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