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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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 https://www.justgiving.com/thefred/ 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.
 With apologies to Half Man Half Biscuit