A pint of the black stuff

A pint of the black stuff, by cycling ambassador Michael Ort

80.5 km distance
3:59:43 trip time
20.14 kph average speed
65 kph maximum speed
1400 m climbing
520 masl maximum elevation

My bike computer had these data on it, plus the usual blank entries for all the measurements that rely on a cadence counter or a heart rate monitor.  TMI, in my opinion.  But what do these data really show about my ride?  We moved to Dublin almost two weeks ago, and are in an apartment about 150 meters from Dublin Bay.  It feels a bit like the long-term care facility my folks lived in before they died – carpeted halls and doors off to each side, and we NEVER see who is in the other apartments.  I keep expecting to turn around and see a yellow submarine crossing from one apartment to the next.  The village of Sandymount has a real center to it, with a triangular grassy park full of kids on scooters and a few cafes and all the necessary stores (bike shop with skilled and cordial mechanics, a fish store, a grocery store, a few pubs, churches, etc.).  It is about 8 km as the crow flies to get to the edge of the city, several more by bike.  I tried a route I found on Google maps the other day, and it was very trafficky and not very pleasant.  Today, I tried a new route and it worked much better.  Still a few stops along the way out of town to figure out where I was, but much more pleasant.  Then the hills!  The Wicklow Mountains would be called hills anywhere in the west of the US, but they reach 2500-3000 feet above sea level.  I lived in County Wicklow a couple of years ago, and I hit the first familiar road, as far north as I rode in that year, about an hour into the ride.  That familiarity gives me some confidence that I can make this cycling work – I can get from my house to places I know are good to ride.  I wish it did not require a minimum of two hours to get a ride in that is not all in the city, though.

So what about those computer numbers?  The distance – I rode up over the pass to Glencree, then up to Sally Gap (at 500 masl, the highest pass with a  paved road in Ireland), down to the east and north to Enniskerry, then back up to Glencree and down into Dublin and home.  So what?  Well, once I got past the city and up into the hills, the traffic nearly disappeared.  The roads are old – much of what I was riding was the old Military Road, a road the English built into the hills after the 1798 Fenian Revolt, because Michael Dwyer and his band of United Irish guerillas would hang out up there and then swoop down to ambush the English military patrols.  The English finally grew tired of this and decided to build roads and garrisons up near where the “terrorists” were.  Funny how, since they won, the Irish are not thought of as terrorists.

I passed a memorial for an Irishman who was killed up in the bogs.  Captain Noel Lemass fought in the Easter Uprising in 1916, then in the Revolutionary War, and then joined the anti-Treaty side in the occupation of the Four Courts (he and his side were against the peace treaty that left Ulster with the UK – they had fought for one Ireland and did not want to give that idea up.  The Free Staters felt that the treaty was as good as they could get).

The road continues past blanket bogs where the Irish have harvested peat (called turf) for centuries.  They have narrow spades that cut into the turf and make a turf “log” about the size of two bricks end to end.  These are leaned against each other in tripods to dry, and then carried down from the mountain (or up from the back bog at my mother’s family’s farm) to be burned in the hearths of houses.  This went on for centuries, especially after Cromwell burned down what was left of the forests to tame the wild Irish and deny them hideouts in the forest.  The Irish would weave the branches together to make an impenetrable thicket, with the only ways in or out known to them.  Cromwell didn’t like that.  As I sit in my apartment writing this on a rainy evening, I can smell turf burning somewhere nearby.  My apartment has a plug-in “fireplace”.  I doubt it would put out any noticeable heat, if turned on.  Today, most turf cutting is banned by the EU to protect the bogs, which were severely depleted in the last few decades.

Continuing down the hill from the pass, I skirt above the Glencree barracks, once an English army base and now a well-touristed coffee shop and a Centre for Reconciliation of Conflicts.  Then up another pass toward Sally Gap, where four different roads cross in a high, broad, open, bog-filled valley.  At the crossroads, I choose left and head down – that is where I hit my maximum speed, in a pouring rain.

I go down for a while but the road has an abrupt 100-m-high rise to get around a granite knob above Lough Tay, the Guinness Lake.  The Guinness family owns a large estate around the lake and imported the white sand at the northern end so that the dark waters have a white cap, like a pint of the dark (or a pint of the black stuff), as Guinness is often called.  Then a steep plunge down to the farmlands and forests below.  I turn north toward Enniskerry along the back road, admiring the countryside at a pace that I just don’t feel like pushing today.  At Enniskerry, I remember a little connector road I rode once and use that to drop straight down to the road to Powerscourt waterfall.  A car coming up the road stops on the steepest part, flashing his lights to tell me to pass.  I find a place to pull over and wave him up – he has the right of way, and I don’t want to skid into him on the wet road.  Powerscourt was the estate of a wealthy family during the Protestant Ascendancy of the 1700s.  They had a remarkably beautiful tract of land, including the waterfall, and did well by it.  They collected plants from around the world and have a gorgeous garden that is now a park that one can visit, as well as a pretty sumptuous “town” house that is now a shopping mall off of Grafton St downtown.  Charles Stuart Parnell and the Land League pushed agrarian reform in the late 1800s and the Powerscourt family (the Wingfields) lost much of their local power and land (tenant farmers were able to buy the land they had been farming for generations).  The Powerscourt estate was attacked occasionally by Irish rebels, of course.  The little farms in the uplands were the Irish domain.

My route takes me up through these smaller farms for 8 km, back up toward Glencree, Near the top of the road, I pass an engraved granite slab that says “Liam Horner Olympic Cyclist The Last Prime”.  Horner was an Irish cyclist who went to the Olympics in 1968 and 1972.  Perhaps as important, he won the Tour of Ireland in 1972. That is a tough race, one for rouleurs who can climb an endless series of short steep hills on rough roads (ones that were a lot rougher and narrower in his day). Horner was known for attacking to win primes – he needed the money to eat.  In Ireland, they remember their cycling greats.  There is a plaque for Shay Elliott (first English-speaker to wear the yellow jersey, and wore the pink and red jerseys too) at the top of the Glenmalure hill along the Military Road. A couple kilometers past the Glencree turnoff, I stop to pay respect to Mr. Lemass and admire the view in a heavy mist.  The sheep don’t seem to mind the weather, although a few flee my two-wheeled presence.  Then a rainy descent back into the city, where I merge with the traffic and head home to my modern and efficient apartment in a multi-ethnic city where I hear many languages daily.  How many here know the stories of the hills?

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