Climbing Great Dunn Fell

Cycling up Britain’s Highest Road*

On the 30th July 2017 I set out to ride the Great Dun Fell Sportive – Ride to the Radar, run by Sport in Action.

The main feature of the event is the final climb of Great Dun Fell. At 848m above sea level Great Dunn Fell is the second highest summit in the Pennines and, more importantly, the summit is the highest point you can cycle to on a paved road in Britain.

This seemed like a good summer challenge which led to me picking up my friend at 6am for the journey to Appleby-in-Westmorland.

I’ve cycled up most of the other high roads in the North Pennines so was feeling reasonably confident but, knowing the highest of those tops out 200m below Great Dunn Fell, was still wary about conserving some energy for the finish. The 92km ride to the foot of the climb also weighed on my mind. Big hills are one thing, big hills after a few hours of smaller hills is another thing altogether.

After getting everything ready and signing in we were ready to depart at 8:30am when we set of in a bunch of about 20. I’d never been to the Eden valley area before and enjoyed riding through a new area.

The first leg of the ride headed south east for a while towards Soulby. The route was easy going without ever being flat and provided imposing views of the hills in the Yorkshire Dales, shrouded in worryingly dark clouds.

After turning Soulby the route turned west and started to rise over a series of hills that, on any other ride, would probably be the harder part of the day. The climbs were quite short and challenging enough to be a reminder not to overdo it before the end.

The weather forecast had been threatening heavy showers all week but, apart from a brief shower as we crested 300m for the second time, we managed to stay dry and warm. As we dropped down towards the edge of the Lake District the route took us over the M6 motorway for the first time and the quiet was briefly shattered by the streams of traffic before quickly returning as we rolled in to Shap.

There were more spectacular views as the route went north along lanes from Shap. To the west were glimpses of Haweswater reservoir and the hills hiding Ullswater from view. Over to the east the North Pennines lay draped in clouds in the background while the Kendal Calling music festival brought a hive of activity to a hillside closer by.

After passing through Askham the clouds in the distance had moved on revealing the distinctive, but tiny, outline of the radar station atop the finish. It was motivating to see the finish for the first time but a little daunting too. It would have been visible for a while had it not been covered in cloud, looked very high and still a long way off.

Soon after this we reached Yanwath where the route turned east, crossed back over the M6 headed for Cliburn and the food stop. Having covered 67km by this point the piles of biscuits, cakes and flapjacks in the village hall were a welcome site.

After a brief rest, it was back on the bikes and time to head towards the big hill. A short ride past Whinfell Forrest took us north and across the river Eden back on to tiny, deserted lanes. At this point the finish summit was ever present, first on our right then, as the route wound it’s way round a loop north then south, off to our left. A couple of short sharp hairpin climbs acted as timely reminders that it wasn’t all wasn’t going as the fells loomed overhead, still with no obvious route up.

Cross Fell (left), Little Dunn Fell and Great Dunn Fell seen from near Temple Sowerby

Not long after this we got to the turn for the final climb and found a friendly steward reminding riders to stop before crossing the timing line for the climb if they wanted a rest first. I heeded this advice and had my last flapjack before crossing the line and hearing the beep that signalled the start of 7.4km of road that rises 625m.

The climbing started straight away with a manageable slope along a narrow lane before getting to a bend in the road a big increase in gradient up to 14%. From this point on there was very little respite. The slope decreased slightly for a while before ramping back up over 12% at the next corner where is carried on at over 10%. The views were spectacular but it was getting difficult to keep the pedals turning.

Around 4.5km in there was a very welcome couple of hundred metres that was almost, but not quite, flat which provided a change for my heart rate to drop back down to high from worryingly high and my legs to stop hurting briefly.

The relief was short however as the road quickly ramped up to 14% again. With 2km still to go it was becoming as tough mental challenge to keep moving as it was physical and I stopped at the end of a track to an old quarry to consume my last energy gel in the hope that it would get me to the finish.

After another 1km of punishing, painful gradient the road turned again and the slope slacked off slightly just in time for the gale force wind to hit me from the side. After the climb so far the hill, still at over 5%, felt almost flat so I started to make a bit more progress while leaning at an angle in to the wind.

After a final, thankfully short, 14% ramp I coasted across a cattle grid and bumped over the timing to line to officially finish the climb in a time of 48m 57s. Shattered, I tried to dismount my bike when a combination of wind, tired legs and cleats conspired to make this simple task comically embarrassing so I coasted around the corner of the radar building to find a cluster of others hiding from the wind and my riding companion ready to hold my bike while I got off it without falling over.

A friendly marshal soon came over with a bowl of jelly babies which I immediately started eating as my mind and body started to believe the agony was over and there wasn’t another ridiculous ramp coming up.

After a few minutes and a few more minutes trying to put jacket on in wind that made standing difficult is was finally time to head down the mountain and back to Appleby where drinks and sandwiches were laid on by the organisers.

I completed the ride to the bottom of the climb in 4:04:17 (thanks to Griff pulling me along the windy bits) and the climb in 48:57 for a total time for the full 100km route with 2000m total accent of 4:53:14

*Technically most of it is a bridalway and cars are not allowed to the top  but, as it’s all paved (with a good surface too) a road seems a good description.

Total distance: 100013 m
Max elevation: 840 m
Min elevation: 98 m
Total climbing: 2022 m
Total descent: -1327 m
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