Length: 136 miles
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Tackled by thousands of cyclists every year, this is the iconic coast-to-coast route that started it all. From the Lake District to Sunderland and Newcastle, it’s an unforgettable ride that will test even the fittest of riders. Make no mistake, the hills are steep and relentless. But the scenery, the bike-friendly cafés, and the camaraderie combine to make it all worthwhile.
You can choose from two start points (Whitehaven and Workington) and two end points (Sunderland and Newcastle), but the recipe is essentially the same: easy, tarmaced railway paths bookend a gruelling central succession of climbs. With the right bike and a sensible pace, any cyclist can have a go – but expect to push uphill now and then.
Several organisations now offer group tours, and these are a great way to enjoy the route in the company of an experienced guide. They’ll even carry your luggage for you! But the route is so popular there are plenty of facilities for the solo cyclist: bike shops, cafés, and B&Bs all proudly proclaiming “cyclists welcome”.
A hybrid or cross bike is perfect for the principal route (though not the optional off-road sections). A thin-tyred road bike will cope with almost all of it, but you’ll need to take the road over the Whinlatter Pass, not the cycleway. A mountain bike is great for the off-road options, but you’ll find it incredibly hard work hauling up all those hills.
If this is your first long-distance ride, and you’re planning to take your ‘old faithful’ mountain bike or chain-store special, get a second opinion from a friendly bike shop. The start of the climb to Whinlatter is not the time to discover that you brought the wrong bike.
Four days is standard. Three days is fine for the experienced cyclist, but the second day is gruelling with a succession of beastly climbs. Consider taking five days or more, and really enjoying the countryside. Only the superhuman will attempt two or (shudder) one days.
The C2C might be Britain’s best-known route, but it’s far from easy. The hills are as steep as you’ll find anywhere.
Hundreds of first-timers tackle it every year, and most of them are glad they did. Taking five days over it will greatly add to your enjoyment. Still, some people embark on the challenge woefully under-prepared – we encountered a novice cyclist in Whitehaven who was being shown how to use gears by her ride leader!
Don’t be put off, but do also consider Hadrian’s Cycleway and the Way of the Roses – two equally epic, but much more approachable, coast-to-coast rides. You can always come back next year for the C2C.
Backup cars/vans are increasingly common, especially for groups. They’re a delightful convenience: they haul your luggage up the hills, making the cycling easier, and they’re always ready to refuel you with bananas and energy drinks.
On the other hand, if you believe in sustainable transport, it’s not exactly ‘one less car’. And there’s a great satisfaction in rolling up at your B&B at 6pm under your own power.
The choice is yours, but there’s one thing we’d say: don’t let your driver follow the cycle route. Rather, he/she should use main roads, and rendezvous with you at prearranged points (such as the top of each hill). A convoy of support vehicles on the little lanes of the C2C makes life less pleasant, and more dangerous, for other cyclists.
Where there’s a choice, you’ll almost always want to follow the on-road option. The off-road ‘braids’ are great for full-on mountain bikers, but not the rest of us. Some are notoriously uncyclable. The one exception is the grouse-moor track avoiding Stanhope, which requires some pushing but is enjoyable nonetheless.
Around Whinlatter, whether you’re approaching from Whitehaven or Workington, the main route follows gravelly forest tracks. They’re easily manageable (unless you have a road bike), but don’t go overboard with the descending – it’s all too easy to take a corner fast and end up in a pile of gravel and limbs.
The railway paths through the lowlands at either end are generally tarmaced and make for very easy cycling. Do watch for broken glass in urban areas.
90% of C2C riders travel west–east. In theory, this gives you the advantage of the prevailing wind, and slightly more forgiving hills. In practice, we invariably encounter a ‘beasterly easterly’ headwind anyway, and (apart from Whinlatter) we don’t think the gradients are much different either way.
There are two main start points on each coast: Whitehaven and Workington on the west coast, Sunderland and Tynemouth on the east. The most popular combination is Whitehaven–Sunderland. Workington is a little easier than Whitehaven, but less picturesque. Tynemouth itself is an interesting area, and you can enjoy a trip into Newcastle, but the route itself is less rewarding than the Sunderland option.
You can, of course, vary the route in many other ways. For a slightly easier ride, we’ll admit to a liking for a Carlisle start, following NCN 7 south to pick up the C2C at Penrith.
Even in the depths of winter, you’re sure to meet other C2C cyclists on your ride – it’s that popular. There’s a great sense of camaraderie, especially at the tops of hills. Fellow riders are always happy to pass on advice about favourite cafés and pubs, and any impromptu diversions required.
Don’t get competitive. It’s tempting to see a yellow jacket three bends ahead, and tire yourself out in a futile attempt to catch them up. Or you might be tempted into a foolish overtake on a blind bend or steep hill. If (for whatever reason) you’d rather be clear of a group cycling at the same pace as you, just stop in a café for half an hour and let them get ahead.
Most accidents on the C2C happen on descents. Take it carefully, especially on the gravel sections. Be confident with your brakes and don’t apply them too suddenly. Every year, the air ambulance is called out for C2C cyclists: make sure you’re not one of them.
The Cumbrian Coast branch line has stations at Whitehaven and Workington. Though the two-carriage trains have limited bike space, the guards are adept at squeezing C2C cyclists on. If you’re coming from further afield, though, you will need to book bike space on Virgin’s West Coast route.
For the journey home, Newcastle has excellent rail connections, and Sunderland hourly trains north and south. The Tyne & Wear Metro doesn’t take bikes, so you might need to backtrack for your final few miles.
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