Author Barry Mitchell, photos Richard Hanna and craic by Willy Gill, 1st. publiced by www.ardscc.co.uk
Inspired by the adventures of Alison McErlane and Ant Day (Ards CC) in recent years (from Brazil to Bealach na Ba and Beara), Richard (Hanna), Willy (needs no introduction), and I (Barry) set out early on Friday 19 June to attempt the Ulster 600 – a 600km route that passes through the nine counties of Ulster
Due to the ongoing impact of Covid, Audax Ireland’s events did not recommence until June and unfortunately, the Ulster 600 could not be accommodated in the revised calendar. However, unperturbed, we uploaded a copy of the route and set it on our merry way.
Having been beasted up the Brae by Ben Healey (Ards CC), I had definitely burnt a few matches by the time I met Willy and Richard in Dundonald on a warm and bright morning, with only light winds (weather that we would be blessed with for the next 36 hours). The start of the route took us up the back of Divis and down the seven-mile straight into Antrim. Unfortunately, we had our first technical just a few miles in as Richard punctured on the far side of Divis. However, while Richard wrestled with the tightest tyre known to man, it gave Willy the opportunity to ask a passing cyclist if he knew the directions to Donegal.
Back on the road, we got into a nice rhythm of up and overs as we ticked off Randalstown, Toome, Magherafelt, and Draperstown before our first significant climb past Craigagh Hill to Banagher Forest. Tough at the best of times, it was doubly so with the extra kit that we were carrying. However, inspired by Willy reminiscing on a victory he had up the hill in Feeny a few years before, we got over the Sperrins before descending into Donemana for sandwiches, hot chocolates, and water by the roadside. On a personal note, I was thankful for the facilities in the health center that left the emergency toilet paper still intact.
We enjoyed lovely weather for the rest of the afternoon, with some momentum built as we sailed through Strabane and across the border to the EU. As we got nostalgic thinking about days of free trade and chilled sausages, our progress was slowed by a second puncture for Richard (and the tight tyre again!!) and the long climb out of Raphoe. However, the reward as we crested was the sight of a long descent into Letterkenny in the distance. This gave us an opportunity to stock up again with sweets, sandwiches, and water. Again, the facilities at the Applegreen were great and the emergency toilet roll again survived unscathed.
After negotiating rush hour traffic and a confusing one-way system in Letterkenny, we started to head towards Glenveagh. The late Friday afternoon and evening was a highlight of the trip for us all, with the route taking us down country lanes well off the beaten track. The next climb was up to Crockmulroney in Glenveagh. This was spectacular and the descent to Lough Barra and Doocharry was fantastic and smooth. This even included a bit of off-roading as we came across a section of road in the wilderness of remote Donegal that was being resurfaced (if only our local main roads got the same treatment).
Now on the Wild Atlantic Way, we pushed on past the holiday homes at Portnoo towards Ardara for some food. While I was reluctant to stop for too long, it was a good call by Richard and some hot food in our bellies was essential for what lay ahead (Willy had one of the largest fish I have ever seen and Richard and I tucked into two portions of loaded skins……each). As we fuelled up, we caught the attention of a few local lads who wanted to know what we were up to. Having explained they started to talk about Glengesh and whether we were doing it – in complete ignorance, we just nodded and thanked them for their hospitality………however about 5 miles later we knew all about Glengesh!!!!! With 170+ miles in the legs, a belly full of potatoes, and an extra kit, the bikes felt very heavy and the ramps/hairpins seemed to be a few percent steeper. Once over Glengesh, we continued a bit of a drag-out towards the coast for a number of miles before cresting just as the sun was dipping over the Atlantic.
Portnoo turns off. (Is Willy looking for divine inspiration?)
Run into Ardara and Glengesh
The next few hours were a struggle. The climb out of Glencolumbkille, the midges in Carrick and the never-ending road to Killybegs, dampened our spirits and pace just as darkness fell. The B&Bs dotted along the route started to become more noticeable and a bit of willpower was required to stay on the road. However, thankfully after a quick tour of the harbour in Killybegs, the gradient flattened a bit as we approached the halfway point in Donegal Town and the promise of Pizza!!
We arrived in Donegal Town around midnight, just as the streets began to fill with revelers from the local pubs – not a great place to be when you are hungry, tired, and covered in Lycra!!! As Willy and I waited the guts of an hour for our food, Richard protected the bikes from a few scuffles outside which threatened to get out of hand. Once the food was ready, we set up camp in Donegal Town Square, put on a few extra layers, and set about the food. With the cold and tiredness setting in, it was not as enjoyable as it should have been and it took a bit of effort to eat.
With some uncontrollable shaking, I was pleased to get back on the bike and start to push the pace on a bit to get warmed up. Cycling through the night was a fantastic experience for us all. We started to pick off a number of villages and towns as we raced along the lanes of Donegal and into Cavan. Sad to report that the emergency toilet roll was called into action during the dead of the night…..but no more will be said on that matter.
We had first light in Belcoo and, despite Richard craving a pint of milk, we were thankful for the tap at a garage in Blacklion to fill our water bottles. As per the profile, the stretch between Blacklion and Ballyconnell was to be our last significant climb of the trip. Interestingly, sleep deprivation hit us all around the same time up the long climb and down the descent, with the onset of heavy eyes, nodding off, and the jump sensation. Thankfully we got down into Ballyconnell unscathed and decided to go in search of early morning coffees. Off route, we found a garage that was open early and loaded up on coffees, teas, and breakfast. Pleased to say that we were not affected by sleepiness again after this.
Full of energy and buzzing on caffeine, we had a spill in Cavan town. Willy picked up a bit of road rash and spilled some blood – thankfully it was not more serious and his bike was unscathed. Richard, being prepared for all eventualities, had anti skeptic wipes to clean out the wounds. Anyone who knows Willy will not be surprised to learn that he did not let road rash and blood stop him, and a few minutes later was back on his bike. We got into Baileborough around lunchtime and found a pharmacy where Willy got some dressings and bandages.
The rest of the trip took us through Monaghan, South Armagh, and home via Newry. Unfortunately, the quiet roads and beautiful scenery of Donegal were not repeated and there was not a lot more to note. On what had become a beautiful summer’s day we stopped for ice creams in Crossmaglen and sandwiches in Newry. This gave us the energy for the final push across some beautiful roads (and hills!!) to Rathfriland, Castlewellan, and home, with Willy, keen to get back to celebrate Desie’s 75th (ex-ards cc chairman)
One final mention to Willy who carried his kit, including a thermos, in a backpack – definitely not making it easy on himself. For those thinking of doing something similar, saddle and frame bags are a must. If you are properly hard-core like Ant, then a lightweight sleeping bag and bivy are also essential. Final tips are to bring plenty of snacks and take every opportunity to top up water bottles (and use the facilities) wherever possible. Richard also had a constant supply of salt tablets that he fed to us throughout the trip (I trust in line with the RDA) and there were no issues with cramps.
Whatever adventures your bike takes you on, stay safe and enjoy, yours in sport, Barry Mitchell Ards CC