The best plans, I reflect, as we leave Oxford early on Sunday morning to head South to the New Forest, are often the most simple. And what could be more straightforward than driving to Lymington, putting our bikes on the ferry, cycling around the Isle of Wight with a stop for coffee and lunch before heading home again?
Three hours later as Jake’s chain breaks for the third time on the climb up the Military Road which sweeps along the South Western corner of the island, the success of our plan hangs by a thread. Of the 16 riders who left Oxford, 13 made it on to the ferry. Well, strictly speaking, 15 made it on to the ferry and then two got off again. Lisa had an attack of fat fingers, keyed the wrong post code into the Satnav, went to Southampton in error and was never seen again (or rather, at all). Meanwhile Mish, guesting from the Cowley Condors, managed to get a rear wheel puncture while his bike was in the back of Ben’s car. With the tyre wall blown out, Ben decided there was more chance of obtaining a replacement tyre on the mainland and they walked off the ferry just as the ramp was pulled up and we set off. More of Ben and Mish later...
With his chain missing three links and more tightly strung than a violinist’s E string, Jake leaves us and heads inland muttering something about buses, Newport and bike shops. More of Jake later…
A temporary lull in the drama follows and I begin to take in my surroundings. I had a couple of family holidays on the Isle of Wight as a kid but I had forgotten how beautiful it is. The skies finally start to clear and the English Channel lies flat and calm to our right, greenish grey but with widening patches of blue. The road surfaces on the island are either wonderfully smooth or pretty awful, but generally far better than we are used to in Oxfordshire. The Military Road rolls along, sweeping, wide and open. We find ourselves caught up in the cycling leg of a local triathlon. We climb faster than them and they descend quicker than us. The bunch hunkers together in the face of a stiffish headwind and an hour or so and a couple of punctures later we begin the steep, twisting descent into Ventnor and the 1960s.
Sunday morning, out of season, we appear to have Ventnor pretty much to ourselves. Ruth heads off for a paddle while the rest of us tuck into a combination of flapjacks, ice cream and coffee. There’s not too much chance of getting a single estate doppio short macchiato around here and the dull, metallic taste of the instant brew isn’t improved by the prospect of the long climb back up. Mike Lowndes leads us out, resplendent all day long in his gold VC Jericho gilet. We puff along behind until Mike stops at the foot of the ironically named Down Lane, an absurdly steep ascent to the top of the Boniface Downs, the highest point on the Island. The various mishaps of the morning mean that there is no time to tackle the climb and Mike is keen to press on. Rory looks confused. How could we not climb this near vertical hill after coming all this way? Sam seems to agree and the two of them set off, accompanied by Julian. For reasons that still aren’t clear to me, I decide to follow them.
Bullers takes off like a mountain goat on steroids. I don’t see him again until the top. Rory and Julian follow, distancing me as I wobble from side to side thinking of Froome almost cracking on Los Machucos. Eventually the gradient gives way and I see them in the distance. They applaud my efforts generously as I approach (or maybe they are just keeping warm after hanging around waiting for me for so long). Intoxicated by the view and buoyed by the support of my club mates, I decide to celebrate with a series of flamboyant high-fives as I ride past before uncleating and coming to an elegant stop. While my high fives are executed with just the right combination of exuberance and precision, my elegant stop falls rather short of the required standard. I fail to uncleat and topple over, giggling as my back wheel spins pointlessly in the air. After swearing my club mates to secrecy, the only remaining witness to my downfall is a marshall for the running leg of the aforementioned triathlon who kindly takes our photograph before we begin the descent and set off in pursuit of the rest of the bunch.
The Isle of Wight is remarkably hilly. Each town seems to come with its own designed-in ramp and for every twisting descent we seem to pay twice over with a climb back up again. Sam hits the front and puts in an epic turn. We roll through a rather down-at-heel Shanklin with its boarded up amusement arcades, the beach immediately on our right, before passing the houseboats moored in Bembridge harbour and picking up the briny saltwater tang in our nostrils as we approach the altogether more genteel village of Seaview. En route we spot Ben and Mish coming in the other direction. Mish proudly shows off a box fresh new rear tyre purchased in Southampton. He and Ben subsequently caught a ferry from Southampton to Cowes and are travelling round the island in the other direction. We bid them farewell and press on.
Just beyond Seaview, we pass a promising looking pub and hear the shouts of the rest of the bunch. This is the fish and chip lunch stop. Jake reappears complete with new chain and freshly indexed gears after sweet talking a local bike shop owner into opening up on a Sunday morning. The peleton has snaffled all the remaining fish and chips so the chase group settles for a combination of burgers and fish pie. For some reason I decide that a pint of export strength lager is the appropriate hydration solution at this stage, and set off again with what feels like a medicine ball nestling in the pit of my stomach.
The 5.20pm ferry is beginning to look like a stretch and the situation isn’t helped when we arrive in Cowes to find the chain ferry across the river Medina suspended and replaced by a launch service which can only take half a dozen bikes at a time. Ruth looks on anxiously from the river bank as we leave in the first launch. In a worthy attempt to expand our vocabulary of German swearwords, we decide to hide on arrival at the other side and await the reaction as the awful truth dawns that we have pushed on and left her behind. There’s no fooling Dr Horn, however, and soon we are reunited and barrelling along with the first decent tail wind of the day.
The character of the Northern part of the island is different again – less open, more wooded and pastoral. One messy puncture, three tubes, two gas canisters and several valve extenders later, I give up hope of the ferry and resign myself to a late Sunday night arrival back in Oxford. The road flattens out, however, the tailwind persists and Rory hits the front. We make good progress. As we reach 45 kph, Rory’s voice booms out as he politely enquires: “would anyone like to go any faster?” The peleton weighs the question and remains silent. The pace ramps up. Julian comes through and takes it on. Even Shpend puts in an appearance. Five minutes to go. We crest the brow of a hill and see the ferry in the distance. Its touch and go but we make it with seconds to spare (actually the ferry was a little late leaving but let us not let the facts get in the way.)
By now the Solent is bathed in evening sunshine and the trip back on deck passes in a euphoric haze with much back slapping and posing for photos. It has been a truly wonderful day out in spite of, or perhaps because of, everything. Huge thanks to Mike Lowndes for providing the inspiration and organisation and to Julian Smart who came up with the original idea for an Isle of Wight extravaganza and created the route.
Thanks to everyone who came along and made the day so memorable – Jake Backus, Michael Bailey, Sam Bullers, Rory Carnegie, Andy Clyde, Eamonn Deeley, Ruth Horn, Julian Laird, Mike Lowndes, Shpend Gerguri, Mish, Chan Tamang, Patrick Taylor, Marc Thomson and Ben Tuxworth.
I can’t wait for next year!
(Thanks to Ruth & John for the photos.)