Borris Viaduct

Borris Viaduct
Borris ViaDuct

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Cycology & the Upsides of Downsides - A Touring Adventure with JJ Digby Part III

I was hesitant about this cycle from the start. Despite our pretty enjoyable cycle the day before, my legs were still feeling the effects of my low pressure tire cycling 4 days previously. My legs weren't destroyed - I just felt they could do with a few days rest, and the idea of another 135km cycle with panniers did not appeal to me at all, not to mention the fact the way back was predominantly uphill!

When I had left JJ the day before we agreed we would get in touch later that evening about cycling back. When he did, I was really hoping we would agree to leave it another day, but in the end we figured it was 'tomorrow or not at all' with plans we had on later in the week taken into consideration. Reluctantly, I agreed to this, but I didn't have to be happy about it!

It didn't make sense to do an exact return of our journey down, so instead of me cycling the wrong way to meet JJ at his, or him adding distance to get to mine, we agreed to meet in Graiguenamanagh at 8am the next morning. To try and get my motivation up, I went online the evening before and tried to figure out some alternate routes to make the start of our journey more interesting at the start - Myshall and Borris are great destinations on the way home, but only really because they signal you are getting close to the end!

So from Graig, the plan was to take a road to Borris the other side of the river from the road we had came down a few days previously. This appeared to be a bit flatter overall (though every road out of Graig is uphill!), and was just alternative!. From Borris we would go on to Bagenalstown, Leighlinbridge and Carlow before turning off at Castledermot to link up with our familiar route at Baltinglass. This made me feel a bit better about things, as Bagenalstown & Leighlinbridge were nice scenic new additions to our cycling & I really did not fancy coming at Myshall, Rathvilly or Tullow from the other direction!

So I got up bright and early and left at 7.15am. I had given myself a 3 quarters of an hour to do that 10km to Graig as, as I had learnt on my 2nd ever cycle down, this road was very hilly! In fact it was difficult enough just getting out the driveway and immediately having to get the momentum to cycle steeply uphill with the panniers on - normally I had time to warm up for this! With my short term hilly route and long term predominantly uphill route in mind, I cycled in a really light gear in perhaps what was an overcompensating act of self preservation. This was to be the theme of the day!

The uphill flattened out and I had opportunity to take the Nore valley view on my right in at my leisure. This would have been a familiar stretch to me as a kid as I used to cycle up to a friends house up here regularly - it's funny how you never really appreciate the scenery on your doorstep till you're older, or don't live there anymore! From there, the road descended into a mini valley the other side of which was a road less cycled and a big climb. I cycled light and steady again, but this uphill was LONG. It seemed to take ages, with some false descents led to bigger climbs. I knew eventually I would have a nice descent as I would be arriving at the hill I had to walk up on my 2nd cycle down, but due to lack of familiarity I didn't know exactly when I would be hitting this.

As I steadily climbed, I heard the sound of a tractor behind me. It sounded closer than it was, but it was gradually gaining on me. I really did not want this tractor getting in front of me before this descent!! I cycled on, conflicted on burning my legs for a bit vs. self preservation to beat this tractor to the top - it seemed to take ages but eventually the road levelled out.

Something really nice happened at the top that made me forget about the tractor. It had been slightly overcast so far this morning, but just as Graig came into view in the valley below me, a bit of sunshine broke through the clouds and shone directly on it, as if highlighting my destination. Now, I am not a religious man by any means, but for lack of a better word, this view was heavenly! It just one of those things that will stick with me and a reminder of why I love cycling so much. And then the road started to descend and with it I started to accelerate...

And kept accelerating! The road wasn't great quality or wide, but it was long and straight so I engaged the hardest gears and pedalled with it. Even still, there was a point where gravity took over and I was not having a say in how whether I was going to be going fast or not. I was now a juggernaut, thundering down the hill. At first it was invigorating, I enjoyed the speed, took in the amazing view and kept an eye out for concealed entrances (of which there was many). Then things got a little ropey! The road got REALLY bumpy and I was bouncing all over the place, on top of this I was going really fast (about 65km/h, a new personal record!) and it genuinely felt unsafe to even brake. There wasn't so much panic - I think adrenaline helps in these instances - but there was definitely worry! Eventually the road levelled out and I had a relatively small but steep climb which my momentum mostly helped me with, and I was on my final descent into Graig. I was completely buzzing now, and I hadn't even started my cycle with JJ yet!

I waited a bit for JJ. I had given myself too much time to get there, and JJ had underestimated the time it would take him (if you observed me and JJ for a period of time, you might start to see a pattern here!) so I was probably waiting about 20 minutes, though I probably needed it to calm down a bit. That said, at 8 in the morning at was a bit chillier than I expected, so I was glad when he arrived and after unleashing my buzz on him we promptly got going.

Like I said before, every hill out of Graig was uphill and immediately we were climbing. Cycling light and steady, these hills never seemed so bad when cycling with company. It was uphill of a kilometre, maybe two and we just chatted the whole way up! Once the road flattened out, at the top it was pretty handy terrain, albeit very non-descript (this is the trade-off you generally make with cycling - you have to work for the scenery!). However it did gradually descend and we found ourselves on another long winding climb before we got to Borris.

Once we got to Borris, we didn't feel compelled to hang around and continued on the road to Bagenalstown, the initial stretch was a long straight where we could see the road roll up and down away into the distance. I'm not a huge fan of these kinds of roads, would much rather discover a hill round a bend than see them all laid out in front of me! However in good company, it was a breeze, and eventually the road became more enjoyable, some nice descents taking firing us towards Bagenalstown.

Bagenalstown is a lovely spot - I couldn't tell you much about the town to be honest, we just breezed through it to get to the riverside park on the other side - it's really scenic with plenty of weirs in the river (a weired river? a weird river?! This is where your thoughts go when you write these things at night!), surrounded by some well kept mill buildings. It's somewhere I had stopped on my very 1st cycle to Kilkenny to take in the scenery, and I can safely say I had arrived there in much better condition this time around. In the spirit of our brief breaks, we only stopped for a banana there, as we had plans on having lunch in Carlow, which would be pretty much the halfway point. Short afterwards we were on our way again, and rolling through Leighlinbridge within about 20 minutes. It was equally scenic, but so soon after our last stop we just rolled on through taking it in as we went.

I wasn't particularly looking forward to the next section of road to Carlow - before the new motorway was built this was the main road to Dublin from Waterford, which meant it was wide, long, exposed, tedious and had fast cars and lorries on it to compound your feelings of getting nowhere. But I was in for a pleasant surprise!

With the motorway now running parallel (within a mile), the traffic though ever-present was evidently lighter but there was one other crucial difference for me. Within the space that was the hard shoulder they had clearly marked it now as a cycleway. I thought this was just brilliant! So on this busy road myself and JJ were quite happy to cycle abreast and chat away while traffic thundered by us. I'm sure the weather on the day helped too, plus we had the wind behind us, but despite having no more space than the hard shoulder had provided previously it was psychologically quite powerful to know we had our own assigned space on the road. And it wasn't just some little token gesture either - we had this space for a good 90-95% of the 25km or so to Carlow! Despite there being very little in the way of scenery here, we felt quite comfortable & safe to cycle and chat away which really encapsulated the spirit of touring for me. For this reason it was one of the highlights of this trip for me.

Carlow is on of these towns that make you realise you shouldn't plan your lunch break around the halfway point on a map. We had our lunch on a concrete seat by a contrived weir at the back of a car park with a spectacular view of a Lidl across the stream. We quickly moved on.

A half an hour flattish cycle of little note (NB: amount of climbing you do on a route would seem to be directionally proportional to the amount of scenery you get rewarded with - don't always plot a route to be easy on the legs!) got us to Castledermot and we were now on the link road to Baltinglass and familiar cycle route territory, albeit in reverse. This road was quite pleasant with a nice variety of bends and rolling roads to keep things interesting. Also knowing we were quite close to Baltinglass helped!

One thing I have somehow failed to mention about Baltinglass in the all the previous posts is just how bad the road surface is there. I mean, the whole route we cycle between Dublin and Kilkenny is pretty good, and the alternate journey we were taking today pretty much the same, but there seems to be a 2km radius from the centre of Baltinglass within which the road surface turns to shite - it's like the pothole centre of Ireland (and I can still safely say it holds that title after all the subsequent cycles I have done during the year). Which is a pity, because Baltinglass is otherwise a pretty scenic place, and a destination I always look forward to reaching on these long cycles. Anyways, JJ nearly nutted himself as a result of a large pothole near the kerb on the way, and generally we had to cycle almost in the middle of the road for safe passage.

Despite only being an hour out of Carlow, we stopped here for a quick snack break, possibly because we felt we were due a scenic break after Carlow town, but mainly because we knew we had a potentially arduous 35km to the next town of Blessington. This was a section of road we had always enjoyed so far on the cycles from Dublin, mainly because it had a slight downhill for the majority of it coming away from the Wicklow Mts, which was now obviously going to be 35km of slight uphill now!

But my legs felt better than I thought they would  at this stage and (I'm going to go out on a limb and speak for JJ here...) we were in good company so on we went. Again like the early stages of the cycle, I cycled (almost overly) light and steady to preserve myself and the focus just wasn't on speed at all. For this whole stretch we were just chatting  away and in fairness it was pretty scenic too as we followed a meandering river upstream for a good stretch of it. I was surprised to come across some nice little pacey descents too - I had never registered these as anything more than draggy hiccups in my downhill momentum coming the other way, so they were yet another pleasant surprise on the trip this time around. This road is pretty well sign posted and the distance to Blessington seemed to be diminishing a lot quicker than expected. This wasn't tedious at all! It was becoming less about the destination and more about the journey too. With the wind behind you, and travelling at our light uphill pace (i.e. no speed wind turbulence!) the road is quite tranquil and all you can hear is the sound of your wheel on the tarmac and your chain in the cog - it is one of my favourite sounds/sensations and one of the reasons I happily jump on the bike and do these 6 hour cycles again and again...

As we closed in on Blessington we stopped to have a look at the Poulaphuca Dam and the viaduct which we had cycled over so many times on this route. They are such big impressive structures, and I had never been aware of their presence until I had come this direction. I had been too busy making the most of the downhill momentum and tearing through this section of road coming the other way all those times, yet going uphill it was a better pace to spot things and an easier decision to stop and investigate. Another 5km up the route and we properly spotted Russburough House for the 1st time. We had seen it before on our right while travelling at speed, but only a glimpse, and only after we had passed the entrance for it, this time around we had enough time to discuss on agree on going to have a look. And it was a worthwhile break too - I mean why go on these trips if you're not going to stop and take these sites in at your leisure?

In the spirit of our other long cycles, myself and JJ were longing again for another hearty meal and decided Blessington was the place to stop for it, so we quickly  got a move on. I was starting to feel the effects of the weekend of cycling now - not fatigue, but my right knee was becoming quite stiff and sore. I was actually looking forward to a more prolonged stop, and Blessington was only 20 minutes away.

In Blessington, we found a pub with a front terrace and conveniently a bike locking facility. While we sat there having our now customary hearty meal and pint of Guinness, we both vocally seemed to have something of a revelation at the same time. We were in a recession, I was on a two day week with work & broke, JJ's business hadn't been doing so good of late, and here we were on a Tuesday afternoon having pints in the sun after cycling all day. This wasn't so bad, was it? I mean, sure, we both acknowledged the fact that people in the country were much worse off than us, saddled with massive debts, unemployed with families to support - but that was exactly it, put into context we were pretty well off, we were free and we were making the most of it. Money seemed so trivial at that moment.... Until the bill came of course!

So philosophical ponderings aside, we now had to get home. My knee had not benefitted from the rest and was getting worse -so much so that I was almost trying to pedal completely with my other foot. This is an instance where having your foot attached to the pedal would come in handy. Again I got a bit of JJ pedal envy and decided I was going to get some spd pedals before my next long cycle!

I think this knee pain and the urgency to get home made the 10km to Brittas feel a lot longer than expected. But I burned through it, knowing there was going to be a big descent down to Saggart and onto the final stretch home.

When we reached the 'summit' of our journey before our final big descent we took a break, we would be parting company near the bottom of the hill, so in a way we were saying our good byes now, as we knew we wouldn't be in the mood for the formalities when speeding down the hill later on! When we got going, we were bombing it in no time, it was really nice to be speeding down this hill I had struggled up so many times before. I didn't pedal because of my knee, but it was some invigorating coasting!

Sure enough JJ and I parted company with a little wave as he continued towards Tallaght and I took a left to Saggart. This last stretch of the cycle was definitely the low point of the day, and the bad luck started literally immediately after I turned left - within 20metres of parting company with JJ, the chain fell off my bike! This is no big deal, but I couldn't fix the problem with the bike upright, so I had the turn the bike over, which was a pain the face  taking off the two panniers and the handlebar mounted phone - I just wanted to get home! Then I got lost in Citywest, and ended up crossing the dual carriageway too early and having to do that ropey stretch of dual carriageway before getting on the Grangecastle road, and finally home! It was only relatively speaking the low point though - the weather was good, I was mostly in good spirits and for the most part really enjoyed the final roll home.

This was a big day for me - I think I really made a breakthrough and grasped what touring actually was on this trip. It wasn't about the destination or about the time we did it in, it was about the journey itself and enjoying the process. It wasn't about wrecking yourself to get there as quickly as possible, but about preserving yourself to make the whole experience as enjoyable & comfortable as possible. It wasn't about racing your friend home, it was about enjoying your company and not noticing the hours and kilometres go by. I had went into today with little hope and low expectations, it had made me change my approach to the trip, which had surprised me in how I experienced the journey. A lot of what you get out of these trips, is how you prepare for them and approach them. It was all cycological!

Then, later that evening I got the biggest surprise of the day. I checked the computer on my bike - we had done the trip in 5 hours 45minutes of cycling, at least 20 minutes faster than any of our previous attempts going the other way, predominantly downhill! Slow and steady really did win the race!!