If you were thinking of going out for a quick Sunday training ride, The Fred Whitton Challenge isn't something that would instantly come to mind. At 112miles & 10,800ft climbing it's been described as the "hardest sportive in the UK". And yet - here I was, queued up in the rain and mud at 6am in Grasmere. It's 'only' a training ride for me by dint of the fact that I had rashly committed last year to improve myself enough to join a group of cycling mates on the 450mile Raid Pyrenean in August.
I tried to keep the training up over winter in anticipation of the distance and hills I was going to face later in the year. Shedding the Christmas spare tyre, hill-reps up Hexton Hill and a structured plan for endurance that I started in February are the key tools I'm counting on. That and chamois cream. Conveniently spaced at about one a month, some big rides slotted into the plan: The Fred, Dartmoor Classic, Etape du Tour and Raid Pyrenean. Although they don't progressively grow, they should act as markers for how well my preparations for The Raid are going. "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 plenty of 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 30miles from home spurred me on, with 'just' Hardnott and Wrynose (both 393m) as the major climbs left. And more importantly - we turned with the wind on our tails. A pleasant spin along smooth roads with the wind behind us gave my legs a chance to recover as we crept towards Hardknott - there are a couple of climbs en-route, probably about Hexton Hill size, but after the morning's hills they didn't really figure.
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. Nathan managed to power up it with a standard chainset and an 11/29 cassette!!
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 unfeasibly 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, getting my nutrition right that, although tired, I still felt fine at the end and could have carried on. Perhaps I should have tried Hardknott after all!
The number of supporters, marshals, and bike-laden cars increased as I pulled closer to Grasmere and finally rolled in at 10h20m elapsed (with 9h riding time). "Same time tomorrow, chaps?" I quipped to the marshals on the line. Tired but not completely wrecked I queued for my certificate and some food to replace some of the 4,300 kcal my garmin reckoned I'd left scattered along the lakeland passes.
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!