Saturday arrived, the much anticipated ride was but a day away. I loaded my van with all that was required and set off to collect my two friends and fellow riders. All was loaded and off we set, full of joviality and talk of how we would attack the FWC. We arrived at the hostel mid afternoon and sought our place of rest for the night, met up with fellow club members and then headed off to sign in then later for a meal together. Much banter was had about gearing, strategy and of course the usual mickey taking. Once fed and watered off we went for a final drink or two and then to bed.
We woke/stirred about 5 a.m, some of us slept, many of us did not. To my amazement there were people already leaving as we got up to prepare for the day, we showered, dressed, ate and then off we went. The queue of people arriving was long, the weather wet and faces of the passing riders so very miserable. We looked at each other and began to wonder just what had we let ourselves in for. Needless to say this would not put us off, we parked, double checked all we had was what we needed and headed off for the start/finish line. Pockets packed with food stuffs of all types, bottles filled to the brim with all sorts of magic concoctions to see us through the day…….I was beginning to get a little apprehensive, it was going to be a big day and already it was wet. I was under dressed for the weather as it was and the forecast was horrendously wrong, what could we expect later on?
It was too late now, over the line we went, a small group of us riding together and keeping one another company through the day. We clocked some miles, my mood got better and it seemed like maybe I was going to be okay, maybe my clothing was suitable after all. The rain stopped, the temperature rose. We got to the first noticeable climb, it’s name escapes me, names really aren’t my strong point but we rode it and it was fine, I was warm, slightly wet but warm, it was good. We stopped at the top for a quick top up of energy foods and to wait, eating is so very important, this I had drummed into myself before the outset as I am no lightweight. We re grouped and off we set down the very steep descent, a marshal shouts “steady, there’s been an accident half way down!” This made me nervous, I am already not good on descents on wet or damp roads, they make me nervous! I tentatively descended behind my fellow riders, riding within my comfort zone, I didn’t care if they were quicker I could always catch them up if need be but it was okay, there was no need for catchup. I was glad that was over……but I knew there would be more.
We rode some more flats and some more bumps, there were riders over taking but that didn’t bother me, I didn’t know the route and would rather be slower and finish than blow before the end. The pace was okay with the odd sprint here and there on the flat and the slog up so many climbs, I was enjoying myself, the weather was holding and the day was going to plan. Then came some more long climbs, steep thigh burning long climbs. We took those in our stride, we were used to those, we live in Wales, it’s just like our back yard. This continues for a few more hours, then the wind begins to pick up, the rain begins to fall heavier, there isn’t a single part of my body that isn’t cold and wet. We stop for a short break, then another of our group randomly appears, I don’t know why I was surprised, he does it all the time. We whine about the hideous weather and then continue on together. We hit another thigh burner, not so much that it makes you want to cry but people are already beginning to walk them, this isn’t a good sign when this is literally half way I think to myself. Up we go, climbing and climbing in the pouring rain, again at the top we are warned about the descent being steep and so very precarious, there are straw bales on the outside of a corner, I feel nervous, I’m on carbon rims, I think to myself please don’t melt as I’m almost constantly on the brakes all the way down. I get to the bottom and all is good, I’m there, we are there and everyone is alive and unbroken. We ride off into the now strong wind, the type of wind that makes you wish it would just go away,not strong enough to slow you right down but enough to put unwanted extra pressure on your thighs and sap your energy some more. We trundle on chatting, taking in the utterly breath taking scenery and generally in good spirits despite the weathers best efforts to ruin it, then comes another long hard climb. I ride it at my pace, I loose all recollection of where any of my friends are I just ride, at my pace, in my little world, I see a tent at the top or so very near the top at least and there are many people. I approach and hear the phrase of the day “good effort lad” and someone hands me a kinder bar, within seconds it has gone, then a blue ribband and again it has gone within seconds. I was hungry, so very very hungry, I had run out of food, I was begining to feel it’s effect and knew I needed a food stop and to get warm. I was aware of what was to come……98 miles in it was there, that one everyone talked about, the one people say the pro’s were walking, HARDKNOTT pass it was known as, the slayer of fatigued riders. I had no intention of walking anything, I’m too stubborn but I was beginning to wonder if I would be another one of its victims. We found the next feed station, it had heaters, the feeling was like I had been rescued from a desert island, oh and it had coffee too, it was incredible, a real mood lifter. We met up with more group members, chatted, warmed ourselves and then we all set off together for THAT HILL.
We rode for a few miles, the weather had broken by this point, it was warmer, less windy and above all not raining. Then it came into sight, I had that feeling in my gut, I knew it was going to hurt. We approached and already people were saying they were walking it. I had no such intention, it wouldn’t beat me, no way. There were two of us riding, myself and a team mate, we rode, we encouraged each other, everyone else was walking, people in the way, I was swerving to avoid them but I carried on, we pushed each other, we were determined. I could see the top, I could no longer hear my team mate, briefly I thought I hope he makes it, but then my thoughts go back to me, where I am and how I’m doing. I make it to the top, mashing at the peddles slowly and then there is that feeling, emotional, that feeling like you’ve done something you never thought you really would. I feel truly emotional as I sit back down in my saddle and take it in. I conquered Hardknott when so so many couldn’t. I did it, for me, for my own sense of achievement I did it, and then my team mate comes over the top, still on his bike, still peddling. I almost well up, it truly was an emotional experience for me, we had pushed one another, we had dug so very deep in the reserves and we had done it! It’s one of those hills, the ones you see people doing and you think wow that really must hurt…..it’s true what you think, they really do hurt, they burn deep within your legs, your arms, they ache like you have been swinging an axe for hours on end as you literally heave yourself up them. You tell yourself not far now, you think of the crest of the hill, you see it, you again tell yourself it’s not far just 50, 40, 30, 20 more yards and I’m there. You can no longer feel the pain in your legs, you’ve switched off from it, you’ve taken yourself to that place in your head where all that matters is the next peddle stroke. I do this thing where I count the peddle strokes, it’s odd I know but it works for me. On a short ride I’m sure it would be much easier but we were doing it on the Fred Whitton, it was a long way in and a lot of elevation had already been gained. That was it though, it was done, the hardest climb of the day had been conquered. My team mate and I descended the other side, it too was incredibly steep. We rode off, one more pass to do and we could relax. The last one was tough, not for very long but the last couple hundred feet, the legs felt empty, not completely but enough that you feel aching as soon as it kicks up a little. I zig zag near the top as the pain kicks in, lessen the angle, take some pressure off my broken muscles. We hit the summit and off we go, again down a slightly scary descent but it was alomst flat from here, nearly home. You feel a weight lifted as you do it, as you know it’s almost done. The ride so many say is horrendous, it’s the toughest you will ever do and it’s nearly over. We get to some flat ground and I turn and say to my team mate shall we put the hammer down, he laughs and then off we go. I lead out, from nowhere I have found some energy, where does it come from, how can we always put some speed on at the end of such a gruelling ride. We switch half way through and he takes some pressure off me, then again I am back on point. We over take absolutely everyone we come to, single riders, groups, all of them fair game, not one person managed to keep up or over take us. I still don’t know how we did it but we did. The finish line was in sight, I hit the roundabout as fast as my legs could push me and there was a welcome sight, another team mate who couldn’t unfortunately do the ride due to injury, I smile, wave and then keep pushing to the line. I was done, I was so very very happy, utterly shattered but I had ridden the entire Fred Whitton Challenge without.