Martin and Seamie Cycle Mizen to Malin

Mizen-to-Malin Cycle June 2019 for Benbulben COPD Support Group, Sligo

Last year, after a long day on the bike at the Wicklow 200 cycle event, my Innisfree Wheelers club mate and good friend Seamie Clifford and I talked about a bucket list aspiration, to undertake a Mizen to Malin cycle – the end to end as they call it – and decided why not give it a go!. We picked a route of around 650km, enlisted my brother Norman to cycle with us together with his friend Jonathon Lockart, and our brothers Pat Keville and John Clifford joined us as support drivers.

Norman, Pat and I sadly lost our father Tom in 2014 after a long period of respiratory illness. Dependent on regular daily oxygen use during his last few years, he very much enjoyed the comradery and support of his local Mayo COPD group and their monthly get-togethers. They were a lovely group of people who despite their suffering, kept each other’s spirits up with banter and craic and regular sharing of information on coping with the various COPD conditions, the latest medical advice etc. This being the year of Dad’s fifth anniversary, in his memory we decided to use our cycle as a fundraising event for the Benbulben COPD Support Group, Sligo. Over 4 days, we gave ourselves the goal of completing the cycle in under 32 hours total cycling time and actually managed it in 26hrs 58mins. It was a really enjoyable experience for all of us and this is how it went……….

Day 1 – 152km, 1,630m climbing.

Mizen Head – Shiplake – Ballycove – Rockview – Colleen Holiday Homes – Ballydevlin Cottages R591 – Toomore – Casheifean Cottages R591 – The Cross – Durrus – R591 on to N71 – Cappanaloha – Newtown West – Bantry – N71 to Kenmare – Moll’s Gap – Killarney – Madams Hill – Ballhar – Batterfield – Croughmore West – Farmers Bridge – Tralee.

After all of the training miles the four of us put in over the past few months, the big event had finally arrived. I collected our sponsored van – a lovely new Renault Traffic – on Tuesday 11 June, then linked up with Seamie to checklist all necessities, do the packing and ensure nothing was forgotten for our epic cycle. Four main bikes, all serviced and spick and span, 2 spare bikes, tubes, 2 front/rear wheel sets, a bike stand, a bag of tools, pressure sprayer, chain degreaser, oils, boxes of snacks, protein drinks, a full box of bananas, 75ltrs of Glencar water, 4 day’s cycling gear each, helmets, cycling shoes, shoe covers, waterproofs, 5 full kit bags, the van was crammed. All six of the team met up in Sligo that evening and on Wednesday morning took to the road for Ireland’s most Southerly point in a car/van convoy. Pat and I had the van. A couple of hours later, as we headed past Limerick City, thinking we were making tracks, it became an increasingly worrying (for a cyclist!) long drive down through Counties Limerick and Cork before we eventually reached the lovely scenic wilderness of Mizen Head, with a welcome break along the way for dinner in the Snug, Bantry. At Mizen, we checked into the very nice Crookhaven B&B and after a short drive and reconnaissance of the beautiful coastal views and nearby starting point for our cycle, the Mizen Head Coastguard Station, we got to bed early.

I didn’t find it easy to sleep and rose nervously for the first day of the cycle through the Cork and Kerry mountains. However, after a hearty breakfast each, a mug of hot tea and in much better spirits after the night’s rest, all four of us were eager to make a start. We lined up on the official Mizen Head ‘START’ line and got on the road around 8am, pedalling steadily for the next few hours at approx. 23-24kph. It was a very cool and grey June morning but luckily stayed dry all day and we enjoyed grippy safe roads for this first-stage spin. Seamie had worked out that we had 1,630m of climbing on today’s stage and we sure felt it, but we got lovely views over the Caha Pass, through the rock tunnel and up the climb up to Moll’s Gap. Further on, a real stinger for the four of us was the long slow drag up to the top of Ballyfinnane Hill (…nobody told us!), but we managed that after a bit of a slow pedalling slog with heads down looking at the tarmac. The freewheeling fast descents were lovely, especially the long one into Glengarriff. We got the essential balance of carbohydrate snacks/hydration on the bike just right and had no energy ‘bonks’ at all during today’s spin or on any part of the overall cycle. Critical for knee comfort was precise saddle height adjustment and for me that was perfect – no niggles at all. Jonathon got a bit of a knee ache after the 130km mark but Seamie’s magic cream did the trick and he was cured!

Pedalling steadily for hours, everybody in good spirits, we were well entertained and supported along the route by John and Pat in lead car and support van respectively. After 152km, we got to the Glenfort B&B, Tralee, showered and changed and enjoyed a lovely hot meal in the nearby O’Donnell’s bar/restaurant with much banter and debate about BREXIT, Mayo football, Kerry sporting achievements and other critical issues. That evening and immediately after each 6-7 hour bike riding stage, our nutritionist Seamie looked after us well with a nice chocolate protein shake to make sure the muscle recovery cut in. Good as gold, and focused on the mission, we got to bed by 10.30 for the journey the next morning to Oranmore.

Day 2 – 174km, 1,441m climbing.

Tralee – Listowel – Tarbert – Killimer – Kilrush – R483 Kimacduane – Creegh – Kilmuery – Spanish Piont – Milltown Malbay – Ballyvaskin N67 – Lahinch – Ennistmon – Kilishanny – Lisdoonvarna – N67 Ballyvaughan – Bealaclugga – L1014 – Toorard – N67 – Kinvara – N67 – Ballinderren – N67 – Kilcolgan –N67 –Bridgewood – N67 – Oranmore.

Looking forward to over 170kms of pedalling today, we enjoyed a lovely cool dry start in North Co. Kerry pedalling out through Listowel and on to Tarbert. Sadly we said goodbye to our dedicated courier/guide/H&S/social media, entertainment and logistics man John C as we left Co. Kerry and crossed the Shannon on the ferry to the Banner County (……which unfortunately reduced the average speeds – we forgot that that was still being measured by the Garmin GPS bike gadgets !). Au Revoir John, we’ll meet again before too long, hopefully.

As we alighted on the Co. Clare shoreline, and cautiously walked the bikes up the slippy green ramp, the sun burst through and for the next few hours, we had unbroken sunshine, clear blue skies and only light winds for the whole scenic length of the N67, all the way up to Oranmore, Co. Galway. What a magnificent day’s cycling – truly the N67 is a cyclist’s dream, undoubtedly the best smooth tar surface I’ve ever cycled on with continuous breathtaking ocean scenery over the left shoulder. We certainly enjoyed every kilometre of our journey on up through the iconic coastal towns of Miltown Malbay, Lahinch, Lisdoonvarna, Ballyvaughan, Kinvara…..stunning – nearly as good as Kerry !!.

We eagerly belted on down the fast descents on the switchbacks of the famous Corkscrew hill, luckily with no skids or incidents as the road was lovely and dry. Near Doonbeg, after the recent Trump visit, the stars n stripes hung from all windows, you’d swear we were Stateside ! A good bit further on up the road, Pat pulled in the van and the five of us enjoyed a delicious lunch al fresco at the Food Hall, Ennistymon, chilling out in the hot sunshine, chatting to locals and watching the world go by. Again, the nutrition and hydration was spot-on today and no ‘bonks’ or issues arose. Got into the cosy Oranmore Lodge Hotel that evening and had a lovely dinner and major snooze. No need to enforce any ‘no alcohol’ rules on this trip, lads taking it too seriously to risk any of that craic !

Day 3 – 168km, 1,014m climbing

Oranmore Lodge – R381 – Claregalway – onto N83 – Loughgeorge – Tuam – N83 – Dunmore – Cloofad – Ballyhaunnis N83 and on to R293 – Brackloon – Ballaghaderreen – R293 – Gorteen – Ballymote – Collooney – Ballysadare – Sligo – Rathcormack – Drumcliff – Grange – Cliffony – Bundoran.

It was a lovely sunny blue skies day as we surfaced in Oranmore Lodge and all were in high spirits over a nice breakfast. A still-drunk late-night reveller amused us as she jumped the queue to get some eggs and rashers, the boozy ‘false hunger’ getting the better of her. The routine now well established, after my breakfast I left the lads to it as I snuck back to the room to ‘butter the scones’ as they say, lashing on fistfuls of the magic chamois cream in hope, as the bike saddle was now getting to be a bit of a challenge. This was the flattest cycling day (only 1,014m). We started the day with a nice pacey run along the N17 hard shoulder from Claregalway to Tuam, and had a pleasant encounter when Seamie met a friend from Ardfert with his wife and kids on the side of the road near Corofin, waiting outside their house to greet us and wish us well. Further on past Tuam at Dunmore, a lovely cuppa and a snack followed in a very proud Centra service station owner’s new outdoor covered area for cyclists – a brand new bench-and-canopy installation. Our man got all excited when he saw the very first group of lads in dodgy lycra pull in to avail of his new facility and asked us if he could have a photo for Facebook !. Of course not shy at all, we willingly gave our permission and posed.

We crossed into Co. Mayo and on to Ballyhaunis, then took a right-hand turn for Ballaghadereen where we had lunch in the Fiddler’s Elbow, then into Co. Sligo, through Gurteen to Ballymote and eventually to a welcome pull-in at Hot Rods in Collooney. An amazing reception awaited us in this, our Cycling Club’s regular Sunday Spin coffee point – Family, friends and loads of Wheelers there, togged in Club colours and giving us a big applause. It was a genuinely exciting and humbling occasion. Michael McGloin, the Benbulben COPD Support Group Chairperson and a few of the group were there also and it was great to see them. It was a really special moment at this stage of our bike journey for us Sligo lads to meet our families and friends and for Seamie and I to be able to introduce the Wicklow lads to everybody, especially to Michael and the COPD group our fundraising cycle would help to support.

After around 40 minutes of chats, craic, photos and a hot cuppa, on this uncharacteristically wet, cold June evening we got a great Wheelers’ escort out the road and all the way to Grange in lashing rain. In fact, it was really only on that stretch (Ballymote to Bundoran) that we saw any rain at all for the whole trip, which was amazing. We crossed into our final county, Co. Donegal on Saturday evening and checked into the Allingham Arms Hotel Bundoran drowned and cold but soon warmed up after a shower and a nice dinner. Bed early again as the final stage to Malin Head awaited us. This was Saturday in the Allingham, a major country music dance night. The hotel was jammed. We were all a bit restless as we tried to cover our ears and block out Robert Mizell’s unending closing medley in the dance hall below, but after the day’s exertions on the bikes, we were soon fast asleep.

Day 4 – 154km, 1,296m climbing

Bundoran – Ballyshannon – Ballintra – Laghy – Ballybofey – Letterkenny – Manorcunningham – Newtown Cunningham – Burt – Bridgend – Muff – Quigley’s Point – Carndonagh – Ballygorman – Coastguard Station – Malin Head.

Only 154km to go – this was it – the final stage of our M-to-M cycle and we awoke full of the joys, well rested, no niggles in the knees and really looking forward to crossing the FINISH line at Malin Head. Blue skies and sunshine burst through when we pulled the curtains. This was another brilliant day for cycling, and, after a good night’s rest, the youngest brother was fully refreshed and rearing to go with the van (….no more snorers to put up with, but you can keep those ear plugs Pat !). The hotel quiet and previous night’s revellers still in their beds, we were the first into the breakfast room by arrangement at 7am and we got on the road early.

Our first destination was Donegal Town and beyond that, surprisingly, we had no headwinds at all as we pedalled through Barnesmore Gap and on to Letterkenny. All riders squirming around the saddles at this stage trying to find the comfortable ‘sweet spot’, there were a few stops along the way for ahem……clothing tweaks and adjustments, but with the slagging now very much diminished…..all of us in the same boat for sure. The very steep half-kilometre descent to Letterkenny roundabout was a hairy experience but we held on tight and freewheeled steadily down. Seamie, the thrillseeker, got a loose front wheel wobble half-way down that descent at speed, but managed to bring it under control, tighten all and carry on. Right at the roundabout, then a few kilometres on and the left turn off for Muff was certainly a welcome relief from the continuous Derry dual carriageway traffic and the hundreds of rip-roaring boy racers getting excited about next week’s Donegal International Rally.

Turning north-west on to Innishowen, we were now in the comfort of the peaceful country roads again. The elevation and pedalling effort got noticeably tougher as we neared Malin village but we didn’t care as we were buzzing by now, only 11km to go. At Malin Head, Eileen, Cónall, Róisin, Bernie, Delphine and our Club mates Anne and Caroline had driven up for our grand finale and a big awaiting crowd (for other M-to-M rider groups) cheered us on, which gave us a great lift. Even though the last 200m or so steep ramp up to the finish line was savage, in front of the crowd we couldn’t but do the manly noble thing and we climbed it without breaking a sweat or putting a foot down for relief and all pedalled across the line together, Jonathon pulling a particularly impressive wheelie which was captured forever on video !

Hugs and high-fives all-round, it was a real rush, for sure! Locked in a family embrace with Eileen, Cónall, Róisín and Bernie, I thought of my father in whose memory we were cycling, smiling to myself with satisfaction at the mission accomplished and the team home safe and sound. Norman our tough man had a ‘moment’ and had to turn away from the boys to conceal this weakness…..ha ha, sure isn’t that what it’s all about !…..All of us were really proud of ourselves for taking on and finishing this 650km challenge well ahead of our target timeframe, particularly with the extra 100km we added to pedal up the scenic West coast of Clare, and with over 5,300m total climbing in the legs over the four days, certainly multi-day endurance stuff we’d never done before on the bikes. We were relieved to have made it without incident, accident, mechanical issue or even a single puncture between the four of us. Weather wise, lady-luck having been with us the whole way, after 5 minutes in Malin, the rain started to fall and it got heavier and heavier. After a couple of photos for posterity, we quickly put the bikes and kit in the van, secured all, drove back to Sligo and chilled out……………A cycling ambition achieved, and with the best gang of lads possible – Does it get any better!

We really enjoyed our Mizen-to-Malin challenge and would like to say a sincere thank you to the following people who helped make it happen:

– to our van sponsor, prize draw sponsors, our many helpers, friends, cycling club mates, work colleagues and all of the people who so kindly organised or facilitated, participated in and generously donated to our fundraising events. We exceeded our target of €10,000 for the Benbulben COPD Support Group and, as we fully covered the costs of the event ourselves, all monies raised will be passed to the group.

– to John and Pat, for giving so generously of your time and for your excellent work in supporting us, the transportation, marshalling, occasional redirecting, the banter, wisecracks, fun and frolics we enjoyed along the way.

– to our families, our children and our wives Eileen, Ger, Delphine and Catherine, a big thank you for your love, support and patience and for your help with the fundraising events and arrangements. We could never have done this without ye!