Best of British: Trough of Bowland - Road Cycling UK

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Trough of Bowland

Sir Bradley Wiggins trained in the Forest of Bowland ahead of his 2012 Tour de France win. And with tough, steep climbs, stunning vistas and quiet roads, it is easy to see the attraction

  • Distance 83 miles
  • Total ascent 6,994 feet
  • Start/finish Clitheroe
  • Highlight Cross of Greet

Where are Tour de France champions made? In the build-up to the 2012 race, Bradley Wiggins trained on the roads of the Forest of Bowland before becoming Great Britain’s first Tour de France winner. It’s easy to see why – the Forest of Bowland, nestled in the north of Lancashire, is prime cycling territory: tough climbs, incredibly lush countryside and quiet roads.

The Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, more commonly referred to as the Trough of Bowland by locals and cyclists, is sandwiched between the Yorkshire Dales and the coast, with the M6 motorway marking the western boundary and doing a sterling job of keeping the heavy traffic out of the area. Being able to escape from the world and ride on unspoilt lanes is one of the primary draws of the Trough of Bowland – besides the stunning terrain.

Very few roads cross the Trough but that works in its favour as motor vehicles can’t use the forest as a shortcut, so you’re only likely to encounter locals out on the roads. It also means the best way to take in the area is to do a loop of the forest and our ride follows an 83-mile route with 6,994 feet of climbing, starting from the town of Clitheroe (you can see the full route and download a GPS file here).

We follow the route west out of the bustling market town, riding the loop clockwise to ease into the day – head in the other direction and you’ll hit the stiff climb of Waddington Fell with only a couple of miles in the legs. But more on that later. Having left Clitheroe and crossed the idyllic River Ribble, we’re soon out into the countryside. The surrounding landscape gets greener by the mile and for good reason; the Trough of Bowland gets plenty of rain and is often shrouded in mist, so, like any ride in this part of the world, come prepared.

The road rolls gently and while the moors are rising sharply above, there’s nothing major to test the legs yet as we skirt around the base of Longridge Fell. Instead, the first notable climb comes after ten miles, with a long drag up through Cow Ark before dropping quickly into Whitewell. It’s a fast ride to Dunsop Bridge and, although we take a left before the centre, the village itself is Lancashire at its best, with a scattering of stone cottages at the confluence of the Dunsop and Hodder rivers – the ducks control the pace of life here.

Best of British: Ribble Valley, pic - Factory Media/Scott Connor
Best of British: Ribble Valley, pic - Factory Media/Scott Connor
Best of British: Ribble Valley, pic - Factory Media/Scott Connor

We are deep in the forest now and the surrounding countryside is cloaked in what looks like a beautiful green felt carpet – the landscape here is incredibly vivid, the greenest green you’ll see. This is where the climbing starts in earnest with the ascent of the Trough of Bowland, a 295m-high pass which gives the area the name by which it is most commonly known. The road cuts its way up the valley alongside a babbling brook and with the fells rising sharply from the tarmac. The road climbs for three miles out of Dunsop Bridge in all but the steepest section towards the summit, with a 16 per cent ramp to test the legs and open the lungs, before we’re spat out onto the open moorland.

The roads here roll a touch more more gently than the dramatic Lake District to the north or the Yorkshire Dales ascents to the east, but they’re rarely flat.

We descend through Marshaw before it’s uphill again, with a steadier climb, again onto open moor, before descending back down into the forest. That sets the tone for the day – the roads here roll a touch more more gently than the dramatic Lake District to the north or the Yorkshire Dales ascents to the east, but they’re rarely flat.

We leave the forest boundary and head to Lancaster with a far-reaching view over Morecambe Bay for company. On the edge of town we pass the Ashton Memorial  – this is the stunning copper dome which dominates the skyline from almost anywhere in Lancaster. The Ashton Memorial is described as England’s grandest folly and was built in 1909 as a tribute to the second wife of industrialist Lord Ashton. It’s set in the beautifully kept gardens of Williamson Park, an oasis of calm for locals which offers yet more commanding views out to the coast and beyond.

Back out of Lancaster we cross back over the M6 and punch our way over a short, sharp kicker back into the forest, leaving the busier roads of the town behind and once again entering the lanes. The road rises and falls along the boundary edge of the forest as we head north past Arkholme along the River Lune, all the way to the historic market town of Kirkby Lonsdale, with its many 18th century buildings, cobbled courtyards and narrow alleyways. This is the most northerly point of the ride which, at just over half way round, makes for an excellent coffee stop to refuel for the return leg to Clitheroe.

Turning south it’s a short fast ride on the A65 before heading into the wilderness once again. With the road gently undulating, this is an ideal opportunity to tick off the miles through farmland ahead of the final third of the ride and the toughest climbs of the day. However, while the ride from Lancaster to Bentham is largely flat and not particularly taxing, that’s the deceiving part. The final 20 miles back to Clitheroe includes two major tests and if you’re been pressing too hard now it will soon show later.

Leaving Bentham the road starts to climb but only gradually at first, as we wind our way through trees and hedgerow-lined lanes, before entering the Forest of Bowland again. All of a sudden we are out into open moorland with the road steepening, laid out arrow-straight in front.

Best of British: Ribble Valley, pic - Factory Media/Scott Connor
Best of British: Ribble Valley, pic - Factory Media/Scott Connor
Best of British: Ribble Valley, pic - Factory Media/Scott Connor

This is the climb of the Cross of Greet, which rises in a series of steps and shallow descents at an average of five per cent over 2.6 miles – but those stats hide the severity of the final section, where the gradient immediately hits double figures and maxes out at 20 per cent over the last half-mile. The Cross of Greet is a deceptive climb, where pacing makes all the difference, so it pays to save the legs for that final section – particularly if the wind is blowing.

Cross the cattle grid at the top and the steep descent is ample reward for that final leg-burning section of climbing, with the road twisting and turning through several fast corners which dip tightly.

That wind, whipping across the exposed moors, can either be a real help, with a tailwind acting as a hand pushing on your back, or a huge hindrance, with a block headwind in your face, and up here on the top there’s nothing to protect you from the latter. The Cross of Greet is a remote, barren climb but that’s part of its beauty – look behind you at the summit and you’ll see just how far you have come, with the narrow ribbon of singletrack road ducking and diving over the moors and back onto the flatlands below.

Cross the cattle grid at the top and the steep descent is ample reward for that final leg-burning section of climbing, with the road twisting and turning through several fast corners which dip tightly. These corners are certainly tighter than they look and often have an adverse camber, with standing water, livestock and mist sometimes thrown into the mix, so buckle in and enjoy the ride but never stray too far from the brakes.

Legs rested and mind alert after the fast Cross of Greet descent and it’s into Newton-in-Bowland for the final climb of the day over Waddington Fell. This climb, also known as Hallgate Hill, is 2.2 miles long at a steady six per cent, but the road is that typically British, grippy surface which feels like it’s glued to your tyres – especially with some 75 miles in the legs. Dig in through Newton, where a steep 15 per cent ramp leaves you wondering whether you can make it over the top, before settling into a rhythm as the gradient relaxes – only a few steeper sections should force you out of the saddle now.

As we reach the summit, you’ll be met with the welcome sight of Clitheroe, spread out beneath you. From here on in it’s downhill back to base, on a rapid road which will see you quickly run out of gears over the crest of a series of blind lips – what a descent to end the day. Passing through the village of Waddington, there are just a couple of miles of flat roads back into Clitheroe to complete a loop which has it all, from tightly-cropped and lush green hills, to dense, mist-shrouded forest, via wild, remote moorland.

  • Featured bikes Ribble Gran Fondo, Ribble 7005 Winter Audax

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