Officially launched earlier this September, the West Kernow Way has already attracted waves of cyclists looking to explore the 150-mile route. One such intrepid explorer is Aled, one of the co-founders of outdoor company Stohk beer (rhymes with stoke). Accompanied by his partner Jo, Aled set off to tackle the newest long-distance cycling route from Cycling UK.
Words & Photographs: Aled Bath
Myself and a few friends started an outdoor company during the lockdown, making the sort of beer we wanted to drink after an epic day outdoors. Being mainly from the southwest, it was an easy decision to brew Stohk beer in Cornwall. So when we heard that Cycling UK was developing a new bikepacking route around our favourite place, we got in touch and signed up to ride it the moment the route went public. Like many things in the last year, my plan to ride together went out of the window due to COVID. Still, luckily my other half Jo was up for the challenge and agreed to accompany me on her first proper bikepacking trip.
The West Kernow Way Route
The official route is 236km with 3,999m of elevation. However, you'll likely do more or less because it's a route that demands a bit of exploration (often in the search for food!). Also, note the best choice of accommodation is to be found in the main towns just off the route. 3 - 4 days will be ideal if you wish to enjoy long lunches or exploring some of the many amazing places around the route.
The route is still being tweaked by Cycling UK, so it is worth going to their website for the latest GPX file, but our course is on Komoot. The Cycling UK site is a great additional resource on the route's development and contains notes about some alternative routing options. There is also an official Facebook group for the route with tips, advice and resources being added all the time.
Bike set-up & preparation
A gravel or mountain bike with mixed surface tubeless tyres of at least 40c is ideal. Cycling UK recommends the route be tackled in the shoulder months on either side of the summer holidays, and beware some parts of the route can get muddy. There are alternative road sections for those that want to avoid the more challenging areas.
We rode identical Condor Odyssey's with 38c Hutchinson Overrides and 38 x 10-44 gearing with a full set of Apidura bags. Jo chose to use the more compact Backcountry bags, which suit her smaller frame and lighter packing with around 6kg of gear. I decided on Expedition bags as they offer a bit more capacity for the lightweight camping gear and DSLR gear we took with my bags weighing around 12kg. The route is probably better without camping gear slowing you down on the Cornish hills (it's very hilly), and there are plenty of hotels and B&Bs along the way.
2021 trans kernow way kit packing bikepacking 001 copy.jpg, by Jessica Strange
Lots of food and water are a must as there are long sections away between resupplies. Plan ahead on where you need to stop and alter your route plan in advance, as the navigation can be tricky. Take a GPS or download maps to your phone and ensure you have a backup battery for recharging if needed. Many sections are without a phone signal.
You'll need a good set of tools and spares as there are no bike shops directly on the route. Inner-tubes, patches and tyre boots are all recommended as there are some gnarly rocky trails with plenty of opportunities for punctures; a spare rear mech hanger would also give peace of mind.
If you are camping, go ultra-light as you won't want to be lugging heavy set-ups over the more rugged sections. We used a tarp, and I packed a lightweight down quilt coupled with an ultra-lightweight sleeping mat to keep weight down.
Cornwall tends to be warmer than the rest of the UK, so you shouldn't get too cold, but plan for wind, rain, and layers to put on when stopping.
The official route start and finish are in Penzance, so parking at the Marazion long-stay car park makes sense if you want to park your car. Redruth and Penzance both have good transport links and are good options for starting and finishing. Finally, the course is a figure of eight, and it is easy to break it down into two shorter rides if you prefer.
Terrain: Expect lower than average speeds on the ride due to the rolling terrain and some challenging off-road sections. We completed the route in 2.5 days, but longer would make more sense, so you are not pressured for time and make more of the opportunities to enjoy the views, swim and enjoy the Cornish hospitality.
Stopovers: We camped at Porthleven and Portreath, which are both lovely traditional fishing ports - hoping to sample fish straight off the boat on the harbour. There are plenty of campsites, but the route lends itself to B&Bs and hotels to avoid lugging the extra weight around the challenging elevation. You need to get there early, though, as restaurants often stop serving fairly early and don't expect everywhere to be open. Check ahead. Hayle, Helston and Redruth have more accommodation and food options and are worth detouring off the main route for. Don't miss opportunities for pasties and cream teas. The first rule of the West Kernow Way should be 'Eat when you can' as it is often some way to the next place for food! Penzance and Helston are also both 'Experience' centres and have invested in welcoming and promoting cycling. There are shorter day rides from these locations.
Ride highlights: There's an amazing variety of terrain from smooth gravel tracks to technical off-road, which you'll have mainly to yourself; unbelievably quiet lanes and smooth surfaces are also on offer, and there are lots of options to add more road if you want a more chilled ride; the route passes through many amazing abandoned settlements - expect old mines and ancient stone formations galore; it's packed with amazing coastal riding with lots of swimming opportunities but avoid areas like The Loe Bar which have dangerous currents; expect a bit of walking, but these sections take you to some amazing sections that make it worthwhile; The Tinners Way crosses and amazing moorland section - it's tough but worth it to see the ancient formations; many sections are marked as footpaths, but Cycling UK are in the process of reclaiming old rights of way that have been lost over the years. The route is still being tweaked, so some parts are 'tricky' to navigate, but that's part of the adventure!
The West Kernow Way is an absolute gem. West Kernow is far from the crowded holiday destinations in Cornwall, and you'll get to enjoy miles of uninterrupted off-road heaven. Even when on the road, you'll barely see anyone.
Our Condor Bivios struck a great balance of mixing between road and off-road and are supremely capable bikepacking machines. The 1x Campag Ekar groupset proved to have almost perfect gearing even with the occasional 1 in 4 climb and gradient over 10%. I would probably opt for 650x45c tyres if I returned purely because there was more technical off-road than I envisaged. Don't be fooled by Komoot's stats of road vs off-road. This is a mainly off-road ride and challenging downhill and uphill in parts. The extra rubber would have been more reassuring on the gnarly bits, and I could be tempted to return on a mountain bike too! Bikepacking bags will be a better option than panniers due to the rough sections. Our Apidura bags were faultless and gave us the reassurance of staying dry. We saved a bit of weight with clothing from The Overland that looks great on and off the bike.
If I returned, I would allow at least an extra day to enjoy more of the stops on the ride and many great food opportunities. Areas such as Redruth are packed with miles and miles of old mining trails that are crying out to be explored on a gravel bike. Fishing ports such as Cadgwith are hidden gems where you still get a glimpse of traditional Cornish life.