As is natural in most human beings, I have a tendency to avoid those things that I don’t class myself as ‘good at’. Climbing steep hills on my bike falls in this category.
My Husband bought some little books by a keen cyclist called Simon Warren. The first, titled ‘100 Greatest Cycle Climbs – A road cyclist’s guide to Britain’s hills’ has been followed by ‘Another 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs’ and then a bounty of regional ones, such as ‘Cycling Climbs of Yorkshire’.
My Husband also downloaded the app that accompanies the book series and began a project of ticking off as many of these climbs as he could.
For the month of August, in which we had a couple of cycling trips away planned, I decided I would set myself the challenge of attacking this dislike of hills head on and join him.
Of course, there will be climbs that everyone knows and loves in their area that have not made it into the books, but Simon has tried to include climbs that are special or standout. He says ‘Stripped down to its basics, this book is simply a guide to point you in the direction of amazing roads. I am hoping that cyclists of all abilities, unaware of what lies both on their doorstep and further afield, will venture out and conquer the hills for themselves. These roads are the cyclists’ theatres, our stadia, they are beautiful, challenging, provide us with an immense sense of achievement and to top all that they are great fun to ride.’ Each climb is given a rating out of 10 in difficulty as well as the length, height gain and approximate climb time – forearmed is forewarned!
The month saw me tick off 10 of the climbs and was filled with twists and turns (quite literally) as the dramas of various epic days out unfolded…
Yorkshire is full of hills and a flat ride is seriously hard to find. There are therefore many hills locally that I have never set wheels on and climb number one was one of these. This climb was not too far from home and my sister accompanied me over to Keighley to tackle our first ever cobbled climb.
The day was dry and bright which was good news – cobbles in the wet can be treacherous.
We reached Hainworth Lane and as we hit the cobbled section the road was immediately viciously steep and we were faced with temporary traffic lights…on red. Stopping and then restarting on a gradient like this is nigh on impossible, so I decided to battle on, hugging the left-hand tall drystone wall so that if cars came down there would be room for us to pass. My sister followed on, both of us getting a little stressed by the unnaturally lumpy surface under our smooth tyres, the ridiculous incline and the slightly angry van driver, also on the hill.
We made it to the top and I felt pretty sure that one of the cobbled classic races in Belgium was now unlikely to ever make it on to my to-do list. Hainworth Lane was deservedly a 7/10.
My second ride to feature in my challenge, is the closest to my home. I have ridden it several times before, so knew what I was in for. I personally think this gives a huge psychological advantage, as fear of the unknown on any climb will always make it seem harder the first time you ride it. This time I was accompanied by my cycling pal, Ali. Norwood Edge lays close to the reservoir of Lindley Wood outside of Otley. We were nicely warmed up by the time we hit the climb. Simon Warren gives this one a 5/10 and I think this is probably fair if you pace it properly. The first section is the steepest and I have learned that going too hard on this first part will push you into the red and make the rest of the climb unpleasant!
The middle of the month saw us on our first trip away and ready to tackle some climbs outside of our Yorkshire stomping ground. Our plan on day one was to tackle two climbs in Cumbria. Unfortunately, although we reached the summit of Lamps Moss, we never got to experience the delights of Shot Moss. Lamps Moss is ranked a 7/10 in the book and is over 4km in length. Leaving the village of Nateby, I allowed my other half to shoot off ahead, preferring to take things at my own pace. The scenery was stunning – beautiful wide open moorland and although there were some sections of 20% gradient, there was also some flatter sections offering an opportunity to recover in between. We had been pedalling uphill for around 15 minutes, when we rounded a bend to reveal a sudden much sharper climb. I could see a bend further up that hill and was already wondering to myself (hoping) that the top would be just around that. As my heart rate rose and my quads began to really complain, I stood up out of the saddle and stomped hard on the pedals. After about 3 forceful pedal strokes, there was an almighty bang as my chain snapped. Time stood still as the bike fell to the right, hitting the tarmac with me still firmly clipped in by my shoes. Two female cyclists checked I was ok, shouting down from what turned out to be the brow of the hill – I really was nearly there! I pushed my bike to the top where there was no sign of my other half – he had ridden on to be absolutely sure he had reached the official summit and that the app would tick off his achievement. He eventually came back to his forlorn wife and we banged on a couple of campervan doors that were parked up there, in the hope they would have the tool needed to fix my bike. No such luck, so I took the chain off completely and free wheeled the whole way back to the bottom. I then sat outside a pub (damn me for not bringing my cashcard!!) whilst Martin rode back for the car.
That evening we Googled local bike shops, not feeling particularly hopeful about getting a new chain sorted on a Sunday.
Fortunately, we found a great local shop in Richmond who was able to do the job. His parting words were that he thought that would get me up Tan Hill as he considered I probably looked fit enough.
We drove to Reeth and left the car parked by the pretty village green whilst we embarked on a 3 climb day. Turf Moor was first, a 6/10 with a few 17% sections, a roughly repaired road surface in places and a double obstacle – a ford to ride through, followed by a cattle grid with wet tyres!
We followed this with The Stang. This beautiful stretch of road will see you climb up to the border of Yorkshire and County Durham. It never got so difficult that I was not enjoying it and the scenery distracted me completely from any tiredness in my legs.
Our final climb of the day was Tan Hill, taking us to the summit where the famous Tan Hill Inn is – the highest pub in Britain. Warren describes the climb perfectly, ‘The road, lying like a ribbon draped across a vast expanse of wild grass and gorse, is in many places the only sign of man’s presence in this wilderness’.
And so the epic 3 climb day was ticked off, and yes, I did make a point of emailing the bike repair shop in Richmond to tell him I had been fit enough…for all 3 climbs!!
Our final bike trip of the month was up to bonny Scotland, where unfortunately the British weather was determined to scupper our plans.
Day one where we had intended to ride Crow Road and Dukes Pass close to Glasgow, were both rained off. By late afternoon the weather finally turned. The torrential rain stopped (for the time being) and the sun even peeped out. Not wanting to waste the day, we explored a tiny island called Cumbrae, but I am afraid there were none of the 100 Greatest Climbs to tick off on there!
The next morning began with a ferry ride from Gourock to Dunoon. As we disembarked the ferry in gorgeous sunshine, I felt happy and excited about the day ahead. That feeling was soon deflated as fast as my front tyre, which was now punctured.
After some cross words during which time we discovered I had not brought a pump and that my inner tube valve was not long enough for the deep rim wheels on my bike, we managed to inflate my new inner tube (from my husband’s kit) with a gas canister (also from my husband’s kit)
This ride originally was to include a climb called ‘Rest and be Thankful’. Fortunately, Ali who I rode with at the beginning of this tale, comes from Scotland, and was aware the road was closed due to landslides. This may have been a blessing in disguise, as it would have made a 70 mile day into a 100 mile ride.
Our first climb was Glen Finart, only just over 2km of uphill but with some sharp and challenging turns. For some reason, a cyclist who had passed us on the flat, was now sat resting at the foot of the climb. As soon as we passed him and hit the steep gradient, he set off again, first riding just behind me and then drawing alongside. As I wrestled with my bike, grinding my legs around in my easiest gear, I wondered why he thought this was a good idea?! As we reached the summit and I was able to talk again, we had a bit of a natter about the hills in Scotland and agreed that there were some beastly ones!
Many miles later, we reached the foot of the climb I was most daunted by. The description in the book of Bealach Maim, an 8/10 says ‘A good way to sum up this climb would be to say the Eastern face is Cinderella and the western face documented here, is one, if not both of the ugly sisters’. The road surface was rough and broken with sections where the grass in the middle of the road was trying to take over the whole width. This was a proper mind over matter climb, but the satisfaction on reaching the top was immense! Imagine my horror when as we descended back to the bottom of that very hill, a woman on a bike pulling a small tent on wheels with 2 children inside it, followed by a man riding a folding bike with about 3 gears, appeared on the lower stages of the climb. Her bike turned out to be electric (we heard the whirring as she cheerily passed us) but as for him…someone give that man a medal if he reached the top!!
The next day saw more damp Scottish weather rolling in, so we changed our plan to literally drive to the foot of two separate climbs and ride up and back down them. The first was Mennock pass, a stunning valley and home to Wanlockhead, the highest village in Scotland. The climb is almost 10km long, but is gentle and winding in all but a couple of sections. When we reached the very top, Martin decided he would nip to the loo and asked me to check the app on his phone to ensure we were at the top. 10 seconds later I reached a state of mild hysteria, announcing that he needed to take his phone back – I needed to get on my bike and ride away immediately. A cloud of the much feared Scottish midges descended, shrouding my head in itchy darkness. We both rode quickly away from the millions of mini beasties and were relieved to find once you were moving, they couldn’t get you!
We drove on to our final climb – Devil’s Beef Tub. Beginning in the town of Moffat, this 10km climb rises steadily to the summit, sticking almost continuously at the same gradient. Unfortunately, from within the middle of a Scottish cloud, I am not able to tell you what the Devil’s Beef Tub looks like, or in fact even is, but I am sure on a less wet day, the views would have been superb.
And so that brings me to the end of my August challenge. The books gave real purpose to finding and conquering climbs – something I didn’t think I would enjoy so much! I will certainly continue to use them for inspiration when riding in new places.
My biggest ‘take away’ from the experience, is that the mind needs to be as strong, if not stronger than the legs, as that is what will ultimately stop you from attempting to reach the top of any hill!
You can watch the video highlights of the climbs I tackled here:
You can find the books here: