Fred Whitton Challenge 2010

Renowned within the cycling community as one of the toughest single day rides, the Fred Whitton Challenge is a gruelling 112 mile sportive challenge for charity around the Lake District, in memory of Fred Whitton.

Fred was an extremely popular member of the Lakes Road Club until his untimely death at the age of 50 in 1998. In his capacity as club secretary he was full of enthusiasm for the club & ran it practically single handedly. He was the organiser of the Lakes Road Club Easter 3-day each year which attracted many of the UKs top riders.

The ride is for serious cyclists only, it starts & finishes at Coniston, and the route includes the climbs of Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Hardknott & Wrynose passes. Some of the climbs are so severe that riding them has more in common with weight training than the smooth pedalling action of the experienced cyclist.

This is Nick Millar's account of the 2010 edition.....

Road, Track, MTB, TT, Hill climb, Audax, Sportive, leisure, commuting, touring; all excellent, health-building and invigorating, and I would recommend them to anyone young or old. Get on your bike and ride. Go anywhere, explore, get out in the country, enjoy the freedom and fulfilment of the two wheeled world.

But don't try to ride up Hardknott.

Don't even think about it. One of two things will happen:

a) You will get over it on the bike, but wonder why you were mad enough to put yourself through the pain, or

b) You won't get over it on the bike, and wonder why you were mad enough to try.

4 years in a row I have done the Fred. 4 years in a row, I have wondered why on earth I put myself through the ordeal of Hardknott and Wrynose after 100 miles of hard riding.

I say hard riding but this year I was being "sensible". I was riding with my sensible friend, Andy. It was not a year for getting in with the 8 o'clock group, and hammering it over the fist climb, and all the way up Kirkstone. So we headed out at a sensible 8:02 and took things at a sensible pace.

It never crossed my mind that we might catch the 8:00 group and have two minutes time advantage, as they towed us home........ No this was sensible riding.

My trouble is that what feels sensible at 8:02 doesn't always feel sensible with hindsight at say 14:02. But this year was at least semi-sensible. As we clicked over the first little hill my legs, lungs, and heart suddenly woke up, and protested. Theoretically we had all been awake for hours, but they hadn't done anything, and were still in the stupor we all should have been in at 8 on a Sunday morning.

But that always happens on Sportives. I know it will get better in an hour or so. And so it was. I felt pretty good as we went over Kirkstone. I had thought it would be really hard with a Northerly wind blowing. But the wind wasn't bad at all, and it was the merry dive down to Ullswater.

I like the Kirkstone descent. Good wide road with excellent visibility. There are a couple of bends but nothing that needs much more than light feathering the brakes and flowing through.

As usual a good group formed at the bottom and we worked together up past Dockray, and down the 66 to Keswick. There was some odd riding in the bunch, and that rather disorganised feel of a group of strangers trying to work out whether to sit in or take a turn; whether to peal off right or stay left flick their elbow and expect the bunch to pass. There were the riders who tore to the front, and then eased right off, or those for whom going to the front was the same as attacking and ended up towing fresh air 20 yards ahead of the group.

Despite the yo-yoing it was better than Andy and me doing all the work - and this is all part of the fun of Sportives; rubbing shoulders (and hopefully not wheels) with other riders.

And so we arrived at Seatoller feeling pretty good, which was good news. Sensible is good I was thinking. All good so far; but next was the little matter of Honister. This to me is the first real test of the Fred. Climb this like a bag of spanners and the next 60 miles are going to be tough. Get over well and you might be on a good day.

I can't make up my mind about Honister. Do I love it, or do it hate it? It hits you hard. You have been rolling along flat roads since Keswick, ambling past Derwent Water, down towards Seatoller. As you get close to the village you look up at the hills around, and try to figure out there the road could possibly go.

Then as you ride through the village you see the 25% sign and you realise. The road suddenly kicks, turns left and heads straight up through the woods. It is a beautiful road. A fast flowing stream cuts down through a gorge to your left. The road is shaded and cool, but sadly also a little steep.

The trick here is either to go straight if your gears allow, or zig zag. But whichever way you go, be careful because other riders have randomly chosen from those two options. Out-of-synch zig zags, clashing with those going straight up makes for some erratic dodging about, and the odd friendly, "I say old chap, I don't suppose you'd be good enough to hold your line".

The climb eases off as you come out the woods and you see the slate mines at the top of the pass. This is a lovely place to be on a sunny Sunday, but no time for picnics. The last bit is fairly tough again, but not too long, and then it's time for the first dodgy descent of the day.

I was met by a stream of cars coming up, so was forced to take care. Care is good on this descent. About 200 yards down there is a 25% sign, then as the road steepens even more there is a nasty dogleg right then left. Camber is all wrong, and the surface is rough. A place for extreme care.

Sadly for a couple of riders ahead of me it had all gone wrong. There was a rider lying in the road receiving attention from a paramedic, and another round the corner sitting nursing her knee.

After that bend, I let out my breath and my brakes, and swept down the valley, hoping they were OK and being thankful I hadn't messed up, or been caught up in one of those unavoidable accidents.

Next stop Buttermere, and the feed stop. But I didn't want to eat. Never feel like eating on these things - I should but I can't. I tried a cheese sandwich, but after one bite couldn't face any more. I had managed a Clif bar over Kirkstone, I would just tuck into another on the road.

Refilled water bottles, Andy arrived and we were off again over Newlands. Now that descent was good. Just let go and let gravity do the rest. Time to eat, and drink and get ready for the drag over Whinlatter.

Whinlatter isn't a hard climb, it more continental that the others - mostly 5-8%, but there are deceptive steeper bits, which look benign but aren't. I started off climbing smoothly thinking this is great, winding steadily through the woods, but then I seemed to slow, went down a gear, then another, and then was out the saddle. It didn't look any steeper, but my legs said it was. Mercifully Garmin confirmed the gradient was 15%, at that point, before easing off again.

Every year I feel tired on this climb. I think it is because it looks like it should just be easy but it's not. Or maybe it's just in my head. Anyway the crowds cheering towards the top were great. Once again a picnic would have been nice....

By this time in the ride Andy and I had got into a nice working routine. I being the smaller rider would generally gain a bit on all the climbs. Then on the descents he would catch me up and being good at time trialling would come into his own on the flat, when I would mercilessly suck his wheel.

So as I wearily rolled off Whinlatter there he was again, and we worked together with a couple of other lads down past Loweswater and over the rolling country side to Cold Fell. This run south through west Cumbria is normally hard work and the prevailing South Westerly tends to slap away at you. But this time the wind was in the North, and all seemed easier than I remembered. A good group, sun in the sky and a gentle tail wind. Doesn't get much better.

By the time we reached Cold Fell, my Whinlatter bad patch had evaporated, and I felt really good, spun my little legs and before I knew it was over the top, and flying down to the feed in Calder Bridge.

I say feed, but I didn't stop except to dib my transponder, and then carried on. Not sure if it was the Clif Bars I had eaten en route, or the fact that Kate had been on a Betty's of Harrogate cookery school the day before and come home to feed me up on fresh sweet Crab Ravioli in a shellfish bisque, followed by succulent Beef Wellington, but I seemed to have strangely high energy levels.

[Note to self: Red meat. Don't have much in my near vegi diet. Eat more fillet steak]

So just one thing left to do. Get over Hardknott and Wrynose. This is where the rubber hits the road. Or perhaps more accurately where you hope your rubber stays on the road

Up Eskdale you see the hills closing in again, and again you start to wonder where the road goes. And then you see it; carving its way impossibly up the hillside. Oh dear.

Then it starts. Telephone box. 30% sign. Bear right a little and bang. You are scrambling down through your gears as fast as Tullio Campagnolo's lovely 11sp Record group-set will let you.

There is a cattle grid, which I always feel ought to be where the climb starts, but I am always out the saddle before I get to it, and have to sit down to get over it safely. Then I am out the saddle again, for quite a while!

I would love to say that the fact I was having a good day on the bike meant I conquered the climb in a composed fashion......(like the annoying bloke on the Cyclefilms recce of the route. He rides up on 39-23 whilst talking to the off), but I didn't. It was not a pretty sight; again.

2007: I tried the zig zag technique. Cutting 1 in 3 down to a manageable 1 in 4 was the idea. But a zig followed by a failed attempt to turn it into a zag left me in an embarrassed heap in the verge.

2008: I met a car on one of the hairpins. For those lucky enough never to have been on Hardknott, these are not sweeping elegant alpine curves. These are knotted twists in the road. It's as if the road builder has just realised he was going the wrong way, and his best line was somewhere about 20 yards above where he had got to. So he just headed straight up to it, without regard for gravity.

It’s like the road was built from the top to the bottom (instead of the other way round), in the mist, when there was tarmac rationing, and the "engineers" only stopped going in a straight line when they came to a precipice.

Anyway back to my tale; I met a car on a left hand hairpin. I was going up at my accustomed 3mph and he was gently burning out his brakes as he crawled down. But careful though he was he felt he should stay on the left. Must have read the highway code. So I was forced left into the apex of the bend.

Now I have read all about cornering on a bike; start wide and smoothly flow through the apex. Um doesn't work on Hardknott. The inside of the bend is a wall. So I fell off.

Now having fallen off you have three options:

a) Try to clip in where you are - and fall off again.

b) Head for somewhere flatter and try to clip in.

c) Just walk.

For me 2007 was a) followed by b) followed by c). By year 2008 my technique had improved, and I had learnt from 2007, so skipped a) went for b) and managed to stay on.

By 2009, I had invested in a 27 instead of a 25 (to go with my compact 34 chain-ring), and so for the last two years I have managed to stay on the bike all the way up.

But staying on the bike and making it move forward isn't what I call cycling. On Hardknott it's like power lifting or bench-pressing or some similar meathead activity which hurts and I can't do! Arms, shoulders, and back are just wrenched and stretched. Legs are OK. Legs are fine, they are used to pushing pedals - that's what they do. But hauling bars is not what I do.

When you can hardly overtake someone in cleats pushing his bike up beside you, you wonder why you are bothering. My only answer= Pig headedness. And quite right too - we are cyclists after all - and where would cycling be without pig headedness. So, assuming you have managed to get over the top you have the small problem of getting back down. I would like to say the descent is fun. But it's not. Be careful. The asphalt snake into the valley between Hardknott and Wrynose is what some might call a "technical" descent. I'd call it worrying.

But it's not half as bad as coming down off Wrynose into Little Langdale. That is chamois endangering (shorts not goats), and another good reason for not eating too much at the last feed stop.

Coming off Wrynose there are some inviting looking straights, and you feel you can let yourself go a bit. It's nearly over, you have conquered the fearsome climbs and you are chasing down to get your time. I was even spurred on as two lads flew past me. They clearly knew the road. Or they had a death wish!

I eased off the brakes thinking I could just follow their wheels. Foolish boy! I stayed on the bike, and the bike stayed on the road, but it wasn't pretty. The road is not holed, just bumpy. I was breaking as hard as I dared, but realised that anything too severe would unsettle the bike, which was already bucking all over the place. So nothing for it except "Stay relaxed", "Don't tense up", "Flow with the bike"....and "Don't crash into that car that's coming up! Aim for that 2 foot gap, and avoid that bolder sticking out from the verge."

Obviously I got down in one piece; otherwise I doubt I would be writing this jocular little blog.

Once down in the valley, and my internal plumbing had settled down again, it was full steam ahead. Those last miles are great. There are just a couple of little clicks, but they're OK, just a question of spinning a small gear over them.

Andy and the other lads in our group had dropped back a little as we went over Cold Fell, and perhaps because I hammered it over the top and didn't stop at the feed, they didn't come back to me. [He he he - Mutley my dasterdly plan worked!!] So I was on my own, but managed to catch a group of three strong lads on the last little rise and then it was light the blue touch paper.

We came over the brow, the landscape opened out, the road pointed gently down and it was a three mile blast to the finish. Funnily I forgot all about Hardknott as we raced home.

A great ride as always. Scenery, weather, organisation, cheering support on the road, good feed stations, all fabulous. But Hardknott...Oh dear, no, no, no!


Sorry no photos - not stopping on Hardknott to take snaps!

  • Garmin download
  • © Nick Millar