Tuesday 10 May 2016

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
No matter, we pressed on and arrived at the B&B in good time where we were met by a smiling Geoff.  Any thoughts of inclement weather were soon cast aside and once we had checked in and joined up with Vince who arrived soon afterwards we headed into town for some (liquid) refreshment. Now Keswick has a lot of pubs. And a lot of the pubs have a large selection of fine real ales. So, with Andy’s arrival, we were soon into reminiscence mode and both the beer and the banter flowed freely. Tales of our achievements on Lejog were recounted and exaggerated with gusto.

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
We awoke to grey skies and light drizzle with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains – Helvellyn and Skiddaw. Over breakfast we consulted the various internet weather gurus. Each had a different forecast to offer. The prospective weather was best summed up by that age old British approach “sunny intervals, with showers and a possibility of some heavy downpours in variable wind conditions” i.e. nobody really had a clue.

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.

Lejog 6 summit Whinlatter
 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.

Lunch stop at Santon Bridge
Heading past Ennerdale we rode up another categorised climb, Burn Edge (Warren #180) although I was unaware of it. The climb rises 550 feet over 2.3 miles at an average gradient of 4.5% - which is probably why I didn’t realise it at the time. Despite being fairly close to the west Cumbrian towns this area has a very bleak and remote feel to it. Names like Cold Fell and Fang’s Brow say it all; Cumbria’s take on Mordor. Not a place to be stuck in with a major bike mechanical. Gradually we turned eastwards and stopped for lunch at a delightful café in Santon Bridge – about 35 miles riding from Keswick. By now the sun was shining so we were able to sit outside.

Lejog 6 put off the moment of truth for as long as possible

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"
So we each made our own preparations and set off. First off are a couple of brutal sharp bends at 25%. As I set off my front wheel actually lifted up from the road surface and I was forced to stop and restart. Beyond the switchbacks the road levels off slightly and then the road kicks up again with a second set of switchbacks climbing at an average of 30%. None of us were able to complete the climb without pausing to recover. Again, Michael was the first to reach the top and was by now the undisputed wearer of the polka dot jersey. Sadly, I failed and had to endure the walk of shame on the steepest parts. Geoff, who was the oldest in the group, completed the climb – entertaining a passing family on a stroll with shouts of “I am not walking!” Vince, who let slip that he’d never failed to ride up a hill, made it to the top through quiet and steely determination.

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
From Grasmere we headed north back towards Keswick on the final leg of our day’s ride. The main road from Town Head was closed as a result of the devastating 2015 winter floods – a bridge had been washed away. So instead, we took advantage of a newly created cycle path, complete with what must be the smoothest tarmac surface in the whole Lake District and we were soon riding along the western side of Thirlmere. With a slight tail wind and level terrain, we were able to set a cracking pace. After a couple of ‘little’ bumps to cross over with by now weary legs we were soon back in Keswick.

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
In view of the weather we decided to shorten the ride and limit ourselves to just two passes. So on a damp Sunday morning we left Keswick riding south alongside Derwent Water and heading for Borrowdale. After five miles Andy, Geoff’s friend, had a rear wheel puncture which forced us to stop. Amazingly, given the rough road surfaces, this was the only puncture of the weekend. Nick kept his explosive gas canister in his pocket and with a quick change of inner tube we were soon underway again. Arriving at the village of Seatoller we were immediately on to the first of the day’s climbs – Honister Pass (Warren #80, reverse route). The stats for the climb are 1.4 miles, 768 feet, 10% (average) and 22% (maximum). Most of the climb is straightforward with the toughest bit coming in the last third when the gradient reaches 22%. The Honister café at the top is built from local slate but I have to say it doesn’t really chime with the surroundings. So after the group photocall we opted not to stay for coffee and instead set off on the descent.

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
Then we were off again for the final climb, Newlands Hause (Warren #81). By recent standards the figures suggested that this might be a “lesser” climb: 1.2 miles, 678 feet, 11% (average) and 25% (maximum). In reality it was certainly a demanding test. Perhaps the most notable feature of the climb is its sense of wilderness. The road out of Buttermere rapidly narrows down to a single lane and rears up at about 20% through a series of sweeping bends. The climb then eases off somewhat and you can see it snaking away and up about half a mile ahead. After a long straight rising at around 9% the road turns sharply right and the gradient kicks up to about 15% as it hugs the side of the hill. The gradient then eases off again slightly, though this made little difference as I was now gasping for breath. The hill provides a last hurrah at nearly 25% before the summit is reached. By the time I got there the surrounding hills were covered in dense cloud and the wind was gusting strongly – so strongly that I was almost blown over whilst standing up to take the photo. Away to the right Moss Force, a waterfall in full flow, was an impressive sight and reinforced the primeval scene that surrounded us. Newlands Hause may not be as high as the other climbs we had visited, but it was perhaps the bleakest.

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
By now we were all rather damp from a combination of rain and road spray so the Chalet Tearooms were the ideal place to stop and restore our spirits. Over cappuccinos and some rather tasty marmalade flapjack we were soon back to a more human state. The worsening weather meant that common sense prevailed and we decided to return to Keswick and call it a day.  Although at 22 miles and 2,300 feet the numbers were well down on the previous day, the quality of the riding was no less impressive.

Cow Pie - once eaten, never forgotten
There was however one outstanding and important order of business.  On a number of occasions Geoff had told us about the legendary Cow Pie that The George in Keswick served. To be sure that we didn’t miss out he had booked a table for us for dinner that night. So, after freshening up and resting our weary legs we headed over to The George to see what all the fuss was about. The pies are “made on the premises with prime chucks of Cumbrian beef in a shortcrust pastry”. Enquiries revealed that a full portion contained 2.2lbs, yes 2.2lbs of beef. So we all opted for a half portion. I was slightly alarmed to notice that Geoff declined the pie and chose a steak instead. What did he know that we didn’t? Anyway the very large half portions soon arrived and the struggle to finish them was right up there with the toughest of our climbs. I think I can safely say that eating The George’s Cow Pie is definitely a once in a lifetime experience.

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.

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