Cycling the Grand and Royal Canals

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As an impressionable teenager and keen mountain biker back in the mid-nineties the images of John Tomac dominating on his drop bar mountain bike left an indelible mark. And since then I have always lusted after one. A few months ago my wish was fulfilled when Garry Davoren, of MBW Bike Shop in Galway, lent me a Kona Sutra LTD.

I’d just started researching a guide to Irish cycling and I needed a bike, something that would be able to handle the Irish roads. Ireland has a massive network of narrow roads some of the most interesting roads, the ones I want to document in my guidebook, are known as boreens. Boreens are rough roads with a strip of grass running down the centre and are barely wide enough for a car or tractor, basically ideal terrain for the Sutra LTD.

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My first long ride on the Sutra was a reconnaissance of a route that linked up the two canals that cross the middle of the country connecting Dublin in the east with the Shannon River in the west. They take slightly different paths, the Royal Canal takes a more northerly path while the Grand Canal keeps to the south. Happily this means it’s possible to leave the city along one canal and return by the other with only a short section of road riding required to link them up. A path runs along each of the canals for the entirety of their length but it varies in quality from rough and muddy singletrack to smooth tarmac. However it is effectively flat.

My brother in law and I set off from the suburbs of the city early on a perfect autumn day. As we leave the city behind the track become quieter and more remote. With the exception of the occasional dog walker and jogger we have the path to ourselves. We make good speed on the hard surfaces some tarmac but mostly gravel. The grassy sections are harder work. After 40km we leave the Royal Canal and follow quiet back roads south to the town of Edenderry where we join the Grand Canal.

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After a quick refuel we step off up the Grand. The landscape has a slightly different feel here more open and remoter. We pass through an area of raised bog, known as the Bog of Allen where in the past turf was harvested to burn as fuel. The going is slower and there are longer stretches of rough ground and our legs are starting to feel it. Running out of light we decide to leave the canal early and head directly back to our starting point. Just as it gets properly dark with roll back into Leixlip tired after 120km of which over 80km was off-road.

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The route was a great test for the Sutra, one that it passed with flying colors. The perfect bike for the job, a pure road bike would of really struggle while a mountain bike would felt very sluggish. Fast with long sections of washboard gravel, it meant my wrists and arms took a beating. And my experiences so far have reinforced this. On road the bike motors along, it feels fast and efficient and when the going gets a little rougher on gravel roads or muddy tracks it comes into its own.

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