If you are looking for some of the toughest climbs in Ireland Bantry in West Cork is a great place to centre yourself for a week
The sheep’s head is a lovely scenic cycle starting in Bantry and looping back via kilcrohane and Durrus. The road is constantly rising and dipping and the surface is poor. There are two very steep but short ramps near the summit and a lovely descent into kilcrohane. It is about 35-40 miles but you can include Vaughan’s pass from the south side (straight forward climb) on the way back if you want. This would be classed as an easy/scenic cycle ideal for a rest day. Easy/medium
Vaughan’s pass directly behind the town is about one mile to the summit from Main Street. It averages in the low teens and max gradient is 20+. It is not a particularly hard climb due to its short length but it’s a nice one to get started and the view from the car park at the top is the nicest I have seen anywhere. Medium climb
The tunnel rock is about 11 miles from Bantry. It’s over 5.5 miles long peaking at 1096ft. Max gradient is 6% and averages 3.7%. It’s about 3.5 miles from the Kenmare side with a max of 8% and average of 4.3%. It’s a similar climb to moll’s gap only harder. Medium climb
The Healy pass is also within range from Bantry. It’s about 3.5 miles from the Adrigole side and slightly less from the Kerry side. Maxing 7% and 9% and averaging 4.4% and 4.8% respectively. Brilliant scenery, harder from Kerry side, a medium climb.
Gougane Barra is about 15 miles from Bantry. If you take the cycle route for cork from there (crazy gradient at first would estimate close to 30%) and go left at mainish road (VERY EASY TO GET LOST, VERY BAD ROADS) you can come to coolea and pass the highest pub in Ireland and descend to kilgarvin. This is about 20 miles and is all up or down, there are two short climbs with one 4 mile climb in the middle peaking at 1175ft. Medium climbs
The borlin valley then runs from kilgarvin back towards Bantry. It 8 miles from kilgarvin to the peak (1250ft) all uphill of various degrees. Depending on where you class the climb to begin. If you take it to be five miles from the summit the max gradient is 9% and average 3.8%. This average however hides a relatively flat mile in the middle. The last two miles have an average of 6.6% and max of 11% From the Bantry side it is also about 8 miles if you take the knockanecosduff hill approach. If you take the approach from the road further north the climb is 5 miles averaging 4% and maxing at 6%. The climb is harder from the kilgarvin side and be careful on the way down as the sheep here are frightened and will run away/in front of you and the boreen is winding. This is one of my favourite climbs as it is long, has nice scenery and is just hard enough to get a sense of accomplishment at the top. Medium/hard climb.
Barley Lake as pointed out by turbine is a tough climb. I clocked it as 1.5 miles from turn off but the first half mile is a mixture of up and down. It really kicks off at the white house where the warning sign is and i would love to know the gradient of the first piece as it is very steep. It’s a bit over a mile from there and I would estimate an average gradient in the high teens. The descent is one of does ones where you have the breaks pulled full and you’re still doing 5-10 miles an hour. Again as turbine pointed out the ascent from the bottom up to the tunnel rock is another good challenge. I calculated the average to be near 15% for 1.1% miles. Turbine has the max at 25% and I would well believe it as its levels off a bit at the top. Hard climbs
Two other good shortest climbs in that region are the bit of the Beara way that goes over the hill to Bonane half way down the tunnel rock descent to Glengariff and the road that bypasses Glengariff from the echliss hotel (spelling?). I do not have stats for these but know the latter has again patches at 20+. There is also a climb in Farnanes north of Drimoleague, it is a mile long and averages around 12% with a few 20% patches. There is also a small climb to the foot of this and another short steep climb in the area. These are less than 10 miles from Bantry in nice country side but are hard to find. Further east, on the road between Dunmanway (Up past Sam Maguire Park) and Drinagh there is a 1.25 mile climb averaging 6.7% with steep sections. This is about 15 miles from Bantry. Lough ine hill near Skibbereen has 20+ gradients but is so short it’s not worth the effort. Mount Gabriel’s is also within range and you can climb to the beacons at the top from the north side. I think a poster on this site posted details at one stage. Ballybane is a cat 3 climb on the tour of Ireland Sunday, it’s between Bantry and ballydehob but it fairly easy. These climbs range from easy to medium and could be taken in if in the area but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do them.
Which brings me to the priests leap (8 miles from Bantry). From the Bantry side it varies from 3.25 to 3.75 miles depending on where you call the start. (there is a small climb ¾ mile averaging in the teens at the base if you want to get the legs going before you start, when you take the turn for priests leap from coomhola bridge keep going straight instead of going right for priests leap, it starts straightaway) the average from high 7s to low 8s. God only knows what the max in patches is. The Kenmare side is shorter, around 3 miles depending on where you start, but most of the assent is done in 1.5 miles of constant up averaging at around 13%. The road then dips before one last steep patch. The Bantry side can be broken down into four sections the first one is about a mile and in my opinion the hardest and is a serious of huge rises followed by short easier patches and then more up and so on. There is then a small patch of low gradient and near flat followed by a 2nd shorter series of rises. If you make this far still on your bike I would imagine you would make it as there is now a patch of near flat and slight downhill to recover followed by the the third section which is again a little over a mile. It has the steep ramps but also more patches of easier gradient and slight downhill. When you reach the top of this you are as good as home one more downhill and the last savagely steep but short ramp. This climb is by far the toughest I have ever experienced, some of the others I have mentioned are solid intermediate climbs, some very steep but short. The priest leap combined the two, length by steepness and also poor grip due to the road condition. The first time I went up there was the only time I have had to get off my bike and stop and the only time I have felt like getting sick while cycling. It was after about a mile and when I got back on I finished it okay and then climbed it from the other side in one go suggesting to me it’s easier from the Kenmare side. If anyone is going to attempt this climb be very careful as the road is dangerous covered in sheep sh*t and the sheep themselves, running water and grass in the middle and both sides giving you little room to play with. For instance the last time I was up there I was going up a steep bit and between a combination of the above my wheel spun, couldn’t move, no time to clip out and fell off. Also the first time you do this I would suggest just concentrating on getting to the top not how fast you are going unless of course you are a serious rider. Hors category.
At this stage I have done most climbs in Munster and have to admit the priest leap is the hardest by a bit. I have the Connor pass pencilled in b4 the end of the summer and I am doing the step next week which are the two big ones I am missing. To be honest I’m not two bothered about the step I know it will be tough but statistically at least it not as daunting as some of the ones I done as 1) its short and 2) while steep I have done steeper climbs. There is actually 1.5 miles in the priests leap from the Kenmare side that is statistically harder and you still have to go for another 1.5 miles all be it not as steep.
Anyway I hope this helps your debate and I will leave ye know how I find the step.