Best of British: road cycling in the Lake District - Road Cycling UK

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Cycling Routes

Lake District

The Lake District is a cyclist's playground, with beautiful but brutal riding crowned by the 33 per cent hairpin bends of the infamous Hardknott Pass

  • Distance 91 miles
  • Total ascent 8,223 feet
  • Start/finish Ambleside
  • Highlight Hardknott Pass

The Lake District. Mention those three words to any cycling enthusiast and you’ll see their eyes glaze over and minds wander to the playground that is the Lake District National Park. Mention Hardknott Pass and you’ll be met with a sharp intake of breathe and pursed lips.

And for good reason. The Lake District is one of the most beautiful parts of the UK to ride a bike – but it’s also one of the toughest. Hardknott Pass is one of the toughest climbs of them all, pitching up to a wall-like 33 per cent as it scales the dramatic mountainside at an impossibly steep gradient.

The Lake District offers so much more than climbing but, ultimately, it’s for the area’s iconic ascents that so many cyclists plan a trip – us included. But no matter where you ride, you will be rewarded with mind-blowing scenery and undoubtedly some of the best views Britain has to offer.

Our ride is a classic Lake District loop which takes in the very best the area has to offer. We start in the picturesque town of Ambleside, at the tip of Windermere, for a 91-mile route which takes us to the northern end of the Lake District before heading west, brushing the coast and returning east to Ambleside – all via four must-ride Lakes climbs: Kirkstone Pass, Honister Pass, Hardknott Pass and Wrynose Pass. With 8,223 feet of ascent in all, you’ll need your lowest gears and best legs – but your reward will be one of the finest rides in the country (you can see the full route and download the GPS file here).

Leaving the town we start climbing instantly on the appropriately-named ascent of The Struggle, which featured, shrouded in the mist typical of the Lake District, on stage two of the 2016 Tour of Britain. It’s one of three routes up to the Kirkstone Pass and the quietest, but you’ll hit regular 20 per cent pitches over the course of the three-mile ascent.

The climb tops out at 458m, which makes it the highest point on the route and indeed the highest driving road in the Lakes, but boy does it ramp up right away. The first section weaves out of the town and fires you straight up onto the fells before leveling off. Make sure you look behind as soon as the climbing eases to take in the amazing panoramic view of Ambleside and Windermere, England’s largest lake. From here, you’ll soon find out if you went too hard at the start, as the climb instantly hits 20 per cent once again and comfortably remains in double figures for the final half-a-mile to the top, marked by a pub and, more than likely, bewildered people commenting on the ‘crazy cyclists’ weaving and struggling up the final part of the ascent.

Best of British, Lake District (Pic: Scott Connor/Factory Media)
Best of British, Lake District (Pic: Scott Connor/Factory Media)
Best of British, Lake District (Pic: Scott Connor/Factory Media)
Best of British, Lake District (Pic: Scott Connor/Factory Media)

The descent from the top of Kirkstone towards Patterdale is fast and fun as the road twists and turns. You can see through the exit of most corners on the way in but it pays to err on side of caution if it’s raining – the dry stone walls which line these roads don’t move.

This road flattens as we reach the edge of Ullswater – an ideal opportunity to catch our breathe and enjoy the scenery surrounding one of Britain’s most beautiful lakes. It’s a tranquil scene, with countless streams emptying into the lake directly from the fells, sail boats attempting to catch the wind and the famous Ullswater Steamers plying their trade year-round.

Honister Pass may not have the history of the climbs in the Grand Tours, but it is a beautiful and brutal ascent in equal measure – two adjectives which perfectly describe riding in the Lake District

But now it’s time to turn away from the lake onto the road to Troutbeck, first climbing before the tarmac rolls through undulating farmland and lush fields. The road from Troutbeck to Keswick is fast but necessary to link the east and west of the Lake District, and we’re soon dropped off into quiet lanes set deep within the towering landscape which provides the backdrop to any ride here.

With the traffic having eased, the road gently rolls past the banks of Derwent Water – already our third lake of the day – and we reach Borrowdale. The sense of tranquility is interrupted, however, as the road heads up uphill again and on to the second of our route’s landmark climbs – Honister Pass. Don’t be fooled by the gentle start and shallow gradient; the road soon swings right and through the village of Seatoller, which marks the proper start of the climb. This is where things get serious and, while the climb isn’t particularly long at around one-and-a-half miles, the gradient immediately hits 14 per cent and stays in double figures through the trees. Respite comes as the valley opens up and we hit a cattle grid, but the climb ramps up once again and hits 25 per cent.

The road snakes its way up the hillside – with the additional challenge of an ever-present headwind on our visit – and while the buildings at the summit are in view most of the time, they appear almost always out of reach.  The testing gradient means it can be a struggle just to keep momentum, but as we slog our way up it’s easy to draw inspiration from professional riders like Dan Martin and Nairo Quintana, who both attacked from the peloton here in the 2013 Tour of Britain and crested the pass alone in atrocious conditions, with fans lining the road to cheer them on despite the weather.  

A slate mine marks the top of the ascent at 355m and only adds to the drama of this barren, remote and wild climb. Honister Pass may not have the history of the climbs in the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, but it is a beautiful and brutal ascent in equal measure – two adjectives which perfectly describe riding in the Lake District. And there’s much more to come.

The descent from the pass is fast and steep on a tricky road – watch out for gravel, livestock and the cattle grid at the bottom. If you make the trip, hopefully the weather will be kinder than it was for Martin and Quintana’s day in the Lakes, as it was for us.

Riding on towards Buttermere we pass Crummock Water and Loweswater on a relatively flat road – flat for the Lakes, that is, with no major climbs or sharp ascents; it’s never pan flat round here – before coming to Ennerdale Bridge and a gradual climb followed by a longer descent down towards Calder Bridge. From here to the coast the road naturally falls downhill with vast views out to the Irish Sea, though the dominating feature here is man-made as we skirt around the huge Sellafield nuclear plant on the way to the shore.

Best of British, Lake District (Pic: Scott Connor/Factory Media)
Best of British, Lake District (Pic: Scott Connor/Factory Media)
Best of British, Lake District (Pic: Scott Connor/Factory Media)

By now we’re heading into the final third of the ride and the legs are beginning to tire, so it’s important to enjoy the relative calm of the next ten miles or so and not be tempted to push too hard on the drags, because the toughest climbing is still to come. If you are running low on food or drinks then now is the time to stock up, because you will need to be fully fuelled for the final part of the ride.

In fact, despite everything that has come before it, it’s fair to say the whole ride has been building up to this point, with the last 15 miles of the ride taking in the double header of Hardknott and Wrynose Passes – two of the most feared and steepest climbs in the country. One of these climbs is bad enough but the challenge of both, coming so close together after an already tough ride, is not to be underestimated. This is where taking it easy earlier will pay off – if you pushed too hard over Kirkstone or Honister then you’ll soon know about it. Even if you are still feeling strong, keep something in reserve from the start of these climbs.

The run up to Hardknott is truly beautiful, with the road meandering along the valley floor before it opens out, the pass in front of you and mountain peaks above

The run up to Hardknott is truly beautiful, with the road meandering along the valley floor before it opens out, the pass in front of you and mountain peaks above. The lower slopes may not seem like much, rising gently from the crossing of the River Esk, but if you look up the road you will see it disappear into the distance.

A 20 per cent pitch marks the true start of the climb and continues for 500m, before the gradient eases to eight per cent – the fact it feels considerably flatter says it all. Do everything you can over this section to keep your legs turning in order to prepare for the final section of 33 per cent hairpins, made famous – or infamous – by the Fred Whitton Challenge and photos of riders weaving or walking in various states of distress.

If you lose traction or momentum – and it’s easy to do, riding up a wall-like gradient – and have to unclip, then you’re faced with a walk as it is impossible to get going again on a road this steep. However, once through the hairpins, the gradient does ease towards the summit and any cyclist who reaches the top of Hardknott – no matter their fitness level or ability – has conquered one of the toughest climbs out there. Make sure you turn around at the top to take in the view of the road you have just come up and enjoy a moment’s peace before the final challenge of the day –  Wrynose Pass.

The descent off Hardknott is short, sharp and fun as we drop down on a road which snakes its way into the valley but, once again, take care as it’s a narrow slither of tarmac which soon whisks us to the foot of Wrynose. It’s a longer ascent than Hardknott, at approximately two miles, but shallower at the bottom than its predecessor. However, with the upper slopes reaching 25 per cent and 80 miles in the legs, this is still a vicious ascent.

As the road drops off Wrynose and returns once again to the valley floor, all that’s left is to enjoy the ride back into Ambleside – a chance to warm down and enjoy the final Lakeland views this route has to offer alongside the River Brathay. It’s only here that the enormity of the day sinks in.

  • Featured bikes Ribble Aero 883, Ribble Gran Fondo

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