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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 35

Youths congregate around cars with big exhausts. Most don’t bother with even looking in my direction but those who do try to out stare me. I smile at one and he smiles back and nods. I try the same trick a village later and get told to f**k off. I heed the advice.

I’m not getting a true picture. Most folk are at their Sunday dinners, or watching a bit of telly or enjoying a pint of porter down the pub. Now that church services are over, the only occupants of the wet streets are youths. I turn a corner and two teenaged boys are chatting amiably while walking on the pavement. One is bouncing a ball on a hurling bat. The Boy Racers  are the most prominent of the occupied young folk but they are by no means the majority. They are the ones I have a fear of though and they are the ones who have me riding out of Draperstown. This time it is me avoiding the eye contact as I put head down, arse up and pedal.

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The map makes it look easy enough but there are a few turnings before you hit the Glenelly Road which takes you right through the centre of The Sperrin Mountains. The roads have a habit of cutting back on themselves and there is a habit round here of defacing either the English or the Gaelic spelling of place names. Some road signs are completely obliterated and others, in the time old practical joke, much loved by cartoonists, the signs have simply been twisted to point in the wrong direction.

And thus I blunder into great beauty. The first sign that I’m with the angels again is a pair of hooded crows; the first I have seen all journey. If you travel far enough north or far enough west in Britain, the carrion crow disappears and is replaced with the much more spectacular, black and white and butch, hooded version. I lived some of my formative years in Thurso where they were common and they were occasionally to be seen in the south lakeland haunts of my own youth. I hadn’t seen one in years. I hail them and they tell me to f**k off as well.

The Central Sperrins Scenic Route is well sign posted once you’ve found it. It begins with a long hill which probably seems steeper after nearly seventy miles than it would normally feel. I get to the top using my last ounces of energy. I know there is a river flowing in the other direction if I get over the divide. I am foolishly mistaken in presuming that this means a steady and continuous downhill. This is a Celtic river and is as likely to defy gravity like an  electric burn as give me an easy ride to rest.

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The final pull also signals problems with the gears. There’s an awful lot of straining and stressing noises  when I have to really push down on the pedals. A small prayer promises God some good behaviour from me if only I’m allowed to get through both Sunday and this glen without the bike packing up on me. The Almighty seems to find this agreeable but takes what little bit of strength I have left in my legs as a deposit. From now on I cannot distinguish between gradients. Uphill simply means getting off to push.

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It is a magnificent place to push any bicycle. Me and this old Dawes Horizon have travelled many a moorland and mountain mile. This compares very favourably. The gears stop complaining too. Something is quite seriously wrong somewhere among the cogs and chains but I can’t identify it. It’s going to last out if I continue to push. I have no choice. If I had Pedro Delgado’s bicycle, I’d still have to use my legs, and that would mean pushing.

The beauty is a new sort. It lacks the grandeur and isolation of Western Galloway. Here cars roll past at constant intervals and the two children being forced to endure a Sunday afternoon scenic drive on the back seat, stare blankly out of the rear window, and let me into their thoughts. Most cars give me a respectful clearance but there are young thrusters among them and not only did these almost clip me on two occasions; from a third I had a beer bottle hurled at my wheels. It was Spanish beer. I reassure myself that I haven’t heard too many stories of cyclists being killed by dangerous drivers. I’d have heard…wouldn’t I ? …Wouldn’t I? I was pretty scared at times.

The open moorland is lovely. It is still a grey, cold and overcast day but the rain has stopped and the sun is able to squeeze a shaft or two of brighter light through some of the clouds. The road does begin to descend and for ten miles I’m making good progress. The river gains size as we travel. Spurs and side glens and outcrops bring in tributary streams. The Sperrins themselves are like a succession of breast shaped peaks. They have no great height but they go well together. I feel enclosed. This would have been some road in pack horse and drovers’ days.

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I cannot think of an equivalent road in mainland Britain. It is never far from fair sized towns and yet there isn’t a settlement of any sort for miles and miles. Just the occasional farmhouse or wayside cottage. There are a number of half-built efforts where the builder seems to have lost interest.

In the hamlets a dog will bark, occasionally one will half-heartedly give chase, but I never saw a soul. Every now and then a grand, newly built luxury home. They have a splendid view. Unfortunately the splendid view gets a view of an ugly tribute to money and a need to assert wealth. These are not attractive houses. Cars have shrunk the countryside. This would have been nearly inaccessible to most people as recently as the sixties. Now its a country drive for thousands or an alternative route to Strabane or Newtownstewart. In the sixties I lived on a farm just three miles from the town of Ulverston. We were so cut off that we used to go out and wave at cars. The first would be my father off to work in the morning and he’d be the fifth as he drove home at six o’clock later that day.

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All signs point to Plumbridge but the milage never seems to drop. Is this another practical joke or am I beginning to hallucinate? The road has become corrugated and I find myself free wheeling 400 yards and then pushing 400 yards. 400 yards is one heck of a push with tired legs.