Monday 14 November 2022

The Struggle is real - especially in the Lake District!

It has been announced that next year's National Hill Climb Championship will take place on The Struggle in the Lake District. Even the name of this climb brings fear, unlike this year's event which took place on The Old Shoe, in mid-Wales. That name sounds like that there's something particular about the hill, but not necessarily anything to be afraid of. Mind you, in my case as a non-climber, once there I would probably freak out anyway!

I didn't get to ride that particular climb, and I didn't feel I could prepare myself for those championships due to time constraints. The year before that the National Hill Climb Championships were contested on the leg-busting Winnats Pass, in the Peak District. That is a climb I know well, but I still didn't do as my previous attempts had been pitiful and I knew I'd be an embarrassment on the day. Watching the riders battle up it on the big day in biblical conditions confirmed that I had made the right decision to not sign up for it. I would most certainly have got wheelspin and keeled over within 10 metres of the start line!

Funnily enough, despite the scary name of the climb for next year's National Hill Climb Championship I am tempted to give it go. I cycled up The Struggle earlier this year, and although I wasn't particularly quick, I got through it without feeling the need to stop or put my foot to the ground. That's already a result on those demanding roads in the Lake District.

Before I sign my legs away and launch myself into the preparation I must take the time to reflect on what it was like riding up this challenging alternative route to the more gradual and gentler Kirkstone Pass. Here is my recollection from earlier this year.

In the centre of Ambleside I took North Road, next to the Post Office. It's a small turning on the left that can easily be missed as you are swept along in the tourist traffic going around the one-way system en route from Grasmere and Keswick. 

Immediately, I was on a short narrow uphill road. Gosh, is this it already? I thought. We were officially still in the town of Ambleside so surely it can't have been the climb. Surely The Struggle goes through countryside, right? At this point I was actually on Kirkstone Road away from the hustle and bustle of the high street, but still very much in the town.

As the road reached a T-junction it became clear that the infamous climb was still a little way off even if the general trend locally was for all roads to be going upwards. The roads aren't always really steep. You get lots of false flats going uphill. In any case, it was important to have low gears on your bike whenever you ride in these parts.

From the T-junction I turned right, going behind the stone buildings that housed various shops, caf├ęs and hotels. The road climbed gently and the area became more residential as the village centre had been properly left behind. 

Wansfell viewed from The Struggle with Kirkstone Pass in the distance
I met with a few cars coming down the hill, and they gave way to me on the slightly narrow road. They seemed to give that knowing smile, that said, "I know what you're here for....and boy are you in for a treat"!

The mountain passes of the Lake District are very well known. The local pass, Kirkstone Pass is known for its spectacular vistas across the open valley as you go up to the summit, site of the pub by the same name.

Among club cyclists, real bragging rights are earned by taking this back route to the Kirkstone Inn - The Struggle. So any self-respecting cyclist on a visit to the Lake District has got to try, if only once, the Hardknott-Wrynose duo, maybe Honister Pass too, and definitely The Struggle given its proximity to Ambleside, the most popular zone of the Lake District national park. 

Thus, local residents are accustomed to seeing streams of fit-looking cyclists on lean mean machines on their quest to conquer The Struggle. These Lycra louts form part of the wallpaper in this locality.

Eventually I found the start of the climb, indicated by a signboard with its name and a clear warning.

I felt slightly nervous at this point, and felt this was the time to stop, make sure everything on my bike was properly adjusted, including being in a more than suitably low gear, making sure my front water bottle was replenished, and I stripped off any excess clothing.

I also calmed my nerves, telling myself, "It will only be a mile or so of uphill riding, I do have the legs - but if I don't, it will be less than a mile of walking!"

So I started the climb, with a certain amount of trepidation. The opening metres of the ramp increased in steepness abruptly as I cycled passed some cottages. Given that the windows were close to the road and gave occupants a clear view of riders on the hill, I made an effort to try and look elegant - which meant going along at a slow but steady pace. 

False summit on The Struggle
As the road curved around to the left it ramped up again, probably to around 20%. I could feel the real work was beginning now. Furthermore, on this blind corner I needed to have a bit of physiological reserve in case I met a van when rounding the corner. So I dropped my pace, while still keeping enough cadence to not keel over. This became a real grind as I had to just focus and tell myself - "this will pass". Not knowing what would be around the corner, I mentally prepared myself for another ramp. And sure enough, there was - this time going to the right. By this time there were no houses, so I no longer needed to worry about spectators! As the road snaked left and right, the number of trees as well as the houses thinned out and the valley came into view. 

It has to be said, the landscape was spectacular. It was amazing to see a bowl to my right with lots of valleys and Wainwrights around Wansfell, and then the main road, the official Kirkstone Pass just behind it. Eventually I reached what I believed to be the summit and quietly celebrated the fact that I had conquered this beast.

Finally arrived at the Kirkstone Inn
In the area were a few people who had parked up to contemplate the viewpoint, as well as walkers. I got chatting to some local people who were impressed that I had managed to get up the hill. Reassuringly one of the woman, who herself is a cyclist told me that if I could get up The Struggle I would be fine to get around the Fred Whitton route. "Nothing on the Fred Whitton course is harder than The Struggle", she affirmed. I'm not sure if I should have believed her, but it sounded good.   

Onwards, I pressed, looking forward to the descent that immediately followed. the road twisted and turned a little as it wound around more hills and over little streams. This place is well worth a visit even without a bike. You just need to be comfortable driving up the steep narrow lanes and be able to keep calm if you need to give way to an oncoming vehicle, including an adventurous campervan!

Well, there I was thinking that the steep hills were behind me as the Kirkstone Inn came into view. In fact, they weren't. About one kilometre before the end of the road, my legs had a rude awakening as the road ramped up again. It was a real strain to get my legs back into gear to push my body over the last mound, and the final bend. 

Reaching the main road, the end of the climb provided a very painful sting in the tail to the point that it almost reduced me to throwing in the towel and walking. The gradient of this section must have been more than 20%. 

In a way I'm glad I did continue to pedal because at that point I heard the sound of cars driving by on the main road, denoting that I was practically at the junction and the Kirkstone Inn, the definitive finish line. Ah, my challenge was finally over and I had managed to ride the whole thing without walking. What a relief to have completed it. And what better way to end the climb than with a pub right at the finish line.

So that is The Struggle in a nutshell. I know I can ride it, meaning that I could prepare for the National Hill Climb Championships. All I need to do is to just work on going a bit quicker - simples. Err, now that may well be a struggle!

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