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Giant’s Causeway Sportive: Riding Northern Ireland’s finest roads

Sam Challis
29 Jan 2020

The Giant’s Causeway Sportive is the quintessence of bike riding on Northern Ireland’s coast

Cycling form is a fickle thing and on the eve of the Giant’s Causeway Sportive it has deserted me. Despite best intentions, there is simply no way I am prepared enough to tackle the event’s longest course option - its 185 kilometres and 2500m vertical metres would destine for better-conditioned souls than I.

A hasty reassessment makes the 136km alternative look like an attractive option, but while it is no doubt a fine route it overlooks two of the area’s most interesting features - a cursory pass of the sportive’s namesake, the Giant’s Causeway, and a trip through The Dark Hedges, a tunnel of beech trees that is a true natural marvel and tourist attraction of international renown.

So I find that, given my fitness- and sightseeing-related filters, the 100km route option ticks all the boxes. It includes every major feature of the longest option in near half the distance. I’m not being soft, I reason, I am simply being efficient. What’s more, the feature-packed, abridged route is a fitting metaphor for Northern Ireland in general - the short time I’ve spent here already has convinced me that despite its diminutive size, there is so much to see and do.

The right choice

Emboldened by my unquestionable logic I eagerly await the start of the ride in Ballycastle, a town named in 2016 as the best place to live in Northern Ireland.

It is right on the north coast of County Antrim, so we take the coastal road northwest out of the town and it quickly leaves any sign of urbanisation behind, rolling and twisting through sheep-filled fields. My legs have barely begun to turn and already my decision to ride this particular route gets vindicated.

This shorter route shows off the pleasant land in all her pastoral glory almost immediately. Following the coastline as we are, lush greenery stretches to the horizon on our left but to the right our vision is dominated by the grey emptiness of the Atlantic.

On a clear day you can see over the North Channel towards the Hebrides but today the conditions are overcast so the Scottish coast is lost to a cool haze that makes it difficult to separate sea from sky.

All that interrupts the indistinct grey is Rathlin Island, a vast chunk of volcanic rock 8km off the coast. Its imposing dark cliffs, bereft of vegetation, make it look like some epic fortress but it is more gentrified than its outward appearances suggest - beyond its seawalls I’m told the land is hospitable enough to support a spectacular array of flora and fauna and a population of around 100 that live in rural tranquillity.

My attention drifts back to this side of the water and I begin to notice how dramatic the coastline here is. This part of County Antrim sits upon hard basalt bedrock, which means there is no gentle taper of the land down to the sea - fields run right up to the edge of sheer cliffs, beyond which there is nothing but a vertiginous drop to frothing iron-coloured waters.

What the coastline lacks in smooth, extended beaches it makes up for with ever-changing dioramas that appear around every jut and jag of the rocks - plunging gorges that fall down to secluded coves and crumbling bluffs, beyond which sit sea stacks and rocky outcrops.

The road tracks the tumultuous coastline pretty faithfully and the group of riders I’m in performs accordion-like stretches and compressions over the swells and dips in the tarmac.

As cyclists are wont to do I’ve been sizing up my riding companions. When I’m in any new group, I’ve determined you can tell a lot about a rider’s ability by assessing 'the three Cs': chain, cassette, calves.

Bikes and kit can be any age or standard, but if an individual has a quiet chain, clean cassette and toned calves, chances are they are going to be handy. By the time we’ve reached the town of Ballintoy some 10km in, I’ve assessed most of the group and take note when one rider starts to pull away.

In the time before he can open a gap I quickly appraise him. Chain? The sticky click of fresh lubrication. Cassette? Gleaming. Calves? Both soleus and gastrocnemius present and correct, and in defined abundance.

His is the wheel to be on. I latch on to it and, working well together, we inadvertently pull away from the group on the undulating Causeway Road.

The well-kept rider introduces himself as David and after some time together it becomes evident that he is one of those enviable athletes blessed with both technical skill and physical fitness. He explains that he is a professional superbike racer and uses road riding as a particularly pertinent way to keep fit.

He’s also local, hailing from nearby Londonderry, so is able to act as part riding companion, part guide as we approach a pair of the route’s more notable features.

First is the Giant’s Causeway itself. We aren’t able to catch sight of it from the road but if David is to be believed the folklore surrounding the site is even more fantastic than the Causeway’s appearance.

‘The Causeway’s columns were built by an Irish giant, Fionn mac Cumhaill, as a way for a Scottish giant, Benandonner, to reach him, as he had challenged Fionn to a fight,’ says David. ‘Thanks to a bit of cunning, Fionn tricked Benandonner into thinking he was much bigger and stronger, so the Scot ran back over in fright, destroying the causeway behind him. That is why there are identical basalt columns in Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish isle of Staffa - the start and end of the Causeway.’

I later learn that some unimaginative geologists determined the Causeway was formed by molten rock cooling, contracting and fracturing, much like drying mud, some 50 million years ago and that those identical columns in Scotland were part of the same lava flow, but I much prefer David’s story of events.

To whiskey, and beyond

If I had any lingering disappointment that the Causeway was hidden away it is swiftly alleviated by the sweeping descent into Bushmills, which reveals an expansive view of the lower-lying coastline towards Portballintrae and Portrush. The green fields are sewn right up to the blue sea separated only by a thin thread of golden beach, which creates a scene so picturesque it could be a computer screensaver.

Bushmills is best known for its distillery and the world-class whiskey it produces. It can lay claim to being the world’s oldest distillery, having been making the liquid since 1608.

Having heard the stories about Guinness tasting better when poured at its Dublin headquarters, I’m sorely tempted to stop in for a quick nip as we pass to see if the same holds true here. I’m mindful of a back-loaded route profile in terms of elevation, though, so we roll on past as I’m not sure what effect whiskey would have on my climbing legs.

The road soon has me questioning whether I wandered a little too close to the distillery’s whiskey fumes as it rounds a bend and stretches out seemingly without end. David confirms that my vision hasn’t turned blurry and this road runs straight as an arrow for eight kilometres.

There’s little to do but hunker down and tackle it in chunks, taking 500m pulls on the front. Even with help we can’t quite believe how interminably long we seemed to spend grinding away without ever seeming to progress along the road’s length, but finally we take a welcome bend and find we are right in amongst Northern Ireland’s impossibly green farmland.

We chance upon the Dark Hedges with little circumstance - with no warning we are suddenly under a canopy of beech trees, their intertwining limbs and leafy tops casting the road into moody shadow. The avenue was planted by the well-to-do Stuart family in the eighteenth century, presumably to impress visitors approaching their Georgian mansion which sits off the top end of the road.

The Dark Hedges is no longer part of the Stuart’s Gracehill estate but is definitely no less impressive being separate. The location scouts for Game of Thrones certainly thought the same - the Dark Hedges was cast as part of ‘The King’s Road’ in series two of the show.

The natural wonder occupies my mind for a few kilometres of pleasant rural riding until a fast, carving corner near Armoy shakes me out of my reverie - I’ve been waiting for the turn as I know signals a distinct change in the character of the route.

The second half of the ride follows a far more tumultuous profile as it traverses the Antrim Plateau, an area of high ground in the east of County Antrim, and follows the plunging coastline northwest back to Ballycastle.

The basalt that makes up the Antrim Plateau is the remains of an ancient mountain chain which was at one point higher and larger than the Himalayas are today. Thankfully tectonic movements in the few hundred million years since have tempered the land so all we have to deal with is around 10km of ascent that climbs no more than 300 vertical metres.

It is easy to tap out an efficient rhythm and we reach the top in good shape. There is some consistent cloud cover now so up here it feels bleak and exposed, with little more than the odd copse of tall evergreens breaking up the scrubby brown of gorse and bracken.

The going does speed up though with some open, twisting dips and punchy rises along the top of the plateau until we reach its edge, where the road tips down more definitively as we enter one of the nine glens of Antrim. These are valleys in the basalt plateau that extend like fingers up from the coast. The gorges balance the plateau’s bleakness with lush greenery, waterfalls and rich history - each has a name and particular traditions.

There are festivals every year to celebrate the unique natural features of each Glen that encompass singing and dancing through the night. Fuelled by Bushmills’ finest reserve, apparently, the festivities can get pretty competitive - no Glen’s inhabitants want to be outdone by another.

We drop down through Glenaan - ‘Glen of the Little Fords’ - on a road so perfectly balanced that I don’t have to push on the pedals nor pull on the brakes for 10km. All there is to do is lean left and right to follow gently winding bends; this is superbike racer David’s natural habitat so he eases ahead by coaxing extra momentum from millimetre-accurate line choices.

A Torr-ibly hard finish

We finally drop anchor in Cushendun, a pretty harbourside village of white cottages that wouldn’t look out of place in Cornwall. More important to me than Cushendun’s charming architecture now though is a feed stop full to bursting with a variety of calorie-dense sweet treats.

I’m about to descend greedily upon them when a thread of grey tarmac catches my eye across the bay. The road rises so directly up a towering cliff I wonder if the road’s designers knew that ‘as the crow flies’ is only an expression, not engineering law.

Coming from London, since I’ve been here I’ve regularly picked up on the locals’ cheery disposition and lighthearted chatter, so I’m disconcerted when I notice even they are speaking about the road in reverential tones.

It is Torr Head, the route’s denouement, and I found out why they afford it such respect approximately 100 metres after I clip in again. The climb scales no more than 500 metres in total but the way it goes about acquiring the vertical metres up the grassy bluffs is nothing short of sadistic.

The road is technical enough for a bypass to have been built so drivers can do without the hassle of using it - no wider than a single lane, with three consecutive twisting 20% ramps of a couple of metres dealing repetitive blows early on. Within seconds I’m tapping frantically at my shifter to try and locate gears I don’t have, and the road is so steep I don’t only feel it in my legs.

Maintaining enough forward momentum to merely remain upright is a full-body effort. We quickly rise above Cushenden and I’ve no doubt the views back across its quaint cottages and harbour are postcard-perfect if I could but lift my view from my weaving front wheel. Only a strong desire not to mark a particularly handsome pair of pristine white shoes prevents me from falling off at the top of the last ramp.

Torr Road clings to the lee side of the cliffs so our view is divided - steep grassy verges rise to our left while to the right is only the sea far below that makes up the Mull of Kintyre. The sun manages to peek out of the clouds and the contrasting halves of the viewer become greener and bluer respectively.

There is no chance to relax once the initial altitude gain is achieved though - the nature of the road leaves it at the mercy of the plunging coastline meaning the descents that follow each rise are so steep and technical that it becomes as much a mental effort as a physical one.

What the route planners take away with one hand, they promptly give back with the other though.

As we finally dispatch the last bit of Torr Road the finish in Ballycastle becomes visible some distance away down the valley. Nearly all of the eight thousand metres are downhill, so the finish line draws us like a magnet. As I’ve come to find out, descents are David’s forté so a white-knuckle chase of his back wheel means the last kilometres of the route go by the fastest.

Making good time on the shorter route, we’re afforded ample time at the finish to savour the ride and start our recovery with a beer. There are only bottles available, rather than pints, but they are enjoyed just as much. Sometimes bigger doesn’t have to mean better.

How we did it

Travel

It is a little over an hour’s flight from Bristol to Belfast International with easyJet and can cost around £60 return if you book early, although bringing a bike with you will add £45 each way. Belfast is serviced by flights from Stansted and Luton too for a similar price if you are coming from the London area. From Belfast it is best to rent a car for the easy one hour drive up to Ballycastle.

Accommodation

There are plenty of options in and around Ballycastle although it does pay to get sorted early for the best choice, as accommodation does get booked up around the weekend of the event. Cyclist stayed at Clarewood House B&B, which is a 10-minute walk from the centre of town and on the event route, so is an easy roll from the start/finish.

The B&B is clean and comfortable and its owner, Bernie, and her husband are fonts of local knowledge regarding the best pubs and local attractions to visit. They also whip up breakfasts fit for kings and cater brilliantly for dietary requirements.

Thanks

Thanks to Ethan Loughrey for all his logistical help in securing Cyclist's event entry and accommodation at Clarewood House B&B. Ethan works for Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland, which is a not-for-profit organisation responsible for developing, managing and promoting outdoor recreation in Northern Ireland. For more information visit outdoorrecreationni.com.

The details

What: Giant’s Causeway Sportive
Where: Ballycastle, Northern Ireland
How far: 56km, 100km, 136km, 187km
Next one: 20th June 2020
Price: £40
More information: giantscausewaysportive.com

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