November 15, 2019
From Malin Head to Mizen Head on Ireland’s west coast, the MizMal—a cycling route created by a former IT consultant—is one of the country’s best bike rides that also takes in the Wild Atlantic Way. That’s all Mark Stratton needed to hear.
Paul’s prediction of meteorological Armageddon rings in my ears, as we approach Glenveigh’s summit.
“There’s a 90 per cent chance of rain, 30mph winds by 2pm and some big hills, so I urge you to get over them before that,” says the Ulsterman at breakfast. He’s wearing a T-shirt reading: ‘Hills, Cobbles, Suffer’—as if predicting a day of pain.
I answer this rally to urgency … by eating. Got to fuel the tank. Gulping coffee and porridge, then pedalling with a whirling dervish cadence out of Donegal on the penultimate day of the MizMal—possibly the greatest long-distance cycle you’ve never heard of.
Three hours later I’m cresting the sublime Glenveagh National Park though a cleft of treacle-colored moorland flecked with mauve-flowering heather, the surrounding hilltops rounded like eggs.
It never does rain.
Yet even if it had, this wouldn’t have dampened the freewheeling insouciance of a 12-day, end-to-end cycle traversing the entire length of Ireland’s Atlantic west coast: 1,050 kilometers from the southernmost point at Mizen Head to its most northerly outcrop at Malin.
A few years back, 50-year-old Paul Kennedy registered the trademark ‘MizMal (a portmanteau of Mizen-to-Malin) as his fledgling company, Wild Atlantic Cycling, attempts to create an identity for this challenge—something akin to the increasingly popular British end-to-end challenge, Land’s End in Cornwall, southwest England, to John o’ Groats in far north Scotland, known as LEJOG.
The achievement of cycling an entire country end-to-end is unforgettable. You need the motivation on such long-distance cycles to get out of bed every morning and just repeat what you’ve done the day before, over and over again.
I’d cycled LEJOG previously, but at times, I’d pedalled long stretches of uninspiring countryside just to get the challenge done. Sometimes the road traffic was terrible and felt dangerous.
The MizMal is a different beast. From the beaches of Bantry Bay to the bogs of Connemara, it proves a visual feast as Paul’s chosen route follows small, traffic-free lanes, every wheel revolution immersing me deeper into a Gaelic Atlantic culture as rich as the creamy milk of County Kerry.
Days take on an easy bucolic rhythm, averaging 88 kilometers. I’m within a group, but cycling at my own pace, discovering an Ireland well off-the-beaten track.
Beyond Bantry Bay’s wineglass-shaped white sand beaches, the MizMal descends into what Paul describes as one of Ireland’s remotest places—the Black Valley. It exudes mystery; a sparsely inhabited valley secreted within the MacGillycuddy reeks, Ireland’s highest range, incised by waterfalls and cobalt-blue tarns, the only traffic blackface sheep with curled horns like cinnamon swirls.
“Its few inhabitants only got electricity back in 1976,” says Paul.
After that, beyond 180-meter-high dark volcanic cliffs at Moher, it’s an impressive ride into The Burren, a World Heritage area of limestone pavements, formed in warm tropical seas 330 million years ago, uplifted and cracked over time.
The final drag that day into Ballyvaughan, population 190, follows clear bottle-green ocean, revealing offshore kelp forests. “I’ve never cycled a more inspiring road, a real strawberries-and-cream ride,” says fellow rider, Peter, from the Wirral, near Liverpool.
I celebrate with a few drams that night at O’ Laughlin’s, a whisky bar since the 1850s. “I’m sixth generation here,” says softly-spoken Margaret O’ Laughlin. “My daughter will be the seventh if she’s not too distracted by the young men”.
The craic throughout is lively. On another night in Westport, pub music from a duo playing guitar and pennywhistle leaves me cycling next day with the anthemic ‘Dirty old town’ looping around my brain.
‘I met my love, by the gasworks wall,
Dreamed of dreams, by the old canal.’
Saying that, the tenth day to Sligo City provides unexpected adventures I could do without.
During a morning evoking poetry and tragedy, passing WB Yeats’ grave and following the striking Donegal…
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