Up the hills, on a bike, in the dark. Nuts…
In the middle of winter, it’s fairly easy to fall into a pattern of hibernation. Fall out of bed on a dark morning, stumble into work when it’s still night. After a patch of daylight, we fall home again that night, and slump in front of inane banter from the TV.
I used to hate the onset of winter. Year after year, around late October, the dark evenings would get to me. Then I started mountainbiking at night. I no longer think of the dark as debilitating, but simply as a time of day with less light. Being up a mountain at night, in the cold and the wind… I feel more alive.
A few of us meet in the city centre around 6:30pm, and fight our way through evening traffic to Harold’s Cross, then on to Rathfarnham. Through a series of backroads, we arrive at the base of the vicious climb at Kilmashogue. It’s a cul de sac, so the traffic is gone, the street lights fade away, and we gulp in lungfulls of cold fresh mountain air while ascending the insanely steep final section.
We ride at our own pace – it’s the only way, everyone has different fitness levels. We string out on the climb, a red light up ahead shows the one at front. Don’t look back, or get an eyeful of halogen.
With heaving chest and knitting needles of lactic acid in the legs, we turn into the car park at Kilmashogue, freaking out the occupants of parked cars. Internal lights and steamed windows suggest all manner of recreational sex, or the reckless endangerment of wedding vows. Up past the path to the wedge tomb and through the first yellow and black barriers, covered in badly written satanic graffiti. We’re now offroad.
We stop at the second barrier, to regroup, take a piss, shoot the breeze, get our breaths back. Then we’re off along a relatively flat section. If it’s moonlit, we turn off the front lights, and ride the trail with only our rear lights to stop us colliding.
Soon, the incline begins again, but this time it’s sandy, loose gravel, with mini-canyons scored by rainfall. A series of four steep hairpins take us to the next plateau, another natural rest stop, with the first decent view of the city. The Bailey lighthouse blinks at us from Howth Head, and sometimes we can see other lights over in Ticknock – runners, night hikers, other mountainbikers. The weirdos, the knackers, and the drinkers don’t come up here on winter nights.
It’s colder up here, so we don’t rest long, and sprint up the first bit of singletrack. The climbing is fairly ‘technical’ as we head up out of the treeline. We climb the bikes over great and small lumps of granite, the mica and quartz blinking back in the glare of our lights.
As we leave the trees and enter the wide expanse of bogland, the south western sky is alive with the lights of the antenna on Mount Kippure. We turn east along the spine of the mountain, carefully picking our way over chunks of rock and pools of water. In cold weather this section freezes, and melts a little, then freezes, and melts, and so on, creating a beautiful layering of ice, with a blue green tinge. Some nights it’s so cold here, the frost forms on your clothes, and your toes go numb.
Last night we only had to contend with a blustery headwind and horizontal sleet, reducing visibility. I love this stretch of mountain – the very challenge of staying up right leads to an altered state of mind. Here you can enter the ‘zone’, a kind of meditative space, where there’s nothing to think about other than what’s in the beam of light. Nothing to do but react.
Up near the Fairy Castle, we stop. If it’s sheltered, we sit on a rock, eat a muesli bar, make mechanical adjustments, survey the beauty of Dublin from 500m above. We play god, sitting on a wild mountainside, looking down upon 1.5 million ant-like beings, sitting in pubs, isolated in their cars, or tucked up watching soap operas.
My first thought is usually ‘sure where else would I be, of a night?’.
We move before the sweat dries, and descend quickly through the heather and gorse, sometimes alarming three or four fallow deer that have been grazing. They run ahead before bouncing across the scrubby mountainside. During the daytime there’s often a pair of Ravens flying around, admonishing trespassers with their RRRrrr RRRrrr call, while performing beautiful barrel rolls.
Down past the crossroads by the communications towers, we turn right, and go past the strangely shaped rocks of Three Rock Mountain Then its a hair-raising downhill into an old MTB course through dense conifers. It doesn’t matter how well you know, it, at night it’s different, and I’m forever taking wrong turnings, losing the path. There’s a couple of high drop-offs here, and if you’re in the flow, you’ll sail down them. If you’re not paying attention, of feeling hesitant, your colleagues will be pulling you out of gorse bushes by the legs. More rocky tracks, then a steady climb back up to the crossroads. A pause… perhaps to watch a ferry leave Dun Laoghaire, then it’s down The Boneshaker, a fast rocky descent beside some woods. Then forest people moved earth into diagonal speedbumps here, to channel water from the path. For bikers it’s a tailor made play trail. With enough sang-froid, a biker can launch himself into the air, bike and all. A skidding deceleration left, brings us across to the main fire road, then into more dark woodland. for the final descent through the trees
Eventually, we’re spat out on another dead end road, at the gates of Ticknock Woods. We descend at 50kmph down past Three Rock pub, and back into Rathfarnham.
Two or three hours after leaving town, we’re stopped at traffic lights in the city centre, with mollycoddled motorists staring at us, perplexed. There’s a two… or sometimes even a dozen people on very dirty bicycles, laughing and talking. Our faces are black with bog mud, and red from the cold. We may be filthy, but our souls are cleansed.
It’s as if we left the city months ago. The prodigals… strangers… return.
Some of the chain gang:
That’s me on the left.
Here’s my bike in the woods, without me »
On my old bike, coming down a dropoff »
Up in the clouds – yes, that’s cloud »