Nestled up to the north-western edge of the Peak District National Park and home to the National Cycling Centre, Manchester is a great base for riding. While the city centre can be quite car and tram-centric, the host of canal paths that pierce the city and direct roads out of town make Manchester a cracking start point for any ride. With a tight-knit cycling community and buzzing café life to boot, it’s easy to find other riders on or off the bike too.
While easy access to some of England’s finest riding is afforded by Manchester’s proximity to the Peak District, two more stunning national parks lie only a two-day ride north away. The Yorkshire Dales and Lake District are both easily in range for a weekend bikepacking trip, offering up an adventure for the mind and test for the legs in equal measure. Day 1 is a 150km ride north out of Manchester and then east into the Dales, finishing up right after the beautiful and gruelling Buttertubs Pass. Day 2 is a real peach – 125km west to the Lake District, showcasing the twin peaks of Wrynose and Hardknott passes. Bring your climbing boots for this pearl of the north.
A bike that allows for some slightly wider tyres is definitely recommended for this ride, which you’ll appreciate straight away as you exit the city by making use of the quiet canal paths that dissect Manchester. Not only does this combination of light dirt and gravel keep you as much as possible away from traffic, it also offers up regular views of the city’s skyline from the many bridges and hill-top vistas. Make sure you start loaded with snacks for this; the pace won’t be high but a few technical sections will be sure to zap your energy, which you will need for the climbing to come.
The first proper climb arrives at 32km in the form of Ashworth Road. This punchy 5km rise averaging 4% will have you out of your saddle as you cut through dense forest, before it ramps up as the terrain opens to the top. Keep an eye out over your left shoulder for a beautiful view over greater Manchester. We rode this leg on a very soggy summer’s day, and although you can never rely on the weather up here, the views are always spectacular. As you now enter the Forest of Bowland the hills keep coming at you, so keep that rhythm smooth. Pick up a bite in Clitheroe if you’re out of food. Otherwise, carry on up Slaidburn Road towards the Keasden Road climb, before descending into the Yorkshire Dales at Austwick on the 107km mark. Stop at the Game Cock pub here for a proper pub lunch; you’ve earnt it!
After lunch you continue up to Gearstones before veering right onto the Pennine bridleway; some hardy English gravel without cars providing a welcome reward for having reached a gem of the north, but you’re not done yet. Before finishing up for the day you will first need to negotiate two significant climbs in the form of Cam High Road (to Dodd Fell Hill) and Buttertubs Pass. The latter here featured during the Grand Depart of the 2014 edition of the TdF, so keep that in mind as you thrash up the final ramps of the day. Once you’ve descended from the top treat yourself to a warm shower at the Usha Gap campsite, or if you prefer a real bed roll into Thwaite or Muker and check in to one of the B&Bs on offer.
Although shorter in terms of kilometres ridden, day 2 might feel longer. Take a light breakfast before leaving the valley up the 4km long Cross Top Road, where you’ll hit 25% at the first hairpin. It’s brutal, but beautiful. After a long rolling descent you can pick up second breakfast in Sedbergh at about 42km. If you do, head to the Three Hares Café for a cake you won’t forget. Otherwise carry onto Kendal for a full lunch and local mint cake at the 63km mark. As you climb again out of the town notice the change of scenery – welcome to the Lake District. The climbing gets serious now and you will want to spin the legs for the time being.
While waiting to cross Lake Windermere, grab an ice cream at the van that stands by the car queue. If it’s a hot day, take a second one for the ferry. On the other side of the lake a gravel section skirts the water, providing a bit of respite and an opportunity to take a dip (if you’re lucky and it’s warm enough!). Now for the grand finale of your two-day adventure, the twin peaks of Wrynose and Hardknott pass; undoubtedly a pair of England’s most handlebar-chew worthy climbs. Again, you’ll appreciate those thicker, grippier tyres here, as the road surface is very rough in sections and you’ll want that extra traction as you grind up the slopes that max out at an eye-watering 33%. It’s hard when the legs are pulsing with lactic acid, but enjoy this, you’ve just conquered two of England’s toughest climbs in one of it’s most beautiful regions.
The train back to Manchester takes barely two hours, but it will feel like you have ridden a whole lot further than that. The north of England has so much to offer any cyclist looking to challenge themselves over the course of a weekend, and the fact that it is so easily doable over the course of regular weekend makes this ride an amazing adventure for anyone. Can’t promise the legs will be thanking you come Monday morning though.