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Tour de Brexit: Irish Borders big ride

In-depth
9 Dec 2019
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Last year, Cyclist sent Trevor Ward to explore what changes as a result of Brexit could mean for those living, working and riding across the Irish border each and every day

Words Trevor Ward Photography Andy McCandlish

Farmers in the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland know a thing or two about borders. Their fields are divided by drystone walls made from large boulders that look as though they’ve been thrown together by Fred Flintstone.

‘That’s how they are meant to look,’ says Myles McCorry as we take in the views from the highest point of today’s ride at the side of the Spelga Dam.

‘They have big gaps between the rocks to let the wind through. Otherwise they’d be blown down.’

The wall stretching up the slope to our left is the most famous. Built over 100 years ago, it extends for 30km across all 15 peaks of the Mournes and is now a listed monument.

Whether the politicians currently negotiating the future of the Irish border can learn anything from this practical approach is a moot point – a border open enough to allow free movement yet solid enough to withstand the Brexit winds of change?

Checkpoints and watchtowers

Our views extend across Carlingford Lough to the Republic of Ireland, which is where we are heading. We’ll be skirting the border several times – not to mention crossing it on occasions – during today’s ride.

The customs posts, armed checkpoints and military watchtowers that once dotted its length have been gone for more than 20 years now, but old anxieties have recently resurfaced.

 

‘All the talk about Brexit and a hard border is awakening bad memories,’ says McCorry. ‘People are thinking, “Does this mean we have to take up allegiances with one side or the other again?”’

McCorry grew up in the north, but the promise he displayed racing his bike took him to the US, France and Belgium. ‘Otherwise I could have stayed at home and thrown stones at the police,’ he says.

Since then he’s made a name for himself on the Irish racing scene both on and off the bike. He stood against Pat McQuaid for the presidency of the Irish Cycling Federation when he was just 25, and has competed in the ‘Ras’ – Tour of Ireland – 10 times, most recently in 2012 at the age of 40. ‘It was brutal every time,’ he says.

Today’s route takes in part of McCorry’s regular training circuit, and I’m bracing myself for a hard time.

Although he’s only just returned to racing after a four-year break – ‘I took up eating pizza full-time until I started to look like a cement mixer on a bike’ – he has set a punishing pace on the double-digit gradient of the climb to the Spelga Dam.

I have a chance to recover on the long, fast descent down to the coast, and when the road flattens out on the outskirts of Kilkeel, we bump into a group of riders from two of the many clubs based in the area.

 

We start chatting about the implications of a hard border for their rides, and one of them, a member of Dromore CC, tells us he is due to ride the next day’s Gullion Tour sportive, which crosses the border four times.

‘If they’re going to introduce a visa charge of £7 for Brits to visit European countries after Brexit [as has been reported], then that would be an extra £14,’ he says, only half-joking. ‘My club regularly rides across the border and Brexit is likely to be such a drag on what is currently free and open movement.’

Another rider, wearing a Banbridge CC jersey, is less worried. ‘The A and B roads will have manned checkpoints, but during the Troubles they just put concrete blocks across the smaller roads, so it won’t be any problem for a cyclist to get past them. Either that or we’ll have to start taking our passports on club rides!’

A border runs through it

A recent survey identified 208 road crossings along the 500km frontier – 70 more than there are along the entire border between the European Union and countries to its east.

The same survey revealed that the border runs along the centre of 11 roads, including part of the Dublin-Belfast motorway, and bisects two ferry crossings.

We’re now approaching one of these crossings, the ferry from Greencastle to Greenore. We share the trip across Carlingford Lough – although technically it’s a fjord rather than a lough since it was carved by a glacier – with a convoy of vintage cars and 20 minutes later find ourselves in the Republic of Ireland.

The only indication we have crossed a national frontier is that the speed limit signs are now in kilometres per hour.

 

A brief ride along the shore delivers us to the pretty tourist town of Carlingford, its jumble of bars and cafes already doing a brisk trade at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon thanks to the arrival of various hen parties.

McCorry leads us to Dan’s Café, an institution that, sadly by the time you read this, will be no more. Today is its last day in business and the place is rammed. We have to wait outside for a table despite McCorry’s suggestion to Dan that he ‘kick out that couple there. It’s not as if it matters what they say on TripAdvisor any more.’

While waiting, McCorry points to the stretch of tarmac in front of us and says, ‘Philip Deignan crashed right there during the Irish Championships in 2013.’

When we are finally seated and furnished with pots of tea and bursting breakfast paninis, Dan tells us why he’s closing: ‘I’m fed up with watching cyclists spend 20 hours over one coffee.’ I think he’s joking.

Leaving town, we have to dodge the latest hen party being disgorged from a minibus at the cash machine dispensing euros. We join the shared use cycle path along the shore for 6km before the small ring is engaged as we start the climb to the Long Woman’s Grave.

An introductory gradient of 9% sets the tone for the next 20 minutes as the road bucks and twists into the heart of the Cooley Mountains. This is where McCorry has made his home with his wife and family. But his business – cycle clothing brand Galibier Velo – is based on the other side of the border in Newry.

 

In between gasping for oxygen on the climb’s upper slopes, our conversation once again turns to Brexit. ‘I can’t give my bank a business plan for the next few years because nobody knows what’s going to happen,’ he says.

‘For example, I’ve just had 400 caps from Italy delivered to my house. Taking them to my business in the north costs nothing at the moment, but if there’s a hard border I might have to pay import tax. I’d have to move my business south if that happened.’

Of course, one of the benefits of EU membership is the free movement of EU nationals, a fact that is incidentally celebrated by the Long Woman’s Grave.

This seven-foot tall Spanish noblewoman left her homeland to marry Lorcan O’Hanlon, an Irish chieftain. Sadly, on arrival in Ireland, the views of the Cooley Mountains didn’t match up to her memories of Spain, and she ‘died of disappointment’.

A granite headstone and a plot that looks nearer to 20 feet in length now mark her grave at Windy Gap at the top of our climb.

 

I can only assume that the weather on the day of her demise must have been more typically Irish. Today, there’s hardly a cloud in the sky and the views are magnificent as we start our descent towards Dundalk, where McCorry is a member of one of Ireland’s biggest and oldest cycling clubs, Cuchulainn CC.

We turn right outside the town and head west through the leafy lanes of Ravensdale Forest. To our left is the rumble of traffic from the nearby N1 motorway.

On the other side of the motorway is another range of hills that form the Ring of Gullion. All but the highest – the collapsed volcano cone of Slieve Gullion – once had armed watchtowers, or sangars, crowning them.

To reach them, we have to cross the border back into the north and County Armagh, which was nicknamed ‘Bandit Country’ during the Troubles because of the high incidence of killings by snipers and bombs.

We pass the remnants of a customs post, the empty building and rusting red and white road barriers now preserved like an unofficial monument behind high fencing.

A bit further on is another reminder that we are at the border of the UK and the rest of Europe, although this one defiantly political, in the form of a mobile billboard declaring ‘No EU Frontier in Ireland’.

 

And so we return to speed signs in miles and currency in pounds and pence. Just as all thoughts of the border are receding along with the drone of traffic from the motorway, McCorry points to a path zigzagging up a nearby hill.

‘That led up to one of the observation towers,’ he says. ‘But they had to put a cover over it because of snipers.’

From the political to the personal

It’s only when we start the climb up Slieve Gullion that I begin to shake off the sense of historical and political foreboding that has been haunting me all day.

This is primarily because my mind and body suddenly find themselves engaged in an eye-watering struggle to ascend a ramp of ferocious steepness. (When I check my Strava upload later, it will reveal that this ‘epic’ effort lasted barely 1km and accumulated 100m in altitude.)

 

But my struggle to conquer the slopes of Slieve Gullion is only partly the reason I’ve temporarily forgotten about the ugly events that have scarred this part of the world.

Another reason is just how beautiful it all is. We pause and stare out to Slieve Gullion’s smaller cousins, which resemble sinuous ripples in a patchwork of emerald fields, drystone walls and hedges of gorse. Beyond these hills we can see the lush flatlands that extend all the way to Dublin.

It’s hard to reconcile these views to the border and beyond with its grim history. While I was riding my bike around the streets of Liverpool, kids my age were dodging rubber bullets in a war zone just across the Irish Sea.

We carry on cycling, up and down a string of ever-steepening ramps, until we finally reach the highest point, marked by a layby and a plinth that explains the origin of the name Slieve Gullion. It’s hardly surprising to learn we’re on ‘the mountain of the steep slope’.

The ride home takes us through the busy town of Newry, where the armed patrols of the past have been replaced by coach tours to the Ring of Gullion and Mourne Mountains.

After twisting free from its urban sprawl, we plunge down into the Rostrevor Forest and return to our rented holiday cottage from where we started today’s ride.

Before plugging in my Garmin to download its data, I pick up the 2017 book I’d brought with me, The Rule Of The Land: Walking Ireland’s Border by Garrett Carr. I want to check something he’d written about Slieve Gullion.

Beneath the mountain is what Carr describes as ‘a prominent anomaly’, a high-density mass that has created an exceptionally strong gravitational pull.

 

‘Look at a map of gravitational fields and you will see Slieve Gullion is wrapped in contours so closely packed that individual lines are hard to distinguish, markedly different from the widely spaced wavy lines that drift elsewhere across the country,’ he writes.

So that’s why I found it so tough, I try to convince myself. A few pages further on, he meets a farmer in his field and asks him if living on the border causes him any problems. The farmer replies, ‘Put it this way – I wish you’d take it away with you.’

Outside my cottage, the wind is picking up and the sky is darkening. I look at the drystone walls criss-crossing the fields. They stand solid and defiant, silent monuments to Ireland’s turbulent past and uncertain future.

Bordering on the absurd

How we criss-crossed the border by bike and boat

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/77ireland.

From Rostrevor take the Sandbank Road to the B27. Turn right to Kilkeel and follow the signs for the ferry, which operates on the hour and takes 20 minutes.

On the other side, follow signs for Carlingford to join the R173. Turn left in Omeath and right onto the R174 and work your way across the motorway to Jonesborough. Head to the B113, the Slieve Gullion Forest Trail and back to the B113, where you turn left to Meigh.

Turn left, then right at the A25 through Newry to Mayobridge. Turn right down the Ballyvally Road before forking left to Rostrevor.

 

The rider’s ride

Vitus Venon CRX Disc Ultegra, £2,199.99, chainreactioncycles.com

Although now owned by the Northern Ireland company Chain Reaction Cycles, Vitus was born in France in the 1970s and played a pioneering role in lugged and bonded aluminium frames.

In 1982, its 979 Carbone frame became one of the first to make use of carbon fibre technology. So mounting its 2018 Venon CRX felt a portentous moment, and the ride didn’t disappoint.

While it would be an overstatement to say I could feel that hallowed history coursing through it, the bike was consistently comfortable despite a variety of road surfaces, helped in no small part by the 28mm tyres.

There was no hint of sluggishness on the climbs, nor any issues on the descents. Equipped with Ultegra for a little over £2k, the Venon is a comfortable yet responsive endurance ride for a very decent price.

 

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist travelled to Belfast with Stena Line ferries (stenaline.co.uk), which operates daily services from Liverpool and Cairnryan (Scotland). A weekend return trip for two adults and a car costs from around £130, with discounts for cycling clubs.

Accommodation

Our ride started from the cottage we stayed in, managed by Rostrevor Holidays (rostrevorholidays.com). Set in a riverside forest, the cottages can accommodate from two to six people and are a 70-minute drive from Belfast. A two-bedroom cottage for the weekend costs £269.

For meals we can recommended the Rostrevor Inn, which has an extensive menu and selection of ales named after local landmarks and legends, including Maggie’s Leap and Mourne Mountains.

Thanks

Many thanks to our co-rider and guide, Myles McCorry, who was knowledgeable, entertaining and patient on the climbs. His cycling clothing range is worth checking out at galibier.cc. Thanks also to Didi Baxter, owner of Rostrevor Holidays, who was a mine of local knowledge.

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