Great Dun Fell – The Highest Road in Britain
Distance Distance 5.4 miles from Dufton, around 4.7 from the road end (8 or 9k)
Max Gradient 15%, average 8%
Most climbs don’t get an introduction, but this one is a bit out of the ordinary. What if I told you that there was a road in Britain that finished on top of a mountain that was just short of 2,800 feet? What if that road was superbly surfaced and pothole free? What if this road was 5 miles long, or 8 kilometres if you prefer, and rose at an average just short of 8%? What if this road was through a stunning, dramatic and beautiful location? And finally what if I told you that this road was virtually traffic free? Is he living in dreamland you might justifiably ask? But it’s true. The road up to the summit of Great Dun Fell is all these things, so what’s the catch? Actually there isn’t one. It’s remote, but then that’s a big part of its appeal. The only thing that’s strange about it is why this climb isn’t a Mecca for UK cyclists.
Where do you find it/How to get there?
Normally we don’t include climbs that aren’t in the local area but for this one we made an exception. The nearest town is Appleby in Westmorland but, if you are going out to climb it, it makes sense to take it in as part of a longer ride. We chose Kirby Stephen as our start point and then made our way towards Dufton, then Knock at the foot of the climb. These roads were great cycling country in themselves, free of traffic and providing great views of the Pennines looming ominously to our right. They are tough rolling roads though so I was somewhat surprised to hear what I thought was some kind of auction going on behind me between Ian and Rob as they shouted out 210, 220, 240, 265 etc. ‘Where do they find the breath I thought?’ Apparently they were talking wattage as they have some new fangled Powermeter Gizmos, all I knew was that I had to save as much of it as I could. It was telling that with an unerring regularity we all took turns to look up towards the radar station on top of the fell. The lie of the land here somehow makes Great Dun Fell seem lower than it is. Its rounded shape can almost go unnoticed as you drive past it along the A66 but to put it in perspective it is nearly as high as Blencathra which is the impressively shaped and seemingly huge peak on your right as you enter the Lake District from Penrith. Or only 250ft short of Skiddaw, the large peak that dominates Keswick, and to think the road literally finishes right on the top, a sobering thought.
The website www.climbbybike.com actually lists the climb as 9k long and starts it just beyond Dufton where the road starts to rise. The logical starting place though is the right turn at the road end after Knock when you literally start to head for the hills. The road seems flat to start with as you grind your way along a straight section in the general direction of the summit, as your speed drops to an alarmingly slow pace, you hope that this is some sort of optical illusion. If I’d been on my own I would have been checking for the dreaded slow puncture or rubbing brake block but Ian, Dave and Rob are all finding it hard going too. After a kilometre or so you are in no doubt that you are going up as the road swings right ‘if it carries on like this I’m going to be in difficulty’ says Dave. Unfortunately for him it does, at least for a good while yet. Even more unfortunately for Dave he has made the judgement error of just looking at the average gradient of 8% and thinking he can get away with a 25 sprocket. I am smug with my 28 knowing that average gradients can be deceptive and that there are some sustained sections of around 15%. It is also payback for the day last year when Dave spun happily up Hardknott Pass in his 32 sprocket, and I struggled up in ‘only’ a 29; today it is he who will have sprocket envy.
This tough initial section carries for a kilometre or so until it eases as you approach a gate at a cattle grid. You need to stop to open this and then you are faced with another tough steep section, once over this the true majesty of the climb reveals itself as you then enter what seems to be a small dip in the road, probably just about flat in reality, in any case enjoy this while you can. To the left of the road is the impressive chasm of Knock Ore Gill, up ahead are two really steep sections of sustained 12-15% interspersed by a short easier section. This is the real crux of the climb, get over this and the hard work is done, almost.
On its own this two kilometre stretch would probably score a 7 or 8. Select your lowest gear and just keep going until the gradient finally starts to ease and the road swings left towards the dome of the radar station. I chose not to try to follow Rob at this point for fear of blowing and I watched him gradually pull away in his 39×25, a wise choice because bearing in mind how long it lasts I may well have done. He told me at the top that this was the only way he felt he could keep the pedals turning smoothly; otherwise he may have ground to a halt. After riding this section at only around 6-7 mph it was good to have the luxury of clicking up a couple of gears and picking up a bit of speed as the percentage went down to something like 5%. This next half mile allows you to get some of the lactic out of your legs, this is just as well as there is a final cruel ramp up to the summit, again 12-15% for a couple of hundred metres. A few more pedal turns and you are on top of the second highest point in the Pennines, only the neighbouring Cross Fell is higher and only marginally so. All that is left is to cross the bumpy cattle grid, claim the summit and marvel at the views in all directions, simply magnificent.
Brilliant but you need to be careful of the speed as 50 mph + is easily achievable. Sheep seemed to like the top but weren’t around on the rest of the climb. The surface is just about perfect but the road does dip and roll and has some tight corners at a couple of places so you do feel that you get thrown around a bit and you need your wits and concentration about you, there are a couple of places where coming off would be disastrous. Once past the cattle grid and gate the bottom section is quite straight and with a tailwind it would be a top speed personal best opportunity I would think.
Sheep Rating (out of 5)
Not too bad but plenty around the top.
Our Ratings and Comments
How hard is it?
- Paul. It’s long and sustained pain rather than intense excruciating pain that you sometimes get with the Moors climbs, but the duration – it took us around 35 minutes to climb it – makes this a serious proposition. You also have to consider where you are going; conditions can get very serious up here. We were fortunate enough to have a near perfect wind free day and it was still tough. With even a moderate wind coming down off the fell it would be marginal for most riders I think. Even the bottom bit, which bizarrely looks flat, is tough, similar to the bottom section of Birk Brow from Charltons and draws something out of you before it really starts to rear up. This was confirmed when on the descent we approached 40 mph on it without too much effort. Best climb that I’ve done I think and all things considered then it’s a 10 for me.
- Ian. It’s a 10 from me. It’s the hardest climb I’ve ever done, the anti clockwise sweep of continued blind summits with such an over bearing in-crouching landscape is not for the faint. I loved it for its unremitting suffer fest in such a beautiful landscape & it’s a bonus with the lack of traffic.
- Rob. Second that Paul, brilliant day, cheers lads. My thoughts on the climb are as follows: having had a few hours to reflect personally I was blown away with the length of the climb (8km approx) and difficulty. I felt I couldn’t get into any sort of rhythm on the climb due to the constantly changing gradients. The length of some of the steeper sections (12-15% in places) surprised me and I was really hurting towards the last couple of km. Personally I prefer and was expecting a constant shallower gradient but I was really glad to reach the top that’s for sure! Definitely made a big mistake with my gearing, 39×25 was just way too big a gear when you consider the length and steep gradients. Let’s not forget also that the climb was done in perfect conditions with hardly a breath of wind. So to summarise: I’ve done nothing like it before in the UK, and I think it would test riders of all abilities for the above reasons. I would therefore have no hesitation in giving it a 10/10 difficulty rating.
- Dave. My thoughts on the climb? The closest thing in the UK to an Alpine or Spanish climb, but very much like Mont Ventoux, but with UK steepness thrown in for extra difficulty. Wouldn’t like to climb it in poor weather, superb road surface, but I’d opt for a 34/28 next time. I can only award it 9 as at no point did I think I wasn’t going to get up, but it is an extremely difficult 9+. As for Rob and Ian with their power meter talk, all I needed to know was that at several sections I thought my heart was going to pop out my throat and that I had used all my watts just to get up to the top. Great day out though, would love to see the Tour of Britain go up there. Spectacular.
Note the ratings are :-
- Where’s the slope?
- No problem
- Big ring
- Spinning a gear
- It’s a difficult one (a homage to Sean Kelly)
- Light up all the boilers!
- Handlebar snapper
- Licking the front wheel
- Dinner plate required
- Fetch a nurse!