I was fortunate to have two weeks cycling in France recently and I made a conscious decision to look at some of the Blueways that are already up and running there along the Rhone and Saone rivers. Here’s a little recollection of the trip and a short video to give a flavour.
These are working rivers, used for bulk goods transportation on massive barges and also by large river cruises. Lots of water activities going on too.
I was aware of a route called the Via Rhona which is a European project to create a cycle route along the Rhone from Geneva to the Mediterranean. We were based in Lyon where the two rivers converge and it was an ideal base for following both rivers.
We met lots of cyclists on the Via Rhona, a number of ‘through cyclists’ with their touring bikes and panniers who were attempting the full 7oo kms route. There were also lots of day trippers and families cycling sections of the route. The Saone was less developed and promoted and much much quieter as a result.
These Blueways are easy cycling as they are all flat surfaces, which can be a little tedious but if the surrounding scenery is good, that’s not a problem.
Surfaces were varied as the route is not complete and we cycled on tarmac, concrete, crusher dust and earth river bank. In places the trail was single track but mostly it was over 2 metres wide. Both rivers are fantastically developed in Lyon city for cycling and walking and are attractive places for young and old to meet and chill out.
In truth it was a cycling paradise as the bikes rolled easily along such hard surfaces.
However for me the nicest parts was the single track!
There was lots of wildlife along the river banks and in places nature reserves and interpretative centres provided additional points of interest. The Blueway didn’t seem to have any adverse effects on the flora and fauna
The paths were more developed close to the towns and the more rural sections tended to be more natural.
We met no walkers on either river.
No question the Blueway is a fantastic cycling surface and it is easy to cruise along, making it especially attractive to families and older generations. I was surprised though there were not more touring cyclists on the route given it’s prominence and attractiveness.
Would it work on the Barrow?
I am sure it would be very attractive for cycling to develop the route and it could become a genuine tourist destination – provided we had the infra structure to support; accommodation etc. In the greater scheme of things, the linking of the canals would be a huge national resource allowing cyclists and walkers to traverse the country off road and provide an easy way out of our cities.
And if the issues flagged by locals are addressed it could possibly work. The big concern has to be the rights of walkers. The tow path is quite narrow. Walkers do not like hard surfaces. It is an already established walking route and those rights have to be respected as best they can.
A possible solution to that might be to develop the sections approaching our towns and villages first. The work on the promenade in Carlow is superb and top class development like that in the towns and villages would enhance the river and the experience for all. Perhaps the more rural sections then could be looked at more in terms of restoration of a good grass surface that is level and easy walk and cycle on.
Someone mentioned the Blueway would be fantastic for wheelchair users. That would be welcomed by all, but there are obstacles to be overcome such as difficulties passing the Canal lough gates. this would require some widening of those areas to allow wheelchairs pass. There are also risks on the track that would have to be assessed, such as proximity to water, especially after heavy rain and isolation as there access points to the river are quite distant on sections.
And then of course there is also the impact of flooding on the surface. There were extensive sections of hard surfaces (tarmac and concrete) badly cracked along the Rhona. That would be a disaster on the Barrow. The current hardcore surfaces are badly potholed and not very well maintained.
If the real concerns of people who currently use the towpath are taken into account though I see no reason why the Blueway could not be a success. Carlow is a county that needs to maximise the resources to attract a bigger share of the numbers of visitors to our shores.