Who needs Ibiza when you've got the Isle of Wight? Our Oisin certainly seems convinced...
Meat eaters: you know the way sometimes you’re in a restaurant, and you really want the steak, but it’s £21.95 so you settle for a burger instead, and then it turns out to be the best burger you’ve ever tasted?
No? Well anyway, the cycling version of that just happened to me. I was supposed to be flying out to Ibiza to accompany a charity cycle guest-starring Pete Tong and John Frieda. I'd been looking forward to it all through this endless winter, but then: pow! Like a seagull splat from on high, the organisers wrote to say that freelance staff were being cut. No jaunt to Ibiza; no cycling in the sunshine; no sharing styling mousse tips with John Frieda on sweaty ascents of Mount Pacha. My life was ruined.
One rainy Thursday afterwards, browsing in the self-help section of the internet, I stumbled across something called the Isle of Wight Randonnee. What's a randonnee? Ah, a long bicycle ride… and taking place on the very same weekend as the Ibiza thing. A plan was starting to formulate – and best of all, entry was free. In your face, Frieda!
Three days later, my cycling accomplice Robbie and I were wheeling our bikes off the 9.00 a.m. Portsmouth ferry into Fishbourne. Our starting point was in Wootton, about a mile from the ferry. We warmed up along quiet rural lanes, gaping at road signs warning of rampant red squirrels. At the checkpoint we found a couple of small marquees in a field, busy with riders milling around filling water bottles, fettling bikes and trading familiar banter with officials in the tents. Robbie and I collected our route cards and instructions – the card would be stamped at each checkpoint, visa-style – and set off, keen to put some distance between us and any peckish squirrels.
The road wound gently through a pastoral medley of fields and hedgerows; our spirits were high. There were hundreds of cyclists spread out along the route, some cruising in leisurely groups, others speeding on low-slung racing bikes, and even a few tandems and a recumbent. Something about being on an island, in an Enid Blyton-style adventure with bicycles, cast a holiday spell over me.
"Sashaying onto the ferry/bridge with a couple of heavily laden waffle cones, it was impossible to stay mad with Cowes: we had reached dairy nirvana."
Oisin refuels after his Isle of Wight Randonee
Our first checkpoint was 15km down the road in Bembridge, where we stocked up on home-made rolls and refilled our bottles in the village hall. Cards duly stamped, we hit the road again, this time winding our way south along the island’s east coast towards our second checkpoint at Alverstone. The sun was burning off the last of the morning mist; it was turning into a gorgeous day for cycling. We joined a small group of fellow cyclists pulled up next to a police officer to find out what was happening. He explained there had been a cycle accident further around the road; the route was now being diverted.
We set off in a small group, hoping the cyclist was ok, and were soon greeted by glorious sea views on the approach into Sandown. Ahead of us lay miles of sandy beach curving towards a tree-lined headland; with the town shining white in the sunlight and the sparkling blue sea, we felt closer to St Tropez than Portsmouth. Any last residues of disappointment at missing Ibiza evaporated in the warm sunshine... While I was thinking about that, Robbie kindly pointed out that the sun was, in a more urgent sense, also searing my pasty skin a bright red. We pulled in by a beachside shop to grab some sunscreen.
Safely slathered in the official scent of summer, we were about to set off again when a cavalcade of thundering motorcycles rumbled down the road, ridden by what appeared to be the local Hell’s Angels chapter on their way to a beard convention. Weaving ourselves into the flow of impressive facial hair, we paraded slowly along Sandown’s main street. We were so distracted by the intoxicating aromas of petrol and leather that we forgot to look out for our turn-off to the Alverstone checkpoint. By the time we realised and checked our maps, we’d overshot by a good four miles.
Crisis! What to do? Well, we hadn’t come all the way to Squirrel Island to miss checkpoints: we turned back, found the right road and flew down a substantial hill to the village hall, knowing that in a few minutes we’d be sweating up that same hill to resume the route.
It was now a proper scorcher, but riding along the coast there was just enough breeze to keep us pleasantly cool. I found myself wishing my friends and family could be there, to share the pure joy of cycling in such beautiful scenery on a perfect spring day. Then we'd come to a hill, and as I shifted down through the gears and began to pant I generously broadened my invitation to include enemies. But even on the few cat 4 climbs, aching legs were quickly forgotten in the postcard-perfect vistas of clifftops, rolling hills and the inviting blue waters of the Channel.
We headed north again at last, a picturesque unpaved path through trees and wetlands leading us into Yarmouth. This was our lunch stop, but the volunteers at the checkpoint wrung their hands in apology. The riders ahead of us – those lycra-clad locusts – had wolfed down almost everything. They were ever so sorry, but all they had left for us was tea, and crisps, and chocolate, oh and some cake...would that possibly do?We stretched out on the grass to eat delicious cake and tan the undersides of our arms.
I’d been looking forward to Cowes all day, because my map notes had promised that here we would find something called a ‘floating bridge’ to convey us across that distinctive crack in the top of the island. A floating bridge! What would it be like? I was imagining something from Mario World requiring a well-timed leap; or perhaps some gephyrological wizardry involving paper bags full of helium, or seagulls.
But in fact, the floating bridge turned out to be nothing more than a mini ferry. What a swizz: I half considered packing it in right there, never mind the 90km we’d ridden already. But then I noticed a shrewd ice cream van pulled up alongside the queue. Sashaying onto the ferry/bridge with a couple of heavily laden waffle cones, it was impossible to stay mad with Cowes: we had reached dairy nirvana.
At the finishing post, the same volunteers were waiting with smiles and certificates. I asked, curious, what the difference was between a randonnee and a sportive. ‘Oh, sportives are…’ he considered his words. ‘They’re more serious, with people trying to ride a certain time. This is more…’
‘Relaxed?’ I suggested.
The Isle of Wight Randonnee may not be a sportive, and it's definitely not Ibiza – but if the sun is shining next May bank holiday, there's only one place I want to be.