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Bike Touring in Ireland

by John Bayley with Pamela Blalock

John grew up in Ireland and has done extensive bike touring there. Pamela made her first trip to Ireland in late autumn of 1993, and has collected many Irish stamps in her passport since.

 

Cycling in Ireland

The really nice thing about Ireland is that the scale of the country lends itself very well to cycling. You can be absolutely in the middle of nowhere, but still be within easy hitting distance of a town.

Not only that, there is a warren of small back roads, not to mention tracks, just begging for exploration. There is endless history and culture to immerse yourself in. The climate is temperate, which really just means that it probably won't be much warmer in summer than it is in winter.

When to go
Airline Recommendations and Left Luggage
Insurance
Renting bikes
Where to stay
Camping
Maps
Things to bring
Where to go
Drivers
Trains
Money

 

When to go

The best weather is often in September, after kids go back to school - or so it always seemed to John when he was in school! Pamela's experience goes along with that, but she also experienced rather cool conditions in July and very pleasant warm conditions in January. Airfares to Ireland tend to high in the summer, but usually go down in September and continue to fall throughout autumn and winter. July is the height of tourist season, so you may need to be a little less spontaneous (completely against our religion, but that's another story) in touristy areas, and try to book accommodation before you get to your intended destination..

Airline Recommendations and Left Luggage

Most major American air carriers serve Ireland. We usually travel with Aer Lingus, and have had good luck with them. They have direct flights from Boston - making them most appealing! We have traveled with a full-sized tandem in a large padded case, single bikes in large padded cases, as well as coupled bikes in stealth mode. There are left-luggage facilities in both Shannon and Dublin, and we have stored cases in both airports for a small fee. Left luggage policies may change, so you may want to check with the airport authority to confirm.

Both Shannon and Dublin are also quite handy for simply riding out of the airport. You can put your bike back together in the airport (there are even bike stands near left-luggage in Dublin), drop off you cases at left luggage, and ride away - on the left side of the road, of course.

That said, the area around Dublin Airport has seen massive development in recent years, so expect plenty of traffic. On the positive side, there is a marked bike route leading out of the airport, so initial navigation is simplified. In general terms, my inclination is to head west towards the village of St. Margaret's and then to either skirt around the city to the south, or head north.

Shannon Airport was particularly easy to ride out of in 1995. Our advice here is to avoid the city of Limerick, if possible. (It's a kip)

Travel Insurance

Airlines limit liability on luggage to some tiny sum, if any. The Aer Lingus additional travel insurance lists coverage for baggage loss at $500. They also insure things like trip delay/cancellation and of course illness. Check with your airline for details. If you have homeowners or a renters policy, you are likely covered for lost luggage (but not trip delay) through it.

Renting bikes

We encourage you to bring your own bike. Rental bikes are available, but tend to be of the ubiquitous hybrid style.

Dublin has a city-bike hire scheme, like Paris and London and Boston. See comments below regarding credit cards.

Where to stay

There is a good network of relatively low-cost places to stay - hostels and B&Bs - that enable you to travel light (apart from carrying good waterproofs!). Hostels are our favourite places to stay, as you get to meet lots of other people, and get information and ideas that you might otherwise miss out on. They fall into two basic categories, International Youth Hostel Association affiliated (in Ireland, this means An Oige hostels) and private hostels. To stay in the former, you need to be a member of a Hostelling International organisation. Private hostels tend to have better facilities overall, but An Oige have some superb (which, to us, means remote) locations.

Most hostels rent sheet bags these days if you don't have your own, but we typically carry (very compact) silk sleeping bag liners. Hostels also have cooking facilities, but you will need to bring your own food. These days, though, many of the more de luxe hostels provide optional meals.

In the smaller towns, if you don't see B&B signs, asking around can usually unearth a low-key B&B. Many B&B's are run by empty nesters, people whose children have grown and moved away. The children's rooms are now B&B rooms. They often work hard on the breakfast, serving up what is called a traditional fried Irish breakfast, with eggs, sausages and various puddings, made from ingredients you might prefer not to know about. Our typical ploy is to ask for porridge (oatmeal), as the people running B&Bs always insist on giving you something warm. Despite growing up in Ireland, I (John) never had a traditional Irish breakfast until I stayed at a B&B!

Camping

Camping to me means being close to nature, so I like to camp wild (responsibly, of course) and completely off the beaten path. Failing that, I have often asked a farmer, or whomever, for permission to camp in a field and have never been refused. Ireland has no dangerous animals (drunken yahoos excepted), so camping is straightforward on that score. Also, An Oige hostels usually allow you to camp on their grounds and use the facilities, for a reduced fee compared to sleeping in the hostel.

There is no camping is Irish National Parks.

Camping grounds also exist, but it would probably be difficult to plan a trip around them. They tend to cater more to caravans and cars, but do offer facilities such as toilets and showers. We found the following resources by doing a search for Ireland and camping.

Camping
Trailer Parks and Caravan Sites
Interhike

Maps

We mentioned the great network of tiny backroads as an attraction of cycling in Ireland, and it certainly is. However, some modicum of map reading ability is required in order to make best use of them. Ordnance Survey maps are available from most decent book shops and news agents, and are of very good quality, cartographically speaking. Unfortunately, the old cyclist friendly 1/2":1 mile scale maps are no longer made. (We found a full supply of the 1/2 inch maps at Hodges Figgis many years ago. Eason's in Dublin also had some. We later had them all laminated and are quite protective of these collector's items!)

The 1/2 maps have been replaced by 1:50,000 scale maps, of which you need many more to cover a given area. And if you have money to burn, you can now also get waterproof OS maps - which may not be a bad idea! Waterproof or not, you basically just want to aim for the white and yellow coloured back roads and the "brown stuff" - altitude, which means hills and mountains, is shown by various shades of brown.

Update - We now also make use of a bike GPS when travelling. Pamela considers it invaluable, enabling us to explore tiny little roads without stopping every few meters to check the map. Garmin's City Navigator Europe NT (at about $100) provided great coverage. One can also get Ordnance Survey maps from Garmin for a lot more money. These are full topo maps, providing much more detail and are good for hiking as well. One big drawback is they only cover the Republic. No matter where we travel with our GPS, we still use the paper maps to get the big picture and find the brown stuff, but the GPS saves loads of time if you can plan ahead.

Things to bring

Mudguards

Make sure to have mudguards on your bike. They are a requirement on all of the best roads in Ireland - you will also be calling them "mudguards" instead of "fenders" by the time you return! Many of the best roads run through farms. Farmers regularly move their sheep and cattle from a field on one side of the road to one on the other. Pamela's theory is that since the animals don't want to poop on the grass they eat, they save it up for the crossing of the road. Also since the diet, is high fiber, the byproduct is liquid.

And while we have had some rainfree trips to Ireland, it is pretty rare. Also for some reason that isn't totally clear to me, the roads tend to take a lot longer to dry out after a shower than they do in the US. So it may not have rained for days, but the roads are still wet.

Tyres

Many Irish roads are surfaced with a kind of chip seal. A plump tire will go a long way toward making the trip comfortable. We really like the Grand Bois tires in 26 and 28 mm widths on bikes with limited clearance. Schwalbe Kojaks are quite beefy and will handle the tiny little tracks you may want to explore. Fit the fattest tire your frame has clearance for with fenders.

Panniers

I also highly recommend waterproof panniers, like Ortlieb. Ortlieb makes a nice BOB bag (if you are using a trailer).

 

Basic Reliable Parts or Your Own Spares

While almost every town has a bike shop, don't expect to find much speciality or high end stuff in them. If you are riding anything unusual, like a tandem or recumbent, be aware that it will not be very easy to find special parts, even in Dublin. Bring spare long cables, or better yet, use DaVinci cable spltters, so you can use standard length cables. If you use Campagnolo shifters, spare cables are always a good idea, since the head on Campag cables is smaller than others. Basic standard stuff is not too hard to come by. A few years ago, Pamela broke a speedplay cleat on a trip. While no one in the country had speedplay cleats, she was able to get a pair of inexpensive SPD pedals to complete the trip. There are a couple of good bike shops in Dublin, but even with them, you might have to wait a while to get a 10 speed DuraAce Barend shifter shipped in. And despite the fact that it is known for rain, and we said mudguards are required, high quality mudguards and raincapes are also hard to find there. Take them with you.

Of course it isn't a third world country and if you have the time, parts can be ordered and shipped in easily from England (or Europe or the US for that matter).

 

Clothing

Laundry facilities are rare on the ground in Ireland. However, given our penchant for wool clothing, we typically avoid them even if they are available, and do our own washing. However, getting stuff to try overnight in Ireland is next to impossible and Irish youth hostels do not have drying rooms. With that in mind, carrying two cycling jerseys etc. or two sets of clothes that you can wear on and off the bike, is a good idea. Carrying some clothes pegs (I think that translates to "clothes pins" in Americanish) is also a good idea, so that you can hang your stuff out in a good stiff breeze.

Some B&B's have been known to offer use of their laundry facilities.

We usually take wool jersies, arm and leg warmers. Wool tends to keep you warm even when wet, and doesn't retain odor like synthetics.

Raingear

If I had a penny for every mile I've ridden in the rain in Ireland, I could be somewhere warm and dry right now, but we can all dream ...

Rumour has it that it rains more on the west coast than on the east. The ratio of rainfall is roughly two to one. You just might not believe it when you're on the east coast!

One option for raingear for touring in Ireland is a cycling cape. They are cheap, pack up small, allow air to circulate and keep you drier than anything else out there, providing protection for your body, hands and upper legs. They are very comforting in a teeming downpour, but perhaps most advantageous of all in typically showery Irish weather, they are easy to get on and off.

They are not without their drawbacks too, of course. I don't like using them in very windy weather (not uncommon in Ireland, even during the summer).

Where to go

The peninsulas on the we(s)t coast are a well known bike touring destination. You can ride around the perimeter, or go back and forth across them for a much more scenic ride.

This 400km route takes in most of John's favourite climbs within striking distance of Dublin. It would likely make a nice multi-day tour. The Humpy Hundred is another great ride in the Carlow area. This is a non-touristy area of great beauty.

Cars

Drive and bike on the left side of the road. If you forget, some friendly driver will honk and yell to remind you!

Driving and car ownership has increased astronomically in recent years in Ireland. Yet the skill of drivers has not. The good thing is that with a little map reading, you can avoid them as much as possible.

Trains

It used to be quite simple to roll a bike onto a train, but this has changed.

Years ago, it was was 6 pounds (about $8) each way. Bikes went into a separate baggage car, available on all intercity trains. You were responsible for loading and unloading. We used bungee cords to secure the frame to something on the train. But baggage cars seem to be disappearing all over the world, Ireland being no exception.

Most of the intercity trains now accomodate only 2 bikes per carriage, with a nice bike rack set up at the back of each carriage. However, we recently discovered it is not possible to actually reserve a spot for a bike on the website or even on the phone, despite statements to the contrary on the Irish Rail website. We called the station where we planned to depart and were assured that even without a reservation that we would be able to get our bikes on board.

The rail system is really excellent as far as coverage, and frequency of trains. However, depending on where you are traveling to and from, you might occasionally have to make an awkward connection. On the west coast, this is typically through Limerick Junction. Of the places you might want to visit, Donegal in the northwest, has the worst train service. The nearest place you can get a train to is Sligo, and the Sligo line was in need of considerable work last time we were on it - i.e. it was really bumpy. Rumor has it that this is being addressed.

Any train station will have information and schedules. Maps and timetables can also be found on the Irish Rail website.

Money

Jan 1, 2002, Ireland, along with most of Europe changed their currency to the Euro. For a while the exchange rate favored American travellers, but that changed quickly and is now Irish travellers come to the US bargain shopping. I recommend changing very little money in the US. The exchange places at US airports have ridiculous rates. Getting money through ATMs once you arrive will net you a far better rate and lower fees.

Most banks in Ireland will exchange money (unlike in the US).

American travellers take special note: Most of Europe uses chip and pin technology in credit cards. The US lags far behind in this regard, but a few US credit card companies are finally thinking of coming around. Until these more secure cards become widely available in the US, you may have challenges trying to use your magnetic swipe credit card in Europe. Unmanned kiosks at train stations and gas stations will only accept chip and pin cards. Waiters will not be able to use their fancy hand held devices, but will have to carry your card away to find the antique swipe machine kept in the back just for American tourists. At grocery stores and pharmacies, you may have to find the one special register with the swipe card reader. ATM machines will work, so you can withdraw cash and avoid some of the card hassle by using cash.

Phones

GSM is the standard for mobile phones. Your Verizon CDMA phone won't work there. If you have a GSM from a US carrier, such as ATT or T-Mobile, it will work, but at costly roaming rates. If it's a smart phone, turn off data and data roaming unless you want to get a phone bill the size of the national debt. It is possible to buy a local SIM card to use in your unlocked GSM phone, or to rent a mobile phone there.