Operator profile: Ireland by Bike shows off the Emerald Isle
Tour specialist Heather Lee was recently hosted by our operator partner Ireland by Bike, a family-run operation based in County Donegal. Their bike tours in Ireland include Highlights of the Highlands and Treasures of the Donegal Coast. The following is an interview Heather conducted with owner Seamus Gallagher.
Why did you decide to start a bike touring company?
The idea emerged from a family holiday in 2009. Up until then our children were too young to cycle on holiday and we never thought of using one of the child trailers. We decided to cycle from Bratislava to Prague. It was while researching that holiday that curiosity led me to check out what was available locally.
I discovered that there were only a couple of tour companies offering tours in Donegal, and that both of those were based in other parts of Ireland. I felt that a company based locally would be in a position to offer a much better service than one based somewhere else. I also consider myself very fortunate to live where I do and am anxious to share the area with others.
In what part of Ireland are you located?
We are based in County Donegal, in the northwest of Ireland. It is one of the least visited areas. This is due in part to the legacy of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. Because we are so close to the border, people didn’t tend to visit here. The result is that Donegal has avoided the effects of large-scale tourism, so the visitor experience is more genuine than in other areas. We use Donegal Town and Sligo as the starting hubs for our tours. These are easily accessible from Dublin Airport and are ideal starting points for the tours.
It’s a small family business – what does that bring?
The best thing it brings is flexibility. In the busy times we don’t really follow any working hours. We can arrange to meet people, deliver bikes, do luggage transfers etc. at any time. The down side is that at busy times, the lines between work and family life become virtually indistinguishable.
My wife, Nora, is more or less a full-time worker in the summer months. My oldest son, Dominic, who is a student, has become the unofficial “chief mechanic.” He is a real bike fan and is super at keeping the bikes in 100% top condition. My youngest son, Brian, who has just turned 15, has been less involved up until now, but I’m sure that that will change over the coming seasons.
What type of tours do you offer? How many do you have?
We currently offer four different bike tours, with two available through BikeToursDirect. We also have a leisurely “Yeats Country” tour in the pipeline.
What do you look for when researching and creating tour routes?
I had a pretty clear idea from the start what sights and attractions I wanted to include, so after that the main focus was the safety of the routes. I also wanted to include as many of the historic sites in the area as possible. There is a wealth of stone-age, bronze age, and early-Christian monuments around Donegal and obviously many people would want to visit these. Then of course I had to try to work all this in with a route that balanced the amount of daily cycling and still ended up in a town or village with good accommodation and nightly entertainment.
If you were to go out and do one ride, which route would you choose?
I think it would have to be the cycle along the coast from Killybegs to Glencolmcille. This route is part of every one of our tours. It has just about everything. Amazing scenery, loads of historic sites, and, because the area has a strong tradition of hand weaving, a few very interesting traditional craft studios to visit.
Describe the type of accommodations where your clients can expect to stay when they book one of your tours.
We mostly use family-run bed and breakfasts. Where possible we like to use bed and breakfasts that are located in, or close to, towns or villages.
What kind of feedback do you get on the bed and breakfasts you choose?
The feedback has been excellent. Our customers really appreciate that people are willing to do that little extra. Many of our customers are still in contact with the people they have stayed with. Different people have mentioned a variety of things that the B&B owners have done for them.
A lady who was traveling on her own this summer was delighted when the couple with whom she was staying invited her to join them at their weekly Traditional Irish dancing session. A group of four gentlemen were amazed when their B B owner went out of her way to get much sought-after tickets for a major Gaelic Football match. Others guests have regularly been given lifts to restaurants or places of interest they had missed along the way. We simply cannot put a value on this type of service.
What about all the rainy days in Ireland? What can you do for your clients on those days?
When it looks like it will be very wet we will ring around the B&B’s in the morning to see how the customers feel. If they would prefer not to cycle we advise them to stay put and we will come and get them. We usually drive the route that they would have cycled. Saying that, this only happens on around 3 or 4 days in a year. For most days light rain-gear is more than enough to allow everyone to get out on the bike and enjoy the amazing landscapes. Rain showers tend to go quickly, we have a saying here — “If you don’t like the weather – wait a minute!”
What do you recommend for travelers who are wary of Ireland’s hilly terrain?
We have just purchased 10 electric bikes. We had already been hiring them from another company in the past. For anyone not familiar with them, you still get the same cycling experience but the assistance makes the hills feel just like you are cycling on the flat.
What did you do before you started Ireland by Bike?
For the five years before 2010, I worked as a tiler, before that I was as a teacher for several years. For the first few years, as Ireland by Bike was beginning to grow, I continued to work as a tiler. At the time the bike tour business was costing me money while the tiling work was still putting some food on the table. It was crazy at times, but worth the effort in the end.
Why should someone do a bike tour through Ireland?
Ireland, and especially Donegal, still retains the “off the beaten track” feel. You really won’t see many more beautiful areas or experience better hospitality than along the west coast. The traditional music and culture is also well worth experiencing. I would also say that a bike tour is the best way to see any county. The experience of seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling and tasting the country you pass through is so much more complete and fulfilling when done by bicycle.