Ride: Belfast, Northern Ireland to Glenarm, Northern Ireland
Terrain: Generally flat as you're hugging the coast road coming out of Belfast. But once you turn inland after Carrickfergus, that's when things get interesting. Back roads a-go-go which mean more climbing but less traffic. You'll have to endure some thigh-burners until Larne, but the beautiful scenery on the descents makes up for it. Then you meet the Antrim Coast Road by the sea, and it's as if the gods are smiling upon you. Smooth sailing until Glenarm after that.
We were entirely unsurprised to find it was raining when we woke up this morning.
With a shrug of our shoulders and an "Oh, what can you do" eye roll, we hurried across the street to Isibeals to get our pre-ride Ulster Fry. In doing so, we hoped we would avoid the worst of the morning rush hour (which only lasts about 20 minutes anyway). It meant that we didn't get on the road until after 10 AM, but that was fine - we only had to do 60 kilometers today. No sweat. Right?
We trundled through the city centre until reaching the Prince Albert Memorial Clock Tower, which we had designated as our official start and end point for the journey. Also known as the Leaning Tower of Norn Iron due to its pronounced tilt as the wooden foundations sink into the ground, it loomed high above us as the clouds grew greyer and greyer.
Our plan was to follow National Cycling Network Route 93, which we had been assured would whisk us safely out of the city and on to the good stuff. But inevitably, this route turned out to be up to the usual standards of British cycling "infrastructure", with sporadic signposting and bike lanes that end as suddenly as they begin. Second-guessing the intentions of the "designers" of this route cost us quite a lot of time that morning.
We blundered around the docks for far too long until we eventually found the cycle path, thanks to a nice man in his car who saw us on the side of the road looking completely drenched and confused. He directed us to a tiny side road hidden behind some roadworks which took us onto a nice separate bike path. This gave us shelter from the motorway and kept us right from Belfast through Whiteabbey and into Carrickfergus, where we stopped for a cup of tea.
From here, we had a choice. We could either keep going along the A2, which would have been much flatter and easier but went through industrial estates that were...less than picturesque. Or, we could cut inland on the Beltoy Road and take a shorter, hillier, but much more scenic route. Since we came to Northern Ireland for the views (and given that we had seen more than enough industrial grimness for one day), the decision was a no brainer.
We wouldn't say this was a mistake, exactly, but...let's just say fortune didn't favour us.
The day before we set off, we had taken the tandem out for a test ride around Belfast to make sure that everything was working. It turned out the rear gear shifter was misbehaving. It just wasn't pulling the back derailleur tight enough to get us down to the lowest 2-3 cogs (the ones we really needed for those back road hills), and sometimes it wasn't finding its way to the top gears either, leaving us spinning out on the flat. Our nine-speed cassette was behaving more like a five-speed, and not the gears we needed.
After a visit to the marvellously helpful McGarvey Cycles, everything seemed to be all right. But on one of the many drumlins that plagued us today, something went ping. The shifter stopped working entirely. And then it started shifting on its own, rendering the bike completely unrideable.
We had no choice but to stop in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but cows for miles, the rain pouring down our backs, and try to fix the damn shifter that we had no experience in fixing before.
As our cold, wet fingers fumbled around with shifters and cables, we started to get concerned. We were four hours into our first day on a journey we knew was going to get much harder. It was not possible to do this trip on a pseudo-singlespeed tandem. But here we were, looking like that might be our only choice until we found a proper bike shop.
A very terse half hour later, we were able to force it into a low enough gear to see us through to Glenarm. It was a horrible bodge and we couldn't leave it like that, but at least we could get over the hills. Back in the saddle.
Thanks to this and a few other moments getting lost in the countryside, it was well past 2 PM by the time we got the dismal port town of Larne for lunch. This can be problematic in small-town Northern Ireland, where eating hours tend to be a little restricted. We walked from restaurant to restaurant, trying to find one that was still serving, until we came across The Coffee Doc (where the waitstaff are all literally dressed as surgeons). Shivering like drowned rats whilst the rain pished onto our bike outside, we peered out the window and started laughing.
A few kilometres later, we came across the sea. And then it was like the first half of the day never happened.
It had stopped raining by then, and a beautiful mist seeped across everything like a blanket. The road was smooth and completely flat. With the Irish Sea crashing to our right and the soggy green glens on our left, the final 15k felt like nothing, and we roared along the coast, stuck in our too-low gear, pedalling like crazy and laughing like idiots.
Finally, the little town of Glenarm emerged from the gloom, and our first day was done.