DISTANCE 37.7 miles (60km)
MAIN CLIMB Snaefell, a six-mile ascent coming after 23 miles.
TOTAL CLIMB 422 metres
ACHTUNG! Don’t ride this route from the end of May to the beginning of June, or in late August. This is when thousands of motorcyclists descend on the Isle of Man for the TT and Manx Grand Prix.
How can the Isle of Man, with a population of just 80,000, produce so many world-class riders? That’s a question many in the sport are asking after the successes of Mark Cavendish, Jonny Bellis and Peter Kennaugh. These three have led the way and are all members of the Great Britain team.
Providing three out of around 20 endurance riders in the team is roughly equivalent to the Island seeing three Manx footballers in England’s World Cup squad.
It’s even more remarkable when you consider that the GB cycling team, unlike England’s footballers, also happens to be the best in the world.
With Cavendish and his two Manx Road Club team-mates regularly winning titles at the highest level, they have become familiar names far beyond the shores of Ellan Vannin. And there are many more talented youngsters ready to follow in their wheel tracks. So, what is it about the Isle of Man that gives these riders the freedom to flourish?
Lap of the land
I followed British junior road race champion Peter Kennaugh (pronounced Ken-yuk) for a training ride around the island’s famous TT motorcycle course. With him were four of the island’s British Cycling Talent Team members: Mark Christian, Chris Whorrall, Chris Nicholson and Tim Kennaugh (Pete’s younger brother), along with national coach and former pro rider Mike Doyle.
It was a chance to try and find out the secrets of Manx success, although, as we head out from the TT Grandstand, it soon emerges that there is no magic involved. But there is a combination of factors which makes the island unique in cycling terms.
Firstly, it’s a great place to train because the roads are relatively quiet and the scenery is stunning. But with hardly a flat road on island, it is also tough. Cavendish reckons that a five-hour training ride here is worth six hours anywhere in the UK.
As we head out of Douglas, the island’s capital, we are soon on quiet roads heading west towards the hills of Cronk-y-Voddy where we pass a bench dedicated to the memory of Manx rider Pete Buckley. Buckley won the Commonwealth Games road race in 1966 but died in a cycling accident aged just 25.
Over the years the Isle of Man has produced many good riders, including Buckley and Steve ‘Pocket Rocket’ Joughin — twice the British road race champion. And for years the island hosted its International Cycling Week, which attracted the top names in the sport — Robert Millar won his only professional national road race title here in 1995.
All this has means the sport has a profile on the island which would be the envy of anyone in the UK. Local newspapers regularly feature several pages of cycling reports, and when Mark Cavendish made his Tour de France debut it was front page and back page news.
Another factor is the work of the government-funded Isle of Man Institute of Sport, helps elite competitors in a range of sports, with cyclists at the forefront due to the wealth of talent that has emerged in recent years.
“The support we get from the Institute of Sport is dead important,” says Peter Kennaugh, “you build up a relationship with people at the Institute and they get to know your history.”
Riders as young as 12 or 13 can get access to physiotherapists, fitness coaches, nutritionists and even a sports psychologist. All these services are on the island, so riders are never more than an hour away from getting the help they need.
When we reach Ramsey, 23 miles into the 37.7-mile TT course, the riders stop at a cafe to discuss other factors which they feel make the island an ideal place for cyclists to develop. The island’s Scottish Provident road race league, which attracts up to 400 youngsters and is an ideal environment in which to learn how to race, is how most of the group got into the sport.
Having a small but talented group to train with is, as Mark Christian points out, another bonus about island life. “There’s always a group out every morning whereas loads of riders I know back across [in the UK] have to go out and do four hours on their own,” he says. And doing the local Sunday morning road race league here can mean lining up alongside Cavendish, who has taken part in a couple of races this season to supplement his training while back on the island.
After the cafe stop it’s off up the six-mile climb of Snaefell Mountain. Over the top and down towards the Creg-Ny-Baa pub where Chris Boardman exceeded 60mph on his way to setting the Mountain Time Trial record of 1hr 23m 54secs in 1993.
From here it’s a short ride back to the TT Grandstand and the end of the ride. For national coach Mike Doyle, who rode for the ANC-Interent, Moducel and PMS-Falcon pro teams in the 80s, the main emphasis is on enjoyment. “We always remind the riders of the dos and don’ts,” says Doyle, “Do your best, and don’t climb off. But for young riders the main thing is for them to enjoy their cycling.
“Those who have the desire and the ability to progress further find that the sport here has a structure which will enable them to reach their full potential.”
Doyle has helped to set up a development programme which aims to create more strength in depth for Team Isle of Man, with a big focus on the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
The Isle of Man is a unique place with a unique set of circumstances which have made it an ideal breeding ground for cycling champions. But even if you have all these factors in your favour you still need something else to produce champions. At the end of the day, no matter what support is given to a talented rider it is up to the individual to get out and train and dedicate themselves to fulfilling their potential.
In the 10 months I have lived on the island, one thing I have noticed more than anything else is how often you see these young riders out training. OK, the Isle of Man is a small place, but even so, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been driving into work in the morning and seen Peter Kennaugh piling up the miles. In the winter, when it was raining so hard it was bouncing off the road, he was out there. That’s what it took for him to become a junior world champion on the track last year.
YOUR GUIDE: PETER KENNAUGH
* Aged 18, lives with parents Jackie and Peter in Douglas
* Best result: 2006 World Junior Scratch Race Champion; UIV champion (with Adam Blythe), Ghent Six 2007
* Moving to Manchester in November
* Fave films are The Three Hundred and Gladiator
* Listens to dance music
Start at the TT Grandstand on Glencrutchery Road in Douglas. Head south down Bray Hill and follow the orange TT signposts which mark out the TT’s Snaefell Mountain Course. At bottom of Bray Hill turn right (TR) at Quarter Bridge onto the A1 towards Peel. After eight miles TR at the Ballacraine crossroads and head north along the A3 through Cronk-y-Voddy, Kirk Michael and over the humpback bridge at Ballaugh.
Stay on the A3 through Sulby and on to Ramsey. TR in Ramsey, follow the orange TT signs along the A18 and up the six-mile climb of Snaefell. Down the descent past the Creg-Ny-Baa pub towards Douglas.
TR at Signpost Corner, and on through a narrow downhill section. TR at roundabout at Governor’s Bridge and back to the TT Grandstand.