I’d been waiting to have a pop at the classic ‘three passes route’ for about 4 years now, ever since blundering round it in the wrong direction in 2008. My mate Kev has never quite forgiven me for the long carry up to the top of the Nan Bield pass only to be faced with a very tricky path down – carrying the bikes again.
Carrying bikes up mountains? Yes, this is the genre of cycling sometimes referred to as ‘Hike-a-bike’. It’s not everyones cup of tea, but the sense of adventure and epic riding that the occasional shouldering rewards you with is worthwhile for many. There’s several such bridleway passes in the Lake District, many of which you won’t find mentioned in your average guide book and it’s blogs like these that can help you plan your trip. This route is one of the more common hike-a-bike Lakes routes and is easily linked up with other more moderate riding around the Kentmere/Stavely area. The route I recently did sets off from Ambleside and does the three passes before finishing at Staveley, though Staveley would make a good starting point as well.
So if you’re considering one of these passes, here’s my advice:
1. Garburn Pass
Not really that epic, but it has the word ‘pass’ in the name so it needs a mention. Tackled from the West, it’s a great climb that’s all ridable with decent fitness. The surface varies from gravelly to rocky and it feels like it goes on forever. If you like a good climb then you’ll enjoy this, one to just get stuck in to and keep pedalling.
The descent is pretty technical. I’m sure I used to be able to ride it all a few years ago, but I was on a full susser then and less scared of injuring myself… If you are riding it, watch out for a sudden super-techy drop off type section. I got away with a comedy dismount and a bruised shin.
I can’t remember if I’ve ever done this the other way, but I’d imagine it would need a few pushes. The long downhill would be fun though.
2. Gatescarth Pass
Whichever of the delightful routes you choose over the Green Quarter from Kentmere to Sadgill, it’s worth making sure you’ve got food in your belly and you’re topped up with water, as you’re about to embark on an epic climb! Heading North out of the Parish of Longsleddale (apparently the original inspiration for Postman Pat) start climbing the Gatescarth Pass. Once this monster starts heading up and getting steep you’re in for a mile and a half of rough rubble and sharp cobbles, with hair pin bends ramping up to 27%. By the top, you’ll have climbed 1130ft and if you done it all without a dab then you’re a better rider than me! I managed about 85% of it and took 35 minutes and I felt like I’d done ok.
If you do this as a descent, it’s a riot of hand numbing fun, but I’m not sure that this direction makes for a great loop when combined with the Nan Bield pass.
Descending to Haweswater is a mile of incredible riding that even I managed without incident. The first few switchbacks are slow and techy, but it finally opens out and lets you get some speed up. The only problem with this, is that the massive views that appear make you want to stop and gasp, but the trail makes you want to carry on grinning. I suppose that’s the incompatibility between Strava and cycle tourism.
Some people like to ride/push/carry their bikes up this way, but I seem to remember it being pretty miserable. Each to their own though.
3. Nan Bield Pass
You’re into real remote feeling riding now. It’s classed as a bridleway but I’d pay money to watch a horse struggle up or down this pass. It’s hard enough to hike up in some places and having a bike on your back doesn’t really help matters. Still, the scenery is jaw dropping and once you get up to Small Water you can look out over Haweswater and even make out the radar station on top of Great Dunn Fell over on the North Pennines.
I can’t claim to specifically enjoy lugging a steel hardtail up to 2000ft. The last half mile averages 20% and requires sure footing and balance, but it is satisfying to get to the shelter at the top and look out over the Kentmere valley. However, the main purpose of lugging your bike up here though, is the long and twisty bridleway that will take you back to the lowlands and reality.
I’d been looking forward to this for years, even casing it up whilst hiking round there last year. When you walk a bridleway, you catch yourself looking at lines and drops and thinking “yeah, that’s a go-er, I could ride that”. Sitting astride my bike and cautiously lowering myself towards the first switchback, I had a change of heart.
Maybe it was all those pointy rocks just waiting for me to land on, or the knowledge of how badly time off the bike due to injury affects me, but I’m not afraid to admit that I pushed down most of the switchbacks that I’d waited so long to ride. To refer back to the title, my 140mm forks were probably long enough, but my balls were left sadly lacking. Once the trail levelled out to a more standard grade of danger, I cracked on with it and enjoyed the riding and views.
I could have felt disappointed, but the workout, sense of adventure and incredible scenery justified it all. To be honest I was just glad to make it back down to Kentmere in one piece.