Some people lay claim to convict heritage on even the most remote branch of their family tree. I like to think Irish blood runs through my veins but I am kidding myself too.
My love affair with all things Irish (Riverdance, van Morrison, U2, Guiness) culminated in my first ever cycling adventure. I started off, over-packed, under-trained and over-optimistic about both the weather (warm and mild as promoted by the Irish prayer) and the hills (gentle and rolling). Before my departure from Australia, I would explain in suitably Irish fashion that I intended to ride only the downhill sections of Ireland. If only that were possible.
I think I was the first person in the history of Ireland to cycle around the island in an anti-clockwise direction. Traveling solo, I was desperate to meet other keen cyclists but the handful I did see were all riding in the opposite direction, i.e. clockwise. A quick wave, perhaps a hello, and they slipped from view.
I hugged the coastline, pedalling my way from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway, to Bushmills and on to Londonderry (or Derry if you still despise the English). Yes, Bushmills is the namesake of the whisky although I distinctly remember spending most of the time at the Distillery in the ladies’ toilets – stripped to within inches of decency – and standing under (as best I could) the hot air hand dryer. That day’s ride featured rain so hard and consistent that my shoes filled and overflowed and I was rinsed clean more thoroughly than the best German-designed washing machine. So much for my dreams of soft Irish weather.
I must have seemed a little odd to the locals – a single woman, riding solo, anti-clockwise. Striking up a conversation, the Irish would marvel that I was riding so far (only 50-60kms a day) and then comment “I don’t even travel that far on my holidays”. They are in for a rude shock if they ever come to Australia.
One thing about cycling, a bit like walking, is that you have plenty of time to think. I roll along, or struggle along depending on the terrain, and my mind wanders to all that I see. It also gives me the perfect opportunity to develop theories of how the world works. Very quickly, I developed a theory relating to Irish signs. My theory is that there is a factory somewhere in Ireland that manufactures distance markers but to save hassle, the same distance is printed on every sign. This theory is supported by a tough ride into Londonderry. I was sweating it out and reviewing the wisdom of this sort of ‘holiday’, when I saw a sign Londonderry – 45km “You beauty,” I thought “I’m almost there”. I rode for another two hours and passed another sign Londonderry – 45km. What sort of sick joke was that? When I did get to Londonderry finally, and rode out the other side, for interest’s sake I turned around to check the distance sign and, you guessed it, Londonderry – 45km! It was times like that when I knew I was truly in Ireland.
In Donegal, one morning dawned bright and clear but I could see there was a serious wind blowing as I peeked through the B&B curtains. As my ride/route would be changing direction a number of times that day, I was confident that I would soon be enjoying a supportive tailwind, for at least part of the day anyway. My path was to take me to Dunfanaghy, Falcarragh, Meenaclady, Bloody Foreland, Derrybeg, Bunbeg and Gwedore. Don’t you just love those names?
Needless to say, I had little love in my heart after a mongrel headwind dogged me at every turn. At one stage I had to change down a gear to cycle down a hill. You tell me there wasn’t someone upstairs looking down and having a great, old laugh at my expense. It was a headwind straight from Hell and I developed yet another theory but this one related to conspiracy.
The day wore on and it got to about 2pm and I had had it. It had started to rain again and the time was right to throw an almighty tantrum. Picture: grown woman, kicking bike and shaking her fist at the heavens. “Right,” I said “the next damn B&B I see, I’m stopping. I am officially over it!”
Sure enough, I rode around a corner and there was a rickety sign for a B&B. I rode up to the house, knocked on the door, knocked again and then just opened the door and walked in. Finally an old, bustling Irish lady appeared, took one look at my cold and bedraggled state and pushes me into her warm lounge room. Imagine my surprise when I saw that every
inch of her lounge room walls were covered with gold and platinum records. It appears that I had just invited myself into the family home of Enya and the famous Irish band – Clannad. My B&B hostess was the sister of two Clannad band members and an aunt to three others. I had been priming myself on Irish music before leaving Australia so this was a dream come true. Six degrees of separation and
I was almost a band member. Who would have thought I would have a brief brush with fame in the ‘back blocks’ of Ireland?
The next day I rode into the misty rain, thankfully without the headwind, but with Orinoco Flow ringing in my ears. That damned headwind had been lucky after all.