The coast to coast ride, or C2C (sea to sea, geddit?) has been on my bucket list for a while, but that’s the “wouldn’t mind doing that one of these days” section of the bucket list rather than the “don’t die before doing this” section.There are several versions of the C2C depending on how much off-road or main road cycling you wish to avoid, but they all set off from the from the Cumbrian coast and end up somewhere in the north east. All of the suggested routes, however, deftly avoid the big hills of the Lake District rather like the person who surrupticiously sticks a tenner into the drinks kitty when everyone else puts in twenty.
That was Brian’s idea.
Our first stage, therefore, was a brutal 40 miles taking in, amongst other ascents, the Hardknott and Wrynose Passes as we picked our way to Ambleside.
Hardknott is certainly the toughest climb I have attempted in this country. I know that because it’s the only one that has defeated me so far. Approaching it is frightening enough. From quite a distance it’s obvious how steep and long it is. At the bottom you are greeted with warning signs about the gradient and unsuitability of the road for certain vehicles, along with what appears to be a wall but which is actually the road itself. The thing about Hardknott is that while other roads that head out of villages over hills often have immediately steep gradients that tend to ease off to something manageable before long, this one is stupidly steep at first, 30%, then it eases off to ridiculously steep, and then, after about a mile and a quarter you hit a couple of hairpins that are back up to stupid.
Let me express those numbers in other terms.
Hardknott Pass is so steep that I had to lean forward over the handlebars in order to stop the front wheel lifting off the ground in my battle against gravity. It was so steep that the camper van in front was wheelspinning on the rutted and gravelly tarmac, which becomes a mild concern when you speculate as to whether it’s going to slide back into you. I tell you, Hardknott is so steep even Dieter looked like he was struggling for a moment or two.
At that second 30% kick I got off and started walking.
Would I have got off had I not seen Brian just up ahead do the same? I don’t know. I do know that by the time I reached those switchbacks I was virtually at a standstill anyway, and it required all of my energy just to maintain my balance as I wheeled and wobbled my way, somewhat uncontrollably up and into the path of oncoming cars.
As I contemplate an impending tough climb my internal dialogue goes something like: “I’m coming for you mountain, and I’m going to beat you.” Then I imagine the mountain’s response: “Meh. Couldn’t care less. I’m here, I’ve always been here and I always will be here.” It’s not you against the mountain. You’re not defeated by mountains, you’re defeated either by your own lack of will power or lack of ability.
As I reflect on it now I still can’t imagine successfully riding up that section; it’s was hard enough walking, so it must have been lack of ability, and I’d rather it were that than lack of determination.The saving grace was that Wrynose Pass, which follows immediately after the long and tricky descent of Hardknott, is also considered to be one of the more difficult ascents this country has to offer, but in comparison it feels little more than a speed bump (well, not quite, but you know what I mean).
Coming off Wrynose would usually lead directly and swiftly into Ambleside, our stopping point for the night. Instead Brian had identified another climb, Blea Tarn, so we made a detour for that. It was pin sharp but thankfully short with a wonderfully smooth winding descent that took us circuitously to our hotel and a glass of equally smooth local beer.
This passage through the south western lakes is staggeringly beautiful. I know because I was able to enjoy it from time to time in between periods of staring at the tarmac under my front wheel and wiping the stinging, salty sweat that was draining into my eyes. In this respect we were lucky to have such fine weather and good visibility. Throughout the week ahead of our trip the Met Office promised heavy rain which would have made those climbs utterly miserable going up and utterly treacherous coming down.
I was grateful for that, but the Lake District is capricious and the weather on one day is no predictor of the weather the next. It took me a while to drop off to sleep and when I did it was to the rhythmic pulse of rain gently drumming against the Velux window.