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Trial Of Wight

VecchioJo does the Isle of Wight, twice.

Standing at the start I look down at my bar-tape and a section on the left-hand side just on the curve above the brake hood is tatty and ragged where it was clawed by an angry dangling bramble during ride over a week ago. Normally this would irritate me to the point of itchy-fingernails anxiety, can’t start a ride with scruffy bar-tape, it’s just not done, I even have some new tape with which I could have rectified the situation and frankly I’m quite disappointed with myself. But right now I have bigger worries on my mind.

I’m astride my cyclo-cross bike listening the pre-ride briefing of a 90km off-road ride, which is a reasonable undertaking in itself. The trouble is I’m doing a 100 mile road ride tomorrow. On the same bike. Hmmmmm. I stop looking at the annoying tape and look at my shoes. Hello shoes. They’re clean and well presented. This calms my heart.

My issues and I are on the Isle of Wight for the Wight Riviera Weekend, two days of cycling on the island catered to suit all kinds of riders. On the Saturday there’s the Big Wight Enduro, a tour of the island’s finest off road riding with route options from 25km to 90km while Sunday is host to the Wight Riviera Sportive, a road ride with 163km, 121km  & 65km distances to choose from, with the first 25km being on closed roads. In addition to these more serious rides there’s Beach to Beach 10km pootle from Yarmouth to Freshwater Bay for families and kids and ice-creams on cycle-ways and quiet roads and the Wight Riviera Ride which just takes in the 25km of closed roads on the Sunday. All good fun, but because I’m an idiot I’m doing the full-fat versions of both the Enduro and the Sportive.

I took part in the Wight Riviera Sportive last year, and had a jolly fun if a little tiring time and at the finish the organizer, knowing that I’m not averse to a bit of dirty action suggested that I might quite like attempting the off-road and road double next time, maybe even on the same bike, just to add spice. Giddy on endorphins, tiredness and a sausage sandwich I agreed. Obviously a year later this is a silly idea, despite acquiring the perfect bike for the occasion in the interim; my Litespeed CX bike with discs and untidy bar-tape. The bike is more than capable but the rider is less than willing. I shouldn’t be scared, I’ve done day-on-day rides before and I’ve crossed mountain ranges but my back pocket is filled with excuses as to why fitness isn’t as honed as I’d like it to be. Experience mixed in with a few ladles of determination will have to see me through. Let’s rely on that.

I go to sign on, pick up a route map and my spirits lift, this doesn’t look so hard after all. Unfortunately I’m holding a map of just the western half of the island in my hand and I’m presented with another piece of paper with the second half of the 90km route on. Ah. Best get a coffee then. To warm legs up the first couple of miles are south along the disused railway path and quiet country roads to Freshwater, then an arrow points riders left into the first effort of the day. As first climbs go the long steady pull up Compton Down isn’t too bad, the sun’s out and the last minute decision to swap from a long-sleeved jersey to a short-sleeved version for the first time this year is suddenly a very good one. A drawn-out string of mountainbikers is dotted up the hill, transcribing the route with knees at ten-to-two, and if you can take your eyes off your slowly rotating front wheel and ponderously approaching summit views are all around, especially the postcard one at our backs of The Needles.

I’m vaguely familiar with the off-road qualities of the Isle Of Wight, I’d ridden the 14 Hills Killer off-road orienteering event previously for fun, a route that runs from west to east along the lumpy spine of the island, and then back again, and this previous knowledge of the character of the hills certainly helps as the Wight Enduro covers a lot of the same trails. Knowing that it was easy to get carried away at the start because the hills are sort of easy and finish surprisingly tired as the relentless frequency of those hills takes it’s toll helped temper any excitement in the legs. As did constantly reminding myself I had a long day tomorrow to look forward to. Steady away, steady away. While I was faffing at the start "Got to Have Your Love" by Mantronix wafted out of the PA, a song I’d probably not heard since it was in the Top 10 over twenty years ago, possibly for the best. For unkind reasons the oddities that reside inside my head decided to make the tune an earworm on constant loop, but just the catchy bassline. Doo, doop, doop, doo, doo, doop, doop. Purely coincidentally it’s just the right tempo for a survivable all-weekend cadence and it ends up on constant rotation in the mental jukebox on every climb. Doo, doop, doop, doo, doo, doop, doop.

Despite being Down South where it’s well known to be Flat the Isle of Wight certainly packs in its hills, the Big Wight Enduro route is relentlessly up-and-down and then up again; steep, short, long, draggy, you name it, it has it. The trails it covers are mostly okay on a cyclo-cross bike despite the incredulous looks from mountainbikers, there’s not much angry rock to smash down, the skinnier tyres make the climbs less sticky, and there’s a lot of fast-rolling grassy or hardpacked trail to cover which are definitely speedier on a ‘cross bike, as are the tarmac sections, obviously. There is however a lot of baked-hard horse-chopped trail which does require a certain amount of gritted teeth dedication, a decent bottle cage and hanging on as best you can whilst your teeth rattle out and your ribs vibrate loose, especially when there’s mountainbikers around on 6” travel bikes ready to point and laugh. Some of the tracks require a particular deftness of wheel and tip-toe approach over the gulleys flints and stones, but I’m used to that hopeful blend of skill and prayer from years of riding inappropriate terrain on a ‘cross bike.

The island also has a lot of England crammed into a small area. The place seems to be slightly stuck in time, in a good way, the pace is definitely slower, it’s significantly quieter and despite the compactness of the island you can feel very much in the middle of nowhere and on a sunny day like today there are few nicer places to be on a bike. The mix of massive Vaughan Williams views across the blue sky Downs, narrow sunken lanes tunneled by ancient trees that link the villages, wide forest trails and paths through the folds in the hills keeps the ride interesting. As does the ridiculously steep climb out of Ventnor, it’s tarmac but with three black arrows stuck on it on the map it’s not to be taken lightly. I winch past people with mountainbike gearing pushing. Thankfully there’s a long slightly downhill curve all the way across the top of Shanklin Down to recover before the up-down-up-down returns. Doo, doop, doop, doo, doo, doop, doop.

I spend some time riding with two guys on carbon 29er mountainbikes that are keeping up a suitable pace, although hanging onto a fat cushiony 29er wheel off-road has its moments, it turns out they’re also doing the double-header of both rides, it’s nice to know there’s someone else just as stupid as me, but they’re switching from mountainbikes to proper road bikes for tomorrow’s 100 miles, which is cheating, according to the rules I’ve just made up.

Leaving the feed station for the second time it’s a relief to know that we’re taking the quick way back over the hills we’d taken the wiggly way over to get here first time through, even if that does mean it’s straight into a gummy wind. There’s a gaggle of riders in Shorwell pausing for breath before the final push and the tarmac climb up through the wild garlic is steeper than it needs to be for everyone. Turn left and it’s an interminable drag up Limerstone Down, and despite the map suggesting there’s a lovely view at the top I don’t remember that bit. A fast descent off the other side, over the road and straight into the climb of Mottistone Down, which wasn’t supposed to be in the way, still, there’s a selection of lycra carrots to catch up the hill to make myself feel better, and the final steep grunt up Brook Down and onto Compton Down has me wishing for a few more teeth on the back, but I refuse to push on the last hill of the day. A swift “don’t puncture now” final descent and warm down twiddle back to Yarmouth is enough for my sufficiently tired legs, and the rest of my body is aching satisfactorily from the battering it’s received over the rutted terrain, but I’ve felt a lot worse. Cup of tea in the sunshine, sausage bap, can of fizzy pop, banter with fellow cyclists. Good day. Part One of Stupid. Done.

Back to the hotel, give the bike a quick scrub down courtesy of their boot-wash facility, swap wheels over to those with slick tyres on and then hunt down some food. The tea-rooms downstairs could only offer a pot of tea and a slice of cake as they were shutting, at 5 o’clock on a Saturday, and so a desperate stomach was forced to venture out into the island with that trepidation of a cyclist who doesn’t know where the good food is in between two big hungry days in the saddle and in need of a decent plate of energy. After some nervous panic looking in all the restaurant windows some pasta was found, but not quite enough, even with that large starter. Mild finger-nail itch anxiety. Again.

Thankfully there’s an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, which was abused in the way that only a cyclist knows how, although there was a noticeable slowing down in the replacement of the toast rack after the third refill. TripAdvisor have been informed. Cereal, bacon, eggs, toast, mushrooms, yoghurt, toast, banana, sausage, toast and beans were mechanically shoveled in whilst attention was fixed out of the window. All week I’d been pounding the refresh button on the ten open web weather pages, and none of them had anything other than wet to say for today and this morning’s view wasn’t showing any signs of change. In contrast to yesterday’s sunshine and short sleeves today could only promise the use of full Goretex. 100 tired hilly miles in the rain. Lovely. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

It’s not actually raining just yet but it’s the wrong shade of grey as a brass band sees the peloton off on the first 25kms of closed roads to the theme of The Great Escape. The pep-talk from the internal DS was to get through the day with as little damage as possible, don’t get over-excited and just suck wheels, six or so hours looking at bums basically. Those instructions last all of about 200 metres until the usual sportive survival instinct kicks in and the urge to sprint away from the danger zone of those riders not used to riding in a group takes over from any long-term survival plans. Ooops.

The first proper hill of the day out from Freshwater Bay hurts. A lot. Tired and cold legs are reluctant to work but cracking them into submission and looking at the off-road route I did in the sunshine just to the left gets me to the top in a manner that won’t bother Strava. The first 25kms of the Wight Riviera Sportive are supposed to be ridden on closed roads, which is a nice touch, but despite plentiful signage and a constant stream of bikes in the way this doesn’t stop some of the locals from deciding that they absolutely have to pop out for the Sunday paper there and then, ignoring the best efforts of the marshals who were effectively powerless against a belligerent 4x4, although I did see one screaming at an old lady in a reasonably priced small car to not open her driver’s door into several hundred oncoming cyclists, so riders still had to keep their wits about them. Which was a real shame.

Initial loop survived in many ways there’s time for a quick refuel at the feed station, keep eating, keep eating for later, and last year’s knowledge reminds me that this next section is quite headwindy so I make an effort out of Newport to catch up to a useful looking group and tuck in. It’s all going well and I take polite turns on the front until the appearance of sportivists coming the other way lets us know we’ve gone wrong somewhere. Just like yesterday the group suffers from lost or deliberately torn down signage and the subsequent confusion as riders consult GPS’s and maps and herd uncertainty means everyone has a different idea as to which way is the right way and after the splintering I find myself with Tom, a tall cheerful rider on a Cannondale who doesn’t seem to mind me leeching on his wheel. I consider it a suitable tax for his bum-bag with flappy straps. He sets a cracking pace which I know is too fast but hold on anyway because his banter is good and I know that the day will otherwise be a tedious trudge. Much later than I should have I discover that he’s only doing the medium length course. Oh. Smile and hang on. Smile and hang on.

There’s a brief stop to check that a girl that’s hit the tarmac thanks to some gravel on a left turn just after Shorwell is okay. She’s mostly unharmed but her face is well exfoliated and there are holes down the left-hand side and a torn Rapha jersey, which alone probably means the ride has officially gone Epic. To reinforce the point it’s about now that the rain announces its interest in the day, bollocks, yet despite all the weather forecasts predicting a full-day-heavy-wet-crapfest the fact that it never proceeded further than chunky drizzle, and warm drizzle at that was almost a positive even if waterproofs had to be deployed from there on in.

At the next feed I have to say goodbye to my cheerful domestique as the route splits between the medium and the long, thanks Tom. The divide means I spend at least the next ten miles alone as the full route is significantly less enticing today, can’t think why that might be, so I settle into a steady but meaningful pace, enjoy the quiet roads and doo, doop, doop, doo, doo, doop, doop to myself to keep tempo. The cyclo-cross gearing on the Litespeed helps with weary legs, both on the climbs and the need to keep the knees happily spinning rather than grinding as slamming it into the 53 on my road bike would tempt me to. I play leapfrog, slowly reel in any bobbing lycra up ahead, shamelessly suck on their wheels for a bit, maybe have a bit of a chat, crack on. Repeat.

I have hills stuck in my thigh memory from last year that I am wary of as I approach and then gladly tick them off to mark the passing of the day. That long drag up the valley that steepens at the very top as it runs out of hill, the long sinewy road up Ashey Down, the short sharp ramp up The Shute to Newchurch, the weary rise into the wind to Blackgang, and the Military Road, oh, the misery of the Military Road that only leads to the evil sting up Brighstone Down and not forgetting the final two cheeky climbs up Shippards Chine and Compton Down just when you think it’s all over, and those are just the ones I remember standing out in 2300 metres of climbing.

The last gasps of both the 100 miles and the riders wiggle and weave around the western tip of the island to make the distance up to the full century as last year’s ride fell short of OCD happiness by a couple of clicks, plenty of unsporting sportivists have had enough though and are cutting corners wherever they can just to get home because they don’t care about such important things. As if by some miracle the sun has broken through for the day’s last hurrah and the final six or seven miles are done in that delicious ecstasy of knowing that I had ridden myself completely empty but was close enough to the finish to push it hard and rinse myself even further. Full gas round the closing twisty sun-dappled lanes until the legs went piff, recover for a minute, go full speed again, implode, laugh. At the finish I collapse on the same bit of ground as yesterday with a free cup of tea and muffin, sausage sandwich and can of Fanta again, legs dirtier than they were at the end of yesterday’s off-road jolly, grimy with road filth and a patina of tiredness. I pat the bike, good adaptable beastie. Part Two of Stupid. Done. Dusted. Tick.

In two big rides over a weekend I think I’ve covered the best of what the island has to offer in terms of both tarmac and trails, I must have, there can’t be anything left. With one nice day in the sun and one long grey damp tired day it wasn’t Epic, apart from the Rapha incident, I didn’t go on A Journey, apart from on a ferry, and I didn’t get a medal, although I did get a t-shirt and a free muffin. It was none of those things required to make a good story; it was just a bit hard. Once in a while it’s good to do something that scares you a little bit when you’re stood at the start, if only to discover that it doesn’t actually kill you. Probably.

And if you have shabby bar-tape you’d better be doing something worthwhile to overcome it.

Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.

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