Ride: Portaferry, Northern Ireland to Belfast, Northern Ireland
Terrain: You'll be riding along the inside of Strangford Lough, which means flat paths for the majority of the day. The road turns inland at Newtownards, and the way out of town is an unpleasantly steep but steady climb on a major highway. But once that's behind you, Belfast sits in a valley, so it's downhill all the way to your final destination. Journey's end.
Today was our last day.
By the time the sun came down, we would have done a loop of the whole country and ended up back where we started in Belfast. As is usually the case, we were too busy thinking about what still lay ahead to reminisce. No time for nostalgia just yet.
Breakfast was served at 9 AM by the lovely wife of the B&B owner, who had a heart of gold and chatted animatedly with us about our trip. She was kind enough to rinse and refill all our water bottles as we prepped the bike, and wished us well for the final stage of our journey. We would eventually meet her again in her van between Portaferry and Belfast and exchange friendly waves on the road. You're never too far away from someone you know here.
The weather forecast had warned us to expect "gale force" winds in the afternoon. After the horrors of the ride to Ballycastle, we just wanted to get this done before it got scary. We were reminded of the final day of our previous tour in Burma, when we raced against the clock to get to Bagan before sunset. We just about managed it, but at the cost of speeding through one of the more scenic routes of the trip without taking the time to drink it in. Unfortunately, most of the memories from that day are one big sweaty blur now.
As we pedalled along the inside of Strangford Lough, the wind was already getting up, enough to make us a bit nervous about what lay ahead. We took in what we could of this beautiful region from our saddles, but it deserves much more attention than we were able to give it. The stormy grey skies were just like those we began our trip under two weeks ago. What comes around goes around.
We were in Newtownards before we knew it, covering 30 kilometres in an hour and a half. That might not sound like much, but on a rig like ours it's a fair clip. We were flying across the utterly flat terrain, so as it was noon and we only had about 15 clicks to go, we decided to take a wee breather and figure out the rest of the route. Neil had a faint memory of there being a huge climb out of town, and this proved all too accurate as we started riding towards Belfast on the A20.
It was a slow and steady trudge for the next while, with cars and trucks thankfully giving us a wide berth as we huffed and heaved our way up. Northern Ireland was seeing us off with one final kick in the teeth of a climb. Sweat poured off our faces as we cursed and grimaced. We threw the tandem into granny gear and focused on keeping a steady rhythm, as this was no place to have a wobble and fall down. After far too long, we crested, and that was it. The work was done. Downhill all the way from here.
The wind whistled in our ears as we sailed all the way into the centre of Belfast. We entered from the east on Upper Newtownards Road, passing through a predominantly Loyalist area festooned with Union flags. The numerous murals all had stories to tell, but we weren't stopping to take a look because, on top of the ferocious winds, it was now threatening to rain. Isn't it always?
Traffic was stop-and-go all the way into town, which gave one passing scamp too good an opportunity to miss.
"Hey mister! Nice bike!
I'll buy it off you for a tenner!"
Thus priced out of the deal, the wee boy's head disappeared back inside the car window.
All of a sudden, hotfooting it to the end of the road didn't seem so important. We were laughing our heads off, waving madly back at the kids in the cab ahead. It wasn't a long way from here anyway, and all too soon, we arrived back at the foot of the Albert Clock, where we had started this insane idea two weeks ago.
Giggling like schoolchildren, we asked the nearest person to take a photograph of us hamming it up in front of the clock as proof that we did, in fact, do what we had set out to do. And then, we stood there for a moment, just looking at each other and saying nothing and everything at once.
When we first told our families and friends our plan, most of them thought we were crazy, and they had a point. So many times we felt like giving up because it was harder than expected. So many pep talks we had to give each other to get back into the saddle and keep going against the terrain and weather. It was a lot to take on.
When you're on a cycle tour with your partner, and especially when you're sharing a tandem, you see the best and worst sides of the other person in the 24 hours a day you spend together. It certainly isn't for everyone, and we wouldn't blame anybody for not wanting to take on a trip like this.
But they say that if you're lucky enough to find someone who will dive head first into the abyss with you, and never let go of your hand the whole time, then you've got the one to spend your life with. So we both had the same answer in mind when this next question came up:
"Shall we get married?"