The northern Cumbrian mountains are breathtaking, both literally and figuratively. They look beautiful in almost any weather; sunshine or showers, every rise and view seems more stunning than the last. But the north Cumbrian mountains also offer something else — peace and quiet of a quality you don’t find anywhere else in the Lake District during summer. And that makes the roads here special.
The Slate Stinger is the new horse in Cycling Weekly’s sportive stable, and its route avoids the downside of cycling here. The Slate Stinger uses an area known locally as Back o’ Skiddaw and it doesn’t have the tourist traps littered throughout the rest of the Lake District: less tourist traffic, but the scenery remains.
Even the Epic route, which visits more mainstream Lakeland venues by going through Keswick, soon escapes the hustle and bustle in Borrowdale. From there, the daunting climb of Honister Pass leads to beautiful Buttermere and Lorton Vale, before rejoining the other routes just east of Cockermouth. Then it meanders home though Back o’ Skiddaw country, on roads close to the route-planner’s heart.
Über time triallist and current Ironman Kevin Dawson joins our regular CW previewer Malcolm Elliott for this one. I could tell you about the years of experience they have between them, but they’d probably have to kill me if I did. Suffice to say, they’ve done a bit of riding in their time.
All three routes start and finish at Hutton-in-the-Forest, a castle in the woods and family home of the Inglewoods. The castle is mentioned way back in Arthurian legend as the home of the Green Knight. The first few miles are a long, steady climb, which prepares you nicely for the first of many short but steep ups and downs at Bank End.
“That’s key to this ride,” Dawson observes. “It’s not the big climb of Honister [if you do the epic], it’s that all these ups and downs that get you. You’ve got to respect them and not try to hammer up them, especially early on, because they add up.”
“That’s right,” Elliott agrees. “Basically there’s little or no flat on any of the three routes. You’ve got to manage your gears right, even from the start when there’s often a temptation to blast over little climbs like this one, because you are fresh and feel strong. Don’t be tempted to do that; gear-down and pedal over them, otherwise you can end up in survival mode and still have a long way to ride.”
The short, sharp hill theme continues along the road to Fellside. This is the north side of High Pike (658m) and Knott (710m), two mountains that are part of the Skiddaw massif, which has a different look and a different geology to the rest of the Cumbrian Mountains. Skiddaw, standing at 931m, is the fourth-highest mountain in England, and is darker and gaunter than other Lakeland peaks. It looks down on Bassenthwaite Lake and Derwent Water, and with them forms a wonderful backdrop to the next part of the ride.
The short route turns away from Skiddaw near Branthwaite, and the Standard splits off close to Bassenthwaite, so those routes never really lose sight of this majestic mountain. The Epic, meanwhile, turns south and climbs the lower flanks of Skiddaw for a magnificent view west over Bassenthwaite Lake to the Lorton Fells. It’s like two hits of mountain in one go — the real thing and also the reflection of them in the lake. There are two hits of spring colours too, lit today by bright sunshine between short, refreshing showers.
Through Keswick, thinking I ought to add something to the day, I point out the famous Pencil Museum, to which Malcolm Elliott replies: “You know, I get to learn something new every time I do one of these with you.” Which I think means ‘shut up, you’re getting on my nerves’.
We carry on past Derwent Water, where a wetsuited swimmer attracts Dawson’s attention, and into rocky tree-clad Borrowdale, home of fell-running legend Billy Bland. Some readers will be familiar with the Bob Graham round — a circuit of 42 of Lakeland’s most famous fell tops, 66 miles in total, all of it over rough terrain. The Slate Stringer Epic route crosses many of these landmarks. The ‘round’ starts and finishes at Keswick’s Moot Hall, and you have to cover all 42 peaks within 24 hours.
People dedicate hours of training, years of their lives and make numerous attempts before being able to scrape inside the allotted time. In 1982, Billy Bland ran round the Bob Graham in 13 hours and 53 minutes… 32 years later, that is still the record.
A village called Seatoller lies almost at the head of Borrowdale and at the foot of Honister Pass, which is the start of the Epic’s route and a must-do climb for any cyclist. I won’t sugar-coat it, though; Honister is hard. In fact, it’s very hard at the bottom, but after one kilometre of suffering, it flattens out a little.
The next section winds up the valley of Hause Gill and it is very exposed. A headwind here is agony, but there’s a tailwind today, blowing Dawson and Elliott to the final steep ramp — a 600m grind that’s like climbing the roof of a house. Then, suddenly, the road drops away down the other side.
“Honister is a hard climb,” Dawson says. “You just get up as best you can. I rode the Fred Whitton [Sportive] up here a couple of weeks ago, and it’s the one place where I’d have to consider using a compact chainset.”
Elliott views it the same. “When I raced, I wouldn’t have used a compact. I think they only work for real climbers in races. Everybody else would just go slower on a compact. But they’re great for hills like this in a cyclo-sportive.
“I’d just put it in bottom gear at the start and pace myself up. Definitely don’t go too hard at the bottom, because you’ll never recover if you go into oxygen debt, and you could end up having to stop to catch your breath,” he says.
The other thing not to be sugar-coated is Honister’s descent. It’s not dangerous as such, but could be if you got carried away. To deter people from doing so, the descent is discounted from overall times.
Route planner Gavin McDonald of Rather be Cycling, a Scot in Cumbrian exile and keen racer, explains: “There’s no point in trying to up your average by going fast down Honister because we’ve taken it out of the overall time for each rider. It won’t count for your time because there’s a sensor at the top and the bottom, and the time between will be disregarded.”
Anyway, you don’t want to go too fast because you’ll miss the splendour of Buttermere. For what it’s worth, I think this is the best bit of the Lakes. And I’m not alone. The greatest ever Lakeland guide, A.W. Wainwright had his ashes scattered over to our left, on top of Haystacks hill, perhaps hoping he could look down on this valley for ever. That would be good.
Buttermere is glorious, with mountains on either side. The High Stile chain and the Buttermere Fells slowly open out past Crummock Water, giving way to the wider Lorton Vale as Dawson and Elliott follow the lovely River Cocker then turn east in Cockermouth and back into Back o’ Skiddaw country.
These are McDonald’s favourite training roads. “Just after Bewaldeth you pass Fell End Farm then there’s a farm track that I call my Paris-Roubaix. The route then squeezes between two hills, the biggest on the left is called Binsey, and after Ireby you climb Catlands Hill, which is this Scotsman’s favourite because at the top I catch a glimpse of the ‘Auld Country’,” he says
“Then there’s a long, exposed climb to a tower that’s nearly always got a headwind. Then after Caldbeck you go over a bridge and climb a short, steep hill where they’ve taken the tarmac away so it’s really rough. That’s my Koppenberg [climb].”
There are no climbs after that; the route meanders back to Hutton-on-the-Forest along some narrow country lanes for an easy wind-down. It’s a nice way to end a wonderful ride.
If you have any doubts about the beauty on show here, consider this: some of Britain’s most famous mountain climbers -— Chris Bonington and Doug Scott, to name just two — live on this side of the Lakes, and they know a thing or two about scenery.
Kevin Dawson and Malcolm Elliot say….
- Be very careful descending, especially going down Honister. Don’t let your speed get out of control, and don’t risk going through the bends too fast. The road dips and turns this way and that, with rises and odd cambers that catch you out. The road surface changes too, with corrugations in places that can throw you off-line in a bend. Use both brakes, a bit more back than front, but above all brake smoothly. – Malcolm Elliot.
- I used 25mm tyres today pumped to 100psi. They’re just that bit wider and softer than I’d race on, but that means they absorb the bumps, give you a bit of cushioning and make your bike easier to control – Kevin Dawson
- You might meet a bit of traffic in Borrowdale on the Epic, be aware. This is not a ride for big groups, as the lanes are quire narrow. But it has got stunning scenery. – Malcolm Elliot
- Check the weather forecast so you can choose the right clothes. Even if it says it’ll be warm and sunny, take some light gloves and a rain top which you can put on if it turns wet. You might want to put them on for long decent off Honister Pass too. Whatever, wear track mitts – they’ll help your grip on the handlebars in any weather – Kevin Dawson