Guardian journalist James Hislop joined us on our six-day Mizmal tour in spring 2017. Here are his impressions of the trip.
(this article appeared previously on The Guardian's Bike Blog)
Send anyone to the west coast of Ireland and they will fall in love with it at some point. For me it was at a junction in Maum, County Galway, where I had stopped to take a photo of a signpost but ended up having my breath taken away by the Maumturk Mountains in all their pastoral, sunlit glory.
It was day four of my six-day ride along the length of Ireland – and Connemara was showing off, as if saying to the rest of the country: “Is that all you’ve got?” And yet already the route had taken me across the Cork and Kerry mountains on day one, along a glorious beach-studded coast on day two, and the Cliffs of Moher and the barren wilderness of the Burren on day three.
Mizen Head to Malin Head – or #MizMal as the team at Wild Atlantic Cycling call it – is Ireland’s equivalent of Britain’s Land’s End to John O’Groats. The trip I took was six days at an average 85 miles a day – 510 miles in all. Wild Atlantic take your bags from hotel to hotel and meet you halfway for a picnic lunch and for a cup of tea in the middle of the morning.
This is not the sort of ride for flinty do-it-yourselfers who blanch at the idea of not carrying their own panniers, finding a campsite and boiling up a tin of beans on the primus stove for tea.
But however you travel it, Ireland is hilly, Ireland is windy, and Ireland can be wet (although I was lucky), and when the sun comes out it can be as sapping as anywhere.
The group I was with included four people who had cycled Land’s End to John O’Groats, an ultramarathon runner-turned-cyclist, and a very fit triathlete. We sometimes rode in groups, sometimes on our own, usually coming together for lunch to compare notes, sights along the way, and various aches. You don’t have to be super fit to complete this ride, but you do need to train a bit. But it’s worth it.
Day one (98 miles, 6,000ft of climbing) takes you from Schull, via Mizen Head to Killarney – over the Caha Pass, Moll’s Gap and the Gap of Dunloe. It’s a tough start but you will remember these three climbs (successively shorter, but successively steeper), the views from the top, and the descents.
Day two (79 miles, 3,000ft) is a succession of beautiful beaches, ending at the mile-long strand of Spanish Point, County Clare – an isolated, wild place and a well-deserved end to the day.
Day three (69 miles, 2,300ft) is one of remarkable beauty. Not only the Cliffs of Moher (a tough climb) but the magnificent desolation of the Burren – a huge, lunar, limestone landscape that starts high and comes down to the sea. On a sunny day, riding through it is like pedalling through a book of fantastical illustration.
And so to glorious day four (78 miles, 2,500ft). From Galway City you’re soon into Connemara. Having seen Aghadoe in County Kerry, I stopped to take a photo of the sign for Conga (where they filmed John Wayne’s The Quiet Man) for a laugh. But all thoughts of Black Lace’s cheesy pop hits disappeared as I turned and saw the Maumturks – all the more lovely because they were so unexpected. Who knew a mountain range could sneak up on you?
As well as Ireland’s only true fjord – Killary Harbour – day four also includes the ride’s best climb. The Sheeffry Pass is a proper out-of-the-saddle, 500ft-plus brute that hurts if you do it in one go. The car park near the top isn’t the top, by the way.
After that you feel you have earned your Guinness and dinner in Westport, watching the sun going down over Croagh Patrick, the 2,500ft pilgrimage mountain that dominates the skyline.
Everyone’s got to have a bad day and day five – Westport to Donegal – was mine. It is the longest of the ride. Approximately 110 miles and 2,600ft of climbing, most of which seems to be packed into the horrible climb away from the pretty Lough Gill. About 100 of the miles were into a headwind and despite more beautiful mountain scenery, and the unexpected sight of a statue of the blues legend Rory Gallagher in Ballyshannon, I was clinging on by the end.
All too soon, it’s day six. The final 76 miles and 3,100 feet. The breakout to the sea at Fahan begins to feel like you’ve done the distance, but the ride up the Inishowen peninsula (especially in another headwind across more bleak, beautiful bogland) is not to be sniffed at. But then the signs for Malin Head begin to appear and you’re winding it in. I only knew Malin Head from the shipping forecast. Now I think of it as a rocky headland with wartime lookout stations, Star Wars references (they filmed episode eight near here) and a view that feels as if you are at the end of the world.