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I’m soaked and distracted and I’m not sure I exchange any pleasantries as I stick my head round the door of the pub and bluntly ask “Are you serving coffee?”

“Yes,” is the answer.

“Awesome,” I respond before sticking my head back out the door to tell Jim the good news.

– – –

“Wanna a whiskey to go with that?”

“Are you having one?”

I look at the puddle rapidly forming around my sodden shoes, then up again and out of the window at the slanting rain. My socks squelch as I shuffle my feet and the landlady has handed us bar towels.

“Yeah. Jura?”

“Yes please.”

We neck the malt and then the coffee. It’s around half two. We should get going again, there’s still about forty kilometres to go and earlier this morning I’d optimistically thought we’d be almost finished by now. Turns out a triple A audax in the Lakes is not the same as a triple A audax in Sussex. La’al Lakeland, or Little Lakeland in Cumbrian dialect, is already the hardest 100km perm I’ve ever ridden and we’ve only done sixty kilometres of it so far. Before we set off it did look like if we were done by three we’d potentially outrun the forecast rain but it rolled in earlier than hoped, and we’re nowhere near finished. We move by the fire for a few minutes before we head back outside. Warm damp clothing is ever so slightly more pleasant than cold soggy clothing.

It had been reasonable when we set off, cloudy but dry, occasional cracks in the grey showing blue and faint shadows along with sunlight skidding off high hillsides at times. It had been an easy spin out of Kendal towards Staveley, past the nice coffee shop, over and around the hill avoiding the big road to Troutbeck Bridge. Petrol station haul of oat bars shared out and stuffed in pockets and a receipt tucked in the brevet card. We followed the cyclepath along the edge of Lake Windermere to Ambleside. Unofficial coffee stop at Chester’s at Skelwith Bridge to say hello to Bex.

A few lumpy kilometres into Little Langdale and past its tarn and rattle over a cattle grid where the road splits. Previous time here a few days back we’d come over from Blea Tarn but we weren’t going that way today. We followed the sign that kindly warned extreme caution and of 30% gradients and extreme bends up and over Wrynose and Hardknott passes.

First up Wrynose. Literally. One tight steep double hairpin at the start and then not bothering with any more to ease the gradient, straight up, not-so-gradually ramping up, bear left over a stone bridge, straight steeper bit, slight right, over the top. Caught my breath. Thumbs up from Japanese tourists driving the other way.

Into the burned rust and dark green vale between the high points. The short descent is trickier than the climb, the road twisted more on this side, tarmac cracked and broken in patches, gravel and water in the bends. Fortunately we didn’t lose all the height gained from Langdale, the road ever so gently tipped down along the floor of the wide shallow valley. A few minutes of soft pedalling before another cattle grid and warning sign.

Hardknott. The road a narrow scribbled squiggle as if someone has doodled distractedly on the hillside with tarmac. Winters have not been kind to the surface, or perhaps gravity as it looks as though it is slipping down at a glacial pace. Hairpins, tight and steep, bumps and ridges, fossilised moguls. Sat in the saddle the front end lifted off the ground, stood on the pedals and leaning over the front the rear wheel skipped and slipped. Looking up I watched a van at seemingly impossible angles coming down. The drop the other side was much the same but twice the height lost, twisting precipitously, dragged brakes and tense shoulders.

A long road out of the valley, more easy spinning respite between hedgerow and dry stone walls. A pub on a junction at Eskdale Green. Lunch and a pint and another receipt. Our stop seemed well timed as hail fell outside the window. It was tempting to stay by the fire and have another pint but we were only half way round and outside it looked like the rain was easing.

It hadn’t. As we climbed on our way to Ulpha the rain hardened and for the next hour or so over the fells to Broughton it attacked us sideways. The landscape was stunningly empty and despite the weather just the right side of bleak. Cloud blurred the tops and hail briefly tapped on the road. Despite the saturation humour wasn’t lost. It may have been if we hadn’t found the Kings Head serving coffee. They may not be as cheered as we are as they’ve just had to mop the floor by the bar when we moved by the fire.

Miraculously it seems the rain might be stopping and by the time we join the main road back east it has definitely stopped. There’s even the classic hopeful voicing of “it looks brighter over there.” A view of the start of the sea, silver grey not too far away. A few kilometres on a big road over Grizebeck Brow, a long drag of a climb offering a chance to warm up. A super straight super fast descent to where the road from Coniston joins us, and just as the traffic increases we pull off returning to small lanes twisting and undulating through woodland. Stone bridges and river flood plains and wooded hills. It chucks it down again for a few minutes either side of Newby Bridge as we navigate cyclepaths around a busy junction to get to the last lanes back to Kendal.

First we have to get up a harsh climb away from the southern end of Lake Windermere. Annoyingly it feels like it gets steeper the further you climb. I have a little bit of a swear but I’m soon cheered over the top as stunning views unfurl ahead, lush rolling valleys and patchwork fields and distant dark hills. I glance down at the Garmin, seventeen kilometres to go and three hundred metres of ascent left. Looking up again there’s no sign of a large town within this vista. Of course, Kendal is the other side of that dark menacing lump of a fell ahead of us.

I start to wonder what time is printed on the starting receipt and doing some sums. I know we’ve got a slower lower speed limit compared to a normal Brevet Populaire but flipping heck I must be pushing the time limit a bit close for comfort. The thought of one more climb is a concern…

“I’ve never been on these roads… I’m not sure where we are.”

We are seven kilometres from Jim’s house.

“Ah, I know where we are. Shit, this last climb is horrible!”

Jim is not lying. It starts reasonably enough but this one definitely steepens the higher we get. There’s also a false summit sticking the knife in and then giving it a little twist for good measure. I spend the last hundred metres staring blankly at the tarmac just ahead of my front wheel. These last two hills have been tougher than the famous named ones from earlier. Thankfully the final kilometre and a bit are entirely downhill. Sitting on my crossbar outside the bank I compare my finishing receipt against my starting one and realise I’ve made it with 32 minutes to spare. I then remember Jim lives up the hill out the other side of Kendal. A quiet sigh and I clip back in.

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