One merry evening out someone announces that it should be a goal to ride the Fred Whitton Route in the first few months of the year. Eyebrows are raised. Everyone likes the lake district. Everyone likes riding, but it’s a gamble on the weather, what about the light, and that is one hell of a big day out cycling? It gets pushed back a month or so and before you know it is a real project with a great deal of interest. The FWC starts from Grasmere – and that seems as good a place as any – and a hostel is recommended to us. We are one or two people short of filling the entire venue within a week, so that is the route we take… in fact we take the whole place lock-stock AND the pod in the garden.
As it turns out planning and organisation for the hostel despite it’s fine reviews was reasonably hellish. There were a lot of rules. A lot of ‘named parties signing their life away’, a lot of precisely ‘who will be in what bed’ – generally a lot of formality, a fair amount of fun-hoovering – including amongst others no partying, no cooking after time X, people bringing their own bedding will be ejected (!) and so on. Stressful. Harsh. O_o
So with this in the bag – it was down to peoples plans not changing (a fair few dropped out), the weather, and plain old getting there.
We headed off a little later than intended. Mat and I made good progress with just the one stop en route, and managing to bump into Sally & Vic not once but twice before reaching our destination. Very much akin to the Yorkshire trip with two Cannondale Super Six’ on the roof we made good time – and unbelievably it was both warm and blue of sky. Amazing.
On arrival we pretty much ignored our room designation, and invaded the room of a friend who was now one of a party of two expected. Result. Unpacked, and had a quick mooch around the place. Until we realised that the day was now trickling at speed through our fingers, along with available light. Initial plans for 40 miles were now starting to evaporate, as we made our clothing decisions (sounding quite pretentious however this was short sleeve base layer jersey and arm warmers kind of day – first of year – and a great deal of “is it safe” was being voiced), and collected outside to find one group heading off for The Struggle.
Rolling decidedly downhill towards Grasemere proper and on to Ambleside it is apparent that one of our group has a musical bike. Two of the three of us are sporting larger cassettes than usual – and one of us has failed to check it. The lock ring is tight so they are missing the requisit spacers. Winner. Plans in the pan. Bike shop it is then.
Stopping to ask for directions we were advised that Biketreks would be the place to go. Sure enough a sign outside says “Award Winning Bikeshop” – this would be good as we are almost 4pm now. No mechanic. Unwilling to look. Doesn’t have tools or parts. Winning my @rse. On to a back street non-chain-bike-shop and we are on the road for a fiver with spacer fitted, and lock ring back on. Go team.
Heading down the road to the first turn of the FWC up and left, and towards the Kirkstone pass, a steady curving ascent with views quickly down on to the lake to the right. Suddenly it is all very clear what the lake district is about… scenery, and uphills…. but oh my the scenery… more specifically the light.
Heading back down, and making the ascent back up through Ambleside to Grasmere, and the familiar roundabout before the finish of the FWC, a little further before the hotel (first pub stop), and the Travellers Rest (second pub stop, and venue for the evening’s food). Light is starting to fade properly now behind the hills, and we push on for the remaining half mile to the hostel.
Car Park now full, and pretty much everyone in – the atmosphere is good. Shower. Change. Out for food. On foot, torches, beer, food, laughter. What is not to like.
Not too late to bed, as the morning brings a big day of riding.
The beds, as promised do not creak, however at 6ft they are short. Boo. However – not my own bedding – would not want to face that wrath!
*I wonder if they did spot checks at night?!
A good day.
Yawn. Stretch. We are planning to head off for 10am – but come 8am pretty much everyone is downstairs and in the reassuringly industrial kitchen consuming porridge, pastry, fruit, and coffee. Lots of coffee.
The sun is out – weather forecasts have been consulted, and we are looking at quite a sunny day, although cooler than the day before.
For all the discussions of routes, it would appear it has boiled down to two routes.
People have gone to the lakes for a number of reasons – social – challenge – specifics – and for all of the routes cited, with a little indecision – it boils down to two routes. Mark and the shorter 40 mile lake ride, and Mat and his follow-the-line-on-the-Garmin mystery tour – forming essentially a hard or soft option. This being said for those familiar with the phrase “The Cake Is A Lie” – well 40 miles was too.
Heading off around the closed road from Rydal – we headed rather rudely I might add – up our first incline. Red Bank, 300ft in under a mile with moments of 25%. Steep, and not the kind of thing you can brute out to the top. Well, that’s the warm up then.
The scenery starts coming at us – moments of Yorkshire with stone barns, but without the regularity.
Sure, yesterday was 14C – and sure – that really is snow on a non-North face, within what really does look like a hill top you can ride to – amazing.
Almost immediately we are out of the town and into the country proper…. sure, we have scenery, we are based in North Wales, but this quick, hell no – or maybe it is just unfamiliar eyes. Either way its rolling, and scenic.
The next hill is upon us is Blea Tarn – half a mile, 400ft. Right, okay, this is starting to feel like intervals. Passing people, to have them pass me back, power to weight is a bitch. The ascent is curiously open, the road not at first obvious, tarmac on moorland, switching back and fourth and looking up you see bikes but no road… we are not in Kansas now.
Dropping down the other side to a junction, and right. Yes, this is Wrynose, I have been down this side before… I cannot imagine it is going to be a treat going up. I head off on arrival, I am no mountain goat, happy to get a head start.
The council are keen with the signs. As usual this gives little to know idea of what the gradient is like. The signs keep repeating 20%, 25%, 20% they may as well say “you are a stone heavier than the last time you did this, and its still uphill btw“.
Staring ahead I am trying to pick out where the road goes to no avail – it is simply a grey line on a hillside with the occasional post.
I can see riders behind me, and the occasional car. On the whole the cars are not that keen to be there, and have that hot smell of irritated car as they go by at no great speed. This is a narrow road.
I see a red jersey gaining on me. I have this down as one of our number – but I am surprised to find it is a local. With an almost cliche “How Do’?” he greets me and asks where we are from. I am plodding along in my dinner plate gear, and still able to speak. He bids me a good day and heads off with at what seems to little or no extra effort, glancing back to advise me to “save some for the bends at the top“. Riiiiiiight. Thank you (I think) – as I reach into my memory to try and play back coming down this way but I am getting nothing but a huge sense of relief – not so useful.
I watch his wiry frame ahead of me slowly gaining ground, as he occasionally stands to dance on the pedals warning me of the pleasures to come ahead.
Glancing back I can see us all now, strung out with cars making their way through.
A generally patient white Audi TT attempts to squeeze by on a steep section and I run out of road, find the grass, slow, and unclip. With it I lose point. Find a convenient large boulder, with a flat surface with moss on it, park myself there, drink in the scenery and wait.
I address the passes by with useful phrases such as “I think you have a flat!” and “oh, I think I can hear your back brake rubbing?” – there is zero chance of me getting back on here, so I may as well wait for the walkers and make the best of it : D
Wandering up to a stone bridge, I wedge my back wheel against the wall, lean, and push off – back on with this. Sure enough there we are the bends at the top picking our way between some boulders, then a rolling set of bends to the top. Done. Nice. What a view.
This is – without doubt – up. Much cheering for everyone as they arrive. We are all up Wrynose pass. There is a very visble sense of “I did this” – a named pass – a trade-able commodity – tick.
The descent starts poorly with a hair pin around a boulder as I see Gary with his hands on a bonnet. Well I am glad he saw the car at least, if not them him.
Back up to speed – the curbless tarmac rolls and twists down the hill and along the valley floor towards Hardknott Pass. Speed is good, traffic less so, however lots of cyclists to wave to as we go.
Looking at the ascent ahead I am reminded of the canvas hanging on my wall at home… I am very… very glad not to be heading up there today.
We arrive at the junction and head away from Hardknott, a rolling twisting road – this is all good. Heading alongside woodland, and up to a cattle grid and a moment to catch up when we discover we have a flat in the group (the only one of the weekend).
The road ahead looks great. The road ahead *is* great. No sustained climbs, just bumps, twists, descents. This is great stuff, and Phil and push ahead enjoying the scenery.
Fantastic in fact.
Regrouping at the end of this road, we head down then grovel up a hill to a town where we find the square, a café, and have lunch.
Heading out from here, there is more of the up.
The road is hard to pick out – psychologically this works a dream for me, until a struggling old motorbike comes by and paints a very dark picture indeed as he zig zags up the moorland wall infront of me as opposed to over the bwlch I was hoping for!
Down, and past the intended junction which I still question as being “an error” and up up up and more up around the next hill to the main road. We are up high, and can see all the way down to the sea to the South from here.
A screaming fast main road descent, and it is not too long before we are back on track.
Before too long at all we are making our way along the edge of Coniston Water. The view is amazing. The trees are sparse and free of leaves, so you can see quite a bit. The road rolls and gently curves with the edge of the lake, with the occasional dig.
This is a BIG stretch of water, as Vic and I at the front start to wonder in jest if we have been around it more than once.
Stopping to regroup and take in the view at the end we head on to Ambleside, and around the same closed road route to Rydal to cut out the main roads.
A stop at the pub is suggested, and before you know it a group of fully-grown-should-know-better-adults are strung out in a pace line pushing for the pub. Real efforts are being made here to break away, and likewise hold on. Much laughter. Then it comes into sight, and there is a wide break before turning right into the Hotel. many smiles. Golden moments. Beer in the sunshine as we re-group, and a beer ready for the arrival of Gary who is all of the spent by this point. Well deserved that man.
The evening sees us return to the same place in Grasmere we had our pre FWC meal last year. This was much less of a dry evening: Cheers!
Our room headed back quite early – the rest of them having opted for the hard option and were too be fair – shattered. Our room cut into the lounge, with paper thin walls, so we had the annoyance, and then general hilarity of hearing but not seeing the drunken remains up playing “The Cornflake Game”. It amused… even more so when you wake to find people with heavy heads, and strained legs 😀
We had to have our rooms empty for 10am – there were very specific instructions!
So breakfast was a busy place around 7 to 8 – then packing of cars and indecision.
While routes had been discussed, the groups appeared to trickle off on their own. Some heading home, some riding, some out for a mega ride, some out for a pootle, some with plans of a dirty breakfast in Ambleside.
By the time Mat and I had moved the car to the laybye on the closed road we were pushing 0950 – and we were the last remaining… it was a good job we had a plan.
Heading up the closed main road to Keswick was a delight. Empty road, and almost instantly quiet riding… just water, bird song, sunshine… fantastic.
Heading on new tarmac stretches, and around the far side of Thirlmere.
The only traffic – busses, which travelled in two and with escort vehicles… good times. Walkers, cyclists, loads of them.
Thirlmere was picturesque with choppy water as we joined it – but then as we rounded the corner the game changed…. the water smoothed out to a mirror like surface… and the two photographers took a few moving snaps before giving in to stop and drink it all in.
Amazing. The towering tall pine trees, the reflection, the backdrop – all sense of scale is lost, your mind struggles to find context for it all.
You would usually only ever see this kind of thing pre dawn… and even then on rare occasions. We were very very lucky to be seeing this. A real cherry on the top of the weekend.
Unsurprisingly we catch two other groups after a chat with a local (moved up from Wrexham – what are the chances). They too are stopped taking pictures. What an amazing day.
Seeing as Mat has a passion for old buildings – and it was not far out of our way – we headed to Castle Rigg Stone Circle, where we met more of our group.
From here our plan was clear – we knew there was a café at the top of the Whinlatter Pass – which I recall as being wooded, and lined with people cheering us on in the rain on the FWC, and it lays out the other side of Keswick – so on we pressed.
It’s surprising how your memory can be skewed – its a lot more pleasant when its one of say two climbs that day – you are not soaked to the skin – and you are not on 114 mile ride.
The ascent was quite lovely, and with Fran for company, we reached the top and headed into the café to meet yet another group.
Food here was GOOD. If you are passing. Go. Seriously. Mountain biking places I guess have captive predictable audiences – and fine catering… which I am further swayed by their Stick Man related fineries.
We basked in the sunshine before packing up to head back the way we came.
The closed main road that links Keswick to Grasmere was a dream. Effortless riding. Good tarmac. Great views. Equally we were in no hurry.
A childish and most excellent closed road sprint down to the laybye ensued and we re grouped to say our goodbyes as the group was heading off to their cars, to get changed, and so on.
Mat and I pressed on down hill towards “The Struggle”.
Had some one pointed out to me “You know that unpleasant ascent to the top of the Kirkstone Pass?”,
“Well – this is a mile or so shorter, to the same place.”
The name is not “Nice cup of tea and a sit down” or “See you at the pub for eight” – it is The struggle – and asit turns out it is a good name.
Turning UP and left at Ambleside – the initial climb is a bit of a dig – however you kind of assume that it is going to back off. It does. It backs off from a 20 back down to a 15 or so. This joy then continues in a variety of lesser and greater up to what appears to be a summit.
GREAT success and celebration rushes through you as you prepare to take a seat for the first time in the entire ascent…. TO FIND IT IS A FALSE PEAK.
The road drops away again and in front of you are hair pins up to the pub at the top of the Kirkstone Pass.
Fragments of my sense of humour can be found littering that final ascent. “Thank you Mat” for this suggestion.
I think I would choose another Wrynose Pass ascent over that again.
Back down the ascent from the previous day, and back to the car to change.
Similar distance and ascent as the previous day as well.
What a day. Best of both worlds.
To Darren for having the initial insanity of “lets ride FWC in February” or some such. Madness. For suggesting that we should push ahead with the whole hostel, and for generally being the drive behind the project, even if he was unable to attend in the end.
To Sally for being the heroine in all this – and dealing with the quite frankly insanely strict practices at the hostel, the stress from this plus herding the cats that form the attendees, and generally ensuring that all most of us had to do was pay our monies and turn up. It did not go unnoticed. You are a star.
Finally to everyone* who went for making the mix of people so great, and ensuring a great few days riding around The Lakes.
*Specific reference to car buddy Mat, and Simon, who’s room we gate crashed 😀
Weeks into 2016 and we are already lining up the good stuff. VC Melyd is looking to organise a larger group away to the Lake District. Based in Grasmere – we have bunk accommodation for 24 reserved already (which, at the time of writing is filling up), as well as those wishing to make their own less cosy/social/communal arrangements. “# It’s a Harknot Life, for us…”
The initial plan was for the Fred Whitton Challenge route. However given the time of year, the mixed abillity take up (a great thing and to be encouraged!) and the sheer scale of that challenge there are also discussions of riding it over two days, or just adventures out to take in the scenery / ascents.
However the importat part is ARE YOU WITH US? … then you had best get the time booked off work 😀
While the thread and discussion can be found in full, and most importantly up-to-date over on the FB group – this kicked off with the text below. Updates, availability and pricing will also be covered there with occasional updates here.
It’s getting to the event planning time of year. A few have mentioned riding in the Lake District – a weekend away riding taking in the iconic “Fred Whitton Challenge” route. The route takes in some stunning scenery and includes some iconic climbs. There is Kirkstone, Honister and Newlands Passes. Then of course there is Whinlatter, Hardknot and Wrynose to name a few more.
The riding there is fantastic.
Having taken time to sort a few things through with our social secretary, we are proposing a weekend away Sat 19th March/Sunday 20th March 2016. We’ve looked at many dates and tried to work it out of the main events season and not in school holidays. We appreciate there is bound to be a clash with something whilst trying to get in two away days riding. Some may want to travel on the Friday and ride too. We could do the full FWC route on the Sat as a club whilst making stops along the way for refreshments. De-brief it on Sat eve then ride a shorter route on the Sunday morning – or whatever takes our fancy. See how the legs are and decide what sort of ride we want.
We are going to look at accommodation close to Grasmere and options and prices for Friday and Saturday night. You can of course sort your own accommodation or drive there on the Sat morning and we will see you there for an early (ish) start. Just let us know. We stopped at a bunkhouse just down the road from Grasmere last year. It was cozy but did the trick. It had a kitchen to cook food and a small bar.
I know a few would have been to Spain a couple of weeks before so you can put the training to test!
Please append your name as a comment to this thread if you’re interested we will sort it. Just let us know if you want to be in a group booking for accommodation and which nights. If it’s the bunkhouse – it’s first up best dressed! Literally.
Please don’t be put off by the climbs. We will all get up them together and in our own time.
Not heard of the Fred Whitton Challenge route? A quick Google search will reveal all. Many clubs do the route independently of the challenge as club event – I’m sure a few will do the “FWC” proper this year too! If we have different groups of riders who want to do part of the route – we can sort that too.” — Darren Wareing.
At this time we are looking at pricing for accommodation is £41 for the Friday and Saturday night – however this may vary as we will need to cover costs of unfilled rooms.
We have booked the entire 24 bed location, and while in rooms of up to three bunks / six beds each – this should be a good laugh. There are still (at this time) some places left if you are interested.
“VC Melyd has exclusive use of a lovely 4* hostel in Grasmere in the Lake District for the weekend of 18-20th March.
Routes for all abilities will be planned – some avoiding the famous mountain passes!
Rain or snow or wind are not expected that weekend but poor weather options will be available.
There are some spare beds so if you would like to join us in what will be a fun filled weekend please post below or contact myself or Darren.
Those who have shown interest please check your Messages as I will send you further details.” — Sally Cunliffe
VC Melyd had no less than 17 entries for the Fred Whitton Challenge 2015. As they are offered up I will be posting them here for you to read through. A tough event, less than ideal conditions from rain to strong wind, and all the usual Lakeland highland passes over 112 miles and 13 000ft. Times falling between seven and twelve hours it was a rough, but emotional day for all.
Here we have reports from:
– —oOo— –
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.
– —oOo— –
So, 10 days before the event, I was chatting with a pal about our respective cycling challenges, and theorising ‘what next’ for 2016; he thought the Fred Whitton Challenge was ‘The One’ for next year. “Maybe” I thought, recalling the recent VCM Facebook posts about 30% hill climbs as the blood ran chilled through my veins…… Fast forward a mere 8 hours, and I receive a message from my VCM buddy Simon telling me there’s a few spaces available on ‘Fred’ THIS YEAR. He reminds me I’ve been doing the training anyway so why don’t I enter? I’d be very welcome to travel with the VCM team. Oh. And I have to sign up by tomorrow.
With just 2 years cycling experience, but a few endurance events under my belt, I feel that my cycling skills are developing. I’m working hard to improve further and enjoy the challenge. But now we’re talking about me going with the VCM-Supreme-Cycling-Beings to do the toughest cycling event in the UK. Oh – and did I mention it’s the TOUGHEST CYCLING EVENT IN THE UK?
Clearly I said yes. I’m nothing if not determined. With a pinch of deluded.
I share the journey to the event with Anthony and Simon. Anthony and I bemoan the pending hills; Simon tells us it’s going to be fine. I meet the remaining VCM members over drinks and dinner that evening. The conversation turns to the best cassettes to use, wheel weight and rim depth…..those hills……and the weather. Fred appears to have a knack of taking place in rather inclement conditions. We all have different weather apps which forecast different elements – we avidly compare and hope for the best. The ladies and I retire to our hostel room where I enjoy an enviable 2 hours of anxiety-induced teeth-grinding sleep. Fran and I are first up at 4.45am – and hey, the weather looks calm!
The ride over to the event does nothing to still our nerves as the queue to park hardly shifts. Our hopeful 6.30am start drifts further away; I am substantially slower than my comrades, and if I’m to make the first cut-off, I need to get peddling ASAP. Anyway, finally we start peddling at 7.19am, into the increasingly wet kind of rain infamously characterised by Peter Kay. I enjoy the first few miles with Simon, Anthony and Sally, rambling up a couple of hills and taking a few snaps together before the boys head off with their super speedy legs!
Sally and I continue on for about 20 more miles together; in a very short time I learn so much from her that will help me en route. Sally is a FWC veteran; having completed the event last year in just 8:50 she is a heroine in my eyes! Unfortunately, she had a nasty accident 3 weeks before the event this year and her resulting injuries mean she can’t complete the full ride; she just wanted to start with us all and I’m so glad she did. We part company after about 35 miles: she heads back to Grasmere and I make my way to Honister Pass as she tells me I’m on track to make the cut-off, I just have to keep this up…….
The ride to Honister is fun. Lots of positive encouragement received from fellow cyclists as they fly past me, and I fly past, well, mostly stationary things. Honister is the first ‘big’ climb comprising some of those nasty gradients. I peddle as hard and as far as I can, determined to pass the 3 burly chaps who are walking their bikes up. And I do! But then I stop because my lungs are bulging inside my throat and I think it’s best to just hang over the handle bars for a few moments while I swallow them back down. One of the guys says: “ah once you’re off you’re screwed”. Humph. You’re talking to Determined and Deluded here Mister! First, I don’t have cleats, and second, I have Sally in my head telling me if I can find a flat spot for my back wheel I might get traction. It works! Back wheel flat, bike at a 45 degree angle to the road ahead, peddle across the road, snake forward – and I’m OFF! See ya boys!!
I complete Honister in 3 sections, rather pleased with myself, but becoming increasingly concerned I might miss this cut off. Foot down, speed up and I actually pass a few cyclists!! I arrive at the 12:00 cut-off at 12:01, where the Cut-Off Police tell 8 lads and me that: “the road ahead is twice as difficult as anything you’ve done yet”; he’ll only let us go if we guarantee we can manage it. We have 3.5 hours to do 25 miles before the next cut-off. Determined and Deluded says: “come on chaps, what are we waiting for?” I realise it’s me talking as I lead the way forward. For a minute. And then they all pass me. Ah well! Having made the cut off I can take a moment to enjoy the ride. The weather is grey and damp, but not too bad; the landscape is beautiful, and I have 3.5 hours to travel the distance I would usually complete in less than 2: all is well with the world.
And then the wind came.
I have completed some unpleasant weather events, and I consider myself a tough little tyke-on-a-bike, but I can honestly say I spent most of these 25 miles thinking I really might not complete. The hills over this section were very manageable, but the wind was just relentless, battering and howling; tearing at my bike and my soul. Urgh. I maintained focus by counting small milestones: if I get to 70 miles then it’s just 42 to go; if I get to 73 then it’s just 10 to the cut-off, and if I…….
I arrived at the pre cut-off feed station with just minutes to spare. The Marshalls somehow ushered me in towards a cup of tea and slice of malt loaf, while another filled my water bottle. I suspect that Determined and Deluded was mostly just Dotty by now, as I mumbled: “the cut-off, the cut off” into my brew. Within a minute another Marshall was negotiating me kindly back to my bike saying: “you need to go now or you’ll miss the cut-off”…… and as I wiped the last malty crumb from my lips my feet were peddling yet again, back into the still fierce wind. It took me exactly 3.5 hours to do 25 miles, with no time to spare. Urgh.
But once I knew I’d made that cut-off, the doubt fell from me in waves – I knew I would finish the event now. Determined and Deluded was back!
Hardknott Pass is just silly: lots of 30% uphill gradients and nonsense hairpin bends to play with your mind. By now, there was a few fellow Fredians walking up ahead of me, and it was encouraging to know I wasn’t absolutely alone. I knew that Hardknott was the ‘One to Conquer’ and I was going to peddle up this thing if it killed me. So I used my wee snaking technique to peddle up in about 8 sections, managing to cycle up all bar one final hairpin. I honestly enjoyed every single minute of this. I no way had the skill or strength to do this all in one go like many of my awesome VCM comrades, but I dug in and peddled what I could. Just an amazing feeling! While peddling up I passed red-jacket woman. This meant I wasn’t last and added to the fun! But on the scary descent, during which I hung on to my brakes for dear life, travelling at a pace that would shame a snail (even walking a couple of short sections), she passed me again. Humph.
Then it was Wrynose Pass next, the final big climb of the day at around 100 miles in. I’d mentally built this climb up to be a monster; I didn’t realise I was actually ‘doing it’, while waiting for the hard bit. I passed red-jacket woman, (woooohooooo!) and peddled all the way up with just one short break. I couldn’t believe it when I reached the top and the Marshalls told me that was ‘it’! And then the Red-Clad Nemesis passed me going down again. Humph.
And then it was just about 10 miles to go! Red-Clad Nemesis was nowhere in sight but by now I was determined to beat her. At mile 102 I found myself wishing for climbs so I could pass her. Determined and Deluded was clearly possessed by Delirious and Demented at this stage, but sure enough, the hills came, I spotted her in my sights, I peddled on up and past with a (probably not very sporting) glint of success in my eye – bye bye Red!!
The remaining miles were just the most amazing ever. Yes I was tired, but I KNEW I was going to conquer. WHAT A FEELING! I turned in to the finish line with a total time of 11:49 and with the biggest smile on my face. I was so happy to see Fran, Sally, Anthony and Simon waiting for me. I babbled incoherent nonsense to all of them and insisting on hugging them all. Lots.
The whole experience was just fantastic, and I’m so glad I was offered the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and embrace a new challenge in these beautiful English hills. Here’s to the next adventure!
– —oOo— –
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 😉
The Fred Whitton Challenge. Not the kind of event you bring up in polite conversation.
Wisely named as a challenge as opposed to a sportive – a self proclaimed Le Marmott . This is 112 miles with 10,800ft of climbing through the picturesque Lake District with such ‘memorable’ gentle ascents as the Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Wrynose & Hardknott (an absolute gem at 100 miles). All adding up to be one of the most challenging group start events in the UK with distance, steep gradients, winding descents, and a history of terrible weather.
So … obviously in the tradition of “seemed like a good idea at the time” – VCM put forward a number of teams and individual entries into the ballot. Confirmations on success were sent out on the 10th January 2015.
The following names made the ballot. These 13 brave souls piped up on social media with an initial “GREAT SUCCESS” followed by an almost immediate and universal “… WHAT ON EARTH HAVE I DONE“.
As a distant church bell chimes and croaking crows flap into the distance – the following ponder the challenge ahead. We would like to wish them good luck in their preparation.
1. Julie A,
2. Mark A,
3. Jason A,
4. Sally C,
5. Anthony H,
6. Fran H,
7. Dan L,
8. Simon J,
9. Victor M,
10. Greg P,
11. Simon P,
12. Paul R,
13. Donna W.
It all started last year when a group of us decided to do the route of the Saddleback Fred Whitton Challenge over 2 days – a relaxed reccie really. It was great fun so when the opportunity to enter the real event came up, my name went on the list.
The event was started by the Lakes Road Club in memory of their most active member, Fred Whitton who died at the age of 50 in 1998.
In January this year, a few of my friends were ‘lucky’ enough to receive places in the event, starting and finishing at Grasmere (famous for the Gingerbread Shop). A five mile flat warm up southwards through Ambleside then sharp turn left turn and a rude awakening up ‘The Struggle’ to ascend the Kirkstone Pass and down to Keswick, over Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Hardknott and Wrynose Passes.
The event is always oversubscribed and the 2000 places are a lottery. During the months leading up to the event on Sunday 11th May 2014, we had a Facebook Conversation about the training rides being undertaken. I quickly realised everyone else appeared to be doing stacks more than me, so booked on the VC Melyd training week in Spain in mid March. That helped enormously, but was ever so slightly early, meaning my training had to not only continue but also to increase.
Reading the organisers description of the event was off-putting – with all the warnings e.g. “Honister Pass – descent starts extremely steeply, so brakes on immediately and don’t let your speed get up – very poor surface and a chicane” and “Hardknott Pass – ultra steep and twisty and very poor surface so take it REALLY slowly”.
By early April I was totally terrified, probably exacerbated by Facebook conversations and hearing how terribly difficult the challenge is. Also, in order not to be disqualified we had to be 60 miles in, at Braithwaite, by 12 noon and 83 miles in at Calder Bridge by 3.30pm. So, there was no choice but to start at 6am.
When the alarm went off before 5am I sprang out of bed to meet the first challenge of the day – breakfast at such an early hour (for me). Thankfully, no dogs to walk today.
Arriving perhaps a little early at what had been, the day before, a water logged event car park on a sports field, I sat in the car looking at the rain lashing down and wondered if my pals would notice if I didn’t show up.
“No, Cunliffe, we are here now, (after some not inconsiderable effort) just shut up, woman up and get ready. You have cycled in atrocious conditions before” (said the parrot who sat on my shoulder the whole journey).
Met my pals, some of whom looked decidedly nervous. It stopped raining (temporarily). We crossed the start line at just gone 6am. Right girl, no going back, well, not until the 60 mile marker, when the cut off time is missed. Best thing is to find someone to chat to – whilst you still can!
Trundled up Kirkstone Pass and flew down the other side, all pals lost en route. A girl overtook me so decided to catch her up. She seemed glad of a bit of company. She had started 30 minutes after me so was obviously faster, so a good person to stay with, if possible. The next few miles were spent trying to stay with her then, to my surprise, dropping her on steep bits then being dropped as I had to stop to remove boil-in-a-bag waterproof jacket.
Attempts to wheel suck various male cyclists along the A66 were reasonably successful and essential given the headwind.
Sailed along the beautiful Borrowdale Valley, but concerned about constant rattle coming from the machine. Then came the decidedly sudden and rude steepness which is the vertical ascent of Honister Pass. Others were floundering. Weaving. Visiting the verges. (Parrot – “don’t even think about putting a foot down, we can do this). Okay. Done. Jeepers, the descent. Hold on tight (Parrot – “outside leg down, weight back, look where you want/need to go and steer”). Okay. Overtaking other riders – there’s a first and a good feeling!
First feed station – phew, needed that. 60 miles is quite a distance before re-fuelling, good job it wasn’t hot. Bike check – nothing obviously wrong, can’t source the rattle. Well I appear to be here HOURS before the cut off point, so better carry on.
Then came the long, slow ascent of Newlands Pass, followed by Winlatter Pass. Here supporters lined the road, yelling words of encouragement. Particularly enjoyed the “go on girls” from the women. No fear here, just enjoyment.
The middle bit, taking in the marvellously named ‘Fangs’, Swarth Fell and Cold Fell provided opportunity to admire the beauty of the countryside – especially the extremely brightly coloured spring flowers. Rain came then stopped, came then stopped. Decided to leave off the heat-inducing and draining waterproof jacket and risk it as cold was not an issue. Wet trickles down the backs of legs were a bit distracting.
Second feed station – bikes abandoned on the tarmac. Rows of delicious looking sarnies and cakes. Hot drinks. Sobbing female who complained to her man that she wasn’t as fast as she hoped. Time to go, me thinks, knowing full well there is torture ahead.
Uumm, not pleasant this bit. Getting nervous. Why? Can always push and the cleat covers are in back pocket. (Parrot – don’t even think about it). Start chatting to a chap going at my pace. He did it last year and kindly told me not to be nervous.
Red telephone box comes into sight, road winds steeply up mountainside ahead, dotted with cyclists. Over cattle grid. Right Cunliffe, this is what the training has been for – GO!!
The ascent of Hardknott Pass was a bit of a blur. Can’t believe this but I actually encouraged a pusher to get back on his bike – why could I even speak?
Grind, crunch, puff. Up we go – 30%+ in places. Loads of yelling from supporters. Brilliant. At top, marshall advises me to be careful as there is an incident a 3rd of the way down. Brakes on. Look ahead. Ambulance. 2 dead bikes. Tarpaulin over riders. Very, very scared. Hairbin bends (lots), 30% descents, hold tight. A couple of girls on foot said “Well done that, lady” as I successfully negotiated an excruciatingly tight and steep hairbin, in true mountain bike style. (Parrot – you have just got to do it).
As gradient lessened I felt elation and enjoyed the valley between the two worst passes. Another cyclist said I would be over Wrynose Pass before I had noticed (what was he on!?). On the final steepest part before the summit a young girl saw I was in danger of slowing down to a stop and walked/ran alongside me offering encouragement. How could I stop with her doing her best for me? Sadly, no breath to thank her. But it worked.
Some thoughtful organiser had put a sign saying “10 miles to the finish) just after the summit. Brilliant. The heavens opened. Torrential. Sally and Parrot both agreed – “Let’s go – FAST”. So we did. Taking no prisoners. All the way to the Grasmere finish along a busy main road – absolutely drenched. A friend waiting for all of us said ‘you look like you have just popped out to the shops’!
The Good Bits
– Having been terrified and seriously considering bailing – it was a superb event. Happily riding the majority of it on my own.
– Roadside support from local people e.g. one chap said ‘you are the first woman’ – response: ‘oh year, right!’.
– Friendly and extremely helpful marshals.
– Well signed.
– Good food.
– Being pretty well prepared with the right clothing – and, eh, bike.
– Whatever my pre-ride training was – it seemed to work.
The Less-Good Bits
– Seeing the accident at Hardnott Pass.
– Gel wrappers on the road – we had been asked to carry litter away with us.
– Waiting anxiously for the others at the end as news of the accident spread, but no-one knew who was involved.
– Wish I had put more effort in and done it faster – but I didn’t know I could do it and didn’t want to burn out.
The Next Challenge
– Given the chance – try again next year to improve on the time.
– Distance – 112 miles / 180km
– Ascent – 3,950 meters / 12,959ft
– Total time – 8 hours 51 mins
– Position – 4th woman out of 21 in my age group
– Position – 24th woman out of 104 women finishers in total.
— Written By Sally Cunliffe