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In this third and final part of our Roadtripping Ireland series, Dave Everett and Szymon Kotowski continue the story of a trip that saw them follow the route for the start of this year’s Giro d’Italia as well as the shenanigans along the way.
Stage 3 of this year’s Giro d’Italia sees the riders jump from Northern Ireland down to the Republic of Ireland with a stage starting in Armagh, the ecclesiastical Capital of Ireland, and is the seat for both the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and the Church of Ireland. And what better place to start the ride than outside the hulking St. Patrick’s Cathedral?
The three of us had talked about the stage. It looked relatively flat and, to be honest, like a standard Grand Tour transition stage. The question we were all asking was: was there going to be anything along the way that could live up to the two previous days’ riding? It’d be a tough call — we’d had a blast so far, the roads and scenery had impressed us and we all said we’d return in the future. After speaking to some locals we decided to listen to their advice and venture off the exact route the Giro would follow for stage 3.
The first 50km after leaving the impressive cathedral and memorials of Armagh was all very pleasant — nice and quiet with rolling roads through farmland with very little traffic. But contrary to the first two days, the kilometres passed by without Szymon or myself pointing out any breathtaking scenery.
It was just a good solid road to get some quality miles in. All very pleasant and relatively tranquil, apart from my rear derailleur which was making all sorts of sounds after the rear-ending it had just received.
The real problem though was the fact we’d been spoilt on the previous two days and we’d come to expect outstanding vistas straight out of the gates. And we wanted to see something special. A little bored of the main road that the Giro would follow, we turned off to the first little road we saw and immediately found what we wanted. Narrow roads in complete silence. Guided by instinct we found a short and sharp climbs and after little while we were in the midst of forests where we earned breathtaking views.
We had to laugh when we found long stretch of bras hanging on a fence, just like our friends across the globe in the Roadtripping New Zealand piece. Could this be the only two places in the world that this seemingly random tradition happens?
[ct_super_feature_blockquote quote=”It was one of those rare roads that seemed perfectly built for an evening playing on the bike.”]
My bike was acting up again and with a stroke of luck we stumbled upon the second bike shop of the day where a friendly mechanic got my bike back to it’s clunk-free original state (a huge thanks goes out to JMC Cycles of Newry). With a smile the mechanic sent us off and wished us good luck, this time undisturbed by that infuriating tick and clunk that had been increasing since the Giant’s Causeway. And just in time too. The road we were about to find ourselves on required bikes that were in flawless working order. We hit the road with new energy.
We decided to turn off the Drumintee Road and headed onto what initially looked like a car park for a deserted cafe. However, out of nowhere it presented a road that was not only going to save us from having a standard ride, but presented to us a road that none of us will forget – ever.
The road in question looped around the Slieve Gullion Forest Park — this hadn’t been on the agenda. Always listen to the locals; they know best. It didn’t look like much initially — we actually thought Kristof, who was driving the car, was going to have to double back after a short 100m down the road. But this narrow forest alley was the gateway to something completely unexpected.
We discovered the Slieve Gullion Forest Park and the road that loops around it was a cyclist’s playground. It was one of those rare roads that seemed perfectly built for an evening playing on the bike. A single strip of tarmac cuts its way from the forest floor up to the top of a steep and tough climb that looks out over the the roads we’d ridden that day before.
Kristof’s comment, “this is what we’ve been searching for!” rang true with all of us. With no other cars to share the loop with we pretty much had this winding forest road all to ourselves. After a good hour of playing on the switchbacks, steep descents with the sun streaming through the undergrowth and the smell of pine, we decided it was pretty certain that the road wasn’t going to be bettered.
Irish pubs are world famous, to the point where you’ll find an “authentic” Irish drinking hole in any city across the globe. The one we found couldn’t have been any more Irish if it tried. Straight from the initial attempt to enter the pub we knew it was going to be just the right place to finish off the trip.
As Szymon, Kristof and myself made our way to the door a large marker-pen-scribbled sign declared “For Members Only”. Damn. The three of us spun around and started making our way back to the car.
A chirpy Irish voice chimed out: “Come in! The sign’s there for a reason — we thought you were the police”. What? The three of us looked at each other and made our way in.
The problem was Kristof, who’d initially lead the way into the pub, was still wearing his camera harness and dark fleece top. This apparently made him look like a local police officer, so much so that Dave the barman declared that “half the guys have scarpered out the back door!”. This was the sort of meat and potatoes Irish pub and banter we felt at home with. The Gap O’The North was to be our watering hole for the evening.
The remaining four blokes, who clearly had nothing to hide from the police, all sat at the bar, all drinking the black stuff and all looking like they were avoiding going home. Each gave us the once over — you could see the slight confusion come over them. Standing in front of them were two guys in lycra and one who, moments ago, had half the pub rushing for the back door. We weren’t the usual customers round these parts.
We were quizzed about what we’d been up to. The patrons knew of the imminent Giro stage passing through, but all they wanted to know was whether it would bring any good-looking women along with it. The reassurance that we gave them that a few Italian beauties may venture over here was greeted with a wink and a nod. Dave the bartender made a quick remark that most of the guys in the bar were used to another sort of giro.
The decor was just as you’d expect, plenty of dark aged wood, old Guinness posters, a gambling machine in the corner, and bottles of spirits sitting behind the bar looking like a trophy. When asked what they had won we were amazed to find out that it was actually there in memory of the previous barman who had passed away. According to Dave it was a reoccurring theme with every barman who stepped behind the pumps of the pub. They’d last a while and then “pop their clogs”. Dave claimed he was just waiting.
When asked if these guys classed themselves as Irish or Northern Irish we were amazed by two facts — firstly the Guinness had clearly limited any offence the guys might have taken, and secondly we found out that we were only just a pint’s throw from the border. We were still in Northern Ireland but the field behind the pub was the start of the Republic of Ireland. Everyone in the pub though classed themselves as true Irish gents born a bread, even if Dave the bartender liked to fool people with his Union flag embossed wallet and then his green, orange, white and orange cigarette lighter.
We couldn’t have asked for a better place to finish the ride and wind the trip down. The Guinness flowed extremely freely, probably a common occurrence at that pub from what we could tell. With pints appearing on the bar top even before the local customers walked in, you got the sense that it was one of the few remaining true Irish pubs left that was a meeting point for a community.
Come next week when the Giro passes the pub I’m sure the same four blokes will swivel round in the same chairs, have a quick “crack” about the garish Italian clothing flashing past the door, remark on the Italian ladies visiting the area, swivel back round again, knock the head off a thick Guinness and get bad to the business of avoiding going home.
It was an absolute pleasure discovering Ireland’s magical landscapes and getting lost along the way. Narrow roads twisting and turning like it’s some sort of amusement part for cyclists. By the end of this roadtrip we were certain that we had found one of the greatest places on Earth to ride a bike. And most of the breathtaking places were found completely by accident.
When watching the first three stages of the Giro d’Italia next week you’re sure to see some of the places we rode. However, many of the hidden gems are off the beaten path that no Grand Tour could ever visit. Get lost and discover them for yourself.
A very special thanks goes to Stephen Gallagher from Dig Deep coaching who gave us loads of recommendations and invaluable information. If you’re in need of personal or online coaching, Dig Deep has 25 coaches/specialists working world wide, so they’re worth a look. Stephen is a former pro cyclist, winner of the Ras, and spent two years helping design the route for the 2014 Giro d’Italia.
Most of all, thank you to Tourism Ireland for helping make this trip happen.
ilPirata, Belfast. A restaurant dedicated to the memory of Marco Pantani.
The Mourne Mountains, and Restrevor are a sensational places for mountain biking.
Dave Kane Cycles who are a famous cycling family who have built a business and made a history in cycling in Belfast.
Belfast City Bike Tours
Ride Ireland 2014
Places to go in Ireland
Things to do in Ireland
The 2014 Giro d’Italia Grande Partenza
Anything else we’ve missed?