Cycling in the Lake District

Cycling in the Lake District

One merry evening out someone announces that it should be a goal to ride the Fred Whitton Route in the first few months of the year. Eyebrows are raised. Everyone likes the lake district. Everyone likes riding, but it’s a gamble on the weather, what about the light, and that is one hell of a big day out cycling? It gets pushed back a month or so and before you know it is a real project with a great deal of interest. The FWC starts from Grasmere – and that seems as good a place as any – and a hostel is recommended to us. We are one or two people short of filling the entire venue within a week, so that is the route we take… in fact we take the whole place lock-stock AND the pod in the garden.

As it turns out planning and organisation for the hostel despite it’s fine reviews was reasonably hellish. There were a lot of rules. A lot of ‘named parties signing their life away’, a lot of precisely ‘who will be in what bed’ – generally a lot of formality, a fair amount of fun-hoovering – including amongst others no partying, no cooking after time X, people bringing their own bedding will be ejected (!) and so on. Stressful. Harsh. O_o

So with this in the bag – it was down to peoples plans not changing (a fair few dropped out), the weather, and plain old getting there.

Friday

We headed off a little later than intended. Mat and I made good progress with just the one stop en route, and managing to bump into Sally & Vic not once but twice before reaching our destination. Very much akin to the Yorkshire trip with two Cannondale Super Six’ on the roof we made good time – and unbelievably it was both warm and blue of sky. Amazing.

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Summer bikes and summer skies

On arrival we pretty much ignored our room designation, and invaded the room of a friend who was now one of a party of two expected. Result. Unpacked, and had a quick mooch around the place. Until we realised that the day was now trickling at speed through our fingers, along with available light. Initial plans for 40 miles were now starting to evaporate, as we made our clothing decisions (sounding quite pretentious however this was short sleeve base layer jersey and arm warmers kind of day – first of year – and a great deal of “is it safe” was being voiced), and collected outside to find one group heading off for The Struggle.

Rolling decidedly downhill towards Grasemere proper and on to Ambleside it is apparent that one of our group has a musical bike. Two of the three of us are sporting larger cassettes than usual – and one of us has failed to check it. The lock ring is tight so they are missing the requisit spacers. Winner. Plans in the pan. Bike shop it is then.

Stopping to ask for directions we were advised that  Biketreks would be the place to go. Sure enough a sign outside says “Award Winning Bikeshop” – this would be good as we are almost 4pm now. No mechanic. Unwilling to look. Doesn’t have tools or parts. Winning my @rse. On to a back street non-chain-bike-shop and we are on the road for a fiver with spacer fitted, and lock ring back on. Go team.

Heading down the road to the first turn of the FWC up and left, and towards the Kirkstone pass, a steady curving ascent with views quickly down on to the lake to the right. Suddenly it is all very clear what the lake district is about… scenery, and uphills…. but oh my the scenery… more specifically the light.

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Looking Right as we ascend the Kirkstone Pass

Heading back down, and making the  ascent back up through Ambleside to Grasmere, and the familiar roundabout before the finish of the FWC, a little further before the hotel (first pub stop), and the Travellers Rest (second pub stop, and venue for the evening’s food). Light is starting to fade properly now behind the hills, and we push on for the remaining half mile to the hostel.

Car Park now full, and pretty much everyone in – the atmosphere is good. Shower. Change. Out for food. On foot, torches, beer, food, laughter. What is not to like.

Not too late to bed, as the morning brings a big day of riding.

The beds, as promised do not creak, however at 6ft they are short. Boo. However – not my own bedding – would not want to face that wrath!

*I wonder if they did spot checks at night?!

A good day.

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Saturday

Yawn. Stretch. We are planning to head off for 10am – but come 8am pretty much everyone is downstairs and in the reassuringly industrial kitchen consuming porridge, pastry, fruit, and coffee. Lots of coffee.

The sun is out – weather forecasts have been consulted, and we are looking at quite a sunny day, although cooler than the day before.

For all the discussions of routes, it would appear it has boiled down to two routes.

People have gone to the lakes for a number of reasons – social – challenge – specifics – and for all of the routes cited, with a little indecision – it boils down to two routes. Mark and the shorter 40 mile lake ride, and Mat and his follow-the-line-on-the-Garmin mystery tour – forming essentially a hard or soft option. This being said for those familiar with the phrase “The Cake Is A Lie” – well 40 miles was too.

Heading off around the closed road from Rydal – we headed rather rudely I might add – up our first incline. Red Bank, 300ft in under a mile with moments of 25%. Steep, and not the kind of thing you can brute out to the top. Well, that’s the warm up then.

The scenery starts coming at us – moments of Yorkshire with stone barns, but without the regularity.

Sure, yesterday was 14C – and sure – that really is snow on a non-North face, within what really does look like a hill top you can ride to – amazing.

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Almost immediately we are out of the town and into the country proper…. sure, we have scenery, we are based in North Wales, but this quick, hell no – or maybe it is just unfamiliar eyes. Either way its rolling, and scenic.

The next hill is upon us is Blea Tarn – half a mile, 400ft. Right, okay, this is starting to feel like intervals. Passing people, to have them pass me back, power to weight is a bitch. The ascent is curiously open, the road not at first obvious, tarmac on moorland, switching back and fourth and looking up you see bikes but no road… we are not in Kansas now.

Dropping down the other side to a junction, and right. Yes, this is Wrynose, I have been down this side before… I cannot imagine it is going to be a treat going up. I head off on arrival, I am no mountain goat, happy to get a head start.

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The council are keen with the signs. As usual this gives little to know idea of what the gradient is like.  The signs keep repeating 20%, 25%, 20% they may as well say “you are a stone heavier than the last time you did this, and its still uphill btw“.

Staring ahead I am trying to pick out where the road goes to no avail – it is simply a grey line on a hillside with the occasional post.

I can see riders behind me, and the occasional car. On the whole the cars are not that keen to be there, and have that hot smell of irritated car as they go by at no great speed. This is a narrow road.

I see a red jersey gaining on me. I have this down as one of our number – but I am surprised to find it is a local. With an almost cliche “How Do’?” he greets me and asks where we are from. I am plodding along in my dinner plate gear, and still able to speak.  He bids me a good day and heads off with at what seems to little or no extra effort, glancing back to advise me to “save some for the bends at the top“. Riiiiiiight. Thank you (I think) – as I reach into my memory to try and play back coming down this way but I am getting nothing but a huge sense of relief – not so useful.

Local chap finding it all too easy
Local chap finding it all too easy

I watch his wiry frame ahead of me slowly gaining ground, as he occasionally stands to dance on the pedals warning me of the pleasures to come ahead.

Glancing back I can see us all now, strung out with cars making their way through.

A generally patient white Audi TT attempts to squeeze by on a steep section and I run out of road, find the grass, slow, and unclip. With it I lose point. Find a convenient large boulder, with a flat surface with moss on it, park myself there, drink in the scenery and wait.

I address the passes by with useful phrases such as “I think you have a flat!” and “oh, I think I can hear your back brake rubbing?” – there is zero chance of me getting back on here, so I may as well wait for the walkers and make the best of it  : D

Wandering up to a stone bridge, I wedge my back wheel against the wall, lean, and push off – back on with this. Sure enough there we are the bends at the top picking our way between some boulders, then a rolling set of bends to the top. Done. Nice. What a view.

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Looking back before the bends. Bridge, and a bike being walked to the left.
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The final few meters, before the drop off bends and descent. Done.

This is – without doubt – up. Much cheering for everyone as they arrive. We are all up Wrynose pass. There is a very visble sense of “I did this” – a named pass – a trade-able commodity – tick.

The descent starts poorly with a hair pin around a boulder as I see Gary with his hands on a bonnet. Well I am glad he saw the car at least, if not them him.

Back up to speed – the curbless tarmac rolls and twists down the hill and along the valley floor towards Hardknott Pass. Speed is good, traffic less so, however lots of cyclists to wave to as we go.

Looking at the ascent ahead I am reminded of the canvas hanging on my wall at home… I am very… very glad not to be heading up there today.

We arrive at the junction and head away from Hardknott, a rolling twisting road – this is all good. Heading alongside woodland, and up to a cattle grid and a moment to catch up when we discover we have a flat in the group (the only one of the weekend).

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This is my kind of terrain!

The road ahead looks great. The road ahead *is* great. No sustained climbs, just bumps, twists, descents. This is great stuff, and Phil and push ahead enjoying the scenery.

Fantastic in fact.

Regrouping at the end of this road, we head down then grovel up a hill to a town where we find the square, a café, and have lunch.

Heading out from here, there is more of the up.

The road is hard to pick out – psychologically this works a dream for me, until a struggling old motorbike comes by and paints a very dark picture indeed as he zig zags up the moorland wall infront of me as opposed to over the bwlch I was hoping for!

Down, and past the intended junction which I still question as being “an error” and up up up and more up around the next hill to the main road. We are up high, and can see all the way down to the sea to the South from here.

A screaming fast main road descent, and it is not too long before we are back on track.

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Alongside Coniston water, leaf-less trees mean a good view of the water

Before too long at all we are making our way along the edge of Coniston Water. The view is amazing. The trees are sparse and free of leaves, so you can see quite a bit. The road rolls and gently curves with the edge of the lake, with the occasional dig.

This is a BIG stretch of water, as Vic and I at the front start to wonder in jest if we have been around it more than once.

Stopping to regroup and take in the view at the end we head on to Ambleside, and around the same closed road route to Rydal to cut out the main roads.

A stop at the pub is suggested, and before you know it a group of fully-grown-should-know-better-adults are strung out in a pace line pushing for the pub. Real efforts are being made here to break away, and likewise hold on. Much laughter. Then it comes into sight, and there is a wide break before turning right into the Hotel. many smiles. Golden moments. Beer in the sunshine as we re-group, and a beer ready for the arrival of Gary who is all of the spent by this point. Well deserved that man.

The evening sees us return to the same place in Grasmere we had our pre FWC meal last year. This was much less of a dry evening: Cheers!

dinner-in-gasmere

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Sunday

Our room headed back quite early – the rest of them having opted for the hard option and were too be fair – shattered. Our room cut into the lounge, with paper thin walls, so we had the annoyance, and then general hilarity of hearing but not seeing the drunken remains up playing “The Cornflake Game”. It amused… even more so when you wake to find people with heavy heads, and strained legs 😀

We had to have our rooms empty for 10am – there were very specific instructions!

So breakfast was a busy place around 7 to 8 – then packing of cars and indecision.

While routes had been discussed, the groups appeared to trickle off on their own. Some heading home, some riding, some out for a mega ride, some out for a pootle, some with plans of a dirty breakfast in Ambleside.

By the time Mat and I had moved the car to the laybye on the closed road we were pushing 0950 – and we were the last remaining… it was a good job we had a plan.

Heading up the closed main road to Keswick was a delight. Empty road, and almost instantly quiet riding… just water, bird song, sunshine… fantastic.

Heading on new tarmac stretches, and around the far side of Thirlmere.

The only traffic – busses, which travelled in two and with escort vehicles… good times. Walkers, cyclists, loads of them.

Thirlmere was picturesque with choppy water as we joined it – but then as we rounded the corner the game changed…. the water smoothed out to a mirror like surface… and the two photographers took a few moving snaps before giving in to stop and drink it all in.

First the snaps from the bike
First the snaps from the bike
Then stopping...
Then stopping…
Stopping again...
Stopping again…
...and again just to drink it all in. Awesome.
…and again just to drink it all in. Awesome.
Rare picture of me. Stopped in wonder at it really
Rare picture of me. Stopped in wonder at it really

Amazing. The towering tall pine trees, the reflection, the backdrop – all sense of scale is lost, your mind struggles to find context for it all.

You would usually only ever see this kind of thing pre dawn… and even then on rare occasions. We were very very lucky to be seeing this. A real cherry on the top of the weekend.

Unsurprisingly we catch two other groups after a chat with a local (moved up from Wrexham – what are the chances). They too are stopped taking pictures. What an amazing day.

Seeing as Mat has a passion for old buildings – and it was not far out of our way – we headed to Castle Rigg Stone Circle, where we met more of our group.

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Castle Rigg Stone Circle- Helvelyn and Striding Edge.

From here our plan was clear – we knew there was a café at the top of the Whinlatter Pass – which I recall as being wooded, and lined with people cheering us on in the rain on the FWC, and it lays out the other side of Keswick – so on we pressed.

It’s surprising how your memory can be skewed – its a lot more pleasant when its one of say two climbs that day – you are not soaked to the skin – and you are not on 114 mile ride.

The ascent was quite lovely, and with Fran for company, we reached the top and headed into the café to meet yet another group.

Whinlatter Cafe
Whinlatter Cafe

Food here was GOOD. If you are passing. Go. Seriously. Mountain biking places I guess have captive predictable audiences – and fine catering… which I am further swayed by their Stick Man related fineries.

We basked in the sunshine before packing up to head back the way we came.

The closed main road that links Keswick to Grasmere was a dream. Effortless riding. Good tarmac. Great views. Equally we were in no hurry.

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Flood damaged bridges and roads, closed, but not to bikes. Happy Days.

A childish and most excellent closed road sprint down to the laybye ensued and we re grouped to say our goodbyes as the group was heading off to their cars, to get changed, and so on.

Mat and I pressed on down hill towards “The Struggle”.

Had some one pointed out to me “You know that unpleasant ascent to the top of the Kirkstone Pass?”,

“Yes?”

“Well – this is a mile or so shorter, to the same place.”

“Oh nice!”

The name is not “Nice cup of tea and a sit down” or “See you at the pub for eight” – it is The struggle – and asit turns out it is a good name.

Turning UP and left at Ambleside – the initial climb is a bit of a dig – however you kind of assume that it is going to back off. It does. It backs off from a 20 back down to a 15 or so. This joy then continues in a variety of lesser and greater up to what appears to be a summit.

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GREAT success and celebration rushes through you as you prepare to take a seat for the first time in the entire ascent…. TO FIND IT IS A FALSE PEAK.

The road drops away again and in front of you are hair pins up to the pub at the top of the Kirkstone Pass.

Looking over the hairpins back towards the false peak, and the lake from which we had climbed up from.
Looking over the hairpins back towards the false peak, and the lake from which we had climbed up from.

Fragments of my sense of humour can be found littering that final ascent. “Thank you Mat” for this suggestion.

I think I would choose another Wrynose Pass ascent over that again.

Back down the ascent from the previous day, and back to the car to change.

Similar distance and ascent as the previous day as well.

What a day. Best of both worlds.

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Many Thanks

To Darren for having the initial insanity of “lets ride FWC in February” or some such. Madness. For suggesting that we should push ahead with the whole hostel, and for generally being the drive behind the project, even if he was unable to attend in the end.

To Sally for being the heroine in all this – and dealing with the quite frankly insanely strict practices at the hostel, the stress from this plus herding the cats that form the attendees, and generally ensuring that all most of us had to do was pay our monies and turn up. It did not go unnoticed. You are a star.

Finally to everyone* who went for making the mix of people so great, and ensuring a great few days riding around The Lakes.

*Specific reference to car buddy Mat, and Simon, who’s room we gate crashed 😀