The Peak District National Park is one of the UK’s most treasured protected areas. It’s an area of steep limestone valleys, dramatic ridges and moorland. Peak District cycling routes are renowned for being on rolling country lanes that take you up quiet climbs, offer superb views and a real sense of getting away from it all.
We haven’t ridden in the Peak District ourselves so, having heard great things, we decided to get the inside story from Monty who runs the excellent Sportive Cyclist blog (more information below). Monty lives near Ashbourne in Derbyshire, just south of the Peak District; the road cycling routes of Derbyshire and the southern Peak District are in his backyard.
So, without further ado, what should we know about road cycling in Derbyshire and the southern Peak District? Over to Monty…
Map of the Peak District showing Ashbourne and three well-known climbs
1. Where are you based and whatʼs it like?
Iʼd love to be able to describe this more succinctly. I live in Derbyshire in the UK, just south of the Peak District (and the UKʼs Peak District National Park). The nearest town is Ashbourne, which, if it had a tourist board, would, Iʼm sure, brand itself as “the gateway to the Peaks”. As it doesnʼt (have a tourist board), Ashbourne is famous for the Shrovetide football match/riot.
I live in a farming area, mainly arable and cows, so youʼd describe the roads immediately around as ‘rollingʼ. And covered in muck. But at least not covered in cars.
Within 30 minutes of riding, I have access to the southern part of the Peak District. This covers an area known as the White Peak, named for the limestone that is both under the ground and above it, having been used to build homes, farm buildings and dry stone walls.
Much of the Peak District is above 1,000 feet. Whilst the Peak District may lack actual peaks (certainly ones that youʼd climb on a road bike), it doesnʼt have a shortage of steep, twisty roads. If I had to pick one word to describe the riding, it would be ‘grippyʼ. Spend more than a couple of hours riding in the Peaks and your quads will be a-humming.
2. What makes road cycling in Derbyshire’s Peak District special?
I write this as a Yorkshireman, but some of the valleys in the Derbyshire part of the Peak District are just stunning.
I discovered this on literally my first ride after moving to the Midlands from London. I crested a climb out of a village called Thorpe, just north of Ashbourne, and looked down the small (but perfectly formed) valley to the village of Ilam. It was early April and the start of Spring (some of the roads were still blocked by snow). This beautiful valley just made my heart sing (said the emotionally-repressed Englishman).
Iʼve had so many rides, free from traffic, when the English weather has been kind, where my heart has been similarly vocal.
Being more specific, the advantage of the southern part of the Peak District (and the area closer to my house), over, say, the Yorkshire Dales (land of my forefathers), is the sheer volume of small interesting roads.
Youʼre not restricted to a limited number of routes. An almost infinite number of novel routes can be created by picking a different lane and seeing where you get to (or in your favourite route creation app beforehand).
3. Whatʼs the most famous climb/route in the southern Peaks?
Hmm, well we donʼt exactly have a Mont Ventoux or a Stelvio…
I suppose the most notable Peak District climb is Winnats Pass, directly east of Castleton, in the Hope valley (see map above). It just passes (ha!) for being in ‘myʼ half of the Peak District.
The climb rises 198m in just under 1.7km – an average gradient of 11.7% but hitting a peak (double ha!) of 20% in places.
Simon Warren, in his original 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs book rates it 8/10, i.e. a real legburner.
… my dirty little secret is that I havenʼt ridden it. Itʼs just too far away from my house to find me regularly riding up there.
I have ridden Mam Nick though, which is nearby, skirting the eastern side of Mam Tor (one of the actual Peaks in the District), where Winnats Pass is just to the south. Dealt with in ‘Another 100 Greatest Cycling Climbsʼ, Mam Nick is a longer climb, albeit at a (marginally) less brutal gradient.
Slightly further south, if you want to ride in the wheeltreads of greatness, Gun Hill is semi-notable for having made Mark Cavendish cry on a training ride. It was in Cavʼs British Cycling junior days, when he had a few less Tour stages in his legs though, so donʼt get too excited! As a climb itʼs not that exceptional (average to poor road surface; draggy in places; unspectacular views). Ride it though, and youʼve conquered a climb that made a World Champion weep.
4. Whatʼs your favourite cycling route around Ashbourne/southern Peaks?
I really like the very southern part of the Peak District. Pick any road north of Ashbourne (except perhaps the heavily trafficked A515 to Buxton) and youʼll likely be on to a winner.
Iʼd suggest taking the old railway tunnel that runs from a car park (of all places) in the middle of Ashbourne, passes under a hill and then deposits you in the countryside. (The tunnel also marks the start of the Tissington Trail – an off-road route that follows the old Ashbourne to Buxton railway line.)
Map and GPX of Monty’s favourite route (described here)
The first climb up into the Peak District national park, from Mapleton towards Thorpe, warms up the legs. Iʼve mentioned already cresting the brow of the hill, with Thorpe Cloud (a peak) to the right, the valley to Ilam stretching in front. The sweeping (but brief) descent takes you over a couple of cattle grids (ride ‘em straight) and down to the valley floor. Climbing out of Ilam, towards Stanhope and Alstonefield, is one of the longer climbs on the route. It gets really steep at the top – Iʼve used the old ride diagonally back and forwards across the road, just to maintain momentum. Once up there though, on a plateau covered by hill farms and grazing sheep, you really feel youʼve achieved some altitude.
Then the world is your lobster. You could continue northwards towards Monyash and Longnor (where youʼll find more great climbs).
As Iʼve got plenty of miles in my legs by this point (Iʼll have ridden to Ashbourne from my house), Iʼll tend to head southwest from Alstonefield. Thereʼs a long descent down to Milldale (the end point to the Dovedale walking trail, which I mention below)…. and then a steep ascent straight back out of it. Itʼs another one of those climbs that is steep to start with, only to suddenly kick up right at the end. Diagonal riding wonʼt help you. You have to wrestle the bike to the top (mercifully a matter of metres).
Iʼll then tend to cross over the A515 and make my way back to the village of Tissington for a coffee stop.
Itʼs in this section of the ride that weʼre one again close to the Tissington Trail. If youʼve got a bike thatʼs comfortable on gravel (I donʼt know, a gravel bike?), you can always pull the ripcord and coast straight back to Ashbourne (itʼs a low gradient downhill all the way).
Since I donʼt (yet) have a gravel bike, Iʼll probably skip back across the A515 to Thorpe once again, coast down that original first climb back towards the Ashbourne railway tunnel and home.
5. What are your best tips for people cycling in the Peak District for the first time?
Say hello to the riders you pass. [STEREOTYPE ALERT!] Midlanders (Iʼve discovered) are a friendly folk.
Donʼt underestimate the ability of this area to sap your legs. In the words of one of my favourite lesser-known cyclo-bloggers, “we may not have long, winding climbs in this country, but weʼve plenty of short, steep b*stards.”
Check the weather forecast and bring the right kit. You donʼt want to get stuck up in the higher parts of the Peaks if it really starts raining and winding. I wonʼt overstate it: youʼre not going to get stranded and avalanche risk is zero, but youʼre in for a pretty miserable ride if you lack a waterproof or a foul weather jersey.
6. Are there any really good café stops in the southern Peaks?
I wouldnʼt say there are any ‘destinationʼ cycling cafes (at least none that Iʼve been told about).
My favourite cycling coffee stops are:
7. Is there anything that visitors shouldnʼt miss?
Like itʼs Tuscan namesake, the Eroica Britannia ride is all about donning retro cycling gear, mounting a classic steel-framed bike and taking to the gravel trails around Bakewell (our own strade bianche).
The festival part (which isnʼt on in 2019 due to a clash at the regular venue), which hosts the start and end of the ride, also has food, drink and general good times.
I plan to be there when the event returns in full in 2020.
8. What is there for non-cycling partners to do around Ashbourne?
I donʼt know, hire a bike?!
There are a number of small towns with shops, cafés and restaurants. Bakewell is popular, as is Ashbourne. Buxton is right at the top of the patch (and not strictly in the Peak District) but it offers parks, a theatre, restaurants and pubs.
We do quite well for stately homes. Chatsworth, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, can take up a whole day for the non-cyclist (and is conveniently positioned for a nice Peak District loop). It hosts one of the RHS flower shows as well as other events.
The area is great for walking. Dovedale is a nature reserve owned by the National Trust. At around 3 miles in length, it provides a lovely, accessible walk along the valley of the river Dove. The car park is another good location for both the cyclo- and non-cyclo-partner to set off on their respective activities.
The National Trust also owns and manages large parts of the Manifold Valley, with its walking (and cycling) trails and a cave (Thorʼs Cave to be exact). Iʼve already mentioned the Tissington and Monsal Trails, which as well as taking bikes, are bridleways and footpaths.
9. Whenʼs the best time to visit?
I can definitely tell you the worst time to visit. English winters, particularly up in the Peak District, tend to be wet and windy. Then, when the weather is clearer, youʼve got icy roads to contend with.
Iʼd say my favourite months for riding are May and June. The days are nice and long. Itʼs before the busiest tourist times.
Youʼre still at the mercy of the weather gods, but if you hit a fine early summers day, with blue skies and a ripple of wind, thereʼs no better place to ride in the world.
Big thanks to Monty from Sportive Cyclist for sharing these really useful insights on cycling in the southern Peak District.
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