Posts Tagged ‘Touring Bike’

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10:51pm, Wednesday night, September 11th, 2002

(Average: 10.7 mph / Time: 5.37.34 / Distance: 60.8 miles / Odometer: 621.0 miles)

Well, the first September 11th since September 11th. The whole world might have been paying attention to the box, but I was fighting the bastard wind again. From the moment I pushed off it was at me hard. I was also feeling less than superman fit this morning, I didn’t seem to have any oomph at all. I think yesterday took it all out of me.

After a difficult hour of uppy-downy, meandering, windswept, fly-ridden roads I found myself totally lost. I think I’ve made up my mind about northern roads and there’s nothing to boast about, except maybe that there are lots of them. There are more roads here than people, but they have as many potholes, bad sides and miscellaneous bumps as anywhere south of the border.

Just at the point at which I felt most lost I came to an overpass above the M1 motorway. I could then place myself on the map and take a gander at what lay before me. I needed to get to Portadown to gain access to Craigavon and on out to Down and Antrim. It looked like a trip of about 15-20 miles on those meandering minor roads. I was wary of my reserves for the trip as I looked down at the nice broad hard shoulder that ran up the M1. It was going directly where I needed to go but of course I wasn’t allowed use it. Fuck it, I thought, I’d risk it for a biscuit. Decision made, I sped down the access ramp and began trudging up the motorway. It was the easiest and softest ride I’d have in the north. A clear, wind sheltered road with all the traffic safely five feet to my right, not whizzing past within two feet of me like it did on the A roads. Sometimes even closer. It can scare the living shit out of you if you’re concentrating hard on avoiding a ditch and a truck zips past right beside you and you’re suddenly fighting the blast of wind this creates, threatening to topple you onto the road. So the motorway was ironically the safest road I’ve been on in a long while.

About a mile away from the turn-off I needed to take a car pulled into the hard shoulder about 50 feet in front of me. Just as I was thinking ‘shit, I’m going to have to go around this idiot’,  blue lights started to flash in it’s rear window and I realised I’d been rumbled by an unmarked cop car. As I approached I decided to play the ignorant tourist bit. No officer, I didn’t realise that bicycles weren’t allowed on the motorway, there was nothing to that effect on the signs. “Most people use their common sense” the cop said. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with a snarky copper. Or Peeler, as I now remembered they were called up here. Not to their faces, obviously. But in my head I had the better of him! ‘The signs down in Ireland say no bicycles. When I didn’t see one here I though it might be OK.’ It was a cheeky shot, but his attitude bothered me. And of course, mine was bothering him. ‘We’ll take you to the next off-ramp, keep up.’ he said and got back into his car. Then they took off up the hard shoulder, lights flashing, with me puffing away trying to keep up with them. I have to admit, the extra pressure and company saw the next 2 miles go up in dust.

The off-ramp led up over the M1 and onto another stretch of motorway that was in the process of being resurfaced. This work had caused the motorway to be reduced to one lane of traffic. Actually it was just the hard shoulder that was open while the lanes beside it were being worked on. The peelers stopped and waved me on ahead of them, and then gave a blast of their sirens to stop the oncoming traffic. At which point I then found myself leading a convoy up the M12 to Craigavon. There was me in front, trying to keep up a decent pace, my lungs burning with the effort, the squad car behind with it’s lights flashing and at least a mile of cars behind them. Mad, Ted!

At the top of the next off-ramp, a mile or so down the road, there was a roundabout and I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go. Then I heard a little blip of the siren behind me and I thankfully pulled the bike onto the verge. I was gasping for air and the sweat was running down my red face. As the cop car pulled up alongside me the guy at the passenger side was leaning his elbow out the window and smoking a fag. I must have been a nice diversion for them, and I wondered for a moment if I would turn up on one of those Police, Camera, Action! TV shows sometime. They gave me some directions to get me to Lurgan, wished me well and took off.

Soon after that I managed to find myself at the Rushmore shopping centre in Craigavon, where I treated myself to a McDonald’s. Thanks to my motorway detour and police escort I had probably saved myself a few hours cycling, so when I set off again I was looking forward to knocking another two counties out in short order, but was lost again in less than 5 minutes and found myself in some anonymous industrial estate beside the motorway that was like a demented post-modern labyrinth. To cut a long story short I wasted over an hour trying to get to the far side of Lurgan. It was frustrating because I knew I was close to pointing my wheels southward, and to be heading home. I was inside Antrim at this stage and I was desperately looking for something to indicate that. I turned around and crossed back into county Down and not finding any signs there either I stopped on yet another M1 overpass that would just have to represent both. It’s incredibly built up and busy around that area as all roads point towards Belfast. It’s no place for a bicycle. There were a few cycle lanes in the area but they weren’t any use to me for my purposes.

At least I was finally heading south and it was still reasonably early. The time saved with my shortcut had been balanced out by the aimless wanderings and I was no better off, but no worse off either. There was still hope for the day to turn out well. And true to form I managed to get as far as Banbridge by 4pm. It was hilly terrain along the way and I had to walk a few.

The way got a bit lighter as I approached Newry, the road was taking a definite downward bent, with a particularly nice roll down into Newry itself, which I reached just before 6pm. I was making good time, but I was pretty worn out and getting a bit chilly so I stopped to rethink my route for the last push of the day. My original route to take in Monaghan went via Crossmaglen, a place I particularly wanted to see, so often had I heard it mentioned on the news down the years, but with the terrain around here the way looked a little long and unnecessary. So I decided to head for a place called Forkhill, just inside the border, deep in the bandit country of south Armagh. From there I’d get to Monaghan on the south side of the border.

I had to push the bike for about half an hour to get out of Newry. Jesus, that hill went on forever and if it wasn’t for the promise of the downhills on the back of it I wouldn’t have been able to carry on. And on that downhill section the sight of Slieve Gullion was like a mighty beacon drawing me southward, so tall and steep did it look. There are lots of military installations on top of the peaks in the area. So many that it was only very occasionally that I found myself out of sight of one of them. This is the one area of the north that that military presence has been so obvious. And not a little intimidating.

When I reached Forkhill I went into the Slieve Gullion Inn which is a lovely cosy wee country inn, with a low roof, lots of wood panelling and nice brass do-da’s everywhere. I stayed there for two pints, gabbing with an old geezer who used to be a road sweeper in Dublin, and the even older geezer who ran the pub with his wife. The two old lads were a hoot, constantly slagging each other. “Was that jumper a Christmas present, Billy, or did you loose a bet?”. I was enjoying the chat and the cosy atmosphere in the pub when through the window I could suddenly see a squad of soldiers moving up the hill beside the pub. They weren’t marching in file, but sneaking up along the stone walls with weapons drawn. It was such an inappropriate sight to my eyes that I didn’t know what to say. “They’ll be taking down the registration number of your bicycle there” Billy said as he came around from behind the bar, walked over to the window and closed the blinds on them. “Take photo’s of anything you want around here,” he said, “but don’t point your camera at the barracks. Not if you want to keep your camera.” The barracks he was talking about was on top of a hill about a mile away. They could see me, the guys said, and make no mistakes, they were watching and had probably been watching me all the way through the area. It was a difficult thing to consider, but Forkhill had seen it’s fair share of the Troubles, from murders and bombings to sniper attacks and ambushes.

When I left the pub they guided me to a patch of ground beside a football pitch where I put up my tent just as it was getting dark. There’s a picnic table beside me so I was able to sit and cook my dinner there and eat it without crouching down at the door of my tent. As I ate it there in the dark by the light of my headlamp there were what sounded like two or three military choppers circling the area. Flying dark and low. As I was cleaning up and getting ready to climb into the tent with a cuppa, three figures appeared out of the dark and nearly scared the shit out of me. I think two of them were paratroopers, because they wore red berets. The other one was an enourmous red headed RUC man. He said nothing, just looked at me like he wanted to tear me a new arsehole. Just one of the troopers spoke, and he was very polite. Politely insistent. He asked me my business and for some ID. As it happens, I never thought to bring any ID with me, and all I have is my bank card and the sponsorship card, which were in the tent. I went in to get them, rustling around in my handlebar bag for a while, and as I crawled back out of the tent, the door of which was facing away from the troopers, I only then noticed that I was actually surrounded. There were three or four more para’s hiding behind trees at that side of the tent and as I crept out the door I looked into the eyes of one who had a rifle pointed right at me. That was a bit of a shock, but obviously he had no idea what I was going to come out of the tent with. It’s a different world up here.

Once they had determined that I didn’t pose a threat I could sense the tension leave the situation. After the official business was out of the way they then stayed chatting to me for a few minutes. They were curious about the cycle and handed each other the sponsorship card and asked me about how I was doing. They were nice lads, really. Very curious to know what I ate, how long I rode every day etc. All the right questions. They thought my time was impressive. “That’s some going for 11 days. Fair play t’yeh” said the first guy, the one who’d questioned me. That made me smile. “Fuck off”, I said “I’ve seen the training you lads have to go through on telly. If I’ve impressed you lads then you’ve just made my day.” And with that they left me to myself and disappeared back into the night. I can still hear choppers circling around above, but I think I’ll still sleep no matter what. It’s really weird to think that I’m camping wild but I’m far from being at one with nature. Who knows how many eyes are on my tent.

I should have asked them for directions. I want to get over into the Republic as quick as possible tomorrow. Once I get my detour to Monaghan out of the way I’m making like a rocket for Dublin. Home! Bed! Bath! Ya-hoo!!!



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9:07am, Monday morning, September 9th, 2002

Yesterday was the worst day so far from a weather point of view, and in terms of my own performance. The roads were very hilly all day long and the rain was heavy and endless. A rotten day, all day.

I woke up in Strokestown where I’d stopped the night before. I had cycled a little beyond town in search of a wild pitch but could find nothing, and it was already growing dark. So I made my way back to Strokestown and found a row of houses in various stages of construction, beside a disused factory on the border of town. I reckoned (correctly), that they wouldn’t see any activity for the rest of the weekend, so I pulled my bike down a passageway along the last house in the row and into the back garden. There was a chance that ‘kids with cans’ might have the same idea as me, but it was a chance I had to take. As it turned out it was literally as safe as houses!

I woke up to rain and hills, and I don’t think I had any energy because I had a very hard time making any time. During one very heavy downpour near Ballinagare I pulled in to shelter under some trees beside a house on a lonely, windswept  stretch of road. There wasn’t much shelter and I was about to carry on when the lady of the house came out and invited me in out of the rain. I spent the next three hours in the Brady house, where Ethel made me tea and mountains of toasted ham & cheese sandwiches while my rain gear dried on the range.

We had a grand rambling chat over many a cuppa. Her husband is a truck driver and was one of the few people she knew apart from myself who could boast of visiting every county in Ireland. ‘I’m not finished yet’ I said, ‘And with weather like this I might have to swap the bike for a canoe!’. I repaid her kindness by fixing the family’s computer, that had become little more than an ornament in recent months. This was great news to her kids who arrived home one by one to meet the stranger on the bike. Ah, I don’t mind telling ya, but it was with a heavy heart that I left that hearth, but the pedals don’t turn themselves.

Even with the rest and the full stomach I had a hard time getting further down the road. Three hours of idleness had sapped my enthusiasm for the it, and even with a break in the rain I couldn’t lift my spirits. Not far beyond Ballaghadereen the rain started up again with a vengeance and I had to stop and pull out my freshly dried rain gear. All Ethel’s efforts thus wasted, I pushed on. I hadn’t gone more than 50 yards when I got a puncture. I let out a roar that would have scared a banshee out of it’s wits, and pushed the bike down the road to the shelter of some trees to make the repair. I tried in vain to roll a cigarette but it was futile in that torrential downpour. So I sheltered there for a while in the hopes that it might lighten off a bit.

When it hadn’t eased off one drop in 15 minutes I resigned myself to carry on and made it here, to Charlestown / Bellaghy, on the Sligo / Mayo border. It was after 8pm and there was no possibility of pitching a tent, so I booked into the Riverside restaurant. The owner, Anthony Kelly, is a chef, so I think they’ve downplayed the accommodation side of the business. I passed it twice trying to find a B&B with a vacancy before I realised they had rooms upstairs! It’s a fine looking old building, nearly 150 years old according to their blurb. I’m running low on cash now and this place is going to cost me €34. I’m a gobshite for not taking any of the sponsorship money with me. I bought the one man tent, the Trianga stove and some other bits and bobs only about two weeks ago. And lots of other little things too, as well as paying my rent. So that lot nearly cleaned me out. I’ll have to call home and arrange for some money to be wired to me or something, because I’m about to check put of here shortly and I’ll be down to about 50 quid. Ah well, I’ll leave that for now and go get my breakfast, catch up with you later.


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11:29pm, Friday night, September 6th, 2002

(Average: 12.9 mph / Time: 4.06.40 / Distance: 53.49 miles / Odometer: 326.7 miles)

I set off from the campsite at about 11:30. I could have left earlier, but I kept waking up and hearing rain, so I had a lie-on. It’s strangely disorientating waking up in a tent. You have to establish what time it is, what the weather is like, if you’re in sight of anything. Your camp never looks the same in the daytime as it did when you set it up the night before.

When I finally left, I had not gone far at all before I had to stop, in Ogonneloe, and brew up a cup of soup. Half an hour and I was already bunched. The sky was very heavily clouded and I’d had one bad shower already. It did look brighter further on, so I was hopeful.

I had been especially looking forward to today, ever since I first mapped out the route. The road follows the side of Lough Derg and I’d reckoned it to be one of the more scenic days riding. But I couldn’t even see the lake for all the trees along it. They should trim a few hedges. I didn’t sem to have the energy to deal with the hills either. Even though I’ve been over much worse already. I think I’ve lost my taste for hills on a bicycle, you always feel cheated on the downside if it isn’t long enough.

So at 1pm I stopped in Mountshannon and spent an hour in a pub, being served by a very beautiful looking young woman, eating fish & chips washed down with a pint of porter. She put the best shamrock I’ve ever seen onto that pint. It was perfect, and I told her so. I also took the time to read a few pages of Stephen King’s new book ‘On Writing’, which seems pretty good, but I doubt I’ll get many chances to read it. Any free time I get is normally about doing as little as possible!

With that mighty feed under my belt I set off again and crossed into Galway soon after. My 13th county. It’s a beautiful area, but it could do with some attention. Even if we manage to get tourists here post 9/11, we’d want to have something to offer them. There are so few facilities here, why aren’t we investing in that?

I had a puncture in Portumna. That’s a good line. But I did, and thanks to the spare tube I bought on Wednesday, I had it fixed in about 10 minutes. I’ll fix the other one tonight, and then I’ll have a spare. There was lots of activity on the main street. School had finished and there were kids everywhere. And with kids come parents. It looked like a place that liked to be quiet but had to put up with occasional bursts of activity. I repacked the bike in the midst of this mayhem, then strolled the length of the main street. I had to do a lot of shrugging as people were forced to move around myself and my bike. After so long alone on the bike, I took great pleasure in being in the middle of the stampede home. And a perverse little guilty pleasure at being a nuisance, truth be told.

There was one shop that carried the banner above it’s name: Music CD’s, Videos, Confectionery, Wreaths‘. There were lots of familiar shops, including a Frawley’s discount shop. I suppose it’s the march of progress, and rural areas are finally getting the benefits of urban developments like convenience shopping. Some of the old world quaintness may be gone, but it definitely makes it easier to get by than it would have been not so long ago. Most towns have at least one mini-market that stays open late. Take my pitch for tonight. I’m in a town called Cloghan, in Offaly (14). I crossed that border not long after Portumna. I stopped for the night here eight years ago when I walked to Galway with Garvan. Back then it was nowhere. It was a crossroad literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s in the middle of a bog. It had one shop, one pub and fuck all houses. Now it’s got a roundabout. And there are two pubs and at least two shops. One of which is staffed by my new mate Anne-Marie from a small town outside Portumna. She keeps the shop open until ten. There are many many houses here now. And streetlights! I remember how dark it was here last time.

I met Anne-Marie while trying to find the owner of this field that I’m in now. It’s on one of the main roads, right beside Anne-Marie’s shop. It’s a quite spot, Cloghan, for all it’s fancy modernity. I don’t mind camping somewhere sort of exposed like this. I just didn’t want to be woken up by a herd of cows at dawn, or something like that. So I tried to find the owner. The shop was my first stop. She didn’t know who owned it but was able to point me in the right direction and I soon found out that the owner was the (currently absent) local priest Fr. Scanlon. A priest’s field. No cows here then! Thanks be to God. Sort of.

Anne-Marie made me a cuppa in the shop while I set up camp. There isn’t all that much traffic through the shop and she took advantage of the company. She entertained me with stories of badly behaved hurley players and the ‘vicious meanness’ of her headmaster. I’m not far off half-way around by now. Not too long before I hit that point. When I was talking to Anne-Marie about the trip, when I got to Portumna earlier today she gasped: “Oh my God, I loove Portumna! I’d love to live there, it’s amazing!” Cloghan is still in the middle of nowhere, and it’s bigger than her own village, but can that explain such a reaction to Portumna? Well, I hope she makes it.

And so now I’ve caught up to myself lying here in this holy field listening to the rain misbehave outside. It seems to be coming and going in flurries. I think tomorrow I’ll get beyond Athlone by afternoon and at a good push, with good roads and fine weather, I’ll make Roscommon. Yeah, right! I need to recharge my phone somewhere, somehow tomorrow. I might drop into a police station. Have to trust whoever I leave it with. Tell you all about it in a line or two.


10:37pm, Monday night, September 2nd, 2002

(Average: 12.4 mph / Time: 5.29.22 / 68.17 miles / Odometer: 68.1)

I’m impressed with myself. And considering that I started out a bit fed up, that’s high praise. I wasn’t ready to go at sunrise, like I had hoped. I didn’t actually get on the road until 12:25pm! But despite that I’ve done really well to get to Bagnelstown.

The first hour was probably the hardest. I don’t know if it was because I was daunted by what lay ahead of me, or if the hills really were fierce steep. That initial flush of exhilaration you get at the moment you set off, knowing that the real adventure has just started soon wears off. It takes three hills.

The first is tackled with gusto. The second seems wearily familiar and you lapse into a complacent resignation. But the third one in a row makes you want to stop. It’s like the feeling you get when you’re going out on a night you’ve planned but which slowly starts to unravel before you leave the house. First someone cancels and you’re disappointed, but shrug your shoulders. Then the remaining people decide to go to a different venue. One you hate. Then your taxi is an hour late. At that point the night looses all interest for you and you decide to skip it and get a video instead.

That third hill felt something like that. I just wanted to stop there and then. That’s almost entirely down to the difference between riding a laden and an unladen bicycle. The bike weighs about the same as I do, maybe a little more. That really slows me down on even a slight hill, and when I slow down the weight on either side of the front wheel makes it a bit unstable. So I have to redirect some of my energy just to keep myself pointing straight ahead.

But I can’t stop. Apart from the charity side of it, I’ve been banging on about crossing the Alps to anyone who bothered to listen for the last few months. But the truth is the Alps nearly fecking killed me. I broke down crying near the top of  the Col de Forclaz because I’d never been more exhausted. Myself and Garv had spent three full days in a waterlogged tent during a storm with feck all to eat, and I’d had the shits for the last two of them. What a fuckin’ day that was.

So I couldn’t let a wee hill in Wicklow beat me, now could I? Up I went, pushing the bike ahead of me, wondering how long until I did give up. Kerry? Donegal? I trudged on up, wallowing in the agony of it. So much so that I totally forgot about Newton’s apple. Before I knew it I was looking at a long straight road that seemed to go downhill forever. I rested for a few minutes, looking at it. I’d been excited setting off, and those three hills in a row had put a real damper on that. But here I was with the bike leaning into a small hedge, and me leaning back on the bike with one elbow on the saddle to support myself. My right hand was multi-tasking. It pressed play on my Walkman, then it got the coke bottle from the handlebar bag to my mouth and back again, and finally it lit my cigarette as the slow synth sounds of Depeche Mode’s New Life came on. And when Dave Gahan started singing I broke out into the widest grin ever, looking down at that road. I knew I was having a moment.

There’s nothing like the naked pleasure of coasting along on a bicycle on a beautiful sunny day. I coasted down for what felt like five minutes, but was probably less. By the time the ground started to rise again my mood had been lifted and it wasn’t so hard to face. There was a smashing sight just after Blessington, not far past the lake, where at the crest of a hill, off to your left is a stunning view of several peaks in the Wicklow mountains laid out in a neat row. The hill was my moment, and that one was definitelya Bulfin moment.

By the time I stopped in Baltinglass at 4pm I knew that I was finding the going easier than expected. Considering that the gears aren’t set up properly I’ve been lucky that the few that work are just the ones I need on this terrain. Leaving Baltinglass, a desolate spot if you ask me, I took my first pedal off the beaten track (Freud, c’mere!). I went onto a small regional road, and of course it was instantly more enjoyable, and not totally pot-holed. There were people along it. There was industry and agriculture. It’s harvest time, which is a fab sight at sunset. And there was plenty of wildlife too. Mostly rats. All along the hedgerows. Big feckers too.

That wee road eventually took me into Carlow. I called my friend Brian, thinking I might be able to call round and bunk down for the night, but he was up in Dublin today. Typical!

Carlow then, the not inoffensive distant Suburb of Dublin that it is, managed to thwart all attempts at escape. I’d been looking forward to it because it’s on the border with Laois, so all I needed to do was cycle a little way up a street and take a snap of the Welcome to County Laois sign and then retrace my steps. The sign, when I eventually found it (35 min) was ten foot off the ground, tiny and looked like a National Monument signpost. But I got my snap. I’m trying to get a photo of every welcome sign with the bike in the shot.

Getting onto the road to Bagnelstown took me another hour. Directions from locals were as confusing as the signs. By the time I go onto the right road it was after 7pm. As I began scouting for camping sites all I could see were field after field of wheat and corn, newly harvested and no good for camping. I don’t mind saying it, I was getting a bit concerned: I didn’t fancy bivvying out there with the rats. Luckily I got directions to a field sometimes used by the local scouts. Now I’m about half-a-mile down an overgrown canal towpath, over a footbridge and down into some farmer’s field. I don’t know if it’s the right one, but it’ll do for tonight.

I barely had time to get the tent pitched before the light was gone for good. It’s amazing what an appetite will do, all the same. I had the tent up and dinner cooked in about 25 minutes. All my gear is ready for the off tomorrow, too. Hope I wake up!!

Yes, a very hard start. But my sister will be happy to hear that her Tarot thingy last night was accurate, ‘The sun will shine on all you do.’ The weather really worked for me today. The bike also worked well, and I did too. I’m going to pack you away now, roll a joint and smoke it out here in the dark, listening to the sounds of the countryside: a dog barking,  traffic, the odd train. All off in the distance. It’s so dark here. No moon tonight. It feels spooky. Ah, but such splendiferous spookiness…

12:21am, Tuesday morning