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The Wicklow Mountains

by Pamela Blalock with commentary from John Bayley in blue


For our first ride on Sunday, we decided to do an unencumbered spin in the Wicklow Mountains before taking the train to the west coast that evening, thereby making maximum use of daylight hours for riding. This would also allow us to check out some of John's favorite local roads and coffee shops first.

I should have known just by looking at his awesome quads, groan - have to scratch this ! that the roads would go straight up. Most really strong guys pooh-pooh low gears, so when you see one with a 36 inch low gear that means he likes to climb walls - trust me!

A little freezing rain fell overnight, and while the road surface was damp, nothing was falling from the sky when we rolled out after breakfast Sunday morning. Unfortunately, we hit a patch of dreaded black ice at the bottom of a steep hill where we were stopping to make a right turn, and fell over sideways. John apologized far more than he needed to,

Apologise too much ??? I was mortified ! Here we were, about two miles from my house and I had managed to dump rec.bicycles.rides.pamela on the road. I was terrified of getting a mention like this on the net ! :-) In my own (meagre) defence, it wasn't really that cold and the other roads we had been on before that were fine.

but it did leave me a little skiddish about the roads afterwards. Later as we were climbing one steep country lane, he tried to pass a few patches of snow off as paint in the road, but either the sloppy painter had a big can of paint, or it was really snow that we saw on the road and the grass for the next 30 miles.

Now how do I explain this one away ? I was trying to be reassuring, but the only effect was that Pamela refused to believe anything I said for the rest of the week !

Before coming over, John kept warning me about Irish road surfaces, despite having seen the road surfaces in and around Boston. Throughout the whole trip, we only hit one pothole (at night, while being high beamed) and I didn't feel any potlumps (a pothole, overfilled with asphalt and patted down with a shovel), and the surfaces seemed remarkably smooth. He claimed it was because we were cycling in touristy areas where they take care of the roads, but I was still impressed.

Like I said, she won't believe me. For the rest of the world out there, please take my word for it. Irish roads, certainly the ones worth cycling on, have absolutely terrible surfaces, or more to the point, lack of them ! That is, with the exception of some of the touristic peninsula that we cycled around. They attract coachloads of tourists during the summer months (or what passes for summer in this part of the world) and are thus quite wide and well surfaced. We even came across a few sections being resurfaced ! The good news is that the real cycling roads also carry very little traffic, so you can dodge the holes in peace. Or I could claim that we only hit one pothole due to my incredible bike handling skills, but you've already read how I managed to crash within our first two miles !

We did get on quite a few country lanes, roads about 10 or 12 feet wide, with dirt and grass up the middle. These were also usually quite steep and twisty, and his favorite one's had signs saying "Unsafe for Horse Caravans." This could be appropriately translated into "Wicked Steep" or "May cause stoker to whine!"

Now these are real roads ! The local expression for roads/lanes with grass up the middle is boreen. Not many are marked on the ubiquitous Michelin map, but those that are are shown as white roads. Likewise, on the Irish Ordnance Survey maps, the best roads are those shown in yellow (usually surfaced) or white (be prepared for anything !).

The patches of paint on these, along with the earlier spill caused this stoker to nix the idea of taking the steepest one of these around up to a dead end and then coming back down. Darn it, when I work hard on a climb, I want a reward of a fast descent. I hate going slow down hills!

We had some spectacular scenery along the way, not quite what I had expected though. I didn't realize how rare trees would be. The mountains we were riding through were covered in peat bogs, so I was a little surprised not to see lots of green. This is not to say that it wasn't beautiful, just a little different.

As we rode further, we got on narrower and narrower lanes, until we finally found ourselves on a dirt track running next to a stream.

This was through the water reservoir in the Glenasmole valley. It's one of my favourite getaways. Although it's right on Dublin's doorstep, it's like the land that time forgot. It's a very quiet, rural little valley, beautiful on a summer's evening ...

That's when I got to see my first Irish sheep. Now I have seen sheep before. I grew up in a very rural area, and my neighbors had them, and I've seen loads of sheep in countryside here in the US, but these sheep were different. The coats were quite long and shaggy, and they were painted blue and red. Well not completely painted, but they had big patches of their coats dyed or painted as sort of a brand. Many of the sheep were roaming free on open ranges, and this was a sort of identifying mark. But I began to wander if their were only three owners in the whole country, since every sheep had either red, blue or red and blue markings!

John warned me that these free roaming sheep are a real annoyance to cyclists, since they like to get in front of bikes and sprint for miles. Having a stoker who, thanks to a nasty encounter with a dog, is quite spooked by any unpredictable animal darting about in front of the bike didn't make things easy on the captain, but we survived, and managed not to hit any sheep during the trip.

Our dirt path dead ended into a stone wall and locked gate, so we got to lift the bike over the wall. I'm glad we were riding without all our gear! We both lifted the tandem onto the wall, and then each climbed over while the other held the bike, and then lifted it down off of the wall. This reminded me an awful lot of the brevets I used to do in North Carolina. The organizer therer didn't consider it a worthwhile ride if there wasn't at least one gate crossing!

So we continued onward and upward. I had started out in shorts, legwarmers, turtleneck, my brand new now crash tested GoreTex jacket, heavy lobster claw mittens, earmuffs and face mask. After one of the steep climbs, I had forgotten to mention the only way out of the valley was up ! I traded the lobster claws for lighter gloves, unzipped the jacket, and pulled down the mask, but I was starting to get chilly again. We'd been climbing a while, and John promised it was just a bit further, but I was getting more and more chilled. Then we started a little descent and I insisted we stop and add more clothes. I added my GoreTex pants, zipped up the jacket, and went back to the lobster claws. John even put on his GoreTex. So there I was finally warm again, when we saw a cyclist clad only in a pair of shorts and a tee shirt coming toward us.

I nearly crashed for the second time that day ! I couldn't believe it. Here we were on the top of the Sally Gap, totally exposed to a biting wind and with a bit of sleet (more paint ???) falling for good measure. Being one of those whimps who feels the cold, I was duly freezing, and wishing for an extra layer on my legs. Then what do I see, but this red glow approaching us ? It turned out to be a young guy wearing only shorts and T-shirt, his skin burning red in the freezing (there I go using that word again !) air. Rather his knees than mine.

I was starting to get a bit hungry and the tea room John was heading for was still some distance away, so I convinced him to stop at a store for a chocolate bar to tide me over. I don't remember being that difficult to persuade to stop ! I then discovered what the Irish do with the milk they have left over after using a third of the national dairy output to make Bailey's Irish Cream (a favorite of mine). They use it to make great milk chocolate. In the US, Hershey has licensed Cadbury and puts out a few chocolate bars and cream eggs at easter, but real Cadbury chocolate is made in Ireland and the chocolates I got there put our treats to shame. (I later filled my luggage with even more chocolate to bring home.) So after drooling over the selection, I finally picked some Cadbury swiss rolls to tide us over for a few more miles until we reached Patsy's Tea Room, a popular stop for John's cycling club.

A note for readers of rec.shares.speculate. Shares in Cadbury's went through the roof while Pamela was over. I'll let you know before here next trip.

There we had scones and tea and tried to thaw our toes out a bit before heading onto to Glendalough. I had joked with John about wanting to get some wool sweaters while I was in the land of wool. I had drawn up this comical mental picture of a fellow sitting at a road side stand with a sheep and knitting sweaters out of the wool directly from the sheep. So when we rode up next to the sweater stand, I asked John if he had brought me here on purpose. He had actually brought me to a round tower and church ruin, but I'm a born shopper, and of course noticed the sweaters first!!

We then began the climb up the Wicklow Gap and I just then really started to realize how much John loved climbing!

While I have been accused of this, it's impossible to get to Glendalough, our touristic, cultural and sweater stand destination for the day without doing a bit of climbing.

We started to see a bit more ice in the roads, and eventually hit a little bit of sleet as we were descending the far side. I was glad that I brought most of my cold weather gear, and began to wander if I should have included my ski goggles!

I have to admit to being really surprised by the ferocity of the weather, even though it was in the mountains. The forecast or conditions near my house had given no indication of anything quite like this.

A few miles later, as we were riding along the Blessington Lakes, we saw some members of John's cycling club heading in the other direction, so we turned back for a chat. Everyone had to check out the tandem and the softride beam, both of which are quite rare in Ireland. I noticed our speedometer showed 68 miles at this point. John had earlier told me that the ride would be about 75 miles. I started to catch on earlier that his sense of distance and concept of just a little bit further was not quite like my own, so I asked his friends if we were 7 miles from his home. They laughed heartily! We still had a ways to go.

After a good chat, we parted ways. John and I headed to one of his favorite coffee shops, the Skillet Pot, where we devoured rhubarb crumble and coffee - and warmed our toes by the fire.

Our route back to John's house was relatively flat, compared to the route so far, and we made quick progress. We got to the house, loaded the panniers on the bike, grabbed a bowl of soup and headed into Dublin to catch the train to Cork, with a total of 97 miles for the day. It would seem that John has a interesting sense of distance! Not that I'm complaining about the distance or anything, but I will have to keep this in mind for the rest of the trip.