Isle of Smiles

I’m sitting on my sofa, which needs the covers washing after repeated assaults by my five-year-old son, or rather by his ketchup, porridge et al, watching the Vuelta on Eurosport, and whilst I’m interested in the events of the race, its not where the cycling part of my brain is finding itself resting.  That corner of grey matter is reserved for the recent day out on the bike I had with mates, new and not so new, on the Isle of Wight.

The day started early, as they all seem to do these days, and I rolled out from home towards the train station in time to fumble through my emails on my phone and locate my ticket collection reference number, take a quick snap of the bike on the platform and procure myself one of the worst flat whites I’ve ever had the displeasure to sample.  Shortly afterwards the 0725 arrived and I hopped aboard to join some of the gang on our way to Portsmouth Harbour.

The journey seemed pretty quick; this was probably helped by our endless nattering about pro-cycling transfers, fantasy cycling teams, the weather (naturally), wheels, and the route that awaited us, amongst other frivolous stuff.  Before long we pulled in to the destination and walked into the departure area for the ferry.  Our desperation for coffee highlighted by a collective delight at the sight of a Costa’s.  It was here that we learnt we were at the wrong terminal.  A few minutes of mild worry passed when a chap at the terminal kiosk/reception area told us that it didn’t matter.  We celebrated the demise of our group anxiety with our coffees.  This was living.

When the ferry arrived and the throngs of people disembarked the seven of us made our way down the gangplanks, our freehubs’ loud clicks filling the air as we did.  Silence was restored when we parked our bikes in the cycle storage area on the ferry and we took our seats in front of tiny televisions informing us of the delights that we could enjoy on the island if we so chose.  Not today though, we had much better things to do, namely a 100km lap of the island.

The route took us anti-clockwise to make the most of a tailwind along the south of the island.  Our circuit started however with us keeping a close eye on our tyres and the gaps between the planks of wood on the pier that leads from the ferry terminal to the island itself.  Once we’d all made it safely across and met up with another member of the crew who joined us via Fishbourne we rolled off through Ryde town centre and headed west.  The roads rolled for a bit, not very challenging and fairly quiet, and on the whole were in great condition.  We soon reached Cowes where, after a few minutes battling patience and a ticket machine we boarded the chain ferry to cross the river Medina.  After here the roads became a delight to ride: smooth, undulating and with fantastic scenery all around.  It wasn’t long either until the temperature started to pick up and the gilet came off.  Daft grins and laughter infected the group as the ride got better and better, nothing too taxing, rolling along at a decent speed without much effort at all.  Stick on some Duke Ellington and I was done.

As we began our meandering down the west of the island talk turned to stopping for a bite to eat.  We stopped at a café (a licensed one no less) in Norton that was right on the banks of the Solent; it was terribly charming, with views across to the nature reserve as the gentle waves lapped at the shingle on the beach just in front of our table. We waited patiently…ok, we moaned a bit at the time we sat without the food we had ordered, but eventually the grub was with us and our stomachs were content.  We could now, at last, get back our bikes and have some fun again.

The next leg of the route took us rolling southwards towards the Needles (which we didn’t stop at) and marked the start of the climbing.  The first was a long, steady climb followed by a long, snaking decent which begged you to get low to the top tube, tuck your elbows in and try your best to cheat the air.  This led onto undulating roads that seemed to go on forever as the sea to my right and the open grassland to my left both stretched on and on.  More climbs followed including a rather sharp and steep little one that caught us all by surprise and filled the air with calls of “oh, shit” and “bloody hell” as we all frantically tapped away at our shifters hoping to find a suitable sprocket, the granny gear it was.

Riding along the south coast gave a feeling of being somewhere else, somewhere away from Britain, somewhere more Mediterranean as the grand villas bordered the road with their high gates, the sun bounced off the sea to our right and the fauna was lush and rich.  This sense of being elsewhere was further embedded with a descent that gave the feeling of riding the Poggio; it’s winding path embraced by houses that were right up against the road, and brick walls that seemed to shine as the sun dazzled upon them, each section lasting no more than 30 meters before the next switchback or bend.  An utterly captivating moment that had me thinking of Nibali’s escape to victory earlier in the year, and that I was riding there too.  Albeit, I was going down as opposed to his up, but these are mere details.

By the time we’d crested the next few climbs and reached the bottom of each descent that followed we were closing in on our destination, each of us utterly thrilled with our day on the island.  The mandatory checking of Strava soon followed which only further rewarded our glow of joy as each of us had got a smattering of trophies.  Time for a beer and breather before the ferry back to the mainland, and whilst we would soon be absent from this island of great riding we all knew we would definitely be back one day.

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