Classic Rock by Bicycle - A UK Climbing Adventure
"I can’t say that the trip was always enjoyable, but suffering is a big part of these challenges. Without it they wouldn’t be so memorable."
The idea came to me in the summer of 2020, when much of the world was still stuck in lockdown. I was spending a lot of my time fell running in the Lake District (where I live) and was beginning to consider what it would be like to do a big trip that would combine climbing with some sort of cardiovascular activity. I knew that any escape from the UK would be unlikely for the foreseeable, so needed a challenge that could be done on British soil.
I soon found myself having a go at the Lake District Classic Rock Round (climbing all 15 routes within 24 hours), with my friend Leo Houlding. Whilst we failed due to bad weather, I realised that I really liked charging around the mountain, doing loads of mileage on relatively easy climbs. The Classic Rock guidebook covers the whole of the UK (not just the Lakes), so very soon the idea to link up all of the 83 routes by bicycle was born.
It might seem like a crazy jump to go from failing on the Lakes round to trying to link-up the whole of the UK. But in reality they’re very different challenges. The Lakes round is like a climbing ultra-marathon, requiring a huge amount of effort in a short time. Whereas the UK link up is much more of an expedition. You’re doing far fewer climbs and miles per day, but having to keep that up for a long period of time. The Lakes round (in hindsight) needs proper training and preparation, but the UK version just needs you to keep chipping away…
A Very Laden Bicycle
Fast forward a year and I was in Penzance, straddling a touring bike that I could barely ride because it had so much added weight. My decision to carry all of my own climbing kit was one I regretted a few times during the first week, and day one on the Cornish hills was particularly hellish. Marc Langley, a professional adventure photographer, was joining me for the first part of the trip. Together we slowly made our way around the coast, ticking off the first few climbs I needed to complete.
The weather was kind to us and the golden granite sea cliffs were a joy to climb on, with easy route finding and solid rock. All was going well until we both began to struggle with our ultra heavy bikes. I had seriously underestimated how hard cycling with all the added kit was going to be. We spent a miserable few days playing catch up with the miles in order to make it to Ilfracome on time for our ferry to Lundy.
We made it - just. Fortunately Lundy island was a real highlight of the trip and the route I had to do there, the iconic Devil’s Slide, was brilliant in every way. I’m a big fan of slab climbing, so getting to pad up a 120 metre one, on a sunny day above the sea, was great!
Once we arrived back on the mainland we began our journey up the country towards the Avon Gorge. I had a little goal in my head of wanting to complete the whole Southern Leg of the tour within seven days - and we just about managed it, topping out on the final climb with only a couple of hours to spare. Just this first part of the journey had taken us from Cornwall, to Dartmoor, through the Mendips and up to Bristol. But there was still most of Britain left to go. It was a good start, but still just the beginning.
Wet Welsh Rock
Our next stop was Wales. Making it to the coastal town of Porthmadog was a good confidence boost. I was in familiar territory and the distance on the map from Cornwall suddenly looked quite significant. There was one climb to do at Tremadog, followed by a particularly arduous cycle to the top of Pen-y-Pass.
Unfortunately, the tone of the trip changed here as the weather broke and a solid week of heavy rain followed. What were once fun, easy routes became much more difficult and serious propositions with water running down them. My preferred style of soloing was seeming less and less justifiable as conditions deteriorated.
Despite this, I decided to keep going and had many a memorable experience up in the Welsh mountains. Climbing the routes on the East Face of Tryfan in a pocket of mist was one of these. So was the 300 metre excursion of a very damp Avalanche/Red Wall/Longland’s Continuation up on Lliwedd. I learnt a lot about what I could get away with on wet rock during that week - and that knowledge would prove to be very useful later on.
After Wales came the Peak District. A good weather forecast and short climbs meant that this leg was supposed to be a bit of a respite… but it was not to be. I managed to contract a particularly vicious sick bug on the day I arrived at the Roaches. Not being able to keep food down made soloing a little more interesting than it should have been. My lack of energy meant I couldn't pull up with my arms. But fortunately, grit routes tend to rely mostly on balance rather than strength and I got away with it.
Solo in the Lake District
The Lake District was next and here my partnership with Marc ended, as he had prior engagements. I decided that I could get everything done within two days, as the weather was back on my side, and enjoyed a brilliant 48 hours of running around the mountains climbing pitch after pitch.
I realised that my experiences in Wales had vastly increased my confidence in soloing. Climbs like Tophet Wall on Great Gable and Moss Ghyll Grooves on Scafell are high and exposed and, despite not being hugely difficult physically, are still intimidating without a rope. But I felt totally calm on them and finished off the Lakes round on a personal favourite of mine: Little Chamonix. From here I started my journey up to Scotland and the real adventure began…
I had to hop on another ferry to reach the Isle of Arran. It was a place I had never been to and, despite it’s relatively low position in the British Isles, reminded me a lot of the highlands of Scotland. The enormous granite sweep of Sou’Wester Slabs was a joy to climb. The other route, Labyrinth, lived up to its name, providing an entertaining hour of weaving around inside chimneys and corner systems.
Over the next couple of weeks, I journeyed to Arrocher and enjoyed an unusually hot and sticky morning on The Cobbler, before heading further north into the depths of Glen Coe. Here I had a fight with The Chasm (a 450 metre gully with an in-situ waterfall); got lost inside the spooky walls of Bidean Nam Bian, whilst climbing the aptly named Crypt Route; and climbed up the North Face of Ben Nevis in a bubble of mist.
From here I crossed the country to reach the Cairngorms and my body began to ache as multiple, enormous walk-ins were added to the daily cycling miles. Fortunately, the climbing made up for this and I quickly fell in love with the big granite faces. Squareface, Eagle Ridge and Clean Sweep were all highlights. And suddenly, all I had left to do was make it over to Skye, for a few more climbs and the grand finale: the Cuillin Ridge.
The Finish Line
Arriving in Glenbrittle, I realised that my relatively good run of weather was over. The next few days were all forecast to be heavy rain. But, thankfully, my friend Neil Gresham had agreed to come up and join me for the last few routes. He turned what would have been a totally miserable day of rope soloing up on the Cioch into a still pretty miserable, but quite funny outing.
Finally (after nearly two months on the go), the famous ridge was all I had left to do. I decided to ignore the bad conditions one last time and go for it the very next day. I can’t say it was a particularly fun experience, but I was at least used to operating in bad weather. In my head I had imagined this victorious finishing scene, of running along the ridge in the sunlight with amazing views all around me. But the reality was I could barely see twenty feet in front of me. It wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind, but it certainly stuck to the theme of this trip: rain!
After a very long day of being soaked to the core, I finally made it down into Sligachan, where my Classic Rock expedition ended. I had climbed 83 routes (68 of which were solos) and cycled over 1,500 miles to get from Penzance to the Isle of Skye. I can’t say that the trip was always enjoyable, but suffering is a big part of these challenges. Without it they wouldn’t be so memorable.
The Classic Rock round was a great way to experience the crazy amount of variety that climbing in the UK has to offer - and a good reminder that you don’t necessarily have to travel overseas to have a proper adventure. Cycling and climbing is a combination that I will definitely explore again…
Anna Taylor is a rock climber based in the Lake District. Focusing primarily on trad climbing, she has made multiple ascents up to E8, and is also a frequent free-soloist. Anna joined Leo Houlding on a major expedition to Guyana in 2019, where they made the first free ascent of the prow of Mount Roraima, and in 2021 she was the first female to complete a human powered link-up of all the Classic Rock routes in the UK.
You can see more from Anna on Instagram @anna_taylor_98
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