BY AIDAN O’DONNELL
BRUISED and bloody shins and a stiff back from flying over the handlebars, it’s safe to say mountain biking is not for the faint-hearted.
But don’t let my ill-fated first experience scare you from taking up a sport which strikes a rare balance between leaving you physically exhausted and, in equal measure, leaves you gasping for more.
The Donegal Mountain Bike Club will stage its second annual Bogman Racenext Sunday morning in Golan (just outside of Milford) and two weeks ago three members of the club – Darran and Paul Nash and Findhan Strain – invited me along the breathtaking trail to explain first-hand why they are so addicted to the sport.
At the moment, there are no purpose-built mountain bike trails in Donegal, although the Corravaddy/Mongorry Forest on the outskirts of Letterkenny is to be included in a 10-year national strategy by Coillte for developing off-road cycling.
There are two types of mountain biking – Cross-Country (XC) and Downhill, which caters mainly for crazed adrenaline junkies.
The 16km route in Golan is a Cross-Country trail and offers riders a stiff but fair challenge.
A steep uphill climb on a gravel road provides an immediate test of fitness and resolve at the very start.
With the ground slippery and wet underneath, technique is essential in negotiating this tough ascent.
For a rookie like myself, I was made painfully aware of how key it is to map out your path in front of you and stick to it.
Staying on line and maintaining a smooth rhythm and you’ll get to the top without having to get off the bike and walk it. But get off track and it becomes incredibly hard to manoeuvre your way to the summit of a climb. For steep ascents like this, core strength and balance are a necessity, while patience is also imperative.
Frustration can easily get the better of you when trying to get back onto the bike in the middle of a climb and your legs can very easily take a severe beating from the peddles flying back and slapping you in the shins, something that unfortunately happened to me on almost every climb.
But you have to start somewhere and a few battle scars are just a small price to pay when considering the overwhelming sense of fulfilment you get from mountain biking.
The reward for reaching the very top of the route is a spectacular 360-degree view that takes in Sheephaven Bay to the north, Errigal and Muckish to the west, and Dunree Fort off in the distance to the east.
The middle part of the trail takes you across different types of terrain, including gravel roads, moss covered hills, old famine roads and even bog, hence the name Bogman for the race.
A few downhill stretches offer a well-earned respite for the calf muscles but there’s no room for complacency on the teeth-chattering descents.
Slowing down or keeping a clench on the brakes doesn’t necessarily reduce the chances of an accident occurring and you’re better off trusting the bike and ‘going with the flow’.
You still need the right technique to keep the bike on the straight and narrow, as well as a complete disregard for your own well being.
At the end of one such descent I got punished for not staying on track, despite being clearly instructed by Findhan and Paul beforehand.
Having successfully navigated my way down a wet mossy hill, I arrived at the bottom feeling a sense of relief, only to take an unnecessary shortcut that resulted in being launched over the top of the handlebars. Ouch. But, luckily, the ground was soft and I avoided serious injury.
Two more physically demanding climbs await the rider on the way back before a lightning-fast descent towards the finish makes for an exciting and breathless sprint-finish during competition.
Last year the Bogman attracted 50 riders and this year the guys are expecting at least double that amount. It’s the first of a three-race mountain bike series which is sponsored by Castle Cycles in Raphoe, with a second race in September and a third – the Snowman – in December.
The enthusiasm of Darran, Paul and Findhan to promote the sport in the northwest is very refreshing and the announcement by Coillte to develop a purpose-built trail is a welcome boost in more ways than one to their cause. Countries like Scotland, Wales and Italy have some of the best mountain bike routes in Europe and attract thousands of riders each year.
And given the magnificent landscape and perfect mountain bike terrain that Donegal has to offer there is no reason why the northwest can’t become a popular destination to rival the likes of Lake Garda and Snowdonia. Mountain bikers by their very nature are constantly seeking new routes, much like a surfer chasing the perfect wave.
The physical demands of the sport can’t be underestimated but the thrill of coming down a mountain side is exhilarating and addictive in a sadistic sort of way and, having now experienced this, it’s easy to understand why the guys keep going back for more. I might have to buy a bike!
For further information on mountain biking in Donegal or to find out how to register for the Bogman Race, log onto www.donegalmtb.com or check out the club’s Facebook page.