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The first Grand Tour of 2014 is upon us. This year the Giro again starts away from Italian shores and heads to the north of Europe, this time to the Emerald Isle. Ireland’s a country – or two to be precise – that can lay claim to a few legends of the sport: double Grand Tour winner Stephen Roche and four-time Tour de France Green Jersey winner Sean Kelly (not to mention his long list of other achievements). Then there’s a new generation: Dan Martin and son of Stephen, Nicolas Roche. With the Giro fast approaching it seemed the perfect destination for another CyclingTips roadtrip.
We’ve seen the fjords of Norway and the picturesque lakes and hills of New Zealand’s South Island, but what did Ireland have to offer? And what could the peloton expect to encounter come this Sunday? CyclingTips’ Dave Everett was joined by Roadtripping veteran Szymon Kotowski and photographer Kristof Ramon to capture this amazing land.
I’m going to steal a phrase that Wade used in his intro to the Roadtripping New Zealand piece: “proximity syndrome”. Ireland is only an hour’s flight from my home in the north west of England but I’ve been there so few times. I’ve ridden my bike there once before, but only saw the inside of a peloton and several hotels while suffering on the Milk Rás back in about 2003.
Many of my mates had waxed lyrically about the lovely scenery they’d encountered on past trips to Ireland. But the memories of being cold and of suffering overpowered even the slightest tingle of interest. For me the guaranteed promise of sun further south always won the battle when deciding where to ride.
But when I got an email from Wade asking if I fancied a few days on my bike, clocking up some miles (or kilometres depending if we were in the north or the south of the island) on roads the Giro peloton would be tackling, it was a no-brainer. This was the opportunity to undo that proximity syndrome, to actually see what I’d missed by not racing on the front of that peloton back in 2003.
My cycling buddy for the trip was to be seasoned roadtripper Szymon Kotowski. Szymon had inspired me (and many others I hope) with his Roadtripping Norway piece last year. The man snapping the shots for our trip was to be Belgian photographer-extrodinaire Kristof Ramon. I knew his stuff and was excited to meet both he and Szymon in person.
As on any trip it’s that first hour of contact that helps the team to bond, so while waiting for Szymon to land at the airport, an incident involving burritos, a girl (who perhaps drank too much) sat down with us and decided that our chips were hers, saw Kristof and I learning a little about how each of us acts in a rather awkward situation.
Let’s just say that confusion filled the Mexican restaurant and, perhaps unsurprisingly, we didn’t end up eating the rest of our chips.
There we had it: the bonding exercise done and dusted, a talking point for the night cemented, and a lesson learnt with regards to what could happen if we went off the rails with one too many of the local beverages.
Tuesday morning rolled round and we woke in our room at the Trinity City Hotel in Dublin — a hotel that that was certainly better and more opulent than I remember from my Milk Rás days. If the bright colours and street art canvases on the walls didn’t kickstart us for the day the prospect of hitting new cycling territory certainly did. I didn’t know too much about what to expect or what route we were to tackling and I soon got the impression that Kristof and Szymon didn’t either.
The mission for our roadtrip was to check out the roads that the Giro d’Italia would be visiting in Ireland. However, with Stage 1 being a 21.7km team time trial in Belfast, while I’m sure it’ll be turned into a virtual stadium for a day this Sunday, it probably wasn’t going to make for very adventurous riding or good photos for our purposes.
For a trip that had me imagining emulating the Giro route we were soon choosing roads that ventured well off that of the Giro’s chosen path. And why not? A peloton of 200 odd guys plus a convoy of team cars and a caravan of comical commercial trucks throwing goodies out all has to stick to pretty wide and safe roads… or as wide and safe as the Giro organisers see fit to send the peloton down. With just two cyclists and a photographer we could venture on to roads that the peloton could only dream of taking.
After a little research, a rough itinerary that had been offered up to us by the Tourism Ireland and a few Twitter messages thrown in to the mix (including a tweeted tip from Garmin-Sharp Irish rider Dan Martin) we were soon up to speed as to what roads we should be hitting. South of Dublin to the Wicklow Mountains we headed.
Just 15km or so south of Dublin is the Wicklow Mountains National Park. Why on Earth this place hasn’t made it into the Giro route boggles the mind. The again, I may have just answered my own question when I was speaking about narrow and windy roads.
We parked at the start of the range, unpacked the car, spent what felt like an eternity inflating tyres with a mini pump, put the bikes together and finally got the cycling part of the trip underway.
From where we parked the first hill climbed for only about 4km — a good little leg-opener. There was no massive mountain as the name would suggest, but a short kick of a climb with swooping, wide corners through the marshy hillside. It was a great start to what would be three days of exploring the Giro route and finding some stunning roads. This road continued, winding through the green hillside, rising and dropping.
A quick right-hand turn at the top of the climb and we started to descend what I had originally dismissed as a road to an abandoned quarry. This took us away from the marshy lands we’d started out on and pushed us in the direction to a much more yellow and brown landscape.
Even though it felt like we had just been rolling along at the start of the ride, gaining a bit of height and then losing it on the short snappy down hills, from where we turned it just seemed to descend constantly. The roads narrowed and got even windier. Here we felt away from everyone, just the odd farm and secluded hideaway dotting the landscape.
The first small town we eventually came across was Blessington. This gave us a chance to check the map, harass a couple of locals and get advice as to what roads we should tackle next. The owner of the local corner shop recommended the same route the tourist board and the twittersphere had: a trip around the reservoir and along Lake Drive.
[ct_super_feature_blockquote quote=”The roads narrowed and got even windier. Here we felt away from everyone, just the odd farm and secluded hideaway dotting the landscape.”]
We’d struck it lucky. The stereotypical Irish weather conditions had given way to beautiful blue skies and warm sunshine. The knee warmers came off and the legs basked in some early season warmth. Better still there was a serious lack of traffic. Lake Drive took us along yet more winding roads and into the village of Glendalough.
Here we paused for a brief pit stop, checking out an impressive sixth century Monks tower…and eating the largest Mr Whippy ice cream I’ve ever seen, courtesy of Kevin’s Kitchen. With that we were off again, back up towards the roads that we’d started the day on. This time though we went via a stunning road that seemed to hide itself from view until you were actually upon it.
From its base the Old Military Road quickly opened up and with it came views over a waterfall that all three of us hadn’t expected. Water gushed down the side of us as Szymon showed me that his winter spent riding in Spain had left him very strong.
A short but impressive climb took us back to roads we’d started on, this time via a few rough and broken sections. We piled the bikes and camera equipment into the car, pleased and surprised at what day one had brought us. It was just over one hundred kilometers to get us warmed up, but riding stages 2 and 3 of the Giro d’Italia over the next couple days will most definitely smash the legs.
To be continued …Stay tuned for a pre-ride of Giro d’Italia stages 2 and 3.