Hills, Flies & Miles

We thought it was about time we did some proper distance on our bikes. We had been out on a few occasions but the maximum distance we completed was less than 40km. So, since we will have to cover at least 100km everyday on our bikes whilst on our trip, we thought we better start getting our bodies used to these kinds of kilometers.

I had it all planned out. I knew of a nice spot, in the mountains, where we had been in a car a couple of years ago. So as soon as we got a nice day we would head off into the hills for a good days cycle. I had an Ordnance Survey map of Wicklow, but I didn’t have one of Dublin, so, instead, I had eleven pages of Google Maps printed out, to show us the way out of Dublin and into the mountains of Wicklow.

It all started very promisingly. This, however, was probably because we knew the roads in this particular area. Once you get to a section of a city where you have never been before, everything starts to look very much the same. And what route looks very obvious on a map, doesn’t seem so obvious when you are cycling along, trying to negotiate cars, traffic lights, one way streets and roundabouts. At a safe place, we pulled over and I got out the map to check if we were still heading in the right direction. We were, all good. After a couple more kilometers we came to a T-Junction, which shouldn’t have been there. Mmm. As it turned out, it was only about 150m after the last stop for map checking that it all went wrong. We made the mistake of following the bend of the main road, instead of turning off onto a smaller side street. We ended up lost. Now it’s all well and good having a Google Map of your route, but when you fall off the edge of your Google Map and are now on the plain white paper next to, it’s pretty hard to find your way back!

I led Monika on a merry dance, up the hills, through car parks and down dead ends for 13km before stumbling back onto my map. That is 13km worth of energy that could have been better used for the hills ahead, but at least we were back on the map and could continue along our planned route.

Now you know how you plan a day of cycling, by looking at a flat piece of paper in the comfort of your living room – you trace your finger along the route to make sure there are no motorways or busy roads? If you are really conscientious you might have a quick look at the highest point to see how far you will have to climb. Well that’s what I did. The highest point was about 520m and so I thought that would be a fun challenge. The two things that I ended up learning from this route planning experience were: 1) Always check how close together the contours are together on any climbs and 2) check to see if there are any major down hills between the highpoints of the route.

The first section of the hills wasn’t too bad at all. The road was quiet and was lined with nice big, leafy trees and it was a sunny day. I was quite enjoying it. Now, I wasn’t rocketing up the hill by any means, but I was in no hurry, so I put the bike into the lowest gear and just pedalled onwards and upwards. Monika on the other hand, started to struggle a little bit. She didn’t like the hills, and couldn’t understand why someone had built a hilly road. Why didn’t they build the road around the hills? she asked no-one in particular. I asked if she wanted a break and the reply was: ‘Lets try and do 7km more to make it to 30km. We made it one more kilometre.

Over the next couple of hours we made it to our first ‘top’ of the morning. The view was great, the sun was out, but unfortunately the flies wouldn’t let us enjoy it. They weren’t biting flies or anything, they were just plain annoying. They would land on you, walk around, take off again and have a poke around in your ear, before it and its extended family would fly round and round your face. It was, however, nice to stop and look around and know that you had accomplished something while most of the rest of the city’s population were still in bed nursing a hangover.

Is there anything worse for a cyclist than the up-down-up scenario? I mean, you spend over two hours slogging up a hill, then you get to blast down the other side at 50kph for five minutes, knowing all the time that you have another hill in front of you that will take you another two hours to climb? Well this is what happened. We went charging on down the other side of the hill that had just taken us all morning to get up! It was great fun to feel the wind whizzing by and seeing the flies falling far behind, but that only lasted five minutes. Once again we were at the bottom of a very steep hill. This hill is notorious. It’s called the Sally Gap. It’s the road that gets mentioned regularly on winter traffic reports informing listeners ‘the Sally Gap has been closed due to treacherous conditions’. It’s the second highest paved road in Ireland.

At the bottom of the hill that would take us up the Sally Gap, there was a three-way junction. One road would take us back the way we came, one went towards the Sally Gap and the third road sign said ‘Enniskerry’ (the shortest way back home). We stopped here to consider our options. I asked Monika if she wanted to continue or wanted to turn left and head back to Dublin. She hmmm’d and haaaa’d for a while, looked up at the steep hill in front and looked at the road towards home – downhill – before eventually deciding that we should carry on with the planned route. I was pleasantly surprised by this. I had expected her to say she had had enough and wanted to go home. At this point, even a 30km cycle back home seemed like a lot!

In the back of my mind though, I didn’t think we would make it to the top and was waiting for the moment when we would be turning around and coming back down that very same hill.

For what seemed like forever, we pedalled on, eating up the tarmac one wheel revolution at a time. We were being passed by 100’s of cyclists. Every single cyclist that past us that morning, was wearing painfully tight looking lycra, sporting the sponsors of his or her local bike club. Every bike, bar none, looked like you could pick it up and snap it over your knee. Our bikes must have looked like they doubled up as bulldozers, compared to theirs. Not even one of them had a rucksack or a camera. They just had drink bottles filled with vividly brightly coloured juice and a couple of energy bars poking of their pockets on the back of their shirts.

Normally when we go out into the hills, we always come across inappropriately equipped people. Whether they are hiking up a mountain in their jeans or someone else in heels trying to push a pram across a marsh, there is always someone. On this day, we were those people – in their eyes. We had panniers, we had handlebar bags, we had cameras (yes, plural), we had books and lunch, complete with a flask of hot coffee!

After a lot of effort and perseverance, we made it to the Sally Gap and from there it was a short downhill to our lunchtime destination of Lough Tay. This was the place we had visited in the car a couple of years ago. It’s a lovely little lake completely surrounded by mountains on all sides. When the sun is out, the lake is a gorgeous bright blue, but not today. The clouds had come over and turned it murky grey, but we didn’t care. I have never looked forward to a ham and cheese sandwich so much in all of my life. In the middle of lunch I looked down to get my second sandwich and it was gone. I had already munched it down in my eagerness to feed.

During lunch, I had managed to convince myself that we were closer to home than not and that it was all down hill from here. As it turned out, we were not and it was not. We were at the exact halfway point in our journey. 45km to go.

There was nothing to do, but keep going. There were no buses going to come past and pick up cyclists that had bitten off more than they could chew, we had no tent to pitch and wait until tomorrow – plus all the ham and cheese sandwiches were gone! We had to get home!

The way back was certainly easier than the way there. Lots of downhills and some uphills, but nothing as severe as the ones we had just come up. The funniest moment of the day came when we arrived at another junction. I pulled out my map to make sure we were going in the right direction. We wanted to go to a mountain village called Enniskerry. It was unfortunate that I had just pulled out the map, when a friendly guy in a van pulled up and said ‘Are you lost?’, to which I replied ‘No, I’m just making sure that we are going the right way’. But he was a friendly guy and I didn’t want to make him feel like he had wasted his time by asking us if we needed help (after all, we could really have been in peril!), so I added on ‘Is this the way to Enniskerry?’ while pointing a thumb over my head behind me. He very politely said ‘Yep, all the way’. I put my map away, got back on my bike and it was then that I looked behind me for the first time. And there, not anymore than a metre behind me, was a giant road sign and arrow saying ‘Enniskerry 14km’. When you are driving along the roads, road signs don’t look especially large, but standing next to them, they are big enough to blot out the sun! Oh boy did I feel silly. It was like standing in a bakery asking if they knew of anywhere I can buy bread. But hey, I will probably never see him again and he can go home and tell his kids about the moron he met today.

From there, it was more or less flat with a few nice descents. Maybe the only thing that was keeping us going, was the thought of a nice big Milano’s pizza and some ice cream when we got back! So, finally after leaving the house at 7am, we arrived back at 5pm.

I looked up this route on the internet when I came back and according to the Irish Veterans Cycling Association, the Sally Gap climb is classed as Grade 1 climb – the toughest hills are marked as Grade 1 – and the fact that we did it with virtually zero training and tank-like bikes, shows that we may actually make it to the end of our trip!

Upon reflection, I think we both agree that it was a successful day in the saddle. Although, we weren’t fully loaded or didn’t cover a particularly huge distance in terms of what will be required for our trip, we had fun (didn’t we Monika?) and more importantly, we are ready to go again. We are planning an overnight trip this weekend to a beach in Wicklow, where we will get to try out our tent for the first time as well as trying a drag around a heavier load. I wonder how that will go…

Statistics from our various cycling trips (big and small) can be viewed here.


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