Tips for Cycling the Slea Head Drive
Cyclists near and far, beginner and intermediate, this one’s for you.
I’m an amateur rider at best, having spent a summer learning how to confidently bike from my home in Everett, Massachusetts to downtown Boston in order to feel secure in cycling through Dublin for four months. When I arrived, the left lane driving and bike paths that wound in and around traffic shattered any stitch of self-assurance I’d previously had, and settled on renting bikes here and there. But I am a fervent lover of the mode, and it is probably my favorite way to see the world.
Along the Dingle Peninsula is the Slea Head Drive, a roughly 30-mile loop with views that still give me shivers to think about. Rugged, green, dramatic in its shifting landscapes, it is one of the country’s most spectacular scenes. The way the road ribbons around the coast, formations of rock rising on one side and out of the ocean, which rolls and explodes below, is exquisite and truly a wonder. It passes through villages, around mountainous bends, and eventually, lands you back in lovely Dingle. I spent two days there for a weekend solo in mid September and was immediately caught under the spell of its mystique. It was an opportunity to stretch my legs without the fear of upsetting the rules of the urban road.
My arse was sore for a week (yes, the aches wore off after seven whole days) but it was worth it.
I would go back again and again because the land beckons like a harmless siren. It frees you; the hours spent alone on a bicycle among nature’s bounty gave me the space to unload my mind and to reflect on the the moments I was creating. Slea Head is surprising, daunting, and in its total glory. Honestly, I didn’t know much about the following beforehand. #unsavinessatitsfinest But I definitely learned them along the way. Here are some tips for your cycling trip!
Pack plenty of water and snacks
This one should be obvious for a long ride, and a slightly challenging one at that, but it wasn’t obvious to me. I didn’t have enough (read: really any) of either with me, which made the final leg of the ride difficult, and then even more difficult because I was grumbling and considering hitchhiking and kicking myself for not being in a better mood. Save yourself the hanger and a parched throat with granola bars, fruit, and 1-2 bottles of water.
Clock in early the night before
Dingle’s pub’s doorways pour into the streets with trad music, but don’t let them tempt you for too long. Even if you don’t start the ride until the late morning or early afternoon, you’ll want to go forth with a clear head and rejuvenated body. Dingle is a nice town in itself to ride around if you so choose before or after your ride.
Check the weather (and dress appropriately)
But remember where you are. Ireland isn’t as rainy as it’s made to seem; really, the country sees showers and the occasional spitting of rain, but the skies can (and will) clear just as quickly. And then cover up the blue again. It’s a rhythm that you have to be prepared for. Pack a rain jacket, wear sturdy shoes, and expect that you’ll go from chilly to hot to chilly–perfectly in time with the clouds.
*The above photos were taken on the same horizon within 10 seconds of each other. It was like the ocean had split in two and here I was, standing in the middle of polar opposite forecasts.*
Allow 5-6 hours and no bike lanes
In total, it took me about five and a half hours to return to Dingle, with numerous stops and a handful of bike-walking breaks. The terrain won’t let you just zip over it, and anyways, why would you? Arduous and jaw-dropping all in one, Slea Head is an entire day’s trip. And so worth that pint you’ll be craving afterwards.
The loop is also rather quiet, meaning you won’t have to worry about too many drivers honking at or skirting around you. There are no bike lanes, so you have to cycle either in the road or, when prompted, on the edge of the broken yellow lines and the shrubbery. It’s probably best this way, though. Once in a while I joined their prickly ranks, but generally speaking, you can burn rubber in stress-free solitude.
…And traffic jams
Because it gets narrow. The excitement of watching a tour bus make it through the twisty-turvy road is priceless.
Rent from Paddy’s Bike Shop
For €15 a day, you can rent a bike from Paddy’s, which includes a key, a lock, and a map. Visit their site here to see their rental options.
Keep on the straight and narrow
The road hugging the water is one straight shoot. The further inland you trail, the more breaks in the road you find, and the more you second guess your direction. Signs do crop up, not regularly, which is a good sign; if you haven’t seen anything directing you towards the next right, you’re good to keep on going where you are. It’s like the when in doubt, choose C rule: when in panic mode, go straight. Odds are you’ll see a sign shortly thereafter that sets your breathing back to normal.
Stop frequently, and cycle leisurely
I said it once and I’ll say it again: stop frequently, and don’t rush. This is a journey that demands your full attention, that you will fall in love with, that wants to and almost definitely will recharge your soul. With sights like this hard to come by, don’t squander the opportunity to just stop along a wooden fence and admire the view. Watch cows and sheep meander through their fields, enjoy wind-torn hair and the ocean air, and take pride in this adventure.
Cycling Slea Head is, to date, one of the most thrilling adventures I’ve had and one I intend to conquer again. Because that’s what you do, you and your trusty bike: you conquer the ride.
Still, nature claims its total victory.