On cycling up hills, and feeling happy

A friend recently pointed out that my last few blog posts had been a bit intense. I guess that’s true, and a symptom of the last few months of my life having been a bit intense as well. I always try to insert positive things too though, and hope it’s not been too relentlessly heavy-going for you all. In any case I have chosen something slightly less intense for this one.

I spent a week cycling in Donegal with my mother in July, as our trip to Connemara last year was such a success. For those of you who do not know my mother, when I say I went cycling in Donegal with my mother I really do mean ‘cycling’. Donegal is not exactly easy terrain for cyclists, and my mother would easily out-ride someone half her age.

There is so much I could say about this holiday – the sheer stunning beauty of the landscape; the joy of being back in Ireland (a country I have loved ever since I was first taken on holiday to Kerry by my parents, aged 10); why it’s fun to go on holiday with your mother even when you’re 36. More than anything, though, explaining to people why getting up at 7.30am and spending all day on a luggage-laden bicycle, constantly changing gears as you go up and down hills of varying degrees of steepness, constitutes ‘a great holiday’ made me think about more fundamental life things, like the nature of human happiness.

In Michael Foley’s excellent book The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard To Be Happy, he identifies that “[we are] born to strive […] And striving implies effort applied over time, with obstacles, difficulties and the possibility, even likelihood, of failure. If we could feel good without effort we would no longer feel good.” Each time I felt my quads burn with the exertion of yet another steep ascent, occasionally gritting my teeth and emitting a kind of primordial grunt in an effort to stay on my bike, I thought about exactly that: strife, struggle, reward, happiness. For getting to the top of that hill, and subsequently to the top of another hill, and finally to a hot shower and a pint of Guinness, I felt good in a way that often eludes me in my normal daily life.

One bit of our trip in particular brought this home. It was my mum actually who decided we cycle from Killybegs to Ardara via Glencolmcille (those place names! this is where I wish WordPress had heart-eyed emojis to insert), over Glengesh Pass. When cycled in the opposite direction, Glengesh is a notorious route for road cyclists, going uphill Tour de France-style insanely steeply along various sharp hairpin bends. From Glencolmcille to Ardara it is much more gradual, but fairly relentless climbing – gradual ascent punctuated by steeper bits, so you hardly get any time to rest for a good while. We had the good fortune of visiting Donegal during a heatwave (now there’s two words that rarely find themselves in the same sentence), so the mid-afternoon sun was beating down on us as well.

I was mainly focused on getting to the top of the first big long steep bit before getting off to take stock, and I was determinedly motoring on some way ahead of my mother when I suddenly heard her calling out asking me to stop. She was worried I would just disappear out of sight, it was late and hot and we hadn’t had lunch yet. It was the only time in our trip that she struggled and really had to take a break. Now, I hope she doesn’t mind me saying this here, but my mother is 66 years old and I could literally not respect and admire her more for even attempting to cycle Glengesh with me. What’s more, after a half hour break and some soda bread, we got back on our bikes and rode all the way to the Glengesh viewpoint, where we stopped for a bit among the cars and caravans before starting the hair-raisingly steep descent into Ardara. I challenge you to identify a 66-year-old in your immediate or indeed extended surroundings who can do the same.

As soon the familiar brown viewpoint sign came into view, indicating we’d made it to the top, I felt elated. Put simply: it was difficult; we persevered; we succeeded. And each one of those five days we cycled the Wild Atlantic Way presented its own challenges and victories, as well as a reassuring and soothing simplicity: you just focus on the road, on where to turn off, on the stunning views. You gain a new respect for your own body, which despite being fairly ordinary and un-athletic is capable of propelling you to your next destination all by itself. If I could, I think I would quite like to pack my life into my two Ortlieb panniers and just cycle around the Irish coastline until I am physically incapable of it. Which, if my mum is anything to go by, hopefully won’t be for a while yet.

I considered how we would have felt if we’d been on a beach in Alicante for a week instead. Be honest: how many of those types of holidays have you been on where you felt grumpy because the weather wasn’t quite as great as you’d hoped, that restaurant was too expensive, your free welcome cocktail too sickly? Or nothing more specific than the ennui of everything being too easy? Instant gratification is presented to us as the thing we should aim for, yet it rarely hits the spot when it comes to actually feeling good.

Anyway, I am not going to go all moralistic on you – I like a cocktail and a lie on the beach as much as the next girl. Plus, I would be upset at not being able to squeeze in all of my shoes and my Chanel perfume into those Ortliebs. I am certainly not going to dedicate the rest of my life to ridiculous sporting challenges, just so I can feel proud of myself. But I will definitely keep cycling the Wild Atlantic Way with my mum every year for as long as possible.


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