Bike Touring Cork in Ireland: Hardtails, Hills, and Horses

Nick McIntyre takes us on a mosey through Ireland’s southernmost county on some choice cuts from the Golden Age of 26-inch MTBs. Sharing company with a small group of friends, Nick writes about rolling past stashed-off coves, winding back roads, and an unexpected day making petty bets at the Ballabuidhe Horse Fair after one of the wettest Irish summers on record. It was a given that there would be some downpours to deal with along the way, but these only made the odd break in the clouds all the sweeter. Read on for Nick’s retelling of bike touring in Cork and don’t miss his 35 mm gallery. 


July of 2023 was the wettest July on record in Ireland. Or put this in perspective: last year saw four times as much rain for the month as compared to July of 2022. The cliche term ‘Irish Summer’ seems to become more of an apt stereotype each year. I tried not to let this put too much of a dampener on some of the trips I had planned in Ireland. Although with that much rain, everything becomes a bit tougher and I did end up adjusting my plans. With a lot of the time on the bike inevitably spent in the rain, the aim was to always try to catch some easier weather when I arrived at a spot to camp, or maybe some sun in the morning. Multi-day tours meant bringing a heap of rain gear and spare clothes. To minimize time spent drying layers under hand dryers, I opted instead to travel further and keep stops short before finding camp for a night, packing as little as I needed. In the end, I was able to cover a good bit of the country this way.

Marty had floated the idea of a couple of days touring Cork towards the end of summer. I had recently picked up a ‘90s Gary Fisher Aquila and I was eager to stick some bike bags on it and take that on the road for a couple of days. I’d spent most of the months previous track-packing on a steel Hansom Fixie, so the idea of utilizing a rear rack and panniers for extra space and being able to spin the legs up some hills was highly appealing. Extra room for beers on the bike is never a bad thing.

Marty was taking his Trek Singletrack 800. He opted to go without the Bomber fork for the trip and stuck his Rigid Mosso fork on instead. The Singletrack is a stunning orange color, set up with nice wide bars on a Cromag stem and a classic Brooks saddle to boot.

Ben was also running a full rigid setup, a Kona Lava with a blue Surly Troll fork. I didn’t need any more storage than I already had, although I was envious of those extra fork mounts—so handy!

Crev and Duffy would both be sporting Specialized Rockhoppers. I’m not sure anymore if 26ers are in, out, or somewhere in the middle, but a Rockhopper will always be appreciated. Both of them had their own nice details, but the custom mods for the road were what I enjoyed the most. Crev had modified a rear rack to make it work as a front rack and both had bar blades with bottle openers on the end in between the headset spacers for the road beers.

Chris was riding an ebike that he built up himself. It is a Dengfu carbon frame with a Bafang m6000 motor, which would be particularly handy on the short steep hills down by the coast. He opted to take a trailer to be able to carry some extra camera gear, too. On any given clear night, he planned to set up and shoot the stars! He was also the brains behind the bike rack that was fitted onto the back of his Subaru Legacy (pictured above). It took four bikes, one of which being his ebike. Pretty neat for a homemade job.

We loaded up Chris’s Subaru on Thursday morning and headed off along the motorway early enough, eager to make the most of some fairly reasonable weather. The weight of the four bikes on the DIY rack made for some pretty noticeable flex and monitoring the bikes kept us well entertained along the way. We were living in constant fear of the bouncing bikes coming off and being left behind us but Chris’s handiwork held up. We made it to Cork City with enough daylight left to get some miles in and with hopes for a quick swim!

The plan that day was to make a beeline to the sea, down to a small inlet called Nohoval Cove. We were tipped on the cove by a friend from Cork and if there was going to be a spot to have a dip on this fine Thursday, it would be Nohoval. We would then follow the coast down, stocking up on food and other essentials in Kinsale before continuing on and landing around the Old Head of Kinsale. It looked like there were some beaches down that far and maybe even the potential for public toilets.

Our’s was as good a plan as any; nothing concrete but lots of options. We unloaded the flexi-rack and set to packing tents, mats, sleeping bags, and a healthy amount of rain gear onto the bikes. Fully laden, with a fully charged JBL speaker, we set towards the quieter country back roads.

There was an ongoing joke in the lead-up to the trip that going south from Cork City is all downhill, but after the time spent getting out of the city, we soon realized the irony. There aren’t many massive climbs in the county but it does boast plenty of short, steep stints. Real lungbusters! More than enough to break a sweat and sweeten the prospect of a dip in the sea! We rolled on, grateful for high-range cassettes, and kept our heads pointed firmly south. The cove lay at the end of a winding descent, and we got the first glimpse of why we chose to spend a few days in this part of Ireland. A narrow gravel road led us down, and upon sight of some ruins (thought to be that of lime kilns), we found a spot for the bikes and continued on foot towards some small, but uniquely shaped, sea stacks. Grassy cliffs hugged the inlet, and the steep shaley sides made for some nice little platforms to dive off. While the others had a nosey up at the ruins, I took the opportunity to cool off. It’s never particularly warm, no matter where you swim in Ireland but I didn’t mind that as much today.

It was nice to hang around at the cove for a bit although we were conscious of time. Kinsale wasn’t a ways away but one of the main motives of the trip was getting to camp spots early, and eating well for the few days. With good food on our brains, we picked up the bikes and kept it moving. We didn’t stop much after Nohoval, but even still we found ourselves still running out of daylight. We managed to fuel up while passing through a town although, with the sun setting in the distance, we knew we would likely be setting up tents in the dark.

Flicking the bike lights on, and donning head torches in the dimming light, we headed towards Garylucas beach. The dunes would give us any cover from the wind that we needed overnight. And we were still silently banking on the public toilets staying open, always a bonus in the mornings! We tackled a few more rollers on the way and the hills fell away to Kilcoman Marsh, with the beach just beyond. It was getting late, and under the complete darkness, we were ready to roll down one final hill and begin to get some gas burners on. Our longer route down to the cove had allowed Crev and Duffy to catch up, and they were not long after us. Under the moonlight, tents were thrown up, and some steaks went on too. The weather stayed easy and the nearby toilets were open. Couldnt ask for more than that on the first night of the trip.

We woke up to a beautiful bit of morning sun on the day of the Skibbereen Trad Festival. Going to the festival had been loosely in the cards when planning the route, mostly because Dub Master Mad Professor was on the line-up. It’s not often that you catch big names like that so far out in the country, giving us a good destination to aim for that day. We were expecting a bit of rain but were hopeful that dub beats and a few beers would remedy us later that night. Our morning started slowly with a quick swim and breakfast before packing up the site and heading back over towards the Head of Kinsale at midday for a quick pint. Up on the head, we watched some paragliders fly overhead and got a great view of the coastline that we would be riding along for the next few days. We had roughly 70 km of that coastline ahead of us today, passing through towns like Timoleague, Clonakilty, and Rosscarbery before finally arriving in Skib.

Setting off from the pub at Garretstown, after a fairly disappointing pint of Guinness, we were able to at least enjoy the first 25 km of back roads that passed through quaint little villages in decent weather. The rain came lightly at first and allowed us enough time to make it to Clonakilty without completely dampening spirits. Under a light shower, we stopped to have lunch and decided that a round of espresso martinis would be an ideal way to liven everyone up before we set off on the final leg of the day. With the weather worsening, we considered the idea of a campsite outside of Skibbereen town again. We had rang a few weeks previous only to be told that the place was booked up for the bank holiday weekend. With the coming rain ahead and the hope of still making it to see Mad Professor, we agreed that we would take some cash out and at least chance our arms when we arrived. We were soaked to the bone within 10 minutes of leaving Clonakilty and had fully accepted our wet fate, scrambling down the coast towards clouds that only seemed to be getting darker.

Not far off the campsite that we were banking on, we came across an abandoned hostel. We had a quick scance and although the main building was closed, there were some smaller rooms out to the side that we were ready to set up in if we got refused refuge down the road. Luckily it never came to needing to stay at the abandoned hostel although its been marked on the map as a place to go back to the next time I am bikepacking through Cork. Had the prospect of a long hot shower after a couple of hours of rain not been on the table, I think I nearly would have rathered stay there. The campsite that graciously took us in was where our plans were both built up and broken down. We were greeted with warm showers, and a place to dry our clothes, however, we were met with our final hurdle of the day. The campground was in a remote enough place to not be able to get a taxi into Skibbereen to get to the festival. Getting back on the bikes to ride in the rain was not even remotely an option at this stage, and with all of the taxi numbers ringing out on the busiest night in town, Skibbereen Trad Fest was not meant to be.

Laughing at the hilarity of yesterday’s mission, we sat out the front of the campsite kitchen waiting for the rest of our clothes to dry. Unlike the day before, the sun was meant to come out and bless us wholly. The duality of Ireland. We chatted with some other bikepackers who had been caught in the same wet frenzy before moving into the town.

Chris’s ebike was having some issues starting (probably due to water) and, especially with the amount of weight on his trailer, this was far from ideal. I had been hoping to make it down to Mizen Head (Ireland’s most southerly point) although with the bike issues, and the slightly dampened spirits, it wasn’t looking likely as a crew. It was going to be a while until I got this chance again so I decided to split from the group with the hope of making it to Mizen Head and then back up to where they were camping. The rest of the crew decided to come away from the coast and lessen the distance for the next few days so as not to leave themselves too stuck if the ebike finally packed it in.

I wouldn’t say I particularly enjoy cycling in the rain although I definitely appreciate the perspective it brings with it, an almost newfound appreciation for the slightest bit of good weather. All you ever need is a break in the clouds, and after splitting off from the group, I got that. After spending the day prior roughing it out in the wet, I was lucky enough to enjoy a beautiful stretch of this country’s coastline under beaming sunshine.

I covered a lot of ground that day, but enjoyed every second of it. Everything was shimmering under the sun, villages filled with old colorful Irish shop fronts, big green grassy fields filled with all sorts of farmland animals, and wide open coves with sandy beaches that could pass for some Mediterranean holiday hotspot. I passed it all before landing upon a pint of Murphy’s stout and an ice cream at Goleen. I don’t think I could have gotten a better day to pass through Barley Cove and see the land fall away to reveal the cliffs at Mizen Head. Crazy when you consider the day before. Standing at the edge of Ireland, I was glad that I had packed my Canon Ae-1, a very trusty camera when it came to snapping these dramatic cliffs. Otherworldly.

I hoped to return to camp with the crew, but it was hard to peel away from the golden light at Mizen Head. I had kept in contact with them all day to see how far they made it up the country. They had settled at the side of the river in a small town called Dunmanway, roughly 70 km from where I was. It would be a long few hours by myself if I was to recoup with them and with the ground I had already covered, I was feeling the long day coming down on me. I was fairly ready to pack up and camp somewhere en route, and finish the rest in the morning until a few pictures came through the group chat. After a walk through Dunmanway, the others had noticed signs for races hung around the town, and after further investigation, they heard rumors of the Fair. With the prospect of a horse show and some racing to keep us ticking over on our rest day, I was eager enough to put in the last few hours of work and enjoy whatever festivities were ahead of us with the whole group.

The Ballabuidhe Horse Fair carries Irish traditions into the present and has been running since 1615, and possibly even before that. The Fair draws large crowds for three days of horse racing, the majority of races being Sulky races. Sulkies are lightweight carts with a driver’s seat and spoked bike wheels. The horses run at a specific gait and it was often said that the name came from the inventor after his wish to sit alone in the cart and ‘sulk’. There certainly wasn’t a whole lot of sulking out of our crew when we woke up that morning to the sun shining down on the riverbed that we’d camped beside. The good weather had carried over from the day before, blessing us while we rested our legs for the day. With this being our last full day, we were more than willing to take some sun and endure whatever weather came at us on the slog back to the city the day after. Some good breakfasts were made up due to our proximity to the shops, and some lazing about, but at around mid-day, we got moving and so did most of the town.

What we lost out on by missing Mad Professor, we made up for with a day at the races. We strolled up to the grounds with pockets full of change, ready to lose it all on petty bets on a horse with the funniest name. Slightly underdressed, we passed through the crowds, looking for a place under the sun to enjoy the races.

We camped up in the woodlands at Warrenscourt that evening after the sun went back into hiding. After a few days on the road, we pitched up at an opening in the forest, with ample space and a picnic table to boot. The whole trip had been filled with all the trials and tribulations of any old bikepacking trip but with the spontaneity and madness of doing it in Ireland. There was good food and good drinks along the way and the final night in Warrenscourt was no different, with the last few bits being used up to make some hearty meals to enjoy around the fire. We had roughly 30 km to cover in the morning to make it back to Cork City and the beloved Subaru Legacy, so no matter what weather we woke up to, we were on the home stretch. Despite not coming up trumps on the horse racing or the pony raffle, we only caught one day of rain, and that was the real jackpot!