Sunday 24 April 2022

Tackling the Lake District climbs

It had been a long time since I had done the Fred Whitton Challenge - more than 10 years. Back in those days it was a case of entering the event as soon as entries open, and getting your place. Nowadays, with the popularity of the race, that is no longer the case and entries are granted on a ballot basis. I thought I would have a punt and sent in my entry in January, half thinking that I would receive the consolatory, "sorry you haven't been successful email" as I usually get with other ballot events like the London Marathon and the Great North Run.

But to my surprise, I was notified that I had received a place - well, how about that! As it was early February I knew I had time to prepare - after all, I was preparing for the Etape du Tour anyway and I had resolved to get in more cycling events this year. For the Fred, I would just need to make sure that my rides included excruciatingly steep climbs in order to be able to tackle all those infamous passes - Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter and the terrible duo of Hardknott followed by Wrynose. 

So I fed myself a regular diet of hills around Crystal Palace, and at weekends trips to the Kent Hills - Ricketts Hill, Hosey Hill, Toys Hill/Puddledock, the mighty Yorks Hill, and the last sting in the tail on Hogtrough Hill. Surrey Hills also provided good testers on Cold Harbour, Ranmore, Leith Hill, Whitedown, and of course the old favourite at Box Hill.

Along the way, I also did a trip to the Peak District where I cycled around the hills near Matlock, then went up to the Lake District. 

The Lake District definitely felt like a step from what I'd been used to. There's that moment when you go up the first climb, which over there would just be a little warm-up for a local rider, and wouldn't even make any impact on them. For me, it was a significant effort!

That climb for me, was Lickbarrow Road, near my lodgings at Bowness-on-Windermere. Crikey, would I survive the day??! 

I just tried to keep believing that I would be okay, and anyway at the limit I could just turn round and go home along a valley road to Bowness. Giving myself that get-out clause made me feel more relaxed and willing to carry on with my ride.

Eventually I got around some interesting places - Strawberry Bank, Fell Foot Brow, Windermere, a ferry across the lake, Sawrey and the biggest climb of the day, The Struggle to the Kirkstone Pub. That was a tough old challenge, but being able to ride the whole thing gave me a confidence boost.

My following day of riding involved the dreaded Hardknott and Wrynose Passes, but not without going over Hawkshead Hill, down to Coniston and then over the Old Rake, Broughton Mills and Birker Fell. Some of the climbs were in areas that don't get much publicity among the cycling community. Sure everyone knows about Hardknott, Wrynose, Kirkstone, etc. But the climbs that go out towards the villages of Ulpha, Torver and Broughton-in-Furness are less talked about. 

Lake Windermere

The Old Rake was a real quad buster. I actually hit it in too high a gear, and though I managed to just about get up it, it was a screamer of a climb and very stressful as the road was narrow. I felt ready to just shout at an oncoming car to get out of the way to let me just finish my struggle on a slightly clear bit of road. Someone was watching over me as no vehicle came by and a car only appeared, once I'd pulled into the side of the road to get my breath back. 

Having regained a bit of energy and composure I restarted my ride along this lonely backroad that still climbed, though with a much more manageable gradient than the initial scary section. Riding along, I took the time to admire the local landscape - which was beautifully desolate. It was all just heather and sheep, with a few rocky outcrops. I wondered why there is such a dearth of cyclists around this area. Sure the gradient will put people off, but there's no shortage of folks on Honister and Hardknott passes, which are even steeper.

I can only imagine that the Old Rake and Broughton Fells are not big tourist areas, and I guess that the many cyclists who are bagging climbs on the various lists of bucket list climbs don't feel the same bragging rights when they say "I conquered the Old Rake" - [the Old what?] compared to saying "I conquered Wrynose Pass".

My route took me through some bijou farm villages near Broughton Mills, then I was hit with another stinker of a climb - Birker Fell, a brutal 25% ramp that hit me as soon as I turned right from the main road. This time there were vehicles travelling in both directions on this challenging ramp, though they all mercifully gave way to me, probably with a mixture of pity and admiration.

I must say, this area is pretty spectacular. You are high up above everything else around, and there are incredible views across the various valleys. After the initial 25% climb you are still climbing, though it is a combination of false flat and gentle climbing, and the route just continues up and up. It wasn't totally desolate, as there were various people who had found little nooks and crannies among the bushes and rocks to stop and have a picnic. Also, as it was quite a twisty road, there were quite a number of motorbikers who had also taken this route. 

The road from Hawkshead to Coniston

Eventually, the road plunged towards Eskdale, and that was an extended stretch of downhill, with technical bends at times, but still sweeping enough to get a good flow and really enjoy the drop. I must admit I wouldn't have wanted to ride up that - particularly judging by the faces of the handful of cyclists I saw coming up it! 

Once at Eskdale Green, I took the chance to have a bit of lunch before tackling the big one - Hardknott Pass. 

While I had been able to cycle up the other steep climbs of the day, I sensed that Hardknott would be a bridge too far for me. At least for now, I should try and enjoy the calm before the storm at Eskdale Green. It was very tempting to pop into the nearby pub - which is what many walkers and cyclists in the vicinity were doing, but a beer was not really going to help my cause.

The view of the road in the distance already gave me a sense of foreboding as I could see the trail of vehicles snaking up it in stop-start fashion as cars had to give way to others that were negotiating the incredibly steep hairpins. Even though there was a signboard clearly stating that the road was only suitable for light vehicles it didn't stop a camper van from attempting the pass. They got to the first hairpin, struggled and then realised the error of their ways and tried to turn back - er, not really possible. So they were caught in a no man's land of not being able to advance, but not being able to reverse either as there was a trail of vehicles behind them.

So an almighty traffic jam resulted and folks all had to reverse down hill to the nearby car park and let the silly (and probably embarrassed) driver get off the pass and find a sensible route. I'm surprised there wasn't much tooting of horns or road rage. I can only imagine that folks are used to these shenanigans from tourists.

Indeed, Hardknott Pass, approximately one-mile long has hairpins with gradients of 30%, with the "easier" sections dropping to 25%. There is no way I would have been able to ride that. I cycled up the initial 25% section, but once the slope got steeper I climbed off my bike and walked. At one point the road momentarily levelled off to something around 12%, so I made the most of riding that, but I am not ashamed to say I walked up the majority of the pass. It wasn't a wasted journey though, as the views made the effort worthwhile. These were definitely the best vistas of the day. 

Wrynose Pass, with it's "merciful" 25% hairpins was still a challenge for me, mainly because there were quite a lot of cars on this Easter Sunday and I couldn't guarantee that I would be able to control the bike on such a steep gradient if a car in front of me suddenly had to stop. It was therefore easier for me to walk that section too. 

Don't even imagine that the descents were a chance to relax. With the slopes feeling almost like riding down a wall, it required a lot of care and attention, and sometimes I even felt out of breath going downhill, such was the drop!

Hardknott Pass

Eventually, the descent became more sweeping and I was able to enjoy the Langdale area with it's various little rivers among the moorland. 

Once again I felt glad to be on a bike and not in a car as there was another hold-up along the road which was too narrow for cars to pass each other easily. Motorists using this road need to be quite confident about negotiating passing places and it only takes one timid driver to hesitate when passing through the gaps and that leads to a log jam for everyone - which is what happened in this instant. 

Luckily I, and the following motorbikers were able to squeeze around the cars and continue the homeward descent unhindered.

Time was marching on - it was around 6pm by this point so I was keen to get onto the main road back to Windermere. Eventually that moment came, though not without a few more cheeky rises in the road. At last I was not far from Bowness on Windermere, and a huge feeling of relief swept through me, knowing that it wouldn't be long before dinner time. Although I had been out all day, and done 50 or so miles with 1800m of climbing, I felt quite energised and motivated to have scaled all the different climbs (apart from the Hardknott-Wrynose deathly duo). So I took the A593 with gusto breezing through Ambleside and Troutbeck before finally reaching the familiar roundabout at the entrance to Windermere Town.

It had been a long and varied day, but I felt happy with where I'd been and what I'd done.


Fellfoot and The Struggle loop on Strava

Coniston - Broughton - Hardknott loop on Strava

Related posts

Mountain bike ride in the Lake District

My Tour of Lombardy

Lakeland adventures

Sunday 10 April 2022

Regent's Park, London - my favourite training ground

There are few well-known haunts for London-based cyclists with Richmond Park and Box Hill being among the top places. 

One other place that's up there for leisure cycling and training rides, particularly for club riders is Regent's Park. I have known for a long time that people cycle around there, but I didn't realise quite just how much. I had always perceived it as a place where North London-based riders have to resort to when doing their chain gangs given that we cyclists down South have the Kent country lanes at our disposal.  

In fact, cycling clubs based South of the River are now organising rides in this Royal Park based between Baker Street and Primrose Hill. Dulwich Paragon go there, and I have seen riders from Peckham Cycling Club too. Maybe folks who work in Central London find it easier to meet there after work rather than racing 10 miles down to Elmers End, Beckenham through the rush hour traffic to make the 7pm start. 

Working from home at my base in Crystal Palace, maybe I would find the Kent chain gang more practical than traipsing up to Central London. But in fact, no. I am happy to cycle to Regent's Park and do some laps there. 

Dirty Wknd cycling group training laps at Regent's Park [photo: Dirty Wknd]

The thing is, whether I turn up at Regent's Park in the early morning or early evening there are always groups of riders doing laps. Various groups ride around the Outer Circle at different speeds. Some of the groups are official club runs such as the ones organised by Dulwich Paragon or Dirty Wknd (pictured). Though there are many informal groups.

So it's just a case of latching on to whichever group matches my pace, and I am straight away into a training mode.

I like how these groups just tend to form organically. There's no one specifically organising who goes into which group. It's just a case of a couple of folks riding around and then others catch on, and as the group proceeds along the roads they pick of more riders. When we come to a stop at the different traffic lights one group joins with another group and the mass gets a bit bigger - though not too big, as some people may leave the group to form their own slower or faster group. Others may call it a day and peel off at one of the many exits of Regent's Park. 

Of course in all of this, and as with all group rides there is an etiquette to follow.  Folks aren't keen on half-wheeling another rider, changing direction without looking first, or braking suddenly. It's all about smooth riding. Also pointing to the riders behind any hazards such as cars pulling out, slower riders to over take, pot holes, pedestrians, or lights turning red are all things that make for a good ride. And yes, folks do observe the traffic lights. With Royal Parks police monitoring the park I don't think riders particularly want to pay an unexpected charge for their training ride!

One lap of the Outer Circle is just under three miles, and I usually do three or four and then go home. You might wonder why I bother given that the rider to and from Regent's Park is about 24 miles for me - more than twice as much as the training ride itself! But I must say, it is worth it because for that time I am pushing myself in a group ride and in a controlled environment. Riding around Regent's Park is quite well accepted by park users and the motorists, so there tends to be a harmonious relationship as well between road users - which is not always the case on country roads! 

The other thing for me too, is that after riding my laps of Regent's Park I feel tired like I have had a proper work-out, but I also feel a real buzz on my ride home through London. I feel high, and I also feel blessed that I can do such a work-out in central London and then ride home via some of the most famous monuments and landmarks in the world.

As I get fitter I do plan to do more laps, and I will probably set off earlier now that the mornings are lighter. Even if I get there at 6am I am sure I will find riders circling Regent's Park.

My Regents Park ride on Strava