The Hardknott Pass Cycle Route: Britain’s Toughest Climb

So you want to cycle Hardknott Pass?

Nestled deep within the Lake District, situated between Eskdale and the Duddon Valley, you will first lay eyes on this beast.

For those faint of heart, the fog will likely cover the full spectacle, so don’t worry just yet; focus on the tarmac in front of you.

It may not be as long as behemoths such as Col du Tourmalet, but what it lacks in length, it more than makes up for in punchy sections – boasting an eye-watering max gradient of 33%.

You can approach the climb from either the east or the west side; both have their charm. The western approach towards Eskdale tends to be the preferred choice amongst those brave enough to take it on.

In this profile of the Hardknott Pass cycle route, we’ll be covering the following:

  • History of Hardknott Pass Cycle Route
  • Guide To Cycling Hardknott Pass Cycle Route
  • Tips For Cycling Hardknott Pass
  • Hardknott Pass: The Surrounding Area

Ready for the lowdown on Britain’s most challenging climb?

Hardknott Pass Cycle Guide: Title Image

History of Hardknott Pass Cycle Route

The Romans originally constructed the pass in 110 AD and used it as a connecting road between their coastal fort and inland garrisons. The road soon fell into disrepair after the Romans departed Britain in the 5th century.

The English Lake District Association financed a renovation of the pass at the end of the 19th century. After the initial revival, the route pioneering cyclists began setting their sights on the climb.

In 1911, the Cyclists’ Touring Club’s Guide to North-West England described the old coach road as “difficult going west, cruel coming east.”

However, it wasn’t until the road was completely destroyed in WW2 and subsequently revived that it became the motor route between Ambleside and Eskdale we know today.

Since 1999 the climb has featured in the grueling Fred Whitton Sportive, a tasty 180 km route that is sure to fill the bellies of anyone mad enough to try it.

The KOM is currently held by Andrew Feather, summiting Hardknott Pass in a blistering 8 minutes and 41 seconds.

The Hardknott Pass Cycle Route: Britain's Toughest Climb 1
Credit: Paul HermansCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

Guide To Cycling Hardknott Pass Cycle Route

As previously mentioned, there are two ways to head up Hardknott Pass.

#1: From West to East

  • Departure Elevation: 105 m (345 ft)
  • Finish Elevation: 403 m (1,322 ft)
  • Altitude Gain: 298 m (978 ft)
  • Length: 1.6 miles (2.58 km)
  • Average Gradient: 12%
  • Maximum Gradient: 33%

Clip in and smile; it will be over before you know it. Relish the challenge – you’ve probably been planning it for some time!

Departing from the River Esk, you will begin to ascend a gentle gradient before you hit the first of the 20% slopes. These 20% monsters are rather unrelenting, lasting for around 500 m.

Autumnal view over the Hardknott Pass cycle route looking towards the west.

Don’t worry. It gets easier… sort of. Averaging a humble 8% for the next kilometer until it ramps up again. Go slow and pace yourself; aim to bring your heart rate down during this section, and you’ll thank yourself later.

Keep in a low gear for this final section. An adequate gear range will allow you to stay seated for as long as possible while still being able to spin at a decent cadence. Momentum is critical for the higher gradients.

Now for the last big effort! After the 8% gradients finish, you will embark upon a series of twisting 30% hairpins. This section tends to range between 15%-30% gradients and covers around 300m.

Traffic is usually relatively steady up Hardknott Pass; during this particular segment, they tend to get very slow, so don’t follow too close. Clipping back in is never fun on a steep hill when you’re legs are blown out.

Note that the 30% gradients are measured at the steepest sections of the road – do yourself a favor and go wide on the corners.

You’ll start to note the gradient is reducing; hooray! The summit is approaching. Good job.

View of the steep Hardknott Pass cycle up the east side.

#2: From east to west

Tackling Hardknott pass from east to west begins as you cross the River Duddon in the heart of the Duddon Valley.

  • Departure Elevation: 242 m (795 ft)
  • Finish Elevation: 403 m (1322 ft)
  • Altitude Gain: 160 m (527 ft)
  • Length: 1.12 miles (1.8 km)
  • Average Gradient: 10%
  • Maximum Gradient: 30%

Short and snappy, the eastern side is slightly less sharp than its brother on the other side of the mountain. Nonetheless, it still poses quite the challenge.

Black and white view of Hardknott Pass.

Most riders who have approached the climb from this side have likely just tackled Wrynose pass. Cycling Wynrose Pass itself is quite a feat!

As you begin the climb, you will notice a striking red road sign warning you of a 30% gradient. Don’t let it ruffle you; you’re here specifically to climb it.

The climb is not particularly long, lasting just over a mile. However, it is steep!

On a clear day, you will see a full view of the eastern side in all its glory.

Don’t look away for too long; soon enough, you will be grinding up a long and straight 30% gradient. Keep your momentum!

Look out for potholes too! On either side of the climb, the road has a couple of them lurking.

After that, you will encounter a series of hairpins before another surge toward the summit.

View over the misty valley containing Hardknott Pass.

Tips for cycling Hardknott Pass

Hardknott Pass cycling is going to confront you with short, brutally steep ramps. As will many climbs in the Lake District.

Some climbs are long and grueling; others are fiercely steep. High gradients can quickly rob you of any momentum, forcing you off the bike and onto your feet.

Here are five tips to help you tackle steep climbs:

#1: adequate Gearing

Compact chainsets and wide-ranging cassettes will give you the opportunity to sit at a more manageable resistance.

Having the perfect gearing ratio and range is not a necessity, but it will save you from expending unnecessary energy when you don’t have to grind through each pedal stroke.

View across the valley with Hardknott Pass shrouded in mist.

#2: Body position and technique

You can prevent your front wheel from lifting by bending your elbows and dropping your chest towards the handlebars. Don’t bring the weight too far forward, as you’ll lose traction in the rear tire.

In the case of Hardknott Pass cycling, you will be forced out of the saddle. It is the Lake District, so the road surface is likely slippery, with the quality of the tarmac not quite matching that of the Alps.

When out of the saddle, try and avoid having your weight too far forwards as this will reduce friction on your back wheel, causing it to spin or ‘slip’.

Try and hover your weight above the saddle alongside a consistent and smooth peddle stroke.

A cyclist in an orange jersey tackles the Hardknott Pass cycle.

#3: Pacing

Slow and steady. Setting off at full gas will leave you with nothing in the legs when the climb inevitably intensifies.

We’ve all been guilty at some point, and it sucks.

By holding back earlier, you allow yourself energy reserves when the going gets tough. Build your effort throughout the climb.

Remember to take advantage of sections with lower gradients and try to catch your breath; even a brief respite can make a difference.

Sometimes, you are going to go deep into the red. If the incline suddenly increases without respite, heart rate zones go out of the window; just try to keep your bike going forward.

View of snow-capped peaks in the Lake District with Hardknott Pass snaking through.

#4: training

As a training rule of thumb, focus on building the base first. A robust aerobic system from low/moderate intensity endurance rides enables you to hold a higher power output before reaching the lactate threshold.

However, specific training will greatly benefit you.

High gear and low cadence hill repeats are excellent for developing strength for those climbs.

Ramped intervals or incremental intervals with a couple of surges mixed in are great options.

They will target your short-term power and ability to recover. Over time power will increase, and recovery time will decrease. Get the work in! You’ll thank yourself later.

#5: Tyre Pressure

Dropping tyre pressure can significantly improve your grip. Try letting out 10-15 psi and see how it feels.

A series of hairpins on the Hardknott Pass cycle route.

Hardknott Pass: The surrounding area

The Lake District is a truly stunning area. A real gem, steeped in culture. Make sure you go for a couple of hikes and put your feet up by a cozy pub fire; you earnt that meal, and you definitely earnt that pint.

You’ve ticked it off your list, “cycle Hardknott Pass.” Left wondering, what’s next? Have no fear; there are a plethora of climbs to be tackled.

Here are a few worth checking out!

  • Kirkstone Pass: Kirkstone Pass is the highest paved road in the Lake District; the climb is long and gradual, with beautiful views on either side. As you pass Lake Windermere, follow the A592 road.
  • Blea Tarn: Cycle right to the foot of the hill before heading straight up. Quiet roads and challenging gradients. Blea Tarn is found on the B5343 road.
  • Honister Pass: Honister Pass featured in the Tour of Britain in 2013; imposing mountains encircle the road on either side. Beautiful and brutal, and not to be missed. From Buttermere Lake, proceed up the B5289 road.

Enjoyed this Hardknott Pass Cycle Guide? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

Photo of author
Ben is an avid cyclist and runner, evenly splitting his time between road and mountain bike. He is a particular fan of XC ultra-endurance, but nothing beats bikepacking with mates. He has toured extensively through the UK and is currently spending a summer in the Alps and Pyrenees trying to cycle up as many mountains as possible. Ben has worked for the last eight years as a Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.