by Andi Sykes
October 18, 2016
This article was originally published in Issue 84 of Singletrack.
All my life, the Isle of Man has been there, a familiar sight from the Lakeland fells and the hills of Lancashire and Galloway, a papery outline floating on the horizon. So near, and yet so far; so familiar and yet so subtly different. It’s British, but not part of the UK, although the landscape feels like a patchwork of many different bits of the mainland.
I think of it as a coast from Cornwall or North Devon wrapped around the hills of Mid-Wales; others may draw different parallels. But what really makes it special is the wealth of riding available; every Manx mountain biker I spoke to seems to revel in what’s close to a de facto ‘freedom to roam’ – and no-one locks their bikes outside the café.
I got my first taste of Manx mountain biking eight years ago, when I rode its most famous event, the End-to-End. This does what it says on the tin, going from one end of the island to the other. The Isle of Man is just about the perfect size for this; the route is around 75km, with 1,500m of climbing. I still remember it as one of the best days of mountain biking I’ve ever had, and have always hankered for a return, whether to ride the E2E again or to investigate more of the island’s offerings.
I finally got my chance thanks to Singletrack, and the irrepressible Nigel Morris, one of the stalwarts of the Manx Mountain Bike Club. I was keen to find a route that took in something of the flavour of the E2E, but for practical reasons it needed to be a circuit. Emails and phone calls ping-ponged across the Irish Sea and finally we had a plan.
And then there I was, hauling my bike through the polished foyer of the Claremont Hotel on Douglas seafront. I’d already met Nigel for a drink the previous night; he’d just come back from posting a very creditable 14th overall in Ten Under the Ben. Nigel isn’t just a racer, he’s a race organiser, running a Manx 100 that’s like an End-to-End on steroids – both in distance and in its relish for gnarly trails – as well as the Legs of Mann, which has been described as ‘a mini Trans-Wales’.
And then it turns out fellow Manx MBC members Phil Mackie and Julian Corlett are serious racing snakes too. Julian, for instance, won the Manx 100 in 2012 (161km long, 5,000m of climbing, 11hrs 10mins). I start talking about how heavy my camera backpack is.
I can’t help wondering if Nigel has seriously overestimated my abilities. But the reckoning has to wait a bit. Before we hit the trails, gnarly or otherwise, there is homage to be paid to what is unquestionably the island’s dominant sporting event. For millions, the Isle of Man is the TT races. (Try finding a souvenir T-shirt that doesn’t feature it!).
The other sort of bike.
TT central also makes a good starting point to the mapped route, with lots of car parking nearby. We pass The Grandstand and the memorials to Joey Dunlop and Mike Hailwood, then follow the TT Course past Governor’s Bridge and onto the Mountain Road, climbing steadily to Cronk-ny-Mona. Then it’s back roads and lanes to Baldwin and St Luke’s Chapel, where we leave the tarmac and begin a steady stony climb onto the misty hills. There’s a brief stop to visit the original site of Tynwald, the island’s Parliament; according to its website, “Tynwald is of Norse origin and over 1,000 years old and is thus the oldest Parliament in the world with an unbroken existence”.
The track is easy enough, but still seems to take a dislike to Nigel’s rear tyre.
The climb tops out at just over 450m. Bearing in mind we started at sea level, and left tarmac at about 160 metres, that’s fairly meaty – at least it feels that way to me. In fact, this bare moorland shoulder is the high point of today’s ride, and higher than any point on the E2E route. The views are stunning – so I’m told. Today all I can see is the inside of a cloud.
So far, it hasn’t really rained, but as we roll down a short road link, the weather starts to change. First the wind really kicks in, making us lean and weave drunkenly; then the rain starts. The waterproofs are well and truly on as we leave the road for the E2E route contouring Slieau Maggle (literally meaning ‘Testicle Hill’ apparently). The track is easy enough, but still seems to take a dislike to Nigel’s rear tyre. Phil, Julian and I huddle in the heather while he changes the tube, then he urges us on; “I’ll catch you up.” If the pace is set by the slowest, and that’s me, I figure he’ll have no trouble, so I’m surprised when, after a high-speed descent (watch out for drainage bars!) and a short climb, he’s still nowhere to be seen.
I loiter a few minutes in hopes of a photo, but he doesn’t appear. My phone goes, but it’s buried in the sack and I don’t get to it in time. I try to call him back and get first engaged and then ‘number unobtainable’. Eventually, Phil and Julian reappear with the message that Nigel’s rear mech has ‘exploded’; he’s walking back to the road and we’re carrying on without him.
A rolling track sweeps through plantations and across bare slopes. From my E2E I remember the sea views here, but there’s no sea to see today. Plenty of water, though. After Beary Mountain (pronounced ‘Beery’), the E2E event route descends fairly easily by field-edges, but that’s not available the rest of the year – a fact which will please anyone who loves steep, eroded descents. This is The Dowse, a sunken runnel of tumbled boulders and bike-swallowing ruts. A slightly unscheduled dismount turns into ‘a good place for photos’ and then I pick my way down the slippery, shifting rocks. I start to congratulate myself just a fraction too soon and the result is a slow-motion tumble on the last bend before the road, but only pride is injured.
no-one at the Claremont even bats an eyelid at the incursion of a dripping mountain biker and equally dripping bike.
After that, there’s just a gentle leafy lane to St John’s; here is the artificial mound of Tynwald Hill, to which the parliament relocated some time in the Middle Ages. Compared to the original site on the hills, it’s a lot grander and also a lot less exposed. Even so, it’s now only used for the annual ceremony of Tynwald Day; the rest of the time debates are held indoors. Today’s politicians are such wimps.
And so, maybe, are we: just across the road is the Tynwald Hill Café. With the rain clearly set in for the day, and Nigel missing in action (actually safely back home) there’s no real debate about leaving the second half of the ride for tomorrow. For me this means an easy, but splashy, ride back down an old railway track to Douglas, where no-one at the Claremont even bats an eyelid at the incursion of a dripping mountain biker and equally dripping bike.
How about ‘mist dappled’ hills?
Day two: back at St John’s, the hills are still misted but it’s dry and the sun is starting to hint that it might make an appearance. The ride resumes for real on the climb of Slieau Whallian. I remember this from my E2E but I’m sure it’s got harder. My pack is heavier and I might be a tad less fit, but mostly it’s down to erosion from a variety of traffic. In fact this climb is no longer used on the E2E as it has too many bottlenecks for 1,700 riders, but the boys tell me it’s a lot more fun than the track now used on the event. ‘Fun’ may not be the first word that comes to my mind; it’s neither desperately steep nor desperately technical – but with enough of both that a clean ascent is really satisfying.
Nigel issues dire warnings: ‘steep, wet, off-camber and scary as…’.
At the top we swing round the ridge and suddenly there’s Ireland on the horizon, Slieve Donard and the rest of the Mournes ghostly but unmistakable. There’s no gazing at the view on the descent, though. It looks innocuous at first but there’s a reason why the locals call it ‘Babies’ Heads’. It’s skittery, jittery stuff: too slow and you’re off; too fast probably ditto.
After a short lane climb we turn alongside Arrasey Plantation; there’s trail-building work in progress so by the time you read this it should be a little more orderly. Today, however, we turn into the dark, dripping woods and improvise our way down a slithery sketch of a trail past lurking tree-stumps and over slimy roots. Below this we meet a clear track twisting down to Glen Mooar. Nigel issues dire warnings: ‘steep, wet, off-camber and scary as…’. Funny, after all my fumblings on the likes of The Dowse, I don’t find it that bad. Perhaps that’s what he was aiming at.
Glen Mooar is a sheltered fold in the hills; it’s obvious the exit is going to involve a significant climb but they assure me it’s the last major ascent. The Pipeline climb starts steep and rocky, with a couple of stream crossings for good measure and a bald rock slab to finish. Above this it’s just a steady drag to the road junction at Round Table.
A warp-speed fire-road descent – watch out for walkers here, as this is part of the Bayr ny Skeddan path from Castletown to Peel – leads to an abrupt, easy-to-overshoot left turn for South Barrule Plantation. This holds some purpose-built trails but the lads take me on a far less formal route, a barely-there hint of a line twisting through the tight-packed trees. It’s not the place to be if you have a phobia of roots, but there are always alternatives. Trails like this abound in the Manx plantations; they may not be officially publicised or marked but they are completely accepted. Our mapped route sticks to the fire-road but if you feel like improvising, do; you can’t get seriously lost as there’s a main road just below.
We join the road momentarily then slope off on a wet, rocky track skirting Stoney Mountain Plantation. A short lane and a minute or two on the A24 bring us to the Manx SPCA tearooms and a sense that it’s nearly all over.
But not quite. There’s another tricksy little rocky climb, the Pound, and then more sinuous rooty fun surfing the pine-needles around Archallagan Plantation. Finally another open, stony track, like a gentler version of the Babies’ Heads, decants us to lanes at Marown. Nothing remains but a reflective warm-down on the old rail track into Douglas.
I conclude that Nigel’s route is like the tasting menu in a fine restaurant: a bit of everything but above all it leaves you wanting more. I don’t think this will be the last time I ride the Isle of Man.
The Isle of Man: End-to-End or Round-and-Round?
The Isle of Man E2E, held in early September, is by far the biggest mountain bike event on the island, and one of the largest in the British Isles, with entry capped at 1,700 riders. This year it was full by early July. The route varies slightly from year to year as stretches of private land are made available. It’s very well supported, with riders and bikes transported to the start and from the finish, and three feed- and watering-stations. Around 900 of the riders are island residents – an impressive turnout from a total population of just over 80,000.
There’s also a ‘public’ E2E (GPS files available on manxe2e.org), which you can ride anytime. However there is the small matter of the start and finish being over 60km apart by road. Public transport will cover most of this, and quaintly, too, with a vintage electric railway from Douglas to Ramsey (about 12km from the start), and narrow gauge steam railway from Port Erin to Douglas (book bikes in advance). Because it sticks to undisputed rights of way throughout, the public route takes in both the notorious descents of The Dowse and the tough climb of Slieau Whallian, both replaced by tamer alternatives for the actual event.
The island has a good network of bridleways and byways, and a forward-looking attitude to general access by bike. There’s also an agreement by the official forestry body, DEFA, giving unfettered access to its plantations; actually finding the trails, however, can prove tricky without a bit of local help. There’s some more formal, waymarked singletrack in South Barrule Plantation, but nothing resembling a trail centre as we in the UK know them. Manx mountain bikers say that, with so many natural rails available, they don’t need them.
There are some recommended routes on visitisleofman.com/mountainbiking and more suggestions, including some useful maps, on manxmtb.com
There are two main options: fly or take a ferry.
There are regular flights, most operated by Flybe, from around 20 UK airports; from Liverpool or Manchester flight time is around 30 minutes. Note that some airlines may only accept bikes on a standby basis.
Ferry services connect Douglas with Heysham, Liverpool, Dublin and Belfast, with fast catamarans operating in summer and conventional ships all year round: these are the cheapest option, and if you go as a foot passenger there’s no extra charge for your bike. As our route starts in Douglas it’s very possible, and economical, to do it without bringing a car across. See steam-packet.com for more detail.
The TT takes over the island around the end of May/beginning of June every year.
The Claremont (claremonthoteldouglas.com) is a smart hotel on Douglas seafront, but nevertheless very welcoming to mountain bikers, as is its cheaper stable-mate, the Rutland (sleepwellhotels.com/hotels/isle_of_man/rutland).
There are two very different campsites at Union Mills, just outside Douglas and very close to the ride route. Glenlough campsite is a pleasant, standard site: Saba’s Glen Yurt Eco Campsite is what the name suggests, at a premium price.
Douglas is packed with eating places. Sir Norman’s, on the front, is a shrine to Norman Wisdom, which may or may not appeal, but they also do classic pub grub –better than most – and good local ale. Tandoor, on Market Hill, is a great place for a curry with some unfamiliar South Indian dishes. For a quiet pint, try the Victoria Tavern on Victoria Street.
The Tynwald Hill Café in St John’s is just past the half-way point of the ride. They’re well used to muddy mountain bikers and hearty soups are among the specialities. But bear in mind that it’s followed almost immediately by the testing climb of Slieau Whallian. The Ard Jerkyll tearoom at the Manx SPCA is the only other place of refreshment on the route; as only a few minor rises remain, you could overindulge a bit more on the excellent cakes.
- The main bike shops in Douglas are Eurocycles (where Julian works), eurocycles.co.im and Bikestyle, bikestyle.im
- The best hire bikes are reportedly from Erin Bike Hut, erinbikehut.im, in Port Erin.
- General tourist info: visitisleofman.com.
- Isle of Man End-to-End: manxe2e.org.
- Other mountain bike events: manxtreme.com/index/mountain-biking.
- Local clubs: manxmtb.com and loaghtanloaded.com.
The Isle of Man may not be part of the UK, but it does still benefit from OS mapping: Landranger 95 shows the entire island, but there’s no Explorer sheet.
Manx Classic Ride
- Distance: 58.8km
- Ascent: 1,502m
- Duration: 5–8 hours
A GPX file of this ride is available in the Singletrack Mag Archive: singletrackworld.com/magarchive/issue-84/