Monday, September 13, 2010

Cycling in County Wexford

Being too poor to afford membership of a gym or a swimming pool, I recently got on my bike (as they say) and took up cycling the local roads as a form of exercise. This activity, although physically rewarding, is not without perils. The following guidelines for cycling safely on Ireland's inconstant country roads applies only to daylight perambulation; cycling by night on the same unlit roads is only for those who feel they have little left to live for; unlike in well-lit urban centres, the enveloping rural darkness will not be illuminated by the brightest clip-on torch on your handlebars, and even the most brilliantly lit cyclist runs the almost inevitable risk of ending up as a nasty stretched stain on the tarmac.
When venturing forth in daylight, you must firstly, of course, take into account the weather. The last few months have, by and large, been exceptionally pleasant and warm, but you know in your heart, as sure as rain follows the sunshine, that ... er ... the rain will follow the sunshine, and you stands a good chance of being soaked through on your excursion. Rain gear in a backpack is a must, for if you wear it and the sun is glowing like a 1000w bulb, you will rapidly become lathered in sweat and pass out with heatstroke. Of course, when the deluge starts with little warning and visibility is reduced to a few feet by the sheets of rain, by the time you've leapt off your bike, opened your backpack, wrestled your coiled-up rain gear out of it, picked up the map that fell out and began transforming into illegible clotted paper sludge, and got your over-trousers and plastic jacket on, you'll be sodden anyway. Besides, for me, wearing glasses means that my visibility will be minimal in any case, rendering progress difficult. I remember once in Dublin, the rain was sheeting at such an angle that it went over the tops of my spectacles and beat directly on my eyeballs like little lasers. What fun... Surface water will also render certain parts of the roads slippy and lethal, especially if hurtling downhill. "A bad wet death", as Sergeant Pluck would say, could be the outcome, so caution is advised. On rainy days it can be hard to tell whether the puddle you're heading towards is simply a skin of water on the tarmac or a submerged pothole; you'll find out as it severely dents your front tyre and hurls you over the handlebars into the ditch.
The heat which we've recently enjoyed has been wonderful; the only drawback while cycling, aside from the risk of dehydration (bring ample water) and occasional blindness (wear sunglasses if you can), is the propensity of insects to fly into your face or, more disconcertingly, into your open mouth. Trying to maintain control of your bike while going downhill with an angry wasp lodged in your throat is not recommended. And on sunny days, the luxuriant vegetation creates deep pools of shadows which may hide potholes, so constant vigilance is mandatory.
Next, there is the roads. One has two choices: the main roads (where one risks being killed by speeding motorists) and the side roads (where one risks being killed by speeding motorists). The main roads have the advantage of being wide (more room for cars to pull out when passing you) and having (relatively) good verges. They also tend to be straighter, thus giving the passing motorists more time to see you, and either take evasive action or throw rubbish and insults out the window as they fly past. One may at times have to pull out to avoid roadkill, which can range from the standard mashed rats and rabbits to the rarer badger, cat, and, occasionally, stray dog (I passed a handsome and very dead sheepdog lying stiff and cold on the main road to Wexford two days ago, a sight which depressed me inordinately). Side roads, on the other hand, are quite often appallingly surfaced, with open potholes, crudely filled potholes, crumbling verges, hidden entrances, and overgrown hedgerows, which lash the bare arms with briars and nettles as you cycle past. They are also fiendishly winding and home to hairpin bends, a fact which doesn't prevent the locals from driving at ridiculously high speeds. There is also the ever-present danger of half-blind elderly motorists pulling put of their hidden driveways right in front of you, then muttering vaguely "what was that?" after you've smashed into the side of their car, gone head over heels through the air, and been embedded in the road like a hairy pancake.
It must also be remembered that on rural roads local dogs will chase your bike and sometimes try to latch on to your leg; amusing if it's a terrier, not so amusing if it's an rottweiler. Make sure your water-bottle is clipped to your bike and has a nozzle; that way you can spray them in the face, something most dogs hate. Never oiling your brakes can also work; the unmerciful screech as you slow down will frighten off all but the most determined. In the case where neither works and the horrid little brute is trying to tear a chunk out of your exposed calf, a boot in the face will usually do the job, although it's not to be admired.
Remember at all times that you are an unexpected sight on most Irish roads, especially of the main ones. The average God-fearing Irish(wo)man cannot conceive of travelling anywhere except by car, and believes that bikes and buses are for people who are too young, too old, or too poor to afford one. Women on bikes in particular can occasionally be subject to crude exhortations or outright abuse from passing boneheads, which explains why they are a very rare sight indeed (except on Sundays, when various sporting groups take to the roads). And remember a story of what happened to a friend of mine several years ago: while she was out cycling with a companion on a bright summer afternoon in the hard shoulder, a motorcyclist decided to give them as scare by driving between them. Unfortunately, he misjudged the distance between the two, hit off the girl on the outside, lost control of his motorbike, and slammed into my friend, throwing her over the handlebars for some distance and knocking her unconscious. She was fine afterwards, but still bears a small scar on her forehead as a result of this irresponsible dimwit. Happy cycling, y'all!


jams o donnell said...

Hmm thinking about the country roads around Millstreet, the only way I would ride a bike on them is if I had decided that I had enough of life!

Sean Jeating said...

Probably I have, but I cannot remember that I ever passed / saw a cyclist in Ireland. - Oh, well, once between Sally Gap and Laragh. :)

The prototypes in the vid are as hilarious, as your post was a funny read.
Keep going, D.E. What about next year's Sean Kelly Tour of Waterford? :)

A Doubtful Egg said...

Yes, we rural Irish cyclists are rare birds indeed (although there's more of us now as the recession continues to bite!)