It’s been a couple of weeks since I busted my ankle playing cricket, but luckily I’m still able to ride my bike as I’d been looking forward to a short cycling holiday to the Isle of Wight with Helen – including a visit to my 33rd county top.
St. Boniface Down is its highest point, and fortunately for me the summit can be accessed by road as well as the multitude of footpaths from surrounding villages. We planned a route covering much of the eastern side of the island, and set off with some trepidation from our lovely Airbnb knowing that the tough climb from sea level to 241m would be one of the longest and hardest hills either of us had attempted on two wheels.
The first thing you notice about the village of Ventnor is the almost cliff-like gradient to which many of its houses and shops cling, with the outskirts of the village looming overhead like a collection of shepherds huts high up an alpine valley. It’s rather at odds with the rolling downland of the rest of southeast England and gives some indication why this climb is known as the “Ventnor Alpe d’Huez”. Heading from the beach into the village centre the first obstacle is the ferociously steep Shore Hill, with its hairpin bends through manicured gardens and gradients of over 25%. Mercifully this torture is short-lived as the road levels out past the shops.
Now the road climbs more steadily out of town, but a right turn brings us onto the zig-zags and four more hairpins. It’s tough but rideable at an average of 8-10%, but the insides of each switchback are much steeper. At the top of this section we are caught up behind a reversing truck on Ocean View Road, giving our heart rates a welcome chance to settle before continuing on our way.
The final challenge is a road worthy of an article in itself, which features in the book Another 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs: Down Lane, rising 98m over 1.4km at an average gradient of 7% (with ramps of 25%). For us this would be hard work if attempted with fresh legs, but with over 140m already gained and an impatient driver close behind it’s enough to finish us off and we are reduced to the walk of shame on the steepest section.
The last few hundred metres from the trig to the true high point (within the fenced confines of the radar station) are much easier, and we sprint to the car park finish where we meet a man with many dogs, only some of which want to be put back on the lead:
Charmed by his stories of a former life as a hobby cyclist and legs refreshed, we descend with due caution to the bottom of Down Lane and head away from our little boathouse towards a coffee stop in Newport. I hope to be back one day to take part in the Southern Fell Running Championships, where I’ll be able to charge up on foot… If only my damn ankle will stop aching!
Start: Ventnor, Isle of Wight
Map: OS Explorer 29 (Isle of Wight)