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Wicklow Mountains : Big Ride

Steve Westlake
26 May 2015

Cyclist heads to the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin to sample the cream of Irish riding.

Capital cities with mountains nearby are charmed locations, and Dublin is one such urban haven. It’s great for those who live there, but also highly convenient for the rest of us because it’s an easy hop to the well-served airport followed by a quick 30-minute drive from the city centre to prime riding territory. The hills in question are the Wicklow Mountains, the largest area of continuous high ground in Ireland, formed 420 million years ago by the collision of the North Atlantic and European continental plates. The last ice age did an excellent job of putting the finishing touches to the stunning landscape, with climbs that are tough enough to test any cyclist’s mettle. The climate, of course, is typically Irish and described as having ‘mild, damp summers and cool, wet winters’. Cyclist is visiting in mid-September however, and miraculously it looks like we’re being treated to a warm and sunny autumn day. Guiding me and my riding partner Dan to the best riding roads are Paul (Irish) and Raul (Mexican/Irish), who both work at Harry’s Bikes in Dublin city centre. We meet them at Poppies Cafe in Enniskerry for coffee and pre-ride checks.

Out of the gate

Enniskerry is described as the ‘gateway to Wicklow, the garden of Ireland’, which sounds like an ideal place for us to clip in. What’s less idyllic from a warm-up point of view is the village’s location at the bottom of the Glencree valley, cut deep into the Wicklow granite by the River Dargle (an onomatopoei, surely). The location means that we immediately hit a sharp climb out of the valley, which is given extra spice by Paul who’s asking me about working at Cyclist. I try to maintain a semblance of composure while speaking in staccato sentences between huge, barely disguised in-breaths. Paul is a former Irish National mountain bike and cyclocross champion and has now turned his hand to winning local races in these parts, so it only seems fair that as soon as the opportunity arises I flip the conversation and get him to do the talking. We pass the turning for the Powerscourt Estate (which boasts award-winning gardens and Ireland’s highest waterfall in its grounds) safe in the knowledge that more expansive landscapes await us, and we won’t be missing out on waterfalls on this ride either.

Wicklow Mountains Big Ride Lake

After 4km, and fully warmed up by the immediate climbing, we start the descent to Ballybawn Cottages and catch our first glimpse of what the Wicklow mountains have to offer – in the shape of the Great Sugar Loaf mountain. Although at 501m high it falls more than 400m short of being Wicklow’s highest (Lugnaquilla, 925m), it’s still classed as one of the ‘Marilyns’ - meaning it has a geological ‘prominence’ from the surrounding landscape of 150m or more. (The name is a pun on the Scottish Munros). At the bottom of our short descent we turn right onto the R755 to continue our route south towards Roundwood and Laragh. We begin to climb and traverse up the flanks of the Great Sugar Loaf, although from this side its famous prominence is largely hidden by the hedgerows to our left. With the climb done we cross a short plateau and fall into a two-by-two chaingang for the long, gentle descent to Laragh, passing through Roundwood and the Coach House pub on our left, which we will return to for lunch in 50km time.It’s a chance to spin out our legs, which serves as a welcome respite after the sharp start to the ride. I’m still side-by-side with Paul, but I can hear the Mexican/Irish lilt of Raul telling Dan about his life as a policeman in Mexico, and how he decided to make the move to Dublin because of the dangers of that occupation at home.

As soon as we enter the saddle we immediately hit a sharp climb out of the Glencree Valley

We enter Laragh and stop to regroup outside the Glendalough Fayre café, but decide to press on rather than indulge in another coffee. Most visitors to this area would be here to visit Glendalough itself (the Glen of Two Lakes) and inspect one of Ireland’s prime tourist attractions – a monastic settlement that was the abode of St Kevin, an animal-friendly ascetic hermit
born around 500AD and an important figure in Ireland’s Christian heritage. There are many tales about St Kevin, perhaps the most famous being how when a blackbird landed in his outstretched palm as he stood in one of the two lakes, he remained completely still for the weeks it took the bird to build a nest there, lay its eggs and fledge the chicks.Only when the nest was empty again did he move.

In 1996 the poet Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about it called ‘St Kevin And The Blackbird’. Another less romantic story about St Kevin is that to defend his piety he once drowned a woman who tried to seduce him, also in one of the lakes in his Glen.  ‘Michelle Obama and her daughters visited Glendalough when they were over in 2013 for the presidential visit to Ireland,’ says Raul. ‘I was out riding around here that day and it took quite a while for all the security convoy to pass. But we’re unlikely to see much traffic from now on.’

Up and at them

Wicklow Mountains Ride B+W

Our route out of Laragh takes us into the heart of the Wicklow Mountains National Park on the quiet Old Military Road – built in the wake of the 1798 rebellion to help the British Army to put down the rebels hiding in the mountains. No road around here stays flat for long and we’re soon into another climb. As we clear the trees of the valley we’re treated to the expansive sight of the asphalt stretching out ahead of us in a long gentle left-to-right arc as it follows the hillside on the right. Meanwhile the Glenmacnass waterfall reveals itself over to the left, tumbling for a drop of 80m in a wide, shallow cascade over the smoothed granite that forms the bedrock of the Wicklow mountains. Past the waterfall and the climb continues. To our left now is the dark green of a Scots pine plantation which then gives way to the kind of expansive moorland view that will typify the surroundings we’re going to revel in for the next 30km. We pass below the Carrigshouk peak to our left (572m) and through another Scots pine plantation as the deserted single-track road winds lazily ahead, climbing more gently now. Then after a few more kilometres we find ourselves in a beautiful wilderness. There’s not a tree in sight for the whole, vast 360° panorama and, perhaps like all the most impressive landscapes, it’s the kind of place that could be as bleak and foreboding as it is beautiful, given different conditions. Paul confirms my thoughts. ‘I’ve been up here on plenty of training rides when it’s been zero degrees and with winds that blow you off your bike,’ he says. ‘To be honest, you don’t often see it as nice as this.’ So we thank our lucky stars and bask in the endless view as we roll along the road, which levels out and draws a faint line in the moorland before disappearing all the way over the horizon.

‘It’s like something from a postcard,’ says Dan with a big smile. ‘But there’s a kind of brutality to the shape of the landscape – like it’s been savaged by rapacious winds, which have torn at the peaty soil and stripped trees from the hilltops.’ Nicely put.We’re heading towards Sally Gap, a four-road junction in the heart of the highest part of the National Park. I inwardly wonder who Sally is or was, but it turns out the name is likely to come from the original Irish name, Bhearna Bhealach Sailearnáin which is said to translate snappily as ‘Road through the gap where the willows are’, with the Sally part simply being a short anglicised version of Sailearnáin. From Sally Gap it’s almost perfect high-speed descending territory with only gentle bends and enough slope to make pedalling futile, but not so steep that we have to use the brakes. We haven’t seen a car for 10km or more. After 2km of exhilarating downhill on increasingly bumpy roads we plunge past some more Scots pine and then brake hard for a right flick over a stone bridge and simultaneously bounce out of the saddle for a punchy climb that will take us to yet another spectacular view point.

The cream on top

Lough Tay – or ‘Guinness lake’ – lies between the Djouce and Luggala mountains (Luggala is also known locally as ‘Fancy mountain’). The water is such a dark shade of brown that the Guinness family that owns the land imported white sand from Italy to create a creamy head on the lake. It’s fed by the pleasingly named Cloghoge river, and then drains into Lough Dan, which we can see glinting in the distance to our right. The road climbs steeply with Lough Tay down below us and a low drystone wall allows for uninterrupted viewing pleasure. The only distraction on the climb is a succession of classic cars coming down the hill as we toil upwards, and we hope that their ancient brakes are working and the drivers aren’t too distracted by the spectacular views from the narrow road. We could hardly blame them if they were.Much of the Luggala Estate land we’re passing through is owned by the Guinness family, famous for the brewing empire (see panel, right). The estate was used in the filming of Braveheart and Excalibur, and it’s easy to see why with its expansive and rugged demeanour. It also featured in the 1974 sci-fi classic, Zarzoz, starring Sean Connery in only his second post-Bond role. (I hadn’t heard of it either).

Wicklow Mountains Big Ride 01

As we pant to the summit of the climb we take a last lingering glance at Guinness lake before starting a 4km descent back to the R755. A right turn and 5km later we arrive once again in Roundwood for ourbelated lunch stop at the Coach House.With full stomachs and spirits buoyed by the knowledge that we’ve seen the Wicklow mountains at their absolute best, we retrace our steps north to our starting point, nodding to the Great Sugar Loaf, on our right this time, as we pass. On the final climbs to Enniskerry Paul lets loose for the first time today and disappears at disconcerting speed into the distance as Dan, Raul and I start to feel the cumulative effects of the challenging Wicklow topology. Enniskerry is teeming with classic cars as we re-enter the village and we pick our way past tweeded folk with elaborate moustaches back to Poppies, load up the car and make the short hop from the mountains to our Dublin hotel, where, of course, a few pints of Guinness await. It doesn’t taste the same on the mainland, you know…

Accommodation 

We stayed at Dublin's Royal Marine Hotel (royalmarine.ie) which overlooks the harbour and is within ambling distance of Dublin's array of hospitality options. 

Thanks

It's true what they say about Irish hospitality. Everyone we met was super friendly and accommodating. Special thanks to Paul O'Rielly and Raul Crenier from Harry's Bikes for guiding us around the route, and to Frank Moore for driving Richie the photographer. Also to Failte Ireland, the National Tourism Development Authority and Tourism Ireland (ireland.com) and to Ikenna Lewis-Miller, Olivia Dick and Abby Kidd for helping with arrangements. 

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