Monday 16th September 2013 was a memorable day for British cycling fans; the Tour of Britain swept through Cumbria in the pouring rain and deposited the peloton on the slopes of Honister pass.
As the leading group headed upwards, chased down by the star names of Quintana and Martin, the clouds (and the crowds) drew in; hundreds of fans decked out in the Cumbrian uniform of Gore-Tex braved the lashing rain to form a guard of honour. The riders ground on up ramps of 25%, through cloud thick with rain – some of the lesser lights bobbing and weaving, like fighters on the ropes – and the scene was reminiscent of the Spanish roads of the Angliru in the Vuelta Espana a few days earlier. The British crowds revelled in their supporting role, unashamedly proud of this tough climb and the weather to match.
As someone who does a lot of riding on these roads I appreciate the way that bike riding in Cumbria was presented on our TV screens; I was even a little bit proud (in the same way as those idyllic French villages are, when they pop up along the route of the Tour de France). Riding in Cumbria is, as the old-timers put it, butch.
To those with only a casual acquaintance, The Lake District in Cumbria gives an impression of tranquil waters and idyllic rambling walks. But talk to any cyclist who lives within 100 miles of the area and as soon as you utter names like Newlands, Kirkstone, Wrynose, Whinlatter or Honister you’ll be met with instant recognition, followed quickly by a hollow thousand yard stare as your fellow masochist recalls some ill-fated, weather beaten meeting with one of these legendary passes.
But the unquestionable daddy of them all, rising up in front of you like a vertical grey wall, is Hardknott Pass – seriously tough, with long sections at a genuine 25% gradient and above. To pedal to the summit of it without putting a foot down feels like a cardiac arrest. If you do manage this feat (and there’s no shame in failure on Hardknott) it’s not unusual to receive a polite (if slightly bemused) round of applause from whatever ramblers or general tourists happened to be perched on it’s 400 metre peak.
But the way to really ride these passes is to string two or three of them together, and a quick look at the map reveals numerous ways to rattle off some of these lung bursting stretches of tarmac in one fell swoop. You can set yourself a true test of mind and body that will leave you cramped up in a Cumbrian car-park; legs in pieces, head spinning with satisfaction, clutching at the mere fact of survival. Alternatively, if you prefer to have your suffering organised professionally, the Fred Whitton Challenge can also be recommended.
But riding in Cumbria is about more than just famous passes and 25% gradients. Whenever you ride any distance in the lakes it’s a big ride; in other words there not much flat to punctuate the ups and downs. It can be hard to get a rhythm going, that’s true, but if you are after some hard training, or just want to test your legs, it’s a cyclist paradise.
It’s true, the major tourist centres of the Lake District can be busy – the roads choked with cars – but don’t let that be your abiding impression. If you find your way to some of the more remote parts, you will get the feeling you have truly lost touch with all civilisation; some spots are so wild you’ll feel like a flat-earth proponent edging towards the unknown.
So next time you get the chance, come and test your legs in Cumbria….and see how ‘butch’ you really are.