It may not be the highest or longest, but for sheer gradient ferocity Hardknott cannot be beaten. You can see the pass from the turn off at the George IV pub, a snake of tarmac coiling its way up the head of Eskdale, taunting you as you get closer.
At the foot of the hill, the road vanishes into woods. Signposts at the edge warn you of what’s to come, advising anything but small cars to rethink their route. Immediately the road ramps up, and a cattle grid ensures any momentum is kept to a minimum. It’s not long before you leave the trees and find yourself negotiating the first set of hairpins – the gentler set at 25%.
Grind your way through these though and you’re rewarded with a false flat for a few hundred yards. This is the perfect chance to spin out the lactic and prepare your legs for what looms ahead, as rearing up in front of you is the second set of hairpins, switching back at an impossible 33%. These have even the strongest riders zig-zagging all over the road, and even taking the widest line possible offers little comfort. In wet conditions I imagine this is a nightmare as you wrestle to avoid either wheelspin or accidental wheelie-ing!
The gradient eases from here so you just have to keep digging. You will have reached your limit long ago, so all that’s left is to keep turning the pedals for the final slog to the summit, marked by a cairn on the left.
One of my favourite aspects of Hardknott is its brutal honesty. There are no false summits or anything like that, just a wall of vertical road ahead. I rode Hardknott at mile 100 of the infamous Fred Whitton route, so my legs had seen better days, but conditions were dry, mild and clear and I was grateful that traffic was minimal. I was equipped with a Giant TCR with 36x28, but would recommend being able to go lower if hills aren’t your best friend. The descent towards Wrynose is very, very technical, so give yourself chance to rest up at the top and take it steady as you continue your ride.
This is, in my opinion, the best climb in England.