Trail of Dreams
On the face of it, Northern Ireland is an out-of-sorts mountain bike destination adrift in the world's minor leagues; it's a long way from the fat-tire pre-eminence of a Utah or Colorado, say, or its Celtic cousins, Wales and Scotland. But, a small and enthusiastic crew of local cyclists are pushing hard for promotion to the big time, backed by the clout of big hitters like the Boulder-based International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) and the Countryside Access and Activities Network (CAAN), a Northern Ireland land advocacy group seeking to promote and improve the country's outdoor recreational opportunities.
Currently there are only two official trails in the entire country: County Down's Moneyscalp, located in the craggy, undulating Mourne Mountains south of Belfast, and a trail in Gortin Glen Forest in County Tyrone. Moneyscalp is a two-mile-long collection of cross-country and downhill trails comprising singletrack and fire roads, taking advantage of the region's scree, shale, and forest conditions; Gortin is a longer, five-mile network of similar terrain, but with more of those 90-degree switchbacks and jumps that off-roaders crave. The Moneyscalp circuit is located outside of the small village of Byransford and a few miles from the larger tourist-friendly town of Newcastle, a good base camp for the Mourne range and only 50 miles from the center of Belfast. The other trail is in Gortin Glen Forest Park, a beautiful setting in a less-visited rural region in the west of the country. The park is six miles outside of Omagh, a peaceful, picturesque town sadly thrust into the spotlight following a 1998 bomb attack by the Real IRA.
However, the designation of only two official trails doesn't mean Northern Ireland's devoid of other choices, the kind of trails mapped out by a small, disparate posse of local riders who hit the woods out back and take creative advantage of the country's permissive rights-of-way to ride on unsanctioned trails through forest service land. Cave Hill and Belvior, two local Belfast tracks, are just some of the unofficial areas that rate highly (although both are suffering from serious erosion, which underlines the need for better funding and organization). So, if you're yearning for a mountain bike fix while touring Northern Ireland, your best bet is to hit Moneyscalp or Gortin and then hook up with one of these local crews for the scoop on the under-the-radar scene. Actually, the independently spirited traveler should make an effort to link up with the native fat-tire crowd, especially when one considers the famed Irish hospitality that has led to any number of unforgettable (and pub-fueled) experiences. Check out the chat forums at MTBRider.com, the Web site for Northern Ireland's two-wheeled devotees, and get in touch with local clubs for the beta on where to go, when to go, and who to ride with.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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