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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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Montferland

It was about 8 years ago that I last cycled the Montferland route.  That was a memorable occasion, not so much because of the splendours of the route as for noticing a left turn at the bottom of a steep hill slightly too late and jamming my brakes on, whereupon my front wheel dug itself into some soft dry sand, flinging myself over the bike, resulting in some broken ribs and a few months recovery off the bike.

So it was with some trepidation that I ventured out on the Montferland route last Saturday, together with the club. However, it soon became clear that not only was there not a grain of dry sand to be seen (on the contrary, everything was extremely wet) but that apparently I've picked up something about how to handle a mountain bike in the past few years, as none of the hills looked particularly scary. That's not to say that all the downhills were easy, quite some braking was needed, but the difficulty was more to do with the severe erosion caused by the rain of recent weeks, which meant that there were some significant holes and in places a remarkable sort of corrugated surface. It was the only time since April when I had the feeling that my hardtail was not always an improvement on my old fully. But I'm certainly not complaining about the maintenance of the trail.  The signposting is perfect and even where the trail is so wet as to qualify as flooded, the ground is still hard enough under the surface to make it passable.  Well, mostly. On one occasion I was trying to avoid broadening the trail still further, so ploughed through the middle of a puddle, only to end up with the front wheel sinking up to its axle in the mud, bringing me to a complete halt.  No flying over the top this time though, just damp feet. The trail maintenance is paid for by buying a permit, which can conveniently be done from a bike shop near to the start. The price of the permit has more than doubled in the recent years, which I don't mind so much, though I do think that paid-up members of 'natuurmonumenten', which is the responsible organisation, ought to get a discount.

Anyway, bottom line is that it is a great trail. Although it is only 26 km long, the 450 height meters, some of them reasonably steep, make it feel like more (at least if you're used to the relative flatness of near Wageningen), the woodland is diverse with quite a few different tree species and a well-developed understory (plenty of bracken and other ferns) and, so far as I could see whilst whizzing past on the bike, a fine selection of mosses (the tree in the photo is covered in an attractive layer of Hypnum cupressiforme var. filiforme). Parts of the trail are only a few meters from the German border, and the landscape indeed looks quite different, giving a bit of a holiday feel to it. What more could you want?

 

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