nr's blog

Toughness comes in many guises 13 May, 2014

Filed under: Cycling — nr @ 9:34 am

As last year, Sol has also written about his experiences with The Fred Whitton challenge. And as he still doesn’t have anywhere to store it, I’m going to keep it here alongside my own. Thanks dood – it was a great day out. Here’s to our next adventure. The following words, and the title for this post are all Sols:


The build up to this year’s Fred Whitton event has been a difficult one: the crap weather this year on every (and I mean every) training ride or sportive; the resultant water damage to the bike’s bearings needing last minute repairs the week before the Fred; poor availability of parts on multiple internet shopping sites; and the last week at work, dragging by, as the keeness to get out in the hills on two wheels builds.

Eventually the car is packed; Neil and I head to the Lakes on what feels like our annual pilgrimage. Simon Curry, together with his mate Rich are joining Neil and I on the ride this year. As first timers they both have an expectation and excitement obvious as we sign on Saturday afternoon.

Simon’s folks live in the Lakes and have kindly offered lodging for the weekend. Saturday evening is filled with conversation and pasta. Conversation rarely strays from “the event” as Simon, his wife, his Mum and Dad, his Sister chat constantly. His wonderfully engaging niece has a minor sulk when she can’t bring the adults’ focus back to her holiday in Ely. It dawns on me how matter of fact Neil and I are about the Fred – it’s our third year. As old hands we are perhaps being unjustly afforded some minor celebrity status. I wonder if we are perhaps occasionally exaggerating the suffering of 10 hours in the saddle for effect and tales of daring do! I make deliberate effort to downplay how hard Hardknott is. Besides, as the conversation moves around the dinner table I drift back to last year, I don’t remember the pain. I try to picture it, but it’s not there – all that remains is a sense of labour, and achievement, of being part of something rather special – the challenge amongst the beauty and grandeur of the Lake District National Park, the shared camaraderie, the bloody awful weather.

“If you can ride Hardknott, you can ride anything!”, Neil offers Simon across the table. It brings me back into the conversation and in that one statement I’m reminded me why we are ostensibly here again. Last year I had, Neil hadn’t. I was back, at least in part to share in the fully expected success of us both completing the Fred again, and for Neil to tick his “I didn’t walk” box.

The following morning, having woken before our alarms, we eat more porridge than it’s possible to eat at 5am. By 6.15am we’re finally there. Suited and booted. Lined up. Sat astride our bikes watching a drone in the sky filming the start. Pulses of bikes heading right from Grasmere off down the road. Sedate pedalling is the order of the day. As we move off together, we soon find a nice tempo. My heart rate is good. I’m warm. Even the drizzle can’t pull at the sense of wellbeing and readiness.

As Simon and Rich pull ahead. I smile. The impetuous of youth. It’s a long way to go … no use pushing harder at this stage. They’ll learn. Neil and I are obviously on the same page as we just plug along the Windermere lakeside content to keep tempo. As we turn left up Holbeck Lane toward Kirkstone, the legs make their first complaints of the day and my heart rate climbs. I ease back a little but still the climb eats away at my comfortable heart rate cushion. As we reach Kirkstone. That lost memory of the discomfort and labour comes back, and in comparison this year seems harder. That climb just seems to go on and on and on! My heart rate shouldn’t be this high. Blimey this is hard! Neil by now is dropping back, but I’m in the zone and we’ll meet on the descent.

As I finally crest the top of Kirkstone and start my descent, I cast a quick look back and see Neil is not far behind. I look down at the descent and smile at the memory of speed. As I squeeze the brakes the first time I know fear. Bloody Hell! I squeeze with all my might and there’s a momentary pause before rims generate some heat and the bike starts to retard the urge of gravity hurling me downward. I can’t let the brake go again. The wet road, the rain, the carbon rims contrive to rob me of a fast descent. It’s all I can do to contain speed to a level that the brakes can cope with.

As I reach the bottom I swear not to use carbon rims again in the wet, and settle to wait for Neil who joins me shortly after. As I start to tell him about how crap carbon brakes are, intent on sharing an understanding I now have as to why he has such a bad time descending last year, I see he’s not listening. He’s pedalling, but he’s not engaged in what we’re doing. His mind is elsewhere.

It might be the fact we’ve ridden together for years. It might be the fact that on the training sportives we’ve done this year he’s struggled on occasions, his heart rates have been comparatively higher than normal. It may have been the fact that I‘d crested Kirkstone ahead of him – I don’t out climb Neil! It may have been that he just looked like shit. Instinctively I think I knew right then that Neil could be thinking about bailing. As innocuous as “You alright mate!” can sound to anyone else listening, it’s the history and friendship behind the hours of stuff we’ve done together that’s hidden in the meaning that counts. I could tell he was struggling, and I knew right then he’d be burdened with the potential of bailing.

He confirmed he wasn’t well. He’d had some chest pains on the climb, and was obviously scared. After a few mins of questions and answers, we agreed to idle, gather our thoughts. He felt a bit better and we continued through Patterdale and as the miles past, we settled to a steady easy pace. With Matterdale approaching – the second climb of the day, I asked Neil again how he was feeling. “Lets just see how we go!”

At this point I wasn’t sure if he intended to dig in like so many times before. I worried, he’d make the effort and ditch further round the course with no way back. But with the exertion of climbing, you just get lost in your own efforts unable to think about anything else. As we descended and rejoined each other we had another catch up, he was non-committal. We worked through our eta to the first feed station, and cut off times. We worked out we could make cut off easily at the rate we were going. But the dilemma we were in was mounting. For my part I wanted to make it, but didn’t want to drop Neil. For his part he didn’t want to bail, but he’d had a definite warning sign. Best to play safe.

Simon’s family had confirmed he was a few mins ahead as we’d crested Kirkstone. We’d travelled at a very easy pace for some miles since then, and no doubt they were further ahead by now. While Matterdale had passed without further complaints from Neil, we had a long way to go.

“Neil mate, I can’t make any decision for you … only you know what’s happening in your head and how bad things are. But you know we’re going slowly and we have a long way to go!”

Keswick was some miles ahead along the A66.  Neil just said, “Come on!” and started ramping up the pace. We worked together down toward Keswick. Jumping groups of riders, and sheltering behind others where needed. Sharing the lead, and swopping back and forth as we individually flagged. I didn’t know it right there and then that he’d made his decision to bail at Keswick (in hindsight it was the obvious place to bail as it’s the nearest place back to the start on the course). As we ate up the miles down the A66 I figured he was kicking his heels in and was making up for lost time.

As we peeled off the A66 and I spotted Simon and Rich up ahead I was sure Neil was with me. But when I looked back to a tail of riders drafting me, I couldn’t see him. I figured it best to reach Simon and Rich, and when I caught them I explained what had happened and asked them to wait. Some 5-10 mins by the side of the road Neil hadn’t turned up. I was concerned, and with no idea whether he’d bailed, or had a puncture, or something else unforeseen, we realised we just needed to get moving. It was pelting down with rain. We were getting cold. It felt harsh. Did I make the right decision? It continued to weigh on my mind.

At the finish line some five hours later, I accepted humbly that Neil, having realised he would bail, dug in on the A66 and decided to help me get back up with the other two? Having spent himself along the A66 he’d seen me pulling up towards Simon and Rich, and had quietly dropped off the back, unable to stay with the group in the final drag to the reunion. A typically selfless Ronketti act – I would have preferred to have had a definite, “See ya later!” as I wouldn’t have worried so much. But in reflection, it’s not his style. I can only imagine the disappointment, and the last thing you need is to be forced into bearing that disappoint to three others who still have some 5 hours of hard cycling ahead.

I could write on about the remaining five hours I sweated and laboured up and down fells. Of the challenge of riding on into some of the heaviest rain I’ve ridden through. I could tell you about the air ambulance, which held us up on the descent from Wrynose and the thoughts for the poor soul they were recovering from that descent. Or the pleasure of completing the event for the 3rd time – of not walking the hardest climbs in the country, or the money that’s been raised for charity. There’s no need – it’s explicit. The Fred is always a physical challenge that demonstrates obvious and real rewards for participants. However, it’s the implicit, the hidden, the subtle stuff that the Fred Whitton throws at you each time you’ve done it that draws you back. All that stuff that’s hard to write about. In truth I don’t need to write more – the story’s been told in the preceding paragraphs. Search for it in the difficulties of outwardly riding but inwardly needing to support a mate. It’s what matters. It’s the real reason you should get on your bike and try out something this hard. It’s not just the physical challenge that makes riding the Fred so hard. Simon and Rich now know it … I could see that shared experience and knowing in their smiles and hear it in the chatter at the end. The real story is in the friendship that hours of training build. Of common unsaid understandings.

I know there are many more stories out there born May the 11th 2014. Ours is such a small part of an event this big. Go make your own stories. It’s what makes life such an adventure.


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