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JOGLE – The Scenic Route: Day Seven

In-depth
18 Mar 2021
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Like a siren, the Lake District lures cyclists with its beauty before wrecking them on its unforgiving 30% climbs. This is the hardest day yet on our journey across Britain

Words Marcus Leach Photography Gavin Kaps/Osprey Imagery

The soft vibration of my watch tells me it’s time to get up. I could do without the 5am start, yet I know in less than an hour I need to be pedalling. It’s not so much the 200km that concerns me, although I’m by no means taking that lightly, but rather the 4,000m of ascent and the nature of the climbs. 

Back when I was in the comfort of my home, with today off in the distant future, it had seemed like a good idea to dream up a route that crossed every major pass in the Lake District, with a brief foray into the Yorkshire Dales thrown in for good measure.

Yet as I sit eating my porridge, legs weary from the 1,182km I have already ridden since leaving John O’Groats a week ago, I’m left to question my sanity once again.

I’m no stranger to the roads that I will ride today, having entered ‘The Fred’ a few years back. For those who haven’t heard of the Fred Whitton Challenge it is, in my humble opinion, the hardest sportive in the UK and on a par with some of the best in Europe.

Back then I wasn’t aware of what I was letting myself in for but now, with the pain of that day in the Lakes still etched on my memory, I know exactly what’s coming.

Which explains my mood of quiet contemplation as I roll out alongside the tranquil waters of Bassenthwaite Lake to begin what will certainly be my toughest test of the ride so far.

Skip the small talk

It doesn’t take long. After 6km the climbing begins, and in true Lake District fashion it does so with an inordinately steep pitch that appears out of nowhere, leaving me gasping for air.

The road is barely wide enough for a vehicle and lined by thick swathes of lush green bracken on either side. Once it levels off I can finally look up from my stem to take in the perfect views over Derwent Water. A silky mist hangs over the valley, the day still young and yet to free itself from the night’s bracing grip.

I, however, have no such worries about the cold, as the contours of the land ensure I already have beads of sweat rolling down my nose, and this before I have even reached a classified climb.

That too comes soon enough. Approaching the hamlet of Seatoller it’s hard to imagine that a climb of the severity of Honister Pass is lurking ominously in the shadows. It’s only once I pass through a narrow stretch of road that I get the first indication that things are about to get serious.

There’s a sign warning of gradients in excess of 25%, not that it’s needed. Within the first few metres it kicks up to 15%, and once around a sharp left-hander it pitches up further to well over 20% and stays there for the next kilometre.

A wall rises up through a tunnel of gnarled trees and I have to zigzag across the road in a bid to lessen the gradient fractionally. It’s all I can do to quell the burning deep within my legs and maintain any kind of forward momentum at all.

Crossing a cattle grid the road eases slightly. Never has 13% felt so good. It’s here that the true beauty of the climb reveals itself. Free from the trees I find myself riding into a yawning valley, towering faces of rock rising on either side.

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I suddenly feel very small amid a landscape of such magnitude, with the sound of a river trickling beside me and my own laboured breathing the only intrusions on the silence.

In the distance I can make out the top of the climb, a sobering reminder that the suffering is far from over. The final few hundred metres are the worst of all; it’s here that the climb tightens its vice-like grip on my legs, forcing me out of the saddle for one final effort to reach the summit.

There’s no respite to be had even on the descent, which through a combination of steepness and rutted surfaces makes for a treacherous few kilometres. Once on less challenging roads, however, I can catch my breath and delight in the view before me.

I skirt around Buttermere and Crummock Water, the road flirting with the water’s edge, sheep grazing nonchalantly on the verge and a clutch of knotted, rocky peaks filling the horizon, all adding to my growing sense of happiness.

Not even the noticeable gathering of grey clouds can dampen my spirits as I press on, eager to get to the day’s pièce de résistance

Hard, harder, Hardknott

Every mountainous region has a climb that stands taller, at least in a figurative sense, than all of the others; the kind of climbs that are steeped in history and revered by cyclists the world over. In the Alps it’s the mighty Col du Galibier, in the Pyrenees the mythical Col du Tourmalet, and in the Lakes it’s the brutally savage Hardknott Pass.

Admittedly it doesn’t have the rich history of its European counterparts, but that’s down to the fact that it is far too steep to consider sending a race up there. The result is that the tales of torment and suffering come not from the pros but from masochistic lunatics like myself.

The first 30% warning sign comes four miles from the foot of the climb, which at least allows me plenty of time to prepare mentally for what’s coming. The second comes a matter of metres before the climb begins, by which point there’s no option but to tackle this beast head on.

There’s no ‘easy’ line when the road stays above 17% for what feels like an eternity, though in reality it’s only 800m. It’s here, gasping for air and right at the point where I feel I can’t go on, that the road offers momentary relief. I know better than to think I’m through the worst of it though, any doubts quickly removed by the daunting ribbon of road that looms above me.

The moment I enter the first switchback the road rises like a spitting snake, forcing me to ride hunched over my bars just to keep my front wheel on the ground, hands and arms locked tight and legs wrestling the pedals round in what feels like slow motion. The next 500m feel more like 5km as I drag myself towards the top.

For all the pain that the climb metes out, it mercifully provides the antidote to its own suffering at the summit courtesy of one of the finest views in all of the country. Stretching out through the valley is a slither of road that leads up and over Wrynose Pass, intertwined with a trickling stream and wide pastures upon which cattle and sheep graze, oblivious to my plight.

Once down another perilous descent I ease my pace, eager to stay in this moment for as long as possible before I have to face the next climb. Crossing an old stone bridge I admire the mountains that hem me in on either side.

The magnificence of it all does go a long way to anaesthetise the pain as the road tilts up again and the Wrynose Pass takes its turn to torture me. It’s another slow, gruelling effort, one that while shorter than its predecessor is still brutally steep and offers no respite until I’m over the top.

The reward for my struggles is an effortless glide down to Ambleside, heading swiftly on towards the banks of Lake Windermere where a ferry crossing awaits. It’s a chance to eat some real food and gather myself for the second part of the ride, which will be shorter in distance but no less challenging as I head into the Yorkshire Dales and the prospect of yet more climbing. 

Glutton for punishment

Under a welcome sun I toil away, the ups always just a little too long and the downs never quite long enough, my legs growing increasingly weary. I reach Sedburgh in desperate need of something, anything, to fuel the final 60km.

I plump for the first thing I see at a little kiosk-cum-coffee shop, a family-sized Battenberg cake, devouring the entire thing in the time it takes the barista to make a double espresso, much to his amazement. The coffee acts as the perfect chaser.

In an instant there’s a new fluidity and zest to my pedalling as I charge through an ever-rising valley lined by fields of green, the occasional derelict stone building breaking the near-perfect symmetry.

Unfortunately the buzz wears off a few kilometres from the foot of the day’s final challenge, and I desperately guzzle a few energy gels in an attempt to restore my sugar levels before taking on the climb of Fleet Moss.

The initial kick up at 17% is merely a loosener for what lies the other side of a flatter road that picks its way through farm buildings before revealing a featureless landscape scarred by a single strip of tarmac. There are no switchbacks for relief, just an arrow-straight ascent that takes the most direct and painful route to the top.

Slowly but surely I edge my way to what appears to be the summit of the climb. Only it isn’t, much to my dismay. A little way along from a flat section, and hidden from view by high stone walls, is a sharp left-hander, around which to my horror lies a 20% pitch that requires all of my mental and physical resolve to get up without laying my bike down in protest.

The sun slowly dips behind the horizon as I crest the true summit, casting a brilliant golden light on a landscape of rolling hills. Mercifully the final 30km gradually fall away through Wharfedale valley, allowing me to race alongside the river.

A network of drystone walls criss-crosses the slopes of the lush, green valley, and clusters of walkers meander by the water’s edge, making the most of the fading light.

I afford myself a smile as my bike computer ticks past 200km for the fourth day in a row, not that I can complain given that I am the architect of my own pain. The ease of the remaining kilometres affords me the opportunity to switch off, spin my legs and reflect on a day that, for all of its travails, I will remember most for its beauty. 

Having seen so much of the Lake District, it’s hard to disagree with William Wordsworth, who once said it was ‘the loveliest spot that man hath found’. Although I wonder if he would have felt the same had he just ridden Hardknott and Wrynose back to back.

• Fancy completing one of the greatest cycling challenges of the British Isles? Check out the Cyclist Tour Finder for bucket list guided tours including the classic LEJOGgravel riding in Scotland, or road cycling in the Yorkshire Dales

Mapping powered by komoot

Komoot tips to stay on track

No7: Hide the Tour line

When planning routes on a laptop, hold down the ‘m’ key to remove the blue Tour line and see the type of road you’ll be riding. You can also use the satellite map overlay to see what roads look like and even the levels of traffic on them. 

Essential JOGLE kit

No7: NamedSport nutrition, from £1.50 per gel, namedsport.com

Much like an army, a cyclist marches on his or her stomach. Given the magnitude of my trip, nutrition was always going to be an integral part, and NamedSport has a huge range of products to fuel every situation, both on and off the bike.

The Italian company is becoming a big noise in professional cycling – its bright orange inflatables can be seen at many of the major races – and products include numerous types of gels, powders, bars, energy shots and tablets. There are high-carb gels for energy, caffeine gels for a boost, isotonic gels for hydration… you name it. And off the bike there are protein shakes and bars for post-ride recovery too.

At times when I couldn’t stop for a proper meal, a pocketful of NamedSport products really helped to keep me going when my legs were screaming at me to stop.

Thanks

Riding from one end of Britain to the other is a major undertaking, and Cyclist had help from a number of sources.

Firstly, thanks to komoot for help with creating a route that takes in many of the best parts of the country for riding a bike.

As the ride took place during the period just after Covid-19 lockdown, we couldn’t use hotels or B&Bs, so many thanks to Bailey of Bristol (baileyofbristol.co.uk) for the loan of an Autograph 74-4 motorhome, which proved to be an excellent moving base for the trip.

Thanks also to Mercedes (mercedes-benz.co.uk) for the loan of a Marco Polo campervan, as used by our photographer for the duration of the ride.

Good kit choices are vital on a challenge such as this to avoid unneccesary stops, and I couldn’t have asked for better than the Factor O2 Disc bike (factorbikes.co.uk), Castelli clothing (saddleback.co.uk), Giro helmet and shoes (zyrofisher.co.uk), Sungod eyewear (sungod.co), Wahoo Roam bike computer (wahoofitness.com), Garmin Vector 3 Power Pedals (garmin.com) and Supernova lights (supernova-lights.com).

Nutrition was supplied by Named Sport (namedsport.com) and post-ride recovery came courtesy of Reboots (reboots.de). Thanks also to Hutchinson (windwave.co.uk) for the spare tyres and inner tubes in case of blowouts, and to Ribble for the loan of the e-bike, which allowed our photographer to keep up on the hills when the going got too tough for the campervan.

Finally, thanks to my wife and kids, who proved to be the perfect support crew.