If you google Hardknott Pass you’ll get plenty of pages about ‘the hardest climb in Britain’. If you continue on into the forums you won’t go far before you then reach discussions on which direction is harder; east or west? These latter discussions refer to Hardknott and Wrynose as a pair because you go up one side of them and there’s kind of a plateau in between. Generally the discussions, as with so many internet arguments, come to no conclusion with plenty of support for both sides.
So when I managed to get a few hours to ride in the Lake District I decided to plot a route that took in both directions of both climbs. To be honest I didn’t have much choice, to ride these climbs as part of a loop would require a couple more hours and quite a few more miles and I didn’t have either.
So I parked up my car just south of Ullswater at the Cowbridge car park on the A592, just before Hartsop. It’s a donations car park, so make sure to drop something in the box if you park here and there are no facilities so don’t expect to get a bacon roll and a coffee before heading off. For me this was ideal because it was close enough to the hills such that I wouldn’t waste any time riding flat roads but the initial gradient into Kirkstone Pass would be shallow enough to act as a short warm up for the legs. Anyone who’s ridden hills with me will know that I don’t tend to plan in much of a warm up! It would have been nice to have had a ‘warm up’ from the weather though! Drizzle, low cloud and cool temperatures, weren’t exactly what I would dream for in the middle of August, especially as the following day and the weekend as a whole turned out to be a real scorcher.
A quick switch of my chainring from the big 50 tooth to my smaller 42 teeth alternative and off I went. The gentle gradient of Kirkstone Pass acted nicely as a warm up as I’d hoped and before long got replaced by the more fierce gradient further up. The reported maximum gradient is 18% but with a length of 3.3 miles the 298 metres is covered by an average gradient of just 6%. This does make for an enjoyable climb, especially for the first one of the day. It’s a fairly major road too, so the surface is good and there’s good visibility, except of course for the low cloud that meant on this particular day I couldn’t see the top, or indeed any view at all from the top.
Turning right off the top of Kirkstone Pass by the Inn I headed down The Struggle, a decent that I’d be climbing back up at the end of my morning ride. Which this in mind I paid attention to the way the road made it’s way down the landscape to Ambleside at the bottom. I refrain from referring to ‘the twist and turns’ and the ‘steepness of the hair pins’ because The Struggle is a true Brit of a climb and just goes straight up. Ambleside at the bottom provides civilisation and you could stop here for a bacon buttie and coffee I’m certain. For me I just took the quickest route through and headed out to Skelwith Bridge and then Little Langdale and on towards Wrynose.
There’s a sign at the end of the road that heads up Wrynose declaring the gradient and the fact that the road is only suitable for light vehicles. If you didn’t already know what you have set yourself up for as a cyclist out here, now you do. There is another road out of Cockley Beck between the two passes, but for most people and certainly most cyclists this is where the big combo of Wrynose and Hardknott begins. For me this would mean climbing up Wrynose Pass, coming down the other side to Cockley Beck and then climbing up Hardknott Pass and down the other side as far as Boot. Then turning around and doing it all again the other way! You don’t come fully back down at Cockley Beck, as you can see from the highlighted section of the gradient profile graph below but the climbs either way are still fierce.
And so what followed was two hours of uphill struggle, gradients hitting 30%, the downhill passing much too quickly for any kind of relief and all of it in persistent drizzle with low cloud which had a liking for the inside of my cycling glasses and meant that my views from the tops were almost none existent! But I do it for the challenge. And a challenge it certainly was. Ideally I would probably have smaller gearing on my bike but unless you live in Boot and work in Ambleside you don’t buy a really wide cassette just for this situation! Most of my riding is done at a gradient significantly less than 30%. My 42/34 works out to be a similar gearing to a typical 34/28 so I don’t think I was hampered in anyway by my 1x setup compared to other people with a typical compact chainset. Although one advantage of my 1x setup is that I could have chosen to use a chainring from my mountain bike and run with 36/34 or 32/34 for ultra low gears if I’d wished.
So I guess the answer to the question of which way is the hardest could probably be summed up as ‘both directions are extremely punishing climbs’ and ‘either way is a significant achievement’. But that’s a bit of a cop out, so…
Clearly climbing up from between the two peaks, is easier than climbing right from the bottom of either side. The most extreme gradients are found on the Hardknott Pass full climb. But when climbing Hardknott you do get a bit of relief about half way up when the gradient eases, you don’t get this during the full climb of Wrynose. That’s not to say that Wrynose is harder than Hardknott though, as those Hardknott extremes are so so tough and it’s a real task to just keep the wheels turning.
If there’s something to make the decision clear on which direction is the hardest I think it’s got to come down to the extra element that many people forget about – The Struggle. I mentioned it right at the beginning as a decent. This is another killer of a hill climb and if you are doing the Hardknott/Wrynose combo from the West to the East, then it’s quite possible that you’ll go through Ambleside and up The Struggle. Coming up Kirkstone Pass prior to Wrynose/Hardknott is far easier than completing the Struggle after Hardknott/Wrynose. So in conclusion, it’s all extremely tough hill climbing country but the hardest in my opinion is the Hardknott/Wrynose/Struggle combination.