If you were to base your view of Ireland based on the tourist board adverts you see, you’d come to the conclusion that it was a country filled with calm fish-filled streams, laughing redheads, old fellows with flat caps and wrinkled faces drinking Guinness, and stone-walled pubs with colourful front doors and names painted in fancy script.

Speaking as an anglo-Irish woman, in many ways that’s true. I have red hair and like laughing for a start. My grandad did indeed wear a tweed flat cap and drink Guinness – as do most of my aunties for that matter. The Guinness, not the flat caps. And my dad is partial to a bit of fly fishing.

That’s pretty much the view I had of Ireland growing up in London. While I’d go back over every single school holiday, as the rest of the (vast) family were still based over there, I only really knew Monaghan town, where my family are from, Bundoran in Donegal where we went every summer, and the tourist board ads.

Undiscovered riding gems, great hospitality, and beautiful scenery. And there's more to discover! Copyright Phil Hall
Undiscovered riding gems, great hospitality, and beautiful scenery. And there’s more to discover! Copyright Phil Hall

The first hint I had that there was a more action sports side to the country came in my early twenties, after I’d sort of stopped going over for a few years.

This hiatus was for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’d cut off all my long red hair, bleached it, and died it various colours, which I suspect wouldn’t go down very well with my nana or my various aunties, who in my mind at the time might have viewed such action as a bad influence over my numerous cousins. I was the eldest cousin, you see, and had Influence.

Secondly, I was at university and in the usual way of things your holidays get caught up with other things when you move away from home. In my case, it was mostly working, at the Natural History Museum in London.

So when I got into surfing at University, and started buying the magazines and what not, I was a little confused to find that in my absence Bundoran had turned from a fairly standard Irish seaside town, which was once described by the Lonely Planet guide (apparently – it may be apocryphal) as ‘like the back streets of Las Vegas but with cheaper hookers’, to something of a winter surf mecca. The beach that I was once warned off playing on for fear of rip currents and sinking sands (most likely actually because there was a military firing range adjacent to it) was now crowded with surfers, and the town with surf schools and lodges. It’s almost become the Newquay of Ireland.

Bikes in the land of Guinness

Later in life I got into mountain biking, big time. Over the last few years I’ve spend weeks riding in some awesome places like Canada, Switzerland, France, and Scotland, not to mention around England and Wales. But I’d never ridden in Ireland, nor had any real idea if there was a scene there.

Now, common sense told me there must be. There were hills, after all, and it was a big cycling nation at least as far as road cycling went, so it followed that people must have turned to the knobbly tyre side of things.

Then, lo and behold, in 2015 the Enduro World Series came to Ireland.

‘Ireland?’ you could practically hear the world thinking. ‘There mountain biking in Ireland? Enough to have a world-level event?’

Yes, is the answer. The year before, in 2014, I’d been invited to join a women’s only enduro sponsored by Bluegrass but sadly couldn’t make it, so I had an inkling that there must be riding in Ireland. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t really thought about it before but it’s obvious really.

The EWS event blew the socks off everyone. On one relatively small mountain (or, by Alpine standards, hill) there was enough technical riding to challenge some of the best riders in the world. I’d also chatted to a woman at the Red Bull Fox Hunt in with Rachel Atherton in 2015, and she’d been talking about the trail centres that had gone up in the North of Ireland.

After watching the racing, then googling the riding, I decided enough was enough. I’d ridden more in the UK than in the country I was a citizen of, so it was time to go exploring.

Given that I’d actually already booked a fair bit of holiday off in 2016, as I was making up for working myself into a hole in 2015, I only had a week to play with. I planned loads of stuff, then cut half of it out thinking that realistically it wasn’t doable. I was right, though actually I should have cut even more out, focussed on just a couple of areas, then come back again because as it turns out there’s plenty of riding in Ireland, plus so much other stuff to do that one week just doesn’t cut it.

Mountain biking in the Wicklow mountains

As my family are based up on Monaghan, I haven’t actually seen much of the rest of the country as I tend to just fly into Dublin airport then get the bus up the country. However, if you take a left out of the airport instead of a right, and cross the capital city, just on the other side lie the Wicklow mountains. It’s as wild, rugged and beautiful a place as you’d want.

The lovely house we stayed in by the Wicklow Mountains. Copyright Phil Hall
The lovely house we stayed in by the Wicklow Mountains. Copyright Phil Hall

Huge rolling hills, valley bottoms with lakes and rivers, moorland – it reminds me a little of the west Yorkshire Dales or the East Lake District. I had no idea there was landscape like it in Ireland. At the top, you can look out over Dublin city and it feels like if you took a running jump you could land on Grafton Street.

The EWS tracks are located over to the East near Glenealy, in one of the first high points of land as you come in from the coastline. From a distance it doesn’t look like much of a hill. When you’re riding up it however, you certainly get a sense of the elevation. A network of fire roads gets you up top and gives access to trails that vary from open and extremely rocky to close, twisty and very very steep through forest.

We stayed in a little house we found on Air BnB, right next to the tracks. It was beautiful, comfortable, had all the facilities you’d want including a lovely garden and a hosepipe for washing bikes, plus a lovely owner. We chose well, because the following week, when the EWS hit the hill, it turned out that was where the Trek Factory team were staying. It’s a little surreal to see Tracy Mosely doing an interview on a patio that a few days previously you had breakfast on.

We stayed there for 3 days, and could have easily spent more time.

(Incidentally, if you are visiting, we popped into Wicklow town for food one night and had some of the best stead I’ve ever eaten at the The Bridge Tavern. Recommended, so long as you aren’t veggie!)

There’s also a trail centre there, Ballinastoe, which we didn’t get a chance to ride – one for next time – and it was only when we were driving on to the next stop that we discovered the rolling wilderness I mentioned before. This is an area I’m keen to get back to and explore further. I bet there’s plenty more amazing riding to be had!

Bike Park Ireland

While Bike Park Wales may be one of the best-known bike parks in the British Isles, Bike Park Ireland was a surprising gem.

Fun on the red run at Bike Park Ireland. Copyright Phil Hall
Fun on the red run at Bike Park Ireland. Copyright Phil Hall

Like the hill in Wicklow, from a distance it doesn’t look like there’s going to be enough elevation to do much with. The park is built into the one hill in an otherwise fairly flat area of land, but it’s used cunningly, for the most part.

The blue descent starts off brilliantly with some fast, flowing trail through the trees, but the final third feels like a bit of a waste of elevation as it’s pretty much a straight flat trail back to the bottom of the hill.

The red line was probably my favourite, which begins like the black trails at the very peak of the hill, then flows down over rollers and berms in a roller coaster of a ride back to the trail centre. It’s seriously good fun!

If you like your riding a little more natural, then you’ll really like the blacks. The black trails combine groomed and built features with a more rugged feel, so expect roots galore as well as drops and jumps.

The pump track was fantastic, and we were joined briefly by two little girls who were the daughters of the owners. I reckon they’ll be future MTB stars, growing up with some brilliant facilities literally in their back garden, with various pros dropping by to ride. They were both much, much better than me on the pump track, that’s for sure!

Female mountain biker on pump track
Much fun was had at the pump track at Bike Park Ireland

A brief intermission in Galway

We stopped for about 24 hours in Galway before heading up to Monaghan to see family and use the town as a base for visiting the trail centres in the North of Ireland.

I love Galway. I’ve visited a couple of times before, most recently for my little brother’s graduation. It’s a beautiful town, with loads of amazing food combined with that famed Irish pub and music culture, plus beautiful countryside. It’s a coastal town, so there’s a long stretch out from the main town, called Salthill, that’s a long windswept road with a pebbly beach.

The diving platform in Salthill is one of the famous Galway landmarks, and year-round residents of all ages will go for a dip to get the blood pumping and drive away the cobwebs, all the while looking out to the grey-blue waters and the imposing cliffs on the opposite coastline.

The diving board in Galway looking moody on a blustery spring day. Copyright Phil Hall
The diving board in Galway looking moody on a blustery spring day. Copyright Phil Hall

I wasn’t quite brave enough to try it, plus I hadn’t brought my swimming costume with me. Maybe next time.

Northern Irish trail centres

Galway to Monaghan is a long drive, but coming back to Monaghan is always like coming home. I’ve spent so many Christmas and Easter holidays here, wandering around the town or roaming the local forest park, Rossmore. I’m actually surprised there isn’t a bike trail in Rossmore yet. Perhaps it’s coming.

Monaghan makes a good base for visiting the trail centres in the North of Ireland, and while there are quite a few, were were focussing our attention for the last few days of the holiday on three: Rostrevor, Davagh Forest and Castlewellan.

Blue skies, blue water - you'd hardly think it was Northern Ireland in May. Copyright Phil Hall
Blue skies, blue water – you’d hardly think it was Northern Ireland in May. Copyright Phil Hall

Rostrevor is located right over on the East coast, so you get some amazing views as you ride. To get to the views, however, you have to get past a bastard of a steep fire-road climb that just goes on and on and on. It makes you long for a single track climb that would at least distract you from the fact your legs are burning and there’s no sign of it ending. At the top, you’re rewarded with a selection of interesting downhills. We took the Red Trail which was okay but didn’t quite give payoff we’d hoped for based on the climb. Next time, we’ll try the some of the black tracks as they looked much more interesting; rocky, technical and fun, or maybe some of the downhill tracks. More time needed!

Davagh Forest is almost due North of Monaghan, and we pretty much had it to ourselves. There’s clearly been a lot of investment in these trail centres, as it had a lovely car park, toilets, a shelter to get changed in, a tap with drinking water, a kids play park and a little pump track. Looking at the sign, that money came from the EU, so heaven knows what’s going to happen now the UK is leaving the EU. I can’t imagine the UK government will be happy to spend money on something like a mountain bike trail centre, can you?

Playing on the rocks at . Copyright Phil Hall
Playing on the rocks at . Copyright Phil Hall

The trail itself consists of a red and a blue, though we spotted plenty of locals trails snaking off in all directions. There’s a long but pretty climb to the top that’s mostly fire road, then it’s pretty much downhill all the way to the car park. There are two big hero features; the first is an easily rollable slick rock boulder, and the second is a crazily technical rock section on an absolutely huge moss and mud covered boulder in the first. Otherwise, the trails are fairly smooth and groomed, sheltered, and fun but not thrilling.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in archeology, there are some amazing neolithic monuments and alignments nearby. Nothing like as big as Stonehenge, but fascinating none the less.

Castlewellan has an insanely beautiful drive to get to it, once again passing through high mountainous wild areas that I’d had no inkling were there. Unfortunately due to a little too much wine the night before at an unexpected family do (and I blame my aunts for that – they kept filling up my wine glass!) I wasn’t in a fit state to ride so ended up sleeping in the car and waiting for the world to stop moving. My partner did go for a ride, and informed me that although it wasn’t particularly technical, it was fast, flowy and good fun, and therefore worth another trip the next time we came over.

The day after my uncles retirement do, I wasn't feeling particularly well. No sympathy; it was entirely self inflicted. Copyright Phil Hall
The day after my uncles retirement do, I wasn’t feeling particularly well. No sympathy; it was entirely self inflicted. Copyright Phil Hall

Over too soon

We managed to pack all the above in to a Saturday to Sunday week-long trip, travelling out on the early ferry from Holyhead to Dublin Port on the first Saturday morning, then getting the early ferry back a week and a day later. While it’s possible to pack that much in, ideally you’d pick one end of the country and spend a few more than three days in each location, as there’s more to ride than we managed in both spots.

That said, you could totally do those three Northern Irish trail centres in one long weekend if you wanted, as demonstrated by the video that came out while we were there. Spookily coincidental!

I’d love to go back and explore a bit more. In particular, I reckon there could be some great riding in Donegal, a part of the country I really love. My dream would be to spend a few months bimbling round in a camper van, and it’s not an entirely unachievable dream, so watch this space – maybe I’ll make that happen.

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