Taking advantage of the recent good weather and the potential for exploration in the Lakes (now my backyard), I spent the week scheming and planning a little adventure of my own. This would be a weekend to remember.
With some trepidation about the route I’d planned out, and not wanting to be out after dark, I left the house at 5am Saturday morning aiming to be on the trail at 7. This would give me 12 hours of daylight; although I hoped it wouldn’t come to that. A few diehards were getting ready as I pulled into Wasdale Head and set about getting kitted up. As a pedalled my way up the shallow lower slopes of Sty head, the sky ahead glowed pink as the sun’s first rays made their presence felt.
Long exposure shots don't work to well with shakey hands, but you get the idea
20 mins in and the trail veered upwards in a cascade of loose rock. Having spent the previous minutes stuck in 22x34, there was nothing to do but shoulder the bike. 40 mins later and I crested the pass – on the bike no less! The climbing wasn’t finished however, as the trail veered right up to Sprinkling Tarn.
Sty Head Tarn was a veritable hive of activity. See how many tents you can spot
This section up until Allen Crags is a true test of climbing skills. The surface alternates between natural singletrack and armoured trail. From Allen Crags, the trail descends steeply down to Angle Tarn. Descending on this type of trail is a complete departure from the riding that most people do. Steep, ledgey, rocky, with deep waterbars thrown in at odd angles– it requires total concentration just to get down in one piece.
A taste of the trail surface on the path to Allen Crags
2 hours in and I began the descent of Rossett Ghyll, the Mickledon Valley visible in the distance far below. The upper section requires some full-on bikeaneering and there were a few dicey moments as wheels knocked into rocks conspiring to throw me over the edge. Whilst the lower sections mellow out to some degree, I still ended up walking this whole descent. My ego was further assaulted as I was over taken by a walker laden with a big pack. I thought I would catch him up later when the gradient eased but I just watched him pull away until he disappeared from view. I finally came upon a rideable section of more than 100m but I was soon off again as I made the turn onto the Cumbria Way and Stake Pass.
Mickledon Valley stretching out into the distance as I begin the climb to Stake Pass
There were no questions as to the ride-ability of this pass – it was clearly going to be 100% hike-a-bike. Mercifully though, it was relatively short although I think was beginning to enjoy the pure effort of struggling upwards with a bike slung over my shoulders. Topping out, I was greeted by the strangest of landscapes – mounds of grass covered glacial deposits, as far as the eye could see. My hopes were raised upon spotting the trail weaving through the mounds, but I still ended up pushing most of the time. The boggy terrain wore down my spirits and it was with relief that I finally began the descent to Stonethwaite.
As I’d begun to expect by now, I spent most of my time off the bike teetering about on my wholly inappropriate carbon soled race slippers. Then, all of a sudden, I happened upon what appeared to be a mini Stelvio. I had to pinch myself just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Again though, I had to walk down it as the switchbacks seem to have been built with the wheelbase of a unicycle in mind.
The Lakes doing their best impression of the Stelvio
Down in the valley now and it was more yo-yoing between foot and bike as the trail was still mostly unrideable. Just across the river I could see a footpath which looked like a veritable motorway in comparison to what I was trying to ride. In fact, I found that footpaths were often more rideable than bridleways perhaps due to their greater footfall.
Spilling out onto road for the first time since I had set off 4 hours ago was a great feeling and a chance to actually do some pedalling. Here, the route follows the river Derwent to Grange at the foot of Derwent Water. Entering Grange, I did a quick 180 and headed back up the valley on the Allerdale Ramble. This section was the revelation of the ride. Originally, I had just added this section in to get a few more kilometres in and to avoid the road climb up Honiste Pass. The climbing is technical but wholly rideable; at least it is if you haven’t already got 5 hours in your legs. The pay-off is some contouring buff singletrack which brings you up Holister.
Rideable trail up Honister Pass? - I'll take it
Crossing through the slate mine, one is faced with a steep fireroad climb which goes up and up and up. To make matters worse, I hit this section at the hottest part of the day but at least I was slogging it out on my bike for once. Once over the top it was another case of trying to ride what I could without pushing it too far and breaking something. A stop for some crystal clear water from a waterfall broke the descent up nicely before hitting the final rocky traverse down to Buttermere Lake.
4 passes down, 2 to go – I was into the home straight.
Singletrack at the top of Honister Pass
The track contours the mountain lower down on Honister. It looks a lot more rideable than it was!
It was no sprint finish though as I ground my way up Scarth Gap determined not to be overtaken by a couple of hikers. Once you’ve got your head around not actually riding your bike, these hike-a-bikes can be a truly rewarding experience. If nothing else, it’s worth carrying your bike up just for the comments you get from people coming the other way. What’s more, I managed to crest the pass spinning out my 22x34 much to the surprise of a group a backpackers.
The descent of Scarth Gap was another revelation and 100% possible to take on the bike. Granted, it’s not your smooth trail centre singletrack, but that’s not what this ride was about. My brakes were whining and my spokes were pinging, but me and the bike made it safely down in one piece. If I had any fillings, I’m sure they would’ve fallen out on this descent.
Looking back at the descent off Scarth Gap from the bottom of Black Sail Pass
A short pedal up the valley past the highest youth hostel in the UK, and then it was time once more to shoulder the bike for what would hopefully be the last time. Ahead lay Black Sail Pass. Although higher than Scarth Gap, the vertical differential is a lot less and I crested in double quick time (once again pedalling).
What follows has to be one of the greatest descents in the UK, nae the world! (ok, maybe not). What it is though, is 3km (and 480m of vertical difference) of technical, steep but rideable trail that will leave you gasping for breath by the bottom. Check out some videos of the descent on Youtube and I can assure you that it is every bit as awesome as it looks.
The start of what would be the best descent of the day. What a way to finish the ride!
Rolling into Wasdale Head I stuck out like a sore thumb amongst all the other Scafell day trippers. God knows what they must’ve thought of this bedraggled lycra-clad mountain biker ordering ice-cream instead of a pint!
The stats for the day – 43km and 2300m of climbing – belie the true difficulty of this ride. It took me 8.5 hrs to complete the ride of which 70-80% was spent with my bike over my shoulder. If you are considering this ride, and I hope I haven’t put anyone off, be prepared to slog it out on foot and you’ll be in for one of the most rewarding days in amongst some truly awe inspiring terrain.
The profile doesn't lie - those climbs are steep! A gpx file of the route can be found here
Back at the car I quickly changed, grabbed my rucksack and set off to find a spot for the night. Although the soles of my feet had literally turned into mush, a new pair of socks made the walk just about bearable. In the end I settled for a small grassy ledge overlooking Wastwater with Scafell Pike for company. Tomorrow was going to be another big day...
A room with a view
For 5 years, racing was my life and I went all the way from a newbie bonking after 40 miles, to a full-timer plying my trade on the Belgian kermesse scene. Unfortunately, the pro dream wasn't meant to be and these days, you're more likely to find me bimbling about country lanes and sleeping in a bush on the side of the road.