Thoughts on Cycling Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

IMG_9023Joy and I spent the month of May cycling most of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way – a route that took us 700 miles on small rural roads that wind along all the west coast peninsulas between the cities of Cork and Westport. 30 short cycling days gave us plenty of exposure to cycling in Ireland – at least, in the rural areas of Ireland. Here are some thoughts to complement our daily posts for this latest adventure.

The Good Parts

The weather was generally awesome. We were lucky that we experienced a number of sunny days. Most days were overcast or lightly drizzly and only three days were seriously rainy.  The terrain and views we experienced were surprisingly varied (and sometimes dramatic), and we really enjoyed Ireland’s natural beauty. Even the sheep that led to surprise road obstacles!

Click on the image below to play the 8 second video.

There were lots of interesting things to stop and see – sometimes archaeological sites just “right there”. Using a tour agency to set up this road trip meant that we were cycling much shorter distances than we typically do, which is good because there were often really cool sites to visit and the short distances made it easy to linger as long as we wanted at each site.

It was also great that there are so many small villages and towns where we could stop for a meal or a tea break (even if it meant ordering tea in a pub). It’s worth noting that up until the second-to-last day of cycling, we never ever saw Gatorade or Powerade. We mostly drank straight-up water because we hate the electrolyte tablets we add to water.

The Challenging Parts

The difficult part was related to the way roads are engineered and how drivers deal with cyclists.

The first few days were tricky until we became accustomed to riding on the left side of the road. And roundabouts in larger towns and cities always made us anxious. It’s hard to keep track of all the merging cars, particularly when we needed to go three quarters of the way around. Sometimes we’d just get off our bikes and use the cross walks.

Not even bike shop employees know what this sign means

I estimate that less than 20 of the 700 miles that Joy and I cycled were in actual bike lanes. They only seem to exist in big cities. Some cities had pretty good bike lane systems and others only had short, useless little sections of bike lanes.

On secondary roads not only are there no bike lanes, there’s rarely even an official shoulder. If there is a white line along the edge of the road, it’s often just a few inches from the edge of the tarmac. And often there are tall hedges planted right to the road edge. The hedges make for a pretty drive, but as a cyclist, it means that there’s no place to go. And I mean that both in terms of getting out of the way of cars trying to pass you, as well as times when I would like a little privacy when I need to stop and pee by the side of the road.

Ireland isn’t particularly hilly, so most of our cycling days didn’t have big climbs, which made for pleasant cycling. The few days that were big climbs, though… Irish road engineers must have gone to the same design school as the road engineers in Utah and New York. Their main design philosophy when it comes to building a road to the top of a long steep hill is, “Why waste money building switchbacks? Straight up works best.” I hate them.

The design of the roads led to a small number of drivers “squeezing” us. Except for the biggest of roads, every road we cycled along was only one lane in each direction. The roads, usually narrow and curvy, combined with the high hedges, had limited visibility of oncoming traffic. Most drivers were courteous and patient when it came to passing us. Some drivers, however, were reluctant to cross the center line (if there was one) in order to pass us. This smattering of drivers would hang back, pacing us, and then suddenly zoom past us, just inches away, before cutting back to their side as soon as they could.

IMG_8752This was frustrating because Ireland has an official traffic law that says that motorists must give cyclists a 1.5 meter (~5 feet) buffer when passing. This is much more generous than the three foot law that states like California and Colorado have on the books. Given how very little space some Irish drivers actually gave us when passing, I don’t think anyone in Ireland has ever gotten a ticket for failing to give cyclists the required buffer.

Fortunately, most of the roads we cycled were lightly traveled, and most of the drivers were very courteous and considerate.

All in all, we’re thrilled to have spent a month cycling in Ireland. We’d do it again, except that there are so many other exciting places to take our bikes.

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