The Lejog 6 Ride up Some Lake District Hills and Eat Some Rather Big Pies
Friday 29 April 2016 – A Rendezvous
Following last year’s Land’s End to John O’Groats adventure seven of us who rode together – the self-proclaimed Elites – thought it would be "fun" to meet up again. Somewhere along the way we decided to do another tour, this time to the Spanish Pyrenees in the autumn of 2016. And we also thought it would be good to meet up beforehand for a sort of weekend mini training camp. So, though the power of email we decided to get together in the Lake District at the beginning of May. Three things decided us.
First, by early May the weather in the north west should be reasonably good – i.e. dry, not too windy and not too warm or too cold. Second, there should become good hills to test our legs on – for the whatever the Pyrenees might offer. And third the early May Bank Holiday weekend was the only one that one member of the group could fit in. Well, like all good plans, things change.
The first thing to happen was that the team member who preferred the early May weekend decided to cross over to the dark side and take up running, abandoning his bike to his garage. So now we were down to six. Undaunted, Geoff booked a B&B in Keswick for us and early on a Friday morning Michael, Nick and I set off on the 300-mile drive to the north west to meet Vince who was travelling from Herefordshire, Andy who was coming from the north east and Geoff who had a holiday caravan in Keswick. All went swimmingly on the drive at first but the further north we got, the darker the skies became. As we started to cross the Pennines on the A66 the rain turned to sleet and by the top we were being passed by a succession of snow ploughs. By the time we reached the M6 we were each thinking that we might have made a significant mistake on the weather front. And our fears were compounded when we passed a sign to ‘Hard Hills’.
|View from the B&B|
We enjoyed a rather fine meal at a Thai restaurant and the talk turned to tomorrow’s riding. Geoff, who knew the area well had planned some routes loosely based on the Fred Whitton Challenge which was taking place the following weekend. Until his untimely death at the age of 50 in 1998, Fred Whitton was an extremely popular member of the Lakes Road Club. In his capacity as club secretary he was full of enthusiasm for the club and ran it practically single handedly. He was the organiser of the Lakes Road Club Easter 3-day each year which attracted many of the UK’s top riders. Not only was Fred the main instigator behind all the club’s activities, he was always there on the club runs and training weekends, cracking a joke, having a laugh and generally enjoying the sport to the full.
The Challenge, in Fred’s memory, covers 114 miles taking in eight of the Lake District’s most iconic climbs. With nearly 13,000 feet of climbing the Fred Whitton Challenge is arguably the toughest sportive in the UK. The event has now raised nearly £1,000,000 for charity and also supports local businesses. So it seemed, from the comfort of the restaurant that the route would provide us with a chance to explore the area, get a few miles into our legs and climb a few hills. Apart from Geoff, who had actually ridden the challenge, the rest of us thought that as we weren’t going to do it all in one go, it couldn’t be that hard could it? Hmmm.
Saturday 30 April – A Big Day Out
|Ready for Le Depart from Keswick|
So, hoping for the best we donned our lycra and got our bikes ready for the ride. Geoff soon arrived and we were quickly underway. The air was damp but at least it wasn’t raining. The wet road surface meant that wheel spray was the issue for anyone following too closely. We set a good pace out of Keswick but had to stop within a mile as Michael and Andy realised that they hadn’t locked their vehicles so needed to return to the B&B.
After a short pause we were properly underway, heading towards Braithwaite and
the first of the day’s significant hills, the climb of Whinlatter Pass (Warren #82) over a distance of 2 miles with a height
gain of 760 feet. Whinlatter is an unusual climb for the Lakes as it is very
enclosed, rising up through Thornthwaite Forest at an average gradient of 7%
with a maximum of 15%. This was a good opportunity to test our legs and discover
how we fared against each other. Michael set a cracking pace and was first to
reach the top – a feat that he would continue to achieve throughout the
weekend. Once we had all regrouped at the top we set off westwards on a long
steady descent and were soon into open countryside under clearing skies with,
amazingly hints of some sunshine. The views opened up too and we could soon see
right across the Solway Firth to the mountains of Galloway. As we headed south
we could also clearly see the Isle of Man in the distance.
|Lejog 6 summit Whinlatter|
|Lunch stop at Santon Bridge|
Resisting the temptation to linger or have a dessert we clipped in and set off again heading for the first main event of the day – Hardknott Pass (Warren #84). The initial approach is very straightforward over a largely flat road up Eskdale alongside the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway line. Gradually the valley sides close in and the road starts to feel more enclosed. The high fells begin to dominate the view and hint at what might be ahead. Then suddenly we rounded a corner and there it was – the road up Hardknott Pass. It was breath-taking. We could see the road rising upwards for about half a mile where it disappeared over the shoulder of the hill. I could only guess at what lay out of sight. The stats in Simon Warren’s book state that the climb rises 977 feet over a distance of 1.4 miles at an average gradient of 13% with a maximum of 33%. The book says “If you can ride this, you can ride anything.” And amazing to think that the road was built by the Romans in 2AD (the ruins of a fort lie at the top).
|Geoff : "I am NOT walking"|
After regrouping and settling our heart rates we set off on the descent, squeezing our brakes to check the speed. The rough road surface meant concentration was necessary to avoid falling off the bike. Oncoming cars, with hesitant drivers, added to the challenge. All to soon we were at the bottom of the valley and crossing Cockley Beck. Ahead of us lay the next climb – Wrynose Pass (Warren #85). The book says that “If Hardknott is the king of climbs, then Wrynose is its queen.” At 1.6 miles, 900 feet of climbing and gradients of 6% (average) and 25% (maximum), you could be fooled into thinking that this was going to be easier than Hardknott. I can only say that it was tough; very tough. The start, alongside the River Duddon is rather pleasant and the flat, open valley with the gently rolling hills leaves you thinking that it is all going to be straightforward. The top of the pass is visible from a long way off which has the effect of reducing the apparent gradient. After rolling easily along the valley, the climb, when I finally reached it came as a bit of a shock as the road rears up with twists and turns before the summit is finally reached. The Three Shire Stone sits at the top of the pass marking the meeting point of the three historic counties of Cumberland, Lancashire and Westmorland.
The descent from Wrynose into Langdale is exhilarating. Initially the road drops away steeply with a gradient of 25% but as the valley floor is approached the gradient eases considerably and with long views ahead and little traffic it was possible to pedal hard and increase the speed. From Fell Foot it was an easy and relatively fast ride out of Langdale before joining the main road to Ambleside which was very busy on this Bank Holiday weekend. We then set a good pace to Grasmere where a coffee and cake stop was the priority.
|Approaching Keswick - the finish line beckons|
All told, we had ridden 73 miles and climbed 7,400 feet on some of the Lake District’s most iconic passes. The Lejog 6 were back in business! All that was needed to complete an exhilarating and enjoyable day was a shower, a meal and a beer or three. And satisfaction was indeed achieved.
Sunday 1 May – Wet Hills, Hard Hills
Sadly, this morning the weather gods were not smiling on us. We awoke to heavy grey clouds, limited visibility, rain and cold. Discussion over breakfast was a tad muted. The key question was would Geoff arrive clad in lycra? So should we don our own lycra and what would we say if we did and Geoff didn’t? Well no matter, because the Lejog 6 are clearly all on the same page – lycra was definitely the order of the day. A lycra clad Geoff arrived with his son, David, and Andy a friend of Geoff’s from the north east.
|Lejog 6 and friends shelter from the storm|
On an open road, in dry conditions and with good visibility, descending is one of the most exhilarating and enjoyable aspects of cycling. On a very wet road, with a rough surface and poor visibility it’s very different. In these sort of conditions, I’m a bit of a wimp at descending. So I set off last with Andy ahead of me. The initial slope dropped away very steeply at around 25% so I was squeezing my brake levers as hard as I could to check my speed. Gradually as the slope eased so did my grip on the levers. With rather misty conditions and glasses that were fogging up it was difficult to see clearly and judge my speed. With a shock I realised that I was rapidly closing the gap to Andy in front of me. Applying the brakes seemed to make little difference – the gap was still closing faster than I liked. Suddenly I realised that I was approaching a sharp dog leg with a bridge across a stream. And to cap it all, the road was covered in sheet water. With my heart in my mouth I kept the brakes on as late as I dared before releasing them and swooping round the bends over the bridge. Over what felt like minutes but was probably only a second or two I played out the scene in my mind – wheels sliding from under me, bike crashing down followed by the inevitable sandpaper effect of tarmac on lycra covered flesh. But somebody was looking out for me today and I made it. A glance at my Garmin revealed a heart rate spike of over 170 bpm. With gradual braking and a flat road surface I was soon able to get my speed down to a more comfortable level and recover my senses. Looking down at my front forks I could see that they were now covered in thick black gunge –wet brake pad dust that had rubbed off. Having had my few moments of ‘excitement’ I gradually caught up with Andy and followed him down to Buttermere where we all regrouped.
|A wet and windy stop atop Newlands Hause|
The strong winds and drizzle encouraged us to get moving and the descent was certainly very steep. Mindful of my scare on the descent of Honister I made maximum use of what was left of my brakes to check my speed. Geoff had forewarned us about a dangerous dog leg through a farm towards the bottom so I made sure I was going super slowly at that point. In fact, I was going so slowly that as I approached, the farmer decided it was time to get his tractor out and go for a drive. Fortunately, an oncoming car forced the tractor to pull over and for the next few miles Nick, who was riding with me, and I were able to nip through the gap and keep in front – to the farmer’s annoyance.
|Cyclists nirvana - a decent cafe|
|Cow Pie - once eaten, never forgotten|
What a way to end a wonderful two days. The Lejog 6 certainly had a blast!
Monday 2 May – Postscript
Michael, Nick and I left Keswick in driving rain which got heavier as we crossed the Pennines. Along the way we passed that sign for Hard Hills. None of us said anything about it but each of us had a faraway and knowing look in our eyes. Bring on the Pyrenees!!
Interested in hill climbing? Then check out Simon Warren's website here.