Ireland’s longest off-road cycle route is open: Over 100km between Maynooth and Athlone

REVIEW: It’s not on Google Maps yet, but Ireland’s longest (almost completely) off road cycle route is now open for use. You cannot expect coastal views inland, but it’s fantastic to have a greenway from the edge of Dublin to the midlands.

People involved with tourism may not like this review — we need to be honest with our readers that there are issues with the route. We also need to look to the authorities to build better, more accessible routes. If the councils or tourists agencies don’t like the bad press — I’m happy to update the article when you make your greenways accessible to all legitimate users.

This route is not perfect and should be seen as a work in progress much like Mayo’s Great Western Greenway is still a work in progress and was more so in its first few years. A lot could be done quickly to fix the issues.

Above I note that it’s almost completely off road — that is to say, like Western Greenway, there are short sections shared with car access, mostly just to a small number of houses or farms. This might need monitoring to see if traffic calming is needed on these sections. In the 100km I only met three motorist and all were well behaved.

The route was an open secret before the lockdown — this writer made the 100km trip on a folding bicycle in late February before the lockdown and we held this article back until the travel advice changed.

The route

The route is designed to eventually be part of the Dublin to Galway Greenway. It’s also not just one route — there’s choices and branches

For now, from the east, the route starts in Maynooth and you travel along the Royal Canal Greenway for over 60km to Mullingar. Some people will be able to use the canal tow path between Dublin and Maynooth. There is, however, too many issues (between restrictive barriers and extremely poor surface etc at the ‘Deep Sinking’ in Dublin 15 etc) for this article to include it as part of the greenway.

Just west of Mullingar you can continue along the Royal Canal on to the River Shannon at Clondra which is just over another 50km, and before Clondra is a short sub-10km branch to Longford.

But the main route which is planned to eventually be part of the Dublin to Galway Greenway is the 43.5km ‘Old Rail Trail’ between Mullingar and Athlone. Technically, the Clondra / Longford way is the longer route.

Starting from Athlone 

There’s load of different options for day trips or easy multi day cycles. In late February, this unfit writer cycled from Athlone to Maynooth in one day. A folding bicycle might not be the best bicycle for this trip, it was the one I had at my disposal which was practical that day.

I started on the train from the west to Athlone and crossed the Shannon on the train — while there’s an impasse planning the route between Athone and Galway, a walking and cycling bridge across the River Shannon in the centre of the town is now under construction, with local media in May reporting that drilling work has started for the supports for the bridge. The work is not shown here, but here’s the general view from the railway bridge:

There’s already a underpass built under the railway in Athlone as part of the route extension of the greenway into the town centre:

For now, the greenway starts at the Ballymahon Road (here on Street View), just north of Athlone train station — once the greenway extension is open, the zebra crossing pictured needs to be shifted to the former railway crossing:

The gates on the routes are not as restrictive as “kissing gates” elsewhere, but these barriers are still an obstruction to larger bicycles such as those used by people with disabilities or mobility issues and cargo bicycles or trailers used by parents and others.

In this view it looks easy because my folding bicycle is shorter than even the average bicycle and has narrow handlebars compared to most bicycles. By pannier bags are also on the small size.

In any case, here’s the start of the greenway with the entry point and short sample beyond it:

 

Barriers to accessibility

You might squeeze in a cargo bicycle or a trailer, but you can forget about bicycles like this pictured below in Dublin this weekend. This isn’t some kind of wishful thinking or a Dublin thing — thanks to cyclingwithoutage.ie, there’s nearly 30 bicycles in use in care settings across Ireland. Far more than half of them outside of Dublin.

And also blocks bicycles like these, including bicycles which carry wheelchairs:

https://twitter.com/mattwang22/status/1243200968533172227?s=20

The even stranger barriers are barriers about 900 metres down the greenway where route intersects with a short walking and cycling link between two south of the greenway and one school and sport pitches north of the greenway.

If the council is serious about enabling walking and cycling for transport as well as leisure then it would remove these barriers as start:

There’s varies sizes of gates or barriers along the Rail Trail and the Royal Canal Greenway — the gap in the 6th photo here is of the wider end, while the last three photos is a gate only needed between two greenways because of the poor design in the angle the two greenways meet. Often the issue for larger bicycles will be the paved space around the gates as well as the opening:

 

If the reasoning for the barriers is a concern for safety it isn’t shown on any of the crossings as there’s little to no traffic calming aimed at motorists at the junctions. Putting all the focus on greenway users and expecting it than to be safe for them seems to be optimistic.

It was a bit of shock that there were such restrictive barriers at even very minor road crossings and sometimes even when crossing the entrances to private houses. You could cycle a thousand kilometers of rural routes in the Netherlands and elsewhere and not meet such barriers.

There’s no need for anything more than a single row of bollards, like this at the edge of Mullingar:

Old Rail Trail

The old railway runs along one side or another of the Old Rail Trail shared path — the old tracks is a nice feature:

I’ve heard some complaints — I think mainly from road cyclists — that the Old Rail Trail is too flat and isn’t comparable to the Great Western Greenway or the Waterford Greenway. Sure it doesn’t have the views of those coastal routes, but some of the people who can tolerate mixing with cars on country roads might not appreciate just how many people don’t want to do that.

I’ve also read that most or all of the route is in a railway cutting with noting to look — but that’s not the case and there’s a good few places where the route is elevated:

If you’re a fan of railway bridges, there’s loads of underpasses where the road is above the greenway, here’s just a sample:

 

You also get to cycle through the old train stations:

Crossings for farm use is marked with novel and well-proportioned signs:

There’s some other nice features such as exercise areas and (at other locations) there’s playgrounds:

At most entry points there’s directional signs so people entering the greenway should not get lost:

But some signage on the route is overkill — in locations where the junction is clear is there any need for junction signs especially so close to the junctions (that’s not 25m)?

Royal Canal Greenway

Closer to Mullingar the Old Rail Trail meets and for a while runs along side the Royal Canal Greenway section which goes towards the Shannon and Clondra / Longford. Then on the last stretch into Mullingar, the Rail Trail merges into Royal Canal towpath as the railway is used as a railways siding off Mullingar Train Station:

It’s hard to deny there’s something attractive about cycling along water:

Some points have an extra visual impact:

And the extra wildlife helps:

Surfaces — good, bad and ugly

The Old Rail Trail (as all of the pictures of it show above) is all a “hard top” surface with what is commonly called tarmac here. However, the Royal Canal Greenway is a mix of all sorts of surfaces — there’s some very good newly laid surfaces which is good for both accessibility, grip and long distance cycling.

But there’s also some shockingly poor surfaces along the route and the worse bit isn’t the older roads with grass down the middle, it’s mostly newly laid loose surfaces which are:

  • harder to cycle on
  • poor for accessibility
  • harder to maintain
  • more likely to seep into the canal

The perception that these types of paths are more natural is just that — a perception. There’s noting more natural about paths like these over bonded surfaces and loose surfaces don’t hold up as being better for the environment given likely seepage into the water.

Some of the brand new surfaces were just loose and annoyingly hard to cycle on when this writer was tired and well beyond their normal daily cycling limit. The bit of harder surfaces were a relief — surprise, surprise always where car access was included hard, bonded surfaces. While the new loose surfaces shows signs of water damage already:

This section was a nice woodland feature, just off the canal — nice to mix things up but the surface was torture as my bicycle sunk into the surface

Cyclists dismount vs real solutions

The route along the Royal Canal has a number of strange dismount signs where they tell people to dismount — it would be far more helpful for the designers of the route to consult the traffic signs manual and use an appropriate sign to warn of what the actual conflict or hazard ahead is. In this case the route crosses a road with a humped bridge to the left of the photo. It’s really unclear how dismounting makes things safer here?

Telling people to dismount at this location is a bit of a joke — the authorities need to fix the crossing with and island to deal with both sides of the road individually and decent traffic calming:

Traffic calming will also be needed where the route intersects with humped bridges, such as here:

Strange signs

It’s really unclear why Waterways Ireland are using this type of sign at different points along the greenway — it would be better for clarity and consistency that cycleway or shared path signs were used to exclude motorists:

Fencing

This is all new fencing…

…including barbed wire down a slope at the edge of a greenway… this is bad design to say the least — wider should be avoided on a cycle route and barbed wire down a hill seems like looking for trouble:

This security fencing (as far as the eye can see) in this photo looks like it was maybe mandated by Irish Rail — I looked at Google Maps at the time and I don’t understand why they think there would be a big attractive for greenway users to cross the railway line. So, why does there need to be such a high fence? Could Irish Rail have speared a bit of space to added in some greenery? And why is a securty fence needed even where the greenway and railway are separated by a woodland swamp?

The last few km

At some points along the greenway more work is needed linking the greenway to other locations both to make the greenway more useful for local cycling transport use and let tourists to access cafes and shops etc. For example in Kilcock, there’s no crossing or even drop kerb to allow people access shops away from the village centre:

And these signs tell me which way to go on the route but they don’t tell me anything about what I can do in the town:

I arrived in Maynooth way later than I had expected, not helped by hitting more sections of poor surfaces on the eastern sections of the road nearer to the end of my trip. But I got there eventually and it was fun.

It’s fantastic to get an off-road route over 100km across half of he country and it will be brilliant when it’s improved and expanded.

I am editor of IrishCycle.com and have reported on and commented on cycling in Ireland for over a decade. My background is in journalism -- I have a BA in Journalism from DCU and HDip in Print Journalism from BCFE. I wrote about cycling for national newspapers, and then started CyclingInDublin.com for overflow stories. Later the website was re-branded to reflect a more national focus.

10 Comments

  1. Very comprehensive review Cian with constructive feedback. Thank you

  2. Overall it’s better than the Waterford Greenway in my opinion. The gates will allow most cargo-bikes through, but as you point out, some types of recumbents and tricycles won’t be able to get through. And there’s still a fully-fledged kissing gate between Maynooth and Leixlip that will block everyone except a normal bike that you can carry.

  3. We’ll know in a few years, but I’m curious about what’s underneath the hard top surface on the sections that have it: will it stay smooth or will it be destroyed by tree roots poking up?

    There are so many major things wrong with this (and it’s great that you’ve documented them) but the minor one that jumps out at me is that there are no reflectors on the fences. Tourism is mostly a daytime activity, but occasionally plans go wrong and people need a bit longer than they planned. Obvious hazards should at the very least be marked.

  4. Stephen McManus July 13, 2020 at 9:33 am

    Good review, Cian. Ireland has to start its network of greenways somewhere and this is a decent start. Far from perfect, as you point out, I just hope lessons are learned and future stretches and other greenways make use of lessons learned.

    Kissing gates need to go, they impact mostly vulnerable users.

  5. @Sarah – there’s actually, imo, quite a dangerous post-stump sticking up out of the greenway in the section that Cian shows in one of the videos above. One might easily run over it in the dark, or in poor light. It’s on a section to the west of Kilcock as the greenway moves away from the canal for a short section and moves through a small area of trees. The bit where Cian says it was torture on the wheels of his fold-up. If someone hits that stump at speed, it could well be torture.

  6. Having cycled from Longford to Clondra to Dublin with a few friends last September, it’s good to see the Royal Canal Greenway get some more publicity. It was due to be launched formally in the Spring with new signage, maps and a website but this was deferred presumably because of the pandemic.
    Regarding the surface, as I mentioned in my write-up of the trip https://swordscc.com/2019/09/greenway-day we found the blinded gravel surface to be fine despite the fact that we were on 25mm and 28mm tyres. Where local traffic had used the gravel sections, it was more compacted and very nearly as good as tarmac. Hopefully any loose sections will get another run of the “steam-roller” before it is officially opened.
    The bad news really starts at Maynooth when heading to Dublin with new delays on both the Kildare and Fingal sections. Despite having great potential for commuter as well as leisure use, these sections are a reminder of how bad much of Royal towpath used to be. Good news to finish, I was told by a worker on the North Strand to Sheriff Street section this morning that they should be finished work in three weeks. It will be interesting to see if the Minister for Transport or the Lord Mayor gets to cut the ribbon!

  7. Looking forward to trying out this route next month

  8. Kiss the gates goodbye.

  9. Michael Murphy July 15, 2020 at 11:47 am

    Sections with softer/shale type surfaces are ideal for joggers, so the system needs to cater for walkers and athletic clubs also. Michael

  10. Phillip Brennan July 15, 2020 at 7:13 pm

    I would have a concern about the loose surface shifting over time and enabling puddles to form.. but i don’t find any issue with it on a road bike with 28mm tyres. most casual cyclists will be using something with tyres at least that wide.

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