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Dingle, Ireland : Big Ride

James Spender
28 Mar 2016

Once the edge of the known world, the Dingle Peninsula in south west Ireland serves up rugged riding and cracking climbs aplenty

There’s no doubt about it, travelling by bicycle is the best possible way to see the world and, indeed, the best possible excuse. Cycling is at its very least a glorious end in itself, where exertion meets fatigue and turns to triumph, and at its pinnacle is the ultimate expression of man, machine and landscape. 

I seem to have slipped into an internal monologue of pseudo-poeticisms that would put a GSCE student to shame, but I can put the blame on the beauty and solitude of the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. This is Europe’s most westerly point, from where St Brendan is reckoned to have sailed for America more than 700 years before Columbus, and while it doesn’t count as part of the UK, I can’t imagine a more stunning spot to host one of Cyclist’s UK Rides, so it makes the cut regardless. 

The Dingle Peninsula conjures an intangible atmosphere, where the crashing of the Atlantic Ocean meets a sleepy pocket of the world all but a lucky few have forgotten. There’s an air of mystique, from the ancient ogham letters inscribed in millennium-old stone monuments, to the beehive-shaped stone dochans dotting the hillsides, cells that 6th century monks called home. And then there are the pubs, which I’m reliably informed by our host, Caroline, number 52 in Dingle Town so there is ‘one for every week of the year’. I like those odds.

Sort of on porpoise 

A jutting finger that stabs at the ocean, Dingle is right in the thick of the Gulf Stream, meaning it experiences far milder year-round temperatures than other parts of Ireland, but also far more rainfall. Nearby Valentia Island houses the country’s wettest weather station that records annual precipitation of 56 inches –twice that of Dublin in the north west. Mercifully, the morning skies are clear as my riding partner for the day, Jackie, and I roll out of town. It is rather crisp, though, so I’m surprised to see her in bibshorts and mitts. It turns out she’s been in Alaska for the last month, so ‘Dingle seems positively balmy by comparison’. She does concede that things can get a little wild in these parts. ‘Just hopefully not today.’

If ever a town warranted storybook status, it’s Dingle. A warren of primary-coloured pubs and restaurants overlooks the small harbour, once home to Ireland’s second-largest fishing fleet (after Dublin), but now the almost exclusive residence of Fungie, a bottlenose dolphin that the locals say moved into the harbour mouth in the early 1980s. It’s a story told with just a hint of a bulging cheek, but nevertheless Fungie is so important in these parts that a statue has been erected in his honour. Less disputable is the status Dingle once enjoyed as a hub of international commerce, most notably the booming linen trade of the 18th century, and it’s this fact that gave rise to one of the quirkiest aspects of the area – its pubs.

It’s said that with a population of fewer than 1,920, there are more pubs per capita in Dingle than anywhere else in Ireland, and they’re something of a novelty. As one roving reporter from the Montreal Gazette remarked upon a visit just after the Second World War, ‘Dingle is probably the only place in the civilised world where a man can walk up and down testing out a new pair of shoes and not have his hand empty…’ 

As we head out of town towards the Atlantic Ocean, Jackie delights in informing me that the watering holes in the area sprang up as a by-product of traders thrashing out their deals in local emporiums. ‘They’d sit down to haggle over the price of their hosieries, and it wouldn’t be long before someone got a few drinks in. After a time it became common for these shops to sell beer to the traders while they made their deals, and that’s why you can go to Dick Mack’s just up the hill there and buy a pair of brogues with your Guinness, or Foxy John’s and pick up a hammer with your whiskey.’

Anywhere else in the world I’d question the safety of drinking in a pub that sells hammers, but in Dingle Town I can’t imagine things ever getting more exuberant than a traditional Irish sing-song. Which, if the many proprietors’ window signs are anything to go by, happens every night of the week.

The islanders

At around 70km in length and 16km wide, the Dingle Peninsula is pretty compact, but I’m still surprised at how quickly we arrive at its most westerly point, Slea Head. On other days this stretch of coastline would be being battered by wind and rain, the sea whipped up into a frenzy of wild, white horses, but today it’s quiet and the Atlantic Ocean is sparkling beyond the cliffs. 

We stop to admire the view, and Caroline, who is dutifully driving our support car, gets out to draw our attention to a series of silhouettes on the horizon known as the Blasket Islands. Apparently, Great Blasket Island (the largest of the six-strong archipelago) was until 1953 home to a small community of fisherman and farmers. The fishermen would go across to the mainland and marry, taking their women back to the island, where they would live out the rest of their days. If that sounds bleak, spare a thought for the donkeys that took the place of horses on the farms. Only male donkeys were allowed because the land was so hazardously steep that the randy fellows would inadvertently drive any female donkeys into the sea during mating season. 

Back on our bikes and bearing inland, we’re soon experiencing our own version of bleak Ireland life. The wind has picked up cruelly and the first dots of rain are spattering my face as we approach the foot of the Conor Pass, a 5km ascent that rises to 420m from nigh-on sea level. 

I haven’t said anything, but over the last few clicks a tickle of a cough from Jackie has turned into some deep rasps, so I’m relieved when she signals for us to pull over a few hundred metres into the climb to declare that she’s going to have to sit this one out. It means there’ll be no witnesses to my ragged pedalling on this unrelenting road. The Gaelic phrase Mall Go is periodically written in big yellow letters on the floor, which translates to ‘go slowly’. Fair enough – that’s exactly how I intend to go.

If there’s any compensation for the arduous nature of the Conor Pass it’s the views that trail in its wake. There’s not a house nor car for miles around, just rolling hillsides that look as though a swathe of velvet has been draped over the rock. It is untended grazing land for sheep, but if I didn’t know better I’d say someone had actually been out here with a lawnmower and a judge from the Chelsea Flower Show in tow.

I’m met at the layby at the top by Jackie and Caroline, who have no doubt been up here for some time but who graciously tell me they’ve only just arrived. The rain has relented but the tarmac is dark and slick, so before I push on Caroline warns me to keep my speeds sensible. Not too far down the descent is one of the most notorious sections of road in these parts, prefaced portentously by a warning sign in three different languages that urges caution and prohibits any vehicles other than small cars and motorbikes from proceeding.

The Conor Pass is known locally as the Penny Road, because the men who built it were paid a penny a day for their labour. As I wend my way down it strikes me that the local authority might have done well to pay them a little bit more. Cut into the rock face, this side of the pass is a triumph of man’s determination to overcome nature, but it’s clear those chaps didn’t want to hang around chipping away at the slate for too long. The road is so narrow that if I laid across it I reckon my feet would touch the cliff side and my head would dangle over the edge.

Off course, but better for it

As the Irish say, sometimes you just do things for the craic. So although time is getting on and it’s a bit of a deviation from our route, we decide to pedal up to Jackie’s home village of Cloghane to pop into her local, a cheerfully painted pub-cum-guest house called O’Connor’s. 

From the outset it’s an education, literally. In front of the building is a large, rusting engine on a plinth together with a plaque commemorating four aircraft that crashed nearby during the Second World War. Before I can determine which one of the four this engine might belong to, I’m greeted with a big slap on the back by the broadly smiling landlord, Michael O’Dowd.

To say the next hour is something of a blur is an understatement, but suffice to say if you want to have a few Guinnesses – or in our case, coffees, honest – poured by one of the most excitable and knowledgeable local historians in Ireland then O’Connor’s is the place for you. I did catch that the engine was from a Luftwaffe Condor, which crashed into nearby Mount Brandon, and that the six German crew survived, were taken in by the locals and two eventually married Irish girls. But beyond that? You’ll have to go and see Michael yourself.

I’m not usually one for stopping mid-ride, and when we resume our journey my leaden legs are letting me know exactly why. Luckily the roll around Brandon Bay – a popular windsurfing spot that boasts the longest beach in Ireland (I’ve retained more from Michael than I first thought) – is pretty flat. I’m on my own again as Jackie is back in the car, and given what’s looming ahead, I don’t blame her. While the Conor Pass is the longest climb of the day, Bothar na gCloch (‘the road of stones’) up ahead is set to be the hardest. 

An inconspicuous right turn just before the junction of the R560 and N86, this old boreen, or country lane, bisects the peninsula, joining Camp on the northern side to Aughills in the south. A bit of speculative Strava’ing prior to departure revealed a segment on it known as ‘The Wall’, and as I ride through Lower Camp to Upper Camp, whose very prefixes should have been warning enough, I quickly understand that segment-maker’s inspiration. 

I think one of the hardest rides I have ever had the mixture of pleasure and deep displeasure of undertaking was the Fred Whitton sportive in the Lake District, and by the time I come out of the closely knitted trees at Bothar na gCloch’s base to look upon the exposed hillside of The Wall, I am revisited by a kind of post-traumatic Whitton disorder. The devil is in the uphill.

Despite the scenery still being nothing short of stunning, for a moment I can’t help hating it. The tremendous rolling mountains that once smiled back at me are now leering down from the heavens, their shadows lengthening as the sun makes its lazy passage to bed. But I’ve come this far so there’ll be no relenting now, despite a last, 250m long knee-grind that peaks at 30%. However, as acute as my suffering is, it’s only moments before I’m swamped by an enormous rush of wellbeing as I crest the ridge. 

Cleaved between the rising peaks glows a burning orange sky, gently fading into the shimmering Atlantic below. The only other soul up here is a happily grazing sheep, the only sound the faintest babble of a stream, and the only thing left for me to do is pedal lazily home. It’s so perfect you almost couldn’t write it.

The rider’s ride

Giant TCR Advanced Pro 0, £3,799, giant-bicycles.com

You’d have to go a long way and expect to pay a serious amount more to find a better all-round race bike than the TCR. The compact frame is exceptionally stiff for the weight – 6.65kg off the peg, size medium. Yet thanks to the long, thin seatpost, skinny seatstays and squared-off down tube (where the underside is flattened to increase vertical flex but inhibit torsional flex), it’s a truly comfortable bike. Given the potential for rain, I swapped out the nimble Giant SLR 0 carbon clinchers for alloy Hunt 4Season Aeros with Schwalbe Pro One tubeless tyres, which provided reliable braking in the wet. The SLR 0s are tubeless compatible, so I’d urge anyone to ditch the Giant PSLR-1 tyres and look to Schwalbe for some quality tubeless rubber.

Do it yourself

Getting to Dingle couldn’t be easier. Flights to Kerry Airport cost around £55 return with Ryanair (plus £60 bike carriage each way) and take just an hour and a half from the UK. Renting a car is advisable, not least as there’s some stunning driving to be had, although local minibuses shuttle back and forth for around £20 per person, depending on group size.

There’s no shortage of hotels and B&Bs to suit most budgets. We stayed in the rather grand Dingle Skellig hotel (dingleskellig.com), replete with spa, swimming pool and stunning views of the coast. Prices start from around £85pppn including breakfast, where the star of the show is undoubtedly the automatic pancake-making machine. But don’t bother asking the staff if you can buy it – they’re not selling.

Thanks

A big thank you to Caroline Boland for her superb advising, driving and general chat, and to ride partner Jackie Griffin, who fought her illness on the day valiantly, and to Michael O’Dowd at O’Connor’s pub and guest house (cloghane.com). What Michael doesn’t know about the area isn’t worth knowing. For some top travelling tips check out dingle-peninsula.ie.

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