It’s been almost exactly a year since I finished my world record bike ride across Europe. And in this year, I have cycled only three times and one of those times was to get some bread from the bakery 200 meters from our house. I always do this - go cold turkey right after a big block of cycling and I have to admit, I always regret it. It’s far easier keeping a steady fitness than trying to build it up again from scratch. Never the less, it’s now May, the sun is out (sometimes, this is The Lake District after all), it’s warm and I’m in desperate need to get back on the bike. From our house there is only one road ride to both physically and metaphorically snap you out of your winter slump – I call it the ‘Double-Double Awakener’.
I put on my cycling clothes and immediately notice how fresh they smell. When I cycled across Europe I didn’t wash my clothes properly for 25 days. Having fresh clothes seemed a luxury, but I knew it wouldn’t last. I would soon be huffing, puffing and excreting all the gunk I’ve stored in my veins for the last 12 months. It was going to hurt but that was the point.
From Coniston, I head north towards Ambleside. The road is gentle to start until the first little climb taking me over towards Oxen Fell. My legs are already on fire and my heart is bouncing off the handlebars. This is not a good sign for what’s ahead of me. Already in the easiest gear, I push on. I take the left turn towards Elterwater and Little Langdale. It’s a nice sharp downhill and along the river before the next turning to the left approaches. This is it. The huge sign reads: WRYNOSE AND HARKNOTT PASSES. 30%. Extreme Caution. Narrow Roads. Severe Bends. Winter conditions can be dangerous.
My heart starts to race even faster. Even though I have cycled this route many times it still scares me. It’s unforgiving. If you let your fitness slide even the slightest, it breaks you into a million tiny pieces and feeds you to the sheep.
The next few miles are gentle, a few ups and downs taking in the scenery. I make the most of this to get my mind and body prepared. Eventually, it arrives. The small cattle grid signifying the start of the pain-cave, or whatever other overused internet metaphor you like to use. There is a sharp steep right bend and then as I come around the corner the entire length of Wrynose pass opens out ahead of me. Right at the top is a car. It looks tiny so far up I the clouds. Suddenly another cyclist is coming towards me. He bombs past me doing about 30mph. He looks terrified. He gives me a quick ‘Good luck mate, you’ll need it.’ Before disappearing into a cloud of my stench that I’ve left behind me. ‘I’ll need it alright.’ I shout back. I try to get into an easier gear but I’m already in it. The grind is slow. My cadence is around 30 as I follow the incline running up the right-hand side of the valley. I cross a bridge and decide I need a breather. The next bit is sharp and as many of you will know, once you unclip from your pedals on a steep climb, it’s almost impossible to clip back in. You, therefore, have to walk - and ‘walk I shall not.’ (said as if I was Braveheart) I use the wall of the bridge to rest up against without having to get off the bike. My heart rate returns to a better 130bpm and I continue.
Eventually, I come to the false summit, another annoying characteristic of Wrynose Pass. It eases off for a 100m and then the short climb to the summit. I decide not to stop. The downhill is fast and then it’s a gentle few miles along the river to Cockley Beck. This is where things really get interesting. And when I say interesting. I mean painful. I take the right turn towards Hardknott. I look up into the clouds above and see the zigzagging road snake its way up and beyond. I rest again for a few minutes pretending to take a photo when a few cars drive past. Never admit the shame of stopping because you are tired. It’s always a photo, or you’re looking at your maps, or you need to tie your shoelace.
I start the first bit. It’s so steep I start to wheelspin. I lean further back and then I do a wheelie and almost go over backwards. I slow my pace. Eventually, I find the sweet spot and grind my way up, my cadence down at around 20. The climb is long and unforgiving but I push hard, my heart rate nearing 190bpm which is me at 110% of my max threshold according to the general rule of 220 minus your age. It seems to take forever before I eventually reach the summit. I sit back on the saddle and wipe the sweat off my brow before it blinds me. The challenge is not over. I still have the other side to go down, and it’s terrifying. I put my backside right off the back of my saddle to give weight to my rear wheel and grip the hoods as tight as possible. I immediately realise my mistake. I should be on the drops, not the hoods, but I’m in too deep. There is no way I can let go of my breaks, not even for a second. My fingers hurt and my wrists take the entire weight of my body. Bend after bend I descend until I’m back on the trees near the cattle grid. I stop to get my breath and drink some water. I can hardly feel my legs and wrists. Another cyclist cycles past me on his way up. ‘Good luck mate, you’ll need it,’ I say. He doesn’t reply. How rude I thought.
My journey is not over. In fact, I’m only halfway. Remember I called this ride ‘The Double-Double.’ Well, I’m sure you’ve guessed what happens next. Yes. I clip back in, turn around and with a rude cyclist to chase ahead of me I begin my return leg, back up Hardknott and Wrynose, in reverse.
Eventually, about two and a half hours after I began, I’m back in Coniston and head straight for my outdoor bathtub and fill it with cold water and jump in. The Double-Double had most certainly awakened me from my winter slumber and motivated me to get fit again. So if you want to do a 25-mile bike ride that has 5400ft (1645m) of climbing, then do this one. You won’t regret it – much!