Day 16, Back in the Saddle

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 ❤

P.S.
As of today I’ve climbed the equivalent elevation of Mount Everest!

Day 13, Through the Burren

Doolin → Galway through the Burren

Mileage:   52.8 miles                                                       Elevation gain:   1,849′

Total mileage so far:   530.5 miles        Total elevation gain so far:  27,223′ 


Cycled through an area called The Burren today. Didn’t get rained on.

Took in a geosite called Murrooghtoohy.

Made friends with some donkeys.

Passed a castle.

Even had someone to talk to for most of the way. His name is Lee and he’s from Newcastle. He’s riding the exact same crap bike that I am, except that he has no trouble at all getting down into his small ring.

Lee will ride twice as far as me today, all the way to Westport. I’m stopping in Galway where I have two days off before meeting back up with Noel and finally meeting Paul and their entire Mizen-to-Malin tour group.

It’s been a damn fine day and I am absolutely adoring Galway. Sending love & light ❤

Day 9, Sheep Shearing up on Connor Pass

Dingle → Ballybunnion via Connor Pass and Brandon Point

Mileage:  74.6 miles                                                     Elevation gain:   3,849′

Total mileage so far:   399.6 miles     Total elevation gain so far:   21,855′


This morning I’m climbing 1,700’ out of Dingle to the top of Connor Pass. I put my bike into the small ring manually. (Did I even mention the part about how my bicycle doesn’t let me shift down into my low gear while I’m riding and that’s a big part of why I haven’t gotten up all the steep hills?) I’m covered in grease but I’ll be able to make it all the way without dismounting.

It’s ridiculously windy at the top of the pass.I don’t stay long because I’ll get too cold if I do.

Halfway down the backside I come across some live action sheep shearing on the cliff side of the road. This is the beauty of traveling by bicycle. The drivers are concerned about passing on the dangerous single lane curves that fill this descent. Meanwhile I’m swiftly weaving my way through stopped traffic full of nervous tourists and pausing on the side of the road to chat with local sheep shearers. I never would have caught this if I was in a car.

They tell me I can have a discount on a haircut today.

The wind blasts up the pass with such ferocity that I barely need to squeeze my brakes for the three and a half mile coast down. Even with a 10% grade the wind holds me back to a comfortable cruise. Mount Brandon towers to my left and the ocean stretches out in front of me.

When I get down to the bottom I take a left to head out to Brandon Point. I’m not sure at the turn off if it’s going to be worth the extra miles but it absolutely is. The views of Ferndoyle Strand (beach) are so cool. Low tide has dramatically pulled the ocean far out from the shore. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I take a few pictures then ride down to the beach to experience the salty sea air and take a snack break. After that, and for a long time, I’m on a road that climbs high above the shoreline. Cow pastures fill the space in between me and the ocean. It’s a beautiful clear day and I am loving every minute of it.

The second half of my ride from Tralee to Ballybunnion is surprisingly boring. It’s the first dull stretch since I started in Kinsale. The route turns a bit inland and I kind of feel like I’m in Iowa farm country. (No offense, Bret.) For thirty miles I’ve got my head down, hands in the drops, spinning into the wind. This part is more of a workout than climbing the pass had been.

It’s a sweet relief when I get into the cute seaside resort town of Ballybunnion and can stop pedaling. This is where the River Shannon opens up to the sea. It’s a beautiful area and I feel quite welcome upon my arrival to town.

Day 6, Two Gaps and a Valley

Kenmare → Killarney via Moll’s Gap and the Gap of Dunloe

Mileage:  35.6 miles                                                        Elevation gain:   1,591′

Total mileage so far:  257.7 miles           Total elevation gain so far:  15,114′


I’m thankful for the rain today because it’s sending us on a route I would never have discovered otherwise. The rain is steady enough to make it tough to leave my B&B, but stalling in a dry room really only delays the end of the day. It doesn’t change how much time will be spent getting wet. And once I get out on the road I realize the rain’s not as heavy as we expected.

I’m only leaving with a twenty minute head start this morning but it’s enough to get me to the top of Moll’s Gap before Noel. I make a video of him cresting the hill as I cheer congratulations for his second place finish, ha!

The descent into the Black Valley is just awe inspiring. It’s not a desolate or scary place as the name implies. It’s only called the Black Valley because it was the last place to get electricity. Once we get down to the bottom we race alongside a raging creek. The small rolling hills are again like mini roller coasters and we zip up, down and around quick narrow corners for miles. All in all I think we pass three houses, only two of which may be inhabited.

On the far side of the valley we begin the ascent up to the Gap of Dunloe. A gap in Ireland is a mountain pass. It’s a tough climb filled with sheep on both sides of the road. The views stretch for miles but nothing prepares me for what’s coming at the top. I almost can’t believe it when I get there.

I wouldn’t know how to begin to describe the Gap of Dunloe. I can share a picture.

I can tell you about the Wishing Bridge,

the men driving horse buggies, the dips and turns and the beautiful lakes. But nothing will compare the experience of being there.

Before continuing down into Killarney we stop for tea and one of the most delicious berry muffins I’ve ever had at The Coffee Pot Cafe.

And for the rest of the day we explore the old city from end to end including my first castle, Ross Castle, and of course more ice cream, this time from Murphy’s. Noel knows the city well and insists we end our night at The Killarney Grand. From the outside you’d never think to give it a chance, but the locals know it’s the place to be for the best Irish music in town.

This is a very bittersweet night for me. It’s exactly the experience I’ve been excited to have, but it’s also my last night with my impeccable tour guide Noel until we meet again in Galway.

Day 2, Destination: Joe’s Bike Shop

Kinsale → Baltimore

Mileage:       62.2 miles                                            Elevation gain:         4,503’

Total mileage so far:   62.2 miles           Total elevation gain so far:   4,503’


In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams reveals to us that the number 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. But, perhaps more importantly, we also learn to never, ever forget our towel. For a towel has “immense psychological value” and could be the “most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.”

It’s been so many years since I’ve stayed at a hostel it never occurred to me to pack a towel. Alas, here I am patting myself dry with a ratty old t-shirt after a much needed shower. I am rested, rejuvenated, clean… and sopping wet. I don’t feel the need to dry off completely because it’s raining and I’ll be outside all day, but the t-shirt works much better than one might expect it to. Ahh, how far we can get with so little when it’s all we have.

Our first trek today is a sixty-mile jaunt to Baltimore, a town chosen mostly so I could have a short and easy first ride. There are many things to get used to: a new bicycle that weighs considerably more than my own bike, hefty pannier saddlebags which I’ve never ridden with, riding on the left side of the road, and brakes which are opposite to what I’m used to. At home, the right hand controls the rear brake but here it’s the left one that does so. Luckily there is so much weight on the back of my bike that when I do accidentally slam on my front brake I won’t go flying over the handlebars in the process.

Fifteen miles into the ride I can tell I’m having trouble with the saddle as well. It’s the wrong size and causing pain in my sitz bones. This may be a “female thing” for Noel has no idea what I’m talking about. It’s raining off and on, and the panniers are so heavy they act like anchors trying to drag me back down every hill I attempt to climb. As the miles add up we encounter a surprising amount of long twisting 11% grade hills. [For reference, in the U.S. I’ve seen steep grade truck warnings starting at 6%.]

So by mid-day I’m kind of freaking out which inevitably sends me into an asthma attack, and I’m shedding a few tears as we turn onto yet another hill. The roads are rough and narrow; the winds are insane. Noel is so far ahead of me I haven’t seen him for miles. He’s riding much slower than he’s accustomed to while I struggle to lag behind. I feel an inordinate amount of deeply ingrained pressure to do better, but try as I might, I simply can’t. I get off the bike and start pushing it up the hill, only to realize that it isn’t any easier to do than riding it was, but at least for a few minutes I’m using a different set of muscles.

Eventually Noel stops for a break and it takes me twenty minutes to catch up to him. He’s on his phone looking for a bike shop in Baltimore so I can get a new saddle and alleviate at least some of my discomfort. To our delight he finds one: Joe’s Bike Shop. For a minute my spirits lighten just a touch.

As we start out again and the climbing continues it occurs to me that this is the most difficult ride I’ve ever done. That’s coming from someone who has climbed Left Hand Canyon to the Ward, Colorado post office, has ridden the Peak to Peak Highway up above 9,000’ elevation, has circled the entire island of Oahu at 115 miles. I’ve ridden back to back centuries and let’s not forget this 114 mile hill debacle during Cycle My Heart Out, after which I couldn’t find words. I just completed a Half Iron Man for goodness sake! And yet, none of that compares to today. It’s not just the route; it’s the combination of factors working against me.

It gets more and more difficult to stay positive. My brain overrides my heart and focuses on all the issues at hand. If today is any indication of what the Wild Atlantic Way has in store for me, I can’t imagine actually finishing it.

After what feels like forever we arrive at the Rathmore House B&B and Noel asks the innkeeper if she can direct us into town to find Joe’s. She’s lived here all her life and never heard of it. Noel checks his phone. Of course it’s in Baltimore, Maryland because Baltimore, Ireland has no bike shop. No new saddle for me.

I scarf down four slices of pizza for dinner and follow it up with cheesecake and a hot chocolate. Noel and I make jokes about the best ways to handicap him tomorrow on our 96 mile ride to Ballilicky. “Maybe if you ride my bike and I ride yours,” I suggest with a twinge of fool’s hope. He just laughs and laughs.

The rain drenches us as we make our way back to the B&B. The wind howls against the window by my bed as I unload as much food and as many items of clothing as I can fathom giving up in the hopes of lightening my load for tomorrow. I easily let go of nearly half of what I packed but I hold onto my ratty old t-shirt-turned-towel. Who knows what pinch it will get me out of next?

It’s been a shocking and overwhelming day but I won’t go to sleep crying. I came here for an adventure, and by golly have I gotten one!

Sending love & light ❤

Day 1, Welcome to Ireland

I arrive in London Heathrow Airport exhausted from a red eye, without a single wink of sleep in me. The border guard quizzes me with a string of pointed questions. How is it that you’re temporarily unemployed? Are you a housewife? What do you mean you’re not married? Where do you live? How are you financing this trip? She demands I show her how much cash I have on me. I slowly pick through my backpack to find the fifty euros my mom had exchanged for me and tell her I’ll mostly be using my credit card. A Visa? You have a Visa card? Show me your Visa card. What’s your credit limit?

Finally she lets me through but not before warning me that if I give any different answers at the Ireland border, they’re going to ship me back. “Why would they ship me back?” I ask, quite honestly confused. “I don’t know!” she cries as she stamps my passport.

Three bleary-eyed hours later I board an Aer Lingus flight for Cork and manage a forty-five minute nap. It is as though I wake up in a completely different land. It looks the same but it feels different.

Irish immigration has three cheery sentences for me. How long are you staying? Wow, a month! Well have a great time! And I’m on my way.

The local time is 11:00 AM but my body tells me it’s 6:00 AM. I am that delirious yet delightful mix of so fucking excited, so fucking scared and so fucking tired.

Noel Boyce, so deliciously Irish with his ‘Wee bit’o’this’ and ‘Wee bit’o’that’, puts out his hand for a shake but I give him a hug. “Welcome to Ireland,” he says with a big smile and immediately takes my suitcase. It’s clear from the start that I’m in very good hands.

For a few hours we get my bike set up and explore downtown Cork. It’s grey but there are brightly colored flowers everywhere. My delirium quickly simmers down to pure sleepiness so Noel drives me to Dempsey’s Hostel in Kinsale, the official starting point of the Wild Atlantic Way. He pumps up my tires and makes sure everything is spot on for our first ride.

By 8:00 PM I am out like a light. Tomorrow the journey begins.