Epic Bike Rides: From Coast to Coast
Introducing a rite of passage for active Brits (and inquisitive foreign riders) through the dramatic landscape and history of the north of England – the UK Coast to Coast...
Words: Lonely Planet’s Epic Bike Rides of the World
Great Britain’s best-known challenge ride is attempted by thousands of people every year but it still has plenty of bite. Some come away scarred by the steep gradient of some climbs, especially on the Pennine sections, or vow never again to tackle the longer ascents. Others mutter curses about the northern English weather, which can throw tempests at you any time of year. Known also as the Coast to Coast (C2C on signage along the route) by many who ride it, this is a journey undertaken by all kinds of cyclists, from touring couples to older families to groups raising money for charity.
This is a fabulously open ride: anyone with a bike in decent condition with a long weekend to spare can dip their back wheel in the Irish Sea and a few days later victoriously place the front wheel in the North Sea. Some riders take longer, while others manage the whole thing in one (very) long day.
The route can be travelled in either direction. We headed west to east, getting the major climbs out of the way earlier and – in theory at least – leaving the rainier side of Britain behind. Our party of three mustered at various points on the train ride north, then swung south from Carlisle to Whitehaven, overnighting in the first of three B&Bs en route.
Whitehaven’s rich history and lovely marina made for a surprising start to the journey. Once we’d left the town behind – you can also start the signed route from nearby Workington – the path passed sculptures and quickly entered classic Lakeland scenery. On one hand this meant we were riding through deep beauty. On the other, the road was certain to soon go up. A lot.
The first major landmark is the long haul over the Whinlatter Pass followed by the off-road descent into Keswick. Whinlatter is, happily, not as severe as most other Lake District passes, and ascending riders are kept on a quiet road away from the main road. Care must be taken on the descent. The tight curves are easy to skid over, and new Lycra shorts are not cheap.
Beyond Keswick, the mountains begin to peter out and, once past the looming summit of Blencathra, the scenery becomes more rolling and less rocky. If it felt odd to be effectively leaving the Lakes so soon, it was also heartening that we were making real progress. Castlerigg stone circle is a must-stop, with stellar 360-degree views that suggest a pre-bicycle civilisation that knew a thing about the value of round things. From here the path twisted and turned alongside and away from the busy A66 to Penrith. This underrated market town offered a welcoming place to pause and, like many other places en route, had excellent facilities for cyclists, which was just as well, as my front wheel wasn’t happy at being asked to work hard and needed replacing at short notice. A bike service before setting out is essential.
The most memorable challenge of the route for me was the ascent of Hartside, the dramatic behemoth emerging from the Eden Valley a few miles/km after leaving Penrith. On busy summer weekends there’s a steady stream of cyclists on the C2C – and Pennine Cycleway that also uses the route – puffing up the switchback climb to the 583m summit. It’s a steady not steep climb, but feels like the defining moment of the journey, possibly because you get to look at dozens of other riders making their way to the top from the cafe once you’re at the top.
The middle section of the ride is the toughest, and includes a beast of an incline out of Garrigill, steep climbs out of former lead-mining villages, such as Allenheads and Rookhope, and the highest point on the entire ride at Black Hill, where Cumbria and Northumberland meet. Take a breather, and a photo opportunity. Yes, parts of this route hurt a lot, but it felt like honest toil, with the reward of one incredible view after another, and a sense of achievement at the end of each day.
The C2C shows off northern England at its most green and pleasant, with a landscape that varies from mighty mountains to rolling hills descending to the sea. This being England, many villages and towns have a fine selection of local shops and pubs. In fact, cyclists make a significant contribution to the regional economy: for bonus points, go for local produce where you can. Given that each night will see you collapse into a B&B in need of extra-large refuelling for the coming days’ efforts, this probably won’t be a problem.
The final stretch, with no significant climbs and few sights after the dramatic crossing of the Hownsgill Viaduct outside Consett, inevitably became focused on the finish. After several days aiming at Tynemouth, getting here was always going to be sweet, with front wheels duly dunked, and ice cream beside salty sea air as a reward. We knew we had to ride back to Newcastle, but those final miles/km flew by, or at least seemed to in the fog of the celebratory beers that followed. The alternative finish at Sunderland, with a lovely beachside setting, competes with Tynemouth for the best possible ending, and both have merits.
The C2C isn’t an exclusive club for elite cyclists, more a ticket to smile more times than you may expect and say ‘I did that’, all for the price of one long weekend of unbeatable riding.
The popularity of the C2C has led to the establishment of several alternative sections, including the unofficial Wiggo’s Way, a route dedicated to British cycling legend Bradley Wiggins, and various off-road sections that can be tackled by those with fatter, knobblier tyres. You may not feel like Wiggo when riding some of the more challenging sections, but you will have taken on an iconic British ride that’s been often imitated but never bettered.
Start/End: Whitehaven/Workington or Tynemouth/ Sunderland
Distance: 140 miles (230km), Whitehaven to Sunderland
Getting there: Trains can get you to the start of the ride then home again, but bike space should be reserved (via railway booking office or phoning the relevant train company). There’s no charge but space is limited. Failing that, a (moral) support car can help with transport.
What to take: You don’t need a full-spec mountain bike to cover the route, but a road bike won’t be up to off-road sections. A hybrid or cyclo-cross bike offers the right compromise (or follow signs to avoid unpaved sections).
More info: See www.c2c-guide.co.uk. The printed Sustrans route map (www.sustrans.org.uk) is an essential companion.
MORE LIKE THIS: COAST-TO-COAST RIDES
DEVON C2C, ENGLAND
As riders puffing through the early stages of Land’s End to John O’Groats will testify, the south-west of England offers hills without the hype. Happily, the Devon C2C running from Ilfracombe to Plymouth has almost flat railway paths, including the start and finish. One section of the ride follows part of the Tarka Trail. Named after the eponymous otter of Henry Williamson’s influential novel, this path was one of the earliest reclamations of disused railway for walking and cycling in the UK. The hills on the middle section are few enough in number to mean that moderately fit beginners can safely tackle this 100-mile (161km), two- to three-day ride. The middle section, when not on similar paths, traverses undulating country lanes as it skirts Dartmoor, with the Meldon Viaduct, located just outside Okehampton, providing both a scenic highlight and the highest point on the route. And just as Devon isn’t flat, its southerly latitude does not guarantee clement conditions, so come prepared for all conditions.
Start // Ilfracombe
End // Plymouth
Distance // 100 miles (approx. 161km)
LÔN LAS CYMRU, WALES
The Lôn Las Cymru (Welsh Green Lane) is the perfect way to discover Wales’ wonderfully hilly hinterland. This 253-mile (approx. 407km) route runs from Cardiff in the south to Holyhead in the north. The route follows the Taff Trail railway path, then crosses the Brecon Beacons, the Wye Valley and over to the sea at Machynlleth. From here Snowdonia offers tough climbs and wonderful seaside views before crossing onto Anglesey via the magnificent Menai Bridge. This is one of the toughest routes on the National Cycle Network, even if you start in Chepstow rather than the Welsh capital and stay on tarmac for most of the ride. The reward for traversing hundreds of miles/km of mountains is a special insight into the great beauty of Wales, and a sense of satisfaction for having travelled across it from one wonderful corner to another.
Distance: 253 miles (approx. 407km)
SCOTTISH C2C, SCOTLAND
Completing the UK coast-to-coast quartet is the Scottish C2C, running from Annan to the Forth Bridge across the Southern Uplands of Scotland. Given Scotland’s rightly rugged reputation, this is a surprisingly easier and marginally shorter ride than the English C2C, but that doesn’t mean it should be taken lightly. There are some testing sections and the odd lengthy climb as the route winds through the borders on a mix of lightly trafficked country lanes and railway paths. The C2C reaches its climax passing through Edinburgh before reaching the Firth of Forth.
End: Forth Bridge, Firth of Forth
Distance: 122 miles (196km)
For more awesome rides like these, check out Lonely Planet’s brilliant Epic Bike Rides of the World
Reproduced with permission from Epic Bike Rides of the World, © 2016 Lonely Planet www.lonelyplanet.com.
Images: Laurence Crossman-Emms for Go Pro.