From the Bike (by me, Nick);
I had six days rest before I was back on my little red bike again, this time for what I considered to be one of my toughest challenges, the Fred Whitton cycle. The Fred Whitton is an 112 mile cycle around the Lake District taking in 12 mountain passes, and has 15 categorised climbs. It’s said you’re not a true cyclist until you enjoy climbing – it’s safe to say that even after this one, I am still not a true cyclist! The average time for the event is 8hrs:45mins, I was doing it with Cat and my brother Jon but not as part of an organised event, Jon and Cat would take it in turns to cycle with me whilst the other one drove the support car.
From the car (by Jon);
Due to a delay in starting a new job, I was still living in the Lake District when Nick and Cat arrived for the Fred Whitton challenge, and I couldn’t really not take part. Following a similar pattern to the start of the Three Peaks challenge, the night before was spent making sandwiches, preparing water bottles, checking over bikes and planning the route. An early start was required to make the most of the daylight, so alarms were set.
On the morning of the challenge, Nick seemed very nervous. He hadn’t seemed this way during any of the other challenges I’d been a part of, and Cat told me he was particularly nervous about this one, and with good reason. The Fred Whitton is rightly regarded as one of the toughest sportives in the country, 112 miles of riding over the 6 largest passes in Cumbria, as well as another half dozen of smaller climbs. Cat and I had the role of support rider and driver, shared between us.
We set off at first light from Keswick with me and Cat riding, the first few miles were stunningly beautiful. We had the road to ourselves and the sun was coming up over the mist covered lake, it was amazing. Then we came up against our first mountain climb, Honister Pass. This was one of the big six for the day, and it was massive – 326m high and over 3 miles of steep climbing. We got up the early slopes but it wasn’t long before both me and Cat were off our bikes and walking as the climb steepened. I had a worrying moment when I couldn’t pedal any more but couldn’t un-clip my pedals either…I was aiming for a soft piece of grass to land on when I finally managed to get my feet free! Once the ascent eased off we got back on and cycled over the top and past the slate mine before starting the descent. The descent was almost as tough as the climb, it was very steep, windy, and wind-y which meant you had to keep on top of the speed to prevent flying off the road.
Now, I could take you through each and every hill we climbed, but my story telling skills aren’t that good, and it would make a pretty long and boring blog even longer and boringer! Instead I’ll give you a few highlights. A few miles after the first climb we faced our second serious climb, another mountain pass called Newlands, I just about managed to heave myself over this one (in my head it was now 1-1 between me and the mountains!). The final climb before the first scheduled break was Whinlatter which was relatively easy compared to the others (2-1 to me!), although still had several miles of out of the saddle climbing!
Cat would take the first shift of riding, and then we’d switch after 25 miles. Fortunately for me, the first shift of riding included 3 of the 6 passes (Honister, Newlands and Whinlatter) so I had the pleasure of avoiding those. I did, however, feel a pang of jealousy, as they had clear roads, and some of views across the valleys were stunning, with the early morning fog yet to lift.
When we’d been planning our shifts and looking at the route the night before, my first shift had looked relatively easy. It looked pretty flat (for Cumbria), and I was looking forward to riding. The first twenty minutes were fine, we cruised along at a decent pace and I felt good. Then we hit the first significant climb, and I realised that whatever fitness I’d built up over the summer had long deserted me and Nick quickly left me behind. I struggled on for awhile, feeling fine until there was an uphill section (there’s lot of uphill sections). Eventually I had to swallow my pride and get back in the car, as Nick was well ahead of me and I didn’t want to hold him up. I did jump back on the bike for a few miles before we reached the village at the bottom of Hardknott pass.
I reached the first scheduled break point and quickly re-filled my bottles and scoffed half a jam sandwich before jumping back on. We were about an hour behind schedule – the mountains had really slowed us down and we weren’t able to make the time up on the descents either! I didn’t want to be out riding too much after it got dark so knew that we needed to push on a bit. Jon joined me and together we ticked off a few miles at a good pace on some slightly more gentle roads. It was nice to sit in his wheels and get a bit of a rest for a few miles, it also gave me a chance to look around. The Fred Whitton has to be one of the prettiest rides as well as one of the toughest. We had a couple of larger hills to get over which slowed Jon down, although his lack of self preservation meant he usually caught me on the descents! About half way through this leg I lost him altogether whilst climbing a particularly long section. Unfortunately I couldn’t afford to stop and wait too much because of the daylight/time pressures. He eventually came past me in the car with Cat, it was a relief to see he was okay but I did feel guilty for leaving him behind.
Dad and Bridget met us at the next scheduled stop with some fresh supplies. I had some more jam sandwiches and some strong coffee before setting off.
The next leg was without a doubt the hardest bit of cycling I’ve ever attempted, it included the infamous Hardknott and Wrynose passes. Hardknott reaches 30% gradient in places and the route directions recommend getting off and walking for most people! The next 10-15 miles nearly broke me, and I’m not sure what kept me going. Once I reached the foot of the climb I tried to stay positive and just keep myself moving without over exerting myself. However, I was off and walking after about a mile, the steep switchbacks proving too tough for me. I did get back on briefly but once again had to get off and walk. This was a monster of a climb. I had to take breaks from walking up it, and at points was sliding down backwards as my cycle cleats gave me no grip at all (2-2)! This was all accompanied by the smell of burning clutches from the cars trying to get over too!
As if Hardknott wasn’t hard enough, after descending for about a mile, and a couple of miles of cycling into a headwind you get kicked in the nuts by Wrynrose. It looked like an achievable climb, not to long and only a couple of very steep sections however I hadn’t had any chance to recover from Hardknott and I was off and walking pretty quickly (3-2 to the mountains). I was pretty high up in the mountains now and getting cold, I walked up Wrynose as fast as I could and started the descent, I was dreading this as I was already shivering and cycling downhill for a few miles wasn’t going to warm me up. Our radio’s had stopped working and I hadn’t seen the support car for what felt like ages! Then just as I was resigning myself to descending I saw the two cars and some furious waving – thank god!
I got some warmer clothes and pushed on again. I was now about 70 miles in.
This was where we’d agreed that my bike shift would end, and Cat had wisely opted not to ride over Hardknott pass. So after a quick jam sandwich and refilling bottles, Nick set off for Hardknott pass, which was quickly followed by Wrynose pass. It’s difficult to describe just how steep some sections of Hardknott are, but it was challenging enough driving over it, let alone attempting to ride it. We parked up just after Wyrnrose pass and waited for Nick to appear over the top of the pass. In retrospect, we perhaps should have waited at the bottom of the descent of Hardknott, as none of us realised how cold and exposed it was. We’d been lucky with the weather, so Nick had left his jacket and gloves in the car at the last stop, which I think he could have done with. Just as we were wondering how much longer we’d give him before we drove back to find him, he appeared, looking very very tired and very cold. Rather than hang around at the top of a pass, he put on some layers and pressed on. And then we lost him.
We’d followed him for a period, but with cars behind us we had to overtake. We followed the route instructions (which Nick also had with him) and decided to wait in a village for him to appear. After twenty minutes and still no sign of him, we turned around and followed our tracks. We knew Nick had the names of a few towns and villages he had to pass through memorised, one of which was Ambleside. We realised that Nick had followed the signs for Ambleside, rather than follow the route instructions. Nevermind, we thought, we’ll catch him in Troutbeck at the scheduled stop. We drove on to Troutbeck without seeing him, and reached the bottom of the Kirkstone Pass without seeing him. The two way radios were out of battery, and we both had patchy signal. Neither of us knew what to do, having driven back and forth through the village a few times, checked inside the pub (it was Nick we were looking for after all). We both kept trying to call him, until eventually we decided the only option was to assume he was ahead of us somewhere and to drive on. Just as I was preparing to burn out the clutch on his car, my mobile rang. Turns out Nick hadn’t noticed he’d gone through Troutbeck, and had made it halfway up Kirkstone pass without noticing. We eventually caught up with him at the bottom of the decent of Kirkstone, and he was finally able to have another jam sandwich. At this point Cat got back on the bike. There was just one more climb to go as they headed north towards the A66.
I had no idea that the support car had lost me, until I couldn’t find Troutbeck! I followed signs for Ambleside, then checked my phone quickly to make sure I was on the right road to Troutbeck (I was!). The road sign said 2 ¾ miles to Troutbeck, this sounded good to me as I was hungry and wanted to get some more food and drink before I tackled the final big climb, Kirkstone Pass. Those 2 ¾ miles seemed to take forever, the hill just kept going up. I checked my phone once more and it looked like I was on my way to Troutbeck still (those of you that read previous blogs such as Three Peaks, and Dartmoor hikes will realise that my navigation skills aren’t always perfect) so I pressed on and upwards. I stopped for a comfort break and checked my phone and then realised that I had missed Troutbeck altogether and was now on my way up the Kirkstone Pass. This was a bit of surprise to me, and there was no way I was going to turn round after doing half the climb, I kept trying to call Jon and Cat and eventually got through, we arranged to meet on the other side. Kirkstone was a bit of a slog, it didn’t get steeper than about 18% but it just went on and on and on. By the time I started the descent I was empty, my motivation was pretty low and I had no energy at all (3-3 between me and the mountains, seems a fair result!).
Having Cat join me after the next stop was such a boost (that and the three cups of coffee!), I now had someone to chat to and help keep me motivated. I thought I was doing okay until we hit a little incline and I dropped right off her wheel – I just couldn’t keep up! We were now climbing towards our final checkpoint but I was really struggling. At one point I had to call Cat back as both my quads cramped up – I couldn’t get off my bike to stretch either! We eventually reached the final checkpoint and were joined by Jon for the final few miles.
We’d arranged with Dad to meet at Troutbeck (a different one) and as the sun began to set, I got ready to join the two of them for the final ten miles back into Keswick. The A66 is a very fast road to drive on, and turns out it’s also a fast road to ride on. I was at the front, and had to slow down a few times to let them both catch up. Normally I’d resent missing out on the opportunity to ride fast, but since Nick was about 100 miles in by that point, and Cat had done quite a bit more riding than me as well, I was happy to go at their pace. We cruised into Keswick, I got us a little bit lost and we had to walk our bikes through the centre of town before riding back to the pencil museum (no really, it a museum about pencils) where’d we’d begun the challenge at dawn that morning.
The final ten miles were along the A66 and I was really struggling, it was mostly downhill but I was still having to work pretty hard to keep up with fresh legged Jon! We decided to ignore the directions and go our own way through Keswick, following Jon’s directions. I think he managed to take us past every pub, restaurant and fish and chip shop in the town! We finally arrived back at the start, I’d cycled over 100 miles in around 9.5hrs. It was a relief to know it was over, and to be honest I was so tired by then I didn’t really get to enjoy the finish. All I wanted to do was get home, get warm, and eat!
I’ve no idea how Nick finished that challenge. I know he’s in pretty good shape as a result of this year of challenges, but it’s hard to convey just how hard the Fred Whitton is. This was the last major endurance based challenge before the final challenge, which is another one in which I’ll be riding and driving in support of.
Fred Whitton challenged me to my limits, and probably pushed me further than I’ve ever been pushed before. I was pretty close to tears walking up Wrynose Pass, but I got through it and completed it. It’s a relief to have this one ticked off, not many left now!!