Cycling in the Lake District – Leave the big ring at home

Cycling and Hill Climbing in the Lake DistrictLeave the big ring at home and pack your EPO spare legs. Oh, and bring your walking shoes too, just in case. Cycling in the Lake District will leave you breathless, be it the view or the steep hills you climb to reach such dizzying heights. Wainwright and Wordsworth were fans of the scenery although they might have changed their tune had they cycled.

Riding in the Lake District you will discover much. England’s true beauty. New max heart rates. New muscles. Places you didn’t think it was possible to sweat from. You will not discover an extra gear. No matter how many times you try. The next day you will have the Bambi walk, a new-born foal, legs as stable as long drinking straws, all a wibble and a wobble.

Yet the pain is worth enduring. The reward? Views you thought were exclusive to National Geographic magazine and a sense of achievement you last experienced indexing your gears. Legs quivering, body shivering, you are the king of these majestic roads. Or are you? Did the hill, a hill for christ sake, get the better of you and force your foot to the floor? Maybe but don’t be ashamed, for these hills are no ordinary hills. With 30 percent gradients they leave even the strongest of cyclists quaking with doubt. Will I make it?

A guide to cycling the passes and hills of the Lake District

Cycling up Hardknott Pass

Hardknott. 30 %. 2 mph. 10 rpm. 193 bpm.

Below is a selection of my favourite hills in the Lake District, starting with the easier climbs and finishing with the ultimate leg breaker whose name you may have heard some cyclists scream out in their night terrors.

Whinlatter Pass
A gentle speed bump by the lofty standards of the Lake District. Whinlatter is a good leg turner and warm up for the steeper climbs ahead in Buttermere.

Kirkstone Pass (from Ullswater)
An inviting climb, few can resist the lure of the road upward. Not the most challenging of climbs but certainly rewarding with great views across the lakes at its summit. Be careful if descending back down the pass along the twisting, uneven road between the stone walls to Ullswater.

Newlands Pass
Somebody carved this road into the side of Robinson Fell, the tarmac offering a safe but fraught passage between the thick green ferns that cover the hillside, giving you the impression of cycling through Jurassic Park. This monster of a climb has teeth as sharp as 25 percent, its final bite all but consuming your last ounce of energy.

Blea Tarn
A lesser known climb hidden away slightly to the north of the more famous Wrynose and Hardknott passes, this curvy little number might be one hairpin too many if attempted before or after the big two. A great climb taken alone, use the hairpins to your advantage and let your legs breathe if only for a moment

Now's the time for a handlebar mirror

The Struggle
The greatest named climb in the world? Possibly. Tough enough to warrant such a moniker? Undoubtedly. A weaving, wandering climb that never seems to end, this is not one for tired legs with 15-20 percent gradients testing you at the top, middle and bottom.

Honister Pass (either way)
The iconic climb of Honister is from Buttermere, through the valley into what looks like a dead-end. And then you see the road. My god. The Tour of Britain recently wheezed over this pass, the rain turning the road into a fast flowing stream. This classic climb is fairly gradual with a sharp sting in its tail. Climbing the other side of the pass from Borrowdale is less scenic but arguably harder with several early punishing 25 percent gradients early on and a changing incline that never quite allows you to find a rhythm.

Wrynose Pass
Wrynose is said to be the queen of climbs when compared to its neighbour King Hardknott. Climbing from Ambleside you may well wonder how anything can be worse than the leg breaker before you. Right from the off you’re hit with a 25 percent hairpin or two. Take my advice and make the most of the flat run up. The remainder is a slow 15-20 percent slog to what appears to be a wall leading to the summit. Only there’s no ladder to help you climb this mind bending straight stretch of 25 percent tarmac that will leave you cycling sideways like a terrified crab.

Hardknott Pass
The steepest hill climb in England for road cyclists. It is evil. A menace. A serpent snaking up over the mini mountains ahead, the wet slither of road shines and twinkles, easily mistaken for a river but for the fact it rises high into the clouds. Hardknott begins with a 30 percent wall before a long toil over 10 to 20 percent gradients. Drained, you are afraid to look up and face the final 30 percent ramp, your lungs burning, heart pounding, arms shaking, legs crying. Don’t give up, you can do it. Take a flag, overjoyed, you’ll want to claim the summit.

Map of Lake District cycling climbs

Inspired? The map below will help you plan your route through the Lake District. The arrows represent the classic climb of each pass. You are free to climb the reverse too of course, just not all in the same day!

Got the fear yet?

Which is the toughest climb in the Lake District?

There’s much debate as to which of Wrynose and Hardknott is the hardest hill to cycle when riding them both the hardest way i.e. heading into the Duddon Valley that separates the two. The answer? The hill you climb second. Whenever I’ve tackled these infamous climbs, I view them as a pair, for you cannot see either and resist the temptation to conquer these twin peaks, so beautiful and challenging is the road.

Wrynose Pass (easy way) with Hardknott (easy way!) in background

Tips for cycling in the Lake District

England’s lakeland humbles the dear cyclist, be it the sublime vistas, the terrifying descents or the punishing climbs. Riding the passes is not for the light-hearted or weak-minded. Just seeing these climbs can make you question your sanity. How on earth will I climb that, you wonder? There is however much reward for the brave and anything can be climbed with the right gearing.

    • You will get wet. Be prepared to cycle in the rain and cling to your brake levers when descending. Dry days are as rare as flat roads. They say if you can see the peak of a fell in the Lake District then it is about to rain. If you can’t see the peak, then it is already raining.
  • You will experience every kind of weather. Usually in one climb. The weather changes fast both in the valleys and high up on the passes so be prepared to bake and shiver within a matter of minutes.
  • Don’t forget the descents. If you think climbing mini mountains is tough, take lightly a wet and twisty descent at your peril. Scary. I suggest working on that frail cyclist’s upper body of yours that usually struggles to open bananas!
  • Focus on the road. There’s some dramatic lumps in them there steep roads. Hardknott and Wrynose in particular take a perverse delight in giving you as bumpy, lumpy a surface as possible. Belgians would be forgiven for thinking they’re back on the cobbles.
  • Take a phone. Not for emergencies, for phone signals are about as reliable as the winter bus service. The camera however will help you believe the outstanding sights you see are real.
  • Take a chain tool. The chances of your chain snapping are high. Don’t get caught out in the middle of nowhere. My chain snapped on Wrynose recently. Cue rain. Whilst I was disappointed not to complete the climb, I was relieved to be able to complete the ride.
  • Be reasonable. Fifty miles in the Lake District is the equivalent of at least 100 miles elsewhere. The climbs will soon have you begging for a short-cut.
  • Practice unclipping whilst pedalling at 10 rpm. If you leave the lakes without putting your foot down on a climb then you are to be congratulated. If only by your own ego!
  • Consider a bigger cog on the back. Nobody looks cool falling over in slow motion whilst still clipped in on a 30 percent climb.
  • Tackle the hardest climbs first. Your legs will thank you for it. Don’t be embarrassed to take a rest day. I once attempted five consecutive days hill climbing in the lakes. Keyword there being ‘attempted’.
  • Get up early or avoid the summer tourists. With your eyeballs popping out of your head and your heart pounding against your ribcage you probably don’t want to hit a traffic jam on Hardknott. That said, I didn’t find the summer traffic too bad. Few tourists venture west in the lakes, odd given this is the lakes at their most stunning.
  • Tourists drive slowly on 30 percent inclines and twisty roads. Give them space as they can be a little unpredictable navigating these torrid turns. Taking a car up these hills is frightening! On the plus side, drivers in the lakes give cyclists plenty of space and are very courteous.

Where to stay in the Lake District

There’s many a cycle friendly B&B in the Lake District. Avoid the tourist trap of Windermere and the relatively featureless south lakes and head north. Keswick is a big town and a good base if you are car less (although the cycle ride from Penrith station down the A66 is scary despite the patchy attempt to install bike paths). Ambleside puts you in the heart of things and is good for Hardknott, Wrynose, The Struggle and Kirkstone Pass (see map above).

Best cycling route in the Lake District?

Among the many stunning rides, my personal favourite is an anticlockwise loop of Borrowdale that goes the easy way up Newlands, passing beside beautiful Buttermere before climbing up through the valley up and over Honister Pass. Breathtaking at every turn.

The ambitious amongst you may like to try the Fred Whitton sportive, a 112 mile slog over the majority of the above climbs. Not for the faint hearted. Nor I would suggest, anybody who wants to enjoy these climbs (if such a thing was possible!). There’s certainly a difference between climbing a hill fresh or with many a hard mile in the legs. My hill climbing times when doing silly miles in the Lakes were twice as slow as my usual times. The beauty of the Lake District is that any route you cycle will be one of the best (and hardest!) you are ever likely to encounter.

Live and breath the climb – Hardknott Pass in the Fred Whitton

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Images courtesy of 1, 2, 5, 6) Unknown, 3) Paul Harris 4) Adapted Google Map

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8 thoughts on “Cycling in the Lake District – Leave the big ring at home

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