Anna Taylor on her Classic Rock by Bike Tour
Last month, Anna Taylor became the first woman to complete a continuous round of all 83 routes that feature in 'Classic Rock', the iconic book by Ken Wilson. Carrying all of her kit, Anna cycled between each route, covering 1500 miles on the bike and climbing over 10,000 metres.
First conceived by the late Jamie Fisher in 1997, who managed all but one of the routes due to a bird ban at Hen Cloud, a self-powered Classic Rock round takes in the best of British trad up to grade VS. Oli Warlow attempted to replicate Jamie's challenge in 2018 (UKC Article), but also fell one short due to nesting birds.
Beginning on 31 July, Anna set off from Penzance and ticked the southern section of the list, then cycled up through Wales, the Peak District, the Lake District and Scotland, before finishing on the Isle of Skye.
Anna climbed 68 of the 83 routes solo, either free or with a rope. She was accompanied for part of the journey by adventure photographer Marc Langley, while Neil Gresham supported her in her final climbs on Skye.
The weather during the challenge was wet and unforgiving, but Anna continued regardless, completing it in an almost-continuous trip save for a brief interlude for a work commitment.
Remarkably, Anna was also a newcomer to cycle-touring before setting out on her journey. We sent Anna some questions about the logistics behind this latest feat of endurance...
When and why did you decide to go for the Classic Rock by bike challenge?
I started thinking about it in 2020, when the world was stuck in lockdown. I knew it would be a long time before international travel was allowed again, so I wanted something UK based to focus on. I had a go at the Lakes bit of the round with Leo Houlding that year, and while we got shut down by the weather and didn't manage it, I really enjoyed running around the hills getting loads of mileage in on easy routes. I'd always wanted to try cycle touring too, and thought combining that with climbing would make a great trip.
Why did you choose to start in Penzance and not the other way round?
For two reasons. Firstly, because the Cuillin Ridge makes a great finale to a big challenge, and I thought the Cornish climbs (lovely as they are) would be a bit of an anti-climax. Secondly, I was a little nervous about soloing some of the Scottish routes, and thought that starting off on the shorter climbs on cleaner faces would be better than jumping straight into the deep end on big mountain routes. In hindsight I'm very glad I made this decision!
How much research did you do beforehand into previous attempts by others?
When the idea initially appeared in my head I had no clue that this round had been done before, but upon searching online I soon found out about both Jamie Fisher's and Oli Warlow's rounds. Jamie was the first and there is a great write up from him that can be found on the Needle Sports Website. Oli Warlow also has a website called classicrockbybike.com, which is equally worth checking out.
I think there's been a little confusion recently regarding who was the "first" person to do this. To try and clear the air, I know that both Jamie and Oli had to skip a route or two due to nesting birds (they both did their rounds at a different time of year to me), but climbed others to replace them. This has I believe been the cause of any misreporting, but for the record I view myself as the third person to do this round, and have nothing but admiration and respect for the two guys that did it before.
You hadn't cycle-toured before. How did you prepare for the trip, and what bike kit did you use?
I spent a couple of weeks up on the Isle of Harris with my family a month or two before setting off. I'd just got hold of a Bombtrack Arise touring bike, and I spent most of the holiday cycling around the island and getting some miles in (I'd barely cycled at all for the previous few years). I bought some panniers but never actually got round to riding with them until the night I set off. I genuinely thought I was going to crash on the way to the train station as the balance of the bike is very different when it's loaded up, but fortunately I soon got used to it!
How did you manage rest and refuelling etc.?
The first week was pretty hellish in that respect. I totally underestimated how hard it would be to cycle with so much extra weight, and rest was pretty hard to come by as my pace was slow and a ten hour day in the saddle was not uncommon. This eased as I got further in however, and by the time I was in Scotland I was significantly fitter and my body seemed to have settled into a routine of almost constant energy output. I found that just forcing myself to eat as much as possible, as often as possible was the best way to go in terms of refuelling. I never had time to cook much, so I pretty much lived on wraps and rehydrated sachets, but it seemed to work!
Where did you stay each night?
Either in campsites or wild camping depending on where I was.
You wrote on Instagram that you learned a lot - what did you learn about yourself and soloing etc.?
Before I set off I was really nervous about soloing certain routes. The Chasm on Buachaille Etive Mor was one, The Long Climb on Ben Nevis was another, and both climbs on Scafell were also on that list. It wasn't that I questioned my ability to do the moves, as these climbs are only VS, but I wasn't sure what I would do if conditions were bad, or if I went off-route, or encountered loads of loose rock. I hadn't soloed many big multi-pitches before and the ones I had done were on sunny days with good visibility. However, my time in Wales turned into a bit of an apprenticeship for that sort of thing. I was warned against soloing Avalanche/Red Wall/Longland's Continuation up on Lliwedd, as it had been raining a lot and the climb seemed to have a reputation for tough route finding and being loose, but I decided to go for it, and loved every minute.
I never used any of the gear I brought with me, and despite the rubbish visibility was totally confident that I was on route the whole way up. This boosted my confidence, and by the time I got to the Lakes I wasn't worried about the Scafell climbs at all. They passed without incident, and by the time I got to Scotland I felt happy in the knowledge that I could keep myself safe in most situations. I did have to rope solo a bit up there as the climbs are much bigger and more serious than anything else on the round, but I still free-soloed the majority, and really enjoyed reaching the top of the ones that had previously scared me. Being alone on a big cliff is just endless problem solving, and whilst there's quite a lot of faffing involved when you have to rope solo, I really love it. It's definitely a style that I would like to take further.
What was the hardest part of the challenge?
Escaping the Devil's Cauldron while climbing The Chasm. I took the direct finish, but realised soon after that it's really, really unpleasant in the wet. The watercourse coming down from above meant I couldn't look upward whilst trying to wriggle my way up the final two chimney pitches, and getting good gear in involved clawing plants and mud out of the way of the cracks first. It was a proper struggle, but in a sadistic way I did quite enjoy it. It felt like more of a mountaineering mission (or should that be ghyll scrambling?!) than a rock climb, but it's one I won't forget!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to do a cycling/climbing challenge like this?
Take only the climbing gear you need and NOTHING more. It's really heavy, and cycling with it is hard (particularly when your rope gets wet and doubles in weight). If what you're intending to climb needs a lot of kit, then make sure you keep your daily mileage low.
I don't think I ever had any true epics fortunately, but there were a few mini ones. Two were headtorch related (once my battery ran out on Dinas Mot, and on Great Gully I didn't bring one at all and had to climb the final cave pitch by the light of my phone). My rope got stuck once when I was rope soloing in the Cairngorms, and getting it un-stuck was a bit of a faff to say the least, but I got there in the end. I can't really think of anything else, but perhaps the entire Welsh leg would count as it rained pretty much the whole way through? Oh and the last few routes on Skye, conditions up there were pretty character-building…
Running off the end of the Cuillin Ridge in the pouring rain, realising that after two months on the go there was finally nothing else to do!
Of all the "great" gullies featured within Classic Rock, which is truly the greatest (and by "greatest" I basically mean most horrific)?
In my opinion, definitely The Chasm. In terms of climbing it's way harder than the other two (Great Gully and Clachaig Gully), and it's 450 metres long, so takes a long time. Clachaig is extremely loose and probably the most dangerous of the three, but if you're careful the actual climbing isn't too bad. I'd say that Great Gully is the easiest by far (though it's a fair trek in). It's slimy and wet but the rock is actually pretty solid, and the crux cave pitch is fine providing you remember to bring a headtorch! None of these are good candidates for a fun, straightforward day out, but if you're looking for a bit of an adventure they might be worth considering.
The Cuillin Ridge is a massive undertaking even in dry weather, but it looks like you had pretty appalling weather - how did you approach it in light of this and how long did it take?!
I never wanted to do the ridge in bad conditions, but by the time I got to Skye it was nearly October, and the weather was not set to improve anytime soon. I just wanted to get it over with and figured that after the amount of wet soloing I'd already done on the round, the ridge couldn't possibly be any worse. It took me around ten hours in total, and I barely got a single view in that whole time! I was very conscious to check my position regularly on the map and make sure I wasn't wandering off route, and in terms of climbing gear took just what I needed for the abseils so I was pretty light. I can't say it was that much fun, but I'm really keen to come back next summer and do it again on a good day when I can actually see my surroundings.
Each area in Classic Rock has its own unique character. How would you describe your memory of each:
South - More hills than you would ever think and lovely clean granite. I'd be keen to sample more of the climbing there.
Peak and Pennine - I didn't know that polished grit stone was a thing. Turns out it's a thing.
Wales - Wet.
Lakes - Highlight of the trip for me. Good weather and amazing climbs on my home crags.
Scotland - Big climbs, bigger walk-ins. Beautiful days on the mountains and long, interesting pitches.
Was there a route or area that particularly took you by surprise as something you hadn't expected it to be?
I've tried not to be too mean about this route, but the description of Will o' The Wisp is a lot better than actually climbing it (in my opinion at least!). It's not a terrible climb, but did seem like a bit of a non-event in that it was more like scrambling and didn't appear to have much of a line. I probably just feel a bit sour about it as it was quite a big detour cycling wise. Maybe it's alright really…
Avon Gorge - magnificently underrated or absolutely awful?
It was alright. I'm not a fan of limestone so it's never going to be on the top of my list, and being a Classic Rock tick the route I did there is very polished, so I enjoyed it even less. I do think it's cool that a feature like the gorge exists right on the edge of a major city though. You don't expect it at all, and cycling towards it was great as it marked the end of the Southern Leg.
Squareface - an unjustifiable distance to walk for 90m of climbing or all the more memorable as a result of the time it takes?
I thought Squareface was a great route. I don't know if I'd necessarily walk in for 9 miles to get to it if it wasn't part of some challenge like Classic Rock, but I'm glad I did. The walk is long but beautiful, and there is another route in the same corrie that I needed to do which made the whole thing feel a little more worthwhile.
There's recently been a thread on UKC about routes which aren't in Classic Rock, but should be. Are there any you think deserve to be in there, but aren't.
I was surprised that Commando Ridge wasn't in there. I haven't done it yet but it looks like great fun and is clearly one of the classics of Cornwall. Otherwise I'm not sure. I was also surprised that there was nothing included from further north in Scotland, but I'm not necessarily upset about that as it would have meant a lot more cycling!
What impressions did the tour leave you with of Britain and British climbing?
That it rains a lot! (I'm joking, I already knew that). I would say that the best thing about the whole tour was getting to sample the massive variety that climbing in the UK has to offer. Classic Rock includes everything from short grit routes and granite sea cliffs, to big mountain expeditions and crazy, type-2 fun gullies. There's a bit of everything in there and getting to experience it all in one big trip was amazing.