You know the steep road sign? with the black triangle and the number? That's how steep Hardknott is, actually as steep as the triangle. Steep enough to make you weep. Something to look forward to all the way round. To be honest it's probably best it's right at the end: throw this in at the start and you'd have the sportivistes turning tail and heading home in their droves. Still, at least the sun's out...
The sun was most emphatically not out at the start of 2011's Fred Whitton Challenge. Driving up to the lakes from Bath was a 250-mile windscreen wiper test, and the overnight stop in Kendal was a restless few hours to a backdrop of flashes and thunder. Driving to Coniston in the morning conditions looked more benign, but by the time the number was on the bike swathes of the horizon were erased by the kind of showers the Lakes are famous for. When they hit the event village was exactly when I planned to set off; resigned to spending the day bedraggled, I set off anyway. I was soaked about seven seconds after I'd dibbed my dibber. The stair rods seeped through my helmet, washing the salty residue from previous rides down into my eyes and mouth. Should I drink it? It's probably isotonic.
Mercifully, by the time we reached Kirkstone Pass the weather had relented from biblical to brooding, and the climb was crested just a couple of hundred feet below the clouds. The descent gave some respite, and from there it's the quickest section of the course, on good roads that filter gently down into Keswick. I caught a fast moving chain gang for a few miles and then settled with a slower pace line when they spat me out. By the time I got to the Seatoller and the bottom of Honister pass, I was feeling pretty good.
By the time I got to the top of Honister Pass, I was feeling decidedly less good. It's a no-holds-barred climb, steep from the start as it heads into the valley and steep again after a brief respite in the middle. Averaging 10% over its 1.5 mile length and topping out at 25%, it's a real test. I'd gone to the trouble of asking which climbs were the hard ones, but sadly I hadn't gone to the trouble of remembering, so Honister (which I'd got mixed up with the easier Whinlatter, I think) was a bit of a shock to the system. Thank goodness for SRAM Apex, eh?
Ah, SRAM Apex. Bless you and your 32T cassette. Now I can look like a 'proper' roadie (albeit one using a compact) and still sit down and spin up vertiginous passes. It's cheating, basically. Never mind that the gaps between the lowest gears are more like chasms. I'm a convert.
Down the back and into Buttermere for the first feed stop, and while I was stuffing ham sandwiches and bananas into my gaping maw the rain came again. Harder than before. I took cover under one of the gazebos but such was the force of the shower that all chat stopped; you simply couldn't be heard. We were lucky: I later learned that up on Newlands, then next pass, the rain was hail. I left when the rain eased to a deluge, and by the time I'd crested Newlands (a slog but not too bad) It had stopped. I stayed dry up Whinlatter; given that I thought it was one of the hard climbs it was a pleasant surprise.
Chatting to a guy on the climb semi-prepared me for what was to come: In my simple mind, four passes down and two to go meant a nice flat section to recover. But the western section is – with the exception of Hardknott – the hardest bit of all. There's no passes to tick off but there's all manner of climbing, on a road that dips and rises all the way to the high point at Cold Fell. I'm sure it's sapping riding in the best of conditions. So it didn't help that over Whinlatter it started to rain. And then it rained and rained and rained and rained and rained and rained. And the wind blew, and the legs started to complain. The last of the caffeine gels went down the hatch, and that just about dragged me to the second feed stop at Calderbridge, by which time the sun had appeared and raised everyone's spirits. More bananas. More sandwiches. Cake. Tea. Gels. Whatever you got.
Just the final stretch to go, then, and glorious sunshine to do it in, a rolling – but rolling in a nice way – lick over to Eskdale Green, the no-turning-back point for the Hardknott Pass. The road signs make for interesting reading. "Thinking of going over Hardknott, eh?", the basically say. "You sure about that?". It's not confidence-inspiring, but the flat run-in along the valley is a scenic preamble to the main event, with everyone lost in their own private preparations for the climb.
And then you see the climb.
There's plenty of reasons why Hardknott is hard. It's steep, for a start. Eye-poppingly steep. 30% at its steepest (in two places) and an average of 14% over its 1.3 mile length. Actually staying on the bike is a technical achievement, I'm sure some mountain biking experience is a major plus. There's a cattle grid to get over right at the bottom on a 25% slope – it was wet, too – so your only option is to give it some beans and hope you're carrying enough speed to make it across. The guy in front of me wasn't, but I managed to miss his head.
There's a mental as well as a physical battle to win too. From the bottom of the Hardknott Pass you can see the top, and everything in between. Everything. Every hairpin, every traverse, every rider struggling up, every spectator, every vehicle. You're never in any doubt about how hard it's going to be, or where the hard bits are. That's a double-edged sword: on the one hand, once you've got past the impossibly steep lower section you know that there's another bit, just as steep or even steeper, up ahead. On the other hand, you know that if you can do those bits, that's the climb more or less conquered. I was starting to cramp up after the first section, and worrying that I'd come a cropper on the second I stopped to take a couple of photos and give my legs a minute. That short breather gave me enough in the tank to clear the top set of hairpins – just – and after that it's a slow drag to the top and the steep, bumpy descent into Wrynose Bottom before the second helping...
Hardknott pretty much broke me. All the way round I'd been keeping a watch on my average speed, hoping that I'd break eight hours. Some time in the deluge before Cold Fell I'd realised that wasn't going to happen, but on Hardknott I entered a whole new plane of reality where time and speed had no meaning: the only thing was the climb, and the only goal the top. That achieved, the next goal was Wrynose: I knew it couldn't be as bad, because it isn't as long, or steep. But it pretty much was as bad, because I was in pieces. I had to dunk my head in one of the lakeland streams in Wrynose Bottom to get back some semblance of brain function before I started, and while I can recall every metre of the Hardknott ascent, I don't really remember Wrynose at all, I'm not sure I looked up once. Just gazed at my front wheel and turned the pedals, head pounding.
The descent off Wrynose is an exercise in not falling into a ditch, mostly. Steep and lumpy and tight and twisty. When it flattened out I assumed that we'd roll into Coniston, job done. But there's more climbing, past Little Langdale and then up to the A593 before you really are on the home stretch, ticking off the miles back to HQ. Those last five miles or so properly hurt. I was in a trance-like state. I remember being overtaken. Lots. But finish I did, and any time is a personal best first time out. 8:34 is the benchmark. Not bad for a big lad. Under eight hours is the goal, next time.
Will there be a next time? Yes. The event is excellent: friendly, well-organised, expertly marshalled and fully supported by the local community. Every town and village along the way, people turn out to clap you along and give you a boost; they know how hard those climbs are. It certainly lives up to its challenge moniker and The weather this year made it even tougher; in the dry I reckon I could post a sub-8hr time. That's the talk talked, I'll have to wait a year to try and walk the walk...
Big thanks to event sponsors Saddleback for the ride invite, and also the Castelli Body Paint shorts and Vredestein Fortezza Tri Comp tryes that they armed me with for the ride; both performed admirably. Watch out for reviews on road.cc soon.
Dave is a founding father of road.cc, having previously worked on Cycling Plus and What Mountain Bike magazines back in the day. He also writes about e-bikes for our sister publication ebiketips. He's won three mountain bike bog snorkelling World Championships, and races at the back of the third cats.