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Trails are a test – and that's before you even get off road!

By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: On the passes of the Lake District, our intrepid explorer tries out and e-bike and discovers it has its ups and downs...

The e-bike makes easy work of those climbs.
The e-bike makes easy work of those climbs.

Greengarth sits a little way up the Whinlatter Pass in Cumbria and when you set off on the bike you have the choice of one in seven up or one in seven down.

Since who goes down must come up again, I usually choose the upward option.

The first time, cycling up the pass seems impossible, however did I manage it? Before the first steep blind bend I am slowly wheeling the machine uphill.

But after a few days I manage to keep going, the pass always levels off a bit just when you think you are going to have to give up. Eventually I struggle to the top of the 700-foot climb in something of a sweaty heap – and I’m only at the start of the mountain bike trails.

These trails have got harder over the years, and it is not just lack of fitness. Heavy use has eroded deep grooves, there is a lot more loose rock and stone, there are more rocky steps and obstacles. I can’t say I ride the trails, I take the bike round them.

Jeff is not much younger than me but can ride the longer north trail with just three ‘dabs’ – occasions when he puts his foot on the ground for balance. I am impressed. My count would be nearer 300 – there are several uphill and downhill stretches I just walk.

Taking the bike around the trails.
Taking the bike around the trails.

By the time you reach the last steep descents either your nerves are completely shattered or you’ve acclimatised to the rigours of the trails and can actually enjoy the steep, loose cambered hairpins, high above the pass where you would take to the air for quite a long time if you misjudged it.

You then speed down the narrow bumpy path to the visitor centre, looking like a real mountain biker, provided of course you don’t crash and come off at the last berm as the tourists look on…

Forest roads lead high with spectacular views but can be a sweaty slog to cycle, up and up for well over 1000 feet. So one day I decided I would try going electric. I rode downhill into Keswick and hired an e-bike for the day.

Honister Pass is steeper than Whinlatter, almost unbroken one in four from Borrowdale to the top. In my fitter days I could just ride it, with a rest halfway up. Latterly it has been a long slow push on foot.

An e-bike has a little electric motor on the bottom bracket which helps you turn the pedals. There is a range of assistance you can choose depending on the steepness of the hill. ‘Turbo’ felt like having a helping hand pushing me along.

I took the hilly road along Catbells above Derwentwater, speeding along and climbing the steep hills with ease, enjoying the views. It was not effortless climbing Honister, but with the bike in turbo mode I could reach the top having hardly raised a sweat.

An even steeper quarry road, rough and loose, led on up into the hills, I tried the bike out on this but met a digger halfway up and had to stop. The only way to get going again was to go back to the bottom! The bike had a ‘walk assist’ mode and would wheel itself when pushed but went too fast for me to walk up a steep hill.

The western side of Honister is a lovely long descent under high crags with Buttermere ahead. The hilly road on to Crummock Water was again easy, I even detoured halfway up the one in four Newlands Pass before noticing how fast the battery was being depleted by the hills.

There is a lovely quiet back road by Hopebeck, very steep and narrow with gates and no passing places, again the bike made light work of the hills and I could enjoy the climbs in a way I hadn’t managed for years.

Some nice singletrack high in the forest.
Some nice singletrack high in the forest.

Back onto Whinlatter and I turned off to try a high forest road, pedalling easily up to the top then on along paths over the the summit of 1500-foot Seat How before enjoying a very long descent to the valley bottom.

With the last of the battery I took the C2C route round little roads to Keswick. Back on my human-powered machine I knew it would be a slow wheel back up the one in seven hill to get home…

E-bikes are expensive and I don’t think the gentle hills of Caithness justify one (yet!) – but on those steep Lake District passes and forest roads I’d certainly be tempted.

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