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Photo by Jason DeVarennes

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ireland - Hill of Tara

At last, Saturday arrived and my week of cycling solo was finally over. No more riding with just my imagination for company. John was now officially on vacation and ready to join me on rides and head off on a tour. His work computer had been powered down and packed away. Maps and bicycles would now capture his attention instead.

With an extended three day weekend, thanks to the October bank holiday on Monday, David was also able to join us for a few spins.  Our initial thoughts had been to take advantage of David's car and the fact that he'd be working on the west coast the following week by getting a lift out in that direction and riding in an area we hadn't visited in many years. But John had not yet managed to catch up with many friends in Dublin and the weather on the west coast was looking very unsettled for the the next few days, so we decided to stay closer Dublin for the time being.

Colm was eager meet up to do a spin up to the Hill of Tara. Last year, our visit to this ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland, was a multi-modal one. My sister-in-law, Suzanne drove, acting as chauffeur for John's mom and me; while John and his friends, Declan and Colm, rode up on bikes. We all met for a lovely lunch and a stroll around the grounds. While I enjoyed my trip last year, this time I was very happy to be able to ride my bike, and not just to properly earn the chocolate cake!

We had arranged to meet Colm at his house. While David was on his spiffy new Seven Cycles Evergreen, almost as if to combat the fanciness, Colm was planning to ride a fixie he had recently built up starting with a frame he'd acquired for 10 euro, plus another 8 and 1/2 euro for the can of black spray paint. Of course to make it a complete bike, he had to supply some components, all of which were conveniently found in his own garden shed. After close examination of each others newly acquired  machines - a ritual performed by bike geeks when one shows up for a ride on something new or different - we began our ride. We headed out first along a few bike paths next to the motorway before reaching the quiet lanes we'd take north.


Colm apparently had "Wheaties for Breakfast", and pushed the pace a bit beyond my comfort level. It can be a real challenge to adjust pace when riding fixed gear on rolling terrain, but John and David managed to distract him a bit with conversation, so I could just about keep up.

We stopped in Knockmark to check out the old church spire. Riding with an archaeologist and an architect often leads to interesting stops where we may learn about the history or design or restoration of a church or castle.




The view looking up into the spire


After taking too many photos, we continued along the flat to rolling terrain approaching the Hill of Tara. Wind, rather than hills, provided the challenge for the day. We arrived at our lunch spot with hearty appetites. The cold wind served as a deterrent to linger outside for long since we were no longer generating our own heat by cycling. We quickly locked up bikes and headed into the café. Soups and coffees were ordered strategically leaving just enough room for the desserts we'd spied while waiting for our table. It is no mistake that they have the dessert display right where they have you wait.




We were about a month early for the lovely golden light and long shadows that I had so easily captured in my photos last year. Wind really was the big feature on this day, but wind really doesn't show so well in pictures!


Stone of Destiny, where the High Kings were crowned
Like I said, it was windy!

But at least there was a little shelter.



Speaking of capturing and photos, we joked about capturing Colm's soul in my digital camera. Colm is an awesome photographer, and one of the few remaining people in the world still using actual film! He did manage to hide his disdain for our use of digital cameras and phones, as we made our way around the old ring fort snapping pictures.





We took a slight detour on the way back via Dunsany castle, where a few months ago, vandals had broken the medieval pilgrim cross near the castle gate. Colm wanted to see if progress had been made on a repair. A steel beam was now attached at the back to right the cross, but how sad is it that someone would wantonly destroy an artifact like this.




A view of the repair.




Given the leisurely lunch, relaxed pace and limited daylight, our detour was just to see the work to restore the cross. A visit to the actual castle and grounds was not on the agenda for this day.

So many castles and churches and ruins... so little time!








Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ireland - Blessington

On the first full day of my first trip to Ireland, back in 1993, John took me out to a lovely tea room called the Skillet Pot in Blessington. Ah yes, I remember it well.

That trip to Ireland was essentially our third date. The first date had been an all day tandem ride followed by a quiet dinner for two away from the PAC Tour crowds near the end of that tour. Our second date, a few weeks later, was a weekend in New York City, where John had a long layover, as he made his way back home to Ireland.

As randonneurs, it appears our dates span the time frame of a brevet!

Despite late November not being an ideal time to go bike touring in Ireland, we were eager to spend some more time together, and I had some time off work, courtesy of the kick-off-the-shopping-frenzy holiday that is ironically called Thanksgiving. So throwing caution to the wind, I packed some warm clothes, rain gear and the tandem and flew to Ireland.

I remember pedaling away from John's mom's house and within a kilometer, we were out in the countryside on some quiet little lanes. It was glorious, lush and green and just as I had imagined Ireland to be. However, as we descended a steep hill down to the Strawberry Beds, we hit a patch of black ice and quickly found ourselves on the ground. Fortunately it was a slow speed crash and the only harm done was to John's ego. He was mortified about the possibility of a widely publicized article where I would write about our crash [Mortified I was, but not for that reason - FR]. I waited 21 years to tell that particular story. I needed to grow my audience first!

Given the time of year, it wasn't completely unexpected that we might see some icy roads in the mountains, but it came as a bit of a surprise so close to home. We hopped back on the tandem and pressed on, paying a bit closer attention to road conditions.

A short while later, as we were climbing into the Wicklow foothills, we noticed little spots of white along the road and, disbelieving it could possibly be snow, John commented that some farmer must have spilled paint on the road. After a while, it became quite obvious that it was not paint. And then despite the fact that we were climbing and dressed in warm clothing, we both began to get colder!

But then as if to make me feel like a total wimp, some truly badass cyclist came riding down the hill that we were climbing, wearing only shorts and a jersey. The bright red glow from all his exposed skin really made him stand out against the stark landscape. I've actually encountered this type of cyclist many times before and since. They either dress by the calendar, or they simply refuse to acknowledge cold and wear shorts no matter what. Although, sometimes these immune-to-cold riders can be spotted wearing shoe covers. The explanation is that it's only the feet that get cold!

Anyway, with the red glow now in our rear view mirror, we climbed and descended a few more times before making our way into Blessington for a most blessed hot soup and coffee.

We've been back to Blessington many times since. The Skillet Pot changed hands a few times, and then closed altogether. Fortunately Grangecon Café has opened around the corner, and has pies that match my memory of the tasty treats of that first visit. But it's not just the great hot food and drinks and desserts that draw us to this village. Blessington serves as the gateway to mountains of West Wicklow, home of some of John's favorite quiet, narrow, twisty climbs, views and descents, all just a stone's throw from Dublin.

The forecast for the remainder of my solo week was unsettled, a far more typical state of affairs than many of our previous late autumn trips, where we've been so lucky to have loads of sunshine and mild conditions. Luckily for me it the forecast was more showery than constant downpours, and even included suggestions of spotty sunshine. Calling it changeable would be an understatement.

Since the wind direction had returned to the more typical southwesterly, heading south would allow me to work hard in the morning and live in hope of an easy spin home! And I also could daydream about that slight chance of a sunny vista!

Tuesday evening, John and David helped me to map out a few options for heading south, aiming for the West Wicklow hills with lunch in Blessington. I took in a few variants over the next couple of days, refining my route in and out of town, as well as taking in a few different climbs once in the mountains.

A big difference from my first trip 21 years ago, is that it now takes about 20 kilometers to get out to the nice countryside. Back then, it really was just a ride out through two or maybe three round-abouts before we hit the quiet roads. But thanks to the building boom of the Celtic Tiger, the sprawl now continues for many miles. And today motorways bisect the former tiny lanes, cutting neighborhoods in half and turning many old through roads into cul-de-sacs. Thanks to all the construction, sometimes called progress, our nicely laminated and preserved 20 year old Dublin area maps are basically useless.

Fortunately, I've got up-to-date OSM maps on the computer and GPS and John's brother, David rides these roads loads and knows the best options for cycling in and out of town. He was able to tell us where the bridges are and aren't and offered me the least unpleasant way to out to nice countryside... well, short of stealing my sister-in-law's car and driving. Also thanks to the presence of towpaths, there were a few places where I could completely escape traffic. Although one of these paths was so muddy and soggy in places that I ground to a halt as my fenders got packed with mud. I'd had my travel bike modified last spring to take 32mm tires with fenders, but there's only so much clearance that can be added when using rim brakes. Maybe it is time for me to consider getting a new travel bike with disc brakes just for Ireland!

Mud clogged fender

Avoiding traffic on the canal towpath

One of the many locks on the towpath


Anyway, after trying out a couple of different options to get out to the nice stuff on three successive days, I settled on a reasonable route out and back. I quickly learned to avoid Newcastle and Rathcoole when schools let out for the day. Backups and traffic from the school pickup are now as bad as in the USA. School buses seemed non-existent. Mom drives to school and waits in a long line of other mom's to drive the kid to the next activity.

Fortunately for me, both traffic and scenery improved dramatically after getting through Rathcoole. It's a shame it took me half the ride to get to and from there!

For the route out of Rathcoole, John sent me up a couple of particularly nasty climbs, but since the point of my ride down to the mountains was to climb, I couldn't actually complain about the climbs. I did get some sweeping views, and the sun even popped out briefly a few times over the course of several rides. It seems many of the photos I took show sunshine and blue skies, suggesting I had glorious weather all the time, but that's because I tend not to stop to take pictures in the rain!



Capturing a bit of sunshine!

I was climbing up the tiny lane over Sorrel Hill when I spotted this enormous truck headed down toward me. I pulled over to let it pass, but was too slow pulling out my camera and just got this shot after he passed by.  I thought at first it must be someone blindly following a GPS to be driving that enormous vehicle on this tiny path, but then spotted the logging equipment.

Yes, this is the road where I encountered traffic!
John has often described the best roads as being one lane wide with grass growing up the middle. They also seem to come with double digit gradients. But I have to agree with him that these roads were fabulous.

The view out toward the Blessington Lakes on what the weather forecaster called a sunny day!


These two were kind enough to pose for me!


Hot soup to take the chill out of my bones!

I practically became a regular at the Grangecon Cafe, as I kept heading back down to West Wicklow, quickly realizing why it's one of John's favorite places on earth. I should have picked up a coffee loyalty card on my first visit, as I would have earned a free coffee by the end of the trip!

The route back took me past the Captain Tickell Fountain, which gave me a chuckle and Kilteel Castle, where if you know about it, you can stop and ask at the house next door for a key to go in and explore.


(picture from Google Street view. it was clearer than my photo!)
The Captain Tickell Fountain

Kilteel Castle

Sunshine and clear skies - So I must almost be home!


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ireland - Tailwind!

Don't be so naive! There is no such thing as a tailwind! 

Experienced cyclists know that there are three states of being with regard to wind: headwinds, crosswinds, and I'm having a good day! We all know that after all the effort one expends pushing into a brutal headwind, the return journey is never the reward it should be. You might not have to work as hard, but it's never a case of just being able to sit up and coast home. The tease of a forthcoming tailwind is a cruel one. So rather than constantly being disappointed, experienced cyclists soon come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a tailwind. As further evidence, no cyclist has ever credited a tailwind for their ranking on a strava segment. Headwinds may slow you down, but if you ride faster, it's down to your skill and training and fitness!

I try to pass this tidbit about the non-existence of tailwinds onto new cyclists, mainly to get them to stop blabbering on about something that will never happen, saying ridiculous things like, "When we tun this corner, we'll pick up a tailwind." Just like uttering the guaranteed-to-make-it-rain sentiment of "At least it's not raining", the mere mention of an expected tailwind has the power to overcome the forces of the jetstream, the polar vortex and physics, with Mother Nature turning her fury on the offender and all those riding with him, as she shifts the direction of the wind and turns up the intensity. You doubt me? Try it! Just not when I'm riding with you!

Since I began keeping track about 25 years ago, I've logged over 1/4 of a million miles on a bike. In all those years and miles, I've never had a tailwind.

Until Tuesday...

What? Really?

John's friend, Declan, lives in Drogheda, County Louth, near the site of the Battle of the Boyne, north of Dublin. Knowing John was neglecting me this week while he worked, Declan kindly offered to drive down, pick me up and bring me north to do some riding in his neighborhood. Since Declan seems to know every little lane in the country, this was not an offer to refuse. I'd have an excellent tour guide and a chance to do a ride without spending half of it just getting in and out of the ugliness that is now Dublin sprawl. Twenty years ago, John's mom's house was on the edge of town. Now it at least 15 miles to get to the country side. Given that, the chance to start a ride beyond the Pale - literally - was a treat!

The forecast for that day called for occasional showers on a wild and breezy day, with the wind, unusually, coming from the northwest. I think we were still battling the remnants of a hurricane that had followed us across the Atlantic.

As any experienced cyclist would do, we headed out into the wind, not, mind you, expecting any mythical tailwind on the way home, but at least hoping we'd feel good on the return.  For a while we were able to take advantage of the tall hedges, sheltering from the ferocious wind as much as we could. That is until we popped out at the coast, where Declan swore to me that a road allegedly existed as recently as a year ago.





I looked down at the OSM maps on my GPS, and saw no road or path! I commented that OSM must really stay on top of things. Still we could see a road off in the distance and it looked like we could bushwhack for a while to reach it. Declan and John are from the same school, whose motto is "Non revertebatur" - "No turning back." We took to hiking.

Our path was a northwest one, directly into the wind. But after about a kilometer, we popped back out onto a road. Of course it hugged the coast with no shelter from the elements. I tucked in behind Declan, who won't dispute my claim that he provides a great draft. Even in kilometers per hour, we couldn't break into double digits. What was he thinking, heading out to the coast and into the wind?!?

We finally reached Castlebellingham, our destination for lunch. We found the quintessential Irish tea room, complete with a thatched roof, an old broken roadster parked out front and a peat fueled fire. Hot soup and sandwiches filled a void and the fire warmed our windburned cheeks.





Warmed and refueled, we headed out to find the castle of Castlebellingham. The best we could manage was a gatehouse. Then we pressed on to found an old ruin in a farmer's paddock. The countryside in Ireland is seemingly littered with these castle ruins, to the degree that after a few weeks I stopped taking photos of every single one I saw.





We continued in a northwest direction and, of course, continued to battle the wind and sporadic heavy showers.


Then.. finally... we turned. And just because I could, I sat up and coasted uphill! It was amazing. For this one moment in time, the phenomena that I had told everyone was just a myth, was real. I think I also saw rainbows and leprechauns and unicorns. I managed to resist pulling the brake levers to keep from going too fast. Yes Virginia, there was a tailwind!


Then the journey back to Drogheda was over before it began. I was flushed with the excitement of having seen Santa Claus placing gifts under the tree. Thanks to Declan both for the tailwind and the delicious pastries we had not earned.


Despite all the strong headwinds we had riding around Ireland over the next few weeks, it didn't happen again.  We'd battle for half the day then turn and continue to battle. I suspect a cyclist is allowed just one tailwind in a lifetime. I suppose that now that I've had mine, I can definitely stop looking for another one, and go back to my old claim that there is no such thing!

But you can live in hope that your tailwind is out there somewhere. And it's probably in Ireland!




Monday, December 8, 2014

Ireland - Trim Castle and Bective Abbey

As I pedaled through the village on Kilcloon on Monday morning, it seemed like the whole community had come out to celebrate my triumphant return to cycling in Ireland. My imagination ran wild:

I had established a massive lead over the peloton after a long solo attack. As I crossed the finish line, I blew kisses to the adoring fans who were dressed in my team colors and lining the road at the finish line.

Back to reality, I refrained from raising my arms in victory as I passed through a large crowd of celebrants, who were not actually dressed in pixie pink, but instead wearing the colors of their local sports team.  A few minutes before, as I entered this little crossroads of a village, I had noticed loads of cars overflowing the church parking lot and all along the roadside. This gathering wasn't for me. And no one actually cheered as I stood and sprinted along the parade route.

My brother-in-law later suggested is was most likely a funeral for a local sporting figure, a chance for the whole community to celebrate the life of their hometown hero.

Every time I head out on my bike these days, I am also celebrating life - as I am constantly reminded not to fail to appreciate that I actually can.

My last visit to Ireland was just a few months after I was hit from behind by an inattentive driver, resulting in a broken back. It was just a bit over a year ago. The crash delayed our plans to visit John's family by a few months. However once I had proved I could tolerate travel, we re-booked the trip, heading over just after Thanksgiving. I was still in the back brace and still fairly restricted with what I could do, so there would be no cycling for me. But I could walk. And walk I did. I headed off for long walks whenever John went out on the bike. The photos John took each day served to ignite a somewhat dormant longing to ride a bike myself. It was sometimes heartbreaking for me not to be able to go out with John and his friends climbing mountains and exploring old church ruins, especially given all the glorious weather we had last year. Despite the heartbreak, this longing was welcome, since there were times early on in my recovery that I wondered if that desire would come back. But of course it did!

Not long ago, a friend asked me how I was able to suppress the fear and get back on the bike. My answer was that I simply had no choice. I am a cyclist. It's what I do.

So now it's been a bit over a year, and I am back on my bike - not as fast as I'd like, not for as long as I'd like, but I do ride most days. And on this particular day, I was thrilled to be cycling again along the tiny Irish lanes, even if the crowd didn't actually cheer for me as I went by. 

We had flown into Dublin early Saturday morning. As usual I hadn't managed to sleep much on the overnight flight from Boston. John's brother, David, greeted us at the airport. After a nice breakfast with wonderful fruit filled whole milk yogurt and proper muesli, we got busy reassembling bikes. Then we headed out for a "blow the cobwebs out" ride, with blow being a key term here, as the wind was quite persistent. Fortunately the lanes here are mostly lined with tall hedges, creating a wee bit of shelter. It did take me a while to get used to riding on the left again, but after a day or so, I was able to turn off the constant reminders I had looping through my brain - ride on the left, ride on the left. Our route that day was not one that anyone would call inspirational (so don't rush out to strava to download it), but we did make our way to Conolly's Folly on the return leg.



On Sunday, we met up with two friends in St Margaret's north of the city, and again tried to outwit the wind, by taking in more of the tiny hedge-lined lanes and tacking into the wind as much as we could.

Since John works from home these days, we were actually able to turn this trip into a longer visit, with John really working from home for the first week. The initial plan had been for me to try to hook up with Constance Winters in Northern Ireland, but her schedule prevented that, so I was mostly on my own for the first week - riding along with only my imagination for company!

So for my first solo outing on Monday, John and David had suggested a spin up to Trim Castle, a Medieval Norman castle on the River Boyne in County Meath, that was used as the village of York in the film, Braveheart. Despite being a film supposedly about Scottish Independence, a large part was shot at various locations in Ireland, even using Irish Defense Force Reservists as extras for  the battles! Ignoring the touristy placards related to the movie, Trim is a worthy destination, both for the view of the massive three story keep and 20 sided tower in the shape of a cruciform, as well as the lovely coffee shop where I lunched with an awesome view of the castle!




The route out of Trim took me past Bective Abbey, where I wandered around and did my best to fill the memory card on my camera. One of the cool things about touring around Ireland, is stumbling upon these heritage sites, where you can literally just walk in and wander around a Medieval ruin.








Incidentally, loyal followers may have noted that this post is well overdue and in fact updates to the blog have been non-existent recently, but my hope is to try and get caught up over the next month. John has hundreds of photos to sort through from both this trip to Ireland and our trip to Oregon before that. Things got hectic as we tried to squeeze in both trips before my recent surgery to have metal taken out of my body. While the hardware initially allowed my crushed vertebra to heal, it has since become troublesome for the surrounding muscles. After trying all other means to ease the pain, it was determined that a titanium-ectomy was the best option. So now, as I recover from this surgery, I've got some down time, and really hope to get the blog back with more regular postings.