Part of my plan for my long weekend off at the start of the month was to complete my first 100 mile ride of the year. The idea was a 100km ride on Saturday and a 100 mile ride on Monday but getting my first vaccine jab on the Saturday morning put paid to that idea. I got the 100km done the Wednesday instead and Sunday past was my rescheduled day for the 100 miles.
This ride was an important step on the road back to 200km Audax rides again. The physical challenge is very important of course but in this case it was important mentally also as I’d decided to use the second half of my Donegal 200 route. It was on this section in October that I really struggled and had one of my toughest days ever on the bike. I felt it was important to go back and put this ghost to rest.
The first 60km took me through Ballybofey to Glenties before joining the 200km route just outside Ardara. The first section of this to Bellanamore School is a popular Club route for the start of the season. It’s a great training route with testing climbs on the way out and fast descents and flat sections for racing on the way back. Today though it was all about the climbs as it was one way only for me this time. One of the climbs (Leitir Bric) is my all time favourite descent on the way back to town.
After Bellanamore I pushed on for Fintown. The road follows the head of the Finn Valley to the shores of Lough Finn which is the source of the River Finn. The Finn flows all the way to Lifford where it merges with the Mourne to form the Foyle. The valley along this upper river section is steep and rugged and this is reflected in the mixture of steep climbs and descents as the road winds along one side high above the river.
Leaving Fintown the road heads for Glenties initially along the lough shore. The lough is long and narrow (5 x 0.5km) and overshadowed on the far bank by Aghla Mountain. It’s very scenic but also a brutal funnel for the wind making the headwind stronger and the going harder. Much of the road to Glenties is across higher bogland, exposed and open. It’s a number of years since I rode this far on this road and have memories of one particular early spring day getting caught in a hail storm and my only shelter was to stand at the side of the road with my back to the wind and endure the hail bouncing off my helmet and ears.
The last few kilometres into Glenties are a frustrating mix of washboard rough surface, caused by the drying bog underneath and perfect smooth sections that have been upgraded. Arriving in Glenties, at slightly over 50km, it was too soon for lunch but I decided to take a 5min break to stretch my back and have a bar.
The road out of Glenties to Ardara is used by the local Tir Chonnail Gap Cycling Club for their TT course. It must be the only time trial course with a lump of a hill about halfway along! This is a pretty decent road and it meets the Frosses road from Donegal Town to finally join the 200km route. Since my inaugural ride I rerouted to go through the town and out the Narin/Portnoo Road to take advantage of the last service station until Letterkenny.
Going into the shop I had a slightly weird encounter with a fairly large man. He mumbled at me as I said hello on my way past and managed to blurt out something about having no insurance. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t playing with a full deck and replied that it was a good job I wasn’t intending to crash before going on into the shop.
It was after Ardara that my woes began last time but today couldn’t have been more different. Last time I was into the wind and everything look grey and bleak in the dull October light. Today I had a tailwind and everything was bright and green. Along the coast I had the time to lift my head and look around to get glimpses of the white strands of Nairin and Portnoo. It really was a very beautifully scenic part of the county and one I plan to go back and explore further.
The road pops back out on the main N56 between Glenties and Dungloe. It’s a completely refurbished road and despite the N route status it was pretty quiet. Regardless of the traffic though there’s a segregated shared use path along the side of the road. It’s for pedestrian and cycling use but I was the only one on it today for about 5km. Last October a lot of this path was covered with loose gravel thrown by passing traffic. Since then it’s obviously been swept as it was very clear, apart from the occasional crossing where farm vehicles had been crossing. My only complaint is that the path ends without warning by suddenly swinging left down on to the old road requiring either a diversion into a residential area or a steep climb back up to the main road. The latter was my only real choice as I needed to carry on to the long and picturesque bridge crossing over Gweebarra River.
The route continues for a short distance along the main road and through Lettermacaward before swinging off on to a rural single track road to Doochary. Similar to the route from Ballybofey this rises and falls along the side of a narrow, steep river valley cut by the Gweebarra, basically more and more scenic views with the countryside in full bloom.
Leaving Doochary the climbing starts again. It was this road that destroyed me last time but despite the steady 10km climb I still had the tailwind making it so much easier and despite the heavy drizzle that started soon after, I loved it. It’s a bleak and empty mountainous landscape but also beautiful. The road is crossed multiple times by rocky mountain streams with small waterfalls in many locations. Along the way is a large lake off to the right and I was surprised to see a sandy beach on the far shore.
Just before entering the border of Glenveagh National Park I stopped beside some ruins. On a rock beside one of these ruins was a plaque in Irish commemorating the Derryveagh Evictions of 1861.
The plaque reads:
April 8th-10th 1861
In memory of the poor people who died and were evicted from this area during this time.
Normally when you reach the top of the final climb there is a reward of a fabulous view down the Glenveagh valley but with the low cloud and persistent drizzle today the view was wiped out.
I was only slightly damp at this stage but as I was now facing a long descent into Churchill and mostly downhill into Letterkenny I decided to layer up with my waterproof gillet. Flying down the hills it got very cold and I was very glad of this decision. Through Churchill and towards Letterkenny I was getting hungry again and on the lookout for a service station I could remember. Unfortunately I was remembering one from a different road and it was the outskirts of Letterkenny before I had the option to stop. Adjusting the Audax route to allow a foodstop in Ardara was definitely a good idea.
The service station is off the Audax route by approximately 1km but instead of back tracking I carried on into Letterkenny and picked up the back road at the Old Town end of town. Then it was the rolling back road that skirts along the edge of town and the dual carriageway all the way to Manorcunningham before swinging right to head over the hill to Raphoe. This was a long and difficult climb with tired legs and a tailwind that had now become a bit of a headwind with the change of direction. However, I was now on very familiar roads and feeling good so I was quickly down into Raphoe, on to Ballindrait and Castlefinn.
I opted for the slightly easier main road home from Castlefinn. Despite the better surface and flatter road I really regretted this. Within a 3.5km stretch of main road I had 4 bad passes including one that verged on dangerous. I’d managed over 160km with no issues and managed to save all my idiots for the final 15min!
Leaving Castlefinn I also tipped over the 160km mark at 6hrs 21min. I was very pleased with my time and really enjoyed the ride but suddenly lost all interest in the last 5km. If Catriona was at home there’s a strong chance I would have rung her to come and get me!
It was a really enjoyable ride and Audax is definitely back on the table again and I’ve really regained my confidence for RRTY.