We're often asked for help with routes that people are putting together as well as guidance on local hills to seek out or avoid. It was with a degree of glee that we responded to a recent request for a super-tough, 200km DIY Audax route with explicit instructions that "hills were fine".
But we're getting ahead of ourselves again. We're going to be introducing some guest content (and with it colour) to the Road Gauge over the coming months. First up is Jason Hemingway. Jason is an accomplished audax rider and (forgivably) a Yorkshireman. He asked, we answered. Here's his account of what we called a "f***ing Hard Day Out" and what became the Cold Dark North Grimpeur:
The Planning Stage
It started a bit like this…’forgive the intrusion mate…’ (I got in touch with Tobes out of the blue through Insta), ‘but would you be interested in putting a route together for me & a few pals to ride through the Lakes early October?…’
As a back drop the route needed to be minimum 200km for a DIY Audax, and I mentioned hills were no problem. Now, there are hills and there are hills, but after confirming that indeed any hills are fine, Tobes agreed to put something together and to be honest, couldn’t have been more receptive and positive.
I suspect on reflection, he rubbed his hands together like a pantomime villain but true to his word I received by email 2 route options, with a detailed explanation of both.
We decided on the less Hollywood route, which although it missed out Hardknott Pass featured Wrynose Pass as well as other brutal climbs less commonly talked about outside of the Lakes but which really demonstrated the beauty and challenges of cycling in the Lake District. A ferry ride across Bowness also added to the excitement.
I put the route and the date planned out to the group and waited for a raft of positive shouts of ‘I’m in’, and ‘Can’t wait…’, however I got nothing of the sort and the 200km, 4500m route had already separated the men from the boys. Myself and 3 hardy boys from Shibden CC, Craig Wood, Mark Rooney & Chris Thomson agreed to do it and then set about trying to forget about it.
Then the day came, 15th October 2017 and at 06:00am we were heading to Devils Bridge to rendezvous and begin the day.
And So It Begins
To be clear none of us were strangers to long days in the saddle or hilly routes, having completed Tan Hill 200 or Fred Whitton recently etc. between some of us so it was more excitement than nerves that pushed us along.
After leaving Kirby Lonsdale on the road it wasn’t long before we were on to the country lanes and weaving our way over part road part track terrain rolling nicely over the gravel, wet leaves and running water. It was one of those rare nice sunny weekends in October which everywhere but the Lake District benefited from, however we agreed the grey mist made the route more authentic.
In the distance we saw a lady weaving her way slowly on a fully loaded touring bike, we offered a customary hello and continued on our way up BackO’the fell before reaching a small crossroads the Garmin was struggling to navigate beyond. We had 3 options; left, right or straight forward up a tight shaded lane with heavy tree cover, running water and an abundance of wet leaves. Oh, and a sign which said 20%. We had reached Tow Top, a beauty – a climb that weaves through tight bend after tight bend over what must be described as an awful surface. Rear wheel spin added to the difficulty because of the gravel and wet leaves, pot holes and running rain water but it just made it more memorable. We all rated this climb highly and it is a must do for a serious climber, not just the gradient but the obstacles along the way.
Hill After Hill
The climbs were coming thick and fast and we were being spoilt with the scenery and spent the next few KM’s wondering if we had hit the named climbs yet because the ‘last one seemed like it might’ve been it’. We climbed up through Woodland Fell taking in the views and at the top decided to stop for a photo. Not sure a photo does it justice; or the model…
After a fantastic descent we decided Broughton was the best place for a cafe stop and a group of friendly local cyclists we got chatting to agreed as they were heading there. They told us to be quick as the cafe closed in 10 minutes – we were 20 minutes away.
We made it, and ordered a combination of baked beans that were harder than our bike helmets, and fried eggs that would assist with any shredded tyre mechanicals but the ham and chips smuggly ordered by Craig was the best option. A local dog took a liking to me and so I fed it my beans knowing I would have the last laugh on the owner with a hefty vets bill.
Corney Fell and Birker Fell
We made our way up the deceptively steep A595, and got separated as Marks impatience meant he came back to find me, however I had taken the correct turn and met the other 2 so after ringing Mark and firing up a flare, he found us and we regrouped – next stop Corney Fell.
Corney Fell is one of those climbs you don’t want to end, 12% for a long time but rolls nicely and the breathtaking views and massive open expanse makes you realise how far you really are from civilisation. Loved it – as I reached the top I saw a Mountain Rescue vehicle and a couple of volunteers dressed ready for action. They smiled at me, I know it was out of pity, so I asked them if it was possible to be clinically dead but still pedal, it seemed I only amused myself.
I was again last to the top but that meant I had less time in the rain and drizzle that you associate with being in the middle of a cloud – this was to be it for the day in terms of weather, it never left us.
Another spectacular descent and some more rolling hills took us quicker than we’d imagined to Birker Fell – a new climb to us which was magic in every way. A 4.7km, 265m climb which hits 25% in places but worth every pedal stroke and grunt for the scenery and reward of the descent. Craig Mark & Chris made great progress and I was now getting used to seeing their bums but managed to focus on the views as it meandered round the bends and up and up. Oncoming traffic was a concern but it just meant the zig-zagging had to be timed better.
The Mini Incident
The descent to Ulpha was another beauty and thoughts were now turning to Wrynose Pass and more importantly the timing of the last ferry which was closed the previous day due to the swell of Windermere owing to the amount of rain. We couldn’t waste any time sprinting up Wrynose and as we made the turning at the junction to head towards the valley between Wrynose and Hardknott Pass we afforded ourselves a glance back at the looming beast that just looked brutal and after dismissing any debate about diverting up it we made our way along a great road with running streams, fantastic colours, boulders and oncoming cars towards Wrynose…thank god for being unsure about the ferry times…
Wrynose Pass is famous and it’s not hard to see why, reaching 30% in places and ramping up quickly- it didn’t disappoint – my racing snake riding companions made good progress and I was pleased with my effort, particularly after passing a guy pushing his Tour De Fer and having made brief small talk as I passed him (such was the pace), I put my eyes back on the road to see a Mini hurtling towards me right at the tightest highest point which required me to find some considerable extra, unavailable effort to dodge a major incident. I managed it thankfully but was sure I had made a small contribution to the bib-short industry.
The decent was amazing, and it makes you realise Wrynose is a climb of 2 halves – we clearly had the easier Pass but nobody was complaining, except Chris, he complains a lot and this was now starting to kick in.
What Time's the Ferry Pal?
The route up through Blea Tarn and Great Langdale was awesome and me and Chris chatted about his holidays in the area and how he knows the climbs really well having done them all previously, a story I hadn’t heard for 7 minutes so I showed lots of interest as we made our way to the ferry crossing.
We reached a cross roads and it was approaching 4:30, on a Sunday so considering a cancelled ferry might not be the best thing for us we decided to ask a local if he knew what time the last ferry was – we could’ve googled it but we were in the land that time forgot and phone signals were at an all time low – the local was assumed to be as such because he was sat in a bus shelter in outdoor clothes, rucksack and walking boots.
4 seconds after asking him, his heavy American accent, shrugged shoulders and confession he was ‘not from round here’ made us realise we might not get our answer. But as Americans are not shy and like to get involved he proceeded to look at his phone, you know the same phone as us with no signal. He kept refreshing it and we made small talk, it wasn’t going to happen and we’re wasting time. Mark rode off to ask at the local hotel, Craig, remarkably cool in pressure situations owing to his considerable age, decided to call his wife to check. So the phone works but data doesn’t; how quaint.
Success, we had time as the last ferry wasn’t until late – but would we make it? We thanked the American for his *ahem* help and headed off at pace.
We reached Hawkshead in good time and stopped for food at the COOP which was made up largely of pork pies, crisps chocolate and other healthy snacks but spent calorie count exceeded 3600 so it was ok. We asked whoever was prepared to listen if the ferry was running and nobody knew despite it being 2miles away – we ate up and risked it.
As we approached the ferry terminal no cars were coming in the other direction so we were getting a bit tense, as this would add considerable time and effort to the journey, a point not wasted on the otherwise positive Chris who muttered, ‘it’s not running, it’s cancelled, we’re doomed’ at least 17 times.
We turned the corner as the ferry pulled in.
We boarded the ferry, swapped opinions on the best climb of the day thinking we’d definitely broken the back of the route. Mark turned into a ferry spotting tourist. Craig ate 9 bars of chocolate and Chris morphed into the selfie king taking pictures of himself from every angle possible. The ferry pulled in just in time before Chris went for the naked one.
The Greyhound and the Lights
Tobes had warned me about the Greyhound which kicked in at 180km, we were a little way off yet, however as we made our way out of Bowness Craig’s rickety bike decided to get even rickety(er?) and Mark and him stopped to perform a mechanical repair which basically meant ripping off the front mudguard – Chris and I had rode on and we made our way up various climbs including a very special one known as Underbarrow [to Scout Scar]. The reason I mentioned the Greyhound was we thought this climb was it which wasn’t so bad, but the distance in didn’t seem right. We were mistaken. Chris had a mini bonk and had to stop, the inseparable Mark and Craig caught us up and having narrowly avoided being taken out by an impatient idiot, we made our way into the night fall.
3 of us had decent lights, 1 of us did not and as night fell we were horrified to realise that the 1000’s of dots that make a rear light visible didn’t have the same effect if 999 of them didn’t work. Chris was having to rely on the occasional blink of a lonely red dot so we agreed to sandwich him in the middle. At this point my phone died so photos were no longer possible.
We hit the Greyhound, or should I say the Greyhound hit us, a magnificent test considering the KM’s in the legs already, nightfall and the weather but we grinded and weaved our way up it under the canopy of the trees making it even darker for what seemed like forever. At last, I wasn’t last up a Hill. At the top we had to stop as Chris had now lost his front light. Not good.
Chris found his way in between those of us with proper lights so we could protect him and the route had more surprises as Tobes sent us left, right, up, up, up and down then left then up some dark unlit, tricky roads which in daylight may’ve been stunning, at this point in the ride they were tricky.
As I hope there is a cross section of people read this I can’t possibly write what Chris was shouting but let’s just say, parentage was called into question, ‘give me his effin’ number’, ‘he’s having a laugh’ and ‘has he even ridden this’ were repeated a few times over.
Craig continued to baby sit Chris in the dark as he lit the way but as time went on, Craig pulled away and left Chris alone on very lanes as me and Mark sat behind laughing as he had to drop back to take refuge from our lights. Craig was protesting his innocence.
Shrieks filled the night air as cramp took hold of Chris mid climb and he threw himself off his bike, danced for a while, wigged out and remounted. We laughed, he didn’t. We made our way back to Kirby to finish a brilliant day.
We mounted the bikes, shared memories of the day and promised to do a similar one again and went in separate cars home.
I couldn’t help but notice a guy pulling out in the car in front and hurtling down the street with no lights on, I checked again – I was right, it was Chris.
A magnificent day in the Lakes, thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated so thanks to Tobes & ColdDarkNorth
125miles in old money, 13,455 feet in older money and an average speed of 12.6mph.
You can see their Cold Dark North Grimpeur Activity here: https://www.strava.com/activities/1232236466 and if you want a similar (or entirely different Route in the Cold Dark North, get in touch!