Christmas Re-‘Wind Down’: Classic Ride – The Four Passes

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First published in Singletrack Magazine Issue 100. For subscriptions options click below:

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Tom Hill takes us on a full day out with good people, epic views and some of the best riding you’ll find in England.

classic ride, issue 100, tom hill
The ultimate Classic Ride?

Words by Tom Hill, pictures by James Vincent.

Tracing out the route, I felt a giddy rush of excitement. Issue 100 needed the classic ride to end all classic rides. Something big, epic, hard and really, REALLY good fun – something with a hint of danger, risk and excitement. Four burly Lakeland passes packed tightly into a testing loop. The kind of loop that requires commitment, fitness, skill, navigation and more than a bit of mental fortitude. I could almost feel my beard hair grow longer as I ran my finger over my Ordnance Survey Explorer. Grr, I am Mountain Biker Man.

Photographer James and I attempted the impossible: to find a mutually convenient day for us both to meet up, and with a promising weather forecast. As it was, we settled for a date we could both make, and crossed our fingers. It’s always sunny in the Lakes, isn’t it?

Our starting point of Seathwaite sits at the very end of Borrowdale, slap bang in the middle of the Lake District. The sun was only just touching the valley floor as I arrived, peeking over the steep valley sides – one of which would mark the end of our ride many hours from now. Joining us were Nigel and Gav – locals who couldn’t turn down the opportunity to show off the best of the Lakes, especially as the weather was decidedly better than forecast.

issue 100, classic ride
Yeah, it’ll go…

A mile-long flat roll out along tarmac to the base of Honister Pass and the little village of Seatoller did little to delay the inevitable, but at least gave the legs an opportunity to get used to turning pedals before we pointed our wheels upwards and clicked down through the gears. Rather than taking on the double chevrons of the road climb, we chose to dive off onto the permissive bridleway that runs up the right-hand side of the road. Zigzagging our way up the track was more interesting and marginally less painful than a full-on 1:4 onslaught. It also gave me the opportunity to have the first puncture of the day, spraying a neat arc of tubeless ‘sealant’ behind me. Banging in a tube, I wacked up the air pressure to higher than normal and made a silent prayer to the Puncture God to treat me kindly for the rest of the day.

We rejoined the road for a couple of hundred metres before passing through Honister slate mine, and continuing our climb, watching the road tumble its way down to Buttermere.

Pass one – Warnscale – The Techy-Thrutchy one

Rolling down the wide track that marked the start of our descent, the Puncture God struck again. Fortunately my prayers had been listened to – unfortunately, Nigel obviously hadn’t been as pious and was nobbled. The enforced break gave us chance to gird our loins for the meat of the descent. A vague line off the main track rapidly steepened, as the mountain closed in around us. The narrow trail was largely bedrock, with loose fist-sized rocks and larger boulders to add a bit of variety. Despite being tight singletrack, there were multiple line options – and the riding quickly became a game of high-speed, high stakes mountain bike chess. Trying to read several moves ahead wasn’t an easy task while also negotiating terrain that was on the edge of my abilities. We all inevitably rode into dead-ends of our own creation. Despite the best intentions, lines were frequently decided by momentum and flow, rather than thought and planning. Improvisation was key – creativity the difference between crashing or riding. We took it in turns to lead or follow – each had their own advantages. To follow was to learn from others’ unwise choices, to lead was to not get tangled up in stalled riders. The beauty of the descent, though, was that it was all rideable. There wasn’t a single section that couldn’t be cleaned by a mountain biker of reasonable skill and confidence over steep rocky ground. No great gaps, no huge drops, just sustained technical goodness. The lower we got, the more the gorge opened out, treating us to a stunning view across Buttermere, the flat calmness of the lake contrasting totally with the ‘white-water’ of rock that we’d tumbled down.

Classic ride, issue 100, tom hill
Perfect riding weather

Crossing the base of the lake, the next climb loomed large ahead of us. Scarth Gap Pass traced a diagonal orange line across the fell side. There was no hiding from the inevitable – the very base of the climb was steeply stepped. Bikes were shouldered, and we steadily made our way upwards. Walking in single file, chatter gradually petered out as we climbed, each of us settling into our own rhythm, trying not to think about the fact that we still had two more climbs to tick off before the day was out.

Pass two – Scarth Gap – The Steppy, short one

Compared to what had been before, Scarth Gap was less seat-of-the-pants techy, but no less engaging. There were plenty of tight switchbacks to keep us on our toes, and the erosion over the years has led to significant trail maintenance. It creates a less natural feeling experience, and regular water bars were not built with a great deal of sympathy to mountain bikers as trail users. Bunny-hopping skills honed, we made it down rims intact, but bemoaning the lack of a collective voice representing the interests of mountain bikers in the same way as the Ramblers Association. Grumbles were short-lived, however, as we rolled down to the Black Sail Hut – which must win a prize for one of England’s most remote Youth Hostels. Its setting is beautiful, nestled in the classically U-shaped glacial valley of upper Ennerdale. The valley has a distinctly different feel to its neighbours, and indeed the rest of the Lake District. This is thanks in part to an ongoing ‘rewilding’ project – an attempt to return one small part of the Lakes to a time and ecosystem that is less touched by human hand, whether that be intentional or a side effect of our activities. It was a reminder that as wild as some parts of this ride felt, they only looked and felt as they did as a result of centuries of hill farming, mining and tourism.

issue 100, classic ride
What went down…

We lingered in the sun for long enough for conversation to flow. Looking across the valley, we could see our path mapped out for us and it looked hard work. With a sigh, we rolled on, crossed the river and rode far enough up the steep grassy lower slopes of the climb to look like respectable effort, but not so far our legs were cooked for the remaining hike-a-bike.

Pass three – Black Sail – The fast and flowy one

We descended in formation, first down technical rock in the shadow of Kirk Fell, then traversing across flowing singletrack, popping and hopping over the odd exposed rock, clothes flapping as we gathered speed. Swinging into Mosedale, the view opened out in front of us – a lush green valley that would carry us all the way down to Wasdale Head, clearly visible at the bottom. We chopped down exquisite hairpins, loose and dusty enough to drift round with smiles on faces, heroes in our own tyre tracks. Accelerating as the trail straightened out, picking lines through vibrant bracken, swapping places as the trail broadened out – this was high-speed heaven. The humidity of the valley hung heavily as we paused to negotiate gates. The exhilaratingly fun descent had energised us but fatigue was setting in, not helped by the unforgiving heat.

Classic ride, issue 100
Lush green valley

It took spartan levels of self-restraint from all of us to ride by the Wasdale Head Inn – convincing each other that the delayed gratification of a pint at the end would be worth missing out then… and very much reduce the risk of overconfidence on the final descent of the day. We called into the Barn Door Shop instead and nigh on cleared out their fridge of cans of coke, before flaking out in front of whitewashed walls, too weary to do anything sensible like seek shade. Sugared and caffeinated, and safe in the knowledge that there was “just one more hill” between us and home, we began the pedal along Lingmell Beck.

It was, of course, not long until the inevitable was needed, and we once again placed top tubes across shoulders, placing one foot in front of the other. It may have been the psychological benefit of knowing we were nearly home, it may have been the fizzy brown beverage consumed in Wasdale, but the climb did not feel too bad, at least until the final few metres. We were, to a man, spent.

issue 100, classic ride
A short break

Sitting against a mountain rescue stretcher box, overlooking the Sty Head Tarn, I stuffed a last few mouthfuls of food inside me and drained my CamelBak. The sun was low in the sky, creating an orange warmth to the view before us. A couple of tents were pitched near the tarn, and I looked on, jealous as we began our descent home.

Pass four – Sty Head – The bit of everything one

A wide trail quickly whisked us off the fell side, past weary looking walkers, plodding their way down. It was difficult to not feel a sense of smugness as we cruised past… before being halted by a boulder field a couple of hundred metres long. Smugness erased. Past this final obstacle, the track quickly got serious. While not as hard as Warnscale Pass, it was a challenge to pick the best line – I was as mentally tired as physically, and left simply reacting to what was in front of my wheel, rather than making any proactive decision about where I might like my bike to go. We made it down in one piece, though giddy with endorphins.

tom hill, classic ride, issue 100
Some sparing shade

We savoured the flat-out farm track back to Seathwaite, basking in the glow of success and that late afternoon sun. We couldn’t have asked for a better classic – a full day out with good people, epic views and some of the best riding you’ll find in England.

The Four Passes – Why Bother?

It’s easy to underestimate a ride that is a mere 30km long, but even a cursory glance at the route on an OS map shows a lot of tightly packed orange lines and on the way up that inevitably means that for much of this you will need to carry your bike. Those packed together contours mean steep and technical riding on the way back down again as well. You deserve a round of applause if you clean everything first time though.

So, it’s a tough, technical ride. It’s also flipping remote and committing. Even after the first up and down, you have no easy return option, other than a relentless tarmac slog back over Honister. The further you ride, the harder it becomes to extricate yourself. While Wasdale is served by a road, it is much longer and more tortuous to follow it out than to push up and over one last time.

classic ride, issue 100
30km of beautiful riding

We were incredibly fortunate to have a perfect day for riding, in mid-summer with long daylight hours. The passes can be wild places, however, and the mainly limestone rock becomes as slippery as soap in the wet. The weather has the potential to turn the kind of ride that you’ll talk about for years for all the right reasons into the kind of ride that passes into infamy for all the wrong ones.

So, given the seriousness of the terrain and the effort of the hike-a-bike, what makes it so damn good? Maybe it’s the thrill of stepping outside one’s comfort zone for a while. Maybe it’s the combination of epically great descents. Maybe it’s the beautiful, wild setting. More likely, it’s a combination of them all. Regardless, this is a great, great ride. It’s the kind of day out that will live long in your memory, way after the dull ache in your legs has faded.

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