MailOnline Travel’s Ted Thornhill takes a breather on Wrynose Pass in the Lake District – one of the toughest cycling hill climbs in 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 would appear to be the disc brakes on my state-of-the-art Trek road bike. Probably because I’ve been manically squeezing them for the past two and a half minutes as I hurtle down one of the most outrageous cycling roads in the UK – Wrynose Pass.
It’s a road with sustained, ferocious gradients of up to 25 per cent – wild enough to weary the legs and lungs of even the fittest and lithest cyclists. On the way up it doesn’t just weary me – it defeats me. And so does the ‘warm up’ climb – Blea Tarn. I have to dismount on both 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 conquer not just notorious hills such as Blea Tarn and Wrynose Pass, but a stretch of road reckoned to be one of the most challengingly steep in the country – the thigh-shredding, morale-shrivelling Hardknott Pass, which has gradients of up to 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 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’
Part of my preparation for the task ahead had been to watch YouTube videos of elite cyclists struggling to turn their pedals on the steepest section.
This didn’t fill me with much confidence, given that my fitness level is best described as being able to hold my own with the commuter peloton during my daily 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 swish Trek Domane SL6 with disc brakes (my regular bike has rim brakes, which does nothing for my nerves in the wet) and super-low ‘granny-friendly’ gearing – some Fizik Vento Stabilita Carbon road shoes with the Boa fit system (you just turn dials installed on the shoe to tighten them), some Sealskinz overshoes to help keep my feet warm and dry and some comfy, 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
Ted’s cycling comrade Colin, pictured en route to the Blea Tarn climb, with the Langdale Pikes looming beyond
I am also loaned an impressive handle-bar-mounted Wahoo Elemnt Roam GPS computer to guide me to the hilly terrors, and I have a quick chat on the phone with British Hill Climb Champion Andrew Feather for some tips.
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 thanks to an average speed of 10.4mph (16.7kph).
He tells me: ‘Hardknott Pass is one of the iconic climbs and ridiculously steep. Just stay within yourself and you’ll be fine. And remember, the hardest bit is the last third. Then there’s the descent, which is even steeper!’
And he finds Wrynose challenging, too. Well, he describes it as ‘a spectacular, really good climb’, which translated from Hill-Climb-Champion-ese for mere mortal cyclists means: ‘You’re going in the hurt locker. Get ready to weep.’
However, as I clip into my bike at Oxenholme Lake District station for the 23-mile (37km) ride west to our cottage near Grasmere, in the village of Elterwater, I’m feeling confident and the ride is exhilarating, despite the gusty November conditions.
We give our nerves a little test by detouring around Kendal along some treacherously steep and mulchy lanes, enjoy whooshing down the main 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 next day is potentially ill-advised – a couple of glasses of wine and a light ale with fish and chips in the welcoming pub next door, The Britannia Inn.
But it’s to bed at 9pm and in the morning, after Colin rustles up a magnificent full English, we’re ready to front up to 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 is 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
Catching a breath before the Blea Tarn climb
After a short while we turn left up an unmarked road, trundle past a couple of sheep grazing by the road and over a cattle grid – and then the pain begins.
The road here is marked on the Ordnance Survey map of the area with the ominous double chevron, denoting a gradient over 20 per cent.
It veers sharply upwards almost immediately and I’m straight into the lowest gear as sheep watch nonchalantly on.
I manage to cycle the very steepest bits but have to pause on two of the flatter sections to recuperate.
At the top the view back towards the Langdale Pikes is simply stupendous – and the descent down another double-chevron road hair-raising, but a huge 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
A sign letting road users know what they’re in for as they approach Wrynose Pass and Hardknott Pass
At the bottom it’s a sharp right to the 2.5km- (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, however, lulls you into a false sense of security, because it gently winds past the 17th-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 a few moments later, the incline rapidly becoming remorseless.
The Wahoo Roam, handily, is able to display gradients and on segments of road logged as a climb, it’ll tell you how many vertical feet you have left.
I have this function enabled and delight in 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’
I get a sense 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 up, the top section of the pass looming over me. I’m just exhausted. And the incline is such that I can’t clip back into my pedals to get started again.
So I’m forced to walk up to a less severe section to get going. But then peter out again before 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
Colin conquers the entire 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 at the steepest part he was almost pulling wheelies, needing to stay right over the handlebars to keep stable.
I feel disappointed, but also wowed by the epic landscape. My time? Thirty-three minutes and 45 seconds, at an average speed of 2.8mph.
Andrew Feather’s time? Nine minutes and 26 seconds at an average speed of 10mph.
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
The original Blea Tarn-Wrynose-Hardknott route mapped out on Ride with GPS
The plan is to push on to Hardknott Pass via a loop around the Birker Fell wilderness area to the south, but there is a major problem – the wind, which is frankly ridiculous.
I take a photo with my phone, but it’s nearly whipped out of my hand.
Directly ahead is a 25 per cent gradient road leading to 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 turn back, walking down the top section of Wrynose Pass as gusts rip across the road, then clipping back in and flying down the rest of the pass.
It’s agony on the ascent, like a roller coaster on the way down, with my dad belly hopefully giving me a bit of extra stability.
We regroup back at 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 quite long – 4.8km (three miles). These facts trouble me, but Colin assures me it’s not beyond my capabilities – not least because it features a short downhill section.
This certainly helps, as the hairpins at the very end are vicious – my Wahoo Roam registers a 26.5 per cent gradient as I go around them at 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
A stunning picture showing The final section of The Struggle during blue-sky weather
LEFT: Ted at the bottom of The Struggle, which is the venue for the 2023 National Hill Climb Championship. RIGHT: The end of The Struggle, where it joins Kirkstone Pass
The climb almost leaves me as a husk.
But, with the help of an Audi SUV driver passing in the opposite direction who eggs me on in the final stretch, I am 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 entire length of The Struggle.
We head back to our hygge-y cottage via a Kirkstone Pass descent and a ride over a wonderful lane above Ambleside that affords a breathtaking view of lake Windermere.
Ted’s odyssey sees him cycle around 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
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
The following day, after an incredible meal at ‘the world’s best restaurant’ in Ambleside (review to come), 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’ve 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 new 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 everything in its stride. Top marks for comfort and speed. And it looks absolutely splendid. Balfe’s expertly set the bike up and make sure I’m comfortable on it before setting off.
Thanks to Insta360 for a loan of an Insta360 One RS camera, which comes with two lenses – a 360 lens and a regular 4K lens.
Verdict: Overall, an excellent bit of kit. The picture quality is amazing on both lenses. A niggle – quite a firm press of the shutter button is needed to activate the camera, so if mounted on a helmet, it can be tricky to start a recording on the move (and in wind you can’t always hear the beep that tells you it’s recording). Editing regular 4K footage is straight forward enough using the phone app, but editing 360 clips is a bit more involved, though Insta360 does provide plenty of help. Click here for tutorials.
Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM GPS unit
Verdict: An easy-to-use little magic box that displays reams of useful information from gradients to speed. When on a registered climb it reveals not just the gradient but the vertical and horizontal distance left to complete. Brilliant, though syncing with fitness apps can be temperamental. Visit uk.wahoofitness.com/devices/bike-computers/elemnt-roam-buy. RRP £349.99.
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 purchase, 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 look super-classy. BOA Fit System ensures the snuggest of fits.
Sealskinz overshoe (£30)
Verdict: My feet are definitely warmer and dryer thanks to the overshoes, but the Lake District puddles and rain still find a way in and I’m left with damp feet at the end of my rides. To give Sealskinz the benefit of the doubt, the water may have come in through the bottom of the shoes or the top 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’.
We stay in Little Nut Cottage, bookable through Oliver’s Travels.
Verdict: Full review to come.
Avanti West Coast
We use Avanti West Coast to reach 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 at the Old Stamp House Restaurant in Ambleside.
Verdict: Full review coming soon.
For more on the Lake District visit www.visitlakedistrict.com.
Verdict: Arguably Britain’s most photogenic landscapes. Simply spectacular.
Disclaimer: Prices and information correct at time of going to press. Gradient statistics can vary slightly from source to source. In the accompanying video, in my excitement, I say Wrynose Pass has a maximum gradient of ‘about 30 per cent’. Most sources agree, however, that 25 per cent is the maximum gradient. Either way, it’s tough.