Cycling famous climbs in the Lake District
I have cycled steep roads before. I have tackled infamous road climbs in the Pyrenees and the Alps. I have ticked off many of Scotland’s hardest hills, too, including the Bealach na Ba in north-west Scotland and also the Mad Wee Road of Sutherland.
So when a trip to the Lake District was suggested I found myself planning a bike ride via renowned passes such as Hardknott, Wrynose and Whinlatter. I had heard these names said in revered tones by some of my cycling friends – and I thought, “When in the Lakes with a bike… they really have to be done.”
Yet I could have no idea just how tough these passes would be.
Fortunately, on the day, I needed to do little more than ride my bike. I had the guidance of a very fit, charming and hugely informative local rider, Ian Cousins, of Honister 92 Cycle Club. He thinks nothing of cycling 60 miles and as many passes as he can find after a full day’s work and then hundreds of miles every weekend, so a 70-mile route at my (much slower) pace and with all day to do it in meant he could treat our Saturday outing as a recovery ride.
I confess I felt daunted by the bike ride. As well as the 70 miles there would be a total of almost 7,500ft of ascent. (That’s 2.5 times the height of a Munro from sea level to summit.) The hill passes include ridiculous angles of up to 33%.
Brilliantly, although it was chilly, we were blessed with April sunshine as we rolled out of the busy market/tourist town of Keswick in Cumbria. The first couple of miles were flat and on a cycle path but then, suddenly, we reached base of the first hill, Whinlatter, and began a climb of 700ft over two miles with an average gradient of 7%.
My breakfast (enjoyed at the Abraham’s café in the outdoors retail store George Fisher) lay heavy in my stomach and with “first-thing” lazy legs and a rising nausea I attempted to put on a brave face for the climb for Ian. I doubt I succeeded. If I had been Ian I would have been seriously worried about whether I would finish the full route.
As Ian cycled with amazing ease and chatted to me about the route and what we would see I pushed onwards in almost silence. Whinlatter includes some flatter sections but mainly it’s an uphill slog, especially so early in our ride.
But the views from the top are well worth the leg grind. Descending on smooth-ish tarmac into the beautiful Lorton valley was fantastic. I even had Ian to warn me of tight bends and the exact location of a few pot-holes (he knows these roads very well!).
The many ups and downs of Lakes cycling
As I was to learn over the next 10 or so miles, there is very little in the Lake District that is flat. While the well-known hill passes accounted for some of the ride’s total ascent, the miles of rolling ups and downs in between gave my leg muscles a lot to think about.
We rose first to 717ft, then down again, then up again to 812ft, then down again and then up again to 953ft.
With Ian cheerfully spinning his legs and pointing out all the best local fell tops for trail running (he was a keen hill runner before taking to the bike) and the next road climb in the far distance that we would soon reach, I focused on keeping a steady pace. It would have been easy on the rolling sections and early into the ride to push a bit harder but I am not bike fit just now and I needed to reserve some energy for the “big” climbs.
I have visited the Lakes many times before but I can’t recall feeling quite so impressed by the beauty of the landscape. With a mostly blue sky as the backdrop I relished the views of picturesque valleys and plentiful mountain peaks as we cycled far below on narrow and winding roads.
At the furthest west point of the loop of the route we turned on to the busiest road of the entire ride. It was only for a couple of miles, thankfully, and we cycled single file on fairly flat terrain with a tailwind so it was over before I knew it. To our right was Sellafield, a blot on the landscape, in my opinion, but beyond that was the sea.
Some flat and more fantastic views
The next 10 miles through Eskdale Valley felt fairly flat, although the Garmin later showed it had many more ups and downs. We rode through pretty villages and past small lakes. England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike could also be glimpsed at some point, although I can’t recall where.
I was far more concerned with the next climb, the infamously steep Hardknott Pass followed by the feisty Wrynose. I remembered to fuel myself with a snack and an energy gel and resolved to try to stay on my bike and NOT GET OFF TO WALK.
Hardknott and Wrynose passes
It is difficult to describe what it is like to cycle a 33% incline. It is very, very steep. I became alarmed when my front wheel kept lifting off the road ahead of me. Then I worried about getting around the tight corners on a singletrack road… And the cars coming up and down… And whether I would be able to unclip my cycle shoes if I needed to… All of a sudden… The whole ride was unnerving.
I tried very hard to ride the entire 1000ft climb over 1.3 miles. But the average gradient is 13% let alone the numerous horribly steep sections every few hundred metres or so. I slipped into my easiest gear and simply tried to keep my legs turning round.
I could sense (I didn’t dare look up in case I fell straight off!) Ian by my side, seemingly rotating his pedals with ease. When I could speak, I asked if he might have a far larger gear cog fitted to his bike compared to mine. He doesn’t! I just couldn’t fathom how he seemed to be riding so fluidly while I tried so hard not to falter and come to a stop.
I did well, I think. I got off only twice. The first was due to sheer nerves. I was convinced my bike would come off the ground completely and I would go backwards, head over heels. I walked five steps and got back on. Getting on to a bike with cleats on a steep section of road is very difficult indeed.
I started off again and talked to myself out loud. I muttered that I needed to get my erse into gear and just keep riding. I swore and cursed and pushed onwards. I hate to be defeated.
Then another very steep section forced me to put my foot down again. This time I had to walk for about 20 to 30 steps to reach another corner so I could find enough “flat” (ha, ha!) to try to get back on my bike.
After this I refused to be beaten. By now, Ian had reached the top and had turned around to come back down to support me. His words of encouragement were really helpful and I made it to the highest point without touching down again.
They say that Hardknott is the UK’s toughest bike climb and I think I agree. It’s not massively long but the steep sections are unbelievable. Next time, I said to myself, I am sure I could do it without getting off. But in reality I doubt it. I am not strong enough and my sportive style bike is weighted to the back rather than the front due to the higher handlebars (that’s my excuse anyway!).
The descent is also tough. Aiming to ascend quickly from a sudden hailstone storm at the top of the pass we headed off at speed. But there are numerous bends and some sections are so steep that I felt as though my hands would give in as I held tightly to the brake levers. (Thank goodness for disc brakes.) My shoulders and hands were really sore by the time we reached the lowest point.
There was only a short reprieve of rolling cycling before Wrynose. In between, we came across a convoy of old-fashioned 4×4 Fiat Panda cars. One had broken down, which shows just how steep that climb is, or else the 4X4 Panda was in a poor state of repair!
Although not as long as Hardknott, nor as steep on average, there are still some very hard sections of Wrynose of 22 to 23%. It also comes after the Hardknott ascent and so my legs felt burnt out. In addition, I was beginning to feel very hungry.
Having failed to ride all the way up Hardknott I wasn’t going to be beaten by Wrynose and with gritted teeth, screaming legs, fear about falling off and Ian by my side I made it. There were several times when I wanted to get off and lay by the roadside but I did it.
The convoy of Pandas passed us as we climbed higher. Strangely, a vintage Rolls Royce also went by and then a convoy of newer open top cars crept by going the other way. The passes are popular with both cyclists and drivers and I expect it can be very busy at the height of the season. (My top tip would be to start early or go before the summer hots up).
A much-needed lunch stop
Ian had decided that we would stop at about the two-thirds point (after the biggest climbs) at the Old Dungeon Gryll. My pint of cola and a big bowl of soup and lovely home-made roll could not have tasted any better. I was in serious calorie deficit and felt as though I could ride not a metre more without food.
I was also hopeful that the rest of the route would be a lot flatter. “Well, the hills are not as big as the ones we have just done but it’s not flat,” confessed Ian. I thought we might have about 15 miles to go. “Well, it’s closer to 20 miles but that’s not far is it?” added Ian.
I decided not to think about it too much.
Final 20 miles of the Lakes loop
If I had been a bit fitter and put in more winter training miles the final 20 miles of the 70-mile Lakeland Loop would have been absolutely fine. There were a few sneaky ups, including one straight after the pub stop (climbing is never good with a full stomach), another at 55 miles and a long ascent before a flatter section along the west shore of Thirlmere reservoir.
By that point my legs could feel the accumulation of the ups and my head said: “Get me back to Keswick so I can sit down and eat cake.” I had told Ian earlier in the ride that if I go quiet for too long you know I have run out of energy.
I did try hard to chat back to him as the shore-side road of the reservoir seemed to go on and on and on. But mainly I focused on staying as strong as possible so we could get back before the gathering clouds rained down on us.
By now my shoulders were very painful. I think that all the braking had made them seize up and I needed to stop once to un-clench them. (They are still sore as I write this two days later).
The road on the west shore was a traffic-free delight, however. The storms and flooding that hit Cumbria before Christmas caused huge landslides. The council had taken the decision to close both roads on the east and west side of the reservoir while the east side road is repaired. This is due to reopen next month but for the time being cyclists can enjoy a road without cars. (A few buses trundle up and down to route so you still need to be road aware).
As the end of the reservoir came in sight I felt a renewed sense of purpose and I dared to ask Ian how far we had to go. I’d lost track on my own Garmin. He told me five miles.
What I had forgotten, however, was the climb before the descent to Keswick. This almost finished me off especially when we got caught in a hailstones storm. You can clearly see the weather closing in around you in the Lake District and although we had seen darkening clouds heading our way for the last couple of hours we had somehow managed to avoid them.
Sadly, the last few miles were quite painful. Hailstones on your face as you ride slowly uphill and then descend at speed is not very pleasant.
But I was smiling inside. I had worried all the previous week about whether I would manage this tough bike ride. Everyone I mentioned to said things like: “Oooft!”. Yet I had done it and mostly without too much agony.
I am very, very grateful to Ian for his superb guiding, continual up-beat chat and his words of encouragement on the toughest hill climbs. If you get the chance to ride in the Lakes District I thoroughly recommend it. It’s not far from the Scottish-English border and less than a 2.5 hour drive from Glasgow.
Thank you notes
Thanks to Ian Cousins of Honister 92 for his guiding.
Thanks also for the support of two great organisations, Fix the Fells and Nature Lakeland, without whom there would be not fantastic outdoors playground for visitors to enjoy. The wealth of things to do in the Lakes, including walking, cycling and mountain biking, is truly fantastic.
Thansk as well to Maggie and Tim, friends in Penrith, who let me park my campervan on their driveway and welcomed me to into their home for the evening before I arrived in Keswick. And thanks also to my old uni pal Rachel, her husband Nick and their two lovely kids for looking after me and feeding me as I recovered for my big Lakes Cycling Loop.