nr's blog

Fred: Take 2 16 May, 2013

Filed under: Cycling — nr @ 12:18 pm

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:

Part One

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.

(c) AthletesInAction

(c) AthletesInAction

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.

Part Two

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”

(c) Steve Fleming

(c) Steve Fleming

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”!


F***ing Hell, it’s Fred Whitton [1] 13 May, 2013

Filed under: Cycling — nr @ 7:55 pm

A couple of years ago I was doing some work for a famous brewer in Copenhagen. Without giving too much away, just in case anyone from there ever reads this, all I’m saying is that it was Probably The Best few days in Copenhagen that I’ve ever spent. Anyhow, the site of the original brewery, in Valby, is a wonderful example of industrial architecture, and has some intriguing tunnels and passages and buildings and what-have-you, so I arranged for one of my hosts to show me around the site. It all started off easily enough, with some walking around various offices, laboratories, tunnels and the staff canteen. After lunch, my host, one of the most sensible looking chaps you’ll ever see (greying hair, probably early 50s, corduroy trousers, nicely pressed shirt, sensible shoes etc.) turned to me, and said “As humans, I think, to sometimes press yourself into the Red Zone, important, it is”. Yes, he really did speak like Yoda, but that’s not the point. Anyway, the rest of the group that I was with suddenly made excuses to go and do some urgent filing or something, leaving me looking at a door marked “danger” and a smiling Dane with a Yoda complex next to me. It was one of those moments when I realised that whatever happened next, it was going to be interesting. And so, he opened the door, and my stomach hit the top of my head as I looked straight down a 35m drop to the road below, and across a very narrow bridge with a pair of small handrails. We both walked across the bridge, and over the rooftop of the next couple of buildings. It was fantastic. And when we were safely back inside, I thanked him for showing me that the Red Zone can be found sometimes in the most mundane of places.

I mused on this as I set off on this years Fred Whitton, all too aware that over the course of the next nine hours or so I’d be pushing myself physically into, and possibly past my Red Zone. Last year I had managed to set a personal best heart-rate of 197 on the climb up Wrynose, and come within a few seconds of collapsing in the middle of the road. So I thought I knew what was coming, and tried not to worry about it as I pedalled enthusiastically away from the start line. As last year, we were staying at the marvellous Claremont House in Ambleside (highly recommended), and had set off early in order to try and beat the worst of the weather. The forecast was for rain from about 14:00 onwards, so we arrived for 06:00 for an early start. The weather had me wondering what to wear, and in the end I plumped for a kind of halfway house – winter gloves, oversocks, thermal undershirt, with normal shorts. A windproof gilet and waterproof jacket completed the stylish ensemble. I’d whacked down a caffeine gel along with my breakfast, and pondered whether this was a good move as my heart rate sat at 115 while waiting for the official start. Still, looking on the bright side, it was consderably lower than the poor bloke who had to restart the genny every fifteen seconds when it stalled and the inflatable startline arch collapsed repeatedly on the riders. At this point, it looked like every rider had the same idea to get an early start, as the start was packed. Completely packed. I hope there’s some photos of this somewhere, as it really was quite a fastastic spectacle, and quite exhiliarating to be a part of it.

The first part of the course is the gentle pull up Hawkshead Hill. I really enjoy this bit of the ride, particularly when accompanied by the early morning sunshine and several hundred intrepid Fred Whittoneers. Conversation flowed between the riders as we started the hill, but thinned out a bit towards the top as the gradient began to get heart rates up and legs loosened. From there, a quick descent and spin into Ambleside, and all was well with the world. There were a few spectators out and about, the weather was fine, and I was feeling good. The ascent up past Holbeck Ghyll isn’t marked on the routemap as a named hill, but is still steep enough to catch the unwary out, as you turn from a fast main road in a long gear straight into a tight left-hander into a steep hill. Cue the frantic sound of several hundred cogs grinding their displeasure as riders attempt to change down 19 ratios while standing on the pedals, gurning ludicruously in an attempt to keep up some momentum. Next up, Kirkstone Pass. This is my favourite climb on the ride, in terms of gradient, scenery, the lady waiting at the top with the cowbells, and the glorious descent that awaits once over the top. As last year, I got my head down, and laughed out loud as I zipped through the corners in close formation with five or six others. Sol was doing his normal fearless descending, and gained about 50 metres on me, then promptly lost about 25 of them after entering an S-bend way too hot and on the wrong line. Top fun, and reminiscent of some of out antics all those years ago racing motorbikes. From there, a quick blat along Matterdale, punctuated only by a particularly suicidal overtake by someone trying to get a good time brings us to the only dull section of the ride, the drag along the A66 into the wind, to get into Keswick. This was completed with stoicism and a dropped chain, but no real incident. It would have been nice to ride the whole section in a group to make the most of some shelter, but sadly we only managed to catch a sizeable group about 50 metres before the end of the road. Still, this had a rather nice upside as we rode alongside a glass-panelled fence in Keswick, and I looked over and saw the many colours of the peloton reflected back at me. While I’m not a particularly vain person, it’s kind of neat to see this and think “Cool! That’s me that is!”

Image (c) Athletes in Action

Image (c) Athletes in Action

The peloton held together through Borrowdale, and this was the highlight of the day for me, as we scythed through the twists and undulations along the valley floor. Next up was the first major challenge of the day – Honister. I’d had to walk part of this last year, which irritated me no end, so I was determined to complete it this year. The first ramp hits you hard and quickly, but I had no problems, just pottering my way up, and enjoying the challenge. the gradient then slackens off for a couple of hundred metres, so I span gently, and recovered, in preparation for the next ramp. This time, I was ready. This time, I would do it. I set my head down, and just pedalled, and it just wafted past under my wheels. I looked up – maybe 20 metres to go to the top of this steep bit, no more. My legs were getting a bit tired, so I stood up for these last few metres, which was to prove my undoing, as my left foot unclipped from my pedal. Arg! I was travelling so slowly that I had no chance to re-clip, and had to stop, and walk the last 5 metres. For about 20 seconds I was absolutely fuming, but then remembered where I was, and what I was doing, so just put it to the back of my mind. Once the gradient relented at the end of the second ramp, I clipped back in, and just rode up to the top. The descent was bloody terrifying, as my left foot was shaken clean out of the pedal again on the corrugations. I’m not sure if I had some grit or mud or something in my pedal or cleat, as for the rest of the ride, it gave me no more problems. A few kms further down the road was the first foodstop, and remembering how much time we lost last year just munching and chatting, we just took this opportunity to grab a nana and a flapjack, refill water bottles, and carry on. A bit of rain was now in the air, so we also put our rain jackets on. Little did we know… We also, being a pair of grumpy old men, popped down some Nurofen to try to placate our complaining backs.

Next up, Newlands Hause. I like this one… A long, steady climb with a sharp drop to the left to remind you that this is still a wild landscape, and a gorgeous little ramp at the top to stretch your legs. Which it did. And I really got my descending head on for this one, as it took until about halfway down for Vincenzo Oliver to come past me. So I just tucked in behind and while I won’t say I enjoyed the view, I did benefit from the slipstream. A quick dib of our dibbers to check in with the marshals at Braithwaite, and we were off again. At this point, Sol’s onboard Deep Thought Cray 5000 predicted that we were on for a sub-8 hour ride, which was way ahead of our expectations, but nice to see all the same. Whinlatter Pass was the next challenge, and again, it’s a realy enjoyable climb, with a different feel to it from the rest of the course, given its tree cover, and wide open descent. As last year, the crowds lining the summit were enthusiastic, and really help make the ride feel special. I savoured the atmosphere as I rode over the top, and we scooted down the other side, feeling still pretty good, but with my back starting to nag a bit more.

We turned left at the bottom. And then, things went to hell in a handbasket.

We were now flat into the wind, with no shelter, and my back suddenly cramped up to the point where I could hardly turn the pedals. Sol recognised that something was wrong, so we stopped, and I tried to get off the bike to stretch out a bit. I couldn’t lift my legs to do this. Eventually, I just dropped the bike, and stepped over it. Sol gave my back a good pummeling (in a manly kind of way) and I stretched out a bit, and took the opportunity to whack down another gel and a protein and carb bar. It took a good few minutes, but I climbed back onto the bike, and got ready to enter my personal world of pain. I knew there was a long way still to go, much of it into the wind, and into some rapidly worsening weather, and with the steepest and toughest ascents and descents yet to come. That said, there was no way I would have dropped out at this point. I knew it was going to hurt, a lot. But, I also knew that Sol was there with me, and we’ve been through thick and thin together. There was no way he was about to leave me by the side of the road, and equally, there was no way I was going to leave him to complete the toughest part of the course on his own.

The climb up Fang’s Brow was just a grind. I remember this from last year, and thinking that for what is barely a pimple on the profile, it really is a bit of a test of character. Still, we got our heads down, and muscled our way to the top. There’s no finesse about this climb. In fact, there’s very little to recommend it at all, as once the summit is gained, all you’re treated to is the view of an electricity substation and the smell of a cattle farm. Not a climb for the connoisseur. Things then levelled out for a while, but the weather was, well, appalling. The rain was doing that horizontal thing that it does so well in The Lakes, and the temperature had now dropped to 2C. I couldn’t see where I was going, and had lost the feeling in my fingers.

And then we started the climb up to Cold Fell. Things were about to get a whole lot worse, very quickly indeed. As we turned onto the start of the ascent, we were with a small group of riders from the Honister club. A chap was standing by the side of the road and in three words, summed up exactly what was required for the next 30 mins or so: “Dig deep, Honister!”. He obviously knew what the weather was like up the road. We started the climb, and the weather deteriorated with every metre gained. The rain was now so heavy that I had to alternately close each eye, as there was no way I could keep them open for more than about 10 seconds due to the force of the rain in my face. My hands had now stopped working, and I couldn’t use my shifters, so effectively, I was stuck in one gear. To make matters worse, I could feel a numbness now spreading from my feet, up my legs.

Dig deep…

I kept going. Deeper and deeper into the maelstrom. I remember saying to Sol at one point “dood, we have to get down from here – I’m going to be in real trouble soon”. I just didn’t know how soon. I remember thinking that this was exactly the kind of weather that catches under-prepared walkers out, and shows just how brave our mountain rescue workers are. And here I was, attempting to cycle through it. OK, I wasn’t exactly underprepared (thermal base layer, winter gloves, long-sleeved jersey, windproof gilet, and ‘waterproof’ jacket, but still, I was in real trouble here. Mention must be made of my jacket – a Northwave Sid, just in case anyone is thinking of buying one. Don’t. I’ve seen more waterproof teabags.

Dig deep…

I had stopped shivering. I couldn’t feel anything now from my fingertips to my shoulders, and my feet up past my knees. I couldn’t see where I was going, as my vision was compromised by the ferocity of the rain. My glasses were useless in these conditions, so were consigned to decorative use perched just so in the vents of my helmet. Further up we went. Further and further. At this point, I was starting to think that a rescue was a serious option as I just didn’t know how I was still turning the pedals. I couldn’t feel what I was doing any more, just an automaton, stabbing incoherently at the pedals, doing what I’d done for the past 130kms out of necessity. A survival instinct, as I knew the further I went, the closer I would be to getting out of this.

Dig deep…

Deeper still. I’d never been so cold. I’d never been so tired. My body was by now, quite rightly, diverting all energy into just keeping my core temperature up. I started to wonder how much longer I had before my brain started shutting down high level functions, just to try and save energy and heat. At this point, I knew, I’d be done for, and the only option would be a rescue of some form. But, I became slowly aware that through the fog, I could no longer see the road going up. This was it. The summit. At the bottom, at Calder Bridge, I knew there was a food stop, the temperature would be a few degrees higher, and hopefully some hot tea. My immediate concern, however, was how to cope with the descent when I couldn’t feel anything. I squeezed my hands, and could hear the brake pads make contact with the rims, so that was good. And if I held them on, I could feel in my shoulders how hard I was braking. And that was all I had. No feeling in my hands or arms. No gears.

Still, at least if I’d crashed I wouldn’t have felt anything. But, I didn’t. I made it into the food station, grabbed a cup of tea, and tried to drink it. I couldn’t. I physically couldn’t lift the cup. The lovely lady took one look at me, escorted me to the medical room, and wrapped me in a survival blanket. And there I stayed for the next 90 minutes, being fed hot sweet tea, and biscuits. All around me were others in the same state. And if any of the helpers here ever get to read this, you all deserve medals. I don’t think I’m exaggerating, when I say that you averted a catastrophe by providing support, kindness and tea to many appreciative idiots who’d gone out on the fell wearing lycra.

And all the while, Sol stayed with me. I couldn’t ask more from a friend. Although he did baulk when the medic suggested we huddle together to share bodily warmth. I like to think he was just preserving what last shred of dignity I had left.

I knew, however, that I had to get going again. I could have waited for a rescue. I could have abandoned. But that would have left Sol to complete Hardknott and Wrynose on his own, and I wasn’t going to do that, given that he had waited for me, and thrown away any chances of a good time this year. So, I wrapped myself in more space blankets under my jersey, got back on the bike, and got going again. My legs were now starting to work again, my arms were working, and my back still hurt. In short, I was back in with a chance, and in as good a shape as I’d been for the past couple of hours… The ride to the base of Hardknott was, in fact, pleasurable. Really! The rain was still lashing down, but off the fell, the temperature was a good eight or nine degrees higher, and the extra insulation layers were doing their job. I knew that there was no way I was going to be able to complete the climb at Hardknott given my current energy levels and back pain, so I was ready for the walk. Sol, however, muscled his way to the top. As Simon Warren states in his book 100 Climbs, if you can cycle this, you can cycle anything. Well done dood – you’re one of a very few people who can say they’ve done this.

The descents from Hardknott and Wrynose were completely terrifying. In the dry they’re scary. In the wet, well, they’re just plain dangerous. Especially on carbon rims. And the amount of water gushing down the Upper Duddon Valley was quite breathtaking. Waterfalls cascaded down the valley sides before discharging their payload of gravel most of the way across the road at regular intervals. The sound was indescribable. Once the descent from Wrynose was completed, I knew it was all over. I knew we were going to do it. 10kms to go, much of it into the wind, all of it painful, and all of it glorious. As last year, the final run-in to the finish line was lined with cheering spectators. And I thank each and every one of them for turning out in the honking rain to cheer and encourage every rider who came in.

So that was that. Another Fred Whitton. And a new discovery of just how far I can push myself, and just how far Sol will follow to support me when I need it. Thanks dood. It was a pleasure to watch you complete the course without having to walk, and even more of a pleasure to buy you a beer afterwards. Will I do it next year? Yup. Given half a chance, I’ll jump at it.

In numbers:

  • 176 kms
  • ~4000m of climbing
  • 3 litres carb drink
  • 3 protein/carb bars
  • 4 energy gels
  • 2 nutty/seedy carb bars
  • 2 bananas
  • 2 flapjacks
  • 120 marshals
  • 1700 riders
  • Sadly, 4 ambulances required to transport the badly injured riders who fell on the descents.
  • 2 medics at Calder Bridge who deserve medals
  • 2 pints of beer in the evening after before we both just fell asleep
  • Finally, £840 raised so far for Marie Curie. If you want to add to this, pop along to and throw in a couple of quid. I’d dearly love to get this up to £1000.

Even more finally, in the 1909 Giro D’Italia, the winner, Luigi Ganna, a Milanese bricklayer, when asked how he felt about his victory, replied in dialect: “My arse is killing me”. I know exactly how he felt. Some things transcend time and place.

[1] With apologies to Half Man Half Biscuit


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