The Isle of Wight proves the perfect training ground for tomorrow's cycling champions, discovers JEREMY WRIGHT
SITTING astride a carved stone troll's head, two of Britain's brightest hopes for mountain bike gold in the 2020 Olympics rested their weary limbs. My featherweight daughters, Charlotte, nine, and 11-year-old Megan, were nearing the end of a 12-mile ride that had turned them from ever-so-slightly reluctant cyclists into a pair of gung-ho fanatics with legs and nerves of steel.
OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration but there had been considerably less whingeing than expected and many more whoops of excitement as we rode purposefully towards journey's end.
The Isle of Wight
's Troll Trail, set along a section of the 14-mile, 90 per cent car-free cycleway from Cowes in the north to Sandown in the south-east, is difficult to beat as a confidence builder for young pedal pushers and watchful parents. Rumours put about by the tourist board of mythical monsters lurking under the bridges certainly keep young legs spinning. Click here now for amazing offers to the Isle of Wight!
On an island known to serious off-roaders for its steep chalk downs, the network of level pathways and former railway lines acts as a magnet for families keen to explore at a more gentle pace.
If, like us, you arrange to have sturdy hybrid bikes delivered to the start of the trail by Wight Cycle Hire, there's not even the hassle of a car rack.
The Troll Trail, which follows the cycleway from the capital Newport to the village of Merstone, has been given an extra twist with the introduction of "hidden treasures" for keen-eyed and sharp-eared young visitors.
Signs installed as part of the Gift to Nature conservation project describe to visitors the distinctive warble of the chiffchaff, the trill of the grey wagtail and the laughing "cry" of the green woodpecker.
A deserted village station at Merstone is now a wildflower meadow, complete with a ghostly grassed-over platform, lying dormant next to brand-new picnic tables. Want incredible offers to Isle of Wight? Click here now...
A similar sense of peace, quiet and splendid isolation was exuded by our holiday base, Hamstead Farm Cottage. This newly renovated three-bedroom hideaway, tucked next to the owners' home on a 350-acre farm five miles east of Yarmouth, could hardly be more private.
My daughters were free to play at being Anne Of Green Gables while we, glasses of white wine in hand, gazed across the Solent, chortling at distant signs of the rat race. In the early evening I sent the girls off down the coastal path to collect shells on what felt like our own private beach, 10 minutes' walk away. In spring, visitors can spot newly born calves with the farm's welcoming owners, John and Judy Cool. On colder evenings, you can snuggle up next to the open fire or light the little woodburner in the cosy kitchen, listen to the silence and drift away to a bygone era.
A couple of days before our big ride we warmed up with a six-mile return trip from Yarmouth to Freshwater. Starting out along another abandoned rail line beside the River Yar, we completed the return leg mostly on quiet, although not traffic-free, country lanes. Even on this route's short but busy section of B-road, I was impressed with the courtesy of road users.
Back in Yarmouth, refreshing ourselves with locally made ice-cream, this apparent detachment from the rest of southern England came to me once again. The small, charming port, with its narrow streets of flower bedecked Victorian houses and well-kept pubs and cafés is home to the most dizzyingly pretty little pier. All scrubbed planks and white-painted balustrades reflecting the glorious summer sunshine, it looked as if it had leapt straight from a seaside watercolour.
Even prospective Olympic champions need a day off, so for a change of pace we set off to explore the coloured sands at Alum Bay, the fabulous, interactive Dinosaur Isle Museum at Sandown and what is said to be Britain's oldest theme park, Blackgang Chine.
As a final treat before boarding the ferry back to Portsmouth we took in Queen Victoria's sumptuous holiday villa of Osborne House.
In the grounds, Prince Albert constructed a pristine, replica Swiss chalet where the couple's children were taught to cook, sew, and grow their own vegetables.
It's not known whether they were also taught to ride a bike. THE KNOWLEDGE: Wightlink's Green Getaways (0871 376 0013/www.wightlink.co.uk/greengetaways) offers seven nights at Hamstead Farm Cottage from £757 (sleeps six), self-catering. Price includes return ferry crossing (car and up to six passengers) from Portsmouth to Fishbourne and a free cycle guide. Wight Cycle Hire (01983 761800/www.wightcyclehire.co.uk) offers seven-day bike hire from £60 per adult, £40 per child. Isle of Wight Tourism: 01983 813813/ www.islandbreaks.co.uk