Our new series "Cold Dark Rides" is all about asking the riders, friends and businesses of the Cold Dark North to share with us their favourite places to ride bikes. Local knowledge is one of our key strengths, but you don't just want ours, so we're bringing together some of the best photographers, bike riders and brands in our beautiful area and giving you their views too. Literally.
The brief was basic: give us 5 photos and descriptions of the places you love to ride and a bit of blurb on yourself. Over the coming months we'll be sharing their secret climbs, epic rides and favourite spots here in the Road Gauge and on Instagram.
Ladies first. Our inaugural #ColdDarkRides comes from Ele Suggett, a talented photographer, fearsome randonneur and (just) resident of the Cold Dark North.
Ele is relatively new to cycling, having bought a bike for her commute through London in the winter of 2014. The daily 10km journey soon grew into weekend sojourns out of the city, and from there, her obsession with all things ‘bicycle’ continues to grow in somewhat of an exponential fashion.
In 2016, she rode over 15,000km, and in 2017 finished London-Edinburgh-London in 113 hours. Now based in Liverpool, she spends weekends discovering new, wet and windy roads with her northern companions. A museum Curator, work still takes her to the capital where she likes to spend time going around in circles and eating pizza. She isn’t fast. She hates headwinds. Rain doesn’t bother her. She loves catapulting herself downhill, in a bid to try and get uphill after. And despite the numerous accidents, she wouldn’t give up cycling for the world.
Llyn Stwlan – Snowdonia, Wales || 2.7km, 10% average (July 2016) https://veloviewer.com/segments/1398283
Leaving the small village of Tanygrisiau, head west, keeping the Pant Mawr slate mines in constant view ahead of you. The deep grey acute crevices cut into the side of the mountain by hand – as industrial as they look - are beautiful scars on the landscape, reminders of Snowdonia’s lost industrial past.
The entrance to Llyn Stwlan is actually pretty hard to find – the road was built in the 1950’s as an access path for the reservoir higher up – which feeds the Blaenau Ffestiniog Power station. But the awkward climbs over the many gates is a good thing – it means the road is completely off limits to vehicles. There is nothing but 2.7km of pretty rubbish road, and some incredibly raw and rugged views over Snowdonia.
Continue straight up the road for the first 1.5km – you’ll jump from side to side, where the road has spilt in parts, with grass shoots coming up through. It starts to level out, and to your right, the dam begins to show is glorious, concrete, brutalist self. Carry on – its here that things get interesting as you traverse this "Welsh Stelvio". The switchbacks, as beautiful as they look, are what make the average gradient tip into double figures. Keep pushing, and don’t be fooled into stopping at the foot of the dam – continue up for a further 200m, where the road leads to the very top, and take a sharp left-hand turn. From here you can cycle right along the wall of the dam and on to the other side, allowing for views that stretch across the northern mountains of Wales, and down across the snaking roads just conquered.
Winnats Pass – The Peak District || 2.3km, 9.4% average (May 2015) https://veloviewer.com/segments/6698034
And then think greener.
No amount of drizzly British days can remove the glorious hue that radiates from the long-collapsed limestone caves that created the slopes surrounding this climb. Two years ago, this was the climb that broke in my much-loved Colnago – and we haven’t looked back since. It's just outside the normal geography of the Cold Dark North, but it's well worth riding on the way up!
Pass through the town of Castleton, and join the conveyor belt of cyclists. You’ll know you’re on the right path when you see the cyclists ahead slowly drop off as the gradient rises. Firstly, they dipped right into the car park already brimming with motorists. Then they turn left, stopping for water and snacks in the café. Within moments of the car park cattle grid, the glory of this climb truly sets in. 5m further, then 10m. The pedal strokes slowing down incrementally with every push. And with every push, you think how much longer. I’m not sure if the stares of drivers coming the other way is encouraging, or not – their mouths slightly a jar at the slight of someone coming up the other way through choice. But the smell of their burning brake pads offers the climbing cyclist a temporary high, pushing them past the hidden bend.
The bend only reveals more road at a similar gradient - two years ago, this was the hardest climb I had done (now overtaken by Bwlch y Groes in North Wales), and wasn’t sure if my legs could push much that hard for much longer. But thankfully, the last km or so is a false flat, in single figure gradients. So, whilst you’re still moving at a snail’s pace, your knees are grateful of the relief.
Hawkshead Hill Climb, from Coniston, to Tarn Hows – Lake District || 2.6km, 6.8% average (January 2017)
Hiding in the central lakes, this hidden gem of an incline lies to the north of Coniston water. Heading north, take the B5285 from Coniston, and follow the road for a couple of km’s. The flat road is surrounded by beautiful pastures, as well as the stillness of Coniston Water, sadly only at you your side for a short time. After you leave the tip of this lake behind you, you’ll find yourself taking a left turn, feeling the rise in the roads gradient imminently.
It’s a quiet, uneven road, with a little gravel that sits uncomfortably under your tyres, left behind by the tractors and Land Rovers - the usual inhabitants of this stretch. Not so much of a slog, but a gentle grind up, round bends, surrounded by collections of district pines. Dry stone walls follow you up for the first km, which flattens for a short while, before creeping up again towards 7 or 8%.
One can comfortably sit back in the saddle and take in the snippets of countryside offered through the cracks in the trees – it’s not hard, apart from a few sharp bends – but it does go on for a little while. After about 2km, you’ll come to a cross roads, sign posted ‘Hawkshead Hill’. Take the left hand turn here towards Tarn Hows and continue up the road for just under a km until you reach the white guest house.
A sharp left onto the single path, and things become noticeably wilder. In autumn, the fading redness of the fallen leaves and bracken ignites the road ahead. Lichen covers the tall walls that lead you to the top of this very gentle climb. And it is sublime.
For about 1.5km, continue along until you reach a heathery plateau, offering a moments peace amid the windy landscapes just passed. I can recommend parking your bike in the small layby on the right-hand side of the road, against the locked gate. Look to the road ahead as it nips and tucks into the swelling surrounding fields, meeting with the hiking paths that circle the tarn. Views across the shallower mountains of the lake district are met with the skies reflection in the rugged waters surface. Continue, as the road traverse back down the hill until you meet with the town of Coniston once more.
Lythe Fell Road Climb and (down) the Cross o Greet - Forest of Bowland || 9.1km, 6-7 % average (August 2017)
The Forest of Bowland landscape is the stuff behind the words of Ted Hughes, the open moors are charged, and rugged, and raw, and beautiful.
This climb was featured at the end of a long few days, when I cycled from Edinburgh, to London. Day 2, from Nine Banks to Slaidburn, offered numerous ways in which to cross the Forest – and this route was recommended to me by Toby from the Cold Dark North as part of my 200km journey. The Forest rarely features in touring or climbing articles, especially given its proximity to its northern bigger brother – the Lakes.
But my… there is a plurality of amazing roads here, so it was hard to chose just one. The beauty of Lythe Fell is that there are no surprises. But therein also lies the problem - you see it coming – the distant road stretching across the moors. You see its unrelenting gradient at the same time. You can also see the rough energy sucking gravelling broken surface of the single track. I slightly dread heading up the fell – I had 170km and 2500m of climbing already in my legs having crossed the Pennines and some of the Lakes.
The fell road is the perfect strip of tarmac from which to take it all in. The passing places are superfluous to use, because there is not another soul here for miles, save the company of the trees that make up Gisburn forest – nodding in the distant wind to your left. On a clear day, you can see Wolfhole Cragg on your right, but it soon disappears as you begin to descend down the Cross o Greet towards Slaidburn.
But - as much as you want to believe it might be – it’s not a full downhill all the way. On approach to a small car park, you’ll see the road disappear up through the trees – continue up for a bit and save your energy. You’ll come out soon enough, with the small forest sitting to your right. Here is respite from the usual headwind that travels over the moors, a sapper of anyone’s energy levels. It is times like this, on roads such as Lythe Fell, that you can slowly come to love winds. Watching it shape the landscape and acutely sculpt the hedgerows, gently bellowing across the heathers, creating hued waves for miles.
Continue over the cattle grid, where the single track ‘undulates’ in varying degrees a little more – perhaps for 4 or 5 more kilometres, before descending actually down into Slaidburn. You will know you’re near the village, after passing the abandoned stone manse on your left.
Shaley Brow – Liverpool || 2.1km, 12% average (too many times) http://veloviewer.com/segment/705525
My current home is Liverpool, one of the larger cities on the southern boundary of what we think of as the Cold Dark North. As with any city, you don’t have to travel far from its heart to find hills. The foot of Shaley can be found just past the village of Kings Moss, 15 or so miles east of Liverpool. Perhaps the best approach is actually from the North of Liverpool, heading in the direction of Bickerstaffe, and then on to Rainford. A few turns will then take you over a small bridge, and the climb begins as you pass a small road on your left which leads to Kings Moss.
It’s the sort of climb that both the spirited climber, and the novice, can take. It’s just long enough, and steep enough, for any seasoned pedal dancer to be put in their place – but equally as gentle when taken at a slower pace – good for saddle dwellers such as myself.
Don’t be fooled by the first kilometer, which ascends through the trees. Once past the golf course, it ramps up to an average of 14%, and it’s here that the surrounding trees gather together, blocking the light, occasionally highlighting the road ahead. Several deep breaths, and a sharp bend to the left leads to flatter (but not flat) ground in which one can take several large breaths, before carrying on further up Crank Road. Sight of the beacons shows your nearly there. Crest, and your job is done. I have been known to sit in the field to the left handside of the top, marking new PB’s with a cleated victory dance.
From these fields, and on a clear day, you can see over to North Wales – but for those carrying on, the descent on the other side is smooth, glorious, and gracefully fast – its the sort of road that allows you to build up the sort of speed that makes your eyes water.
You can find Ele on Instagram and out in the wild on her bike. Be warned though, she's not one for short distances.