Galway → Westport through the Maam Valley
Mileage: 78.9 miles Elevation gain: 3,695’
Total mileage so far: 609.4 miles Total elevation gain so far: 30,918’
Today I’m saying goodbye to Galway and hello to a 14 member tour group halfway through their Mizen-to-Malin trek. This is what Paul and Noel do together with Paul’s company Wild Atlantic Cycling. The tour is a 7-day, 575 mile straight shot from the southernmost tip of Ireland, Mizen Head, to the northernmost, Malin Head. The riders are from Ireland, the U.K. and the U.S. with varying levels of ability.
It’s a day without panniers for me thanks to the Support + Gear (SAG) vehicle and I’m so excited I can barely stand it. It promises to rain but I don’t care. I’ll take a downpour over saddlebags any day.
Usually Noel drives SAG for these trips but today Paul will take the car and Noel will cycle with the group. He’s pumping up my tires, tightening everything that can be tightened, and running back and forth to make sure everyone in the tour group has what they need.
Paul takes one look at my saddle, Saddle #2 that I picked up in Bantry. “Yah that’ll give you blisters on your ass,” he quips.
“Yep,” I agree with a knowing nod. Granted it’s an improvement over Saddle #1 but it’s still not right.
He pulls a spare from their trailer—Saddle #3—a beautifully unpadded skinny little thing that looks exactly like my road bike seat at home. This will most definitely spell THE END to my saddle sores. He says I can rent it for ten quid a day. I love Paul because almost every single thing he says is a joke and he laughs all the time.
The drizzle starts as we set out. Our first twenty miles run along Galway Bay. Noel is in front of me to set the pace but he can’t provide any shelter from the wind gusting at us from the bay to our left. For the first hour he constantly checks back for me and skips a few pedal strokes anytime I need to catch up. I appreciate that he’s staying with me because there are quite a few strong riders in this group who are eager to see what he can do. They’ve been Googling him to see his race records and are blown away by his results.
“One year I won nine races,” Noel had said to me over drinks in Kenmare two weeks ago. This was only a few years after he started cycling in his mid-40’s. I followed up with the tale of my last place women’s finish at the Syracuse Half Iron Man. It’s safe to say Noel and I participate in races for very different reasons.
Paul put it the most succinctly. “We all hate him,” he said on our way to dinner last night. “I can’t help it if I’m an athlete,” Noel sighed.
Today though, Noel is a coach. He’s pulling me, silently egging me on to go just a little bit faster than I can. The wind doesn’t let up and for a while it gets so hilly my legs and my lungs can’t take it. And yet somehow they magically do. The unspoken rule of the day is that Noel will slow down so long as I speed up.
Finally we make a right turn away from the coast and the countryside opens up to reveal a desert-like scene. Despite the rain I fully expect to come upon prairie dogs and tumbleweed. The landscape is empty for miles, save for the Maamturk Mountains in the distance. The road is long and curvy, snaking its way across the plains at a very slight decline. The wind kicks back up and blows the rain sideways in sheets, seemingly changing directions with every turn. It is pelting my eyeballs like ice chips as we pick up intense amounts of speed, leaning into corners, gently pumping brakes so as not to skid. I get up to 35 MPH, holding my tuck as best I can. I am terrified and grinning like a donkey. It’s quite a lovely combination.
Caffeinated after a quick tea break I’m able to keep up with the leaders, all strong middle-aged skinny white dudes. Cycling definitely attracts a specific type. Again my legs and lungs can’t take it, yet again they somehow do.
At our lunch break we all change out of our soaking wet kits, wringing water from our socks into puddles on the floor of the pub we’ve stopped at by Killary Fjord. Warm and dry, we plow through soup and sandwiches before heading back out to be re-drenched for our last 26 miles.
Now we are riding through the Maam Valley without a house in site. Sheep line each side of the road and the lush green spreads as far as we can see.
At the beginning of the final big climb Noel says he’ll see me at the top. Climbing big hills on a bike seems to be one of his favorite things to do in life and he’s off with a whoop like a happy little kid. He rides to the top, turns around, comes back down and meets me a third of the way up to climb it again.
“Who knew you were such a good climber?” he jokes.
“I can do anything without panniers!” I cry.
We crest the top with the group and head down into an enchanting mist.
As we come down from the pass and inch closer to Westport Noel gets sentimental. “This could be our last ride together,” he says.
“Don’t say that!” I protest. “It’s just for now.”
We’re quiet the rest of the way. I stay strong so I can ride next to him even though my knees are aching and I’m so tired I can barely stay upright.
In Westport, after 79 miles of cycling at a 17 MPH average (the fastest I’ve managed so far), I head to my B&B blissfully exhausted for a shower. Meanwhile Paul and Noel head out to Croagh Patrick for an extra 27 mile spin before dinner.
I’m nervous again when we say goodnight out in front of Matt Molloy’s pub. I know I’ll be fine on my own but I just feel like I do so much better with my safety net in place.
Sending love & light from Westport ❤
As of today I’ve climbed the equivalent elevation of Mount Everest!