10:51pm, Tuesday night, September 10th, 2002
(Average: 11.7 mph / Time: 6.27.22 / Distance: 75.68 miles / Odometer: 560.2 miles)
Today was a very good bad day. Good because I managed to keep going for over six hours in the saddle, and bad because my personal Torquemada, my own private nemesis – The Wind, showed up with vengeance today. Not with ‘a’ vengeance, with vengeance!
I had, as usual, plans of leaving my pitch around 7am at the latest, but I didn’t get out of the sack until after 9. Breakfast was a can of beans followed by a pear, a banana and an orange. Oh, and some ham too. All the food groups really, meat and fruit. The view across the lake was stunning this morning. I’m really taken with that Lough Melvin, it’s definitely one of the most picturesque places I’ve encountered so far. There’s one peak at the right-hand end of a butress across from Garrison that looks like a mirror image of Yosemite’s El Capitan. In extreme miniature, of course. The cliff must have about 200ft of vertical face. I must check it out when I get home. There must be some climbing routes on it.
It was a tough old hilly start to the day, going up to Beleek. But the sun was out and warm, the scenery enjoyable and I was still impressed with yesterday’s performance. I was also holding onto the notion that I had become touring fit over the course of my ramblings. I was aiming for Beleek because Donegal just pokes it’s nose into the town on the bridge that takes you into it. Again, there was no sign to be seen but I wasn’t going to commit to a pointless detour to find one. I know I’ll probably end up regretting these lost photo opportunities but on the day the the decision to just carry on is the only viable one.
Beleek turned out not to be the prosperous, pretty little border town I had imagined or presumed it might be. To me (sorry Beleekians) it was little more than a large building beside a bridge next to a steep hill with a church on top of it. The large building was the Beleek pottery factory and is actually very pretty in a stark, bold kind of way. It sits at a kind of jaunty angle to the road as you cross over the bridge to meet it. It seemed like an obscure location for a world renowned pottery factory, but also nice to think that such an unassuming town had managed to place itself on the map.
The money situation is a bit ridiculous now. It’s about a week and a half until the next pay check. Until then there’s only about 60 quid in the bank! Well, there was 60 quid. I’ve €33 in my pocket right now, but that’s no use to me here in the North, so I had to take out 30 quid sterling in Beleek. I don’t know what the exchange rate is at the moment, or if there’s any charges for withdrawing Sterling from my account. I’ll leave that headache until I get home, which is now going to be as bloody fast as I can, which is why I stuck at it longer today than I have so far, wind or no wind.
Money worries out of the way I set off for Omagh, 20 odd miles away. Straight away the wind set in. It was only annoying at that stage as I made my way over Boa Island, a narrow strip of an land on Lough Erne. In planning the route I had fancied this road to be like the causeways of south Florida, connecting the keys with water visible on either side of you all the way. Well it wasn’t quite like that, but occasionally it came close. Coming down from it’s highest point I passed a lone female cycle tourist. I should have stopped for a chat and to compare notes but I was sort of rolling and didn’t want to loose the momentum because it’s hard work to get it back. A quick lift of the head and a smile had to do. Ah, the loneliness of the long distance cyclist!
I stopped for a little while in Kesh for an energy snack and a smoke. Cuppa too, of course, that should be a given at this stage. I didn’t dawdle long: I was a man on a mission. The wind was blowing hard and it certainly slowed me down, that’s why the low average. The roads weren’t the best either. Kept seeing those same steel cat’s eyes side reflectors that were the bane of my life down south. Pushing the bike up any kind of hill requires the highest granny gears I’ve got, and hitting one of those is like running into a kerb. Any wrinkles in the road can do the same. It’s what makes for the hardest cycling. If the roadside is of a decent quality and free from lumps or dips then the riding is easy. That’s rarely the case though, and that zen thing seldom works on rough ground. Load of rubbish really, don’t know what I was thinking.
I had just crossed the Tyrone border and was huffing and puffing my way up a hill when an old guy driving by pulled over and stopped in front of me. “I’m a cyclist myself”, he said, “Can I give you a lift up the road? It’s a right windy day.” Well, my moral metronome hadn’t even swung back to neutral before I accepted. He was pulling a trailer the perfect size for the bike. Noel sped me the next 10 miles to the outskirts of Omagh, giving me a brief tour of the town first. He pointed out where the bomb had gone off, just across the road from us as we sat at a set of lights. “There where that blue van is, is where the car with the bomb in it was placed.” As I looked at where he was pointing I saw two old ladies walk past the spot without pause. “All those buildings there are built new, and all the windows for thirty yards up those streets are new too.” It looked like any of the non-descript towns I had ridden through so far, and the scene today was so terribly ordinary. To imagine what had happened there that day in ’98 was maddening. And for it to have been done in my name, as an Irishman, made me intensely angry.
He was a very interesting and charming man, Noel. He had cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats two years ago. He’d ridden an average of 70 miles a day, staying in B&B’s, and it had taken him 14 days to complete. Definitely a trip I’d like to consider one day. He told me a lovely story about some friends he and his wife had met while cycling in the UK. They were from Dromahair, Co Leitrim, which I had passed through yesterday. I had stopped to take a piss and catch my breath at the crustiest, most run down filling station I’ve ever seen. It also looked from that vantage point to be the sum total of Dromahair. Nothing more than a speck on the map. “We went down to visit them one weekend”, said Noel, “and Steve took us into the village and said ‘This is the main street. And the further you go the mainer it gets!’ ”
I’m glad that I decided to capitalise on the lift and not stop in Omagh. Noel dropped me on the far side, on the Cookstown road before heading back himself. He had only been on his way home when he picked me up not far from his house. So off I set, a little rested, and faced into two excruciating hours. It felt like punishment for taking the lift. I was all fired up to blaze a trail and get lots of miles behind me but the bastard wind had other ideas. The road had a few long hills on it, but was otherwise decent. The wind roared incessantly in my ears like some form of aural torture. It seemed to be hitting me from two directions at once. From the side it kept wanting to push me into the ditch. From the front it felt like an invisible hand pressing into my chest so that I could only move forward at the last extent of my energy. It was so strong that it even robbed me of my downhills, which should have been great but ended up needing a little help from me. The frustration of this built up in me like a thunderous rage. Every now and then I’d break down and scream at the wind to just fuck off and leave me alone, even for five minutes!
The road into Cookstown crosses broad open peat plains where the wind just slew me. As I faced a long hill up towards the outskirts of Cookstown I had to stop and walk. No sooner had a done so than a car pulled in ahead of me. There was a bicycle slung on the back of it. A man dressed in cycling garb got out and waited for me to reach him. He had a big shock of white hair and a large bushy moustache, also white. His pendulous gut was big enough for me to think that before me stood Santa Claus on his holidays. He had thought that I had perhaps suffered a puncture, but I just had to say ‘wind’ and he nodded in sympathy. I couldn’t accept a second lift. Not for moral or ethical, but purely practical reasons. My bike was too heavy for his rack and his car too small for me and my gear. Besides, I was only a mile away from Cookstown. I never did get his name, but he had a northern English accent. He did manage to give me some good info about a route to my prime destination, just has Garrison had been yesterday.
Cookstown’s main street is framed by arches at either end with orange emblems and the slogan ‘Welcome here, brethren’. After a half hour break to gather my reserves I set out for Stewartstown and a short-cut to Maghery in county Armagh that Santy had given me. I was low on reserves and it was getting very chilly. It was a very long ten miles but there was some sheltered parts that took the edge off the wind for the first time all day. The last two miles, however, were like running a gauntlet. It was on a rough as hell road through a peat bog. There were tens of thousands of those bastard little flies that hang above the road in little swarms. All along the road individual flies go into your mouth as you gasp for air, up your nose or into your eyes. When you hit a cluster of them you can almost hear the smatter of impacts as you become coated in the little fuckers. So the picture is of me bumping along the road, fighting to keep the bike upright in the wind while spitting and rubbing dead flies from my face and head.
When I reached Maghery I found a footbridge leading to a campground and, as Santa had said, I could pitch my tent anywhere. I’m set up in a caravan bay that feel a little too exposed for my liking. I look to be the only occupant and there’s no office so at least there’s no charge. The toilets are locked, ditto the showers. Season over. I finished dinner quick as a flash and ducked into the tent. There’s a pub close by me here called the Ferryman’s Inn which Santa had suggested I visit, but I’m in no mood for a drink, I just want to be left in peace tonight. A couple of drunks from the pub wandered over earlier on and wanted to talk to the fella in the tent. I’ll be honest, I’m a little uneasy about being in the north. I lived in Belfast for a while and I know that no matter how cool it might be for a southerner here, it only takes the wrong time & place for things to turn nasty. As I don’t know this area, and don’t know the ‘script’ as they say here, I’m going to rely on discretion to be the better part of valour. At least at night time. “We can s-eee youoo” the drunks said. “Whay wont you talk to us?” Figure it out, buddy.
It’s all quiet now and I’m knackered. Once again I’m fantasising about tomorrow. A quick detour past Lurgan will get me into both Antrim and Down, and as I’m in Armagh right now that’ll be all the northern counties under my wheels and I can head south. I should get that done in the first two hours tomorrow. If I get them done nice and early I could make a brave dash for Dublin. It’s a little over 80 miles I’d say. At my pace over the last two days a few extra hours would do it. It’d mean a fair distance on quite major roads, but I don’t care so long as I get home. I’m down to 7 counties now. Antrim, Down, Monaghan, Louth, Meath and Dublin. Ah, me darlin’ Dublin, here I come..