Fred Whitton Challenge

For me the mere mention of The Fred Whitton Challenge was an uncomfortable moment. It conjured up the cawing and flapping of startled crows, and the distant tolling of ancient bells indicating the onset of the end-of-days… on an overcast and foreboding day… in the rain… while lost. It was generally something I didn’t want to get any of on me.

So – imagine my surprise when 2015 is my year for actually making the ballot. So – I was in.

112 miles and 13000ft of ascent, taking in a route involving all of the highland passes in the Lake Lands.

Six daddy ‘named’ ascents, three boasting gradients over 25%.

As you can imagine “I do not like hills” was ‘overjoyed’ with the news of a place. It is – within reason – for me, perfectly safe to enter ballots knowing full well you never get a place. That kind of luck has to run out at some point it would seem.

A century or so in my legs this year, one of which at around 10k/ft mark and leaving me spent and with cramps.  I was about as ready as I was going to be by the time Saturday came around. There we were – sat post dinner, (another) ale in my hand, trying to make some kind of sense of the wildly differing weather forecasts we had access to. 17C breezy, and dry – or 8C wet all day, little wind.

For those who do not ride – what this boils down to a wardrobe disaster waiting to happen – something regretfully always seems to catch me out. As someone who generates a lot of heat – being stuck in too many layers is my nemesis.

The decision in the room was if we woke to torrential rain – and we don’t start. It’s not worth the risk or the torture. Experience says that once you are soaked through, miserable, slipped a few times, and losing sensation in your extremities – you would happily part with whatever the entry fee was to not be there. So this was a calculated risk – and one we were mostly all agreed on.

After a sleepless night – 5am arrived. It has been a very long time indeed since I last slept in a bunk. Four growed-up’s  full of food, beer, and foreboding cat napped their way through the night, and with all the precision of freshly woken hibernating bears, grunted and shuffled their way through the 5am alarm and systematically like a production line through the single shower. This was an unrehearsed and non communicative ballet that was a miracle to behold.

Moments later it came to putting food and coffee into their faces surrounded by familiar faces, and half clad fellow cyclists. A curious feeling of being above brethren in a monastic kind of way – to the left of me, to the right of me – coffee, porridge, eggs, toast, clad in layers of armour for the day ahead.

Blue clear skies swept away in the space of a bowl of porridge disappearing. Replaced with a view of a wet world outside the kitchen window. Look at what you could have won. Not put off we pulled together our things and made for the door.

Bags. Cars/Vans. Doors shut. Engines. Road. Queues. Windscreen wipers. Grumpy looking groups of riders heading the opposite way, tyres hissing through surface water.

Shoes on, bikes out, pockets stuffed, spot fellow-club-members-in-huge-grass-car-park, decide you need to brave the toilet after-all, and assemble for the start gate.

Light rain was the order for the day. Wet roads. Group of four. Sally is in for a quick 50 – only doing the first climb and back (broken thumb and pelvis and all), the rest are in for the long run.

The first real hill is Kirkstone at 454m it is the highest point of the day. It is an ascent that you can feel in your legs – but it is all still talking and smiles – not the standing, stomach compressed, having deep and encouraging conversation with your soul type. Re-grouping at the top, the marshals make with some serious and repeated warnings. Sure – you think they are just saying brakes, keep speed right down, slow, slippy – “I bet they always say that” meets “how hard can it be“. But you have equally seen the ambulances going by while you were making your way up. Hmmm.

Introduction to the hills of the lakes 101. Brakes. All of the brakes. Letting off for bumps or mud on road then hard back on. In the wet. They meant every word.

You find yourself wondering “can I ease off yet” – eventually I see straight ahead and ease off, and the pace is good.

Reminding myself of the mantra ‘start slow, stay slow’ – bigger gears, but BPM low.

The day becomes more of a blur. Rain starts, rain stops, moments of sunshine, more rain. There is a LOT of climbing, but it is not the hill reps from hell I had been imagining it would be. My group of two saw Si and I make good progress. Onto roads I recognize, into Keswick and out again. As fate would have it – we stop for comfort brake – and so-unlike-mat-to-be-playing-catch-up – but Mat rides by. Happy familiar faces, rain. We are now three. Bikes – onwards.

The weather is there, you are wet but comfortable its reached a kind of point where you are not noticing or not caring or something. We round a bend and suddenly the road is taking no prisoners and it is kicking up shows no sign of letting off. Cars (a statistically unlikely proportion of Mercedes with elderly drivers), mostly pulling over to let each other pass. Riders are trying to stay on. A few early walkers – but weaving between cars and walking riders was a dream. People teetering, and people trying to zig zag up the foot of the climb. #winning. Still – there was a nice stream down to our left, and I got to push a few others back into riding. Levelling off for a bit I am back on and in the game again just in time to see the road meandering up proper. This is another steep climb but not mental. No breathing-through-eyes required.

Honister pass is now in the bag. Mix of marshals and mountain rescue this time. They are even more keen about brakes – and I have learned my lesson – there will be no seeing how it goes. Stopped to regroup with Matt and Si, and down the other side… backside off the back of the saddle – tarmac rippled from cavitation (the tarmac will not stay flat on gradients like that – it forms waves as it collects in steps…. wet steps… of varying traction. Nice.

The view was stunning. Hugely life affirming feeling of staying alive as best you can as whizzing down the descent with a heady and saturated world of colours – grass, rocks, water, gravel, hills, speed. There were ZERO pictures as both arms were fully busy with staying on the bike and keeping the speed down. Amazing. The kind of moments you see in your dreams.

To Buttermere – and the first food stop is upon us at around 50 miles. Almost a surprise in many ways. Here, now?

Still buzzing from the slow-brakes-full-on-descent we pull into the food stop. Maltloaf, ham, cheese,and jam sandwiches (not all together – a choice), and water. One of each, and empty 750ml bottles refilled and duly electrolyted. Nom nom nom – chat, glance at map… followed by the vocal slap in the face of

“you have 10 miles to cover to the cut off point – and you have 50 minutes – there is a timed pass between here and there”.

*rabbit in headlamps*

Chewing continues now at a more rapid rate, and we make haste to our bikes like so many WWII Spitfire pilots to their steeds. Out of the car park and right – then before us the ascent. Pretty much all visible. Who builds roads like this? How is this fair? Why do I now have two FULL water bottles and a belly full of food? Not my finest planning moment.

We climb again into the mist, height gain is regular, linear, walkers (with bikes) come and go – and to be fair are not going a great deal slower than we are. I was starting to holding back the group. I told Si and Mat to make haste, and I would make my own way. I watched as they got progressively smaller, and then, eventually disappeared from view. On my own now – riding style changes accordingly.

The descent however – this was different – a little steep to start with then open views of corners – less brakes for this one , more rocket sled.

I was now passing people who passed me on the way up. Two people tagged along for the ride in my substantial draft – I was up for that – these were good times. Little in – lots out. Skull and crossbones sign shot into view, and a switch back lost us about two stories of height in two bends…. and back on the pace. Into Braithwaite and through the cut off with 20 mins to spare. Left out of the village, and up again.

Up up up. Nothing epic – just bucketfuls of the stuff. Forestry sided the roads, so many people out. Passing and being passed now. Drivers waiting for traffic, windows down shouting encouragement, cow bells by the side of the road, so many people, then tents, car parks, mountain-bikers at the side of the road cheering us on. This was something special. This was different to other rides. Who where all these people – how long had they been standing there in the rain. Children, pensioners, cow bells, and  shouting out support… it all felt very personal… one of two thousand – it was personal for all of us. Amazing.

The rain is backing off but the wind is building. It had been behind me, and moving around as we make our way around the circuit.

Making progress on my own now, rolling scenery, and moving from group to group – on my own – no club mates in site, just plodding on – keeping it steady… then who should I see just stopping at the side of the road, Mat and Si again. Great success!

The wind is now not a funny thing. Drafting people as best you can as you make a slow motion ascent into wind. Crosswinds buffeting me constantly – whipping in through gates and fence lines. Lighter weight Mat is complaining the most. In fact he is complaining a lot. Si and I of the same weight and height, and say nothing, just a glance at the deep section wheels / sails we are sporting. Nice. The descent is upon us and there is a lot of steering going on that we are not necessarily sanctioning. But strength in a group is a happy place.

The next climb kicks off big style. I can hear up ahead the noise of cow bells and clown-car-horns – the type you would hear in the Tour de France. Smiles. People are on both sides of the road, they are holding out things like chocolate and shortbread… but shouting there is a feed station up ahead.

Foolishly I read this as “up ahead” and also thought this was likely to be the brow of the hill. No, such, luck. The climb wound up. I caught Mat again – he was not in a happy place… commensurate with me catching a racing snake, uphill, into wind. He muttered something about ‘Elephants on his back’ and I moved on. I caught a group of riders who were huddled together – a proper moving echelon of people desperate to eek out an existence on this hillside that was as wind free as possible. Fluid is not a word I would use, but we chopped and changed and rode down hill into the wind together, people jumping into the group as we passed. It was as good as it was ever going to get up here – this was not fun. We were having to work now while descending.  What looked like an industrial area, maybe a dock, or an airfield was ahead of us… it was one hell of a blot on what thus far had been a landscape effected only by the odd quarry or town…. as I got closer I realised it was Sellafield… that would do it!

Calder Bridge – food stop. Car park, tables outside a hall. An awful lot of bikes, but not so many people. I filled my bottles and could hear the din from inside the hall, and people coming out with what… surely not… could it be true? Hot beverages in flimsy plastic cups of joy?!

In we went. Heaven. Immediately lit up by heating lamps, we wandered in the out door, and around the building to the in door to join the queue. Banana sandwiches – oh yes. I am not a fan of generic non proved bread, and bananas – they do not agree with me. At all. However to find these together, in a holdable form in the queue for sugary tea (again which I do not drink) 90 miles into a wet and hilly ride was many banana smelling slices of heaven. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, familiar voices of Donna and Paul who had table space – and chairs! The trick here was clearly going to be getting back out on our bikes again…. after-all… feed stop only 30 miles from the end… why would you… oh…. oh dear – Hardnott and Wrynose lay ahead.

An impromptu round of Jenga unstacking our bikes – we set off. I had clearly hooked by Di2 cable on someone’s quick release and unplugged the cable. First I knew of this was climbing out of the village. O kept hitting the lever to shift up the cassette but feeling no discernible difference. Looking back I see the cable and socket dancing perilously between chain and teeth – about to meet its maker. Stop, plug in, pray, merciful gods, gear-go-up-gear-go-down, and continue. Phew. Team of five now – we are in good shape and good spirits, even Mat has clearly lost his Elephants, and the sun is out – great success.

We are chatting, its all very pretty, all is good, not a care in the world and a mere 90 miles or so in our legs. Happy days.

Then it starts.

It seems fairly innocuous enough – there you are on the valley floor, with two hills overlapping ahead. It starts to head up – curving – switching back on itself gaining height very very quickly indeed. Then again. Before reaching the top.

No Bwlch Penbaras is our local hill-with-a-comedy-corner – each of these switchbacks was more than a match for that one left hander. This was no laughing matter. Those ‘rambling’ by this point had a hard enough job pushing their bikes up this – the pain in the shins and calves was remarkable – this was a real climb with real moments of 30%. Walkers being cursed at – as those still on their bikes by this point really were not going very much faster at all, hard to pick out over your shoulder, not least of all since their routes were defined by their need to balance. Top dead centre was like a black hole where riders got sucked into walking… with the odd faller here and there. It was late in the day – and while some would say they ‘failed’ – I say they saw sense… for those who where hesitating – for those who were still feeling okay – it was okay to not risk it.

Riding between crazy steep parts was a blessing – feeling so much easier than walking up those gradients. Walking was no soft option. The burning was quick to go, and the smoothness of pedalling over stabbing cleats down onto a wet tarmac slope was an easy choice.

A car on the switch back stinking of clutch and tyre smoke was stuck. Wet tarmac, in uneven step like waves, and lack of momentum – it was essentially beached. The stench and the noise of spinning tyres, as vehicles gathered in front and behind it. Rather be us than them right then. Every time.

The downhill was INSANE.

By this point in the day – my dislike of descending on the drops had been discarded as a pointless thing – and if I wanted to not end off hugging a rock or down a ravine – then I needed to pull those levers from the drops…. backside hung well off the back of the saddle, road thankfully drier now, although the unwelcome waves of the cavitation causing my front wheel to shud-d-der. The road snaked left and right dropping away – the most picturesque of stone bridges and colours, oh the colours, OH THE NEED NOT TO ENGAGE INTIMATELY WITH THE SCENERY!

I pulled up on some gravel on the almost level alongside Paul, my hands were cooked from pulling on the levers, and reached for my camera. It was beautiful. The hardest part was now done, the journey had made just being there all the better. The camera fails to capture the elation of just being here, right now.

Rolling on, and switching left and right before a section that felt actually concave in descent before marshals and a house…. it would appear the Hardknott Pass ends in someone’s front garden – then left and “next!”. Just the Wrynose now… everything I had read suggested it was equally wonderful – just less of it – having failed to drop down again.

Progress across the picturesque valley between passes was alongside a gorgeous river. Hills of greens and browns, and water of grey gleaming rocks.

Ah. Okay. Slapped back into reality as I make out the meandering road with coloured dots on it ahead. Last monster to slay – and here I was with Paul and Donna. Pushing now a little further up, holding onto the bike, a slip, a ramble, back on, a bit more riding, another ramble – back on and over as the cutting rose towards the sky. Just as we round the corner to the top Donna points out the 10 miles to the finish sign lent up against a boulder.

I maintain this was a lie. A cruel and unfair lie. That or a mirage – as it would appear we were the only ones to have seen it.

Over the top, and now watching the brakeless mad lass disappear away from me a lot more confident in her brakes and tyres than I was (not to mention physics and ability to stop and steer while dropping-from-a-plane over undulating tarmac through bends).

Catching up once it levelled out we hauled each other along – a marshal shouts out 7 miles to go. Leading out a stream of riders from Team XIII, and back to the lake. The lake we headed out alongside, it arcs into view on our right – somehow feeling like it should be on our left (not a circle – heading back on same road – realise that now). Donna chirps up “it’s the end of this lake”. Drafting as best we can now, slowing up as the ground rises and the long line of riders doesn’t take the front – but goes wide and drops us. How long is this lake?

The roundabout comes into sight, and we ease up – glancing up I recognise Sally and Fran by the roadside taking pictures. Big smiles, big relief. The large inflatable gateway, and marshals directing us onto what I can only describe sheet ice plates with gaps and steps as we head under the timing arch, and into then pen. Off the bikes…. looks of disbeliefs and mild panic as we have no idea where anyone is. Collecting our timing printouts, and fumbling for our phones to catch up with our friends…. we were done.

There is changing in the back of a van, there is fumbled recovery of meal ticket resulting in pie, beans and gravy (genius move) with a cup-o-tea . So many smiley elated faces. This was an emotional thing.

Without a doubt – the first event I have ever finished feeling so elated. So proud. So smiley. We did a thing. We had about six hours of rain. We got around in ten hours. A sense of achievement I had not managed before. This was a good thing.

What a day out.

Oh yeah, and I still don’t like hills ;-)

3 Responses to “Fred Whitton Challenge

  • A brilliantly written account that uncannily reflected my experiences on the day. Excellent stuff.

  • Chateau sir (you are the King of the Castle). 2015 was my first* Fred Whitton and you have described it to the minute and to the emotion. My personal learning from the Calder Bridge food stop is that apricot-jam-and-cheese is a valid sandwich.
    (*: whether there is a second is a complex ballet between: my psyche that has already started thinking about which sections I could go faster on; the same psyche on whether I actually want to even risk entering the ballot; and negotiations with the family about other ways to spend my waking hours).

  • Rob, Malc – you are both too kind.

    A few weeks ago now – but still very much in my mind. The effect of “this is not a hill” or “this is not pain” is still very much in effect – along with the rest of the club that went still making with the “Good Effort” and “How Do”. It amuses.

    Would I go next year – maybe. Has it tempted to me to do something like a Marmott – maybe also.

    The over riding feeling we have all been left with “I DID A THING” – a sense of achievement that cannot be taken away. … it was – emotional.

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