Since I’m in the land of poets, and since, you know, everything, it only seems appropriate to wax with flowery prose about how wonderful it is to be able to trot this glorious globe again astride a bicycle – to do that very thing we all took for granted until it was denied with a matronly finger waggle and the strict instruction not to ride for more than an hour.
So hello you wonderful feeling of a passage unimpeded; of pursuits unencumbered; of being an alien in new lands; of wind-in-hair freedom. I have missed you sorely, Madam Cyclotouring, so this one is for you:
My legs feel like brittle baguettes/My heart makes irregular threats/My lungs burn like coal/Eyes weep for my soul/I should have brought bigger cassettes.
I’m on the outskirts of Dublin, some 200 clicks east of the limerick’s spiritual home, and at these verses Joyce surely wept. But as my legs graunch away like rusted donkeys, I have plenty of time to ponder GSCE-level poetry. It has been months since I’ve been faced with a serious ride, so I’m very slow and I’m very tired. Dublin wasn’t meant to be this steep.
Close to home
Hunters Wood is a nice but nondescript cluster of new-builds. Kids play in the street; you might hear a sprinkler on a hot day. It’s also where Aidan Duff lives, the owner of FiftyOne bikes and the reason I’m here.
‘Come to Dublin and we’ll go riding,’ he said. ‘I’ve found some new gravel during lockdown… you’ll love this one… I call it the “Butterfly of Death”.’
Indeed, the Strava file Aidan shares does look like a butterfly, albeit one drawn on a rollercoaster with a Sharpie. It depicts a host of un-investigable-via-Google-Street-View roads, which weave off into big green polygons demarcating the Dublin Mountains, with little clue as to what’s in store. Thus not more than a kilometre out the back of Aidan’s estate we’ve already hoisted tyres off tarmac and are now climbing over a farmer’s gate.
Beyond the gate is a hill with a narrow track that has scant concession to the kind of winding that helps paths lessen gradients, and certainly has little thought for smooth terrain.
The track is more rock-festooned gully than useable path, and two-thirds of the way up I’m off and pushing my bike, having neither the legs nor the technical ability to remain on it. But like all humbling experiences in cycling, it’s worth the red face.
At the top is an ivy-covered ruin, then, as we swing left, the kind of meadow you can sweep your hand through like Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
We eventually draw up next to yet more ruins, from whose lookout a Dublin below unfurls to reveal a sprawl of streets and buildings that stretch for miles towards a haze of Irish Sea.
Pausing to appreciate the view, Aidan tells me about the ruins behind us, which stand like a lonely fortified farmhouse. Apparently this is the infamous Hell Fire Club, a den of iniquity dating back to the 1700s, where squires from the city would meet to ‘gamble, drink and ride’ (the latter a word not solely reserved for cycling and horses), away from the prying eyes of conservative Catholic masters.
‘I also saw a bloke up here hiding behind a tree, but it wasn’t what you’re thinking,’ Aidan goes on. ‘He was hiding from the Gardaí – it was during lockdown and he said he’d come cycling up here the week before and they’d fined him for being more than 5km away from his house.’
In fairness to Aidan’s lockdown gallivanting, we are still less than 3km from his own home.
We descend a trail that’s so wide and deep it might have been used to drag a ferry out of Dublin Bay, skipping over sheets of rock and deep fissures as we go. Anything that’s not lashed down, including eyeballs, starts shaking like a snow globe. Rounding a bend, I narrowly avoid giving a hapless Labrador its first taste of a 1x drivetrain, then before I know it we emerge into a car park replete with coffee stand.
Unfortunately the proprietor has proved equally hapless and has literally spilled the beans all over his kiosk, so we settle for water, then exit the car park, cross a road and suddenly the blue skies slip away.
The high open plain is now dense woodland, the floor soft with mouldering fall. The path continues to hurtle downwards for a time, skipping past tumbled drystone walls and ancient archways held together by lichen and prayers.
But no sooner have I found my flow down these trails than the path tips up with all the ceremony of a teaspoon. It’s like riding into a wall of loamy mud on whose face runs a ladder-crisscross of exposed roots. Aidan peels away, riding in road shoes yet somehow hip-hopping up these punchy inclines like a rabbit on an Aga. I labour behind, intent on staying on my bike at all costs, speed be damned.
We arrive at a series of gates designed to slow down cyclists, who are allowed to ride in these woods but not quite so fast as some might like. Bike shouldered, I step over the styles and awkwardly extricate a caught limb from the wire fencing. I can just see slithers of blue again, and before long we’ve ridden back out onto the bald hillsides of the Dublin Mountains.
Our upward trajectory continues, only now on wider shale tracks that take us all the way to 478m, low by most standards but on terrain this loose and this endowed with double digits – I see 20% often – each and every metre is desperately hard won.
Breaching the summit we descend like skimming stones towards another forest, this one the type that has an activity centre involving high wires and children in borrowed helmets yelling good natured jibes as we pass below. But their shrieks are short-lived, echoing to nothingness as the forest thickens around us, their sounds replaced by the cracking of bracken under our tyres.
The tops of the trees, each barely a metre from its neighbour, are green, but so dense is this woodland that the branches below have died away to form cruel spiky fingers that jut precariously at eye level.
I toss up not being able to see due to dark sunglasses versus not being able to see ever again, and elect the former. Luckily Aidan is wearing a bright yellow jersey, so at least I have a tracer fired off ahead to provide some bearings in the gloom. But it’s not enough.
I fail to see several deep ruts that bring me to halt so suddenly that I end up grinding my groin into the back of my stem. Then comes a proper off, resulting in blood and a torn jersey from the trees’ stunted arms; another few hundred metres more and Aidan has sensed my discomfort and found an escape route from the wood.
It comes in the form of switchbacks to the road below, the riding of which turns out to be nearly as perilous as staying in the thick of the forest. Yet arriving onto the tarmac with a whoosh makes endangering progress worthwhile. Tyres roll with consistent ease for the first time in miles. It feels like stepping ashore after days at sea.
There are a few that claim the honour, and Johnnie Fox’s in Glencullen is one: Ireland’s highest pub. It sits at a cool 282m above sea level, and while the Ponderosa in Derry (295m) and the Top of Coom in Kerry (319m) will contest this, what’s a few metres between friends? Certainly not enough to prevent a coffee and cake stop for us as we roll into town.
Johnnie Fox’s also proves to be well-appointed for cyclists of the off-road persuasion, sitting almost at the entrance to the GAP – the Glencullen Adventure Park – through whose gates we now ride. Aidan ‘knows the fella who runs the place’ so we are granted free passage, but for anyone else coming here there is a fee of a few euros to ride through or in the park.
Indeed it’s how its owner, Matt, makes his living. He rather brilliantly (depending on who you are) inherited this land as a golf course but, deciding he didn’t really like golf, tore it up, replanted trees and built trails to create Ireland’s largest bike park. Local riders and environmentalists love him; the local golfers are still spitting feathers.
The GAP proves a sheer joy. The lower trails whisk us up through grass and scrub and onto a plateau whose views stretch even further than the Hell Fire’s, beyond Dublin Bay and out towards what would eventually be Liverpool. But no sooner am I used to pedalling on what seems like the first stretch of flat today than we dive back into undulating forest.
As before, trees stretch tall and light fades sharply, only this time the trails are much more pronounced – generous curves that have been granted banking to help maintain speed, while roots have been incorporated into hips and hillocks to keep two wheels flowing.
To liken cycling here to another activity, it’s like sliding down a log flume. I have little to do but lean with the turns and let gravity feed my progress. But just when it feels like the trails might never end, the trees thin like parting hair, the light changes from mottled to pale blue and we arrive at the GAP’s backside, whose cafe baristas are more in control of their ingredients.
I would pay good money to ride that all again, but sadly time is growing short and we’ve still a road ride and a reservoir to go.
We crisscross back through parts of the forest that we negotiated earlier, whose gates again stifle progress and whose trails prove just as testing in reverse, before being ejected onto tarmac. The change in feel is tangible; gone are the enchanted, leering trees; enter stage left a bucolic, dipping lane that could feature in a children’s book about a postman.
The sun has been doing sterling work all day, but with the terrain now being much more exposed, and our riding much faster given we’re on the road, the heat is gathering with intent. Sweat pools in the crooks of my elbows and trickles down my chinstrap.
We climb another sharp grade that has my legs stiffening like boards, then veer right across farmland to emerge onto a road so fast and rolling I almost miss the turn.
Luckily Aidan’s hollers pull me back, and before long our speed has petered out and we’re cycling along a shingle pathway, clear water tinted yellow-orange by the stones beneath running to our left. Ahead are bridges and weirs that service the vast waters to our right, which sit still and poised, ready to feed Dublin taps at a moment’s notice.
We pedal across one such reservoir’s dam wall and pause. The hustle and bustle of urban life is just a stone’s throw from our position, but casting eyes back across the blue-black stillness of water and to the scorched green hills beyond, I couldn’t feel further from a city. I couldn’t feel, finally, further from home.
Not about the bike
Dublin offers way more than just great riding
The brilliant thing about a ride like this is its proximity to one of Europe’s most celebrated cities: Dublin. So while a short pedal sees you hit the mountains, an even shorter walk takes you around some of Ireland’s most famous sites.
First up, of course, are Dublin’s pubs, in particular Temple Bar on the south banks of the River Liffey, the Dublin district renowned for its teeming nightlife and restaurants. During the day, strolls around Trinity College and St Stephen’s Green are a must, the former a grand university housing among other things the Book of Kells in its ornate library; the latter a tranquil city park that’s the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of Dublin’s famous Grafton Street shopping area.
Other must-sees include Kilmainham Gaol Museum, which tells of Ireland’s brutal history – here the British government ordered the execution of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising – and of course the Guinness brewery.
Yet while brewery and distillery tours abound, for a fine slice of history meets bonhomie the Irish Whiskey Museum (irishwhiskeymuseum.ie) is a genuine delight… and that’s even before the tastings commence.
The rider’s ride
FiftyOne Assassin, £3,299 frameset; £3,999 as pictured, fiftyonebikes.com
From the bespoke-built, custom-painted framebuilder comes the Assassin, FiftyOne’s latest gravel bike. Unlike previous tube-to-tube offerings, however, the Assassin is a monocoque frame, allowing FiftyOne to play around with tube profiles to hit modern marks in geometry and clearance. Thus the dropped driveside chainstay affords a compact rear end plus room for 48mm tyres, while ‘flip-chips’ offer variable geometry.
You may have seen flip-chips in forks before – alloy inserts in dropouts that can be repositioned to change fork trail – but there are few bikes that use flip-chips at the rear too.
Thus a front fork ‘flip’ sees a change from a well-mannered, cargo-carrying 87mm trail to a faster handling 76mm, while a rear flip changes chainstay length across three positions, from 420 to 425 to 430mm (the longer, the more stable). It’s a neat idea, expertly executed, and the result is a seriously adept gravel machine.
How we did it
The ferry from Holyhead to Dublin takes around three hours and costs around £270 for a car and one adult. Alternatively, plenty of airlines fly to Dublin from as little as £30 (expect to pay substantially more for luggage and bike carriage), and take just over an hour to get there.
We stayed at the four-star Morrison Hotel on the banks of the River Liffey in downtown Dublin. Rooms start from €160pppn and the hotel has a very passable restaurant and is in walking distance of the major tourist sites. See morrisonhotel.ie
A big thank you to Aidan Duff, owner of bespoke framebuilder FiftyOne Bikes (fiftyonebikes.com), who not only loaned us a bike for this trip but expertly put the route together, chaperoned us around it and, most importantly, got the pints in after we finished.
Tags: Best Bike Rides