I had sailed the waters surrounding the island in my youth as part of nautical family holidays on the South Coast of England. My most recent visit was the first time I had set foot ashore to visit family friends on the island.
'After numerous bottles of Prosecco that Ben, Dad and I decided that we would participate in the 2016 Round the Island Randonnee...'
It was on one of these visits, after numerous bottles of Prosecco that Ben, Dad and I decided that we would participate in the 2016 Round the Island Randonnee – An event kindly organised by volunteers that follows the Isle of Wight Way bicycle route and circumnavigates the island for a total of 100km.
Anyone who has read any of my previous posts may be aware that in an effort to train and better our cycling selves Ben & I are trying to complete at least one 'adventurous' ride a month in 2016. With the inclusion of a circumnavigation, and a ferry crossing, we felt this qualified. Dad, also training for the Surrey Ride 100, would join us too. This would be his longest ride to date, having only taking up cycling at the start of the year (See 'Kingswear – Slapton') and surpassing our last ride together by thirty kilometres.
I was respectful of the distance but mostly excited by the idea of a 'nice day out,' with three or so century rides under my bibs already this year, I felt the distance was within my abilities. I didn't realise that the ride would include the most climbing I have achieved in one ride of my cycling thus far.
The Isle of Wight Randonnee is an annual event organised by the Wayfarer Touring Club and follows the Round-The-Island cycle route for a 100km circular route around the coast of the Isle of Wight. Each participant registers for the event before showing up on the day to one of six checkpoints on the route. They must then ‘check in’ at each of the check points before finally returning to their start point. No contemporary GPS or app check ins here – the riders are each given a piece of card that is stamped at each checkpoint by one of the gracious volunteers. Suitably low tech for an event that started in 1985. Each year the route alternates between a clock wise and anticlockwise orientation. This year we would be pursuing our stamps in a clockwise direction – a fact that was only firmly established by our party at the eleventh hour due my poor reading skills/memory.
I arrived on the island Saturday mornings after having had a few more beers and few less hours sleep that I would have liked. I was able to raise myself from my bed and out of the door thanks a fortunate dose of foresight – packing for departure on the the preceding Thursday night. With a short ride to London Bridge I was on the train headed to Portsmouth. In a unexpected, pleasant turn of events the train was on time, with plenty of space for my bike, without the usual disgusted surprise that I have experienced in the past when transporting my bicycle by train. A good omen perhaps?
Before long I was on the ferry across the solent to Ryde Pier where my Sister, Ben (my companion for most of my recent bicycle adventures) and My nephew would pick me up for the final leg of my trip to the southern coast of the Isle of Wight. The last time I visited Ryde the weather was much more wintery, so riding down it with a cup of coffee (that had eluded me since waking up some three hours earlier) in glorious sunshine was an extremely pleasant experience. I even had time to bask in the sun for a while on the Ryde sea front before my ride further south arrived.
That evening I spent catching up with family over some local fish & chips with a few beers and customary glasses of Prosecco. Discussion of the distance ahead of us wasn’t far from conversation and more often than not focussed on the considerable amount of gradients on an island that I perceived to be mostly flat. As the evening drew in we all retired to bed after agreeing that we would start our campaign at 09:00 the next day whilst a rather large slab of pork cooked in the oven to provide both incentive and a hearty meal to aide recovering muscles. As with any big ride I was restless and anxious to get started. However with growing experience I have tried to channel these nerves into excitement and try to enjoy the moment. After all, it’s a pretty exciting feeling and is becoming quite addictive.
The following morning Ben & I gathered our riding gear for the day and had a final once over with the bikes (with a touch of chain lube for good measure) whilst we waited for Dad to arrive from his B & B. Our breakfast was a bowl of ‘overnight-oats’ that Ben had recommended the night before, which I am yet to be convinced by, followed by a good helping of bananas – a classic ride day breakfast. Once Dad had arrived we all loaded into the car for the short drive to the registration point which would also serve as our start/finish line for the day.
As we all unloaded from the car I was relieved that spirits were high. I was trying to maintain a high level of optimism and confidence that this should be a fun day out on the bike rather than a gruelling test of endurance. I had been on rides with Ben that had questioned my motives in riding and come through the other side more in love with the sport and both Dad's experience and enthusiasm was growing each time I saw him. Just a couple of weekends prior I had taken him out on one of my favourite London loops into the Surrey countryside, a route that I would have found difficult only just last year and he had breezed through it. After only a couple of months of 'serious' cycling under his belt this could be a test, but one I was confident that he could smash out. With everyone smiling and keen to get started, we waved goodbye to my Sister and started rolling down the road. Soon we took our first left onto the Round-The-Island-Way and we had begun. One hundred and six kilometres and over five hours later we would return to Whitwell, but we had a whole load of riding to do before then.
I had previously studied the routes profile online and via previous riders efforts and deduced that there would be two 'serious' climbs to tackle on the day. The second looked like a pretty tricky double hitter, but first we would have a decent climb at consistent gradient pretty much right from the start. Bring it on. We had fresh legs, fresh minds and we were in need of a warm up.
The road settled into a steady incline as we chatted amongst ourselves, not rushing into any serious pace this early on. I knew from my earlier reconnaissance of the route that we would top out to a view over the bay and was excited to gaze over the sea for the first time on the ride. A feeling echoed by Ben when he predicted with confidence that we would see the sea 'just over this next rise.' He was right. As we crested the hill we were treated to a stunning panorama of the East coast of the Isle of Wight, all the way up to the headland at 'The Needles.' As we stopped for a moment at the top to appreciate the view we were greeted by fellow riders who struck up conversation with 'what a view huh?' and 'lovely day for it!' This was a great contrast to Ben & I's last ride together where the few isolated souls we met seemed to look on us with utter confusion or pitying smiles. We were out riding in beautiful scenery and for the first time this year the weather was able to match it.
With my jaw still held firmly open by the vistas we descended rapidly through sweeping roads until we took a slight diversion inland to sample some of the many beautiful lanes The Isle of Wight would offer us that day. Open lanes threading through picturesque villages urged us into a brisk pace to continue revealing the next view around the bend. Each time we rounded a corner we all repeated to ourselves how beautiful the scenery was. I was becoming increasingly excited to be riding my bike.
We rejoined the coast road just in time to catch a glimpse of what was to come. The second climb of the day was the double hitter. We could see the road dip into a valley before rising on the other side, twice before the summit. It appeared to be carved right out of the cliff side. We all agreed to see each other on the other side and set about tackling the climb in our way.
The first pitch was a comfortable rise drawn out in front of us, with no hidden surprises. We could set our selves a rhythm – sit and spin. I was still so infatuated with the scenery I dropped back to take a few photos, only to realise Ben's form and pace as I tried to catch back onto his wheel. We re-grouped at the summit of the first pitch to catch our breathe before tackling the more dramatic looking second half. It was here that the first of the days 'red mist' descended on me. I would later discuss this phenomenon with that we all apparently shared, but for now I was concentrating on my own personal mission of justice.
This isn't my first episode of illogical red mist affliction, and I doubt it will be the last. It occurs when for some reason a switch is flicked in my brain and I manage to construct a bitter rivalry between myself and another cyclist. Now I must state that these cyclists are rarely deserving of such ferocious, focused competitiveness and to be honest they are rarely even aware of my presence. But in my mind I have forged a back story rivalry that has been born out of the most minor of events. This particular epic battle was sparked by good old fashioned bike lust, followed by an unfounded stubbornness to prove Susan (#MyBikeSusan) was just as good as a 'few' thousand pounds worth of carbon super bike. With my target acquired I descended to the base of the second pitch with aggression in order to get myself within reach of my prey. I then set myself into a brisk cadence, dancing out of the pedals at any sign of my legs slowing. In my head I was attacking on an alpine ascent, in reality I was rising steadily up an A-road. But I felt strong and I was enjoying the challenge. As I crept closer and closer to the wheel of my adversary I was preparing for my glorious attack and overtake. Finally the moment came. I dropped a cog, raised out of the saddle and stamped on the peddles, throwing the bars left and right with purpose. I sailed past my rival turning my head as I did. This was it, my moment, I had beaten my arch nemesis, who was totally unaware of any animosity between us. I offered a friendly 'good morning' to my fellow rider and continued to the top.
This whole thing was in my head, of course it was. I had never met this guy before and the competitiveness was all internal. I had no great road rivalries but feeling strong on a climb and setting a target feels good. As I mentioned I later found out that I am not alone my road theatrics, Ben also confided that he too is susceptible to a dose of red mist mind games. I was glad I wasn't the only one...
Once we were all through our personal experiences on the climbs we headed back in land and returned to the narrow lanes and picturesque little villages. We all participated in some window shopping for a house, weighing up their benefits and draw backs against their location on the island – and inevitably I followed each candidate with the exclamation, ‘You know how little you would get in London for that!?’ Each time I shook my head and my yearning for a life next to the sea grew. I love London, but I can’t not see the sea in my future.
With the distractions of House shopping help whisk away the miles we rounded the North of the island. Taking in a surprise bit of off roading in between. I seem to be taking Susan offload more frequently recently. Each time I think to myself, ‘why don’t more people do this on their road bikes? It’s so much fun!’ Susan often surprises me in her versatility and ability to soak up most of my foolish decisions. Even giving me the odd ‘ok, that’s enough now’ when I push it a little far – today it was trying to clear one too many speed bumps in a single bunny hop – with a sharp metallic protest from Susan I decided I should settle down and get back to business.
Whilst Susan is more often than not up to the challenge, apparently I was becoming a little complacent in my abilities. As I pulled up to a junction to allow us all to re-group I leant on my top tube nonchalantly, as is instructed in ‘The Rules.’ Momentarily I forgot the basic principles of physics and placed the majority of my resting weight on the foot still clipped into the pedals. As my momentum shifted it became apparent that this was only ever going to go south. Instead of accepting my fate and living with the consequences I flailed wildly reaching out and trying to gain balance on anything I could while desperately trying to pivot my foot out of the pedal. Unfortunately the only thing I could find was Ben. In one fail swoop I took him out. Maybe it was the Red Mist again, I saw how well he had tackled the earlier climbs, maybe I was resorting to dirty tactics to gain an advantage in the secret race that no one mentioned existed. Either way I somehow managed to avoid any injuries other than that done to my pride, where as Ben rose with a rather nasty gash on his knee. He shrugged it off but I was pretty mortified that my idiotic blunder could have finished his day. Lesson learned, and my apologies go to Ben.
Next stop, Cowes and the Chain Ferry to East Cowes. I had been to Cowes before by sea, sailing into the port and to my recollection, not actually leaving the boat to step ashore. This time the tables had turned. I was arriving on land, briefly traveling by boat to the other side. This was the first time in the journey that we joined a large mass of cyclists. Prior to this we had met one or two along the way, but seeing everyone gathered together to make the crossing brought a smile to my face. The ferry operators reserved an entire lane to accommodate the extra pedal traffic, so putting bikes first and above motor traffic. This of course makes sense for a weekend where there are thousands more cyclists than an average day on the island, but it was nice to see none the less.
Once on the other side of Cowes we returned our attention to the road and clocking up the kilometres. At this point we were over half way according to my Garmin, named ‘Shelby.’ I often find that this knowledge can either make or break the ride. Either the knowledge that you still have so far to go weighs on you, or the news that you’ve already completed half the distance elevates the spirits. Thankfully it appeared that the latter as true on this occasion. It was hard no to be jubilant. We were out on our bikes in glorious weather exploring a beautiful island via unknown roads.
Whilst I was thinking about this as we left Cowes, I was caught napping, by my Dad! He surged forward with a burst of energy to accelerate past a number of riders in an un-arranged peloton leaving Cowes. This attack took me by surprise, it would appear that there was plenty of energy left in the Old Man yet. I relished the opportunity for a little sprint and dropped a cog to catch him. As I pulled alongside him to enquire what had caused such an event it turned out that he had had a dose of his own red mist and simply had to pass someone who had passed him earlier. In an extremely friendly cycling event we had each ignited a competitiveness from within ourselves to push ourselves further. Our trio of cyclists were becoming more like cyclists with every ride, and this excited me.
Despite our bursts of speed and internal competition the Randonnee is a non-competitive event designed for everyone. We met the full range of cyclists on our way around the island. There were club racers who were focussed on beating the clock on one end of the spectrum and families out for a day in the sun on the other. There was even a echelon of tandem bikes whose high spirits were a welcome boost during the latter parts of the ride.
It was in the latter parts of the day that I needed the boost in moral. I thought my legs felt good but they had other ideas. My old friend cramp started to rear it’s ugly head around the 80km mark. This is something that I find deeply frustrating, and provides me with my darkest moments in cycling. The feeling of utter uselessness that happens when your mind is willing but your legs seise up and drag you to a stand still. It’s humbling and a steep learning curve, but I am getting better. Rather than allow it to ruin an otherwise fantastic days riding I gave the cramp the attention it was craving, not through suffering but by acknowledging it. This has come from experience but stopping and stretching out the problem allowed me to continue in the form that I felt able of.
I often introvert at these points, blaming myself and shaming my abilities. But this time our micro peloton were with me, and with their support I nursed the cramps into submission. This is why we ride in groups. Despite our moments of seclusion that we cherish in our riding, cycling is a team sport. It’s those we surround ourselves in riding that give us our strength. In recent revelations it’s a nice reminder that the cycling community is a good one, and one that I will champion.
As we push on the kilometres ticked ever closer to the magical century. I was aware that we were getting close to achieving our target distance but still felt very much in the deep countryside of the Isle of Wight with no recognisable landmarks calling us home. I started to become worried. We had been using a combination of the signposted Round-The-Island-Way signs, fellow riders and Shelby (My Garmin) to guide us around the island, but could it be possible that we took a wrong turn? I didn’t think we had…but I kept my worry to myself as I wanted to be sure. Obviously I wasn’t the only one thinking we must be close by now, as Ben concluded that we must be arriving back at Whitwell through the side lanes, and soon we would be turning right onto the home stretch of main road. However, that turn didn’t arrive for a while.
We rolled past the 100km mark and still we followed the route Shelby was telling us. Then we rolled into the top of Ventnor. We had known that we would be entering the higher reaches of Ventnor towards the end of the ride. In fact we had even bookmarked it as a landmark sign that we were almost home. But we had convinced ourselves of our own theories that the end was ‘just around the corner.’ Onwards then, after all, it was still a beautiful day, but the hunger had started. I was ready for some pulled pork and a glass of proesecco or two.
It was a shame that my mind was wondering to food and drink, the lanes back to Whitwell would have been considered real gems if I were riding them elsewhere, it was unfair that they were being endured rather than enjoyed. But my mind had already gone.
Finally we turned right and joined a familiar main road. We were on the home stretch. I had recently consumed all but one of my energy gels, and they were starting to kick. This combined with the tangible finish line caused me to up the pace. The red mist had descended again. No one was timing this, no one cared but me, but I wanted to finish the ride strong. As I concentrated on setting a rhythm my mind was on the village sign. It is an un-written rule that one should contest each village sign with a sprint. At this point I was alone out front, but still I sprinted. On the drops I pushed the pedals around until the village sign came into sight. This was it, I checked my imaginary rivals and timed my attack. Raising out of the saddle I pushed hard, raising the tempo and my heart rate. Gritting my teeth I forced myself to bury my suffering and sprinted for the line. As I flew past the sign I had to stop myself raising my arms, I had gotten caught up in my own fantasy, but I was aware that I was insight of both the finish line and my sister waiting by the car to give us a lift home. Having to explain that I was performing a victory salute to the imaginary crowds in my head felt like it would be pretty embarrassing.
Ben rolled in shortly behind me and we stood to wait for Dad. I wanted us all to end this together so we waited until we were all together to share the elation of the end. We all embraced each other and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. Once we had gotten our card stamped for the final time, completing the set, we fell into the car to be delivered to cold showers, a feast of pork and recovery prosecco.
The weekend had been a massive success. We had all taken the ride in our stride. But it was never about the challenge, this wasn’t a race. Despite our individual competitions and bouts of red mist descent the day had been about riding together and exploring the beautiful Isle of Wight. This is why I ride, this is why I will continue to ride.
Words & Pictures — Jack Sadler