Look in any keen road cyclist’s book shelf and you wouldn’t be surprised to see this book.
It’s a good book. If you are a keen road cyclist and don’t already have it, I recommend getting it. For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s a guide to the hundred greatest road climbs in Britain (unsurprisingly). The author has chosen what he believes are the greatest climbs our little island has to offer and I’d find it hard to argue with most of his choices (although I will, more on that later). None of the climbs are easy, most are very tough for even seasoned cyclists and they are spread around the country reasonably evenly.
There’s a league table, an app and lots of other climbing books from the same author….but I’ve jumped ahead. Lets go back a little bit. Lets go back more than two years.
I’ve always been a very keen cyclist but had fallen into a bit of a lull and was getting a little bored. I’d ride the same route every week, doing it more for fitness than for fun. I’d lost my mojo. Then a friend mentioned the book and interest piqued, I bought a copy and figured it sounded interesting. I’d ride all the ones close to home, which is probably what most people do who get the book. The book would then spend the rest of it’s life shoved in the corner of my bookshelf, forgotten, unused, unloved.
However, that’s not what happened. What did happen was I made a map. I made a map and marked all the climbs on it. And then I started riding them. I started riding them all.
The sharp-eyed amongst you will already have noticed that most of the climbs are in the middle bit, which is good because that’s where I live. The middle bit is the best bit, mainly because there’s more hills there. I’m confident that living in the middle bit made the whole thing an awful lot easier than for someone who say, lives in London. I nailed more than 50 of the climbs without ever having to stay anywhere away from home overnight. Again though, I’m jumping ahead.
Lets start at the beginning. The nearest climb to my house is The Rake. The Rake is a particularly nasty little climb hidden in the West Pennines in a little town called Ramsbottom. I’ve climbed the Rake before a number of times (in fact I’d already climbed about 20 of the climbs before I even started) but I’d decided to climb all of the ones in the book from scratch. The Rake starts off nice and easy and doesn’t really become a tough climb till the last brutal 25% section. I took my fast road bike which isn’t really geared for climbing really steep hills but it’s light. Ramsbottom is only about 20 miles from where I live, albeit on the other side of a large hill so I rode over on a nice, crisp, November morning and made my way to the bottom of the climb.
I was, it’s fair to be said, about to have a bit of an epiphany. My plan was, to climb every hill as fast as possible. As I’ve said, there’s a league table and I fully intended to be quite high up it.
Off I went. Flat out. Up on the pedals, spinning quickly. I shot up the easy bit, round the corner to the hard part which reared up above my head. Down a couple of gears and into the steep section. My lungs were already burning but now they exploded. With the fire moving down to my legs threatening to rob me of speed I put in a surge of power, launched myself up the hill and empty everything I had into getting to the top of this brutal little climb. With the top in sight and my body entering a fissionable state I pumped the pedals hard enough to make my vision star before passing the end point and rolling to a wobbly stop.
That. Was. Horrible. Plus, as it turned out, despite going as hard as I could, mine wasn’t a particularly fast time (For the uninitiated, all rides were logged on Strava using the app on my phone. This confirmed that I had ridden each climb as the author intended) . Repeat 99 times. Errm, no thanks. I decided then as my battered legs tried to get me home, I was not going to try and go fast up these hills. Leave that to the young whippets. I would climb the rest at a nice, steady pace on a nice comfortable bike. Which sounds like I will be meandering up each hill without even breaking a sweat but that’s not true either. With a couple of exceptions, every single hill hurt like jiminey. I decided I would use my touring bike for this job. It’s quite heavy, it’s not particularly pretty but it’s comfy and more importantly, it’s got a good set of gears.
And so it went.
My weekends became focused around getting to the chosen hills, riding those hills and then getting home again. My weeks became planning sessions for the weekends. I would create rides that encompassed, where possible, more than one of the climbs. I would read the description of each climb over and over again, peruse the internet for pictures, hoping to build a image in my head of just how hard the thing would be. Further and further afield I would go. Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire. Yes, Cheshire has hills, some quite big ones actually.
I became very familiar with petrol station sandwiches and even more familiar with standing at a petrol pump. Sometimes the rides would just be up the hill and back down again, more often they would be a good, hefty bike ride round the countryside and what rides they were. Very rarely I did not get home without having enjoyed myself immensely. Riding in new places, seeing new parts of the country, clawing myself up guffing great mounds of rock. Brilliant.
It wasn’t all great fun though. Lots of time sat in a car, lots of getting lost, lots of getting wet (you don’t believe they were all in lovely weather do you?) Yeah, it wasn’t all great. There were, a few hills that I didn’t think should be in the book. I’d guess the author has mostly chosen hills that either have a fearsome reputation or feature in the hill climbing calendar. (Again, for the uninitiated, hill climbs on bicycles, take place around the country every year. Fastest to the top, wins), but I think more out of the latter category, some of the hills were neither nice to look at nor particularly nice to climb. I’m going to pick on Jiggers bank and Terrace hill in particular mainly because they were such, relatively easy climbs I could have done without them. Terrace hill was over before I realised I’d started it but it was a spectacularly grim day with a serious amount of water getting deposited on me during that ride.
Most of the climbs were in isolated, remote places and often completely empty as a result. Unfortunately some hills are also very popular with drivers and motorcyclists which doesn’t always make for a pleasant experience. The Cat and Fiddle climb while quite nice as a climb, was awful in practise. I could have chosen a better day I guess but that Saturday afternoon, it was packed with lunatics in cars, lorries and on motorcycles, all of them without a care for me. I was, and still am astounded I made it up that climb without being killed. Another downer of note was Weston hill on the outskirts of Bath. Not terribly hard but pouring down with rain (natch), narrow and incredibly busy. A constant stream of impatient and bad drivers streamed past me as I hauled my way up. Hated it, sorry.
Lets forget about those though, the rest were, completely awesome. All were great but stand out climbs that stick in my mind were:
Buttertubs pass – What a beautiful climb, breathtaking.
Cheddar Gorge – Stunning scenery
The Wall – Ruthless Yorkshire cobbles with a scorpion sting hairpin
Winnats pass – Leg-breakingly hard work but such spectacular views
And of course, pretty much all the Cumbrian passes were both breathtaking and heart-burstingly hard.
Bwlch-y-groes. Oh….my…..god. Let us cast our eyes down and clench our hands together in prayer to whichever engineer decided to build a road up this jagged monster of a hill. This was the only ride I didn’t ride alone. I told a friend I was going and he asked to come along.
What a monster! (The hill, not my friend). Top 3 of the hardest climbs out of the 100. Easily. This thing is relentless, it carries on and on and on, 20%, all the way. I was never so close to stopping for a rest as I was on this hill, but I made it, just. If you only ride one hill in the book, make it this one. What an amazing climb.
Which brings us to the strange, bizarre mindset of the climbing cyclist. What an odd group of people we are. See a hill, want to climb, hurt ourselves doing it, enjoy the pain. Do it again. That’s not normal.
It’s not uncommon to start a ride looking like this… (That’s Wrynose pass)
…and finish it looking like this. (Top of Newlands Hause)
We do it because there is a special place when all that can be done is turn pedal after pedal. When there is nothing other than the million ton weight of each leg slowly rotating, the three feet in front of your front wheel and somewhere, up ahead, is a peak, a summit, the end. I rode that. I made it to the top.
And so round the country I drove and rode. My ever-tolerant wife endured some quite frankly, bizarre holidays as we travelled from one corner of the country to the other, We saw quite a few B&B’s, she had lots of time browsing gift shops, small village cafe’s and dog walks on top of desolate peaks as she waited for me to lurch round the corner, sweating, panting, but happy. Thanks love.
Two years of pushing pedals up big hills. Two years of blood, sweat, pain and wonderful, wonderful hills. What an amazing country we live in. I’d eaten a hundred bananas, a hundred bags of Haribo, drank hundreds of litres of water from water bottles splashed in rain water and sheep crap from a hundred different roads.
Finally, I had 99 in the bag. I’d saved the biggest and best till last. Bealach na ba. The pass of the cattle. A climb steeped in history. Sea level to 2053 feet above in less than five miles. A climb difficult in a car never mind on a bike. And first I must get there. 10 hours from our house in the car. Of course, a minor injury in the form of a broken collar bone slowed me down a little but once recovered I (and my wife) girded our loins and headed Northwards to the Scotlands.
Now some may say driving 450 miles, drinking a fair amount of beer and *a number* of single malts might not be the best preparation for the toughest climb in Britain. But those people haven’t climbed 99 of the toughest climbs already, have they? Like me.
Sweet mother of god. What a climb. What an experience. It was a bit windy, to be honest. And the higher I got, the windier it got. It got quite cold too. And wet. But hey, those are conditions I’m used to. The camera does it absolutely no justice whatsoever, This was the climb to end the one hundred.
And so it was all over. I’d ridden them all.
Thanks to Simon Warren for writing the book and making me love climbing again. Thanks to Rick for doing the Wales trip with me. That was a great day.
Thanks to my wife for following me round the country. I’m sorry I made you drive across that bridge and thanks for sitting in cafes and cars a lot. Sorry you married an insane bloke.
Thanks to Ridgeback for making the most reliable bike I have ever owned.
Thanks to Garmin for making the Garmin Edge 200, quite simply the best GPS ever. Make another model like that.
And thanks for reading. I took pictures everywhere, it’s lots of pictures of hills in the middle of nowhere.