Wild Atlantic Way Motorbiking Tips
It is nature, not man, that reigns supreme on the Wild Atlantic Way and to experience this untamed frontier on a bike is a humbling reminder of just that. Such places are a gift for motorcyclists.
Outside of farming, fishing and tourism, job opportunities on Ireland’s west coast are sparse. As a result, it remains undeveloped and relatively unpopulated. It must be said however that a little infrastructure is a positive thing. In recent years, upgrading the motorway network has been a dedicated endeavour of the Irish government in order to facilitate the increase in tourism. Indeed, during peak season rental cars and coach trips flock like migrating geese but for motorcyclists, these government initiatives mean stretches of smooth open highway, the perfect setting for soul stirring renditions of Steppenwolf as your buttocks and suspension sigh with relief.
If the WAW is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. With this in mind, consider 3 weeks a minimum timeframe. You can blast your way from one end to the other in a few days but the only excuse for this is an enduro rally. It’s the same as someone who claims to have ‘seen’ and ‘done’ the Route des Grande Alpes from Lake Geneva to the French Riviera in 2 or 3 days: what a shame!
A whistle stop tour simply will not do this coastline justice. If you can’t afford a month on the road don’t try and conquer the WAW in one trip; instead, focus on sections and really explore them. The most obvious way of breaking it up is a southern leg from Kinsale to Killary Harbour and a northern leg from Killary to Mallin Head and Derry. Or vice versa depending on where you start. An added bonus for motorcyclists is an extra two or three days along Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast. Factor this into your trip and you won’t regret it. It’s like, ahem, discovering previously unknown b-sides and demo tracks to the Easy Rider soundtrack.
For those starting in the north, your first port of call should be Motoworld in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. It’s one of the only motorcycle shops you’ll come across on the journey south so consider what you and you bike might need before hitting the road. Good tyres are essential on a multi-terrain, four-seasons-in-one-day trip like the WAW so if yours are looking a bit ordinary, don’t set off without replacing them. Likewise, if you’ve come up from the southern ports, by the time you reach the north a change of tyres for the return or onward leg is a must. With a combined 28 years of experience and a fully equipped workshop, the crew at Motoworld offer full servicing and replacement parts, which is worth knowing given that once you leave their site it’ll be a fair way until you can access these services again.
When to go:
The best time to ride the WAW is from late March to mid-June, or from September to mid-November.
July-August is peak season for European holiday makers and the busiest time of year. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, temperatures hover around 15-25 degrees celsius but don’t count on endless balmy days. A bluebird day might have you feeling like Dennis Hopper on the road to nowhere but the changeable Atlantic coastline has a way of jolting you out of those Southern California day dreams!
If in the interest of shaving weight off your pannier load, you’ve left base layers and waterproof gear at home, the inevitable inclement weather will have you feeling decidedly underdressed, especially if you’re a fair ride from any accommodation. Again, Motoworld in Letterkenny will look after you with their range of clothing, accessories and parts. You should factor in pitstop when you’re approaching Donegal and continue feeling confident that you’re adequately equipped to enjoythe road ahead.
For the self-flagellating it is possible to ride the WAW from December through February. Snow is rare along the coast but not unheard of, which means some of the most spectacular mountainous routes are off limits during this time. Ice is another serious factor to consider in the depths of winter. Be aware of Atlantic storms from December through early March. Some of the smaller coast-hugging roads simply disappear and it’d be foolish to attempt to navigate these stretches. Surging 15-20 metre waves pounding the western seaboard have a tendency to put visitors in their place, or an early grave.
The official 2500km route is only the tip of the iceberg for motorcyclists. Digress from the signposted zones however and you’d better have a SatNav, a good map, a nimble bike, some rations and a sense of adventure.
Many of the sections that cars cannot reach are a network of narrow, meandering boreens and on these, progress is slow. If you’re planning on exploring these areas without stopping regularly you’re looking at a maximum of 250-300km per day. That said, it is nigh impossible to keep the blinkers on when you’re faced with uninterrupted views of the mighty Atlantic and the myriad coves and islands that punctuate the coastline. With so many reasons to pause and take stock (a major one being the joy of no cars or buses), 250-300km per day is ambitious!
There are two main types of roads outside of towns and motorways:
•N (National) roads with a speed limit of 100kmph. Expect all types of traffic, which gets heavy nearing large towns. They are usually well maintained with good road markings and signposts. Be wary of deceptively tight corners, livestock and farm equipment in rural sections.
•R (Regional) roads have a speed limit of 80kmph, although 30-50kmph is more realistic. These present largely the same scenario as N roads in terms of surface quality and traffic flow but expect the added excitement of pot holes and rough mountain single tracks clogged up with sheep, cyclists and tractors. Distances shown on maps and SatNavs can be deceptive so don’t expect to cover a lot of ground quickly.
Priceless information about the road ahead can be found at the hallowed ground that is Motoworld in Letterkenny. Tourist information centres are one thing but it’s best to combine this with invaluable knowledge from experienced motorcyclists.
Locals and experienced coach drivers are used to the conditions and respect the presence of motorcycles and bicycles but even so, trust no one. The worst offenders are RV’s and camper vans whose occupants aren’t used to their bulky vehicles or have come from a place where the roads are as wide as a house. Then there are tourists who aren't familiar with driving on the left and the city dwellers who have a tendency to swerve violently at the sight of a sheep half a kilometre away.
Something to consider for the narrow off-road sections is the set up of your bike. You might find it beneficial to choose slimline soft panniers instead of bulky solid ones that make the boreens and tight corners harder to negotiate. Equipment like this is guaranteed at Motoworld given that they’re Ireland’s largest motorcycle retailer, whereas lesser known shops are unlikely to offer the same selection and services.
* Top Tip *
On R roads like Dingle’s R551 and the Ring of Kerry, the coaches plan their route from south to north, meaning the passengers have the coast-side view. If you really do need to keep to a schedule you might want to consider going from north to south to avoid the bulk of coaches.
Type of bike:
In theory, any bike will do if you stick to the main drag. That is until the spirit of adventure takes hold and the burdens of normal life fade into the peripheral, gathering dust in some forgotten time zone. In other words, there is good chance that your itinerary will change and while you might not have planned on tackling the mountain sections, seeing them in person changes everything. It is, therefore, wise to choose a bike that will suit all conditions. Considering that your average speed on the small tracks will be around 30kmph, engine size matters so for the WAW it really is the smaller, more nimble bikes that work best.
Midrange bikes around 600cc with a narrow profile, upright seating position, semi-off-road suspension and tyres that can handle road and dirt are ideal. That these are the kind of bikes ridden by young beginners is ideal because it makes the WAW a perfect first tour.
“Sometimes it's a little better to travel than to arrive.”
Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.