|image via chris531|
For the past several years, I've had a dream cycling destination that I fantasise about incessantly: the Dark Hedges in the North of Ireland. Oh the Dark Hedges! What are they? Well technically, they are just a short stretch of country road near the coast of Couny Antrim. The road is lined with ancient beach trees, and these trees have grown so crooked and twisted that the overhanging branches have intertwined to form a magnificent canopy. Overgrown with moss, the whole thing has an enchanted, mystical look to it. I fell in love with this unseen piece of landscape the first time I saw a photograph of it, immediately imagining myself under the canopy as sunlight streamed through black branches and everything turned hundreds of shades of green. What happens next? I'm not sure, but something magical. Maybe if one is there at just the right time of day, the trees will talk to you, or the faeries will come out. And if you're there at the wrong time of day, you'll be turned into a tree yourself. With a name like Dark Hedges, an element of danger is to be expected.
I know. Some dream of crossing the Pyrenees and I dream of cycling through a cluster of hedges. Well, it's my fantasy!
While I had hoped my pilgrimage to the Dark Hedges would take place last year, obviously that did not happen. The more I began to look into it practically, the more confused I became as to how to arrange it. There was the question of getting my bike over there - which is so expensive and unpleasant, that at first I thought I'd be better off renting or borrowing a bicycle in Ireland. But on closer examination, it turned out that finding a roadbike to rent would actually be quite difficult, and cycling for hundreds of miles on an upright hybrid was not what I had in mind. And while I have friends there who are willing to lend me a bike, they live in the opposite direction from where I'd be heading, so the logistics would not work out. But the final blow that made me postpone planning this trip came when a couple of local acquaintances expressed skepticism about the idea, telling me that the drivers were awful and that all the good cycling was on the west, not the east coast. Hmm. Of course "awful" should be taken with a grain of salt, as they'd never cycled on the roads in the US and their basis for comparison is limited. Still, all of this taken together made me put the brakes on the idea until I could get a better sense of how to plan a trip like this.
Which brings me to a larger point: How does one go about planning a cycling trip to a place they've never been? There are many beautiful locations that are touted as cycling destinations, but the truth is that we do not really know how comfortable we will be with the terrain and road sharing culture until we are there. Having recently read about two cycling couples' experiences in New Zealand has further highlighted this problem. Local randonneurs Pamela and John "Blayley" picked up and moved to New Zealand in 2002, believing (after a great deal of research) that it would be a cyclist's paradise. What they discovered in practice however, was rather different and they ended up moving back to the US just 2 years later. More recently, Russ Roca and Laura Crawford of The Path Less Pedaled embarked on a tour of New Zealand - billed as "The Kiwi Chronicles," documented by the Bicycle Times, and meant to promote new Zealand as a cycling friendly destination. It was therefore a surprise to everyone when several days ago they experienced a road rage incident involving physical violence while cycling single file. The incident has sparked a media frenzy, challenging the portrayal of New Zealand as friendly or safe for bicyclists.
I have a number of acquaintances and colleagues who have gone on trips to their dream cycling destinations, and the feedback has been pretty mixed. Those who go to France and Italy seem to have better experiences overall. This may simply be because those routes are so well traveled that it is possible to do more thorough research and have a better idea of what to expect, and it may also be because both countries have a well developed cycling cultures. While to me, Ireland seems like the perfect place to cycle - with its rolling hills, beautiful scenery and rural roads - I have found comparatively few personal narratives allowing me to gauge what the particular route I am interested in would be like for someone of my skill level, and so I remain conflicted. What is your dream cycling destination, and how would you approach planning a trip to one?