Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Fred Whitton

More busy weeks at work, more long drives to far reaches of the country, more riding bikes uphill - this blog is starting to sound like a broken record.

This week's ride was, however, no ordinary occasion. The hardest ride in the UK, massively oversubscribed and revered by cyclists from around the world, I was lucky enough to have an entry to the Fred Whitton (you can judge for yourselves whether this was good or bad luck). It’s a ride that takes in all of the hardest passes in the Lake District, and has a wait-list of more than three times the 1700 riders who are drawn from a ballot by - charmingly - Mrs Whitton.

Selene and I had driven up to our B&B in Windermere the day before the ride, and I took the opportunity to sign-on at the start in Coniston in advance. The number of cyclists converging on the tiny rural town was quite amazing and gave me a scale of quite how many people would be taking to the roads the next day. Unsurprisingly, this required military-esque precision by the organisers, and the sign-on process was uniquely rigorous: requiring photo ID, signature, and being tagged up with a 'dibber' (electronic timing chip) on a wristband which was "in no circumstances to be removed"! That said, we were all given a bag of freebies on the way through the process, so it's clear that the organisers knew what they were doing - I'd say 90% of people will put up with pretty much anything if there's free stuff to be had (just look at the hullabaloo in the field of spectators when a pro ditches a bidon on the side of the road).

Having been given a pep talk by our very-friendly-but-noticably-overweight B&B proprietor (who “would have loved to ride, if it wasn’t for this back injury”), we headed out to find out just what was happening in the market town of Bowness-on-Windermere at 5.30pm on a Saturday. The answer? Not a huge amount. After a while spent staring through the windows of closed shops (even the Beatrix Potter Experience was closed!), and dodging unfeasibly drunk and very out-of-place stag and hen parties, we decided the bite the bullet and go for an early supper at the recommended Italian restaurant. Mountains of value-for-money carbs later, we stumbled out into the daylight, looking for something else to do while the clock ticked down to bedtime (alcohol was unfortunately off the cards). Luckily, the local cinema was opposite the restaurant so we popped in to catch the Avengers – shown in a tiny screen with reverse camber (the seats at the back were lower than those at the front...) – before heading back.

The profile - not so much saw-tooth as shark-tooth
Knowing that we had a 5 hour drive home, I was keen to set off early and aimed to be on the bike for 6.30. Unfortunately, that meant missing out on the full English served by our hosts, and instead I had to make do with dry muffins and a banana, which was absolutely no consolation. Doubly unfortunately (for Selene), it also meant that Selene had to drag herself out of bed before 6a.m. and drive the car home from the start line so she could have it for the day – she did get to go back for the pucker breakfast though, so I didn’t feel too bad. By the time we arrived, there was a long queue to get into Coniston, so we parked up on the side of the road and I got everything together there – although I had forgotten to pack the track pump, so I was stuck rolling along on under-pressure tyres.

As with many of these events, it’s all of the run-up to the event that creates the stress (“What did I forget to pack?”, “How early do we have to leave to make sure we get there on time?” etc.) and for me it’s not usually till I’m in the saddle that I can relax. In the peace of the early hours, riding through the dappled sunshine in the forest along the North shore of Coniston Water, this was the perfect start to a ride and in an instant I had forgotten the all the stress of a week. That’s not to say the going was easy though, as the road basically went straight uphill – having been ill during the week and without doing a jot of exercise, it probably would have been good to do a warm-up, but by then it was too late. As normal with sportive events, most riders are filled with exuberance in the early miles, and there are normally people who think they have the form to race round (but inevitably don’t). I’ve ridden quite a few sportives now, and try not to get caught up in the high pace starts, as it is usually a recipe for disaster later on in the ride – but the competitive side of me normally wins out when some fat old chuffer on an expensive bike flies past. The straight uphill start did favour my strengths, meaning that this ride wasn’t as bad as normal in that regard, but even so I did find myself sitting on wheels and forcing splits almost without thinking about it – in the end things settled down a bit with a group of about 10 who could handle the higher pace.

The first climb of the day on my list was Kirkstone Pass. A long climb (about 6 miles from bottom to top), it never gets too steep and was a good appetiser to the day ahead. With views on the way up over to the West, it was another reminder of what lay ahead as well as a preview of the weather for the day, which was to be very blustery with the threat of rain all the way round. Again I set a good tempo on the way up the climb and this thinned out our group out even further, and on reaching the highest point of the ride at 1,500 feet there were only 5 of us left. It was amazing to see spectators out so early and so high, I really couldn’t believe that so many people had braved the weather, but this was only a fraction of the support that we were to have all of the way around the course.

On the fast descent down the back of the Pass, I was given a reminder of some of the dangers that I would be facing during the day as I saw a rider’s back tyre explode and shred underneath him, leaving him to crunch down on the tarmac at 40+ mph. He looked in a bad way but was fortunately with friends and suffering *only* skin abrasions rather than anything more serious. Amazingly, after getting medical support and a new tyre, I saw him climb out of one of the marshal’s cars and back on to his bike after Keswick – what a trooper!
On the way past Ullswater

Luke passing Ullswater
Skirting the South end of Ullswater, the route turned off and up and over Matterdale End, before descending and heading West into Keswick. In the process of working together to keep the pace high, I ended up chatting to another rider and after introducing ourselves we worked out that we had similar aims for the day so would try to stay together around the course. It’s always nice to meet fellow riders at these events, and even better when they are riding at a similar pace and are happy to chew the fat on the way round. As it happens, Luke grew up in the area, and his knowledge of when to work in groups what climbs were coming up was very valuable – particularly on the windy run-in to Keswick where, even in a large group and going downhill, it was a case of pedalling hard just to keep up some momentum.

The second climb on the list was Honister Pass. Knowing that the first feed-stop was just over the top in Buttermere, it was another long-but-not-too-steep climb with an Alpine feel. With my legs still feeling strong, I shot out keeping a good pace around 10mph at the front, all the way to the slate mine at the top before dipping down the other side into the very welcome sight of the fantastic spread of food at the feed. I’d made a pact to drink both bottles by this time (45 miles in) as I’m usually very bad and suffer later on through dehydration. Needless to say, this meant I was feeling better for it, but was also dying for a loo break. Not wanting to lose the group or queue at the stop, I held on for as long as possible before the next climb of Newlands, and then stopping in a field by the roadside for a pee as I knew I’d catch the others going up the hill. This did mean stopping right next to a bunch of spectators, but needs must, and I’m sure they’ve seen worse!

Newlands went up at a steady rate and, with the backdrop of a several-month’s-worth of steep climbing, really didn’t seem so bad despite getting 8/10 in the book. So far, so good, as that meant the ride had already taken in 7, 8 and 9/10 climbs in with less than 50 miles on the clock, and the lack of ├╝ber-steep roads meant that this hadn’t taken too much of a toll. Off the top of Newlands was the first timing point, complete with rows of marshals shouting “dib, dib, dib” before asking where your “dibber” was to be inserted into the chip reader – all rather bizarre and seemed to be a little more hassle than necessary (most events make do with timing mats).

Pushing on, we rode through Braithwaite and up the spectator-lined climb of Whinlatter. With hairpins, through a forest, and with a mother and daughter combo offering jelly-baby hand-ups, Whinlatter was an amazing climb on smooth tarmac and a real sense of achievement in getting up and probably my favourite of the day even if it only gets a lowly 5/10 from Simon Warren.

Next came the most testing section of the ride (besides the final two beastly climbs) which was the South-bound leg, down the Cumbrian coast and straight into a wind that had been picking up all day, developing into a howling gale. This coincided with the exposed tops of Cold Fell (where riders had be taken off the mountain with hypothermia last year) and constant undulations – suddenly my legs really weren’t feeling so fresh, and the cumulative ascent was really making itself known in every uphill section. Battling together, Luke and I swapped turns and made decent progress, although at the time it is always demoralising when you look down at your speedo when going into a headwind and knowing that the effort you’re putting in isn’t being translated into the normal kind of speed you expect. By the time we had reached the second feed station, we dived in to the food on offer, trying not to think about what exactly lay ahead.

Braving the headwind

What exactly lay ahead were two of the hardest climbs in the UK – Hardknott Pass and Wrynose – both of which come in quick succession over the space of about 5 miles. Having not seen or ridden either of these climbs before, I had a sense of trepidation about getting up these two monsters, which had not been helped by almost every person I spoke to reporting back war stories of quite how bad they were. In the back of my mind was the knowledge that I had suffered up enough climbs (including the fearsome Rosedale Chimney and Porlock) to be in the best possible place to judge my own ability, but actually doing them I didn’t know whether these were on the same scale. This wasn’t helped by a chap who – on his way steaming past to a sub-7 hour time – started chatting about his failure last year with the gear setup I had (lowest gear of 39x25) and how he had come back with a miniscule 34x27 to make it up without walking this time. In his opinion, I was bound to fail – well thanks a lot mate!

With all of this in mind, the towering mountain ahead with its meandering road to the top seemed even more daunting; but there was little I could do except resolve myself that I would make it to the top and try to forget about the 100 miles of fatigue already built up. One consolation to the unfaltering gradient was that the change in direction meant that the wind was now behind us and in effect presenting a helping hand up the hill – bonus! Now I’m not going to lie: it was hard. Not only was the gradient 1 in 3 or more, but the road was incredibly bumpy – this meant that standing out of the saddle meant that the back wheel lost traction, and sitting down meant there wasn’t enough weight on the front to keep it from lifting off the top of the bumps. It was just a case of gritting my teeth, crossing the gradient as much as possible, and grinding up at a ridiculously low cadence (around 30 rpm). This tactic worked, and with a suitable amount of gurning, grunting and grinding (must have been a treat for those watching) I summited Hardknott to the view of Wrynose only a few hundred metres away.

Fortunately, after getting up Hardknott, Wrynose seemed like a relative piece of cake, if you like your cakes in an incredibly-steep-rugged-bleak-and-beautiful-countryside kind of format. I even had enough in the tank for a final sprint to the top to overtake the rider I had been going toe-to-toe with the whole way up, although I did have to stop by the side of the road after that to make sure my legs and lungs weren’t about to fall off.

The descent off the back of Wrynose was equally as steep as the way up, and the road surface and tightly packed turns made it treacherous for everyone – I can’t imagine doing that in the wet. One rider ahead came a cropper as his brakes melted away and he lost control, but fortunately he did not seem too bad and was quickly attended to by helpers. After that is was ‘merely’ a case of riding the last 10 miles to the finish, which seemed like agony every time the road even approached a positive gradient – my legs had well and truly gone by this point and I was just holding on for home. Using our last reserves of energy and adrenaline, Luke and I powered towards the finish, talking ourselves into the times that might be possible – probably the exhaustion talking when we thought we might be able to ride the last 5 miles in 15 minutes, but we tried our best. Salt encrusted and seriously hurting, we crossed the finish line at the same time and proceeded to devour everything in sight, which was a particular joy as Selene had brought a massive spread of delicious deli foods that got hovered up at a rate of knots.

Looking back at the results, I’m quite pleased with getting round in a total time of 7 hours 25 – this puts me inside the top 200, and an achievable distance away from the magical sub-7 hour mark. I now have unfinished business with this ride…

110 miles, 10.5k feet of climbing, average moving speed of 15.3mph - that'll do I guess :-)

Photos to follow when uploaded by the official photographer

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