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Lake District cycling: TED THORNHILL tries to cycle up a few of Britain’s most outrageous hill climbs

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MailOnline Travel’s Ted Thornhill takes a breather on Wrynose Pass within the Lake District – considered one of the hardest cycling hill climbs within the UK

It’s an aroma I’m not expecting amid the breathtaking ruggedness of the Lake District – burning.

But burning is what I can smell. And it could look like the disc brakes on my state-of-the-art Trek road bike. Probably because I have been manically squeezing them for the past two and a half minutes as I hurtle down one of the crucial outrageous cycling roads within the UK – Wrynose Pass.

It is a road with sustained, ferocious gradients of as much as 25 per cent – wild enough to weary the legs and lungs of even the fittest and lithest cyclists. On the way in which up it doesn’t just weary me – it defeats me. And so does the ‘warm up’ climb – Blea Tarn. I even have to dismount on each hills to get my breath back.

I’m on an odyssey with my cycling chum Colin, and it’s tough from the get-go – pedalling through chaotic, Tube-strike rush-hour traffic between my home in South London and London Euston to catch an Avanti express train to Oxenholme Lake District, the gateway station to the Lakes and our mission – to beat not only notorious hills comparable to Blea Tarn and Wrynose Pass, but a stretch of road reckoned to be one of the crucial challengingly steep within the country – the thigh-shredding, morale-shrivelling Hardknott Pass, which has gradients of as much as 33 per cent spread over 1.38 miles (2.2km).

Ted travels to the Lake District with the aim of conquering Hardknott Pass (above), a 'thigh-shredding, morale-shrivelling' road that has gradients of up to 33 per cent

Ted travels to the Lake District with the aim of conquering Hardknott Pass (above), a ‘thigh-shredding, morale-shrivelling’ road that has gradients of as much as 33 per cent

Ted and his chum, Colin, base themselves in the tiny village of Elterwater (above, with the Langdale Pikes in the background). They stay in 'the impossibly cute and cosy Little Nut Cottage'

Ted and his chum, Colin, base themselves within the tiny village of Elterwater (above, with the Langdale Pikes within the background). They stay in ‘the impossibly cute and cosy Little Nut Cottage’

A part of my preparation for the duty ahead had been to observe YouTube videos of elite cyclists struggling to show their pedals on the steepest section.

This didn’t fill me with much confidence, provided that my fitness level is best described as with the ability to hold my very own with the commuter peloton during my every day cycle to the Mail’s headquarters in High Street Kensington in London.

I had decided I needed every mechanical advantage possible to avoid abject failure.

So, I secured a loan bike from Balfe’s Bikes – a sleek Trek Domane SL6 with disc brakes (my regular bike has rim brakes, which does nothing for my nerves within the wet) and super-low ‘granny-friendly’ gearing – some Fizik Vento Stabilita Carbon road shoes with the Boa fit system (you only turn dials installed on the shoe to tighten them), some Sealskinz overshoes to assist keep my feet warm and dry and a few comfortable, skin-hugging Nalini cycling shorts and tops.

This stunning shot, taken looking east towards the village of Little Langdale, shows Wrynose Pass in far more favourable conditions than those braved by Ted during his ascent and descent of the notorious road

This stunning shot, taken looking east towards the village of Little Langdale, shows Wrynose Pass in way more favourable conditions than those braved by Ted during his ascent and descent of the notorious road

Ted's cycling comrade Colin, pictured en route to the Blea Tarn climb, with the Langdale Pikes looming beyond

Ted’s cycling comrade Colin, pictured en path to the Blea Tarn climb, with the Langdale Pikes looming beyond

I’m also loaned a formidable handle-bar-mounted Wahoo Elemnt Roam GPS computer to guide me to the hilly terrors, and I even have a fast chat on the phone with British Hill Climb Champion Andrew Feather for some suggestions.

He has registered the fastest-ever ascent of Hardknott Pass on fitness-app Strava – a ‘King of the Mountain’ time of nine minutes and 15 seconds due to a mean speed of 10.4mph (16.7kph).

He tells me: ‘Hardknott Pass is considered one of the enduring climbs and ridiculously steep. Just stay inside yourself and you may be high-quality. And remember, the toughest bit is the last third. Then there’s the descent, which is even steeper!’

And he finds Wrynose difficult, too. Well, he describes it as ‘a spectacular, really good climb’, which translated from Hill-Climb-Champion-ese for mere mortal cyclists means: ‘You are entering into the hurt locker. Get able to weep.’

Nonetheless, as I clip into my bike at Oxenholme Lake District station for the 23-mile (37km) ride west to our cottage near Grasmere, within the village of Elterwater, I’m feeling confident and the ride is exhilarating, despite the gusty November conditions.

We give our nerves a bit of test by detouring around Kendal along some treacherously steep and mulchy lanes, enjoy whooshing down the major road into Windermere and are thrilled by the rolling route from Ambleside to Elterwater, where the landscape becomes increasingly awe-inspiring.

Our accommodation in tiny Elterwater is the impossibly cute and cosy Little Nut Cottage.

Our prep for the subsequent day is potentially ill-advised – a few glasses of wine and a light-weight ale with fish and chips within the welcoming pub round the corner, The Britannia Inn.

But it surely’s to bed at 9pm and within the morning, after Colin rustles up an impressive full English, we’re able to front as much as the gradients. Gulp.

Our planned route is 36 miles, with climbs totalling 4,700ft (1,432m).

Blea Tarn is first on the agenda. I dismount after 60 seconds, my lungs in chaos.

The ride there’s just stunning, though, along the B5343 by the Great Langdale Beck river, surrounded by pikes, crags and fells.

The Langdale Pikes look good whatever the weather. This stock picture was taken near the Blea Tarn summit

The Langdale Pikes look good regardless of the weather. This stock picture was taken near the Blea Tarn summit

Catching a breath before the Blea Tarn climb

Catching a breath before the Blea Tarn climb

After a short time we turn left up an unmarked road, trundle past a few sheep grazing by the road and over a cattle grid – after which the pain begins.

The road here is marked on the Ordnance Survey map of the realm with the ominous double chevron, denoting a gradient over 20 per cent.

It veers sharply upwards almost immediately and I’m straight into the bottom gear as sheep watch nonchalantly on.

I manage to cycle the very steepest bits but must pause on two of the flatter sections to recuperate.

At the highest the view back towards the Langdale Pikes is just stupendous – and the descent down one other double-chevron road hair-raising, but an enormous rush.

Ted after summiting Blea Tarn (with the Langdale Pikes in the background), a climb marked on the Ordnance Survey map of the area with the ominous double chevron, denoting a gradient of over 20 per cent

Ted after summiting Blea Tarn (with the Langdale Pikes within the background), a climb marked on the Ordnance Survey map of the realm with the ominous double chevron, denoting a gradient of over 20 per cent

A sign letting road users know what they're in for as they approach Wrynose Pass and Hardknott Pass

An indication letting road users know what they’re in for as they approach Wrynose Pass and Hardknott Pass

At the underside it’s a pointy right to the two.5km- (1.5-mile) long Wrynose Pass, with a pause for selfies by a warning sign for Wrynose and Hardknott Pass (which lies beyond) instructing all road users to exercise ‘extreme caution’ because they’re about to travel along a ‘narrow route’ with ‘severe bends’.

The gradient, says the sign, reaches a maximum of 30 per cent – or one in three.

The road from here, nevertheless, lulls you right into a false sense of security, since it gently winds past the Seventeenth-century, Grade II-listed Fell Foot Farm, one’s legs untroubled.

The work begins as we pedal past the Iron Age hill fort Castle Howe just a few moments later, the incline rapidly becoming remorseless.

The Wahoo Roam, handily, is in a position to display gradients and on segments of road logged as a climb, it’ll let you know what number of vertical feet you might have left.

I even have this function enabled and enjoyment of reading out the stats. Until I begin gasping for breath.

The slog up Wrynose Pass begins, with Colin setting the pace. Ted writes of Wrynose: 'It's wild enough to weary the legs and lungs of even the fittest and lithest cyclists'

The slog up Wrynose Pass begins, with Colin setting the pace. Ted writes of Wrynose: ‘It’s wild enough to weary the legs and lungs of even the fittest and lithest cyclists’

I get a way that I’m not going to make it without stopping and/or walking. The blustery, tempestuous weather adds to the sense of foreboding.

My first stop is around two-thirds of the way in which up, the highest section of the pass looming over me. I’m just exhausted. And the incline is such that I am unable to clip back into my pedals to start again.

So I’m forced to walk as much as a less severe section to get going. But then peter out again before essentially the most savage, 25 per cent section.

I find it tough pushing the bike up this bit, let alone pedalling up. The pass definitely looks easier in photographs.

Ted and Colin abandon their attempt at the summit of Hardknott Pass, fearing they'll be blown off their bikes by the ferocious wind. This snap is taken on the Wrynose Pass descent looking west, just moments before they turn back, with the Hardknott Pass descent just visible in the distance

Ted and Colin abandon their attempt on the summit of Hardknott Pass, fearing they’ll be blown off their bikes by the ferocious wind. This snap is taken on the Wrynose Pass descent looking west, just moments before they turn back, with the Hardknott Pass descent just visible in the space

Colin conquers the complete pass, though, reaching the summit – which lies 393m (1,281 ft) up and is the meeting point of the historic counties of Cumberland, Lancashire and Westmorland – without unclipping his cycling shoes from the pedals. He says on the steepest part he was almost pulling wheelies, needing to remain right over the handlebars to maintain stable.

I feel dissatisfied, but in addition wowed by the epic landscape. My time? Thirty-three minutes and 45 seconds, at a mean speed of two.8mph.

Andrew Feather’s time? Nine minutes and 26 seconds at a mean speed of 10mph.

This shows the Hardknott Pass descent more clearly. Gradients here lurch over 30 per cent

This shows the Hardknott Pass descent more clearly. Gradients here lurch over 30 per cent

An image showing cyclists rolling west to east down Hardknott Pass, with Wrynose Pass in the distance

A picture showing cyclists rolling west to east down Hardknott Pass, with Wrynose Pass in the space

The original Blea Tarn-Wrynose-Hardknott route mapped out on Ride with GPS

The unique Blea Tarn-Wrynose-Hardknott route mapped out on Ride with GPS

The plan is to push on to Hardknott Pass via a loop across the Birker Fell wilderness area to the south, but there’s a serious problem – the wind, which is frankly ridiculous.

I take a photograph with my phone, nevertheless it’s nearly whipped out of my hand.

Directly ahead is a 25 per cent gradient road resulting in the valley floor – and we’re too scared to ride our bikes down it, fearing we’ll simply be blown off.

Colin generally fears no descent – but he’s looking extremely doubtful about continuing. And he’s looking how I feel.

We let the wind carry our pride away and switch back, walking down the highest section of Wrynose Pass as gusts rip across the road, then clipping back in and flying down the remaining of the pass.

It’s agony on the ascent, like a roller coaster on the way in which down, with my dad belly hopefully giving me a bit of additional stability.

We regroup back on the cottage, where Colin devises a fiendish plan for the afternoon – going up The Struggle, the venue for 2023’s National Hill Climb Championship (Andrew, who was 2022’s winner, already has his accommodation booked).

The Struggle connects Ambleside with Kirkstone Pass, has gradients of over 20 per cent and is sort of long – 4.8km (three miles). These facts trouble me, but Colin assures me it is not beyond my capabilities – not least since it encompasses a short downhill section. 

This definitely helps, because the hairpins on the very end are vicious – my Wahoo Roam registers a 26.5 per cent gradient as I am going around them on the heady speed of 4.3mph. 

Ted and Colin's post-lunch workout is ascending The Struggle. The picture above shows the final daunting section, which ends at Kirkstone Pass

Ted and Colin’s post-lunch workout is ascending The Struggle. The image above shows the ultimate daunting section, which ends at Kirkstone Pass

A stunning picture showing The final section of The Struggle during blue-sky weather

A surprising picture showing The ultimate section of The Struggle during blue-sky weather

Ted at the bottom of The Struggle, which is the venue for the 2023 National Hill Climb Championship The end of The Struggle, where it joins Kirkstone Pass

LEFT: Ted at the underside of The Struggle, which is the venue for the 2023 National Hill Climb Championship. RIGHT: The top of The Struggle, where it joins Kirkstone Pass

The climb almost leaves me as a husk. 

But, with the assistance of an Audi SUV driver passing in the other way who eggs me on in the ultimate stretch, I’m triumphant. I trundle up onto Kirkstone Pass by the Kirkstone Pass Inn – which at an altitude of 1,481ft (451m) is England’s third-highest public house (though currently closed) – grinning like a Cheshire cat, having kept the pedals turning for the complete length of The Struggle.

We head back to our hygge-y cottage via a Kirkstone Pass descent and a ride over an exquisite lane above Ambleside that affords a wide ranging view of lake Windermere. 

Ted's odyssey sees him cycle around the top end of stunning lake Windermere (above)

Ted’s odyssey sees him cycle across the top end of stunning lake Windermere (above)

The ride back to Oxenholme Lake District affords the cyclists some glorious views. This picture is taken at the top of Brigsteer Hill, not far from Kendal

The ride back to Oxenholme Lake District affords the cyclists some glorious views. This picture is taken at the highest of Brigsteer Hill, not removed from Kendal

Ted's Wahoo Elemnt Roam GPS computer Ted's Trek bike at Oxenholme Lake District railway station

LEFT: Ted’s Wahoo Elemnt Roam GPS computer. RIGHT: Ted’s Trek bike at Oxenholme Lake District railway station

An Avanti Pendolino train captured crossing the Docker Viaduct in Cumbria. Fares from London Euston to Oxenholme Lake District cost from £30.90

An Avanti Pendolino train captured crossing the Docker Viaduct in Cumbria. Fares from London Euston to Oxenholme Lake District cost from £30.90

The next day, after an incredible meal at ‘the world’s best restaurant’ in Ambleside (review to return), we loop back to Oxenholme Lake District station via some truly glorious cycling lanes, with views to the east of the mighty Pennines. 

On the Avanti back to Euston we take stock. We have cycled 80 miles (128km), climbed 8,117ft (2,474m) – and I’ve discovered that while the Lake District is jaw-droppingly pretty, it also packs a punch.

Watch this space for Hardknott Pass – The Revenge…

TRAVEL FACTS AND KIT INFORMATION 

I’m loaned a Trek Domane SL 6 by Balfe’s Bikes, which has 12 stores in and around London. Visit www.balfesbikes.co.uk. Balfe’s works with Cyclists Fighting Cancer, which helps children and young people living with cancer across the UK regain their physical fitness, improve mental wellness and reduce social isolation by giving them recent lightweight bikes, specially adapted trikes, tandems, other equipment and support. Visit www.cyclistsfc.org.uk.

Verdict: I’ve bought it. This bike is a dream – it takes every little thing in its stride. Top marks for comfort and speed. And it looks absolutely splendid. Balfe’s expertly set the bike up and be certain that I’m comfortable on it before setting off.

Due to Insta360 for a loan of an Insta360 One RS camera, which comes with two lenses – a 360 lens and a daily 4K lens. 

Verdict: Overall, a wonderful little bit of kit. The image quality is amazing on each lenses. A niggle – quite a firm press of the shutter button is required to activate the camera, so if mounted on a helmet, it could be tricky to start out a recording on the move (and in wind you may’t all the time hear the beep that tells you it’s recording). Editing regular 4K footage is uncomplicated enough using the phone app, but editing 360 clips is a little more involved, though Insta360 does provide loads of help. Click here for tutorials

Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM GPS unit

Verdict: A straightforward-to-use little magic box that displays reams of useful information from gradients to hurry. When on a registered climb it reveals not only the gradient however the vertical and horizontal distance left to finish. Good, though syncing with fitness apps may be temperamental. Visit uk.wahoofitness.com/devices/bike-computers/elemnt-roam-buy. RRP £349.99.

Nalini

I wear unisex Gravel Socks (£12), a Men’s Ergo Warm Jersey (£120), Men’s Road Bib Shorts (£100), and a base layer (£43). Verdict: Extremely comfortable. For more information on Nalini products and to buy, visit www.occhio.cc

Fizik Vento Stabilita Carbon road bike shoes courtesy of the BOA Fit System.

Verdict: Incredible. These channel power superbly. And they give the impression of being super-classy. BOA Fit System ensures the snuggest of suits.

Sealskinz overshoe (£30)

Verdict: My feet are definitely warmer and dryer due to the overshoes, however the Lake District puddles and rain still discover a way in and I’m left with damp feet at the tip of my rides. To present Sealskinz the good thing about the doubt, the water can have are available in through the underside of the shoes or the highest of the boot, which has a slight gap. Visit www.sealskinz.com/products/all-weather-open-sole-cycle-overshoe. To seal the gap buy some Velotoze ‘cuffs’.

Oliver’s Travels

We stay in Little Nut Cottage, bookable through Oliver’s Travels

Verdict: Full review to return. 

Avanti West Coast

We use Avanti West Coast to succeed in the Lake District from London, travelling between London Euston and Oxenholme Lake District. Fares available from £30.90. Visit www.avantiwestcoast.co.uk

Old Stamp House Restaurant

Our post-Wrynose dinner is on the Old Stamp House Restaurant in Ambleside. 

Verdict: Full review coming soon.

Cumbria 

For more on the Lake District visit www.visitlakedistrict.com.

Verdict: Arguably Britain’s most photogenic landscapes. Simply spectacular. 

Disclaimer: Prices and knowledge correct at time of going to press. Gradient statistics can vary barely from source to source. Within the accompanying video, in my excitement, I say Wrynose Pass has a maximum gradient of ‘about 30 per cent’. Most sources agree, nevertheless, that 25 per cent is the utmost gradient. Either way, it’s tough.

 

sportinbits@gmail.com
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