What makes the Isle of Man one of Britain’s best cycling spots?
Flat country lanes, tough climbs and everything in between, alongside unforgettable scenery, make the Isle of Man an incredible cycling destination. We ask the experts to take us through the best places to explore on two wheels.
Ask any cycling expert why the Isle of Man has produced so many riders of note and inevitably you’ll hear all about its tough terrain and climate. It's true that this island’s position in the Irish Sea means windswept coastal roads and fickle weather, but there are also miles of glorious countryside for visitors to feast their eyes on as they make their way round on two wheels.
The Isle of Man’s most famous cycling offspring, Mark Cavendish, aka the Manx Missile, hails it as one of his favourite places to ride a bike. For a small island that’s home to around 85,000 people and where nowhere is more than an hour’s drive away, there’s a surprisingly vast array of cycling options. Up in the north of the island, flat country lanes spill out onto sand dunes, while in the south, there’s a real mix of tough climbs, sweeping descents and quiet, single-track lanes. According to Cavendish, there’s around 300 miles of cycling-worthy road, not to mention the mountain bike and gravel routes, including a trail that runs along a former railway line linking the towns of Douglas and Peel.
For a taste of the hills, roads and diverse landscapes on offer, a circular route around the south of the island is a must, explains Richard Fletcher, founder of Isle of Man Cycle Tours. Starting off in the capital, Douglas, there are two popular options for pre-ride refuelling and bike hire, if needed: Bikestyle, a bike shop/cafe set in an aesthetically pleasing former market hall, and Cycle360, a one-stop shop for cycling, fitness and socialising.
Heading west, there’s the option to swing through the South Barrule Plantation, where a steady climb, framed by lofty pines, thickets of heather and dry stone walls, opens up onto Round Table Road, a high point with views stretching towards Peel on the west coast. A swift, winding descent (not for the faint-hearted) will bring riders into the picturesque fishing village of Port St Mary, where The Sugarloaf Cafe provides a welcome pit stop for lunch. As well as soups and sandwiches, the sizeable scones are a particular highlight. From there, it’s a pleasurable and peaceful winding route towards The Sound, a headland at the very southern tip.
The island, a self-governing British crown dependency, is famed for many things, but the marine life in its surrounding waters is one of its best natural highlights. Dolphins, seals and basking sharks can all be spotted out at sea. There can’t be many more scenic places to tuck into a golden flapjack and coffee beside your bike, as you spot seals bobbing in the waves or sunbathing on the rocks. Once you’ve soaked in the sights and refuelled, it's back up the way you came and then onwards towards Port Erin before turning east and looping back towards Douglas.
It was the Isle of Man’s compact size, varied terrain and close-knit cycling community that were all key draws for British National Road Race champion and team Ineos Grenadiers rider Ben Swift, who’s lived on the island for more than a decade. “I’d say it’s like the Peak District but in a much more confined space,” he say. “The climbs are a little bit longer at times, but you’re never really very far away from anything, which is great.”
A loop of the whole island is another great option, either for experienced road cyclists who want to cram in the miles on a single, long ride, or for those who prefer bikepacking or a more leisurely approach over a few days with some scenic stop-offs along the way. The Isle of Man Lighthouses Challenge is a popular way to experience it, explains Richard Fletcher. The sportive circumnavigates the island, visiting a number of its lighthouses and throwing up views of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland along the way.
Finishing off the day by cycling along Marine Drive (a favorite of the Le Col-Wahoo team’s Anna Christian) with the setting sun casting a golden glow over your shoulder, is an unforgettable experience. A section of the coastal road is closed to cars, but open to pedestrians and cyclists, creating a serene stretch to pedal through.
It would be a shame while on the isle not to sample the rich Manx seafood offering; roll up for a table at the Little Fish Cafe which faces out onto the marina on the North Quay in Douglas. For dinner, booking is essential, but for visitors who manage to nab a spot, it’s worth checking out the daily specials chalked up on the board, which can include the likes of calamari tempura, crab claws with chilli, coconut and coriander, and grilled cod fillet. Riders can order up a Barrule cocktail (named after the island’s forest plantation) to wash it down with and savour their day’s exploration on this cycling-mad island.
Three route recommendations from the professionals
1. Mark Cavendish
The sprint legend, nicknamed the Manx Missile, is the joint holder of the most Tour de France stage wins alongside Belgian cycling legend Eddy Merckx. A rider with Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl
“A lap of the perimeter is brilliant. So is zigzagging the lanes up the east coast towards the north. Also, check out The Sound — which is at the very southern point — for its views.”
2. Ben Swift
Ineos Grenadiers rider and British National Road Race champion.
"If I really want a good climbing day, I’ll head up Snaefell mountain and then crisscross, covering all the different ways there are to get up it. Over around 100 miles, you can touch on about 11,500ft of climbing. The two main roads are quite busy at times so it’s wise to choose a quieter time and get those done first. But the other roads are so peaceful and beautiful that you can just be in a world of your own. If you’re in the north, then make sure to stop off at Conrod’s, a cafe owned by TT racer Conor Cummins."
3. Anna Christian
A rider with Le Col-Wahoo.
"I’d definitely recommend a coastal loop. The Marine Drive out of Douglas towards the south is really nice. Then, the Round Table, which is south west of the island is basically four climbs that meet: the side from the south is called the Sloc — it’s a hard way up but really nice on a clear day. Roots by the Sea, a cafe in Peel, is also a great place to stop — it has really good coffee and bagels."
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