Over the past nine years I’ve documented 545 British climbs to create the eight books that form the Britain’s Greatest Cycling Climbs box set. It has taken me to just about every hidden corner of the island and even off-shore to bag a couple on the Isle of Man and the Isle of Wight.
From the wild expanses of the Highlands of Scotland to the congested hearts of cities I’ve bagged everything from nine kilometre monsters to 45% ramps just a few metres long. Although I love them all there are some that have left an indelible impression on my legs and these are the ones I keep heading back to time after time. From what is admittedly quite a long list of favourites I have picked five very special places to ride a bike and to challenge the forces of gravity.
The Porlock Toll Road…because with its hairpin bends and stunning views it reminds me of riding in the mountains.
When I close my eyes at night this is the type of road I dream of, and until I found it, I believed it could only exist in far off lands, not hidden on the north Somerset coast. I’d ridden the famous A39 out of Porlock with it’s brutal gradient a number of times but hidden below in the woods is just the most sublime, twisting climb that takes a somewhat more leisurely path to the summit. To begin with the road plunges deep into the woods but before long the trees break to reveal the most magnificent views out over the Bristol Channel. At just over half way sits the toll booth were you must pay your £1 – a paltry price for such a wonderful experience – before you carry on up out of the woods for even better views and eventually the summit at the junction of the A39.
The Cowlyd…because to date, and I have documented a total of 545 climbs in Britain, this one is the toughest I have found.
Sneaking inconspicuously out of the back of Trefriw from the banks of the Conwy in Wales you pass a small sign warning of the steep gradient ahead. This small sign however needs taking down and replacing with a very big sign, a sign that clearly states that this hill is a danger to your health, and will have you begging for mercy before you are barely half way. Twisting upwards at such a savage rate and through a myriad of bends all stacked up upon each other resembling a tarmac ribbon that’s been dropped on the hillside, it presents a stupendous challenge to both man and machine. So if you have the legs, if no other hill has beaten you, and if you can find it, maybe you can tackle The Cowlyd.
Caper Hill…because it perfectly encapsulates the beauty and savagery of the North York Moors.
Plot any route around the hostile terrain of the North York Moors and its profile will resemble an upturned saw blade – it’s hill climbing heaven. The first ‘trophy’ that everyone has on their bucket list is of course the imperious Rosedale Chimney but my favourite it Caper Hill. It’s very well hidden deep within the Moors and sums up the topography of the region just perfectly. It’s a simple, no messing, no corners cut, straight line of savage gradient almost from base to summit. OK, I exaggerate slightly, there are two bends but still, little if nothing has been done to lessen the impact of the slope of this wonderful road. Then you have the views, once at the top turn around and you’re treaded to the sight of the most splendid valley of patchwork fields stretching out towards the sea. Just magnificent.
The Talla Wall…because I didn’t know a place so beautiful existed in Britain.
Once you recover from the shock you get when you first catch sight of this road, a seemingly near vertical scar on the hillside ahead, you must prepare yourself for some serious hard work. From the serenity of the reservoir the calm silence of the valley is shattered as you hit the base of the road because within metres your ears will be filled with the sound of your heart beating out of your chest. The narrow road clings perilously to the mountain side, rising rapidly away from the water below and transports you, via a world of suffering, on its punishing slopes to even more majestic scenery at the top. Crossing a small stone bridge where the slope fades and then continuing to roll over the summit you arrive in the Talla valley, a place of such pure tranquility it will instantly sooth those screaming legs and burning lungs.
The Shibden Wall…because I thought the best cobbled climb were in Belgium, it turns out they are in Yorkshire.
I was very late in finding the cobbled climbs of Halifax, in fact it was just a week before deadline on my first book that I chanced upon some grainy footage on YouTube from the Kelloggs Tour of Britain to see the riders wrestling their bikes up this road. I set out to find it right away, and wow, it blew my mind. I’d ridden in Belgium, I knew all about their famous bergs but little did I know there were even tougher cobbled climbs right here in the UK. The Shibden wall, or Lee Lane to give it its correct title, is actually one of the more sensible climbs in and around Halifax, its cobbles are well set, and the gradient only peaks at around 25%. From base to summit the slope is harsh though and when the stones kick in it simply becomes a game of survival as you reach for a clean line avoiding the huge gaps between them on your way to the sanctuary of the summit.
Discover these climbs and more in Simon Warren’s Britain’s Greatest Cycling Climbs boxed set. Published by Frances Lincoln, an imprint of The Quarto Group. Available to buy online or in store.