If you were thinking of going out for a quick Sunday training ride, The Fred Whitton Challenge (aka ‘The Fred’) isn’t something that would seem to fit the bill. At 112miles & 10,800ft climbing it’s been described as the “hardest sportive in the UK”.
And yet – here I was, queued up at 6am in Grasmere. It’s ‘only’ a training ride for me by dint of the fact that I’ve rashly committed to improve myself enough to join a group of friends on the 450mile Raid Pyrenean in August.
I joined the Black Cat Stable in February when I decided that the determination, ad-hoc spinning and chamois cream combination that I used in the past wouldn’t work. Although it got me from non-cyclist to 7-day LEJOG survivor in two years I didn’t think it would be enough get me along the Pyrenees.
Tim took my list of ‘WIBNI’ rides (Wouldn’t It Be Nice If) of The Fred, Dartmoor Classic, Etape du Tour and Raid Pyrenean. We added it all to a RAMP test in February, and put in place a plan to get me as far away from Homer Simpson and towards Chris Froome as possible. “The Fred” is the first test of that strategy.
The queue through the swampy sports field was already bedraggled when we set off in driving rain at 6.13 (having had little sleep the night before… but that’s another story) by the time we got to the top of Kirkstone Pass (453m) the rain and spirits had lifted slightly. The descent from Kirkstone was excellent – steep, and quite fast without too much head-wind, but there was still a lot of rain-jacket bingo being played.
The next big climb is Matterdale End (347m) that takes you to what could have been a pleasant cruise to downhill to Keswick – if it also didn’t turn us straight into a 25mph headwind. It’s always galling having to pedal downhill!
Honister Pass (358m) was a hill that I’d failed to climb twice before – but the new, lightweight, stronger me was determined to get up it this time, and I felt gratified that whilst there were still younger, fitter people passing me – I was cycling past people walking!
The descent from Honister is very steep, twisty, and in the wet – treacherous. An hour or so after I passed it, and was stopping to refuel at the top of Newlands Pass, the air-ambulance flew low overhead. I discovered later it was going to a cyclist that had come off during the Honister descent.
A pleasant run along the Buttermere Valley brought us to the first food stop at 52miles – but they’d sneakily put Newlands Pass (335m) 25yards out of the stop, which although was advertised as such, still came as a shock!
Another fab descent took us to the long slog up to Whinlatter Pass (318m)- with jackets still going on and off. As with many of the passes, the marshals and public at the top were fabulous, shouting and bell-ringing their encouragement throughout the day.
Only one more major climb before the second food stop – Cold Fell (295m). Although there are only 9 ‘named’ climbs, there are plenty of other decently-sized anonymous hills, all of which got tougher as the day went on. Cold Fell is well named – with a 25mph wind and blowing rain, the name is spot on. Thankfully, beyond the fell was the second feed stop at Calder Bridge (86 miles in) – where the surprisingly yummy joys of cream cheese with jam sandwiches was another first for me.
The thought of only being about 30 miles from home spurred me on, with ‘just’ Hardknott and Wrynose (both 393m) as the major climbs left. And more importantly – we turned with the wind on our tails.
As the vertical green wall of Hardknott crept onto the right of my Garmin screen, I’d already decided that I would be better to make a tactical ‘no-bid’ on Hardknott, and save it for Wrynose. I wasn’t alone. Most people were pushing their steeds up the 25-30% hairpins that put the Hard into Hardknott. Chapeau to anyone who cycles it, there were a significant number panting past the rest of us mere mortals.
Over the top of Hardknott is yet another technical, brake-block-burning descent, with a cracking view of Wrynose ahead. The tail wind helped to get me most of the way up Wrynose – but my legs just ran out of juice on the last little kicker.
Both Hardknott and Wrynose descents are nasty – especially with wet roads, and it’s easy to pick up way too much speed within seconds. Unfortunately the air-ambulance had to be called out for another cyclist, and incredibly landed on an infeasibly small hump-backed bridge to air-lift him to hospital. The road was closed for the duration, but had cleared by the time I got there. I understand that both casualties are OK thankfully, but there were quite a few other tumbles that were less serious, mainly on descents, they aren’t for the faint of heart.
Having now conquered all the big passes, with the wind on my tail, (relatively) flat roads ahead, and the finish line in sight, my legs found new energy and I pushed hard over the last 10miles to try and get in below 10h30m. It’s a testament to the hours on the turbo, Tim’s training plans and nutrition info that, although tired, I still felt fine at the end and could have carried on. Perhaps I should have tried Hardnott after all!
The supporters, marshalls, and bike-laden cars increased as I pulled closer to Grasmere and finally rolled in at 10h20m elapsed (with 9h riding time).
I’d definitely recommend the Fred Whitton Challenge for anyone’s bucket-list, but make sure you get lots of hills into your legs, and if you’re aiming to get up Hardknott – get a triple! I may make another attempt one day, but I’ll be doing the Four Seasons version (which you can do year-round), and making sure that the hills are a bigger part of the challenge than the weather. The next ‘training ride’ of the Dartmoor Classic is in a month – bring it on!