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.