from Donegal to London Derry
Unsurprisingly, the long grass of our spot for the night came with a plentiful supply of blood-sucking ticks. I think it’s the 8 legs combined with their feeding habits that makes them so utterly repulsive. Our blood was clearly in high demand as we hurriedly packed up in the morning to head back in to Donegal in search of breakfast.
The narrow roads and punchy climbs north from Donegal gave way to wider roads and vistas as we headed north past Lough Finn and the Aghla mountains. This was a day almost entirely in the Republic of Ireland. The inconspicuous nature of the border crossings meant we were often weren’t sure which side of the border we were on, with our lack of cash Euros when buying supplies usually being the only indicator.
The fjords of west and north Ireland meant we had a mid-ride ferry crossing from Rathmullen to Buncrana. As well as offering a more interesting route, we made use of the pause for a quick swim in Lough Swilly and were treated to an especially Irish accordion rendition of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind by a musician is the port’s pub.
Once again making use of the last of the day’s light, we made our way across the headland, taking in a 1000ft climb and hitting over 70km/h on the descent in to the delightfully named town of Muff, near London Derry.
Tan lines x 100 (left) and spontanious BBQs (right)
Day 3: 150km from London Derry to Larne
The joy of bikepacking is that you generally don’t need to worry too much about exactly how far you go on one day or where you’re going to stop for the night. However, needing to make the last ferry of Larne that day meant an early start and minimum faffing to cover the distance. The weather and the roads were on our side; tired legs didn’t seem too bad in the sunshine and smooth roads as we made our way up a 1000ft climb flanked by rhododendrons in the Binevenagh AONB. For us, this natural beauty definitely beat that which was offered at Giant’s Causway further along our route. The swarm of tourists wasn’t a welcome change from the peace of the country roads, and we set off again. Sore knees and undercarriages were the order of the day for some, but Ibuprofen, chamois cream and good chat got us through.
It seems we saved the best of the route to last. After final big climb and descent to Cushendun (a must-visit if you’re a Game of Thrones fan), we waved goodbye to one of our group, Jamie, who was staying on in Ireland for a few days. The next 40km were arguably the best of the trip. The coastal road is pan-flat, hugging the coastline’s clear waters and giving us ideal conditions for a bit of team time trialling action for the run in to Larne. We didn’t need to rush, but pushing on and rolling along at 30km/h in the sunshine felt brilliant. On to the ferry, and dinner and a quick nap later we were back in Scotland.
I think most people would agree Bikepacking presents a tremendously throrough encounter of a country. You feel every contour, smell every scent and with some hard work you can experience a great deal of this land in just a few days. However, as is often the way with such a fleeting visit, we're keen to head back, and next time for longer, getting in deeper to the Irish countryside and stunning coastline. Watch this space.