Those of you who’ve endured these posts for the past few years will be well aware that pretty much every stupid idea I come up with, whether it’s cycling what is commonly held to be one of the hardest one-day rides in the UK, or climbing some dangerous tottering pile of choss laughingly referred to as a “sea-cliff”, tends to be done in the company of my great friend, Sol. After this years Fred Whitton ride, he wrote the following piece, but had nowhere to put it. So, rather than losing it, I thought I’d give it a good home. I’ve left it exactly as it was typed:
I can’t remember who actually pitched the question to whom, but I’m sure the stock joke Neil and I have shared continually over the last 10 or so years of exploits was uttered! “What’s the worst that can happen?”
Hindsight is such a wonderful eye opening thing. It appears that the difference between near hypothermia and being relatively comfortable is a pair of leg warmers and a string vest! But I get ahead of myself.
Having left Cambridge with constant chatter and excitement at the prospect of once again tackling ‘The Fred’, I reckon we didn’t stop talking about it for most of the journey. Our normal long journey conversations revolve around our shared experiences in motorcycle racing, climbing, cycling, and as you might expect with both of us having daughters of similar ages, the things Dad’s with daughters worry about. However, this journey’s topic of conversation while not atypical, was mostly focussed on the challenge ahead. Primary in our minds was the progressively worse weather reports our week long game of “weather forecast tennis” had suggested.
So as we rolled up to ‘The Fred’ HQ in Coniston to sign in, and get our dibbers for the following days ride, the rain spots, while not welcome, were not entirely unexpected. That night our conversation turned once again to the weather forecast and the frustratingly difficult choice of what layers to wear with a ride that has up to 500m elevation difference and a worsening forecast throughout the day. 8 degrees and a stiff westerly wind, with 90% chance of precipitation may sound relatively innocuous – but to a cyclist it means that if you dress for the valleys you’ll be cold up top, and vice versa if you dress for the hills you’ll be too hot in the valleys! That and the prospect of a day battling the Lakeland wind sounded character building!
With clothing sorted out, a plethora of gels, go bars, and Soreen Malt loaf laid out ready for the morning I hit the sack and had a relatively good night sleep except for the frequent bathroom visits caused by drinking way too much water the night before in an effort to be well hydrated in the morning. That and a weird dream about driving a double decker bus round the IOM TT circuit and missing the hairpin at the start of the mountain and ending up driving over a wooden bridge which collapsed and pitched me and the bus into a lake! Perhaps someone can psychoanalyze that one, but I suspect it has something to do with my sub-conscious reminding me that I may think I’m more capable than perhaps I am .. and I should just ride to my ability or some such!
Enough of the preamble … I should cut to the chase or I’ll never finish writing this account up. Suffice to say that we found ourselves incredibly excited to be lined up with most of the 1700 souls who had committed to the challenge this year. It seemed they all had also read the Met Office website and had realized an early 6am start was the way to avoid the worst of the rain. That pre-start atmosphere was filled with laughter – mostly directed at the poor embarrassed start line Marshall whose constant stabbing at the generator’s starting cord failed to keep the start line inflatable arch inflated for more than a few seconds. As 6am came it was followed by a comedy few minutes as the arch would inflate to the roar of a generator and a cheers from the riders – only to be quickly followed by yet more laughter and furious cord pulling as a few riders attempted to dib and make it through a collapsing arch.
Hawkshead – Kirkstone – Matterdale – Honister
Once on the road, it takes a no time at all before you are heading up Hawkshead the first of the 10 main climbs of ‘the Fred’. I can remember what a shock to the system this first hill was in 2012. Leaving me wondering what the hell I’d let myself in for. Last year I’d arrived at it’s summit with my heart bursting our of my chest and the rasping breath of a middle aged man who should know better. This year I was still chatting away as we climbed, hardly noticing the first ascent before it was over with barely a semi-excited heart rate and warming set of muscles eager to push me and my bike around the 112 miles. This boded well.
Neil and I continued to chat out of Ambleside as we made our way . The early morning crispness and dense air seemed to emphasize the silence of the bikes briskly running out past the Windemere before turning sharply up toward Troutbeck and after a short but steep kick, you are into the first long 3 mile grind up the tallest of the climbs. Kirkstone pass just keeps coming at you. There’s nothing difficult here. No sudden steepening gradients to catch you out, just one long ramp that will send your heart rate soaring if you don’t pace yourself and keep you breathing and cadence in sync . Heart rate management and more particularly keeping your heart rate out of the penalty zone is the key to avoiding pain later in the ride. In other words – taking it easy is the way to ride 112 miles if you don’t want the last 30 miles to be purgatory.
The descent from Kirkstone is amazing … let off the brakes and gravity does the rest … stay off the brakes for too long and there’s a gathering of momentum that is butt tighteningly hard to bring back under control. I misjudged an s-bend and nearly exited stage left on this the fastest section. A reminder that the prospect of getting any of the multiple descents in the Fred wrong has some pretty serious consequences. Still 70 kmh on my ride log suggests I wasn’t too concerned at this stage!
The next notable memory from the ride was Honister. Neil had done his normal whippet impression and started to pull out a few tens of bike lengths on me. “Slowly slowly catchy monkey”, I thought and lowered my gaze to the few meters in front of my wheel. I wasn’t about to let my competitive instinct draw me into risking a soaring heart rate. Besides I’d catch him on the descent, and the pace so far had been well over our conservative approach last year. The previous section of the A66 to Keswick and Matterdale had seemed a relative breeze compared to last year (a mini peloton had formed which had aided us along nicely) in spite of a strong head wind. In short we were already on for a good time assuming we didn’t spend too long at the first food stop.
As the rhythm of one push leads to the next and your breathing syncs, all sounds of others and spectators around you disappears. The in and out of your laboured breath takes over. I’d enter this hypnotic state many time during the day, but on Honister the time in the comfort of my own breathing was being constantly interrupted by a chirpy chap from Brighton. My heart rate started to go up as I tried to talk and ride and the margin between comfortable and labored was crossed. However, by moderating my cadence and shifting to the new cheat 32 tooth rear sprocket, I was amazed to see I could bring my heart rate down on a climb. Something that was impossible last year. and pointed to the benefits of actually doing some training for the Fred instead of just rocking up and hoping for the best – this was the practicality of last year in spite of my intention to train!
As I was absorbing this new found ability in my riding I scanned upward for Neil. Bloody hell he was walking! What the hell is Neil walking for? He’s a better climber than me .. this didn’t equate! As I approached, I heard what I thought was him saying he’d lost a cleat, and my initial reaction was to curse the fact that our spares didn’t include one. My worries were unfounded as I got closer, he confirmed he’d had an unintended unclipping and had to stop. Unable to get going again on the sharp incline he’d elected to walk the last section of the ramp. I was gutted for him and could but reflect about how I’d feel in a similar situation – my own goal for this Fred was “not to walk” . I imagined he’d be pissed, so chose not to broach the topic – no need his face said it all as he caught up and he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Must of been some gravel or something in the cleat – never mind!”
As we rode on toward the first food stop at 60 miles …. the weather started to look like the forecasted rain was upon us … so a quick splash and dash was in order. I swallowed another gel, grabbed some water, and donned my waterproof. I’m so glad Neil drove me back to Coniston the night before to buy a waterproof layer! A decision that proved to more important than either of us could imagine.
Newlands – Whinlatter – Fangs Brow – Cold Fell
I don’t honestly remember much of the Newlands and Whinlater other than we dibbed dibbers somewhere, and there was a fantastic descent where I was on the drops, arse in the air and throwing caution to the wind, which was now blowing enough to catch the wheels occasionally. I remember not losing much to Neil on the climb, and letting go of the brakes to overtake on the descent but being unable to get a safe pass. When the opportunity came I kicked the pedals through a couple of rotations on the longest gear and swooped round Neil, into a wet corner carrying brakes, and cut a perfect line. It’s such an amazing feeling on the Spin MkX when you tip into a corner and get it right. The handling isn’t entirely neutral, it needs a little positive steering, but the entire bike loads up against the forces, and carves a corner with the same sort of sensation a refreshly cut ice skate cuts ice, or a snowboard carves piste. It’s intoxicating, and I have yet to find the bikes limit before I hit my mental limit/braveness. Anyhow, as we let bravery and gravity build speed I remember sneaking a look back to see Neil slipstreaming – so reminiscent of the GP250 days, or one particular time a Cadwell on TZRs. He had the same look in his eyes then!
Once into the rolling countryside again I moved over to let Neil take the front for a bit. I was beginning to feel like I was towing us both along and doing a fair bit of time in the wind, and my legs were starting to complain. With Neil up front we slowed almost instantly and and after a couple of kms came alongside him. I could tell instantly he was hurting … he did his “pissed off with this” look, said something about his back was hurting – which if I’m honest sounded like a racers excuse No232 at the time – especially when you are also hurting. So I thought what the hell, I’ll take wind duties up front again and got my head down. After a couple of attempts to tow him along it was obvious he was having none of it.
We’ve had enough adventures over the years to know each other’s strategies for handling difficult situations – when he did pull over and said he’d be fine, just needed to rest for a moment, but struggled to get off the bike, I realised he just needed to stretch his back out. When he finally capitulated and took the advice it did seem to ease. We topped up on food again, had some ibuprofen and we were off again. That’s when things started to get really tough!
With me up front, and Neil not able to fully contribute to time in the wind, I started to drift into that hypnotic state cycling can induce. With us out onto Cold Fell, climbing into the low level cloud, horizontal rain, the temperature dropping to 2C but feeling minus something or other, I just blotted out everything and concentrated on the 20 metres of road I could see clearly enough to know it was road. The weather really was abysmal.
Every few minutes I’d check back and moderate speed to keep Neil and I together. WIth the wind so high, the cloud cover so thick, speeds dropped, and easier gears were selected. Consequently, the work rate reduced, cadence dropped, heart rates lowered, and so did our temperature. I knew Neil was continuing to suffer as there was no banter, no jokes, just the occasional complaint about cold hands, cold feet, can’t see. Each successive statement being slightly more worrying than the last until he really did worry me by saying he honestly couldn’t feel arms or legs. At this point my core was still warm but my waterproof was starting to fail badly, my gloves were next to useless and base layers were water logged. I figured my saving grace was my leg warmers, and my string vest which was trapping pockets of air under my water logged base layers. Neil had neither and was looking grey and pallid.
I’d been trying to work out how far we had to go to the next feed stop where I knew we’d have warm tea, food .. always good for Ronketti’s is warm tea … so suggested we only had a few more kms to go, not actually knowing how far the descent off Cold fell was, nor, when we’d get there. The damn low cloud and mist was robbing us of reference points.
About 5 mins later we started the descent, and 5 minutes after that we dibbed again into a feed station, and found to our gratitude that they’d opened up the village hall, which was now filled with steaming bodies, piles of sarnies and cakes, and a queue of cyclists a mile long waiting for the next large pot of tea to be poured into a precious few cups. We queued with everyone else and stood waiting for tea. Never has a brew been more welcome … and mine was half downed before Neil arrived with his tea cupped in his hands. The poor sod was shivering so uncontrollably that he couldn’t get the cup to his mouth. I was just pointing out that there was a warm room out back if he needed it, when he was whisked off by some young lady on a mission to wrap him up in silver foil.
We stood and chatted for a while and as his shivering started to subside and he could drink tea, I started to feel guilty taking up space in the warm room. So went for a wander to grab more tea, and ended up chatting with a few others who had mates in a similar situation. I popped in occasionally over the next hour and a half and could see colour returning to his face.
Hardknott – Wrynose and finish
It was tough to do, but I had to force the issue of continuing – there was talk of a bus coming with a large number of riders opting out of going out into the weather again. I’d checked the forecast for the next couple of hours and the wind was still high but the rain was “light”. I put on my perkiest , “you can do this” face, and popped the question, offering to ride and collect the car if he wanted to ditch. It took a few minutes to sink in, but to his credit, he opted to ride.
Stepping out into the cold again wasn’t quite as bad as expected, the temperature was up a few degress, and the rain had indeed eased. But the flipping wind was not playing ball and as we went into the successive ramps that lead to Hardknott pass I was suffering with the increased effort of fighting the wind. I knocked back the effort a notch, focussed on keeping enough work rate to keep me warm, and settled into the run up to the pass. Cyclists were coming past us with some regularity, but I didn’t care. Neil seemed comfortable at the pace, and I just kept spinning and watched the beautiful scenery slowly pass by.
As I scanned up the initial ramp of Hardknott pass, with 100 miles in my legs I knew I’d finish, I knew it with certainty. I started to consider whether I’d have enough juice to ride Hardknott – to be able to circle the “NO” I didn’t walk on the certificate at the end. As the ramp passed under my wheels and my heart rate stayed under the magic 160 bpm I need to stay out of trouble, I even allowed myself to believe I might just ride the full Fred Whitton. Once over the initial ramp I scanned ahead again, and the full magnitude of the ascent stretched out in front of me. That 1:3 section looms up above you – there were riders walking everywhere – I started to doubt I could do it.
“Slowly slowly catchy monkey”
I checked my gear selection, dropped my sight to the front of my wheel, and started to breath, pedal, breath, pedal. All was good … this I could do! As I approached the famous Hardknott ramp I took a couple of deep breaths, and decided my low cadence approach would mean I’d be required to exert too much effort to make the 1:3 gradient with such a low cadence. I was virtually stalling the bike between each push – I needed to up cadence, go aerobic, and hope that on clearing the short section I could revert back to the low cadence and bring my heart rate back down.
It worked, my heart rated jumped close to my max and while it reached 175 bpm the 1:3 passed beneath my wheels, and as soon as the gradient eased, so did my cadence and my heart rate quickly recovered to 155bpm where it stayed until I crested the top. I’d done it!
With only Wrynose to go and follwoing so closely on … I elected not to wait for Neil at this stage and dropped down the descent from Hardknott – perilous is not the word. Gravel strewn, poorly surfaced, torrents of water – brakes were on constantly, barely able to hold back the gravity willing the bike to dive towards hairpins that suddenly switched back and dropped away. With arms pumped, back complaining, and a sigh of relief I reached the bottom, and pedalled gently on while waiting for Neil to catch up.
As I started the final big climb of the day the doubt came flooding back. Looking up at Wrynose is once again daunting – my legs were beasted, and the added pressure of just once more climb to do without walking weighed heavy. Once again I lowered my gaze and willed myself into the comfort of low cadence and breath, pedal, breath, pedal all over again.
“Slowly slowly catchy monkey”
Nothing mattered but watching the road, scanning for the readout on my cycle computer, “keep the heart rate under control”.
As I hit the steeper sections I’d bring my cadence up slightly, and wherever I could I’d revert to the comfort of breath, pedal, breath, pedal. Once I saw the descent warning board up ahead I started to smile … feck me! I’d just cycled all 10 Lakeland passes! Get in!
With the last nightmare descent behind me I spent a few minutes contemplating what an epic adventure we’d just had before Neil and I reunited for the ride into Ambleside. As we turned right on to the main road, wind once again squarely in our faces, the run down to the finish quickly past. With 9 hrs 57 mins since we departed earlier that day I was elated and looking forward to some well earned food.
As we crossed under the inflatable arch I was happy Neil had elected to continue .. it wouldn’t feel right unless we crossed the start and finish line together. Not on “the Fred”!