County Antrim with Philip Deignan
Philip Deignan in Country Antrim, 2011
Distance: 35 miles (57km)
Total climbing: 350 metres
Philip Deignan didn't think twice when the Giant's Causeway Coast sportive organisers invited him to be the ambassador for their new event.
"Riding roads like these is one of the reasons why I returned to Donegal," Deignan says. "I was living in Girona, but the 24/7 cycling atmosphere there was beginning to get to me.
"I'm as dedicated as anyone, but it's nice to get a break when you aren't racing or training, and that isn't always possible in Girona, with 40 or 50 pro cyclists living there. They are great guys and some of them are my friends, but you can't go out for lunch or a
coffee without talking cycling.
"Now when I'm home, I get to be with friends I've known for years, but who are outside cycling. I can indulge myself with some track days with my car too, which is something I enjoy.
"Then there are the roads around where I live. I've cycled all over the world, but I enjoy Donegal the best. It rains, but you get used to it. There's nowhere better when it's sunny."
North of north
The Inishowen Peninsula of Donegal is the northernmost part of the country, even though it's not in Northern Ireland - technically, it's south of the border. I'm standing with Deignan on the Giant's Causeway, looking across the Atlantic at Inishowen, but we're in Northern Ireland, which Donegal shares a border with, and Deignan shares the accent.
He's helping me preview a new event on the sportive
calendar, and it's one that CAAN (the Countryside Access and Activities Network - which is responsible for developing outdoor recreation all across Northern Ireland) hope will attract visitors from mainland UK.
The Giant's Causeway Coast sportive takes place on September 17, when three routes of 57, 126 and 182km will take participants along the spectacular northern Irish coast, taking in the Giant's Causeway and many amazing sights. The longer routes will journey into the haunting, misty-green Glens of Antrim too.
It's a good week for Deignan to do this. He's kicking back after an extended period of tough racing that included the Giro d'Italia and the Tour of Switzerland in quick succession. The peace and quiet of a quick spin along the coast is a welcome contrast to what he's been through.
"It's been going that way for a while, but this year, the Giro was almost too hard. They don't need to make it like that. The organisers seem to go out of their way to make the Giro harder. Any Grand Tour is hard; they don't need to be made harder.
"The results are the same, you get the same top 10, but for the rest it's survival. And it wasn't just the route this year; the transfers made it tough too.
"The worst thing I saw this year was after the long stage, the one that took over seven hours. I was
riding back down the mountain and I noticed there was no
gruppetto, it was just riders trying to get up the climb as best they could in ones and twos.
"Some of them couldn't even pedal, and were being pushed. There was one guy I saw who was crying. He was slumped on his bike with a spectator walking along, pushing him. The guy couldn't even pedal," Deignan says, shaking his head.
It sounds like a vision from hell, and a million miles from where we are today. After freewheeling down to the Causeway, Deignan climbs back to Bushmills, heading north towards Benbane Head. A local racer called Aiden Quigly from Bann Wheelers is acting as our guide.
The sights come one after the other. The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge lolls across a terrifying canyon in the cliffs. We go west to Whitepark Bay, where cattle sunbathe on the beach, with not a soul to disturb them. This coast is a jewel waiting to be discovered, and it's best done by bike.
"Not too many hills, eh?" Deignan says when I take a snap with Rathlin Island in the background. But he loves them. Deignan is a climber who won a stage and finished ninth overall in the 2009 Tour of Spain. He's got the potential do even better.
"That's the problem, though, converting potential into results," he says. He's working with a Belgian coach now who also coaches 2010 Tour de France fifth-placer, Jurgen Van Den Broeck. "I do better tests than Van Den Broeck, but he doesn't fatigue in Grand Tours like I do. The solution is to do 30-hour training weeks, like Van Den Broeck does. That's how you get the strength to underpin your potential, but when I try to do 30 hours my performance goes down. It's very frustrating."
Deignan and Quigly continue to Ballycastle. The sea is studded with islands. Islay lurks in the misty distance, and the Paps of Jura peep shyly behind it. As the two riders crest a rise before descending to Ballycastle, they see mainland Scotland. Kintyre lies like a giant beached whale 11 miles over the North Channel.
Our route, which is the shortest of the three Giant's Causeway Coast sportives, turns inland at Ballycastle to Armoy, then ambles back to Bushmills, where Deignan recommends all whiskey lovers should visit the famous distillery. "Try the Black Bush," he points out knowingly.
Threatened rain has kept off. "It's the only drawback, but it's not a problem if you always carry a good rain jacket. If I've got big blocks of training to do in the winter, I go to Tenerife, but in summer the roads of Donegal suit me perfectly. There are plenty of hills, the roads are heavy, but they're quiet, peaceful and the views are incredible," he says.
This article originally appeared in the August 4 2011 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine
Start in Bushmills and ride north on the A2. Fork left to visit the Giant's Causeway then return to the A2 and continue north, leaving it where it turns sharp right and continue towards Benbane Head. Continue on this road, which follows the coast. It merges with the A2 for a few miles, then you fork left to Ballintoy to take the minor coast road again to Ballycastle. Follow the A2 south out of town, then turn left just before its junction with the A44. Follow the minor road that runs parallel with the A44 until it joins the A44 and continue to Armoy. Turn right and right again, cross the Stracan River and head north. Turn left where you see a sign for Bushmills and follow that road back to the start.
Your guide: Philip Deignan
Lives: Letterkenny, Donegal
Cycling in Northern Ireland
Visit www.giantscausewaycoastsportive.com as it contains everything you need to know about the big day on September 17. Philip Deignan will be at the start of the event, and might possibly ride it, plus he'll give a talk and present a slide-show at a pre-event evening at the Ballycastle Golf Club on Friday September 16. It's bound to be lots of fun.
CAAN run a cycling website, www.cycleni.com, which is a guide to cycling in Northern Ireland and has details of routes, events and general information about road and off-road cycling there.
You'd be mad not to give Northern Ireland a try; even if you can't make the sportive, it has a
lot to offer cycling: stunning scenery, quiet roads and brilliant hospitality. You can't go wrong, really.