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Cycling Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way, Pete Coombs finds a challenging bike tour rewarded with authentic Irish culture and spectacular coastal scenery...

what goes up must come down

My pint of Guinness is acting as an unwanted sundial. The long shadow that it casts across the table is trying to tell me something about the lateness of the hour, a message that I don't want to heed.

I'm sitting on a road-side terrace, bathed in the late afternoon summer sun, high above the wonderfully sheltered Glandore Harbour - on which sailing yachts of various sizes lie becalmed on a millpond sea. Across the bay, a perfectly striped lawn of vibrant Irish green rolls down to the water's edge, its parallel lines broken only by the near black stone manor house which sits at its very centre.

I take another swig of my stout. Placing it back on the table, I'm sure the shadow has crept around my imaginary sundial by the slightest of fractions. I can't put it off any longer; ignoring the sun's progress would be foolish, as I've still another 20km of seriously undulating road to pedal. Leaving my empty glass to cast a now froth mottled shadow, I sling my right leg in a wide arc over my stuffed panniers, click into my pedals and freewheel my way down towards the sea - all the while knowing that here in Ireland what goes down always comes up!


Restarting at the beginning...

Wind back the clock 24 hours and I'm systematically rebuilding my bike in Cork airport, beneath a serendipitously hung banner promoting the Wild Atlantic Way. Itching to hit the road after the short flight from London, it's only halfway through the reconstruction that I glance over at my travelling companion, Mark Borland, and become instantly envious, as he happily works away on his bike with grease-free hands.

Disposable rubber gloves! Why didn't I think of that!

There's no official bag storage at Cork Airport, but with some journalistic leverage, we manage to convince the airport manager to store the hard cases we had rented to ship our bikes in. Directing us to a storeroom he warns us, with a huge smile on his face, "Watch out for American tourists!" On seeing our confused faces, he explains further with a laugh, "There are loads of them, and they're lethal driving on our narrow roads!"

An hour after landing we are in the saddle - which is good going, considering it took me almost two hours to squeeze the bike into the box the day before. We head out into a wonderful September afternoon, with cotton wool clouds gently moving across a pale blue sky. Within five minutes of leaving the terminal we are on a series of almost traffic-free country lanes that run parallel to, and criss-cross, the main road heading south to the coast.

I'd pre-booked our accommodation and planned our entire route in the comfort of my office, back home, diligently plotting our entire route into my Mio Cyclo 500 GPS using the MioShare web interface. Yet it doesn't take too long to realise that what looked like a very good road on the computer in England, is actually a very narrow single track road in Ireland - covered in cow pats with a large strip of green grass running down its middle.

But wanting to avoid the main roads as much as possible, and in no rush, we carry on following my pre-planned route towards the Harbour town of Kinsale.

This part of Ireland's South West is mainly gentle rolling farmland, and the perfect location to get the legs spinning after a morning of inactive travel. We are heading almost due south, with the sun still high in the sky, enjoying the empty road and in high spirits; both buzzing with the excitement and expectation that only the start of a long anticipated journey can produce.

The ride down to Kinsale is a mere 30km, and although you could in no way describe the area as being densely populated, we do find ourselves cycling past a house every hundred metres or so.

With only one shockingly steep hill encountered, and almost too soon, we find ourselves free-wheeling the last section downhill into the busy town of Kinsale, and the start of the Wild Atlantic Way proper.

A couple of pints of the black stuff, washed down with a bag of peanuts, later and we discover that our B&B is back up the top of the steep hill we've just come down. But that's what happens when you prioritise refreshments over a shower!

The Wild Atlantic Way is predominately a driving route which starts in Kinsale, and follows the entire rugged west coast of Ireland for a staggering 2,500km, before finishing on County Donegal's Inishowen Peninsula in Ireland's far north. We planned to ride the seemingly insignificant section from Cork Airport to Kenmare - an easily attainable total of 390km over six days. At least that's what we thought.


The full Irish

With a surprisingly clear head after our enthusiastic first night's entertainment, and fuelled by a ridiculously large fry up, we set off on another beautiful day for the 70km pedal to Skibbereen.

Leaving the narrow streets of multi-coloured pastel painted craft shops and bars of Kinsale behind, we're soon gliding through a landscape of vibrant green fields and hedgerows bedecked with the bright red and orange flowers of Monbretia.

Every so often we hug the coast, past small stony bays and seaside cottages, stopping by some standing stones, for a quick energy boosting banana and a stretch of our backs.

The going is easy, yet never flat, and the kilometres are soon ticking by - so much so that when we pass a little terrace of two adjacent pubs, with a wonderful view down to the natural harbour of Glandore, we decide it would be rude not to join the locals.

After a quick refresh we hit the main road, which still sees only light traffic, and speed into Skibbereen. An inland town, Skibbereen has a hustle to it that I've already put out of mind, and I need to concentrate hard on the town's one-way ring road.

Mark stops a car and asks for directions. The driver advises Mark before driving up to me, lowering his window and shouting through a laugh, "I wouldn't follow that guy," nodding towards my Mark "He's lost!"

Locking our bikes behind Annie May's pub, the landlord opens a window and invites us to climb in, rather than walk back to the front of the pub. I clamber through the window with my panniers, almost inadvertently joining a group of old guys playing cards. The rooms are basic, as is the food, but the traditional music and ambiance that accompanies both is truly fantastic.


All at sea

The plan for day three is to start by riding 14km to the small fishing port of Baltimore, from where boats run out to Cape Clear and the Sherkin Islands. After a little local insight we discover that it's virtually all downhill. Great news, except Baltimore sits at the end of a long and skinny peninsula - and we will have to back track the same road to get back on our route to Schull.

Not being deterred, and looking forward to a long descent, we find a little flyer in the bar at Annie May's, offering boat trips from Baltimore to Cunnamore Point. It would be a short hop by boat, yet this would save us that uphill return ride. So following the back roads, which funnily enough aren't all that downhill after all, we ride through a morning chill - via the stunningly beautiful Lough Hyne - to Baltimore.

On arrival there are many tourist boats, yet none appear to go to Cunnamore, so, flyer in hand, I pop into the tourist office (which is really a craft shop) only to be told they've never heard of that boat, nor of anyone who goes to Cunnamore.

So we grab a coffee in a cafe, where some local fisherman are warming up after an early start. "Excuse me, you wouldn't know of a boat to Cunnamore, would you?" I inquire.

"Cunnamore? No, there's no boat from here."

I show them the flyer. "Oh! That's Danny Murphy's boat. He turns up when he fancies it, but give him a call." A salt and pepper bearded fisherman, head-to-toe in yellow sou'wester's, joins in with, "If anyone will take you to Cunnamore, it's Danny."

So after a short phone call, and a little negotiating on the price, we're supping a second coffee as a little red and white boat chugs into view. Soon after we have jumped aboard with our bikes and we're pop-popping our way over the water, only €20 lighter, with gulls crying overhead and salty air filling our nostrils. It is great to actually be on the water, not just near it, and the trip adds a real sense of journey to our tour.


Keeping the faith

Up to this point we have managed to negotiate our whole route with my GPS, and according to it now, we we're still on course. But as we slog up an ever-evaporating road, I'm starting to lose a little faith.

We'd left Schull on yet another fine morning, and had hugged the coastline all the way to Mizen Head, Ireland's most southwesterly point. It's a dramatic place of crashing seas and sheer cliffs, with the Mizen Head Fog Signal Station perched above. Construction started in 1906, to combat the high loss of life and shipping on the rocks, and it was manned right up until 1993.

After refuelling at Mizen Head with hot soup and soda bread, we ride on, trying to avoid the tourist traffic with a detour off the Wild Atlantic Way at Durrus. It is at this point that my faith in the GPS starts to wain a little.

We are headed towards a high ridgeline that would be at home in the Lake District; the treeless rough ground only broken by dry stone walls and grazing sheep. The road becomes so narrow that the central strip of grass down the middle is twice as wide as the potholes that flank it. But we push on to the summit, with its glorious views across the water to Bere Island and the Ring of Beara.

The rough climb is immediately followed by an almost as rough descent where my tough cyclocross bike, with its bump-absorbing wider tyres comes into its own. Leaving Mark in my wake on his skinny road rubber, I speed down towards the sea.

Inevitably my phone rings: "Puncture?"

"Yes..." comes the reply.

I ride back up to show moral support, and find Mark chatting away to a farmer whose jumper is so matted with straw and grass it looks like he's ripped it straight off a sheep's back. It's wonderful sitting in the afternoon sunshine, chatting away to a third generation farmer who appears in no rush be anywhere else, while his young sheep dog paces back and forth, and Mark busies himself changing his inner tube.

"You'll be grand from here on in," says the farmer. "The road to Bantry is smooth as you like."


The Ring Of Beara

The Ring of Beara is just south of its famous counterpart The Ring of Kerry, but sees a mere fraction of the road traffic. One of the reasons for this is a belligerent famer near Eyeries, bless him, who will not move his barn which causes such an acute turn in the road, it's impossible for coaches to pass.

But it's not just the lack of traffic that makes it a truly fantastic ride - it's the landscape. Gone are the rolling fields and sheltered bays of our first few days, replaced with rugged cliffs and spikey mountains. The roads here snake over, around and between stony teeth, reminding me of the wilds of Harris in the Outer Hebrides.

Pausing on one of the high passes we look down towards the pastel village of Allihies, with its dramatic back drop of a seemingly impassable rock ridge, and agree that this view alone is worth every leg-bending climb we've endured so far.

There's no reply when I ring the bell for our guest house; it's as if Allihies is deserted. At least that's what I think until a huge ball almost takes my head off and then I'm near trampled by a gang of feral kids all carrying hurling sticks.

"They're all in the pub mister. There's a wake."

"Pub it is then." states Mark, and I don't disagree.

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