Fred Whitton Challenge - 09/05/10

Reports from Stephen Rush & Mike Miach

Rushies Account

Although not strictly a race, I thought you might be interested in the TCC participation at last weekend's Fred Whitton Challenge. This is an annual 112 mile sportive, starting in Coniston, and taking in all the big Lakeland passes during the total 4000m of climbing.

The short version:    It was very, very hard. But Mike Miach, Holly Seear and I all got round in varying states of competence/distress.

The long version:    I'd told myself to take the first 20 miles or so pretty easy to warm up and get a feel for the terrain. That strategy lasted for all of 200 yards when I saw what turned out to be a group of nails-hard northerners from a local club up ahead. "I'll get a tow off that", I thought. No you won't, Rush, you'll paste yourself trying to keep up and then paste yourself even more by being guilted into doing doing a turn up front.

Cooked after 5 miles - excellent.

My one attempt at conversation with this lot fell a little flat: 
Me:        "Where're you from?"
N-H N #1:    (in a "where the hell else would I be from?" tone of voice)

'Cos everyone comes from Settle, obviously. Silly me.

So after that I left them to it and got on with the ride at my own pace. The first big climb of the day (Kirkstone Pass - 454m) was a bit draggy and into a headwind but the views made up for it, and finding (that rare thing) a chatty local alongside me, the miles zipped by. The 45mph descent off the back of didn't hurt either.

Matterdale End (343m) came and went without too much drama, and then it was downhill to Keswick and flattish along Borrowdale. At this point I'd  hooked up with the remainder of the local's train (who by this stage were marginally more chatty, presumably humiliated into grudging conversation after being dropped by their teammates) and we were moving at a fair pace when I saw a familiar dark blue jersey up ahead.

This was Holly (who I hadn't met at this stage) - we exchanged brief hellos - she seemed in good shape and I didn't want to disrupt the train so after a very quick chat I pressed on.

Straight onto the Honister Pass (356m). With pitches of 25%, it was no wonder that some riders were walking, but luckily I managed to keep it together and got over it. At the summit there were signs warning of the treacherous descent to follow. Sometimes you take this sort of warning with the insurance company-driven pinch of salt it deserves, but I was glad I'd taken this particular one at face value when I saw the aftermath of a collision about 200m down the hill. Two riders, two broken collarbones and two broken bikes. Ouch.

The piece of advice I did ignore was to eat lightly if at all at the first feed stop as there's a big climb immediately afterwards. "Nah, I'll be fine", I thought, stuffing cheese sarnies and bananas into my face. "Bleeeuuurgh", I thought about half a mile later as it nearly all made a reappearance halfway up the Newlands Pass (333m).

That little digestive hurdle over, it was again downhill through some pretty villages to the base of the Whinlatter Pass (318m). This was one of the highlights for me - the route was lined with spectators clapping, shouting encouragement and banging the occasional cowbell. There was encouragement and applause all round the route from the sort of people who would normally be complaining about cyclists, but up on the Whinlatter it was at its most dense and vocal. Heartening stuff.

At about 60 miles I realised I was slowing considerably and that it was all getting quite hard. Dammit - thought I was fitter than that. I then hooked up with a couple of the Honister 92 boys who seemed to be enjoying themselves.

At the top of Fangs Brow their club mates had laid on a feed stop which would have been most welcome if it hadn't been for the guy wearing a kilt and playing bagpipes. I assume he was only spectating and not riding - there's not enough Assos chamois crème in the world for that… 

And then at about 80 miles I realised something really was wrong with the bike and that it wasn't just me being feeble. I got off and found that I'd broken a spoke, the rear wheel had taco'd, so I'd been riding with the rear brake rubbing for the previous 20 miles. No wonder I was a bit knackered. And then a strange thing happened. A couple popped out, literally from behind a hedge, and asked if I wanted to borrow a track pump. I wasn't about to question what on earth they were doing behind the hedge (it is spring I suppose…), and too right I wanted to borrow their track pump, so I removed the spoke, re-trued the wheel as well as possible with a missing spoke, pumped the tyre up, gave the pump back to the couple and thanked them profusely. I looked down to put the wheel back in, looked up, and the couple had vanished.

I'm still not sure if I was hallucinating at this stage or if I'd been visited by the track pump fairies. And then up over Croasdale and Calder Fell and the view of Sellafield which actually looked quite picturesque. But then I was tired. And I don't think I was hallucinating when I saw a car park full of 30 or so vintage tractors and vintage tractor enthusiasts. Or maybe that's just what farmers use up there and they were having a mass plough-in or whatever it is farmers do when they're not sponging EU subsidies and driving deliberately slowly down single-track lanes in wide vehicles.

The second feed stop was very welcome and so I took my time at this one, stuffing my face with flapjack. Just as I was leaving, Holly rolled in, claiming tiredness but seeming OK.

And then it was up and over Irton Pike (109m) and into Eskdale for the twin sting in the tail - the Hardknott and Wrynose passes (both 393m). I don't want to over- dramatise, but I'm still a little bit traumatised by the Hardknott.

You see it from about 10 miles away along the valley floor, and it's just like a wall approaching. Then you get closer, and realise that what you thought were dry-stone walls falling vertically down the side of the valley are actually the road you have to ride up. It really is shockingly steep. With a lot of grunting I got up the first (28%) pitch. The second pitch calms down to about 10%. The third pitch is where I met with disaster. About 3 hairpins in there's a notorious section that gets up to 30% and cars ground their chassis on the turn, it's so steep. At this stage my cadence had dropped to 30rpm and I was moving forward by the power of swearing alone. I tried to lessen the steepness by zig-zagging but in doing so I lost balance, couldn't clip out in time, and fell off. At about 0.5mph.

Luckily, a) the road was so steep at this stage I only fell about 18 inches, and b) everyone else around me was walking so didn't have the energy to take the p1ss. So I had to walk the last 200m or so, accompanied only by my sense of frustration and the smell of burning clutches from the Lexus 4x4s whose owners blithely followed the SatNav somewhere their vehicle wasn't capable of going (i.e. anywhere outside Putney).

The descent was properly tricky, and then straight away it was time for the Wrynose. It's "only" about 25% but at this stage I was physically and (more importantly) mentally beaten, so I got up about 3 hairpins before trying to avoid the previous pratfall and getting off the bike.

This was my personal nadir - I was very disappointed at having being beaten by these two climbs. But then something wonderful happened. Up ahead, standing astride his bike, immobile apart from a slight slow shaking of the head while looking upwards to the head of the pass, was a London Dynamo. I'd like to say I stopped for a chat and offered him some encouraging words or possibly a Torq bar. But I didn't. And I got on my bike and pedalled up that bl00dy hill. And as I passed him I'm not proud to say I couldn't quite stifle a laugh. 

The last few miles seemed to take forever, and when I finally crossed the line, the spectators' applause did feel pretty special. I must confess I did get a little emotional at the finish, but it was just a fly in my eye, alright?

Massive respect therefore due to Mike who not only got round in a very- nearly-elite time of 7:09 but also anaged to winch up the Hardknott and Wrynose without getting off. Holly got round in a very respectable 8:40, and I managed 7:58. The fastest time was posted by someone called Rob Jebb who clearly doesn't have enough going on in his life that he has time to train enough to get round in 5:47.

The Fred Whitton is probably the hardest thing I've ever done, but I'm definitely up for next year as I have unfinished business with the Hardknott. A bigger TCC presence would be most welcome. Any takers?


Mike's Thoughts

Hi All,

Can I echo Steve's sentiments.  It was a brutal day! 

Never having ridden in the Lake District before I only had others stories to go by as to how tough Hardknott and Wrinose are particularly after 100 miles in the legs.  There was a wide selection of gear choices within the group of guys I travelled up with, 34x27/28 seemed to be the gears of choice with one nutter getting a hiding with a 39 ring and a couple of others with triples and 'dinner plates' to help up the hills. 

Just having a look over some of the stats I somehow managed to stay moving up Hardknott with a cadence of 37rpm's and a speed of 4.50kph at one point. Thanks for the kind words Steve, I just followed someone else up it and had he stopped I probably would have as well but thankfully he kept going.. 

The descents off hardknott and Wrinose where just as challenging as getting up them.  Descending down a 30% hairpin on a questionable surface was not fun at times, my shoulders and arms ached after hanging onto the brakes for dear life.  I did manage to clock 83.4kph down kirkstone fairly early on though so that put a smile on my face.

Must say the support and crowds cheering at times really was a big surprise.  I've never experienced it before. 

As for tough rides, I did the Dave Lloyd Mega Challenge last year at 150 miles and about 5500m climbing and I think the climbs on the Fred are tougher!  (although I notice for this year the Dave has shortened the distance to 118 miles - phew).  But no Dave for me this year as I'll have the Pyrenees to get over on the Quebrantaheusos… 

Think I’ll be back for the Fred next year – got 7hrs to beat after all!!! 


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