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Doing Ireland on a bicycle and a pint

Belfast - Forget "fey" and all the cliches. The true charm of the Irish is that they have risen above the tyranny of time and space; perhaps even above mundane reality too.

July 02 2005 at 01:34PM

By Rex Gibson

In the midst of modernity and prosperity they have, Hobbit-like, managed to preserve the quaintness of their own Middle Earth.

Alas, this profound truth dawned too late, just as we staunch members of James Clarke's Tour de Farce laid our bicycles to rest for one last time.

'In Ireland, you can have as many minutes as you like' We had come to the end of 11 arduous days of a cycle tour in Ireland facilitated by the Johannesburg office of Tourism Ireland, which deals with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Knowing the truth sooner might have explained everything: like why the reassuring distances provided on our itinerary (anyone can pedal 60-odd kilometres in a day, surely?) bore little relation to the distances we actually rode. Such as time being a negotiable concept.

"How long will it take us to get to Londonderry?" we enquire one day.

"About an hour," someone says.

"On a bike?" we say incredulously, shuffling in our silly cycling costumes and patting our saddles.

"Oh, bicycles ... that will take a bit longer," he says.

It took the insight of a Westport waiter to open my eyes. Having just been told that the railway station was a 10-minute walk from our hotel on this final day, we tried to confirm the distance with him.

The waiter said: "I'm good on my feet, and I could not walk it in 10 minutes. More like 20." And then he added the words that made sense of it all: "The rest of the world has 60 minutes in an hour. In Ireland, you can have as many minutes as you like."

As many minutes as you like. As many kilometres as you prefer. And all in a world of your own construction. Once you come to understand the Irish Theory of Relativity, all else falls into place. If you want to believe that your destination is 64km away, believe it - even if the odometer on the bicycle reads closer to 100km.

Take the unsinkable Titanic. Never mind that it sank: what's wrong with being proud of the fact that it was built in Belfast? If your past was scarred by the Troubles, what's wrong with making them a tourist attraction?

Construct your world as you wish it to be. Visitors now throng to Belfast's Falls Road and Shankill areas where house-size murals on external walls still shriek the hatreds of yesteryear. Don't the murals perpetuate divisions in the next generation?

"You could say so," says your guide.

"But the tourists love it."

Pragmatism in Middle Earth. Irish relativity theory enables you to have delightful conversations in Middle Earth pubs.

"How far is it to Glenties?" you ask over a lunch-time Guinness as water drips to the floor from your sodden rain-jacket. The locals huddle.

"Oh, about 30," they decide.

"Miles or kilometres?"

Another huddle. "Yes," they agree.

The upside of this "suit yourself" philosophy is positive. The arrival in a pub of the Tour de Farce team - a cluster of damp and elderly cyclists of assorted shapes in skin-tight yellow Velcro and Superman helmets - provokes only friendly interest, not the sniggers we usually get.

The visit is seen as no more noteworthy than, say, the arrival of leprechauns in lederhosen. When you have mastered time and space, the advent of the merely ludicrous is no big deal.

Improbably, James Clarke's Tour de Farce seems to have become an annual event for me now.

Those of us who were in on the beginning - following the Danube on the weird assumption that rivers flow downhill to the sea - have ridden something like 2 000km over four expeditions.

One resigned a year ago and a youngster of 56 replaced him. Alan Calenborne had to pull out at the last minute this year and we were down to five: Clarke, Harvey Tyson, Richard Steyn, Peter Sullivan and me. Old hacks all.

We have had a dog's-eye view of the roads and lanes of Austria, Hungary, France, Italy and now Ireland. Rivers by the score; fields and mountains and pretty, gormless cows; Irish bogs and Italian vineyards: we've seen 'em all. Sometimes we have even lifted our heads to admire the bigger picture.

We enjoyed Ireland, though its weather is as unpredictable as its people. We had postponed our departure from April to late May in the hope of finding summer.

Some years we might have been lucky. Not this time. In our fortnight on the Emerald Isle, blue sky was a rarity. Wind blew, rain trickled. Sometimes we were colder at midday than we had been in early morning.

Riding into a gale was like trying to fly by flapping our arms. On one day it drizzled from the time we left till the time we arrived. I found myself looking forward to the ordeal of riding up mountains because at least it warmed the system. I think my mind had gone.

People said: "It's not usually like this", as if rain in Ireland were a total surprise. We said to each other: "This is fun ... isn't it?" And, in a mad way, it was.

Ireland is made for cycling. We rode a vaguely circuitous route that took us along the north and west, often alongside the ocean. It is not flat by any means. But nothing is far apart, as the Mercedes flies, and sooner or later all mountains have to drop to the sea.

Seldom need you ride for more than 10km in any direction before coming across a typical village - one church, three houses, four pubs and a puddle.

We did not come across dedicated cycle tracks, but quiet lanes are a happy alternative and, even on lesser national roads, traffic was infrequent and drivers were considerate. Perhaps bad weather is a happier choice than high-summer throngs, anyway.

Cycling began at Ballygalley, a small seaside village about 40km outside Belfast (not to be confused with Ballygally, a small village which is closer to Ballynure and Ballymena and Ballymoney, and not bally close to the sea at all. Bally, you learn, simply means "family").

We made our usual brisk start as the breeze whipped the nearby waves. Somebody couldn't find his helmet. Somebody left his gloves on the cycle trailer. Somebody hared off, only to return seconds later with the news that he couldn't make his gears work.

Within 40 minutes we had made our getaway. Quite soon thereafter, we experienced the first of the customary daily mini-crises that beset all bumbling amateur cyclists.

Someone got a puncture. By this time our oblivious peleton was extended over about a five-kilometre stretch of road. We call this the companionship of the road.

Within 15 minutes, a jolt of extrasensory perception caused the front riders to return reluctantly to look for the stragglers. Reunited, we looked at each other with a wild surmise.

Here we were, five grown journalists accustomed to solving the problems of the world with a stroke of an editorial pen - and now quite unable to work out how to take a tube off a tyre rim without disassembling the gears.

Gradually, schoolboy memories returned. Within an hour, the wheel was as good as new, save for a perverse inclination to wobble as it went. We were off!

The journey proceeded in similar fits and starts as we called on such places as Ballycastle, Giants Causeway, Rathmullen, Ballina, Donegal, Sligo and Belmullet. The lyricism of the names did little to counteract the asceticism of the saddles that tormented our behinds.

On the fourth day, rain pelted down so hard we could not ride. A bus took us to the overnight stop at Rathmullen House, a wonderful old country manor.

On the fifth day James Clarke tumbled to the tarmac within minutes of our departure, derailed by a pannier bag that fell from his handlebars. At first it seemed like an ugly graze, but it quickly became apparent that it was more serious. Clarke tried to continue but by the seventh day he was unable to ride.

On the same day Harvey Tyson, finally downed by flu, joined Clarke on the injured list. And then we were three: Richard Steyn, Peter Sullivan and I. We missed an obscure turnoff, and ended up riding an unnecessary 15km for a total of nearly 100km. Nobody fell off. The recriminations were no more acerbic than usual.

By the eighth day the peleton was restored to four with the return of Tyson, who declared that he would rather die on a bicycle than loiter in a hotel. The weather made no such recovery.

The ritual of ride/read maps/re-route/recriminate continued with military precision. On the 11th day we rode into Westport in modified triumph. We had made it!

Cycling gives you time to think. I have asked myself the same philosophical question a million times now, mostly on interminable uphills: "What the hell am I doing here?" Friends ask the same question.

"If that is a photograph of you having fun," says one, referring to a recent feature by Peter Sullivan in The Sunday Independent, "then I would hate to see you when you are miserable."

It is too easy to say: "It's so nice when I stop."

Yet that is part of it; the sense of achievement; the weary limbs and tender bottom; the well-earned drink at the end of the day. Oh yes, and the well-earned Guinness and the thick Irish sandwich in the middle of the day too.

But there are also the sudden vistas as you crest a hill; the sense of freedom on the downward slopes; the exhilaration that makes you break into involuntary song on an undulating plateau at the top of the world.

And even the moments when - the breeze whistling in your hair and eyes and crotch - you realise that the famous song could be misleading. Perhaps Irish eyes are not actually smiling: they are merely glinting from wind-induced tears.

Nevertheless, you ask as the ordeal draws to an end:

Where to next?

Switzerland, they say.

Switzerland! But Switzerland is nothing but mountains.

No, no, there are tens of thousands of kilometres of level paths around the lakes. And I, poor fool, will believe them and sign up again.

Pondering this, I at last understand the point the Westport waiter was making. Perhaps it is possible to inject more minutes into an hour after all. I consider my own case, dispassionately.

I may look odd in Velcro, and a small paunchy grandfather on a bicycle may be a shade short of dignified. But at 73, going on 74, I am no more decrepit than I was at 70, when we first set off down the Danube: I have not deteriorated as markedly as I might have done. And that, I tell myself, is something.

Unlike the Irish, I may not have soared above the tyranny of Father Time. But at least I have kept the old bastard at bay for a little longer.

# For further information about Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland contact Helen Fraser of Tourism Ireland on 011-336-4865 or e-mail

o This article was originally published on page 10 of Saturday Star on July 01, 2005

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