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Big Ride: Isle of Wight

Matthew Page
4 Jan 2017

A beautiful island with great roads, views and a microclimate that makes it one of the driest and sunniest places in Britain

Where: Isle of Wight

Total distance: 92km

Total elevation: 1,540m

Time: 3.5-5 hours

There’s something ruggedly romantic about the idea of circumnavigating an island by bike.

Some intrepid souls have undertaken the 5,000-mile tour around the coast of mainland Britain, but if you don’t have a couple of months spare for such an adventure, the British Isles include plenty of smaller islands with coastlines that can be ridden in a single day.

And the Isle of Wight, off the southern coast of England near Portsmouth, comes into that category.

The 12th-biggest British island by size and fourth by population, the Isle of Wight is steeped in history and tradition.

Cycling on the island also has a great reputation among those in the know, with reasonably quiet roads outside of the main towns that offer some glorious scenery.

We planned our route to start from the mainland in Lymington, a small town on the outskirts of the New Forest from where you can catch a ferry to Yarmouth, the port on the northwest coast of the island.

The 40-minute crossing over the Solent – the stretch of water that divides the island from England’s southern coast – is easy and pleasant, and having taken advantage of the option to ride on and off, as the ferry draws close to Yarmouth we ready ourselves.

Our planned route is not quite a full circumnavigation of the island, being limited by daylight as the shorter winter days come into full effect.

But it still promises to be a fine day out – planned and guided by Simon Ernest, a local rider of some esteem who, with family on the island, knows it well.

Joining us is Emyr Griffiths, a Portsmouth-based racer who’s also no stranger to the island, although he’s never ventured around it by bike before.

Leaving Yarmouth, we head southwest through the built-up areas which are probably the busiest part of the whole route.

But as we continue further west, the traffic decreases until we reach  the final traffic-free section along the island edge to a spot which is known as The Needles due to the spur of rock shooting out from the headland, with its iconic red and white striped lighthouse at the end.

On such a calm, fine day, this out-and-back section is a joy. After stopping to take it all in, we head back the way we came but turn right to take the so-called Military Road, which hugs the southern coast of the island.

Built in the 19th century, this is today a designated A-road, but the low level of traffic and the fantastic new tarmac on much of it make it an absolute blast to ride.

This southern section is mostly flat, but does have a few sharp kickers with the road from Chale to Blackgang being the longest and highest climb of the route.

At just shy of 200 metres elevation, it might not seem that high, but when you’re trying to stick with Simon, who has raced at a National level, what would otherwise be a relatively easy climb turns into a bit of a wall.

As we continue, the road turns inland northwards towards the seaside town of Ventnor much to Simon’s disappointment, as apparently we get to dodge a killer of a hill!

And as we head across the middle of the island, the route changes. Taking smaller, narrower but still quiet roads we speed through idyllic villages, whizzing past thatched cottages and houses that seem to have been here forever.

We also pass the Garlic Farm, where Emyr reckons the on-site shop offers some of the best things you can buy on the island. But with the light draining from the day we don’t have time to stop.  

The road heading north is much hillier than the rest of the route, with what seems to be a constantly undulating terrain, and while none of the climbs are too tough, it takes its toll.

As we get closer to the bigger towns of Newport and Cowes, the traffic increases a little and while there’s the option to head through Newport, we continue north to East Cowes and across the estuary of the Medina river on the chain ferry, at the cost of £1 each, to the historic town itself.

From here we pick up a designated cycling route that keeps us off the busiest roads as we head back to Yarmouth and the ferry that will take us home.

With the signs easy to follow and the road reasonably flat, the miles tick by pretty quickly. Passing the 18th-century Old Town Hall at Newport  is quite a sight as it appears to lean in every direction possible!

The quiet and easy run-in is fun and by chance we time it to perfection, managing to  roll straight onto a waiting ferry in Yarmouth, giving us the chance to talk about the fantastic riding we’ve all just savoured and how the island had surpassed all expectation.

We’re lucky in these islands that such opportunities are so close. Brief – and usually cheap ferry trips  – can lead to fabulous cycling adventures all around our coast.

The Isle of Wight is just one of these and, as our trip proved, it’s a great place to take your bike for the day and go and get lost.

• Looking for inspiration for your own summer cycling adventure? Cyclist Tours has hundreds of trips for you to choose from

Route details

1. Park in Lymington terminal car park in Hampshire and take the ferry to Yarmouth. Off the ferry, take a right, heading southwest towards The Needles. A short traffic-free section will take you to a viewpoint before heading back on the same road, then take a right towards Freshwater Bay.

2. Continue on the stunning coastal road via Blackgang to Ventnor, before turning north and inland. Continue on a series of small roads through the village of Wooten Bridge before heading to East Cowes. Take the small chain-link ferry across the estuary to Cowes – it’s a quid for cyclists! 

3. Continue on small roads following the waymarked cycle route signs which avoids the busiest roads and takes you close to Yarmouth. Remember to leave the cycle route on the edge of Yarmouth and head back towards the ferry terminal for the 40-minute ferry ride back.

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