Road cycling in the North York Moors

Expanses of wild moorland, dramatic coastline, some epic climbs and grand views - the Moors are classic road cycling territory.

The North York Moors National Park is a landscape of high moorland fringed by a spectacular cliff-lined coast, dotted with patches of ancient woodland and some lovely old towns and villages. It all makes for some fabulous road cycling, writes Pickering-based cycle enthusiast Mike Hawtin.

Not be confused with the Yorkshire Dales further to the west, the North York Moors is an area with a distinctive character all of its own, consisting of a high rolling plateau cut by deep, wooded river valleys. It’s a remarkably satisfying and challenging destination for keen cyclists and one that for a long time been the secret of those in the know.

Covering almost 1500 sq. km, the national park has one of the largest expanses of heather moorland in Europe and in the summer months displays a beautiful blanket of purple as you make your way through the hundreds of miles of quiet moorland roads.

The climb to Danby Beacon

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You're spoiled for choice when it comes to deciding on a route in the North York Moors, and the following recommendations are just a small selection of what's on offer. These itineraries can be combined or elements swapped, providing endless options for some excellent rides.

Route 1: The south-central moors
Starting in the market town of Pickering, the ride heads steadily up through the green fields around Swainsea Lane, turning to Cropton and passing close to the famous Yorkshire brewery with a fast blast down Cropton bank (a local cycling challenge both up and down!). At the bottom you have the option of heading straight on towards ‘the big one’ or cutting the corner through Lastingham if your legs aren’t up to it.
Beginning the descent of Rosedale Chimney
Rosedale Chimney is the infamous climb out of Rosedale Abbey that has claimed many victims. As one of the steepest classified roads in Britain it climbs up a maximum 33% gradient onto beautiful open moorland before the descent into the charming village of Hutton-le-Hole. From here you can head up an optional loop into Farndale (of world renowned daffodil fame) or head down into the valley before a sharp climb to Gillamoor and on to Fadmoor. You then begin the long steady descent towards Wellburn, leaving the hills behind. The remainder of the route follows narrow lanes through flatter farming country back to Pickering through Salton, Normanby and Riseborough.

Route 2: Pickering to the coast at Staithes
An alternative ride from Pickering heads north and then turns towards the coast. Ride north towards Rosedale Abbey: you can either turn right up past the popular Blacksmiths Arms at Hartoft then left up through a wooded section (with an almost Mediterranean feel on a warm summer's day), or it can take you straight into Rosedale Abbey and up Heygate which, at a measly 25% is in the slightly less aggressive cousin of Rosedale Chimney on the other side of the valley.

Both options meet just north of the Millennium Cross (check out the view!) before heading over to the ancient village of Lealholm then up past the 400-year-old Danby Beacon, first built to warn of French invasion and then much later as an RAF radar station in WW2.
After another moorland stretch the route continues through farmland to an epic descent down Boulby Bank - great fun if you have nerves of steel. Just watch for the sharp right at the bottom! Pushing over the footbridge into Staithes, which must be one of the most photographed east coast villages, there’s a wonderful café or a pub there at the side of the small beach for lunch.
The North York Moors Steam Railway
After refuelling, there’s a steady climb heading along the short coast road stretch towards Runswick Bank Top (or an alternative café lunch stop if you drop down to the bay) then back through Ugthorpe to Egton Bridge. If your legs fail you now you’re only a short ride from Grosmont or Goathland where the steam train can take you and your bike puffing back to Pickering.

If you’re up for it, though, another steep climb takes you out and over the beautifully remote Wheeldale Moor, home of the remains of the Roman road. Then it’s on through Stape, Newton on Rawcliffe and back alongside the North York Moors Steam Railway and back into Pickering.

Route 3: The southwest moors: Bransdale loop
This ride can be incorporated into the south-central Moors ride (route 1) if you’re staying in Pickering and want something even longer, or you can start in the market town of Helmsley, 20km to the east.
Village café
The route starts with a steady flat section through Harome (home of the esteemed Star Inn), Wombleton and Welburn before starting the steady climb up to Fadmoor. Cutting the corner past Gillamoor (unless you need the pub!), you then head north into Bransdale towards Cockayne passing into and out of some very steep valleys with the odd ford crossing. Then turn south and head up steeply towards the exposed and remote Pockley Moor and Lund Ridge before beginning the long steady descent through Carlton to your finish back at Helmsley.

Route 4: Dalby Forest
Whilst Dalby Forest is renowned as a world-class mountain biking destination, it is now growing in popularity with road cyclists - either as a café stop on longer rides to the coast or as a start point for a wonderfully picturesque road cycling experience.
The Tour of Britain at Dalby
The tree-lined forest drive makes up part of a 12.5km tarmac loop (perfect for evening training or for those who prefer quieter roads) which was used for a Tour of Britain stage finish in 2008: the alpine feel of the forest drive immediately attracted the organisers.

Starting in Low Dalby, the route twists and turns its way through the trees with switchbacks, climbs and lakes making it feel more like an Alpine ride than the north of England. From there continue through the narrow lanes of Langdale into the challenging climb through beautiful Troutsdale, before a long descent leads back to the flatter lanes by the A170. Next up is the chocolate box village of Thornton-Le-Dale, then a climb back towards Dalby Forest and an exhilarating drop back into Low Dalby Courtyard - a popular local Strava route.

Route 5: Sutton Bank: views and abbeys
This wonderfully varied route passes by some beautifully picturesque abbeys (ruined and active) and starts with one of the best views in England. Parking up at the National Park Visitor Centre at Sutton Bank you can grab a coffee at the café and visit the bike hire shop for any last-minute spares. Then  head northeast to Cold Kirby and on to Old Byland (site of a Anglo-Scots battle in 1322) before dropping into the River Rye valley as you head over Rievaulx Bridge towards the famous Abbey. Nestled in a wooded dale, Rievaulx was the first Cistercian abbey in the north and once one of the most wealthy. These days it’s simply a wonderful reminder of times gone by.
Late summer with the heather in bloom
From here it’s a short climb to the B1257 and then a gentle downhill into Helmsley. From here you pick up part of the Bransdale loop (route 3) to Harome, from where it's possible to head to Pickering. For this ride, though, continue to Nunnington where there is a wonderful tea room. At this point you can add the Castle Howard loop (route 6), before tracking back west through Oswalskirk, Ampleforth (wonderful views over the school and abbey grounds and a really nice café), Wass and into Byland past another picturesque ruined abbey.

From Byland it's northeast to Oldstead, where you can either turn right and head north up National Cycle Route 65 or, slightly further on, test yourself on the hairpins of White Horse Bank. Be warned that both these sections can be a little loose under tyre! Up at the A170 it’s just a short ride west back to the visitor centre and that marvellous view!
Castle Howard
Route 6: Castle Howard
Like many of the routes included here, this ride can start at different points (I recommend Pickering or Castle Howard) or can be combined with routes 1, 3 or 5 for a truly epic ride. If adding to the latter, continue south from Nunnington to Hovingham then east to Slingsby before turning south again to Castle Howard (arguably Yorkshire’s finest historic house and made famous by the 2008 film Brideshead Revisited). Here you can either stop at the busy café in the courtyard or head to the quieter place hidden away at the arboretum.

After refreshments it’s then south and east to Bulmer where you can take in the local challenge of Bulmer bank. Continue west through Sheriff Hutton and Farlington where you then head North to Bransby. From here things get hilly and you’ll know why some of these roads were chosen for the National Cycling Championships a few years ago. Through Yearsley and into the beautiful grounds of Ampleforth College (and Abbey) you can then either head West to Sutton Bank on route 5 or, if you started at Castle Howard, head east to Oswaldkirk, Hovingham and back through Slingsby.


1. Rosedale Chimney

Nobody forgets their first time up Chimney Bank. Over the bridge south from Rosedale Abbey, the road starts to kick up on the long drag past the White Horse pub. Be careful not to spin the rear wheel over the cattle grid, then it’s into the first hairpin. Round the outside is easy compared with the inside of the second (stay wide if you can), which is actually steeper than 33%! It's steep right up to the summit, where the sign reminds cyclists to dismount. Never a truer word!

2. Wheeldale Moor

There are many road sections on the North York Moors where you feel literally in the middle of nowhere. Often you might not have seen any evidence of other recent humans for up to an hour. So when you head over the remote Wheeldale moor and pass the remains of a Roman road you can only imagine what it took for them to get the stone and build a road up there. No matter how amazing the feat, when you see the remains, you’ll be happy that tarmac was invented!

3. National Road Race Championships

There are many cycling events held in the North York Moors and surrounding area but on of the most memorable was when the best of British came to the roads surrounding Ampleforth Abbey. We were lucky enough to get a ride in a lead team car, which was truly terrifying. Flying round the tight country lanes at up to 60mph on the wrong side of the road gave an incredible impression of the speed and the risks that pro riders take in pursuit of their goal.

4. Millennium Cross

Any serious rider who comes to the North York Moors wants to tackle ‘the chimney’, but there are lots of other challenging climbs including one that starts in the same place (Rosedale Abbey) but climbs up the opposite side of the valley. Starting off steady and then increasing to 25%, Heygate is enough of a challenge for most. Stop at the summit and Millennium Cross, with an incredible view looking back over the green valley at ‘the big one’ waiting for another day.

5. Sutton Bank

Often described as one of the finest views in England, the view from Sutton Bank is a sight to behold for all who experience it. Although it’s a challenge many want to tackle, the climb is on quite a busy road, so climbing out of Sutton Under Whitestonecliffe is only for the most experienced rider - but there are many options for rides starting from the National Park Visitor Centre at the top, just be sure to get a photo before you continue!


Best times to go:


With all types of cycling available, you can cycle in the National Park year-round, especially with the world class off-road trails in Dalby Forest to keep you active through the winter. For the best road cycling experience, however, you need better weather and warmer temperatures for the high and remote moorland routes to appreciate the fabulous views. This means the best time of year to ride would be June to September, weather permitting and August is usually the best month if you want to experience the heather in full bloom.


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