My Randonnee track can be viewed on Google Maps (once I'd remembered to turn the GPS on! Many thanks to Martin Jones for setting this up.
Sunday April 30th dawned grey but dry. The drive to Southampton was easy, as it should be at 7:30 on a Sunday. Several events happening in Southampton meant that parking would be a problem later in the day, but not at the time we arrived. The process of unloading the bike and attaching all the bits was going smoothly when all of a sudden, something akin to the voice of doom boomed out across the docks. It came from the "Freedom of the Seas", the world's largest cruise ship, moored close to the ferry terminal. She is visiting Southampton for a few days. The announcement was completely unintelligable, but very loud. I said goodbye to Angela, and headed for the ferry terminal. There were no queues for tickets, so there was time for coffee and a chat with fellow riders. None of the people I met seemed to have done the ride before. However, a few knew it by reputation and there were dire warnings, absolutely accurate as it turns out, about the hills. The crossing was entirely smooth, and there was a chance to photograph the source of the voice of doom as we left.
The ferries themselves have a very characteristic, symmetric design which means they do not need to turn around. They have three car decks, but only two were in operation. Bikes are allowed on first and off first, but there is no special storage. It was just as well that the crossing was smooth, or there might have been a pile of very expensive machinery all over the deck.
The threatened showers never materialized, but the entire day was overcast and rather grey. Even so, the entrance to Cowes harbour on the west side still manages to be picturesque.
After leaving the ferry, finding the first checkpoint was easy. It took a few minutes to sign on and to get a route card. Riders have to collect stamps at each checkpoint. If you collect the full set, you receive a certificate and can purchase a badge commemorating the event. More on this later. At this point there was the small matter of 67 miles of cycling before that could happen. At this point, the dearth of further photos shows that I was very focused on the ride ahead. Actually I was so focused that I forgot to turn on my GPS , so for the first 7 miles I didn't collect any track data. Doh! Mental note to self to pay more attention to this on the end to end ride.
Riders get a pretty good indication of what is to come with the first climb out of Cowes. It's fairly steep, but what marks it out is the way it goes on and on. This is a feature of many of the climbs on the island. I made my first, and as it turned out, only map reading error within a couple of miles of the start. The exuberance of conquering the first hill and of passing a number of people on the way up led to me missing a turn and putting in a couple of extra miles and one additional climb. Luckily for me, when I rejoined the main route, I was behind some riders who knew where they were going so finding the checkpoint in Wooton was easy. One down, five to go. And I remembered to turn on the GPS. After Wooton, the route settles down into a series of sharp climbs and equally sharp descents which was to set the tone for most of the rest of the ride. The combination of bicycles and horses out and about were certainly causing some interesting traffic challenges for locals and tourists alike.
Shortly before Bembridge, the GPS proved its value for the first time. I'd met up with a couple of other riders and we were travelling in a rough convoy. We reached a road junction and after a few minutes adjusting brakes on one of the bikes, had to decide where we were and which way to go. Out with the Axim for a quick look at our track and with uncertainty dismissed we were off. The route around Bembridge harbour is flat and provides a welcome respite from hill climbing, albeit temporarily. Finding the Bembridge checkpoint was tricky, with the school location well hidden, and one sign missing. Helpfully, a stream of riders emerging from a side road provided the hint, and we found it with only a small overshoot. Two down, four to go.
Leaving Bembridge by a road that passes the airport, the GPS came into its own again. While making yet another ascent, another rider came alongside and asked if I'd found the checkpoint in Bembridge. We pulled over and out came the Axim again so I could show him exactly where it was. GPS 2, Getting Lost 0. After this pause in proceedings, I'd lost touch with the others so carried on alone on the relatively short stage to Alverstone. Again this involved much climbing and descending, with many of the ascents steep and long. My average speed while on the move was down to a worrying 11.3 mph by this stage. I started to be concerned that I might not make it back to Cowes before the final checkpoint closed. At Alverstone there was a chance to replenish water supplies on the bike, to go to the loo and, of course pick up the next stamp. Three down three to go.
I'd finally settled into a rhythm by this stage. The map reading was going fine and I felt in control. A bit of mental arithmetic showed that I ought to make it back to East Cowes between 5:30 and 6pm, in time for the all important final stamp and in time to catch the 6:30pm ferry. There were two memorable moments on the section between Alverstone and the next check point at Whitwell. First, was the chaos that cyclists were causing in Wroxall. The route rejoins the main road for a short climb through the middle of the town. The bicycles together wih cars parked down one side of the street had the whole place at a virtual standstill. The second moment was sweeping down into Ventnor off Wroxall Down, with a clear view of the channel to the south, while letting gravity do the work for a change.
The checkpoint at the church hall in Whitwell was selling chocolate bars. As it was nearly lunch time, I bought a couple, one for then, one for later. Stamp number four was duly claimed. Four down, two to go. I did at least remember to take a picture at this checkpoint. However, it completely fails to capture how busy it was with riders resting, getting checked in, arriving and leaving.
At Whitwell, the route divides. The shorter, 30 mile route heads directly back to East Cowes. But for the true masochist, the longer route strikes west. At Niton, it rejoins the main road that runs along the south coast of the island and shortly after, there is one more chance to let gravity take over and zoom back down close to sea level. After a couple of miles of main road, the route strikes inland through a series of villages. Once again, climbs follow in succession, but generally things are less brutal here than to the east of the island. A little after passing the mill at Yafford, it was time to devour a second chocolate bar. Fortunately, soon afterwards, supplies were replenished from a store in Brighstone. Shortly after, it was back onto the south coast main road and one of the most sever tests of the entire trip.
Around Compton bay, the main road has to ascend a substantial distance in two major climbs separated by a steep descent. Even though it passes through two cuttings and is straight, the gradient is steep and each climb seemingly unending. The wind was also against us. Some of the people who had passed me earlier on lightweight racing bikes were actually forced to get off and walk for portions of this climb. It was quite satisfying not to have to do that and to be able to pass them again on the way up! Once this challenging section was complete, things were much easier for the rest of the way into Yarmouth. The route takes to a track that runs alongside the Yar river and is virtually level. At this point we were also travelling down wind, so progress was rapid. Into the checkpoint at Yarmouth, and time for stamp number five. Five down, one to go. I celebrated by buying a cup of tea.
To be honest, the last section to Cowes was uneventful. Every turn to the south brought a strong headwind, and there were still hills to negotiate. But for the most part, the hardest work had already been done. Until I got to West Cowes, that is. The drop down to Gurnard is deceiving. The south coast of the mainland comes into clear view and you descend to sea level. The assumption that the route is now simply along the shore is soon dispelled with a steep climb. Descents and climbs follow in succession, with some of the steepest on the whole journey being saved for the last couple of miles. Even after the trip around Cowes Esplanade past Egypt Point, there are still a couple of brutish hills to negotiate before the final drop down to the floating bridge. At this point, the fact that I could see the ferry I was about to miss, still moored at the terminal, mattered not a jot. After the free trip on the floating bridge across the Medina which, by the way, was in full and frighteningly strong ebb, it was less than 100 metres back to the Cowes checkpoint. I collected the final stamp, my certificate and a badge.
Then it was just a question of waiting a few minutes for the 6:30pm ferry to arrive. It was definitely a welcome site for the tired cyclists assembled in the car park. Well, actually, most were in the pub opposite.
So that's it. The last major training outing, before the end to end ride starts in just over a week, is over. The equipment worked well, once I remembered to switch it on! The bike performed well, though I'll change the brake blocks and a gear cable before setting off and I'll clean and adjust everything one more time. I'm about as ready as I can be.