Imagine spending four days riding through some of the most amazing landscapes on the planet, for less than the cost of a plane ticket. Ireland, you absolute beauty.
Following an overnight adventure along the shores of Strangford Lough and through the wild Mourne Mountains, it was time to go long. But where could I go for a few days, with good quiet roads, and great scenery?
Route Planning: A Train of Thought
Navan is conveniently located 90 minutes by bike from three trail stations: Enfield, Drogheda and M3 Parkway. I knew I would be taking the bike on a train, so I decided to pick a station and figure it out from there.
I’d been on the Enfield train before, up to Longford, to cycle back along the Royal Canal Greenway. This train goes all the way to Sligo. I’d never been to Sligo, so I started checking out the cycle routes there.
I was aware of Eurovelo routes from a holiday in Germany. It turns out, there’s one of these in Ireland – and it is an absolute UNIT.
This was a tad longer than I was looking for. But the route goes through Sligo, and down to Westport along the Greenway there. Could I? Should I?
Dear reader, I did.
The official Eurovelo route between Sligo and Westport looks like this.
Adding in the journey from Navan and back (by train!), it looked just a little bit too long for me. But I wanted a second opinion, and there’s no better place than the Cyclist.ie Slack group. This group consists of folks from all around Ireland, with vast experience in every aspect of cycling. I knew that someone would have ridden this route, and true enough, several people responded with incredibly useful tips and information.
Looking again at the route, I decided to take a few shortcuts, to limit the distance to under 90km per day. Just writing this feels very strange, for someone who only got back into cycling in the past three years. Turns out, when you’re rolling along, it takes very little effort. Also, being a big dirty cheater and having an e-bike, I can use the battery to give me an assist when needed.
Here’s the route I decided on:
But wait – Doesn’t It Rain In Ireland?
Yes. Yes it does. It also happens that rainproof jackets exist, and I had duly cycled in the rain and had survived this trauma without any permanent damage. But still, a storm had recently passed over Ireland, so I watched the weather carefully during the days before I was due to leave, and packed enough hi-viz and waterproof gear to start my own shop. And yes, I packed sunscreen. Because, Ireland.
Let’s Go: Navan to Enfield
I set off at 8am on a roughly 35km journey to the train station. It’s a little shorter if you take the main roads, which I did this time. After a few passes that were a little close for comfort, I switched to the back roads. Honestly lads, can you not just give a tiny bit of space when you’re driving?
Enfield is a popular stop along the Royal Canal Greenway, and the garage there is well used to people on bikes stopping in. Top tip: there’s a loo there, for customer use.
Enfield to Sligo
I had booked a ticket on Irish Rail, including reservation for a bike space, which is free. Yes, you heard me – you can bring your bike on Irish Rail trains for free. Terms and conditions apply, and I had heard grumbling from some folks who had arrived to find no space for their bike.
Lo and behold, I arrived, and was told … the bike spaces were full. Nightmare! Well .. not really. The incredibly nice conductor patiently helped to rearrange the bikes to make way for me, as I was travelling the furthest. No rush, no fuss.
For reasons that escape me, IrishRail decided to make the bike spaces too short to put bikes in, so you have to lift them up at a jaunty angle. Handy enough for a regular bike. Challenging for a 23kg e-bike loaded up with an appalling amount of hi-gear.
Top tip: when printing your train ticket at the machine in the station, you may receive a receipt and then a ticket. Wait for the actual ticket. Luckily, the incredibly patient conductor was able to verify my booking from the email I had on my phone, and she didn’t boot me off the train. I sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed the 2 hours 20 mins journey up to Sligo.
I arranged to meet the chairperson of Sligo Cycling Campaign, Joan Swift, who met me at the train station and guided me through the town to a local cafe. Having met online on numerous zoom calls over the past few years, it was great to finally meet in person!
Sligo town has decided against having safe infrastructure for cycling, but does have fantastic scones, so that’s ok.
Sligo to Killala
Joan kindly gave me excellent instructions, which I immediately forgot. Leaving Sligo town at around 1:30pm I made my out of the town, and was kindly reminded by local drivers that paint is not infrastructure.
To be fair, the photos above aren’t on the Eurovelo route. This is the Eurovelo route:
The N59 is a fast road. If you’re not ok mixing with 100km/h traffic, you might want to avoid this.
Thankfully my route was to take to a much quieter local road by the coast. This isn’t the EuroVelo route, but it saved about 20km, as even on the e-bike I didn’t fancy doing such a long distance, as I’d already ridden 35km just to get here.
This decision was either smart, or very stupid. I spent the next few hours cycling into a fresh headwind blowing in from the ocean. Maybe the route through the Ox mountains would’ve been easier. I’ll just have to come back and try it!
On balance, I think I made the right call, as I came across this beauty:
I’m not being smart, this really made my afternoon. Such a quirky little yoke, I was absolutely delighted to spot this bizarre tourist attraction and read the back-story. You don’t get this kind of stuff when driving.
The coastal route brings you to Inishcrone and then into Ballina. I was focused on reaching my overnight stop, so I didn’t dwell in Ballina. Lots of traffic, lots of potholes. And the HQ of Ireland’s Road Safety Authority.
The 12km from Ballina to Killala finished me off. I’ve cycled much further in one day, but the hills and wind really took their toll. The e-bike battery was down to 1km range as I arrived into Killala and the Acres B&B, The staff were well used to cyclists, and they have secure bike parking in their back yard. What I wasn’t expecting was that they serve the largest bowl of chowder I’ve ever experienced. Seriously, the bowl made the split rock look small. Suitably chowdered, I hit the hay.
Day 2: Killala to Belmullet
A glorious blue sky was a welcome sight to start the day, which would be an 80+km spin along the dramatic Atlantic coast. The weather report was for heavy rain in the afternoon, and though I had my rain gear, I didn’t fancy slogging through wind AND rain, especially after such a tough ride yesterday.
With a couple of possible shortcuts in the route noted, I set off along quiet regional roads, through picturesque rolling hills and coastal bays.
The gentle countryside soon transformed to dramatic hills and cliffs, along with an unexpected drop in the temperature. By the time I reached the highest point of the route, a freezing wind was whistling in from the ocean – adding to the dramatic scenery, and serving as a reminder as to why this is called the Wild Atlantic Way!
High up above the crashing waves is a tourist attraction that gives the split rock a run for it’s money.
Beneath the wild boglands of north Mayo lies a system of fields, dwelling areas and megalithic tombs which together make up the most extensive Stone Age monument in the world.
The stone-walled fields, extending over hundreds of hectares, are the oldest known globally, dating back almost 6,000 years. They are covered by a natural blanket bog with its own unique vegetation and wildlife.Heritage Ireland
Today however, a local road race was preparing to start (Mayo people being immune to freezing wind, apparently), and looking Westward the sky was turning dark with stormclouds, so I continued my journey.
This has to be experienced, but hopefully the video above gives a flavour of the place.
The route soon started to drop towards the sea and my destination for the evening, Belmullet. I stopped off for a hot coffee at a combined garage and funeral parlour and chatted with a few passing locals who clearly thought I was mad. But they’re the ones going into a place where you can get coffee and a coffin, so who’s the mad one?
Soon enough I arrived at my home for the evening, the Broadhaven Bay Hotel. Reader, they let me store my bike into an unused meeting room. My bike has never known such luxury. I hope it doesn’t go to her head. Too wrecked to explore the town, I instead opted to warm up at the hotel. I didn’t note what I had for dinner, but I do remember still thinking about the chowder.
Weather. There’s lots of it out here. And as I sit in the bar in Broadhaven Bay to write this, tomorrow afternoon is looking rather damp.
Reader, I was not to be disappointed.
Day 3: Belmullet to Newport
After confusing the hotel staff, who had never seen anyone arrive for breakfast at the scheduled 7am start on a Sunday morning, I set off into what looked like a good start.
The headwind was really fierce, forcing me to pedal downhill. Not to be defeated by this strange physics, I got my own back by flipping on the battery assist. Take that, nature.
On a Sunday morning the main road was very quiet. Only two or three cars passed by each hour, and without exception they gave me plenty of space when overtaking. This unexpected good behaviour, along with the steely sky and barren rolling hills put me in great humour. I was smiling to myself as the rain started.
Wait … Project MegaAWE? Firstly, hats off to whoever named this project. You started with the name and worked backwards, and fair play to you. “Airborne Wind Energy Systems (AWES), aircraft tethered to compact ground-based generators”. Kites beaming energy down to the ground. This place has enough wind energy to power most of the country. Or perhaps half a datacenter.
A band of rain came and passed. I shrugged. That all ya got, Mayo?
And speaking of mayo, I couldn’t resist calling into this fine establishment for lunch
Heading back out, I could already see the mountains at Achill, and they loomed, the tops lost in the clouds, which now decided to let rip.
They say there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. My clothing was actually pretty good, but was no match for this rain. If this was a match, I was losing 5-0 at half time.
This was elemental, unrelenting and epic. This wasn’t the same rain that we get back in Meath. This wasn’t “rain”, this was something else entirely.
My Cycliq camera packed up at this point. I couldn’t really blame it. The rainproof phone holder was doing its best, but clearly had never been tested like this. The rain was gushing off the baseball cap I had on under my helmet. Reader, I was soaked, and I couldn’t have been enjoying myself more.
The one small disappointment was that I couldn’t get a decent photo of the view from the Great Western Greenway. The section at the Western end rises up over the bay, and you’ll just have to take my word for it that it’s … well I can’t find the word for it.
It’s a pity that the designers of the Greenway didn’t think to connect it to Newport. After a few paint-on-the-road cycle lanes, you’re dumped into the main road and left to fight the traffic. I know it’s hard, and roads aren’t wide enough, and all that. But seriously lads, try harder.
If ever you’re in Newport, you’ll want to stay at the Riverside B&B. I had a certain preconception of what a B&B is. This place reset my expectations. For a start, there’s a furnace in the room. A furnace! Right there in the room! The bed has a built in library and a secret upper deck! And the host was genuinely fantastic, not least for not laughing in my face when I turned up looking like I’d swum there.
Day 4: Newport – Westport
After a breakfast of french toast with eggs supplied by hens employed* by the B&B, and home made breads, The final leg of my journey was afoot. Note to self: need more bike-related phrases.
* I don’t know the employment situation of the hens, but I can confirm that the bread was excellent. Sorry, egg-cellent.
This part of the Greenway is mostly on a segregated path, mostly directly beside the busy N59 road, but sometimes winding around the countryside and overflowing rivers. The Greenway was also flooded, which was excellent news for my feet, which had been dry for almost an hour.
After just 13km, Westport town centre welcomes you with open arms – but no discernible cycle infrastructure. How are people expected to get from the Greenway to their destination? Did a page from the design fall off the photocopier? How do designers imagine people get to and from Greenways? Do better lads.
Westport to Navan (via Dublin)
I had again booked the train, setting me back €17.99. You really can’t beat it. Although you really should remember to tick the box for bringing your bike onboard.
Thus ensued a fairly tense period. A conversation was had with an official, who spoke with a more senior official. I was worried until a passing engineer reassured me that “nobody gets left behind in Westport”. Which seemed quite profound, though at the time I was more focused on squeezing my bike into a secret storage cupboard that nobody is supposed to know about. You ain’t heard this from me, right?
I know what you’re thinking, dear reader. “Why not get off at Portarlington and cycle the 74km home to Navan instead of going all the way into Dublin and then back out again?”.
Because my legs only had at most 50km more in them. Even though the distances on paper weren’t huge, the landscapes were, and the last few days were challenging for a gentleman of my fitness (i.e. not at all fit). Also, I wouldn’t have had this view arriving back into Navan.
The End Bit
This was my longest tour (so far) at around 360km over four days, with three overnight stays. I overpacked, but not by much. I could’ve done with a warmer cycling top at a couple of points along the coast, and a waterproof helmet-cover wouldn’t have gone amiss.
I would’ve loved some decent video footage, especially of the greenway, but my Cycliq Fly12CE let me down again. I can’t recommend this device at all unfortunately.
The folks looking after the trains were really great, I have to say. I’ve seen that Irish Rail are upgrading to carriages that are a bit more accommodating to bikes, which will be great to see.
September is definitely a tricky month to plan for. Basically, plan for blistering sun and freezing rain, in the same day, and you won’t go far wrong.
The Eurovelo route was … basically signposts. I’m not really sure what I was expecting, and the landscape was as epic as you could wish for. But this is on-road, beside traffic, so keep your wits about you.
These fairly minor gripes don’t take away from what is an absolutely stunning part of the world, and you won’t be disappointed. Come for the weather. Stay for the chowder.