Road cycling in the Peak District

Classic climbs, grand views and a variety of stunning landscapes all add up to make the Peak District one of Britain's top cycling destinations.

The Peak District has long been popular with road cyclists, which is no surprise given the area's magnificent scenery and accessibility. Local enthusiasts Robert Thorpe and Richard Hakes describe what’s on offer.

With the Tour de France passing through the northern part of the Peak District – the ascent of Holme Moss attracted some of the largest crowds – its profile amongst cyclists has never been higher. The most centrally located and therefore accessible of all the UK’s upland areas, facilities for cyclists are first rate: plenty of bike shops and some splendid cafés.

But of course it’s the routes themselves that attract riders. One of the great things about the area is the fact that there is so much variety – high moorland, reservoirs, deep green valleys, picturesque villages - packed into a compact area. Pretty much everywhere you go you will find gob-smackingly beautiful views and swooping descents on well-surfaced roads.

Sunset at Burbage © Richard Hakes

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The Peak District is traditionally split into two very different and distinctive sections. The White Peak is located in the centre and south of the region and its name reflects the fact that this is a limestone area – limestone being a pale-coloured rock. Routes wind through gently rolling countryside passing small fields with dry-stone walls, deep limestone gorges and sharply defined hills. Further north, the Dark Peak is generally higher and more open, characterised by craggy gritstone edges and expanses of moorland cut by a few deep valleys.

The Peak District’s three classic climbs have each featured in international road racing in recent years - the Cat and Fiddle, Monsal Hill, and Holme Moss (see Top 5 Experiences, below), which will test the mettle of any cycling enthusiast. Short but steep Winnats Pass, and longer Mam Nick, are the other noteworthy ascents in the region.
Winnats Pass © Richard Hakes
These climbs can be linked together, of course, to make some challenging extended itineraries. With a bit of planning and a look at the map, routes can be found that take you away from the main roads and on to the quiet back lanes for a more peaceful ride.

The southern parts of the region, the White Peak, flanked by the Derwent Valley to the southeast and Staffordshire moors south of Buxton are all further away from the big suburban areas of Sheffield and Manchester and are generally quieter than the core areas of the National Park. Having said that, the main thoroughfares radiating out of Buxton – the A6 (to Bakewell and Matlock), A515 (to Ashbourne) and A53 (to Leek) are all busy and relatively narrow: combine this with the steep gradients sometimes found and it is easy to see they lead to unpleasant cycling.

The quiet routes between the big roads are the gems, linking small charming villages that reward exploration. There are plenty of gorgeous limestone landscape to appreciate and traces of local history abound. You do not need to keep within the National Park boundaries – there's plenty of splendid scenery outside the park. Much of the White Peak is a high limestone plateau punctuated by deep valleys, so expect some steep gradients.
Ashbourne cycle hire
A recommended route through the southern Peaks leaves Ashbourne on the B5035 signed to Wirksworth. The road passes Carsington Water before dropping into Wirksworth. A descent to Cromford leads to a left turn onto the A5012 where a long wooded climb awaits through the steep-sided cliffs of Via Gellia Road. The gradient eases on approach to Newhaven where a right turn takes the A515 to Buxton; turn off soon after on the B5054 to Hartington then head north along various lanes to Buxton - with some cheeky climbs along the way. Refresh yourself in town before heading out on the A53 towards Leek for a short stretch. At Quarnford take the minor road left, adjacent to The Knights Table Public House, which heads towards Longnor and then south to Hulme End. At the Manifold Inn take the lane to the right, crossing the bridge signed to Alstonefield. Now enjoy some great limestone scenery all the way through this magnificent valley, passing Dovedale and Ilam en route back to Ashbourne.

In the far southeast of the Peak District is the Derwent Valley, whose history is directly linked to the growth of industrial Britain. Riding along the A6 at Cromford, the site of England's first factory at Masson Mill, built by Richard Arkwright, heralds the start of a historic trail. Leaving the A6 and heading up the steep climb towards Wirksworth, quaint cottages provide evidence of the first factory housing of the industrial revolution, and if you turn off in the other direction at Cromford, quiet lanes twist and turn past John Smedley's historic mill at Lea, as you climb up to the imposing folly of Riber Castle. The road that ties in Riber Castle with the access lane to High Tor at Matlock is a cracker.
Chatsworth estate
From Rowsley, on the A6 between Matlock and Bakewell, the B6012 leads to the magnificent Chatsworth Estate, which you can cycle through. Follow the road to Bakewell then minor lanes south to Youlgrave, descending into spectacular Lathkill Dale with its steep limestone formations. More lovely lanes run southwest to Newhaven and the A5012. Loop back to Rowsley via Winster. Alternatively, if you’re riding at a quiet time for traffic, you may want to follow the A5012 further east as it descends at speed through the steep-sided woods of Via Gellia, to Cromford, from where it’s an 8-mile run up the Derwent Valley back to Rowsley.
Ascending Monsal Hill © Richard Hakes
Another route sets out from Matlock and takes you through the lanes linking the Derwent Valley villages of Darley Bridge, Churchdown and Pilhough before a 2-mile stretch on the A6 to Bakewell, passing the splendour of Haddon Hall en route. At Bakewell you'll traverse the geological divide, leaving the A6 at Ashford in the Water, one of the most picturesque villages in the Peak District, taking the B6465 north to the spectacular viewpoint of Monsal Head before descending to Wardlow and A623. Turn right and ride through the limestone cliffs of Stoney Middleton on the twisting and fast road. Turn off left at Curbar, climbing through Curbar Gap, guarded by the endless gritstone edges of the Dark Peak. Cross over the A621, eventually reaching and crossing the A619 as you ride quiet lanes across Beeley Moor and back to Matlock.
Ascending Mam Nick © Richard Hakes
The central section of the Peak District including Edale, Castleton and Hathersage is the main focus for tourists: it is wonderfully picturesque and offers some great riding, although it does get busy at times. The main Hope Valley area doesn’t have a lot of road choice, but generally the main roads are bearable - the smaller roads are here but just need linking together. The areas round Bradfield, Abney and Great Hucklow provide some of the better areas to explore. The area is different from that further south as it is dominated by Millstone grit, with gritstone edges - including Stanage, famous for its rock climbing. There is a plentiful supply of cafés, and another nice feature is the heated outdoor swim pool at Hathersage.

In fact Hathersage makes a good starting point for a loop of some of the most beautiful areas of the National Park. There are many options, but a favourite is to head south to Grindleford then a steep climb across Bretton Hill before descending to Little Hucklow. Proceed south through the lanes to Litton and Cressbrook then Monsal Dale. The ascent out of the valley is the Monsal Hill climb (see Top 5 Experiences). It’s then north to Wardlow on the B6465, then back towards Great Hucklow and the B6049 before reaching Windmill and Little Hucklow. The road goes north and stays to high ground on its way towards Castleton. After Pindale and Hope, the main road back to Hathersage can be avoided by taking the lanes to the north of the A6187 – these run close to Stanage Edge and are very picturesque.

Another great ride, if you like hills, climbs up the very steep (but short) Winnats Pass from Castleton and then up Mam Nick before looping back via Edale to the Hope Valley and Castleton.

West of Buxton, on the busy A537 to Macclesfield, is the legendary Cat and Fiddle. Head east for the gruelling ascent – best early in the morning at weekends - and then cut north on quiet lanes down to the beautiful Goyt Valley on a narrow road through lovely scenery; it’s a 4-mile descent with a gradient of 3.5%.
Gritsone landscape of the Dark Peak © Richard Hakes
The northern Dark Peak area north of the A57 Snake Pass linking Glossop and Ladybower is bleaker and higher than the rest of the National Park and its surroundings. There are fewer small roads up here so it’s best to avoid busy times when lorries and cars can make things a little unpleasant, particularly on the Snake Pass: early Sunday mornings are good and you’ll see plenty of bikes on the road at this time.

A classic ride is from Holmfirth, just south of Huddersfield, up the fabulous Holme Moss ascent on the A6024 (see Top 5 Experiences, below), then down to Woodhead Reservoir; turn right for a short stretch on the A628 before branching off on the B6105 to Glossop. Then head southeast on the A57 over the Snake Pass; pass Ladybower reservoir then a mile or so further on take a left up the small lane over Strines Edge and Wigtwizzle up to Langsett – a fantastic ride. It’s a short run back to Holmsfirth from here, but before heading off you may want to stop at the now famous red spotted café in Langsett.

Alternatively, having completed Holme Moss, turn left at Woodhead and enjoy superlative riding heading south towards Sheffield via High Bradfield.


1. The Cat and Fiddle

This is one of the most famous ascents in Britain: it’s not the steepest by any means, but the long seven-mile slope can be energy sapping. It can also be a bit busy, and motorbike riders tend to ride extremely fast, but the road is quite wide and the sightlines are good. The descent is exhilarating. The route is usually done from Macclesfield, heading east for 7 miles to reach the Cat and Fiddle pub at the summit: it’s an ascent of 1,370ft, with an average gradient of 3.7% - quite easy!

2. Monsal Hill

Another classic is the Monsal Hill climb, short and steep, with a section of 16%. The Monsal Head Hotel awaits at the top, a great place for refreshments and admiring the view across to the famous viaduct. It’s a lovely part of the Peak District: make it part of a loop from Hathersage, Bakewell or, for a longer ride, from Buxton or Castleton/Edale.

3. Holme Moss

The most challenging climb of all. The road rises sharply from Holme Bridge, then levels out for a bit before getting steep once more: there are hairpin bends and variable – often very steep – gradients, while the exposure to the wind makes things even tougher. Once at the top (over 1,700 feet), take in the grand views to the north across Yorkshire before enjoying the speedy downhill to Woodhead Reservoir. The main part of the climb is only 3 miles long but involves an ascent of 1,120ft.

4. Winnats Pass

A steep ascent out of the Hope Valley west of Castleton: it’s just one mile long, but averages 11.7% gradient as you ascend 616 feet. At one point in the middle of the climb the slope is close to 30%. It's relentless: best advice is not to look up!

5. Mam Nick

Another famous ascent climbs the western flank of Mam Tor. A mile-and-a-half long, the gradient averages 9.7% in a pretty even fashion - not as difficult as some, but it's a great ride and the scenery is fantastic.


Best times to go:


Cyclists are out in force at weekends throughout the year, but obviously if it's pouring with rain and windy there will be far fewer. Early spring and summer mornings are perfect, with the extra daylight and the scenery at its best, although September and October can be magnificent too. Busy roads are to be avoided at rush hours as far as possible - they are much more enjoyable at weekends. Things get busy during school holidays and weekends in the central area around Castleton and Edale.

From April through to October, the Peak District hosts over 100 events as part of it's Summer of Cycling programme.


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