A Skeptic's Connemara Pedaling through Ireland on Our Own

By Kirz, Stephanie Ager | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 16, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Skeptic's Connemara Pedaling through Ireland on Our Own


Kirz, Stephanie Ager, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Stephanie Ager Kirz Daily Herald Correspondent

"Here, take this cell phone," said Tony Boyd, owner of Iron Donkey Bicycling Tours, his bald head beaming in the morning sun. "Just give me a call if you have a flat or need a lift."

His thick Irish accent and jovial personality eased my churning stomach.

We had just arrived in the historic Irish west coast town of Ennis, a funny little village laid out for pedestrians that's slightly more somber than quaint. Our new, all-terrain touring bikes leaned against a fence in the parking lot of the homely bed- and-breakfast next to a small picnic table where Tony spread out the route maps and the week's itinerary of Ireland's most scenic and popular cycling destinations: The Burren and Connemara.

"You'll be averaging about 30 to 40 miles a day," he continued, "with shorter and longer options if you want." I stuffed my rain gear into the panniers and glanced up at the blue sky, hoping it would stay that way.

"Just pack up your luggage and leave it in your room and we'll pick it up and deliver it to your next hotel along the route," Tony promised. My skepticism subsided, at least momentarily.

When my husband, ever the adventurer, suggested doing a self- guided cycling tour of Ireland, I imagined cold rain soaking through my helmet and bike pants, leg-numbing hills, long, lonesome days and empty stomachs to be finally filled with awful food.

I had been spoiled on other bike trips, which were always with larger groups and several helpful guides. In China with Backroads, we pedaled alongside a local who translated the school children's chants. Riding in a tropical rainstorm in Bali, our tour guide swooped in to hand us dry towels and give us a lift in the van to wait out the weather. Paolo, one of our leaders with Ciclismo Classico in Sicily, waited patiently for our group at each intersection so we wouldn't miss a turn.

Now we were supposed to go it alone? Who would rescue us from the Irish rain? In the end, I agreed to go. No problem; I've been lost, cold and hungry before.

Waving goodbye to Tony and Iron Donkey Cycling, we shoved off with the sunrise, pedaling down the narrow two-lane roads that bob and weave along the coast in County Clare. Every parcel of land throughout Ireland is partitioned by stone walls, weaving gray cobwebs through the green pastures everywhere.

Our sturdy, steel bikes soaked up the bumps, riding smooth as a pair of old '57 Caddies. The countryside spread out like a grand picnic blanket draped along the edge of the seashore. Our route led us up to the plunging Cliffs of Moher, the waves crashing 710 feet below, shooting glistening sea spray skyward. It was spectacular.

Doin' Doolin and The Burren

The sun, the sea - and not to mention, a tailwind - pushed us toward Doolin. We'd hardly seen a car all day. Somehow my legs seemed to know that the end was in sight and I charged up a few more hills before my bike coasted down the last steep decline into town, which was a lovely spot set back slightly from the sea.

As promised, we found our luggage neatly stacked in our cottage room for two nights at Cullinan's Seafood Restaurant and Guesthouse. Owned by Carol and James of the same name, this eight- room inn supposedly touted some of the best seafood around. I could only hope.

As we nibbled on the local smoked salmon and tangy Inagh goat cheese, the brilliant orange sun set through the windows of the restaurant overlooking a meadow filled with glorious wildflowers. Perhaps it was the wine, but I was feeling a wee bit more comfortable about this solo cycling adventure, at least for the moment.

In search of ancient Celtic tombs

Doolin was to be our base for exploring The Burren; the name means "a rocky place." Some call it the "magical kingdom of the fertile rock," a kind of small, petrified desert. The sloping, carboniferous limestone scarred by grinding glaciers resembles thick pancake batter poured half a mile thick, oozing toward the sea.

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