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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 33

The North Antrim Coast is one of the great cycle routes of Europe. It runs for 120 miles from Belfast to Derry and I want to return to cycle the whole distance. I’m only able to follow it for a dozen miles. I’ve gone and planned my route like an idiot. You don’t plan routes here. You follow the better path. The better view. I’ve decided that I want to ride through the Sperrin Mountains and that means heading west towards Ballymena. I have no regrets about the Northern Ireland that I saw but I do regret the Northern Ireland that I didn’t see.

On the way out of Larne, wobbling slowly uphill as rested legs rebel against the strain and a belly wobbles with yet another Ulster fry filling me to the top button, I pass the guest house where I almost stayed. Fate seemed to be against me when I was here 36 hours earlier. Fate is usually kind to those who travel in hope with a little joy in their hearts.

I think of the rest and luxury and privacy and ample meals and chance to read and write and draw. Of the central base for town and shops and the history and feel of the town. Of my fellow ferry travellers downing pints of stout like the brewery was under threat, of the waitress who served me my  breakfast in a near deserted restaurant with a lascivious wink and an observation that “You’ll be ready for a turn or two now you’ve that inside of you, so you will.” She over-estimated me by a distance. If Cameron Diaz had followed me into my room I would have suggested starting with a snooze. The Ulster Fry is an adult portion; the soda bread and the potato bread add so much.

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My clothes aren’t quite dry. I consider waiting until 10 o’clock and buying a new t shirt at Asda but over-rule this when I think about how far down the road I could be by then. It’s wet and I’m going to get wetter. I have good cause to regret this decision in the long term. In the short-term I get some of the best cycling of the whole trip. The weather had turned. A wind had blown the windows and flags all night and a steady drizzle was falling. I seriously contemplated booking in for a third night, but once the bags were on the bicycle the rain didn’t seem so bad and the wind had veered to my back. It was cold though. It’s the 28th of July and it feels like November. You clear the town and pass through the black arch and you don’t mind what the weather is like. You have suddenly entered a better world.

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The road hugs the coast. If the cloud would lift you could see two parts of Scotland. The cloud doesn’t lift. You can see outcrops and rocks in the  sea each with it’s own cormorant standing sentinel. I’ve beaten the traffic. The road is smooth and fast and almost empty. The wind seems to perfectly in my sails and better and better views emerge as you pass headlands. I sometimes think that we build houses the size we do in order that they look magnificent with a mountain backdrop. A bobbing grey sea and good-sized hill makes the houses and hotels perfect landmarks.

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I’m planning on changing my route. I would be stupid to leave this behind. I follow it with nothing other than the sheer pleasure of cycling. There are few hills on this stage, the stiff breeze is cold but in my favour. The rain hasn’t yet soaked through the layers. It would take quite something to move me off this route. I get to Glenarm and see two signs. One for the Giant’s Causeway and another for the Glenarm Glen Scenic Route.

A scenic route by golly. I must follow that. And I do. And it is really rather beautiful and it is really rather uphill and the uphill goes on for a lot longer than you expect. Who cares? I’m in my element. I’m a west coast boy from Barrow in Furness. we know a bit about wind and rain and hills. My legs are ridiculously strong. It is amazing to feel the difference a week of daily cycling and a rest day has done to them. I just keep going.

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There are three miles of uphill out of Glenarm. That may not be a lot in the Alps but it is quite enough for me. I’ve made my second mistake of the day. The stamina and strength I have is a surge. I have a desire just to keep pedalling and that is what I do. The further I go on this chilly morning, the further I want to go. The scenic route itself is largely obscured by cloud. I enjoy the birdsong and the occasional glimpses of brightness. Despite feeling fit and strong, I never get properly warm. July told me to wear shorts. The weather man would have advised long johns.

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It is while getting towards the top of this climb that I find that I need to spit and that the spittle is not that of the healthiest of people. A chill, a summer cold. It seems to have come on very quickly. I pedal on hoping that it will wear off just as quickly. The scenic road merges with a major route. It is at least downhill. At the bottom of the hill is Ballymena. It’s grey stones and empty Sunday morning streets are in contrast to the array of flags and bunting. Once again it is red, white and blue. Clenched fist Ulster flags, Union Jacks and Scottish saltaires along with the ever present emblems of Glasgow Rangers Football Club. The town declares itself solidly unionist. Everyone I see seems to have the same cropped hair, goatee beard and a Rangers shirt. I have an idea that some good old Scottish Irn Bru will help to clear my nose and throat. It is the beginning of cycling with the most powerful legs I’ve ever had and the weakest set of lungs.