Great Rides - Great Dun Fell
'Riding the North Pennines' - Ian Nuttney
Start at the top - why not, eh? After a coffee in the joyless surroundings of the Hartside Cafe and realising that I've forgotten to pack scarves, it's a skull-chilling descent, but massively grin-inducing as Hartside always is. Even moreso today as there's a tailwind. More on that to come. Once down in the Eden Valley, it's a lovely roll along between fields bursting with lambs - to the left, the Pennines to be reclimbed, off to the right the brooding wall of the Lakeland fells, steely blue and topped with white. After a couple of miles of undulating fun, a glance to the left picks out today's objective - the golf-ball radar on top of Great Dun Fell. It's the first part of the oft-made comparison to Ventoux, as you can see this perching above you for just about the whole ride now. After a bit of navigation that reminded me of the western part of Fred Whitton - small banks, lots of small lanes to potentially get lost along, I finally get to the sign for Knock Christian Centre- which is where the road to perdition kicks off...
From here, there's little in the way of bends until the top; it's like a Roman version of Hartside - essentially the same hill but with none of the namby-pamby contour-hugging business. The pitches come as no surprise, because you can see them coming. Or looming. Or rising. Pretty soon you realise that the thing about this isn't that it's 'kick you in the bollocks' hooligan-in-nature stupid gradients, like Hardknott, say; but that it's more of a Chinese water-torture, disruptive version of Newlands. There's nowhere where you can settle into a rhythm, because the gradient is almost constantly varying. I get to the first gate - happily open, and roll over the rollers of the cattle grid. Here it kicks up straight away round one of the few switchbacks - probably because even the road-builders decided against 1:2 here, so it's a 1:4is section up and around the obstruction. As the road starts to hug the side of Knock Ore Ghyll there's a lip, over which you find a surprise downhill section. But any thoughts of a rest are thwarted as the tailwind that helped speed me down Hartside is now a lovely headwind. The chances of getting an easterly in a place where the trees, grass, snow-poles and sheep indicate the prevailing trend is the opposite, have to be remote. Bloody Gus. But at least it's dry. It's horrible to lose height on a climb, because you have to retake it; but the road's the road, so it's onwards, taking note of where sheep are gathering - don't want any nasty surprises on the way back past.
I'm passed by a couple of keen Jocks and watch their progress - one clearly struggling more than the other (but struggling far less than I am by now!) and watch them reach the top of the ghyll, down which the wind is being funnelled, and come to a very sudden stop. "God, what's it like *there*" I wonder... I find out soon enough - it's horrible! It's another lip where the wind is twice as strong again, and the lip reveals itself as a false summit, leading to a false flat, leading to another kick. In the teeth, balls, head - it just doesn't let up, which, along with its similar average gradient, is another of the points that people who call it 'UK's Ventoux' draw on.
There's snow lying in increasingly large patches at the roadside; but the lovely surface is unblemished and dry, the bright white lines showing the way. The golf-ball hoves into view suddenly - nearly there!
Just after the sign indicating where the Pennine Way joins in, the second access gate is reached - open again so no need for dismounting. There's a real sense of having cracked it now, especially as the road suddenly swings left and you feel the lovely sensation of tailwind. And then, of course, the road swings back on itself into the wind, and kicks back up as a final piss-take. It's just fooling with you now - you've actually made it.
The weird thing about it is just how mental the climb is. Seeing so much of it laid out ahead and above you is one thing, and there's no distraction from it because the gradient is always hopping about. You can't relax into a rhythm, and because of that you can't let your mind wander from what your legs are having to put up with, you're on it the whole way. And that's just going up.
It's straight down, with the tailwind, on this narrow strip - crash barrier to fly over on the left, rocks and gully on the right. It's like being in a nose-dive, constantly easing and re-applying brake pressure just to regulate speed and ease your blocks. Approaching the now little uphill section, the braking can stop - the sheep are clear and my mind's shouting "THIS IS VERY EXCITING!" - adrenaline and cold mixing together. Soon enough I'm rolling over the cattle-grid and onto a less well-made surface; but arrow-straight and devoid of holes.
Getting to a final steep, swing section I spot a guy at the roadside, bike up turned. He'd passed me in the other direction when I was nearing the top, and I pulled over. "I've had 2 punctures in the last mile". Remembering the last mile, I almost fainted with fear. It was easy to see why - his rim tape was mangled, presumably cooked by the heat generated under braking.
Luckily he only lived 4 miles away - this is is regular training ride, so although I couldn't help, he could limp home. Onwards and down into the sudden calm of the valley again, stopping only free a lamb for whom the grass was tastier through the fence. Suddenly I was riding on thrill for the next 9 miles - a bit of a reward, that. Then to Melmerby, and a bacon roll so magnificent that no sauce was required, such was the quality of the meat. Hartside, even with the headwind, was a nice warm-down by comparison; settle into a pace and ride up, enjoying the constant slope and views of the Lakes. Easy-peas, with a nice wind-assisted push after the final hairpin. Smashing.