In Search of Black Arrows
As cyclists we all have our preferred terrain, some of us like the flat, some love riding in the wind and others like going uphill. I find the flat a bit boring, I loathe the wind but going uphill, this is more to my liking. I’m not saying I like it all the time and my relationship with riding up hill is a love/hate one, but it suits me more than any other terrain. I also find the challenge it poses with the rewards you receive (going downhill and often a nice view) make climbing my favourite sort of riding. As such it’s only natural that you want to ride the best/worst known and in the UK some of the most challenging climbs are found up North where the countryside is a little more rugged and the climbs a little more aggressive.
Living a few miles from the south coast the chance of getting to ride the UK’s best doesn’t present itself everyday but with their being scant road racing to distract me due to Covid I thought I should seize the opportunity and make the effort to have a look at what all the fuss is about. So, with a rough plan in mind I headed off in search of some discomfort.
The National hill climb championships this year is taking place on Winnats Pass in the Peak District, a climb I’ve never done before but with plans to do the hill climb season culminating with this I thought I’d break up the substantial drive to the Lake District with a stop off in the Peaks for a bit of reconnaissance
"It is unbelievably steep and isn’t helped by the lumpy surface, it is as though the tarmac was put on the side of the hill with the back of a spade, because there is no way a big road laying machine got up there."
Rock climbers use a grading system to describe the difficulty of climbs and I like it, it’s a bit more descriptive than an out of ten scoring system so I’m going to use something similar to describe the climbs I tackle with Moderate as the easiest and Hard Very Severe as the hardest. The other thing about climbing is that no matter how good you are at it its never easier you just go a bit faster the better, climbs are as hard as you make them, I know that this can sound a little silly, but if you went full gas up a shorter, less steep climb instead of going as easy as possible to make progress up a longer steeper climb it will feel harder and you’ll probably be in more distress at the top, so its all a bit relative to the effort you are putting in so bear with me on the severity rating. I also think there are 3 factors to consider when scoring the difficulty of a climb;
- X, this is the ‘other’ thing that makes a climb difficult; whether it be the surface, is it open and normally has a head wind, does it get steeper and steeper so as fatigue sets in it also gets steeper to grind you to a halt or something else to take into account.
So, S x L + X = severity
Gear selection: I knew that some of the climbs I was going to be riding are steep, proper steep, so I fitted an 11-28 cassette and with my standard 39 tooth little ring on the front I thought that this would be sufficient to see me to the top of anything I encountered. I’m not much of a spinner and do tend to grind it a bit, but I thought that if I couldn’t get up something in a 39x28 I’d be quicker walking.
Working at The Rider Firm has many perks, working with a great bunch of people and having the best customers in the world obviously, but one that is very nice is that sometimes you get asked to test out prototype equipment, very fortunately I had been given a super light disc wheelset aimed at the very sort of riding I was going to be doing, shallow carbon rims for minimal rotational weight and carbon spokes for extra lateral stiffness, how much these were going to help me was going to be found out.
Day 1 - The starter/appetiser
After an unsociably early start to cheat the traffic I arrived in hope to tackle Winnats Pass, I rode up it steady to start with and then looped around the lovely Edale before going up it again trying to press on a bit. It’s hard, it’s in an amazing setting, a sort of natural amphitheatre and will make for a fantastic National Champs. The cattle grid at the bottom must be one of the steepest in the world so I’d not want to ride that in the wet, but it’s pretty steep all the way from the bottom to the farm at the top.
Winnats Pass Gradient Profile
Difficulty rating : Hard V Diff (Very Difficult).
I looped around over a moor and then down one of the steepest descents I’ve ever done, thankfully I was using a disc brake bike, before coming into Edale from the other direction to have a go at Mam Nick. This is a nice climb, it twists and turns more than Winnats and the gradient is a little more variable, it’s a bit longer but I enjoyed this climb and the view at the top is pretty spectacular.
I dropped back down Winnats to the car to finish the journey to the Lake District for the main course served over 2 days.
Mam Nick Gradient Profile
Difficulty rating – V Diff (Very Difficult)
Day 2 – The Main course part 1.
Arguably considered the hardest climb in the England is Great Dun Fell. In some ways its England’s version of Mont Ventoux and instead of a weather station at the top it has a radar station that resembles a big golf ball or snooker cue ball so rather fitting I suppose.
Not only is it long at about about 7 ½ km, it’s also steep from the very bottom and most of the way up, a saving grace is the surface, exceptional for UK standards. Cars are not permitted to drive up past the bottom quarter, so it’s just you versus the climb in your own little world of discomfort with the sheep and birds for company. A fantastic climb and probably the closest you’ll get to an Alpine climb in England, definitely worth riding just watch out for wandering sheep on the way down.
Great Dun Fell Gradient Profile
Difficulty rating: Very severe
Due to a bit of a navigational error and miscalculation my ride to Great Dun Fell took a bit longer than expected, so I had to modify my original route a bit and I headed back the way I came along the banks of Ulleswater to the foot of the Kirkstone Pass. As you leave the lake behind and look up you can see the slither of tarmac weaving its way between the 2 mountains either side and it does look a bit intimidating, so I didn’t look at it.
I had done this climb once before and hated it, mainly because it was a howling headwind but also because I’d just ridden it from the other side, dropped down and then turned around back up it, this time I was trying to forget I’d ridden 4 hours already including England’s hardest climb. So, I put my cigarette out, buckled up and took a deep breath…….and I actually quite enjoyed it. It’s a nice twisty, rolling climb until about two thirds of the way up and then it’s just hard, unrelenting steepness until the pub at the top.
Resisting the temptation for a recovery beer at the pub, the decent is fast, twisty and again has the added bonus of wandering sheep so being a bit tipsey wouldn’t have been the smartest idea, I dropped back down the way I came to where I was staying, near the bottom of the pass for some rehydration and recovery in readiness for the what’s on the menu for tomorrow.
Kirkstone Pass Gradient Profile
Difficulty rating: Severe
Day 3 – The Main Course part 2
When it comes to famous or infamous climbs in the UK there are probably 2 which get mentioned more than most, Hardnott Pass and Wrynose. They are very near to each other and are on the same stretch of road, a stretch of road I’ve never ridden before but heard a lot about. My plan was to ride up Wrynose roll along and then drop down Hardnott, turn around and then tackle Hardnott before looping round to take in Blea Tarn and maybe The Struggle if they legs could be coaxed into it.
First up and feeling refreshed I approached Wrynose with a bit of enthusiasm and energy, the sharp kicks at the bottom were dispensed with easily and then it settles into a manageably steep gradient, but as this begins to take its toll you look up and see cars up above and reality begins to dawn, this is going to become a little less friendly. It gets steep and stays steep, the surface is lumpy, as in it feels a bit like riding over cobbles without it being cobbled. Once at the top you have amazing views back down the valleys towards Ambleside in the east and the high valley towards the top of Hardnott in the west.
Wrynose Pass Gradient Profile
Difficulty rating: Hard Severe
Naively I thought it was a relatively flattish ride from the top of Wrynose to the top of Hardknott, as I’d read that the hardest side of Hardknott was from the west, so I didn’t think there was anything that posed much of a problem the way I was going. I was very wrong and mentally very unprepared for what presented itself to me, Hardknott Pass from the east. Without being over dramatic this is probably the steepest stretch of road I have ever ridden, you pass over a picturesque little bridge and then past a sign that says 30% (which I think it a bit optimistic) and it goes up. It is unbelievably steep and isn’t helped by the lumpy surface, it is as though the tarmac was put on the side of the hill with the back of a spade because there is no way a big road laying machine got up there. It isn’t as long as Wrynose but I think overall it is harder.
Hardknott Pass (East to West) Gradient Profile
Difficulty rating: Hard Very Severe
I conned myself on the way up telling myself that when I got to the top I would turn around and head back without doing the west side of the Hardknott Pass, but once I got there and took a minute to take in the immense view I thought that I might never get the chance to ride it again and I’d have a little steady spin to recover before having a go at it from the west. This side of the pass is considered to have the silver medal as England’s (the UK’s ?) 2nd hardest climb after Great Dun Fell. My fingers and arms were hurting after the descent, so it didn’t bode well for me coming back up. After a little spin and a stretch to try to loosen the legs up a bit I turned around and began. Before you begin you get to see the climb in its whole majesty which looks great until you realise you are about to ride up it. After crossing a bridge and the obligatory warning sign it dispenses with any pre-able and rears up right away, there’s a very brief interlude about halfway up and then the top half is just brutally steep with the lumpy surface which appears to be a native of this area. I might have been softened up by the preceding 2 climbs, but this topped them with its combination of steepness and length.
Hardknott Pass (West to East) Gradient Profile
Difficulty rating: Very Severe
After a terrifying descent, roll across the high valley and what seemed like an easy climb over the west side of Wrynose I dropped back down towards Ambleside to loop round towards the bottom of Blea Tarn. I’d heard that this was a beautiful climb at the end of a beautiful valley and those reports were correct. At the end of an idyllic valley you hook left and begin climbing up to the Tarn. It is steep but not as steep as or as long as the previous climbs and with its lovely setting it was quite a ‘pleasant’ climb. Again, the rewards were fantastic views at the top with this time a relatively relaxing descent.
Blea Tarn Gradient Profile
Difficulty rating: Very Severe
Although the number of miles I’d done wasn't that much, the amount of metres climbed and fatigue in the legs was beginning to rack up and I was thinking of calling it a day, but I had parked my car a little way up ‘The Struggle’ which is the Kirkstone pass from the Ambleside direction. The descent from Blea Tarn and the flat road into Ambleside was enough time for my for forget the horrors previously inflicted on them and just enough time for me to think that it would be a good/or not too bad an idea to finish the ride with ‘The Struggle’. Turning right off the main road you are immediately hit with a steep climb, and then it continues to kick and ease for quite a few k’s, I even got it into the big ring for a brief spell to get some moment up before the last third, which doesn’t bother with the easier bits and just stays steep. The surface is refreshingly absent of the cobbled effect and is relatively smooth, but it saves the steepest bit to the end just in sight of the pub. Quite an appropriately named climb.
Kirkstone Pass (The Struggle) Gradient Profile
Difficulty rating: Hard Severe
Day 3 – The Dessert
The last day and a bit of a change of plan, I was going to take a look at a few climbs in the Clwydian range of hills in north Wales, but due to the weather and my aversion to riding in the rain I headed a little further south to The Long Mynd. There are a couple of climbs here that are difficult by anyone's standards and 2 in particular that I have a bit of ‘previous’ with, for the wrong reasons.
First up was Asterton Bank, the last time I came here it didn’t go well for me, I got part of the way up and came to a grinding halt, I was a DNF. I think it is the only climb that I have tried and not actually managed to ride up, it is steep and I didn’t have an appropriately low enough gear, this time I was a little better prepared and was out for revenge. You pass over a steep cattle grid and from there it is 25% at least and straight up, its narrow with grass in the middle and with the odd pothole and occasional rock that has rolled off the hill side. It was painfully slow progress, walking pace at best, but I managed to tame it this time…...just, my 39x28 was just enough. If this climb was longer it would but it in contention for a podium spot, but thankfully it’s not as long as some of the Lakeland beasts.
Asterton Bank Gradient Profile
Difficulty rating: Hard Severe
If you carry on over the top of Asterton Bank you eventually come to the Burway, so I descended down it had a little spin, turned around and headed back to Church Stretton to ride back up it. I have done this before a couple of times, the first time I did it I was unaware of the steepness and length of it and hit it at a very optimistic speed at the bottom which put me in all sorts of trouble about half way up, so when I was hit with a head wind as it opens up I was seeing stars and thinking I was having a cardiac arrest at the top. The climb starts almost in the centre of the little market town and is pretty steep right away past the houses, it eases a little and then when you hit the cattle grid you are hit with the steepest part of the climb. Uncharacteristically, I learned my lesson and this time didn’t attack the steep bit like it was the top. The really steep bit doesn’t last too long and then it settles in for a stiff slog along the side of the mountain, which has a dramatic drop to the right, it goes on for quite a while, it eases as you get near the top, but there are a few cruel false summits so when you think you are there you realise you’re not.
The Burway Gradient Profile
Difficulty rating: Severe
Needing to be home at a reasonable time so I can get a good nights sleep so I’m able to deliver top level customer service for our customers at The Rider Firm the next day, I headed back to the car for the long drive home.
On the way home I had chance to reflect on the climbs I’d ridden, which one I though was the hardest, as I said before, there are many factors to consider when rating how difficult a climb is, from a statistical point of view I’d have to say Great Dun Fell and Hardnott Pass from the west are the hardest and they probably are no matter how you look at them but I suffered most on Hardnott from the east because of the short recovery after doing Wrynose and not realising how hard it was going to be and not being mentally prepared for it. I also found Asterton Bank difficult, the memory of it pummelling me into submission previously and its steep, straight nature is a killer. I was expecting The Burway to be more difficult than I found it but because I rode it differently from the last time, treating it with a bit more respect at the bottom I was able to keep on top of the effort. I guess this shows that knowledge of a climb is very useful to help you get up it and not be a complete mess by the time you get to the top, just a bit of one.