If you have never tried it, the Isle of Wight ride follows the famous ‘Round the Island’ route. This covers 69 miles and 5,500ft of climbing, so it’s quite a challenge. Chris Matthews took a group from NRC this week and shares their adventure. If you missed out this time, the Club is planning another later this year.
As I’m sure you are aware, the Club now has a series of exciting, all-day ride events scheduled in locations away from Newbury. Following closely in the footsteps of the recent South Downs and Severn Bore rides, the plan was to hold a ride around the Isle of Wight last weekend (23 May). However, weather conditions significantly impact a ride like this, and the danger of 55 mile per hour winds on the south coast of the island, particularly around the Needles, and rain throughout the day resulted in a decision to cancel the ride.
With forecasts showing the arrival of a band of excellent weather from the middle of this week, we decided to move the Isle of Wight ride to Thursday 27 May instead. It was all a bit last minute, which made it hard to free up a day from work at short notice, but despite this 8 brave individuals signed up for the ride, including new members Sarah Clarke and Mariusz Baj.
If you have never tried it, the Isle of Wight ride follows the famous ‘Round the Island’ route, with only a couple of minor changes. This covers 69 miles and 5,500ft of climbing, so it’s quite a challenge. And it’s a drive and ride event, involving travelling to Southampton Docks by car and then taking the Red Funnel ferry to East Cowes, before the cycling can begin.
Leading up to the ride, close scrutiny of weather forecasts showed the prospect of sun and temperatures around 17 degrees throughout the day. This meant we had to consider digging out our short sleeved jerseys and bib shorts from the wardrobe, where they has been consigned last Autumn.
There was a bit of a holiday atmosphere as we met up at 06:20 on Thursday morning at McDonalds on Newbury Retail Park, with lots of club kit on display. A few couldn’t resist starting the day off with a Sausage McMuffin and a coffee! Then with bikes securely strapped down, we set off for Southampton docks, arriving in plenty of time to catch the 08:00 Red Funnel ferry to East Cowes. Cyclists travel as foot passengers and store their bikes at the front of the ferry, allowing us to disembark first.
Once on the boat, attention returned to coffee, but we discovered that it was the final day of COVID restrictions, which meant that you could buy food and drinks, but they had to be consumed on the decks. The need to wear face masks on the ferry will undoubtedly continue for a while.
The route circuits the island anti-clockwise, as this is generally thought to be a better ride, so immediately on disembarking the ferry we has a short ride to catch the link ferry from East Cowes to West Cowes. This is a 200m stretch of water, costs £1.00 for a single fare, and is essential to avoid a major detour into Newport, the Island’s capital. Whereas last time we ran the ride we somehow managed to break the ticket machine, this time many of us had used the new online ticket website, while others bought tickets from the attendant instead, which avoided similar mishaps.
The ride then began, as we wound our way out of Cowes and along the Cowes Esplanade. The sea front along this stretch is very exposed with minimal screening from buildings, and on the previous trip to the island we had struggled to manage over 12mph, flat out, down on the drops, as we were battered by a strong headwind. We had none of these problems and our spirits were buoyed by fantastic views of sand, sea and the mainland.
Across the north coast of the island we cycled through the unspoiled Hamstead Heritage Coast, passing Newtown Town Hall, a local landmark and National Trust property. Everyone was starting to appreciate the lovely smooth tarmac that all roads on the island seem to be covered in and the lack of traffic. We encountered a number of cyclists around here, including a group from Brighton, all enjoying their first taste of sunshine and summer in a long time. Then we headed south along sweeping roads past the historic port of Yarmouth on the west coast with its pier, marinas and boats, before arriving at the small village of Freshwater, close to the Needles.
We were now 20 miles into the ride and it was time for the first break. It was also an excellent photo opportunity as we parked the bikes next to a pretty bay on the south coast of the island, with a small beach, bright blue sea and chalk cliffs in the background. By this point temperatures were warming considerably and the sun was strong, so jackets and arm warmers were stored away, and the first round of snacks eaten.
It was tempting to extend the break, as we could see (the initial section of) the long drag of Freshwater Hill heading off into the distance. This was the first of 3 big climbs on the ride and it didn’t disappoint! By the time we has ascended the 250 feet to reach the top we had an amazing view all the way along the south coast of the island, made even better as it was so clear and bright. Riding conditions were perfect with wind hardly noticeable, in direct contrast to the previous trip where 60mph gales had blown us all over the road at this exposed spot.
We all enjoyed the descent of Freshwater Hill - a series of sweeping downhill curves with more magnificent views. We continued along Military Road, the major thoroughfare along the south coast of the island, before the route turned north taking us along quieter and more sheltered lanes, and through beautiful villages.
We were riding really well as a group, at an average 14-15mph pace which was comfortable for everyone, A sweeper sat at the back of the group ensuring nobody was dropped.
We continued along the south coast, returning to Military Road close to Blackgang. This is the second and largest hill on the route – around 4 miles and 460 feet of elevation - and passing the famous Blackgang Chine amusement park which is slowly eroding into the sea. We all dug in and soon arrived at the top, to be greeted by views of the Needles and another photo opportunity.
We descended the hill carefully, grateful for the quiet roads on the island. From here it was only 5 miles to our lunch venue, 40 miles into the ride.
The ride into Ventnor was along wonderful, rolling lanes, through St Lawrence, the posh part of Ventnor with the botanical Gardens and massive Victorian villas. We encountered an angry, elderly motorist here who had a bit of a go at Dave Martin, despite driving erratically and not using his indicators. As expected, Dave handled the situation magnificently!
Ventnor is a beautiful, Victorian seaside town, which has not been spoiled by tacky seaside shops, but it is extremely hilly. The descent from the Winter Gardens down to the seafront was steep and twisty, but we arrived at the Besty & Spinkeys, our favourite Fish restaurant on schedule at 12:30. To meet COVID requirements we had booked 2 tables inside the restaurant. We ordered drinks and waited to see if the local trawler would deliver its catch to the fish shop directly across the road on the sea front. Unfortunately our timings didn’t align, but even so we all had a wonderful meal of fish and chips.
The next challenge was to try to leave Ventnor with full stomachs, so we were straight back onto a series of steep hills to climb the 450ft of elevation out of the town. Mariusz took some excellent pictures of us here struggling up the climbs trying to keep our lunch down.
From Ventnor we left the south coast, and the route headed inland, avoiding the seaside towns of Shanklin and Sandown. The terrain seemed very different here, following more quiet lanes surfaced in smooth tarmac, but this time more enclosed and screened by tall hedges. But it was undulating – a constant series of up- and down-hills that slowly started to take it out of our legs.
We were grateful that we had managed to avoid any mechanical issues or punctures, but then David Lillystone noticed that his quick release axle had come loose. In the course of tightening it, he managed to become separated from the group and then missed a sharp left hand turning, continuing in the wrong direction for a mile or so. The benefit of having each other’s contact information on SPOND became apparent, and we were quickly able to reform the group.
By the 50 mile point, we could see the East coast of the island as we rode through villages including Brading and Bembridge, past the famous historic windmill and alongside the marina. Temperatures had now risen to close to 20 degrees and conversation turned to ice cream. At 58 miles in, we could resist no longer and stopped at a small shop in St Helens where we bought a bulk load of Magnums and Cornettos.
The final stretch of the ride was a mix of more undulating lanes passing a number of small towns along the north coast of the island, including a section at the back of Queen Victoria’s Osborne House estate. The traffic was becoming a bit busier in places as we hit the school run and the lead up to rush hour, until finally we descended into Cowes again, arriving just in time to catch our ferry home at 4:30.
We loaded our bikes at the front of the boat and headed for the lounge, trying not to trip up on the narrow stairs with our cleats. Disappointingly, the tradition of having a beer on the way home was thwarted by COVID restrictions, but we spent the hour sharing our photos onto WhatsApp and unwinding. David even managed to squeeze in a short nap.
Finally, the ferry docked in Southampton at 17:30, leaving us to cycle back to the LeisureWorld car park, pack up, load the bikes, say our goodbyes and head home.
We all agreed that it had been a magnificent day out, helped considerably by the weather. Based on this there should be a lot of interest in our next scheduled event, which is a ride around the Cotswolds, on Tuesday 08 June. There will be rides of 30, 45 and 60 miles duration, so something for everyone - look out for details on SPOND.
Chris Matthews 27.05.2021