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Lockdown 19 – Cycling the Cumbria Way

Last summer I decided to combine my two favourite occupations, cycling and whinging, so I tackled The Cumbria Way Cycle Route.

The route starts at Ulverston and follows The Cumbria Way Walk Route, as the guidebook says, ‘loosely’. It takes in Coniston, Elterwater, Grasmere, Thirlmere, Derwent Water before heading off behind Skiddaw and down to  Carlisle.

If, like me, planning isn’t your thing and you find yourself in Ulverston without a guide to the route, firstly, you idiot and secondly the Tourist Information Centre in Coronation Hall, County Square has them. Also, you can buy a bike from Gill Cycles just down the road.

You start at the Cenotaph and immediately begin climbing through country lanes. Would you mind if I whinged this early? It’s to the guidebook writers: please don’t put ‘short’ with ‘steep’ unless you really mean it. This is not a gentle start. I also like the unusual way ‘steady’ and ‘gruelling’ can be interchanged on a couple of pages. 

From the top of the gentle slope, you get views over Morecambe Bay and you can see the thin sliver of Coniston tucked away in a valley innumerable wheel revolutions in my future. The Fells looked amazing behind.

The ride to Coniston was easy and the scenery probably gorgeous, but I didn’t look. Ahead a fellow cyclist was struggling up a gradient; I didn’t want to break my momentum so I overtook him with a cheery ‘ Hello’. The next downslope a streamlined object came by, grimacing and pedaling furiously – it was him. The next upslope, he was wobbling and pitiable again, so I overtook; the next downslope, whoooosh he came passed. As the lake and breathtaking landscape slid by unnoticed, this spasmodic cyclist absorbed my attention. The approach of his descending grunts was as irritating to me as my attempted effortless uphill smirk was, hopefully, to him. Here’s the smirk.

We parted in Coniston where I filled up my water bottle then followed Yew Beck up to Moss Rigg Woods. It’s a climb but I felt good. With the assistance of poor bike handling skills, I dropped into Colwith looking mountain bikey with the left side of my face concealed with what I hoped was mud, but it smelt odd.

I cycled into Elterwater and was confronted with, by far, the biggest test of the day.

Britannia Pub

How I got passed the Britannia pub I will never know? People were sitting outside in the sun, in a beautiful village, drinking cool looking drinks. I took a gulp from my bottle and spat out a chunk of Moss Rigg Woods. My bike carried me through the village but unfortunately wasn’t obliging enough to continue up Redbank; I was forced to pedal and pedal hard. This was the toughest climb so far, and there were a few people about so I had to maintain some sort of form and attempt to keep my speed up above fall off.

I whizzed through Grasmere (‘whizzed’ is a massive exaggeration) and hammered up Dunmail Raise (same). Half-way up, when I was pulling the face I use for cycling and also when I’ve just eaten razor blades, someone sounded their horn. I hoped it was a pity pip rather than someone I actually knew. It’s difficult to brag about how easy it was when someone’s seen you.

Turning off the main road behind Thirlmere was heavenly. Five miles of flatness among the cool of the trees, overlooking the lake. The road was empty of cars and people so I could let my form go and enjoy a good slump over the handlebars and reduced my cadence to levels requiring time-lapse photography. Going over the Thirlmere Dam was a pleasure, then I cycled through St. John’s in the Vale and up the final rise to Castlerigg Stone Circle and then down into Keswick. 

After an egg sarnie at Bryson’s, I tootled along the old railway line, down the boardwalk, past a bobbin mill, and over a series of  ‘bowstring’ bridges crossing the River Greta. I don’t use the word ‘tootle’ frivolously, I definitely tootled. The birds tweeted above in the arch of trees, I whooped through a tunnel and hummed the Rocky theme tune. When I came off the railway line at Threlkeld, the joyous cries died in my throat. I’d forgotten what was to come.

The road ascent up to the Blencathra Centre is fine. But the route turned from gravelly to rocky, to craggy, to impossible. A couple of sections I had to get off and push, let down once again by (think, man, think) my tires and gear ratios and crankshaft, but definitely not my legs which hadn’t turned to jelly at all. 

Those are supposed to be jellies

On the descent I forded a river, the guide said ‘be careful’  but that didn’t scare me. I ploughed into the water, which, to be fair, didn’t feel too cold when my front tyre lost its grip and I went sideways. From my riverbed vantage point, I noticed a perfectly usable bridge to the right, I’d use that if I were you. 

The descent at times was steep and my skeleton almost disintegrated, but even if you don’t care for the scenery, or the tingle of being alone with your bike on a mountain, one thing you will cultivate from your time around the back of Skiddaw is a deep, almost religious, love for the attributes of tarmac. When I hit the road on the way to Orthwaite I felt an inner calm as my internal organs squeezed themselves back into familiar positions. I glided past Overwater, until the guide once again ordered me reluctantly off the road and I rattled over Uldale Common to Hesket Newmarket.

The final section from Hesket Newmarket to Carlisle is fourteen miles, but compared to your prior agonies it’s the easiest fourteen miles you will ever cycle. There is not much I can remember about it apart from nice country lanes and nice villages and a heart-warming amount of gentle downhill. When I past Carlisle Racecourse all the pasta I’d been eating for the six weeks prior to embarkation finally kicked in, and I sprinted down Currock Road and into Botchergate. As I tore through the traffic lights and into the railway station car park, my enthusiasm was so great that when the time came to stop I almost went over my handle bars. 

Despite my unrelenting whinging, it was a great day.

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