“Well, they’re going up the easy side, aren’t they?” says Academy coach Keith Lambert. “Then down to Seatoller, the rainiest place in Britain.”
“A 28 cassette!” Bill Nickson exclaimed when hearing what size some teams were riding. “You don’t need a 28 to get up Honister. A fit professional cyclist can get up on a 25.”
“They should have taken it up Hardknott and Wrynose too,” he added, before recommending I get myself down to the Ras for some proper racing.
Those two sage stars of the Seventies were dryly doing a good job of playing down the challenge ahead.
But even the names of these Cumbrian circle of death confreres sound hard and mocking. Honister Pass is a member of that select band of brutal British climbs which elicit immediate grimaces of recognition – or worse, memory of riding – in the cycling fraternity.
I wanted to be there for the modern Tour of Britain’s first visit to the climb – even if it was going up the easy (for an ex-national champion like “Legs Lambert”, maybe) west side.
British climbs don’t get much more honest than Honister. The lonely road cuts steeply through a civilisation-less U-shaped valley, a flowing river of tarmac squirming to the top, hitting 20 per cent in places.
Not for Cumbrian road builders, an arty squiggle of hairpins – flamboyant gestures of roadbuilding from nations populated by flamboyant gesturers like France and Italy. They get straight to the point around here.
The summit is reached by passing through two slate walls with broken turrets, foreboding gateways. The wind scuds coldly across the top, buffeting the scant vegetation.
To get away from this desolate Mordor? Fly down a treacherously steep descent.
It’s brutal enough without the weather jumping an angry moshpit. On top, an hour before the race’s passage, on-bike summiteers shivered against low stone walls in shelter from the wind.
The massed crowd on Honister was absurdly, brilliantly large, and many had cycled up. When the five hundred (my own guesstimate) or so souls turned to wave up at the TV helicopter overhead, you’d have been forgiven for thinking some mass congregation lost on the ridge was desperately appealing for rescue.
Standing out among the rainbow spread of cagoule wearers were a wolf, a bumblebee, a chicken and a white yeti, dementedly banging Yodel sticks and shouting.
If a bill of rights for British cycling tifosi was to be drawn up, the right to pull a sickie on a Monday morning to wear an animal costume at the top of a hideously-steep climb on a hypothermic “summer” afternoon must be near the top.
“Where did all those fans come from? It’s not like there’s anything anywhere near there,” Sky rider Ian Stannard said to me at the hotel later.
They build them tough up north. A bloke from Honister92.com was stood by a slate wall in cycling shorts; others stood by in fingerless mitts while soft Southerner me shivered in six layers. Complain? Head for cover? They got a Mexican wave going along the crowd.
When the race arrived, Honister also neatly epitomised the unique process of attrition that the wannabe race winner must overcome here.
The inclement weather, the six-man squads, tough climbs whose position in the stage favoured attacks. Because we can’t build mountains, we layer on the uncertainty here.
It’s very easy for someone to lose the race early on. Teams were grappling for control of the race like one of these hardened Honister folk after a runaway wind-taken umbrella and, frankly, there is very little at the moment, as we saw when Martin and Quintana tried to force affairs over the climb.
Meanwhile, race leader Elia Viviani was slipping backwards with the kind of slightly pissed-off and pained expression that said ‘what kind of madness is this?’ A man in need of a few hairpins.
When the last rider passed and the exodus started, most fans’ faces were hidden, behind bluffs, scarves, coats. But I’d wager there was a smile on every single one.
They won’t forget the day the Tour of Britain went over Honister Pass in a hurry and neither will some of the riders, 28 on the back or not.