Ride: Enniskillen, Northern Ireland to Armagh, Northern Ireland
Terrain: If you ignore what Google Maps tells you and stick to the main A28 road, you'll be alright. It's a long and unexciting day on the main highway, but as a result, a bearable one. The traffic's lighter than you would expect. We repeat - stick to the A28.
This was the longest stretch in the saddle so far and one we originally anticipated as being the worst. Not because it went on all day, but because it was through a good chunk of the country. With bugger all between here and Armagh to break up the journey, that, along with the inevitable accursed drumlins, meant it looked like another chore of a ride, with nothing much to look at besides the usual fields of cows.
Pretty early on today we decided we would be paying no attention to Google Maps. In its infinite wisdom, the damn thing had decided to send us up a huge, steep climb which turned out to be entirely pointless, as we immediately rode straight back down it and rejoined the same road we had just left, for a net gain of no height at all. It was such a brutal ascent that we had to get off and push, which eventually broke one of Neil's cleats, meaning he had to change into regular shoes and battle on. Ugh. Enough was enough. No more pointless climbing. No more thankless drumlins. As William Wallace once said, we all end up dead - it's just a matter of how and why, and we were damned if we were going to succumb to an endless succession of stupid little hills.
So we stuck to the A28, give or take a few lovely, flat quiet back roads, and to our amazement, we started actually enjoying ourselves. Before we knew it, we were flying along, the whirr of the bike lulling us into a zen-like state interrupted only by the odd bellowing cow. Finally we'd found our rhythm.
Soon enough the one-horse town of Augher loomed insignificantly on the horizon, and we decided we would take our chances and try to find some lunch. Alas we found nothing resembling a restaurant or pub, but fear not, here's a Costcutter supermarket with a hot food counter laden with dubious wares – that'll sort us out!
There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to visit Augher under normal circumstances. It has one main road and a whole lot of nothing. On the off-chance, Jess Googled "bike shop" in the forlorn hope of finding fresh cleats to see us through the rest of the journey. After all, we had been through most of the major towns in the country, and between them they could barely muster a single bike shop worthy of the name. What chance did we have out here?
We were massively, beautifully wrong. Not only was So Cycle just a hundred metres from where we were sitting, but it looked legitimate as well - i.e. not some farmer tinkering in his shed (although at this point, we would have taken that too).
As we rolled up we couldn't believe our eyes. This was easily the best bike shop we'd seen on the entire trip, full of quality bikes and accessories. A friendly employee popped his head around the counter and came out to greet us.
"You have no idea how happy we are to see you!" Jess warbled, much to his confusion and bewilderment.
"Erm, OK, we're just a bike shop....", he stammered.
Little did he know that he'd just saved our bacon. He had the cleats, he had the inner tube, and pretty soon he had our everlasting gratitude. It's a fantastic shop, it really is. Do give them your business if you're ever passing through.
After that, it was pretty much smooth sailing until Armagh. For the first time on our trip, we crossed the border into the Irish Republic and rode there for a few kilometres. The untrained eye would barely notice anything had changed, but the clues are there if you look, such as the postboxes suddenly turning green(er).
Whichever side of the border you're on, people here are friendly far above and beyond the call of duty, especially out in the sticks, where you don't see eejits on a tandem every day of the week. As we were about to turn down one particular lane, an old woman out on a walk with her daughter advised us not to go that way, as the hedges had recently been trimmed and there were thorns everywhere. Thanks to them, we managed to avoid sustaining yet another flat, and before long, we were heading back over the invisible border, which Neil was able to identify because "the air smells more prosperous on this side". Riiiiight.
An hour later, we were in the quaint village of Caledon in County Tyrone. Taking its name from the old Latin word Caledonia, which the Romans gave to what is today Scotland, it is a very small dot on the map with only 387 people living there as of the 2001 census. The town had its heyday in the late 1700s, and we certainly felt as if we had stepped back into the past as we enjoyed a cuppa and watched a man lift bales of hay onto the back of his truck with a pitchfork. Our tandem was once again a topic of astonishment amongst the townspeople, and we got many a thumbs up as we pressed on for the final stretch.
But not before a quick stop at another national treasure. Navan Fort is an ancient ceremonial monument near Armagh that was, according to tradition, one of the great royal sites of pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland. For nearly seven hundred years, it rivalled Tara in the south and was where the kings of Northern Ireland ruled. And as with the Ulster American Folk Park, the Northern Irish tourism board have seriously outdone themselves by bringing this into reality. The centre offers interactive exhibitions that detail life as far as back as 2500 BC, when the first signs of activity were recorded. A gigantic earthen mound from the Celtic period was unearthed in the 1960s and is left entirely intact. We marched to the top and looked out across the rolling hills of County Armagh, our lungs filled with the delightful aroma of rabbit poop.
In the end, the ride we feared the most turned out to be much more pleasant than we could have hoped, and as evening approached, we rolled into Armagh City, happy and fresh.