Topping out on Hardknott Pass - 3 of the Hardest Climbs in the UK
3 of the Hardest Climbs in the UK
Ambleside is well established as the perfect base for an active holiday. There is so much choice it can be difficult to decide what to do. Here we describe 3 of the steepest cycling routes (on road) in the region and all are best enjoyed from Ambleside.
Although ‘enjoyed’ may not be the appropriate term, we find them fun and challenging.
Whilst these aren’t our favourites, anyone who has ridden up these climbs will no doubt agree they are extremely rewarding. All are regular climbs for us, purely as a method of keeping fit whilst enjoying stunning mountain scenery.
A word about bikes and group-sets first:
I think it is reasonable to say that any fairly fit cyclist can get up these climbs, but having the correct equipment is a major factor to success. Low ratio gearing is a must for all, unless your name is Alberto Contador! A standard Shimano setup works fine with a minimum of a 32 cassette, but if you can fit a 40 go for it, every little helps.
The Bike – try to ditch any excess weight from the bike. If you have mudguards or panniers fitted for example, if they won’t be needed leave them behind. If you have a choice of bikes, choose the lightest.
Hydraulic disc brakes will be useful too and a must if attempting any of these in damp conditions. I currently use rim brakes and and find the descents need complete vigilance to keep good control, hydraulics would be a big help with this. I wouldn’t attempt any of these on a rainy day with only rim brakes and would probably still cycle elsewhere if hydraulics were an option.
Tyres – having slightly wider tyres is worth considering and lower the pressure a little for the descents. I run 30mm and have used 28mm previously. The 30mm are more comfortable on these poorly surfaced roads and having the extra width gives increased grip.
What to take – as a minimum have at least one spare tube, a multi-tool, spare food, drinks, spare clothing. The Struggle remains close to amenities and help, there’s even good mobile signal. But for Wrynose and Hardknott you’re out in the wilds with no amenities, no mobile signal and potentially no help. Bear this in mind when planning your day.
Traffic – All these roads attract a reasonable amount of tourist traffic. This means many are enjoying the view and won’t always be paying attention to the road ahead for more than a few metres. Many drivers will feel unsure about their ability to stop and re-start on such steep roads and some will leave you with not enough room to pass easily.
Beware of all this, but try not to be harsh on the drivers as they too may be struggling just as much, only mentally rather than physically. I’ve seen many a distraught driver on these roads and plenty of burnt out clutches, I’ve come close to burning out a clutch on Hardknott too and I drive over these passes very regularly.
Cruising through the Langdale valley - 3 of the Hardest Climbs in the UK
3 of the Hardest Climbs in the UK - in my opinion Wrynose is from the east is the toughest
Wrynose – at just over 2.5km this is hardly a long climb, but trust me, this is going to hurt! Whilst Wrynose isn’t quite as steep as neighbouring Hardknott, many will probably find it slightly tougher and anything tougher than Hardknott is going to make even the most hardened of us whimper. But hey, it’s not all bad, in fact most of it is flaming fantastic.
If starting out from Ambleside it’s an easy glide through Clappersgate to Skelwith Bridge. There are a couple of options here, I’d recommend turning right into the Langdale valley, just because it’s so pretty. This is nice cruising territory, passing Elterwater then the New and Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotels, still cruising, for now.
The road narrows and does a sharp left then right then over a cattle grid to another left, be in a low gear already as things are going to get interesting.
You’ve just started the Blea Tarn climb, some of this reaches 25% but it is a short lived climb and provides a suitable warm up for what lies ahead. Take a breather at the top to enjoy stunning views into Oxendale and Mickledon at the head of Langdale. This might just be my favourite view in the world.
The narrow land descends at first, beware of gravel and general debris on the road as well as potholes. An undulating section leads to the next cattle grid from where Blea Tarn can be viewed to your right.
A steep descent now follows and leads to a sharp junction. This is the start of the Wrynose Pass. Take heed of the road sign before turning right.
It all starts out so benign, lulling us into a false sense of ease. Don’t believe it. Shortly after passing the farm the road turns abruptly leftwards and so the ascent begins, with a few hundred metres of harsh gradient before an easing brings open views over to the Langdale Pikes. The scenery is simply incredible.
After a brief respite it’s back into leg exploding gradients and remains so until the summit is reached. As best you can stay clear of the left extremities of the road as there are significant drops here, otherwise use as much of the road as needed. When rocky outcrops next to the road are passed on your left the top is close by, don’t give up now, it’s in the bag. The road soon evens out and is merely lumpy for the final few hundred metres to the top.
If for nothing else, it is well worth taking a break here to enjoy the scenery, look back at what you just did.
If the welcoming cafes of Ambleside are now calling and you’re keen to respond. Enjoy the adrenaline rush of descending the Wrynose in an Easterly direction, but take extreme care.
For an alternative homebound route go straight passed the Blea Tarn turning and into Little Langdale, if flagging for refreshments there’s a great pub here, The Three Shires Inn. Continue to a T-junction and either left or right will get you back to Ambleside, left is a little quieter.
It may be you’re still wanting more. If so, check out the Hardknott below. If just wanting a little extra, I will include here a brief description of Wrynose from the West.
Descent steep switchbacks to reach the tranquillity of Wrynose Bottoms - and I’m not making that name up! To let the leg muscles have a recovery spin it’s worth cruising along this gorgeous valley as far as the bridge by the farm. This is a good vantage point for eyeing up Hardknott for a future visit, or maybe even a today visit.
About turn and back along the valley soon has you back at the Wrynose, but this time it’s all so much easier. From the west the ascent is not quite as steep and much much shorter, a breeze after what you’ve done today.
Top of Blea Tarn road - 3 of the Hardest Climbs in the UK
Top of Wrynose Pass - 3 of the Hardest Climbs in the UK
3 of the Hardest Climbs in the UK - in my opinion Hardknott is number 2
Hardknott – at under 2km from Cockley Beck bridge, this is a very short climb, but factor in gradients of 30% and that 2km figure starts to fade into insignificance. Make no mistakes, this is a beast, with many considering Hardknott to be the toughest cycle climb in the UK.
If approached from Ambleside, the Wrynose Pass has already been ticked, so leg muscles are well and truly warmed up. A nice flowing section of road then leads to Cockley Beck. Turn right over the packhorse bridge and begin the ascent at an easy gradient, for now. There are often cattle on the road around here, docile enough but big and if there are calves they can become a little boisterous so give them a wide berth.
Looking over to the right is the Scafell Massif, these are the highest mountains in England and when approached from this side have an impressively wild feel about them.
Inevitably the gradient soon changes, the road takes a sharp right hander and right about now your legs start to scream with the intense effort required simply not to fall off!
Thankfully it’s only about 1km to the top, with zig-zags almost all of the way and tiny lay-bys that can come in very handy should there be any traffic coming in the opposite direction. Try not to use these for stopping, try not to stop at all! But with good timing they can be utilised to give more space to passing vehicles, or hopefully for them to stop and give you space.
The road surface on Hardknott is as unforgiving as the gradient, with an often adverse camber and large ripples in the tarmac as well as as plethora of potholes. Roll all this together and I present you with the beast that is Hardknott. A slight straightening of the road comes as the summit is neared and a large pile of stones – cairn – marks the top. Take a breather – but you don’t need reminding of that, right.
Enjoy views into Eskdale and on towards the Irish Sea, whilst closer by is the impressively craggy ground of Border End which forms the southern extremity of Hardknott Fell.
The way home – easiest and most direct route is to retrace your outbound ride. Taking great care descending both Hardknott and Wrynose passes. Another option is to turn right at Cockley Beck Bridge and meander through the delightful Duddon valley before aiming for Coniston.
And for completeness, let’s include a descent and re-ascent of Hardknott from the Eskdale (west) side. The descent soon becomes incredibly steep and includes some tight switchbacks, beware and go slow. Soon the gradient eases, with about 1km when you might not be full-on the brakes, this is as Hardknott Fort is passed. Another steep section soon follows and as the road approaches a wooded area look out for the cattle grid, cross this and once clear of the woods Brotherikeld farm is reached, you’ve made it down, well done.
Get some energy inside you and go for a rolling start for the re-ascent.
This is steep from the off, remember to be sitting down when crossing back over the cattle grid so there’s no wheel spin. The angle will steadily ease, a little and in time the easier mid-section allows for a breather and legs can stop shaking a bit. If feeling knackered it’s worth having a stop at Hardknott fort for a proper break as the section is definitely the toughest.
Okay, so you’re back on the stead, you can see what’s in store, so go for it. The pace should be very steady, this is a fight to stay upright and just make it to the top, anything else is a bonus. As much as possible go wide on all the corners and use as much of the road as you can (assuming it’s safe to do so). Focus on the next few metres, look at the tarmac and plan a route for metres at a time, avoiding potholes and timing correctly to be able to take the corners wide, thus at a lesser gradient.
When the road straightens out, the gradient eases and the top is close by, but don’t blow it now, this is still very steep and it’s all too easy to run out of steam. Focus and start to enjoy the ride and the achievement of a double Hardknott day. Good effort.
Taking a breather at the top of Hardknott - 3 of the Hardest Climbs in the UK
3 of the Hardest Climbs in the UK - and number 3.....
The Struggle – Rising out of Ambleside is a sinuous lane known as ‘The Struggle’. This climbs for 3 miles to reach the Kirkstone Pass, the highest pass in Cumbria at 454m above sea level. Ambleside is at only 74m above sea level, in case you were wandering.
Personally I like to have a warm up before tackling a steep climb like this. How far you go is personal preference. I find it enough to take the Under Loughrigg road to Rydal then turn right to come back to Ambleside along the main road. At the mini roundabout on the outskirts of town take the obviously very steep road on the left.
Now let’s get acquainted with The Struggle.
It is viciously steep from the get-go and passing the front door of The Golden Rule can feel hard, why not pop in there instead? Hmmm, maybe later for one of their wonderful Scotch eggs.
An abrupt left hander soon comes and shortly after a mild easing and more easing to follow shortly. Once clear of the houses another steep gradient warning sign hints at what lies ahead and boy does it hit like a concrete block.
Yet The Struggle is nicely mixed up with diverse road conditions and scenery and this somehow helps. There are lots of wiggles in the road and occasional easing in the gradient, but don’t expect much respite for now.
When the landscape truly opens up there are a couple of steep ramps in store. At the top of the second ramp comes the midway rest, with a long section of undulating road, even a nice descent as the disused quarry is passed.
Wansfell Pike provides the wide open scenery to your right and Red Screes is the steeper hillside on the left.
Well, all good descents must come to an end and here it’s no different. The final section of road rises abruptly and for about 1km is a series of fine switchbacks with gradients often around the 20% mark.
There is a pub at the Kirkstone Pass, however at time of writing this is currently closed. We hope it will re-open in time for summer 2023, but really don’t know. Still, there is a large open area at the pass where a rest can be enjoyed whilst taking in the stunning views. Red Screes is the craggy mountain that dominates the view.
The descent – if it is a really quiet time of day with very little traffic around, descending back down The Struggle can be fun. But take extreme care as it can be difficult to see oncoming traffic until it is really close.
An alternative is to descend via the A592 towards Windermere. This is a much wider road, so at least there should be no issues with on-coming traffic. However, the surface of this road is, in places, in a terrible condition with an incredibly coarse surface with plenty of potholes dotted around. Thankfully the surface does improve after the first couple of km’s. The scenery is also absolutely fantastic.
As the gradient eases look out for a sign to Ambleside, take this for a quieter return journey through the sleepy hamlet of Troutbeck. The Mortal Man pub is a nice stop off point as is the village café by Annie’s clock.
If you've made it this far, well done and thank you. Now we know there are some steeper climbs in the UK and we haven't ridden every steep road there is, but we've ticked quite a few. The 3 climbs mentioned here are all close to home for us and we do them regularly so know them well. We think they are 3 of the hardest climbs in the UK....what do you think?
Thanks all for reading. For some local information about Ambleside keep scrolling down.....
Midway up The Struggle - 3 of the Hardest Climbs in the UK
Great views at Kirkstone Pass - 3 of the Hardest Climbs in the UK
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