"Because it's there..."
Riding in the Lakes, not flying in a World Championship Rally car - we send Seb Marshall out on three epic rides in the heart of the Lake District...
We're often asked to help people plan routes in the Lakes, Dales and the Forest of Bowland. It's something we love doing - tailoring their needs and abilities to the surroundings that we have on offer rather than just posting a bunch of routes for anyone to follow (we do that too, by the way).
In most instances the person requesting doesn't really know the area very well in advance so we're helping them avoid "junk miles" and making sure they don't miss the best bits by accident. Sometimes though, it's just a case of pulling together a great set of important landmarks for someone that knows the area well - that was the case when Seb came to us for a little extra help. It only cost him a donation to Women's Aid too...
World Rally Championship Co-Driver, Seb Marshall, gets his adrenaline fix outside of the rally car by taking on the challenging terrain of the Yorkshire Dales on two wheels.
Not always a cyclist, Seb only discovered the joys of riding in 2013, inspired by British success at the Tour de France and London 2012. Having always had a fascination with maps and navigation, it felt like a natural progression to set about exploring the local lanes by bike.
Since then he's ridden countless iconic climbs in the Yorkshire region, as well as epic away trips to Andorra and the Alps. He'll seek out the hilliest routes around, enjoying the competition of attacking climbs with friends, as well as the escapism of a solo ride.
Seb approached us and asked for a bit of help honing some routes he'd planned for a weekend in the Lakes - taking on some of the biggest climbs in the #ColdDarkNorth from a base in the gorgeous Duddon Valley. We were happy to help, as always... Seb picks up the story of his three big rides:
"George Mallory, when questioned why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, famously replied: “Because it’s there”. While most of us operate at a somewhat more modest scale, his philosophy still seems particularly pertinent when considering why we push ourselves to our limits in pursuit of success and satisfaction. This is no account of an Everesting attempt by bike however, I’m not that crazy!
After months of being constrained to my local routes around the southern Yorkshire Dales, the news of lockdown restrictions being eased couldn’t have come soon enough. Afforded a little more freedom to explore, I ventured slightly further afield to tick off the iconic climbs of Winnats Pass, Rosedale Chimney, and perennial Cold Dark North favourite: Barbondale, to name but a few. All that remained was an eagerly anticipated 3-day getaway in the Lake District to conquer some classic Cumbrian climbs.
Joining me is regular cycling accomplice Tom, something of a rouleur, who’s discovering the Lake District by bike for the first time. As such, I’m tasked as being tour guide for the weekend. Despite not being the build of a climber, my friends will attest that I invariably select the road going up (Is there another way? - Ed). With that in mind, I’d crafted a number of routes cramming in as many mountain passes as possible. Drawing inspiration from Simon Warren’s expansive encyclopaedia of climbs, Cold Dark North’s detailed knowledge of the Lakeland lanes, and my own memories of countless drives around the area.
Ride One - A Tourist in the Lakes
Setting off from our delightful holiday cottage in the Duddon Valley, the warmup for the first obstacle of the day lasts a dreamy 800m as the road pitches upwards on the lower slopes of Kiln Bank Cross. Initially sheltered by high walls and trees, it’s only upon emerging from the tree cover through a stinging left-hand bend that we feel a nice push from behind with a strong wind that would be ever-present throughout the day. Having arrived the previous night under typically leaden Lake District skies, the morning sunshine reveals what a beautiful unspoilt location we are staying in and now climbing sharply away from.
Ticking off the opening climb within 10 minutes of starting the ride - as intros go, this is a tough one! Spirits are high, but what goes up quickly comes down, and we lose all the height we’d just gained to then ride up and over the ‘uncategorised’ climb of Broughton Moor (see recent #ColdDarkRides by Christina Wiejak - Ed). The wonderfully smooth rollercoaster of a road invites us to push the pedals that bit harder and press on in pursuit of a caravan that has just passed, making rapid progress to the southern end of Coniston Water. With an abrupt turn we head back up the eastern side of the lake, settling into a smooth rhythm on the road that dissects the lake and Grizedale Forest, taking our time to spin up the pleasingly consistent gradients of Hawkshead Hill. Even a puncture from an errant shard of glass couldn’t deflate the mood.
A series of undulating lanes lead us to the next hill on the route, the picturesque ascent of Red Bank. It’s not hard to see why this climb is so called, as the bracken that carpet its slopes possess a deep red hue at this time of year, dramatically illuminated in the autumnal sunlight. With the stiffer slopes dealt with early on, the road twist and turns, never revealing its full extent as each bend offers varying views of the charming Elterwater below. Short it may be, but quite possibly the most enjoyable climb of the day – the Fred Whitton is missing a trick by excluding this from its finale! (Urgh, Imagine. It would go slightly better at the start on the way out of Grasmere though - Ed)
A quick descent and the main road from Grasmere to Ambleside passes by briskly before facing the longest climb on the route. I’ve driven this road numerous times, watched the best in the world suffer on the upper slopes emerging through the mist on the 2016 Tour of Britain, and now, having ridden it, can confirm with certainty that it’s deserving of its moniker ‘The Struggle’. The steep lower section seems to last an age as we gradually winch ourselves away from the fringes of town. Any chance of respite on the brief downhill that follows is nullified by the stiff Northerly - what was a help before is most definitely a hindrance now, as a block headwind ensures progress is stunted on this exposed traverse.
It gives us plenty of time to contemplate the 25% wall that snakes ahead, rising up to the Kirkstone Inn at the top. I catch myself thinking perhaps it would be better to ride like the pros did on that day 4 years ago: in amongst the clouds, ignorant to the cruel climax that lies in wait. Having already been in the red for nearly 20 minutes, I can see why Bradley Wiggins emulated Chris Froome’s antics by jumping off his bike and walking up this climb!
I collapse over my bars, gasping for air, able to utter only a few exasperated words. Unsurprisingly, given the terrain, it’s a pattern that will be repeated often over the coming days. Mercifully, this period of intense suffering is followed by a long and exhilarating descent back to Windermere and a chance to refuel at the fabulous Fresher’s café in Ambleside. The brief respite and caffeine fix are most welcome, for there is a sting in the tail of my route planning. Spinning along the sinuous roads towards Great Langdale goes some way to ease any residual ‘café legs’, taking in the stunning views of the Langdale Pikes. Having not visited this corner of the Lakes until last year, it’s fast becoming one of my favourite places to explore.
Upon reaching the end of the valley we round a sharp left turn, and like a punch to the face the brutal twists of the climb to Blea Tarn commence. Had I known that the Strava segment started on the false flat a few hundred metres earlier, a good time could have been on the cards. The fearsome headwind on The Struggle is now aligned to a more favourable direction – no need to stand out of the saddle on the 20% switchbacks such is the level of assistance from behind!
Another pause for some pictures in this most photogenic of landscapes and we cascade down the sketchy descent to the foot of the final climb - the monster that is Wrynose Pass. There’s much debate as to what is the hardest climb to be found in the Lake District. With 90km and 2000m climbing already in our legs, I’m firmly in the camp that says this is it.
From the farm at the bottom there’s no let up for the next 2km, as the road seems to become impossibly steeper, the surface even more corrugated the further you climb as we struggle to maintain forward motion battling against gravity. Crawling over the top there’s a sense of relief and immense satisfaction at having conquered some of the toughest roads in the land, and joy at the prospect of a 12km downhill run for home. Hardknott can wait for another day…
Ride Two - Unfinished Business + a Small Gap in Schedule
Not content with just hiking up the Old Man of Coniston as planned on our second afternoon in the Lakes, I escape for an early morning solo assault on Hardknott Pass & Birker Fell whilst my companions lay asleep. With the mercury barely hitting 4°C as the sun crests the peaks, flooding the valley in a warm orange glow, I already feel like I’ve won this day. This isn’t a ride to be bothered by power numbers or segments, rather to take in the beautiful landscape without another soul around.
Tackling Hardknott from the ‘easy’ side (if you can call the eastern, ski slalom-like flank of the climb that), I summit in reasonable time. From the top of the pass the Eskdale valley stretches out below me with amazing views across to the Isle of Man. The descent on the other hand is anything but amazing, the rippled surface and step-like pitches make this a more challenging proposition than ascending.
With the valley floor still in the shadow of the Lakeland fells, some swift pedalling maintains body heat and ensures the turn for home and the start of Birker Fell is reached in next to no time. Another of the favourites of Simon Warren & Cold Dark North – on this crisp blue-sky morning I can see why. What it lacks in savage and unrelenting gradients it makes up for in the most magnificent of views across open moorland to the commanding peaks beyond. There’s no sign of man’s influence on the landscape up here, save for the road I’m riding on. It really is quite a special place to ride a bike – that’s not to say it is an easy climb, however! A long and steepening descent towards Dunnerdale and I’m back to the cottage just in time for breakfast. The best 20-mile loop you’re likely to find? It’s certainly a strong contender. (And one of the stabbiest. Especially the other way around! - Ed)
Ride Three - An Up North Trip
For the grand finale of the weekend we planned a route encompassing the triptych of climbs in the Northern Lakes. With a gentle roll out from Keswick along the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake, the easy hour to start the day does a good job of loosening up tired legs ahead of Newlands Pass.
The sustained late September sunshine has resulted in an influx of visitors to this usually secluded part of the National Park. The approach to Buttermere and early slopes are more like an obstacle course, as those who are yet to discover the delights of travelling by two wheels fight to find a parking space. Once clear of the melee of cars, the challenge continues; suffering on the upper slopes to reach the summit of Newlands Hause, only then turning around to appreciate the wonder of what we’ve just climbed up.
Flying down the fast-paced descent through the Newland Valley to Stair and then Braithwaite is a fantastic way to recover before the climb up Whinlatter Pass. Whilst we wouldn’t be troubling the timekeepers of the hill climb that had taken place the day before, we still give it a little nudge in homage to newly crowned World Champion Julian Alaphillipe. I was stood roadside to witness his attacking gusto when the Tour of Britain visited in 2018. Whilst he may not have won that day he put on a great show and further cemented his status as fan favourite. Allez Begbie!
The road from Lorton running alongside Crummock Water is so spectacular we return for a second look. I’m not normally one to traverse a road multiple times in one ride, but in this instance it’s worth making an exception, for our next destination is the sublime Honister Pass. A moment’s pause to take on some food and drink does little to prepare us for this brutal but beautiful ascent, another to have featured in the Tour of Britain, although in very different conditions.
I’m reminded of Fleet Moss in the Yorkshire Dales, where the whole climb is laid out before you, rising up ever steeper as it disappears away into the distance. This real-world version of a ramp test is even more stinging than Yorkshire’s highest road, and the final kilometre to the slate mines at the top feels to last an eternity.
The imposing gateway near the summit reminds me of the entrance to Jurassic Park (or Mordor - Ed), but it’s just as well we’re not being chased by Velociraptors, as the out of the saddle effort required to grind our way to the top (even with a 32t cassette!) is at a speed measured in single digits. Recalling the way in which Nairo Quintana and Dan Martin floated up here in the pouring rain is a stark reminder of just how big the gulf is between them and us mere mortals.
All that remains is to tackle the tricky descent into Seatoller and onto the fantastically rolling road of Borrowdale. Another puncture (Vittoria Corsa’s since you ask, not mine I hasten to add!) is the final hurdle to be passed before we finish off a fabulous ride at the Little Chamonix café in Keswick – the doorstop sized wedge of cake going some way to redress my sizeable energy deficit.
Coffee in hand, reflecting on a rewarding weekend, we agree that cycling up these savagely steep and unrelenting climbs is surely the epitome of Type-2 fun. There’s arguably no better place to practice this punishing pursuit than the stunning terrain of the Lake District."
If you're travelling to the Lakes, the Dales or the Forest of Bowland, for the price of a small donation to Women's Aid, we can help you plan or hone your routes to make sure you get the best possible rides available. We can't promise that weather though!
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