Fred Whitton Challenge by Paul Baillie
Well, this was it, the big one! The Fred Whitton challenge. 111 miles of the Lake District's toughest roads with around 11500 ft of climbing. A great route that takes in 6 major passes as well as plenty of other hills!
As I'd pre-registered the day before I set off from home just after 5 am hoping to get to Grasmere, get myself sorted and start riding by 6.30. However this event had 2000 riders and the queue to get onto the field at the start, suggested most had the same idea! Whilst I was sat in traffic I saw what looked like 100's of riders who had managed an early start and my appetite was whetted for the day ahead.
It was 7.10am when I managed to actually get started and was soon onto the first part of the ride, which was an easy 5 or 6 miles down through Ambleside. There were lots of riders on the road but no real groups formed as we all found our own pace towards the first climb of the day up Holbeck lane and on towards Kirkstone pass. This climb isn't too steep but is still a good enough test to see how the legs are feeling. I felt fine up here but was very conscious of my plan to take it quite easy until the second half of the ride, saving as much energy as I could for the final climbs of Hardknott & Wrynose passes (more about them later!) The descent down Kirkstone is great fun but it was pretty clogged up with so many riders. After a few miles the rain started to come and although the roads were quite easy there was a bit of a wind which made progress that bit tougher. The next climb comes after around 20 miles and is an easy rise up Matterdale. Soon after we turned left onto the busy A66 for an 8 mile blast down to Keswick where the real hills start. Once through Keswick we were on the valley road towards the village of Seatoller and soon onto the first real big climb, Honister Pass. Just before I got there, I'd stopped to take off my rain jacket and was caught up by Keith, we had a brief natter before the business of getting into bottom gear and slogging up this beast of a climb began! It was here that I saw the first walkers of the day. No shame in it, as it really is a tough one. Once up the initial painfully steep 25% section the hill relents before rearing up again to the summit. The descent is well know for being very steep at the beginning so again, care was taken when coming down. A marshal was telling people to slow down here as there has been an accident further down. Sure enough, there was a man lying across the road, being tended to by the medical team and the whirr of the Air Ambulance overhead was a reminder that it can all come to an abrupt halt if you overcook it on one of the downhills. It wasn't much further to the first feed stop and even though I wasn't hungry, I needed to top up my water bottles. Here I saw Phil Morgan, Keith caught up again and as I was leaving Andrew Darnell arrived. Hellos were exchanged but we were all riding our own ride. I knew my wife was waiting for me at the top of Whinlatter pass a few miles down the road so I pushed on up the next big climb, which is Newlands Pass. I really like this climb, the gradient never gets too much and even on a day like Sunday, with grey skies and rain in the air, the views are breathtaking. A good blast down the other side almost straight onto the next big hill, Whinlatter Pass. This is where the heavens opened and I was feeling sorry for my wife & 3 year old daughter, who I knew would be getting soaked at the top, so I ploughed on a bit quicker than I would have liked, passing quite a few people on my way to the top. Met by Simone & Erin, I changed into a dry top, inhaled a chocolate bar and stayed for 10 or 15 mins. I started to get cold so set off on the long downhill section towards Lorton. I looked at my Garmin, I was just over halfway round and feeling strong so I ploughed on a bit through this next section. There aren't any major hills for a while, but plenty of little rises that sting the legs if you go too hard. I still hadn't found anyone riding at the same pace as me, people would pass me, going much quicker and I would pass slower riders so I was riding by myself, even though there were lots of people on the same part of the route. We climbed up the brilliantly named Fangs Brow and were soon onto the exposed climb over Cold Fell, where I really started to feel strong, so once over the top I put the hammer down and was soon at the next feedstop (83 ish miles) I topped up my bottles but was feeling hungry here, so I helped myself to some jam butties and a couple of pieces of flapjack. I decided to soak in the atmosphere of the whole event and had a coffee, whilst mentally preparing for the last section, which includes the most feared hill of the entire ride. This last section starts with a great ride down the valley towards Eskdale, then another few easy miles before a left turn at the pub, with that infamous Hardknott pass sign. After turning here, you know it's 5 miles or so to the foot of the climb. My mind stared to go back to the last time I was here on a hot day in June 2013. I remembered the feeling of cramp I got on the steepest section and hoped it wouldn't appear this time! I stopped about a mile from the bottom, took off my jacket and squeezed down 2 gels. Once you get to the red phone box, you know it's about to get very real, very quickly. The first part of the climb rears up through some trees and over a cattle grid. Once over here it eases off slightly before a section of brutal hairpin bends is laid out for you to see. It was made all the harder by an almost constant line of walkers, who had been forced off and were walking up. They were all walking around the edge, where the gradient is slight less severe, which forces the riders to take the steeper line on the inside of the bends. The Garmin was reading less than 3mph but I was still riding! Then comes an easier bit before the hardest part. It was on this painfully steep section that I had to get off last time and I was determined not be be beaten again. I weaved my way in and out of walkers and made it past where I'd climbed off last year, only to hear the revving of a van right behind me. Now this section is easily 30% and once you're on it, there's no changing your line. You're up out of the saddle, pedalling squares and whoever or whatever is behind you will just have to wait! The van had other ideas and revved so hard he skidded around the bend behind me and I really thought he was going to knock me off. I looked over my shoulder and he was RIGHT behind me. That second of lapsed concentration made my bars wobble and I was forced to hastily unclip and put my foot down to avoid falling off. As the van crawled past me, not much faster than I was going, I noticed it was the neutral service van! They were supposed to be providing assistance to the riders, not forcing them off. As he went past I couldn't even summon up words to shout at him, but the guy nest to me who was walking managed to let him know what he thought of his driving! I had to walk 10 metres or so as it was so steep, I couldn't clip back in. Once back on I rode to the top, a bit deflated that I hadn't climbed the whole thing, but also determined not to let it spoil the ride and get back in one piece. You need your wits about you on the descent and progress for me was very slow the rain had made the road slick and some of the corners here are very sharp. Once at the bottom there is a nice flat bit, to regain your thoughts. It was here that I heard the whirr of the Air Ambulance again and just up the road, there was a guy wrapped up in a blanket who had clearly had a crash. I ploughed on, in the knowledge that there was only one more real climb before the end. Wrynose Pass is a good climb in it's own right but takes on a whole new level of difficulty when taken after 100 miles! I actually felt strong here and almost sprinted over the top! I'm not sure what it was, but I was almost overcome as I was coming down the descent by a feeling of achievement. I knew there were only 10 miles to go and the big hills were all done, so I ploughed on, only stopping to put on my jacket as it started to rain again.The last few miles were a blur of small hills and long sweeping sections where I was smashing along in top gear like I was out for 20 mile burn up!
I soon arrived back at Grasmere and my support crew of wife & child were there to see me home. It was my first 'Fred' and I'm not sure whether I'll enter it again, but I did enjoy it, which was my aim. I hadn't set out to record a specific time and my riding time of 8h 22m reflects this!
Well done to all who completed the ride!