Well, I suppose I’d best write something about the Fred Whitton Challenge that happened this weekend, so here goes. This could well be quite a long one (look, if I had to suffer for hours riding it, I’ll make sure that there’s at least 10 minutes of suffering reading it) so probably best go and get a cuppa. Sol and I had spoken about this ride last year, and Sol had talked me into trying to get an entry. It’s pretty much universally regarded as the toughest of UK sportives, with 4000m of ascent packed into 175kms of riding, and gradients up to 33%. And if this wasn’t tough enough, the sting in the tail of the profile was the wicked spike of Hardknott Pass. I’ve got a book somewhere that states bluntly “if you can ride this, you can ride anything”. And that’s with fresh legs. With 100 miles, and ~3500m of climbing already done, this is masochism on a grand scale. Still, I posted off the entries, and muttered a small curse when they were accepted and we got a place. No going back now. Might as well make the most of it.
So, we travelled up to Ambleside on Saturday morning, threw our gear in the B&B that was to be our HQ for the weekend (big recommendation here for the Claremont Hotel in Ambleside, where we were looked after all weekend), and popped into Coniston to register, and be equipped with a ‘dibber’. This device attaches around the wrist, and is used to record the times at various places on the ride by ‘dibbing’ it into a small device held by marshals at various places on the course. It was immediately apparent during the registration that the organisation of the event was executed with military precision, and Northern common-sense and humour. I loved it, and it boded well for the smooth running of the event tomorrow. Whilst in Coniston we took the opportunity to load up with pasta at Harry’s Restaurant (I can highly recommend the arrabiata) before heading back to Ambleside for a quick wander around town, and an enormous portion of sausage and chips just to make sure that we wouldn’t go hungry. An early night was in order, as we really needed to get away as close as possible to the 6am start the next day – the weather forecast for the morning was looking good, but the afternoon was not so good, with high winds building up, culminating with torrential rain from 5pm onwards or so. As we were expecting a 12 hour or so ride, we wanted as much of it as possible to be in the good weather.
The alarm went off at 5am, and we were on the road by 5:30, and got to Coniston 20 mins later. The start was, well, rather understated really. We rolled up to the gate, dibbed our dibbers with the marshals, and pedalled off up the road into the bright early morning sunshine. This part of the country is devastatingly beautiful at the worst of times, but in these conditions, with the sun low on the horizon, and early morning mist rising off the ground, it was almost too much for words. Well, certainly nothing I could ever say would do it justice, so I’ll just leave the flowery prose there and let you imagine the scene. The first climb was a nice gentle climb up Hawkshead Hill, which was just right to get the legs working, and start to enjoy the day.
The first major test of the day was the climb up Kirkstone pass. While this climb was long, it wasn’t particularly steep, so it was nice just to get into a rhythm, and enjoy the scenery and the steady gaining of altitude. This is the highest point on the route, and so a major psychological boost at the summit, realising that there was now more descent than ascent for the rest of the day. Also notable was the small crowd at the summit, including a cheery lady with some magnificent cowbells who waved and clattered them enthusiastically. The descent was breathtaking, and probably the fastest part of the route. Long, fast, wide, open, clear roads. A group of us flew down in close formation, with me thinking “I *am* Fabian Cancellara” as we scythed through the corners, using both sides of the road. I may well have laughed out loud at the time.
From there, a short climb over Matterdale End brought us onto the only part of the route that was a bit dull… the A66 into Keswick. To be fair, we were only on it for a few kms, but it was busy, noisy, and into the wind all the way. In short, pretty miserable. Not helped by the tw@ who inserted himself into the 20cm gap between my front wheel and Sol’s rear wheel (yes, I’m a merciless wheelsucking leech who never takes a pull at the front…) and then casually hoiked up a loogie and gobbed it over his shoulder. Right into my face. We then turned into Borrowdale and my mood lifted instantly. Borrowdale is extraordinarily scenic, and we were sheltered from the worst of the wind as we wended out way wearily Westward. Ahead, lay the first major test of the day. Honister Pass.
I’ve seen Honister Pass described before now as the most beautiful of the Lake District passes. And while I won’t disagree with this (it really is stunningly beautiful) I would bet that the author of that statement hasn’t attempted to cycle down it. Getting up it was hard enough (indeed, I needed to stop and take a rest at one point) but getting down the other side was terrifying. Exhiliarating, but as scary as anything I’ve ever done. 70km/h, on gravel-strewn, potholed roads with a badly corrugated surface concentrates the mind wonderfully.
The first food stop came at the bottom, and we took a leisurely time eating nanas, flapjack, sandwiches, and refilling our water bottles. The wind was by now really picking up, to the point where it was getting tricky to just keep going in a straight line at times.
The climb up to Newlands Hause came next. And it’s a brute. The wind was really strong now, and as well as the steady 20% gradient, we were battling with winds gusting up to 40mph. There was only one thing for it… I gritted my teeth, set my mind to the task ahead, and decided to enjoy the pain. And, that’s exactly what happened. Even the final vicious 25% hairpin at the top was despatched with a grin on my face, and a cheery “hello again!” to the nice lady with the magnificent cow-bells who had been at the top of Kirkstone. And the descent was brilliant – the road was open, smooth, and above all, fast. I think this was the only descent all day where I didn’t even attempt to cover the brakes. I just shifted quickly up to the longest gear, got down on the drops, shouted “Geronimo!” and threw caution to the wind.
The climb up Whinlatter was lovely. Not too steep, but with enough of a gradient to make it a challenge, it snakes it’s way up through a good covering of trees. This was a welcome change from the exposed, blasted sections over Honister and Newlands that immediately preceeded it, even if it did mean I got rather hot. It was worth at though. At the summit, hundreds of people had gathered to clap, cheer, and offer encouragement to all the riders on the way though. I’m not a particularly emotional chap (well, I just learned at a young age not to show any) but I was quite overwhelmed by this. I lost count of how many times I said “thank you” and waved at the families who were cheering, waving cow-bells, and even offering drinks and snacks to the riders. A couple of kilometres further on was the first dibbing point of the route, where we had to stop, and dib our wrist tags into the box held by the marshals to record a split time. By now, the wind was so strong on the more exposed Western flank that the descent from Whinlatter was actually a bit of a trial, and quite hard work.
From here, things turned a bit crap for me for a few kms. The climb up Fangs Brow was just a grind, and even the flat bits were now hurting. I was falling further and further behind Sol, who realised that something was up, and slowed the pace right down. I’ve been in this place before, during the Macc Monster ride last year, and knew what I had to do. We stopped for five minutes, and I crammed down a couple of protein and carb bars and had a good drink to go with them. It worked. Ten minutes later, I had a new spring in my step, and we were on the relentless onslaught up Cold Fell. Although not the highest, or steepest part of the route, it was flippin’ windy up there, and a leg-sappingly long struggle to the top, where a vicious 25% gradient kicked up at the top into a final hairpin. Once more, several brave souls were again there to cheer us all on. The descent off of the Fell was brilliant. Blasting through the village of Calder Bridge at 50km/h wth the police holding up the traffic was a moment I’ll remember for a long time.
We then stopped again at the food stop, and for the next dib of our dibbers. We took our time over this stop, as we knew that coming up next was the nemesis of Hardknott. The decision to build a road up Hardknott is best described as perverse. This, however, pales into insignificance compared to the decision to hold a bike ride up it. Depraved is the only word that can be used to describe that particular decision. But, I’m always up for a bit of depravity. However, even my depravity has limits, and after a couple of hundred metres I looked up, and realised that this was one challenge I just wasn’t up to. I took the decision to walk a bit, until the gradient eased up to just 20%, where I got back on and gave it another go. This all went well, but ahead of me was, arguably, the toughest bit of road in the country. 33% gradient though a series of switchbacks. Again, I walked. Along with about 90% of the others. I know my place, and attempting to cycle up this particular stretch of road is not it. Maybe next year. The descent from Hardknott is something I’m desperately trying to forget. All I will say on the matter is that it’s no place for the timid. Sadly that’s one word that fits me very well.
Wrynose was next… It’s slighly (but only slightly) softer at the edges than Hardknott, but crucially, from this direction was considerably shorter. I was determined to either get over it, or fall over trying. Sol, who was ahead of me at this point, obviously didn’t know the plan, and pulled over and unclipped at the start of the toughest section. I engaged my lowest gear, stood up, got my weight over the front, and hit the first hairpin. It hurt. My heartrate leapt instantly into the 170s. I dug in, and pushed harder up the 30% gradient that immediately followed. My legs started to buckle. Push, push… Up to the last hairpin. I remember there being people shouting encouragement, but I didn’t have the breath to thank them. My vision started to go blurry at the edges, but at this point, I knew I’d done it. The gradient backed off, and I pedalled up to the summit, and took shelter from the wind behind the Mountain Rescue vehicle and waited for Sol. I later saw that my max heart-rate for the day was up in the 190s. The descent was again, frankly, terrifying. At least this time I had the excuse of a slow car holding up a bunch of us. Sol, with his racers head on, had no such fear, and with a glorious bit of outbraking, swooped round the outside of the car into a downhill 30% hairpin where the run-off consisted of a yawning abyss, and ****ed off into the distance. This, I consider to be more impressive than climbing up there in the first place.
Once over Wrynose, it was all over. Maybe 10kms or so, with only one short, sharp climb up from the Elterwater road up onto the Coniston road. The nice policeman there held up the traffic, and waved us through with a cheery “well ridden fellas. You’ve done it now”. And indeed, we had. About 20 minutes later, we turned off the main road, and I doubt I’ll ever forget this moment. For about 200 metres, both sides of the road were lined with cheering, clapping spectators, marshals, policemen etc. Sol & I shook hands as we crossed the line, dibbed our dibbers for the last time, and climbed off the bikes, with weary legs and proud hearts. 9hrs 51 minutes. Comfortably inside the 12 hours we had set ourselves. We put the bikes in the car, had a bite to eat, and collected our certificates before heading off. People were still arriving in their droves, and perfectly according to plan, it started to rain. We couldn’t have timed it better.
A day that will stick with me for ever. Big thanks to Sol for putting up with my timid descending and waiting at the bottom of every hill for me, and waiting again during my unscheduled stop when I just ran out of energy. And finally, the bike… while I witter on about how tough it all was, the bike just sucked it up, and cossetted me around, flattering my lack of fitness and ability. Thanks Drew.