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A Short Tour of Donegal

Report & photos by Paul Hannigan

A small group of cyclists decided to forego their usual Tuesday Club run and piled into Gerry Beggs’ car with four bikes on the roof rack and with the bare essentials squeezed in and around the five occupants.  We headed westwards to Donegal.

The cunning plan was hatched by Shirley Lee and Cathy McArdle with the assistance of Willie Weir and Touring Club Captain, Brian Cairns.  We had an Indian summer and we had to make the most of it. We drove until lunchtime not quite believing the sunshine and cloudless sky.  In no time at all the bikes were ready to go and the bright yellow jerseys were zooming down by the beach.

Our first run took us along the Santa Anna Drive, named after an unlucky Spanish Armada Galleon, which foundered in the bay.  We headed towards the busy town of Ardara.  The roads were a bit bumpy but it was nice to see some new tarmac on some stretches.  Passing through Ardara we took the road to Maghera, which runs along the Owentocleer Estuary.  This is normally the route taken to the top of Granny Glen, where the Ras Dhun na Gall had their Time Trial this Year.  We stopped at the lovely waterfall and glen for a few pictures.  To my surprise we backtracked for half a mile to a place Shirley described as the Falls Road.  A helpful sign pointed the way, Glengesh 10 K.  Situated between two overgrown hedges was a very wet looking stone littered track.  And it was really steep. We dismounted and pushed upwards.  After a hundred feet I began to regret bringing my rack and panniers.   The path quickly turned into a grassy track and got even steeper. Cyclo-cross was nothing compared to this. Two Hairpin bends greeted us on this alpine goat path. Sheer looking drops overlooking specks of white cottages below.  Did Gerry Beggs really descend this on a road bike for a laugh?  After what seemed an age we got to the top and were rewarded with a superb view over the bay.  The river above the waterfall had cut a gorge out of the rock and ran along below us as we remounted and soon found ourselves on a much-improved road.  It was quite a drag along the Crocknamurrin Mountain Bog Road.  A scattering of tumble down thatched cottages in sore need of some DIY SOS!

The run brought us over to the top of Glengesh Pass, a magnificent view down along the valley with the ribbons of golden sand clearly visible.  The descent is really fast, but there is new tarmac on the hairpins.  There are quite a few ruts on the road so choose your line carefully. The descent took us straight into Ardara and cycling through the town, we had to stop at the iconic Nancy’s Bar for refreshments.  Cycling back for tea we crossed the Owenea Bridge and caught a magnificent sunset for which Donegal is rightly famous.

Our second day greeted us with more blue skies and Shirley had organised a route along the main road towards Gweebarra Bridge and then up a series of sharp hills through a forested section.  We were rewarded with spectacular views over the Gweebarra Estuary.  Our steady climb continued until we were clear of the forest and on perfect roads found ourselves on Muntermellon, mountainous bog land with rows and columns of stacked turf drying on the mountainside. We eventually descended and cycled alongside the Gweebarra River through Cloraghongore to the village of Doochary.  We headed along the main Ballybofey Road and soon hit a steep climb, which soon had me drifting out the back.  Needless to say the cadence dropped and had to rummage in my pockets for a tracker bar to aid my progress.  We regrouped at the top of Glenleigham before a fast descent towards Fintown, before turning off at Willie’s Cottage and taking another excellent mountain road along the edge of Meenmore West Bog and Lough Brrig.  After several miles, we found ourselves on the Glenties Road and enjoyed a long descent down into the town. A quick lunch at Jim’s Café and we returned to Portnoo by way of Ardara.

Our final day again began with wall-to-wall sunshine.  After a quick check on the bikes we headed for a quick run to Ardara along the Santa Anna Drive and passed by the Kilclooney Dolmen. Cycling down the hill through the Main Street we passed Nancy’s Bar and took a left before the Nesbitt Arms Hotel heading out of town along Woodhill Grove.  Shirley told us we were in for a surprise and it wasn’t a coffee shop!  The road began to steepen until we found ourselves at the bottom of a brutal climb.  No jokes about Granny rings now as we made our way up Ardvally Hill. Thankfully the worst of the climb was at the beginning, but when you thought it was the top, the false summit gave way to a longer lumpy stretch with a further summit before finally descending at Cronkeerin. We cycled back to Ardara completing the loop before returning to Portnoo for the last time.

A great three days of cycling in perfect weather conditions.  We didn’t break any distance records but managed about 6700 feet of climbing during our brief stay.  Our sincere thanks to our host Shirley Lee and of course the good weather that bathed this huge County in Mediterranean Sunshine.