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Island paradise: Isle of Wight gravel ride

In-depth
15 Jan 2021
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Fancy an overseas trip but don’t want to stray too far from home? Look no further than the gravel trails on the Isle of Wight

Words: Tim Wiggins Photography: James Cripps

The mid-summer dawn brings a golden glow to Ryde Esplanade. We have the seafront to ourselves, save for a lone herring gull hopping around looking for scraps from last night’s fish and chip suppers. This quaint seaside town is the gateway to the Isle of Wight.

Mention the Isle of Wight to most ‘mainlanders’ and it will likely trigger fond memories of school trips or childhood beach holidays in summer, with sticks of rock and ice creams.

Indeed later today the broad sandy beaches, now reopened after the easing of the coronavirus lockdown restrictions, will be filled with holidaymakers and funfairs.

But we will be long gone by then, up into the hills and onto the trails of this diverse and beautiful island, because on two wheels and away from the tourist crowds there is a whole new side to the island to discover. Our gravel adventure awaits…

 

Variety is the spice of life

I have called the Isle of Wight home for the best part of my life, riding bikes for most of those years. The heatmap of where I’ve ridden here looks akin to a dense red spider’s web, venturing into nearly every metre of road and trail that the island’s 380 square kilometres has to offer.

Yet I never grow bored, such is the diversity, challenge and ever-changing backdrop of riding on what we affectionately know as ‘The Island’.

Our planned route today is a fusion of all my favourite off-road trails from all over this piece of land, ranging from wide-open chalk downland expanses to rooted singletrack forest trails, from sandy coast paths to steep rocky ridges.

I’m sharing the experience with two friends: Jack, Cyclist.co.uk web editor and a traitorous ex-island resident who is fairly new to off-road cycling and who has made the trip back to his homeland from London, and Jo, a flourishing enthusiast for adventure riding.

We clip in and roll out along the seafront, our route taking us westwards along the coastal path and past Quarr Abbey, a functioning monastery, and into the woodland behind the serene Wootton Creek. It’s easy pedalling to start. Our tyres rumble as we ride jovially along the well-kept gravel cycleways and bounce down some more rugged byways left rutted from the way the mud has dried and been baked hard by the recent spell of hot weather.

As we appear onto the road at Havenstreet, the hoot of the classic steam train causes Jo to jump in her saddle, and the ensuing laughter distracts us as the path begins to turn upwards in earnest, taking us onto the chalk ridge that composes the backbone of the island.

One of the unique aspects of the Isle of Wight is its geology. They say there is no other place where it’s possible to find such varied rock strata in such a small geographical area, and I believe it’s this geological variety that accounts for how diverse the riding is here.

And it is certainly the cause of the undeniably undulating terrain. Hard chalk hills are shouldered by soft sandstone valleys and moulded clay trails suddenly transition into mossy green forests.

The Isle of Wight is a microcosm of many English riding terrains all packed into one diamond-shaped, pocket-sized landmass.

 

History lesson

Heading up and over the ridgeline we descend towards the town of Newport, weaving around the centre along deserted country lanes.

Carisbrooke Castle’s old stones catch the morning sunshine, a reminder of the island’s rich heritage both as a royal holiday destination for Queen Victoria in East Cowes and a site of imprisonment for King Charles I who, having fled to the Isle of Wight, was locked up in Carisbrooke after fighting the armies of Oliver Cromwell and generally being a bit of an all-round tyrant.

After splashing through the castle ford our route rises once again, taking us up onto the Tennyson Trail, named for another distinguished person who made the Isle of Wight their home.

The Tennyson Trail is one of the most iconic bridleways on the island, heading from Carisbrooke out through Brighstone Forest and onto the high chalk tops of Brook Down and Afton Down.

 

On a clear summer’s day like today, you can see the shipping lanes on the distant English Channel horizon and enjoy panoramic views towards Bournemouth and the New Forest on the mainland shore. It’s easy to see why walks along this pathway inspired some of the nation’s favourite poetry.

Adrenaline brings us back to earth as we thunder down the chalk descent to Freshwater Bay, relishing how the months of dry weather have left the trails as flowing and fast as I’ve ever seen them. The wind wisps away the beads of sweat that were rolling down our brows on the preceding steep ascent, and I look longingly at the turquoise sea lapping into the cove below.

Our arrival at Freshwater Bay requires us to reacquaint ourselves with the tarmac for a short time as we head out to the best known Isle of Wight landmark of all: The Needles.

The traffic-free road that winds its way to the coastguard station at the top of the headland was battered by multiple hurricane force storms last winter, but today it’s calm and clear with just a gentle breeze creating wavelets that ripple around at the foot of the lighthouse.

 

Calorie negative

It’s almost midday, and we’re at the western extremity of the island. Our stomachs are beginning to rumble and having already chalked up (no pun intended) 45km with over 1,000m of climbing, it seems fair to give the legs a brief rest.

We roll back to Freshwater, then to Yarmouth on the old railway line cycle path and make our way to the shaded garden of the Chessell Pottery Cafe.

Chessell Pottery is one of the most bike-friendly cafe stops on the island, and is run by Mark, a passionate cyclist himself. They have an on-site tool station and even host their own ‘Isle of Wight Bike Day’. We tuck into burgers, followed by cake and local Island Roasted coffee to fuel up for the rest of the ride.

Reinvigorated by our hearty lunch but with heavily laden stomachs, we’re grateful for the relatively easygoing trails of Brighstone Forest after leaving the cafe. We’re also thankful for the shade the trees provide.

The summer sun, now at its high point in the sky above, has sent temperatures soaring. As Jack – who might be slightly biased – reminds us, though, the Isle of Wight is the ‘sunniest place in Britain’.

Past the trig point at the top of Brighstone Down, we continue heading back eastwards along the chalky ridgelines of Cheverton Down, Shorwell Down and Chillerton Down. With dry ground beneath our tyres the going is good, and the kilometres tick past rapidly. But for every Down, there is always an up.

Hoy Monument looms in the distance as we contrive to hit the hottest part of the day just in time for the road to tilt towards the sky.

The climb to the lollipop stone tower is a twisting and technical ascent, with sizeable rock slabs and slippery clay to negotiate. Jo is in her element and flies off the front of our trio. After considering all the evidence, we determine that this can only be down to the extra chunk of Rocky Road she ate at the cafe.

Down from the Down, we head along the Undercliff Road to Ventnor. This beautiful coastal stretch is now almost completely traffic-free after a landslide a few years ago took out much of the road, leaving just a narrow path that can only be negotiated by bike or on foot. The shaded, twisting tarmac is a few kilometres of brief respite before the next ascent lumbers into view.

‘Down Lane’ is an ironic labelling of a road that goes anything but downwards. Two years ago I ‘Everested’ this climb for charity (38 times from sea level to summit) yet today, ascending the road just once is challenge enough.

The relaxed stretch to Ventnor had allowed my pale blue jersey to dry with a new camouflage pattern made by the salty patches from my heavy sweating, but by the time I reach the gravel road at the crest of Down Lane it’s wringing wet once more, evidence of my efforts and the searing heat.

 

Adrenaline junkies

We continue to traverse the top of Wroxall Down on the wide-open chalk paths until our route veers to the right and plummets down a gully-like trail to Shanklin. It’s fair to say this descent pushes the definition of ‘gravel’ to its limits, straying close to mountain bike territory, being steep and rock-strewn in parts.

Our gravel bikes are tested as much as our nerves and when we reach the tarmac below both Jo and Jack glance at me with eyes wide. The spike of adrenaline you get from being on that fine line between exhilaration and falling off is all part of the off-road experience. It’s what draws you in.

The road continues down towards the sea at Shanklin and then we turn back inland onto a shady abandoned railway track towards the majestic ruins of Appuldurcombe House. Sandy paths then take us back towards the centre of the island where we join the Sustrans cycle-path that runs from Cowes to Sandown.

We follow this easy downhill trail all the way to the small hamlet of Alverstone before weaving our way through the lanes towards the final substantial climb of the day, Culver Down.

By this stage the chatter within our trio has become somewhat more muted, so I try to reinvigorate tired bodies with the promise of ice cream at the monument summit.

It seems to do the trick, and it’s not long before we’re all licking the remnants of sticky ice cream from our hands, having lost the battle of trying to eat it before it melted. The view we are staring at is of the quiet calm of Sandown Bay, with its many moored ships that we ponder the onwards destinations of.

The embankment of Bembridge Harbour is another opportunity to gaze upon many sailing boats as we weave around the sheltered bay. With the sun now dropping in the sky the scene is a beautiful one, the backdrop now more softly lit, the sea shimmering peacefully.

There is an audible sigh of relief on reaching the top of St Helen’s Hill when I mention it is all downhill to the finish. It has been a long, dusty day, and our altimeters are nudging towards 2,000m climbed.

A stunning golden glow meets us as we rumble back onto Ryde Esplanade. Unclipping at the shore we prop our bikes against the sea wall and wade out into the sandbank shallows, the fatigue we feel from the heat turning into a warm glow of satisfaction. Sun, sea and superb riding… the Isle of Wight has delivered once again.

Ticket to Ryde

Our route up, down and around ‘The Island’

 

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/or4/wight. From Ryde Esplanade, head west on the coastal path to Wootton Creek, then turn south. Climb up the sandy path of St George’s Down before descending into Carisbrooke and out onto the chalk ridgeline of the Tennyson Trail.

Head west through Brighstone Forest and onto the steep ascent of Afton Down, then descend into Freshwater Bay. Continue to the most westerly point of the Isle of Wight, The Needles. Return to Freshwater, then go to Yarmouth on the old railway line cycle path before heading off-road again into Brighstone Forest to rejoin the Tennyson Trail in the opposite direction.

The hills come in abundance in the second half. The climb up to Hoy Monument is the first big challenge, then it’s onto Stenbury Down and St Boniface Down.

The final quarter is a more relaxed mix of sandy paths, cycleways and disused railway tracks, taking you to Culver Down in the east. After completing this final monument it is almost all downhill to the ice cream stall back on Ryde Esplanade to finish. 

The rider’s ride

 

Kinesis G2, £1,500, kinesisbikes.co.uk

The UK-designed and developed Kinesis G2 is an aluminium-framed gravel bike focussed on offering great value. Its performance on this ride was more than enough proof that it is capable of taking on serious off-road adventures.

The Sram 1x drivetrain has sufficient range to tackle some very steep technical ascents, while the tubeless-ready wheels and tyres were tough enough to take the punishment the trails dished out.

The bike felt balanced and stable on the high-speed chalk descents and the wide, flared handlebar was a welcome feature to allow extra control from the drops, especially when descending the gully trail to Shanklin.

The G2 has plenty of mounting options for bags and racks to ensure a self-sufficient tour is well within its capabilities too. All in all, you get a lot of gravel bike for less than a pair of posh carbon road wheels.

 

Do it yourself

Getting there

The easiest and fastest way to get to the Isle of Wight with a bicycle is by using the Wightlink Fast Cat service between Portsmouth Harbour Train Station and Ryde Pier Head. There are also ferry connections between Lymington and Yarmouth, Portsmouth and Fishbourne, and Southampton and Cowes or East Cowes.

Accommodation

There is no shortage of places to stay on the Isle of Wight, but lifeinthesaddle.cc offers local knowledge and advice for the best cycling-friendly accommodation, as well as a guide to alternative cafe and pub stops plus info on other off-road tours on the island.

Thanks

Our thanks go to Wightlink Ferries for help with travel to and from the island, to Chessell Pottery Cafe for a splendid lunch and Island Roasted Coffee for keeping us caffeinated throughout the ride. Thanks also to Wight Mountain cycle shop in Newport and Wight Cycle Hire in Yarmouth for their mechanical assistance.