North West Routes: Ribblehead Viaduct and Bowland Knotts
Updated: Jan 29, 2021
Clitheroe → Settle → Helwith Bridge → Ribblehead Viaduct → Ingleton → Bowland Knotts → Gisburn Forest → Clitheroe
Welcome to a new series on the website, 'North West Routes', where we will be giving recommended routes around the beautiful area that is home to some of Hugh Carthy's favourite rides. As someone living in Clitheroe, Lancashire, a lot of the routes will be focused around here and so the start of the routes will begin in Clitheroe. Nonetheless, there are plenty of great route planning websites such as Komoot, where you can follow my route right from your front door. In the first line of this series is a route guide for Clitheroe → Settle → Helwith Bridge → Ribblehead Viaduct → Ingleton → Bowland Knotts → Gisburn Forest → Clitheroe.
This route gives a series of incredible views, rolling roads and a challenging climb; on a bright summer's day there is no route I'd rather do. Starting off from Clitheroe, the legs are tested immediately with a prolonged drag to Settle, the roads are nice enough but after riding them so often they begin to fail to inspire. We will get the negatives out the way up front, this section drags, but perhaps it is just because I have ridden it so often. Do you find this? The roads immediately close to home feel like a hurdle you have to get over, in order to begin your ride proper. But no matter, from Settle the route begins to pick up and following a challenging stretch to Helwith Bridge, the scenery of Yorkshire's Three Peaks begins to become clear.
Pen-y-ghent in the backdrop, these roads appear to float through the Three Peaks, with their rolling terrain.
The road that connects Helwith Bridge to Ingleton is an absolute delight; if you recognise the name of this small little village it may be because of Yorkshire's greatest race- the Three Peaks Cyclo-cross. Helwith Bridge is the start and end point of the race that takes in Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-ghent, with a mixture of road cycling, cyclo-cross and running up Yorkshire's highest peaks. If you have seen EF Education Nippo's 'Gone Racing' episode following Lachlan Morton's participation, you may recognise stretches of the road between Helwith Bridge and Ingleborough (keep an eye out also for me in the video!).
As the road rocks and rolls, the valley between the Three Peaks will start to open up, providing some stunning views and a reward for some tricky but gradual climbing to this point. As you sweep across the valley floor and start to bend leftwards, you will get your first view of the Ribblehead Viaduct, an incredible feat of design that was opened in 1875.
© Dan Monaghan
Having never done any gravel riding, the first time I visited Ribblehead Viaduct was a blast, as it is possible to cycle to the foot of the structure along a rough, puncture-inducing gravel path that is featured on the Three Peaks cyclo-cross route, coming off the southern side of Whernside. Make sure you have some spare inner tubes as it is very possible you will puncture here on thin tyres, but blast your way through this gravel and rock, it is a delightful stretch of path that will take you to the foot of the Viaduct, a perfect place for a spot of lunch on a summer's day. A good tip is to bring some shrapnel with you, as there is always an ice cream van near the Viaduct on a sunny day, with the area being very popular amongst walkers.
Once finished with the Viaduct, buckle yourself up and pray for a tailwind, as the next straight of road stretches for 7 miles until you reach Ingleton and can provide some of the greatest riding of the route (tailwind permitting). As the road opens up, you will have Whernside on your right and Ingleborough only your left as you fly towards the cafe stop. With a tailwind behind you, this straight allows you to sit comfortably at 28mph+ as you shoot along, with a headwind however, get your head down and block out the pain. I have only once had a headwind travelling west along this road, but it was not an experience I would like to repeat, as the road appears never-ending.
Having flown or ground your way to Ingleton, it is time for food and drink after cycling just under 40 miles. You will need to fuel up for the headline climb to come, Bowland Knotts. But, I am ashamed to admit, I have no recommendation for a cafe stop in Ingleton. This is as a result of only stumbling across this route as of April last year, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, I have not been able to sample any of the cyclists' usual spots in the town. Fear not though, there is a large Co-operative in Ingleton that will provide you with everything you need, it has become a staple of my riding in the area. It must be emphasised, this is time to fuel up, a tough climb is in store that will reward you with terrific views that stretch across to Pendle Hill, but that will put you in the hurt locker.
Looking towards Gisburn Forest and Pendle Hill following summiting Bowland Knotts.
After leaving Ingleton feeling refreshed, it is time to traverse across to Keasden which serves as the beginning of the Bowland Knotts climb. For an English climb, this is a particularly long climb at 4.6 miles. It is made tougher by a lack of visual stimulation as you work your way through fields of grass until reaching the tops, which wind slightly and allow you views back towards Yorkshire. Whilst the climb averages 3.9%, do not let this fool you as halfway up there is a plateau and downhill for half a mile. It feels like a solid 5-8% climb the whole way, with the winding conclusion being particularly tough on the legs as gradients rise in places above 10%.
Descending through Gisburn Forest.
The hard work will soon be rewarded as you crest the peak of the climb and are presented with glorious views stretching across the Ribble Valley and towards Pendle Hill. Your eyes will light up at the sight of a sweeping descent to Gisburn Forest, though be alert of a sharp bend at the bottom which can easily catch a newbie out. If you decide to stop for a snack at the top of the climb, remember to throw a jacket on, as it can get cold up here. A snack would be wise as the stretch of road that takes you through Gisburn Forest is very up and down, with some steep little sections and a rough surface that can sap the legs, particularly after coming off the back of a tough climb.
Be aware, Gisburn Forest is the North West's home to mountain bikers, so keep your head held high and wear your lycra with pride! Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for a bridge halfway through the Forest, which offers a glorious view across Stocks Reservoir.
We are now 50 miles into the ride and thoughts are drifting towards home, with one final tricky piece of climbing next up. After the sapping bergs within Gisburn Forest, you will find one final, half a mile road, of climbing, which in isolation would be a doddle, but with the legs worn out by Bowland Knotts and Gisburn Forest, it can be a pain in the backside. Grind your way onto the top of Dugdale Lane and a cracking descent will follow. From here you will descend down into Bolton-by-Bowland/Holden on a lightning fast road that can be taken at speeds approaching 40mph. Soak it in, this is your just rewards for a tough ride that has been up and down the whole way.
Approaching the brilliant descent into Holden, Pendle Hill in full view.
For myself, this route is 70 miles and provides a brilliant day out of rolling roads, tough climbing and a joyous stretch of gravel riding at the Ribblehead Viaduct. Upon reaching Holden, it is a simple up and down road home to Clitheroe, with legs full of lactic acid and a smile across the face. A brilliant ride and a great day out, a classic example of the fine routes found in the North West which connect Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Strava route file: https://www.strava.com/activities/3450611461