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The Wrynose And Hardknott Pass 2012 - By Ren Withnell

The Wrynose And Hardknott Pass 2012 - By Ren Withnell

The Wrynose and Hardknott Passes are a part of motorcycle mythology for me.  I recall when I first started riding the "real" bikers with larger machines and proper beards used to tell tales of a place far up North where the road was so steep and so twisty that even the hardest of men with the biggest of beards could be reduced to a quivering wreck in fear of their mortal souls.  In my mind I imagined Tolkienesque warriors riding horses of steel, crying into their horned helmets with fear.

The years rolled by and I became a "real" biker myself, although a proper beard still eludes me.  I have my own tales of wild and far off places, of riding through storms and strange lands and of doing battle with dragons and demons...well...cutting up cars and getting lost.  I still hear from time to time of a rider who's dared to ride the Hardknott Pass and how they'd been gripped in fear and sorrow.  PAH!  Such nonsense!  I've ridden almost every square inch of the UK now and I've never met a road that scared me.  (That's a lie but it suits the story so just play along)

I do work for a living, but not the traditional 9-5 Monday to Friday.  This Monday I have the day free, I really ought to be updating a website for a customer, I really should be working on this website, I really need be promoting my business and I really really really have to tidy this house up.  But...but the weather is dry and this could be the last chance for a decent ride out in decent weather this year.  Life is short, weather is changeable and I'm just not in the mood to do the right thing,  I'm going to go to that there Wrynose and Hardknott Pass.  I'm going to see what all the fuss is about, I mean, how bad can it be? 

I'm going on the 125.  I might be a real biker but I'm real tight too, and real bikers can still ride 125's.  The 125 should complete the 200 or so miles on about a gallon and a half, I reckon 8 or 9 quids worth of petrol.  Compare that to the £20 or more the Fazer would use and it's no contest.  I know it's slower but riding is riding, I don't care if it's a Plac 90 or an R1, it's still a bike and it'll be fun.  To be even more thrifty I fill a flask full of Vimto and make a couple of sandwiches.  I'm working on the principle that if I'm not earning any money today, then I should spend as little as possible instead. 

There's about 50 miles of motorway before I hit the A roads of The Lake District.  50 miles is nothing on a big bike, on a 125 it seems like an eternity.  As I ride I calculate there's not actually that much difference.  At 50mph 50 miles takes 1 hour, genius.  At 60mph 50 miles would take 50 minutes, I'm so clever!  At 70mph it would bit less than 50 minutes.  All in all I decide there'd be about 15 to 18 minutes difference, and I'll save a fortune by using the 125.  I just hope it can get up this mythically steep road.

I also realise that when I ride a 125 on the motorway I'm meditating.  I can't sit still at home to meditate and I can't focus.  Yet here on the motorway at 50 to 55mph my thoughts roll in and around my head.  I contemplate my life, my career and my lifestyle.  I think about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I open another layer of understanding of this amazing book.  I also look at the rear of this truck I'm following, there's an outline of the UK on it and I try to see where I'd like to go on my next trip.  It's boring, but it's a useful boredom, it's one of the rare times I'm forced to think and to reflect rather than be mercifully distracted.

No matter how enlightening my motorway ride is, I'm glad to see my junction.  Of course this just leads to dual carriageways which are much the same as the motorways.  At least the scenery is improving but it's a little colder here.  By the time I reach Windermere I've been on the bike for about 70 miles, that's not bad really considering it's only a 125.  I park the bike on an outcrop of footpath, stopping just to rest and check my map on the phone.  I take a drink of Vimto from the flask and I'm tempted by a sandwich but I decide to save it until later.  I've a missed call on the phone which I reply to, nothing serious just someone wanting email settings, then I remind myself where I'm off to next.  It's chilly in Windermere

my silver cbf 125 on the footpath at windermere in the lake district
My CBF 125 ready for it's big climb.  I'm sure it'll be fine...

Ambleside is quaint and Lake Windermere is millpond flat today.  A little further along the road I'm concerned if I'll find the minor road that becomes the Wrynose Pass.  Fortunately it is signposted but if you venture there yourself, keep your eyes sharp as the signs are not large.  I'm here...I'm finally here after 22 years of riding.  I've ridden all around mainland UK and ventured to Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium, yet I've never ridden this mythical road that's only 80 miles from my own home.  How odd.  So far it's just another single track road, like a myriad of other single track roads.

lake windermere seen from ambleside, totally flat with boats in the still water
Lake Windermere as seen from Ambleside.  So calm and flat today.  Peaceful.

I'm following a Land Rover towing a large sheep trailer.  I sure hope there's no sheep in there, he's flying!  I've no desire to overtake, I like his pace and if there's anything coming the other way I'm happy they'll hit him before they hit me.  I back off just a couple of hundred yards, then gas it like mad through the curves and humps until I catch him again.  This 125 is so much fun!  OK, there's not much power but on a road like this how much power can you use?  It's so light, so nimble, so grippy and when you spot that patch of gravel it's so easy to re-adjust and avoid.  The 600 would be a fight here.  I'm sure it's just psychological but I definitely FEEL like I'm faster on the 125.

a typical lakeland view of steep hills and mountains in the background and a quiant house in a field
These Lakeland views need to be admired as you fly through them...

There's nothing here to fear, well, not if you ride sensibly.  There's some dizzyingly sharp drop offs to the side of the road, but nothing like those on the road to Applecross.  There's lumps and bumps, undulations and ridges, but none worse than those on the Slaidburn to Bentham road.  There's sharp bends and high hedges that restrict your views, just like the roads in Cornwall or the French "Bocage".  It's all here in one place, the road needs a lot of respect but if the speed is kept sensible and your eyes are open it can be navigated safely. 

the 4x4 and trailer in the distance on a steep lankeland hill
The Land Rover with it's trailer is up ahead, I'll catch it up soon.

WHOOOA!  I of course am not following the above advice.  I pass the high hedges carefully as I like to see what's ahead, but on this open section I've let the Land Rover get ahead and now I'm pushing.  There's a ridge in the road and something told me to pull the bars a little...I do...I fly!.  The sensations from the bike tell me I've flown over 300 yards, crossed up and table topped out motorcross style.  Logically I know I've been airborne 2 inches and high 1 foot in distance, but it feels a lot more.  That was not a hump or a ridge, it was a ramp. 

I relish the 125's light weight and torquey motor, rising the revs, squeezing the brakes, tipping it in, up, down and around all the nadgery.  It's a great road and on the 125 I'm not scared to attack hard.  Occasionally I slow to admire the typical Lakeland views, moorland surrounded by mountain tops and at this time of year greens mix with dark oranges and browns.  There is traffic, other cars come by and some are parked wherever the geography allows but it's not too busy.  I yearn for the empty roads of Scotland but this is just fine for a Monday afternoon's jaunt.

The road rolls until another politely small sign points to the Hardknott Pass.  I'm expecting more of the same and sure enough that's what I get, at first.  A couple of corners, undulations, crests and dips lead to a straight with a view ahead that both impresses and strikes me with fear.  I stop where I can and look up.  And up.  What I see are rocks and hardy grass and the vague outline of a road zig-zagging it's way through and up, up and through.

There's a coach going, up, a small coach, bigger than a minibus though.  It can't be that bad, if a coach can do it then a blooming bike should do it no worries!  Hmmm, that coach is now at a mighty angle, is my head on straight?  Ooooh, he's stopped, backing up, wobbling, and turning up and up again.  A 4x4 is moving slowly too, he's making it look hard.  Oh come on Ren, if it was that bad they'd close the road, don't be such a wimp.  22 years, what must be coming on for half a million miles, what's here that I've never seen before?

a coach climbing up the Hardknott Pass at a very steep angle
Yes...the camera is level.  Yes...that is the zig-zag of the Hardknott Pass you can see going up.  EEEK!

I drop the clutch and start to climb.  The first real corner tells me what I might be in for.  A Switchback complete with ridges in the tarmac where countless motors have struggled to power up and countless brakes have fought to slow down, the surface is terrible.  I'd be better on a crosser, not a road bike.  I try for second, judder judder, no chance, rev the heck out of it in first.  Climb over gravel, potholes and ridges.  The front wheel starts to lift it's that steep!  Power back a tad, get the weight on the front.  Another bend, so steep, so sharp.  Wobble, foot out, power, wheelie, panic, power back...stall!. 

The bike makes the distinctive single cylinder "kap-shshhhhht" as the gases flow out of the barrel.  I jam the front brake on and start to slide...backwards.  Holy COW!!  I could roll right back off the road and down the hillside here.  I dare not use the rear otherwise I'll wheelie over myself in reverse, anyhow my feet are scrabbling for grip.  I stop.  I collect my breath.  I start the bike and gingerly move forward, aware of the front end trying to lift.  Oh my blooming god, I'm so glad I did not come on the 600.

The rest of the ascent is equally terrifying.  Each bend is sharp, steep and narrow.  Each surface is puckered up, broken up and gravel patches aim to catch the unwary.  I manage the climb in first gear, the bike is more than capable in the power department.  I never realised I could be fearful of a road.  It's not the steepness alone, it's not the poor surface alone, it's not the lack of kerbs or edge alone or the heights.  Each individual aspect is fine, It's the combination that makes it so scary.

In terms of distance the "up" stretch heading West is maybe only a mile long, maybe less.  Yet as I level out at the top I'm thankful to spot the coach parked up and I park next to it on a patch of rough gravel.  Looking at the coach it's a local company who provide local tours, I assume the driver is well experienced with this climb.  Several tourist types take snaps of the valley we've just crawled out of and an American from San Francisco talks to me as I get my own camera out.  He tells me it's magnificent and boasts unashamedly of all the other magnificent places he's been to.  Luckily the coach isn't stopping for long.

the coach with a couple of tourists at the top of the hardknott pass
The tourists and driver take a well earned rest at the top of the Hardknott Pass.

As I take my pictures a small Citroen drags itself out of the valley and parks next to me.  A couple get out and smile.  As I snap my images we talk of the road.  This is his second ascent, he'd seen a biker drop his bike on one of the bends last time, I tell him how thankful I am to be on my small and manageable 125.  I grab a sandwich and feed myself as the light wind blows my hair into my mouth and into the Vimto.  Long hair looks good but it's a pain in the ass.

Job done.  I've ridden up the mystical Hardknott Pass, I can tick that off my list of things I must do.  I'll head down the other side and venture towards the coast to see what's what.  Yeah, no problem.  Holy COW!!  I've made a big mistake and not taken into account how steep the descent might be too.  Climbing up is scary but I can control the speed on the throttle.  Coming down is far far too steep for engine braking and I gingerly press the rear brake.  I fear the rear may break loose and I'll slide into a stone wall or off into the steep grassy sides.  I fear I may skid and have to bail to avoid sliding into the abyss. 

A wet patch!  It's been dry all day but there's a small flow of run-off across the road and now my heart's in my mouth.  If I'm going to skid it'll be here...omg...omg...careful...omg....eeek!  I cross the dampness without incident and continue.  There's a car climbing and I need to stop to let him pass.  The rear brake's barely controlling the fall, for that's what this is, I may have to use the front brake.  I squeeze the lever as gently as I can, hoping I don't fly over the bars.  Another heart stopping moment then the bike stops, the front wheel's inches from the edge of the road, the grass and the endless hillside. 

Zig...zag...down I go.  The road levels to just steep and I start to relax and calm down.  As I ride the single track back towards civilisation I consider if I could have done that on the 600.  Yes, I think I could, but there would have been a great risk of dropping it, much more than the 125.  After a couple of minutes I dismiss these thoughts and focus on the pleasure of giving it large on the last of this amazing twisty roller coaster. 

I figure I must be in Eskdale, according to the sign.  There's a train station, but not your big smelly national type, this is a typically quaint tourist station with narrow gauge tracks and a small train.  I'm reminded very much of the station at Blaenau Ffestiniog and that just makes my heart yearn to go back there...again.  I carry on past and soon find the main road, the A595.  I do have the time to head North but I'm getting tired and I know I've still a long ride home, I take the easy option and head South. 

The pretty station at Eskdale with small open carriages in the station
Eskdale Station.  I might come and have a play on the trains one day.

I need a wee and another rest so when I see a "WC" sign underneath the Ravenglass tourist sign I follow that.  I find myself on the car park of another station, larger and with more buildings, but this still feels like an attraction.  As I park the bike I spot the narrow gauge tracks again so I calculate I'm on the same track.  Posters confirm my suspicions, this is the Ravenglass to Eskdale Steam Railway.  It's very pleasant but my focus is on finding relief in the "WC".  I pass by a cafe, ticket shops, tourist tat shop and several serious looking men, presumably train loving volunteers, before I find what I'm looking for.  My eyes are floating by now.

Relief.  Feeling much more relaxed and at one with the world I saunter my way back to the bike.  It is nice, there's a dinky little turntable, it's barely big enough for a car let alone a train engine.  It's smart and the cafe looks good but I've got my butties.  When I get back to the bike I eat my sandwich and notice a large train pulling in across the car park.  There's 2 stations, the narrow gauge and the network rail.  I consult my phone, I'm fine for time but I am going to head towards home, I might have a look around as I do though.

ravenglass narrow gauage station
The station at Ravenglass is pretty, and so much prettier when I've emptied my bladder.

The A595 proves to be something of a good ride!  It's main road complete with traffic and the possibility of speed traps, but on the 125 in a 60 zone I laugh in the face of any copper who's going to try to nick me!  I'm delighted to reach 60mph, I fear not exceeding it.  I make a detour through Millom.  It's a strange place, a mix of bland houses, industrial units and the feeling of the coast, surrounded by the beauty of the Lake District in the distance.  Stuff this, I'm off back to the road home and to play.

misty mountins in the distance across a sandy bay
A view from Millom.  Lovely, but if I turned around you'd see wasteland and an industrial estate.

If you read my missives regularly you will know I'm no speed freak.  I prefer to relax and take in the ride rather than to attack it.  Today however after the thrill of the Hardknott Pass, the sun shining, the 125 being on it's best behavior and being on such great roads I've got my eye in and I'm going like the clappers.  Of course I do understand that it's all relative.  I'm on a 125 so I'm not going to break any records but this 125 is going as fast as I can humanly make it.  Even though I can barely break the speed limit this is so much fun!  Twisting, turning, dropping a gear, revving hard.  The miles just roll by and I even manage to make some overtakes.

I whizz down the A5092 and the A590.  The only time the 125 feels lacking is on the odd long steep climb.  Here I may fall to 45mph but the rest of the time the little engine gives and gives nothing but pure joy. You can keep all your expensive and powerful ego toys, I'm in love with this little piston and these skinny wheels.  In town it's so easy to move around and in the countryside the screaming motor sounds like I'm doing a million miles per hour yet my licence remains safe.  I can ride this machine to the max, how many rocket riders can claim the same.

hills and mountains, typical lake district scenery
You really must stop from time to time and take in the vistas.  It'd be a shame not to.

The motorway ride home proves far less enlightening this time.  I've covered 160 miles by the time I reach the motorway and my last break was at Millom.  My backside is tired and so am I.  I fidget and shuffle for the last 50 miles home, but I'm determined not to stop.  I don't even need to stop for fuel, this wonderful toy will cover over 300 miles on the tank and that tank will cost about £14 to fill.  I take a detour over the West Pennine Moors on my way back to Rivington for a final brew and to chat with my friends.

That's my journey over.  At Rivi I meet with some of the bike club and tell my tale to them.  Some of them had been over the Hardknott a few months beforehand.  NH, a lady rider, told me of her experience.  She was on a Gixxer 600.  That in itself is scary enough.  Then when they'd crossed the Pass there was a large number of cyclists, some kind of tour or race.  Along with the cars the cyclists had made the whole experience even more terrifying.  One member had dropped his bike whilst trying to avoid a wayward pedalist and NH had been reduced to tears.  When I first heard this story I thought she was being soft, having done the Pass myself I can fully understand and sympathise.

I would not like to take on the Hardknott Pass in ANY kind of bad weather.  The risk of skidding under power or braking on such a steep road is far too high.  High winds would easily blow you off track.  I'd also take the time to try and get a reasonably clear run at the Pass.  If you're at all uncertain of your absolute control of your bike then I'd recommend another route.  It really does deserve it's mythical status.  I'll do it again, I may even be brave and take the 600, but I'll wait until all the circumstances are in place.

Wow, what a road.  As for the 125.  Wow, what a bike!  

Reader's Comments

Drew Ledson said :-
And now the book....
Ren, I enjoyed every word. I think you should publish some of your Scottish trips. Fantastic writing style mate.

1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
Joh Almond said :-

So can I ask.....................was the vimto hot or cold, and what was on yer butties????

You will have the wife in tears when she reads you have been wazzing the knackers off her once owned little 125. lol.

1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
Nikki:-) said :-
Yey !!! I'm famous :-))
I was really shocked , but releaved that you found it as traumatic ! Fantastic write up ! Maybe the Swannies will know I wasn't exaggerating on this one lol ! Thankyou xxx
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
John...what an odd question...but we aim to please...

The vimto was cold...honey butty and peanut butter butty...I hope that's OK.

As for your wife's's MINE now! As such it's dirty, thrashed, used and abused. It's never been happier, remember treat 'em mean keep 'em keen.
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
In case you're wondering, the "NH" referred to in the story is in fact "Nikki"

I've not used her last name to protect the dignity and honour of her long suffering husband.

Nikki, you know you're my hero and I worship you and the ground you ride upon and I'd never mock you or put you down. Now shut up!
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
Nikki said :-
Me ???? Shut up ??? Is that physically possible ?? ;-p wuv you too xxx
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
A quote from a message on facebook about the Hardknott Pass...thanks DL

I did the Hardknot Pass going to camp in Eskdale. Three six footers in a Mitsubishi Colt. I honestly thought the thing was going to tip backwards and end up in a valley.

When we arrived, Jaqui my friend who picked the site, was in tears. I said "you''ve been here before?". " Yes", she replied," I cry every time!"
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
John said :-
Ok Ren, if you fancy another go at the road from hell, give me a shout, I will be up for it on the doh.

Diane said, ride it hard but look after it for her, she knows its yours but she still has a soft spot for it. :)

Oh and put the back box over the front wheel next time with a bag of cement in it.
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
Latchy said :-
Glad you tried this road out, I remember wrestling my zzr1200 around it a few summers ago and I nearly dropped it on a r/h bend that climbed so steeply you really had to be in the correct gear(1st) and use the clutch with expert precision and contend with the weight of the bike all at the same time, very trying indeed.
Must try it on my shiver 750 sometime
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
Latchy said :-
Or should I try it on my cg125? Mmmmm
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
Tom McQ said :-
Hahahaha, laugh-out loud, that was. Great write up Ren. Love your stories.
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
John Almond said :-
For those that have not ridden it or been on it, heres a you tube video of it.

Hope this works.

scary mary...............
Ren, which way round was this guy going? did he start off from where you did?
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
John Almond said :-
Or this one.
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
Hi John.

Great Video! Buuuuuut...with the camera being mounted on the bike there's an issue. When the road is going up very steeply or down very steeply, the camera is level with the bike making the road still look FLAT! There's no point of reference, just think about it.

On the first video the Harley rider went in the same direction as me. That was in 2007, some 5 years later I can assure you the road is much rougher and broken up than it appears on this video too.

I reckon I'll return and try to get some footage of riders making the climb whilst I'm stood recording.
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
Hi John

The second video is only the Wrynose pass and only covers part of it. As you can see there's nothing there that's really terrifying, the Wrynose can be ridden safely at sensible speeds.

I notice the rider's not really giving it large but the surface is wet so I can't blame him!!
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
John Almond said :-
I know what you mean about the cameras position. and the road condition will no doubt get worse in time due to no money and it not being an important road.
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
John...what puzzles me is how the devil they could resurface the road anyhow! I can't imagine getting a scarifier or a tarmac laying machine up there. I can only imagine most of the work must be done by hand. It must be possible, it was done once!
1/1/2000 12:00:00 AM UTC
Jon Hill said :-
I used to ride Wrynose and Hardnott on BMWs and Pan Europeans as a police instructor. Always entertaining! I did it last year on a C90. That was far easier and even more entertaining and probably quicker too.
3/2/2016 10:22:13 PM UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
Hi Jon Hill. Pans and BMWs!! Now we all know police riders are highly trained and supremely confident but you're not going to tell me they all found it easy and no one has ever dropped a clanger there?

I'd definitely prefer the C90, proper piece of kit.
4/2/2016 7:30:36 AM UTC
Jon Hill said :-
I think the presence of a marked police motorcycle makes other drivers give way, which gives you more of the road to manoeuvre these behemoths. Only once did a student come to grief; he had to stop on a tight uphill hairpin and due to extreme camber couldn't hold the BMW up with it crashing to the ground. Fortunately three of us could pick it up again.
I have since heard of Euan and Charlie wannabees struggling with monster Touratech equipped machines taking on this road without the necessary skills.
Doing it on the C90 was pure fun and ultimately far safer.
4/2/2016 7:57:18 AM UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
Cheers Jon. I'm surprised you've only lost one student. As I said in the article I was thankful that I used my CBF 125 rather than my "big" bike at the time, an early Fazer 600. As for taking a 7 foot tall 250 kilo "adventure" bike over that hill - forget it! Not unless the rider is 7 foot tall and built like a rugby player.
4/2/2016 12:14:37 PM UTC

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