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Anti-stress

The Internet keeps pushing adverts at me for t-shirts with 'mountain biking is cheaper than therapy – oh wait, no it isn't'.  Maybe the all-seeing eyes of Google have seen my calendar this week and worked out that with five major deadlines this week it must have been pretty stressful.  Indeed come Friday evening I sunk into my arm-chair with the feeling that there was no way I would have the energy to wake up and go cycling the next morning. Nevertheless, the next morning I was awake in time, so crawled out of bed in time to go out with the club. We set off along the dike as usual, with spectacular views of the sun shining through the mist that was still hanging over the floodplain as a heron swooped in front of us so close that I almost ducked. Once into the woods the mist was gone and it was springtime everywhere. All the trees were showing points of green at their buds, or even already burgeoning into leaf, woodpeckers were calling to each other and drilling out their nest holes and chaffinches with their bright breeding plumage were so busy chasing each other that they did not notice they were almost flying into us. And on top of that, we were out on our bikes in the woods! Despite the rain of the last week, it was not too soggy under our wheels and despite the sunshine we hardly saw any other people, at least until we were virtually back home again. Our route took us along plenty of twisty bits through heathland and woodland, where steering required some proper concentration, enough in the way of small hills to get us out of breath and even the nearby sand crater where the sides of loose sand are steep enough so that you really have to do your best to get up them. All in all, you cannot get a much better way of washing away the stress of the working week than that.

Spring

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Ballyhoura, Ireland

The Ballyhoura mountains (or An Sliabh Riabhach in Irish) are in between Cork and Limerick in southwestern Ireland.  They rise out of a green agricultural plain to a height of about 500 m and host the largest trail centre of Ireland, the Ballyhoura Mountain Bike Park. There is a bike rental shop at the trail head, as well as showers.

Last week I had to go to Cork for my work, so I was lucky enough to be able to squeeze in a few hours mountain biking there and cycled the white (Garrane) loop. It goes without saying that it was very different from mountain biking here in the Netherlands.  Real mountains, with significant slopes and gradients, for a start. The trail website describes it as "long and demanding climbs", so I was fearing the worst, but it was actually not so bad compared with trails just over the border in the Eifel or Ardennes. Nevertheless it was certainly demanding enough to make it enjoyable.  That also meant that when you come out of the woods, there are some quite spectacular views, especially if the rain is not too heavy at that moment.

View from Ballyhoura

The woodland there is something really special, you really feel like you're cycling through a Tolkien novel with giant spiders and Ents likely to be found round any corner. The trees are dense, so that it's quite atmospherically gloomy in places, but above all, the high rainfall (two meters a year!) means that the trees are draped in a variety of beautiful moss species, which is quite spectacular, as well as some rare lichens like Usnea, aka beard lichen.

Mossy forest, Ballyhoura

Usnea

Despite the differences in landscape, what made it feel really different from here was the rocky surface to the paths. We are used to sand, mud and sometimes snow under our wheels, but these tracks varied from some (but not too many) fire roads to singletrack 'rock gardens' with an uneven rocky surface, to great rock slabs laid across the paths.  Especially with the latter, I was a bit nervous the first time I went over them, it was sloping, wet and polished smooth, so would I just slide off, with one or the other of my wheels sliding out from under me?  To my delight, the Mountain King tyres on my rental bike gripped through the surface water just as if it was dry and flat, it was quite remarkable. The bike had more problems with the uneven rock elsewhere; its fork was definitely its weak point and bounced me around somewhat, making me appreciate just how good my own bike is.  Probably the more expensive fullys also available to hire would have given a gentler ride, but rear suspension is certainly not necessary.  Incidentally, the hire shop was certainly very helpful, both by mail beforehand and when I was there, for instance helping me to put my own SPD pedals on the bike. I forgot to ask them about swapping the brakes around (UK and Ireland brakes are opposite to ones here regarding right/left front/rear), but that was not really a problem.

Ballyhoura

The other 'special' surface was the boardwalk laid out in some places.  I was wondering how slippery the wood would be in the non-stop Irish precipitation, but in fact they were covered either in old tyres or a sort of sandpaper, making them exceedingly grippy. It was surprising how, considering the boardwalk was very broad and even, just how more scary it feels than if it was the same path at ground level. I suppose you would get used to it soon enough, but I certainly found myself slowing to a lower speed than normal, and restrained myself from gazing at the magnificent banks of Sphagnum moss until I was safely at the other side. The boardwalk covers a few places (mostly bridges) as you go round and then a couple of longer stretches of a few hundred meters when you are nearly back.

Boardwalk Ballyhoura

Ireland is quite popular with Dutch tourists, so for those readers of my blog who are going there, I would unreservedly recommend a visit to the trail centre. If you go mid-week and off-season like I did, there is no need to make a reservation to rent a bike, otherwise that is certainly a good idea. If you take your own bike, you still need to pay €5 (in coins) for the parking and €2 (more coins) for the showers. The signposting is excellent, but it is still an idea to print out the trail map so that you can take a short cut back if it takes longer than you expected. But definitely go there, you will not be disappointed.

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Leersum

Leersum ranks number 3 on mtbroutes.nl, so when my daughter and I took advantage of the school holidays last week to visit it, we had high expectations. We knew it received a makeover by the same team which had made the route at Rhenen and upgraded the Amerongen route, so were definitely hoping for something good. We were not disappointed! For a start, the woods there are beautiful. Damp areas coated with moss (mostly Hypnum in the photo below, seeing you ask) alternate with more open and drier woodland with patches of heath. Secondly, the trail makers really have made the best of the possibilities available, so that you are continually twisting round and going up and down. My GPS claimed that there were only 250 height meters in the 20 km long trail, but all the small hills of about 5 meters which you go up and down all the time were invisible to it, so it must have been a lot more. Certainly my legs felt like it was a lot more and our average speed was more what we normally do in the hills on holiday in Germany than round here. But if you have more energy you can easily combine Leersum with Amerongen. All in all, the route definitely gets a strong recommendation from me, the trail builders have done a super job!

Leersum MTB

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Stripey woods

Despite the miserable forecast a couple of days ago, it was stupendously good weather this morning.  Bright blue skies, cold enough to keep the woods reasonably empty but not so cold there was nasty ice on the ground, just some thick layers on top, which we crunched through without any more slipping than the very soggy mud caused by itself.  Above all, there were patches with the clear white hoar frost showing up against the sharp blue skies that were quite dramatic, especially as the sun cut through the forest in places, like in the photo below.  And the woods were bursting with birds as well, even a couple of woodpeckers chasing each other, who clearly were of the opinion that it was high time to be getting on with nest building and all that. With all day sleet forecast for tomorrow it was certainly good to make the most of it today.

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Birthday bash

What with the flu last week and one thing and another, I had only been out on my bike once in the last month, so I was more than ready to get out into the woods again. Last night the forecast was promising torrential rain today, but by this morning it had changed its mind and there was even a bit of sunshine.  The rain must have come in the night instead as it was remarkably muddy under our wheels, and my daughter and I had to to our best to keep going as we slithered and slipped through the liquid mud. It was in any case good to expend some extra energy to help justify that extra piece of home-made birthday cake when we got back!

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