Wednesday, June 17, 2009

You Call This a Bike Lane?!

Yesterday, we began our discussion of the State of Cycling in Ireland by looking at urban riding. In Dublin, this differed from urban warfare only in that nobody wore helmets or cleaned their weapons. Today, we will talk about rural Irish cycling.

Basically, riding a bicycle in the country in Ireland is the best way to go, because:

  • The roads are usually too narrow for cars, anyway.
  • The fuel for cars is too expensive.
  • There are not many journeys that are more than 300 kilometers (190 miles) long. That's just a day ride ... if you're a randonneur.

They even have bike lanes there … although they are about as well-maintained and designed as bike lanes here. They tend to come and go on a whim, are just wide enough for a bicycle (in the same way that the roads are just wide enough for two cars … ha!), and tend to collect all of the crap that washes down off the rest of the road.

Driving a car in Ireland, however, is not fun. Many of the roads are pretty normal, except for the confusing roundabouts and weird “traffic-calming” zones. And, of course, they drive on the left side of the road, which keeps things kind of weird.

The real joy, however, comes the further you get out in the boonies. Out there the roads become, basically, paved goat paths. And they're not even paved very well, with the kind of potholes that bounce your head off the roof. And they're too narrow for fat goats.

Near the southwest coast, we did a drive called the Ring of Kerry. The road is fairly major – think of the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Natchez Trace here in the States. However, before you go out there they advise you to do the route from north to south because – and this is critical – that’s the way that the buses go, and you don’t want to try to pass them going the other way.

Yes, this translates to: If you do the route from south to north, you will have to get off of the road when a bus comes by, since the road is not wide enough for your car and a bus!

But wait, it gets better.

Halfway on the Ring of Kerry is an optional loop: The Ring of Skellig. It’s a little more … secluded, shall we say? Of course, we decided to do it.

Buses don’t go on the Ring of Skellig. Partly this is because it is rather hilly, but mostly it is because the roads are not wide enough for a whole bus. They’re barely wide enough for a car.

Imagine how much fun it is to be going up a 15-degree hill on a 0.6-lane road and encounter a car coming the other way. We did that.

Now, to be fair, it was also beautiful. As you can see from this picture, the views were easily worth the terror of driving the roads.

Of course, I say that because RandoGirl had thoughtfully signed us up with the rental car company, and she was the only one allowed to drive the car.

Sometimes it’s good to be the passenger.

And it's possible that, if you had a more major road out there, lots of people would take that road and it would spoil it. If I lived there, I certainly wouldn't want a big road. If they have zoning meetings out there, the one for that would be a doozy.

Here’s RandoGirl illustrating how narrow the roads were. This is an alley in Kilkenny, through which our GPS insisted we must go in order to get to our hotel. We made it, but had to fold in the side mirrors. Needless to say, we subsequently walked around a bit in order to find a way out of Kilkenny that did not involve this alley.

After a week of no cycling in Ireland, RandoGirl and I broke down and rented a couple of bikes for a day in the city of Clifden. We did a little two-hour ride from there out on one of the peninsulas, stopping for tea in a fishing village.

You have no idea how cool it is to say that you stopped for tea in a fishing village. It's even cooler to say than it is to actually stop for tea in a fishing village.

The terrain was pretty mild, with just a few little hills, but the winds were fierce. It had also been a long time since either of us had ridden hybrids, wearing blue jeans and sweat shirts. All in all, though, it really felt good to be back on a bike -- any bike.

At one point, we're riding into this 25-mph wind and come across some sheep. I stood up (mostly because I had been riding for a couple of hours in blue jeans) and started chasing the sheep down the road. RandoGirl was very amused. The sheep were not.

The route to the quiet lanes of the peninsula required that we get on the more major road in the area. During this stretch of about 15 kilometers, we were regularly passed by a variety of vehicles.

The interesting thing about this, though, is that at no point was I worried about these cars, trucks, and buses. They all seemed to appreciate our space and rights as vehicle sharing the road. Although they passed quickly, it was never at a “stupid” time, with another vehicle coming the other way or on a blind curve. And it seemed to me that giving us this little bit of consideration never seriously inconvenienced the Irish drivers. Nobody yelled at us, threw stuff at us, or even passed us very closely.

Frankly, it had been more nerve-wracking being in a car on the same road.

Maybe this is a benefit of having such narrow tricky roads. You come to expect stopping for the occasional sheep lying in the middle of the road, or getting onto the shoulder for a tour bus coming the other way. In this environment, slowing down a bit and then safely passing a bicycle is not such a big deal.

1 comment:

  1. I will add to Randoboy's recounting the following:
    1. when we picked up the bikes, we did not have to sign any waivers where we acknowledged we were taking our lives into our hands, etc. Instead, the lovely lady filled out a short form that listed our names and hotel we were staying in and we paid our 30 Euros. She then mentioned that she was closing early so she wouldn't request a deposit and we could just lock the bikes up to the drainpipe outside and drop the key into the slot. Talk about trust.
    2. none of the 20-something college students who were also picking up bikes at the same time asked for helmets (which was good as she would not have had enough helmets to go around). We thought about emulating them, but it is just so ingrained to wear one that it would have felt weird.
    3. shop opening hours posted there were mere suggestions (including the bike shop). There did not seem to be the same mentality towards promptness and being in a hurry that we have. Perhaps a good thing.

    All in all, it was an excellent trip.
    Randogirl (new a/k/a Kamakazi Ireland driver)