The New Forest is an amazing place to cycle. A plethora of tiny lanes, lost to the world. Riding beneath the trees, between horses and ponies and donkeys, green everywhere, a carpet of purple heather, the smell of fern, of pine.
A look up, a quick glance of the sea, sail boats rocking in the Solent. Hills? There’s few to talk of, gentle rises here and there, road surfaces excellent. If I could build a hill free cycling paradise it would look a lot like the New Forest. Only with even more donkeys.
A boat party on the River Thames was probably not the best preparation to ride further than I have for ooh, 2 years! Distance hasn’t been my thing ever since I exhausted myself in the summer of 2014 with multiple century rides, week after week. Short, sharp rides have replaced the epic. Yet I loved this meandering wonder and had almost forgotten that end of day feeling, the pleasure of so many miles in your weary limbs.
Hungover, it was one of those rare feats when the more you ride, the stronger you become. Perhaps not too hard when you feel so bad to begin with. I’d been feeding the hangover all morning but could not sate its desire for fat, lots of fat. I’ve never eaten so much on a ride (note to self, eat more on rides).
New Forest cycling route
Sun burning bright, I’d timed my day off work to coincide with one of the best days of the year. I followed an old Wiggle New Forest Sportive route from 2013 (thanks Strava!), back before the event moved further and further out of the forest in the face of local NIMBY pressure. I say pressure, it was more vigilante, with tacks added to the course because cyclists dare use ‘their’ roads. Fortunately tempers seemed to have calmed in recent years.
The forest is covered in signs saying “Pass horses slow and wide” yet many drivers had no qualms speeding past me in a classic punishment pass. Yet these are the minority. Folk here are super friendly. People randomly waved to me, most spoke to me and the majority of drivers were very patient.
The route was exceptional, all quiet roads but for a few small stretches. I sampled some sumptuous parts of the forest. I spent the first hour just saying ‘wow’ out loud as I cycled down Rhinefield Ornamental Drive, one of the many highlights of cycling in the New Forest.
Off you go: New Forest cycling route and GPX on Strava
Now, I’m many paragraphs into a blog about the New Forest and I’ve barely mentioned the wild horses, or to be more precise, ponies. Yes, they are magnificent specimens, often wandering willy nilly in the road to have their photograph taken (I’m pretty sure this is their intention).
Yet the king animal of the New Forest is not the pony but the humble donkey. Donkeys are amazing. Have you ever seen an animal looking so depressed, so abject, so goddamn bored (humans aside that is)? Always makes me wonder why DreamWorks chose a donkey to be the cheery buddy to Shrek. Happy donkeys are not. Super cute though. There’s just no way I could pass these little fellas without taking a photo. You just try. It’s impossible.
Feed me fat
Lunch. It was time to answer the call of the hangover man. Feed me fat and salt. I duly obliged, exceeding expectations when I managed to find a hot pastry that contained no less than the full bevy of ingredients from a full English breakfast. Oh yeah. Wash it down with a can of coke, job done.
A couple of cyclists chatted to me on my lunch time bench, recommending a whole host of places I had to see. At the time these were just place names but I’m pretty sure the Wiggle route ticked them all off. Satisfying.
Lunch took some digesting, about ten miles. Yet the mild discomfort was worth it. Energy came flooding back into my legs, this donkey transformed into a prime stallion (see what I did there?).
The miles flew by. Normally I’d be clock watching and checking how many miles remained. Not this time. I wanted more. I felt like I could ride forever.
Which is good, because up next was a cheeky 25% ramp up Blissford Hill, the only real hill on my route. Steep, but short, it’s a matter of weaving up, so many miles in your legs you travel sideways, crablike.
Shortly after I hit Deadman Hill (aye, that’s a thing) and guess what, a block headwind strikes. No problem, not for the man who ate a full English breakfast wrapped in a pastry. The pain soon over, I was almost done, enough energy to allow a quick childish smirk when I saw the Sandy Balls Holiday Park (indeed) and I was home. What a day.
I cannot recommend cycling in the New Forest enough. Go. Go now. I’ll be back in the autumn when I imagine this ride becomes even more majestic.
Oh – and if you have the time, head down to the coast, take the ferry to Sandbanks and ride over the Purbeck hills towards Corfe Castle (route and gpx here). Brilliant.