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Bike for Life - The Road to Connemara 2016


The Road to Connemara 2016

An eclectic group of 8 women came together with a common interest in cycling. Some completely new to cycling, some with a casual interest who had enjoyed the occasional short commute to work and a couple who were intent on getting fit.

The challenge was the Celtic Series Skoda ‘Tour de Conamara’ 80km Sportive scheduled to take place on the 28th May 2016.

As part of the preparation the group decided (with gentle persuasion and the promise of some cycling goodies:-a brightly coloured cycling buff and a water bottle) to complete the ‘Bike for Life’ programme offered by Cycling Ireland with Ann Pendleton as facilitator.

Week 1 -20th March - Induction and Initial Skills Assessment

We met at Cutters Warf in Belfast (one of the many entrance points onto the lagan tow path) the car park provided a valuable space for a brief induction to the programme. The first task was our pre-course skills check to find out the existing level of cycling experience and knowledge within the group and to review the information and skills we hoped to cover in the coming 8 weeks.

As the facilitator my aim was to find a balance (psychological that is) between not wanting to patronize or bore those who had some experience and knowledge and not wanting to be too challenging for the complete beginners. The ‘M’ check was a great start and using the handout provided by Cycling Ireland in the sprocket rocket material proved to be a hit with all participants. Helmet checks was especially eye opening as we looked out for dated, unsafe helmets which sent at least 3 participants off to replace their head protection almost immediately following the session. The pre-ride session also included a demonstration and discussion on the skills of safe braking, riding in groups - effective communication between riders, roles in group rides and the skills of singling out and snaking.

The group got an opportunity to practice skills with a group cycle out to the lough shore at Jordanstown along the tow path. We followed the meandering lagan as it flowed out to meet the Irish sea and beyond the mouth of the Farcet (Beal Feirste) to the scenic lough shore. We stopped for the much needed and appreciated coffee and a natter before we began our route home. We followed the path back along the sandy shore to the city and beyond to join the lagan tow path again and back to ‘Cutters’ where we, with a sense of achievement joyfully went our separate ways.


Week 2 - 3rd April - Riding Safely on the Road

Week 2 another Sunday cycle this time the route chosen was in the opposite direction. Meeting at Finaghy crossroads for a short discussion on the importance of ‘riding safely on the road’. The topics included: riding in low volume traffic, primary and secondary positioning on roads, and riding through junctions and roundabouts.

We opted to test our learning by cycling with caution a part of the busy upper Malone Road, before exiting the traffic laden road on to ‘Sandy Lane’ where the only obstacles we had to negotiate were the odd carrot which had fallen from the local farmer’s tractor.

The road led us to the upper section of the tow path and we followed the path of the lagan back through Lambeg and Lisburn, across to Union Lock and back on to open roads at Blaris. We snaked along the myriad of quiet roads out to the Maze racecourse. The tranquility and aroma of the recently ploughed fields was a welcome break from the carbon monoxide filled lanes of the busy stretch of the Upper Malone road we had negotiated at the start of our journey.

Our pit stop was the hospitable ‘Racecourse’ restaurant, and even though it wasn’t quite opening time the owner warmly invited us in and happily got the kettle boiling and served us a most welcome ‘cuppa’.

The views of the racecourse from the dining room window had us chatting about race days and the idyllic location for watching any forthcoming races, but undoubtedly the hospitality of the landlady was what would certainly bring us back.


Week 3- 10th April - Riding in Groups - Working as a Team

Our first challenge when putting our skills of team work and group riding into practice was to make a decision on a route for our week 3 cycle. Five of us met at New forge Lane at 9.00am on a Sunday morning and hadn't really a strong idea of a route. Rather than head up the Lagan towpath toward Lisburn which is quite a narrow pathway (and busy with pedestrians, dogs and other cyclists) we decided to go down river on the towpath to Titanic Quarter, (aprox 7km) then on through the harbour estate and on out to Holywood via the coastal pathway. The route avoided main roads and consisted of quiet roads and shared pathways the whole way. Also there’s a lot of wide open spaces and good visibility on this route so we could enjoy the view well ahead at any given time. The weather was bright and mild. Once we reached the Holywood section of the coastal path we came to a couple of short sections (about half a kilometre) where signs indicated we had to dismount and walk as the path was extremely narrow.

There were one or two places where sand lying on the pathway was quite thick, we looked out for those and slowed right down or dismounted. We kept on going until we reached Cultra (10km). One of our group had a soft sandy fall, no damage done to bike or limb, a few bruises and a lot of praise for the most elegant and silent fall ever!!.

We then returned to Holywood main street, had a quick coffee break and then headed back to Belfast via the same route. There was a head wind on the return journey along the coast so it was a bit more challenging than the outward journey. The last part of the return journey was up hill to Newforge Lane. In total we covered 35km.


Week 4 - Riding on low traffic volume roads- highway code for cyclists.

As low volume roads are few and far between on the roads surrounding Belfast on a Sunday we decided to test our newly acquired knowledge by getting out on the roads as early as possible certainly early enough to beat the Sunday drivers. We met at Shaw’s bridge and headed for Killinchy.

Heading along the path of the lagan towards Purdysburn village (which I didn’t know existed prior to taking up cycling) and avoiding the long hill and danger of the Milltown road we took the back roads from Ballylesson road through Purdysburn, knockbracken and across the Saintfield road on to the Comber road.

A serene, sunny, Sunday morning where the serenity was only broken by the sound of the early morning skylife and of course the odd car. We followed the road towards Killinchy mindful and respectful of the increasing volume of Sunday drivers, keeping a safe distance from each other yet together as a group to allow clear visibility and afford cars the opportunity to pass us safely with ease.

Upon arrival in Killinchy we immediately scanned around for the obligatory coffee stop. It being a Sunday morning we were not at all sure of being successful and headed into a local convenience store ‘Spar’ to ask for directions to local café.

The shop ‘McCann’s General Store’ was an Aladdin’s cave of convenience items, everything from pot plants and compost to scrubbing brushes. To our surprise and delight the girl behind the counter directed us hungry travelers to the rear of the shop where we uncovered the quirkiest café in a sun filled room with homemade everything, and a broad selection of the Sunday papers. The walls were decorated with a range of coffee related definitions and sayings which we delighted in reading. My favourite was undoubtedly the discovery of a new word ‘Procaffination’ the art of doing nothing until you’ve had cup of coffee. love it!


Week 5 - Bike skills

Shaws Bridge to Strangford Lough

We met at Shaw’s Bridge car park, one of the many entry points to the Lagan river. It was a beautiful, sunny, dry morning- perfect for a cycle. We headed into the Outer Ring, which thankfully, due to the early hour, was devoid of its usual incessant traffic.

We then went along the Outer Ring that loops south Belfast and continued on this for about 3 miles before turning off opposite the PSNI Headquarters at Knock onto the Comber Greenway. We met a few other cyclists and the odd walker but the Greenway was pretty quiet which made it very easy to cycle along. The lack of hills helped too!

Arriving in the market town of Comber in Co Down we decided to continue on as it still was only 9am! We headed out towards ‘Castle Espie’ and the shores of Strangford Lough. We covered about another 5-6 miles keeping parallel to the shoreline before arriving at Cross Island.

We paid a 'spur of the moment' visit to a work colleague, as you do early on Sunday mornings (!) who thankfully was already well up, minding her two grandchildren. We then headed back the way we came into Comber where we stopped for breakfast- coffee and scones.

Our return journey took us along the same route, now a lot busier than earlier. A few not so pleasant stretches along the Outer Ring as traffic had begun to build up, but the Comber Greenway itself was perfect for cycling along. Last few miles were downhill back to the Shaw’s Bridge car park. A very enjoyable morning.


Week 6 - Nutrition and Hydration

This was a morning when, although we may have had to concern ourselves with the appropriate intake of nutrition for the journey to Comber we certainly did not have to worry about hydration….. we were taking on water from every angle. The rain did not let up for the entire outward journey. We tried to shelter from the elements by taking the back roads and by cycling close to the trees round the Ballylesson road, however once on the Comber road we were exposed to all the elements that could be thrown at us, wind, rain and fog.

Exhausted and well soaked by the elements we were delighted to reach the welcoming warmth of the ‘Sugar Cane bistro’ in the square in Comber. The hot drinks and food were scoffed while gloves and buffs were helped to dry under the bathroom hand dryers.

Typically the sun tried to make an appearance for the homeward ride along the Comber greenway, too little too late! Although I managed to dry off in time for a hot shower when I got home. The expression ‘there’s wiser eating grass’ could be applied to this one. Next time we’ll check the weather forecast.!!


Week 7 - Basic Bike Repair and Maintenance

Session on bike maintenance was held in Corpus Christi College. The school assembly hall provided a great space to enable the group to work on basic bicycle maintenance skills, washing and keeping bicycles clean following a ride, chain lubrication and most importantly tube replacement and puncture repair.

New skills for most participants and a recap for Sara who remembered changing her bicycle tyre with the assistance of 2 old spoons! The tyre leavers were a great revelation!


The cycle organised by Emma who hails from Bangor took us through the stunning Ard’s peninsula. A beautifully sunny morning when we met in the car park at Ballyholme beach. We cycling along the shore of the Irish sea through Groomsport, Donagahadee, Ballywalter, Ballyhalbert and on to the fishing harbour of Portavogie.

An exhilarating cycle along the shores of the Irish sea, sunlight so dazzling it was a challenge to cycle without stopping every few seconds just to appreciate the stunning views of the coastline and specifically the magnificent Copeland Islands. On to Kircubbin (where we made the obligatory pit stop at a welcoming café for some breakfast, (which some of us stretched to a fry up). Our onward journey took us up the opposite side of the peninsula through Grey Abbey, Newtownards back to Ballyholme. Our skills of cycling safely on low volume traffic roads were tested to the limits on this stretch of the road. By the time we had attended to our nutrition and rehydration the morning had quickly turned into early afternoon. Quiet early morning roads had given way to a busy afternoon of determined travelers heading for home. The A20 from Kircubbin to Newtownards was ‘hectic’ we kept tightly together as a group, singling out the entire length of the road with lead and back riders keeping us safe and easily visible to traffic an experience in the importance of cycling safely on a busy road.



Week 8 - Riding Safely on the Road

Sunday 22nd May, 1 week to go to Connemara. Busy schedules, childcare and just weekend womanly responsibilities meant that we had to go out in 2 separate cycles this week. An early run leaving at 7.15 which headed out to

And an alternative later route which took myself, Ashlene and Lorraine out to Moire on the Lagan tow path through Lisburn, out to Blaris via union quay then on to the quiet back Lisnagarabh road through the Maze race course and in to Moire.

At our watering hole, we happened upon a wonderful woman called Susan (AKA Lucy!) She told us that she was on a cycling journey around ‘Great Britain’ and having completed England, Scotland and Wales she was making her way around the North of Ireland. Lucy was her blogging name, when she wrote stories of her journey which she posted to friends and family she adopted the pseudonym ‘Lucy’



Connemara - Weekend Friday 27th –Sunday 29th - Skoda ‘Tour de conamara’

The ‘Tour de Conamara’ is an annual Sportive organized as part of the Celtic Series supported by a number of sponsors including the main one Skoda.

‘What a day…. what a weekend, fun filled from start to finish. We headed of in cars early Friday morning planning to meet at our pre booked cottage in Letterfrack just 20km from our starting point at the Station Hotel in the town of Clifton.

Thanks to Emma, who booked a beautifully fitted cottage 100 meters from the cross roads of the town walking distance.. most importantly to the local pubs and restaurants this was to be home for the weekend. Some of us stopped off in Galway on the way down to register for the event and to take in some of the pre event atmosphere in Monaghan’s SKODA garage. The excitement was building!

All eight of us eventually arrived safe and sound at the house, carefully unhitched our bicycles and safely stored them in the house and settled in for the night. Too early to go to bed we enjoyed a bit of craic round the kitchen table with a ‘Bike for Life’ trivia quiz complete with buzzers and a bag of jelly babies for the winning team.

A couple of us headed out for some ‘fresh air’ a dander down the road (which, as my dad would say as code for I’m heading to the pub!)

It would be rude not to sample the hospitality of Letterfrack we thought but stopped short and ordered halves all round.

Saturday morning, we were buzzing with excitement. Bellies filled with porridge and the rest.. we headed by cars towards the starting point of Clifden.


The Station House Hotel which was awash with colourful jerseys from every corner of Ireland and beyond. I even noticed a jersey from Manchester wheelers. The atmosphere was electric air filled with music and great spirit.

Our 80 km run left at 10.30am to the sound of air horns and ‘The Sky full of stars’ filling the air…..we were off. headed in the direction of Ballyconnelly.

We were soon coasting along some of the whitest sandy beaches and coral waters at Mannin Bay just a few kilometres into the spin. The route continued with fantastic views of the ‘Twelve Bens’ and coastal scenery along side us as we passed ‘Dogs Bay’ and ‘Gurteen Bay’ before hitting the town of Roundstone. Then it is off towards Cashel and the first food stop at the half way point. We took a left turn after Cashel in the direction of Recess and then into the Inagh Valley.

This was cycling at its finest. Cruising around Lough Inagh surrounded by The Twelve Bens on one side and Maumturk Mountains on the other. The picturesque Kylemore Abbey presented some of us with a tempting photo stop then on to the final pit stop where the powerbar team were on hand at Kylemore with the opportunity to refuel for the last 20km charge into Clifden.

The last 20km provided a few hilly surprises for us all (the scenery forgotten about in the haze of burning quads!! ) Eventually we were back in Letterfrack where we enjoyed the most spectacular finish through Connemara National Park which covers some 2,000 hectares of scenic countryside in the foothills of the Twelve Bens. It was a steady downward pedal back into Clifden for the famous Connemara welcome with cold pints of cider and beer all around to toast the end to one of the most picturesque sportives most of us had ever experienced.

The weather was perfect, the atmosphere was electric the company was collegial and the craic was mighty!


1 Participant’s evaluation

Denise Magill: Couch to 80km

‘This adventure was launched with a post-Christmas text pleading for
removal from the cupboard of Christmas cake and mince pies and an
invitation to get together to do some exercise. Our leader, Ann
Pendleton, with her extraordinary organisational skills, positivity and
willingness to undertake a challenge had soon recruited 8 women prepared
to undertake the Bike for Life Challenge. Among our ranks was a daunting
mix of novices and experienced cyclists- ranging from one who had never
cycled on the road to one who had cycled 500km in Vietnam. Ann proceeded
undaunted setting out a ....week programme of training runs and bike

For me probably the biggest challenge was gaining confidence and skill
in riding on the road and learning how to ride as part of a group. Ann
was clear and firm about how essential these skills were but always
prepared us well-giving advance warning and well timed instruction when
manoeuvres approached. I really enjoyed this aspect of the programme
feeling that I was developing skills as well as fitness was an added
bonus-not to mention overcoming my fear of riding on the road. The
programme set out very clear goals in terms of increasing our mileage
and it was a fantastic feeling reaching the 50 mile marker 2 weeks
before the ultimate Connemara challenge and knowing that all we had to
do now was look forward to repeating the distance in this most
spectacular of settings.

For me it was the Bike for Life Adventure-in my 50th year-seeing parts
of the countryside I had never seen before; increasing my fitness;
developing new skills and making new friends-all on two wheels! We owe a
huge debt of gratitude to Ann Pendleton who led our group for her
determination, patience, courage, hard work and good humour.’

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