Updated: Jan 22, 2020
Someone wise once said of the Lune Racing Cycling Club's Coal Road Challenge:
"If you need every junction marshalled, are unsure how maps work, find reading instructions difficult, and can't time your own ride...This is not the event for you. If, however, you can manage these simple tasks and want to save about £40 then perhaps a Reliability Ride is worth a try."
What we love about this matter of fact appraisal is that it covers everything you need to know about the Coal Road Challenge: it's relatively short, self sufficient, packed with attitude, steeped in visceral Northern history and refreshingly lacking in pomp or circumstance.
You can ride it in February each year at the Lune RCC's open reliability ride or you can rock up whenever you like and take in the beautiful views of the Lune Valley, the Yorkshire Dales and the fringes of the Forest of Bowland at your own speed. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
In this blog we're hoping to give first timers a heads up of what to expect from this iconic ride in the Cold Dark North. First thing's always first: research. We used James Allen's excellent 50 Classic Cycle Climbs of Cumbria and the Lake District and the well known 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs by Simon Warren to give the skinny on the main hills involved.
The route features 105km of undulating terrain with two major climbs of note - Gawthrop Hill takes you up to the top of the stunning and rewarding descent of Barbondale down to Kirkby Lonsdale. But before that, you must master the climb up the Coal Road itself from Garsdale Head Station.
The latter rates 7/10 for Warren and 9/10 for Allen on their respective difficulty scales. Either way, it's eye watering on a cold February morning - reaching nearly 30% gradient in places and stretching for nearly 4km. Allen notes that it "appears almost like a wall on the approach from the East. The sight of it causes a double take just to be certain your eyes aren't playing tricks on you, but they aren't and it will be upon you very shortly". He's not wrong.
But to only worry about these two notable climbs is to overlook the fact that the roads point mostly up straight from the off. In fact, the first 50-60km to even reach the base of Garsdale Head basically feel like a false flat all the way.
From the Lancastrian start at Bull Beck Picnic Area (a free site to park all day with a decent cabin cafe if you're doing this ride on your own time) you wind through the idyllic Lune Valley and skirt along the Northern edge of the untroubled and unspoiled Forest of Bowland (a topic for a future Road Gauge, no doubt). These roads will seem eerily quiet to those used to cycling in Surrey, Essex and Bucks, not to mention the urban laps warriors of Regents and Richmond Parks.
After 21km there's a sharp dig to get out of the town of Ingleton and up onto the Yorkshire Dales proper.
Riders will hope there isn't a headwind for the next 25km to Hawes as this section of road is as exposed and open as it is beautiful. At not quite halfway to Hawes you cycle past the iconic Ribblehead Viaduct, a chance to pause and take a few flicks for the folks back home.
Be careful when you do arrive at Hawes, there's a very sharp drop of at least 15% into the village with a sudden left turn at the bottom. On making the turn at Hawes the route heads back to Cumbria and the infamous first climb of the day - remember the wall that Allen warned you about, it's coming.
The climb itself starts at Garsdale Head Railway Station and rises sharply up on to the top of the Yorkshire Dales where the amazing views are your reward for around 15 minutes of agony. There is about 2km of respite along the Coal Road itself before you plunge down the other side to the village of Cowgill and Dentdale - from where the mines gave the road its name. Again, be careful on the way down as the surface can be treacherous in both the wet and dry and there are some sharp hairpins at the bottom.
After riding through Cowgill to the cobbled streets of Dent, riders can stop for refreshments or use the public loos and then brace themselves for the shorter, less steep climb of Gawthrop Hill (a mere 8/10 for Allen!).
This climb is around 1.6km long and peaks at 20%, it's definitely the little sister of the two, but with 72km in your legs, it stings. The reward at the end, however, is worth every sinew stretched.
We believe that the roll from the top of Barbondale is amongst the best anywhere in the UK. It's about 7 or 8km of virtual freewheeling through a secret steep-sided valley and then on to the bustling market town of Kirkby Lonsdale and the final 20km of relatively flat fast roads through the tranquil Lune Valley back to Bull Beck.
If you do the reliability ride, you'll have earned your certificate and Cold Dark North badge. If you do it on your own, you'll have earned a bacon sandwich and a big-marshmallowed hot chocolate from the cabin.
Come and join us on 26 Feb for the Lune RCC ride, or, if you can't make it come and ride this historic and beautiful route whenever you can.