Fred Whitton. Only the tough need apply.
Ah, the Lake District. That quintessential outdoor jewel in England’s outdoor crown. Bucolic images and curios abound whether eating ice cream whilst watching little boats bobbing on Lake Windermere, visiting the Pencil Museum in Keswick or wandering lonely as a cloud to visit Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home in Grasmere. Indeed, one can almost hear the opening stanzas of Walton’s Crown Imperial by just walking down the lovely high street in Ambleside. Surely this most majestic of landscapes can’t deliver anything brutal in the cycling world? Well, if you think that, you’re wrong. Actually, you’re very, very wrong. Because the Lake District has The Fred Whitton Challenge, a sportive so tough, it will redefine what you think you know about tough cycle rides.
Fred Whitton was born in 1948 but succumbed to cancer at the desperately young age of 50 in 1998. He was Secretary, and an extremely popular member, of the Lakes Road Club. Noted for his infectious enthusiasm, he practically single handedly ran the club and was the organiser of the Lakes Road Club Easter 3 day each year, an event that attracted many of the UK’s Top Riders. Quite how he managed it we don’t know, but Fred also found the time to be the Lakes and Lanc’s Division Road Race Secretary as well as turn out to club runs and training weekends almost without fail.
The Challenge that bears his name was started in his honour in 1999 and other than 2001, the year of the Foot and Mouth outbreak, it has been run every year since. Organised by the indefatigable Paul “Lord Lofty” Loftus MBE, a great friend of Fred, the Sportive is run in aid of Macmillan Cancer and has raised over £1 million since it began. It really has become an institution, but in the best possible way for the best possible reasons.
One of the reasons is the route. Starting in Grasmere, the course is pretty much the same each year although the occasional road closure requires the occasional diversion. The core is always the same however – every major Lakeland pass is included in the 113 miles including 3,900 metres of climbing. Even their names sound gritty and gnarly, forged in the uplands and high pasture of this dramatic landscape; Kirkstone, Whinlatter, Honister, Wrynose, Hard Knott – they trip off the tongue with an onomatopoeic resonance. And for good reason because they are as tough as they sound. Unlike Alpine passes that are designed (and surfaced) to draw tourists to the region in question and provide a rather cosseted experience when you get there, a Lake District pass seems to involve as little tarmac as possible and provide that “Will we, won’t we?” sensation when driving over one. With average gradients that regularly hit 30% and appear to stretch to infinity and beyond, your body has to recalibrate what is meant by ‘a really tough climb’. And to add absolute insult to injury, Hardknott pass, probably the toughest of the lot, comes at around 98 miles. Which comedian thought that was a good idea?
Despite all this, or probably because of it, the Challenge is hugely popular and sells out very quickly. So rather than wait until 2019 (this year’s edition took place in May), we thought we’d take advantage of the extraordinary summer weather we have been enjoying in 2018 and give it a crack. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
The Team & their Bikes
Paul (Director of Criterium) has had this one on his bucket list for a while but didn’t fancy it on his own so for this attempt was joined by Bob and Steve, friends of Criterium, strong riders and all round good guys (and, like Paul, a little bit mad as well). The bikes selected were Trek Domane SLR8 (Paul), Trek Domane SLR7 (Bob) and Bianchi Oltre XR4 (Steve). As the team assembled for the journey south to Grasmere, the general consensus was that if it all went badly wrong, it was down to the rider and not the bike. No pressure then.
With the benefit of hindsight, one thing that the guys would change were they to do it again would be fit more appropriate gear ratios. All three bikes set off with pretty high gearing, with Bob and Paul both sporting 50-34t on the front and 11-28t on the rear. “Next time, I’d go 32 on the rear” said Paul. “Long cage mechs and dinner plate rear cassettes may not look the coolest, but having a bit more to spin against when the ascents got really steep, especially towards the end, would have been beneficial.”
The Weather & the Roads
The summer of 2018 has set new records for temperature and dryness, and the day of the attempt was no different. It provided the guys with mixed blessings. On the one hand, a temperature range of 18 – 32 degrees across the day and amazing sunshine is always going to provide an incredible backdrop as well as being preferable to cycling in driving rain (of which the Lake District can have more than its fair share). However, with over 100 miles and 12,000+ feet of climbing to contemplate, there was a sense at the outset that the climbs up and over the high Passes were going to be really tough.
The roads were generally OK. However, if you are contemplating doing anything like this route yourself at some point, do make sure your bike is well serviced. Tyres, brakes, rims, indeed everything on the bike will be pushed to the limit. Descending from the summit of a high Lakeland pass involves constant heavy braking and you will raise the temperature of rim and tyre considerably. They do need to be in tip top condition to avoid the risk of a blow out. The thought of brake failure coming down one of those descents does not bear thinking about.
Clothing, Nutrition & Hydration
One of the most notable features of any ride that takes in lowland riding close to sea level and high Passes over fells and mountains is that the weather conditions will be constantly variable. It can be cold and hot within minutes. There is a serious chance of boiling on climbs and freezing on descents. Although how this will affect you is individual to you, one thing is for certain; you will consume a considerable amount of calories and even the fittest will find themselves sweating out valuable electrolytes. So the best advice is get advice. You know yourself better than anyone else but still, be prepared. Better to carry a little more than you need by way of clothing and food just in case. If you don’t need it, great – you’ll have carried a bit more weight than you needed too but that’s all. And of course, much depends on the weather on the day. The Criterium team did the ride in glorious sunshine but next time, it could be that famous Lakeland driving rain.
The Ride itself
In a word? Unrelenting. And knowing that helps you to think about how to approach the ride. At the very least, you have to think about this as a ride of different phases. The only way to do it is to break it down into sections. Attempt it as a single ride and even for a rider with good fitness and plenty of miles in the legs, you’ll blow up at some point.
Leaving Grasmere and following the gently undulating road to Ambleside lulls you into a slight false sense of security. But don’t worry, that’s soon dispelled with the climb out of Ambleside and up over Kirkstone pass. 16% ramps are interspersed with less aggressive sections and the climb is well worth it; the descent into Patterdale is a joy. The long, fast flowing sections of road are glorious. “I hit 79.2 km/h on this section”. said Paul. “And it’s lovely, not like the passes that come later in the ride where the steep ascent is matched by a really technical and equally steep descent the other side. On Kirkstone, the descent is something special”.
The unrelenting nature of the route becomes clear though because as soon as Patterdale and the glorious shore of Ullswater is reached, the route takes a left and the climb up Matterdale begins. By the time you get to the A66 (a bit grim but the only way to make the route work sadly) you realise you’ve already done 26km and climbed the thick end of 750m yet you’ve hardly started.
At Keswick, a left for Borrowdale and the Honister horseshoe begins. Honister is the first real Lakeland pass and it is at this point that it begins to dawn on you just how tough this ride is. Honister is relentless, consistent and steep. “Realising that even when we’d cleared this climb, we weren’t even half way and still had the big ones to come put me in a pretty dark place” said Paul. “You suddenly realise just how much there is still to come yet you’re already hurting”. Worst fears are soon realised because as soon as the descent off Honister is over, it’s straight onto Newlands, a long and brutal climb. Coming towards the summit of Newlands, it really kicks you in the teeth; a 20% switchback for good measure, just to make sure you’re properly awake. One of the challenges of Lakeland passes are those descents. Steep up, steep down, with generally poor surfaces and twisty, technical sections. There’s no chance to switch off even for a moment and the brakes are working hard. So it is with relief that the team arrive at the Royal Oak in Braithwaite for lunch.
Fueling and hydration is important on any ride but especially in these conditions. “The Garmin was showing 32 degrees at this point” said Paul. “So we decided to have a slightly extended stop with Steak and Ale Pie, Chips and plenty of blackcurrant drinks and electrolytes”. It turned out to be a wise move.
The next section from Braithwaite over Whinlatter and Cold Fell and down to Calder Bridge and Eskdale Green is some 34km and it offers a slight respite. It’s still tough and there are plenty of climbs along the way but the terrain is more undulating, slightly more forgiving. But what comes next isn’t forgiving in the slightest. It’s the opposite of forgiveness. It’s Judgement Day. And judgement has a name. Hardknott.
“It’s a killer” said Paul. “You get to the base of the climb and there’s a cattle grid from which it goes up. And Up.” The memory even now is clearly painful. “Our rear wheels were spinning just crossing the cattle grid and we hit 20%. Then it got steep. At this point we realised we’d hit the limit, we unclipped and walked”. Mind you, that’s not an easy thing either. “We had to walk” said Paul. “We were done at this point – physically and mentally. I thought I had a reasonable level of fitness but I started cramping just walking up Hardknott, it was that bad.” There’s a short intermediate section on the climb that although it’s still 7%, still feels like a false flat. “We got back on the bikes for this section and thought this is easy! How weird is that!”
It appears the team weren’t the only ones finding it tough. “I watched an Audi S3 going up the road as we walked and on one of the switchbacks, I actually saw the Quattro system working in real time as each wheel unloaded in turn and the system found grip, wheel by wheel.” said Paul. “Extraordinary stuff.” Coming off the summit, there’s a descent into Cockley Beck but no respite. Wrynose is up ahead. Paul and Bob had to walk this ascent as well but Steve found something deep within and cycled up. “Thought I’d dislocated my knee though” reflected Steve. “Definitely felt something go!”. But he made it, a very impressive achievement given that at this point, the guys had 100 miles in their legs and the temperature was still hovering around 30 degrees.
Coming off Wrynose heading down towards Elterwater, the guys realised they still had nearly 20km left to go and so at this point a decision was taken. The plan had originally been to follow the 2018 route and head from Little Langdale up over past Blea Tarn and down the Langdale Valley. Instead, the team decide to head straight to Skelwith Bridge, back to Grasmere and pick up the van. Another great tip; know when to call it a day. There’ll always be another one!
“It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done. Period.” said Paul. “Anyone who gets round this should pat themselves on the back. There’s no shame walking up Hardknott, especially not on a day like that”. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, the extraordinary power of the human brain to airbrush from its memory all the dark stuff kicks in. Already the team started talking about another attempt. “I’m thinking about a long cage mech and a 32 rear cassette.” said Bob. “I want to go again and clear all those climbs. Just got to be done.”
It’s bizarre in one sense that we all feel like this. Why, when something hurt like hell and pushed us to the limit, is almost the first thing we then say “Let’s have another go.”? Where on earth is the logic in that? Who knows, but it’s a wonderful reaction in truth. We are always trying to improve, to do something better than the last time we tried it. It’s part of the human condition and is what makes us who we are. We need to run further, jump higher, cycle for longer and faster up steeper climbs. The need to keep improving is intoxicating and a very good thing.
In 2018, 3 guys completed the Fred Whitton Challenge in under 6 hours. The Criterium team had a ride time of just over 8 plus stops. So the record is probably out of reach but it doesn’t matter as it’s not really the point. No, the real challenge of the Fred Whitton is finding out what you are capable of. That’s what you are competing against, that little voice saying it can’t be done and that stronger voice that says “yes it can” and then you go out to prove it.
It was a wonderful experience, one that Paul, Bob and Steve will always remember. The plan for the second attempt is already underway however. We can’t wait.