The Fred Whitton Challenge is a 112 mile Sportive with 11,700ft plus of climbing over some of the steepest climbs in the Lake District in Cumbria. It is considered one of the hardest sportives in the UK due to the terrain, road surfaces and bad weather. It is put on by Paul Loftus in memory of ex Lake Road clubs secretary Fred Whitton who tragically died of cancer at only 50 (the year after I emigrated to California).
Fred was a great guy and a real cycling enthusiast. When my friend and I started cycling seriously as junior/schoolboys it was Fred who took us under his wing and nurtured what would become a life long cycling passion for the both of us. My friend Andy still lives in the Lake District and has ridden just about everyone since they started. He is a very strong rider and has always been one of the fastest riders home including a win one year against very strong opposition.
Doing the “Fred” was on my bucket list and 2014 was to be my year to have a go. Leading up to the event I was in pretty good climbing form but a little under the weather after some vaccinations for an Indonesia trip didn’t seem to agree with me. I still had high hopes of doing a good time at the Fred and perhaps helping my mate to win again.
I had decided to borrow a bike from Andy for the event rather than fight with bringing a bike over on the airlines. This was a bit of a gamble as my mate is over 4” taller than me but it looked as if we could get the Ribble to fit me ok. The bars were a bit wider than I am used to and I was a bit stretched out when using the drops but the bike actually felt pretty good.
I landed on a Thursday and the event was on the Sunday so this gave me some time to get some miles in to blow away the jetlag and fine tune my position. Unfortunately the weather was absolutely terrible and I ended up getting very wet which did absolutely nothing for my morale and reminded me why I moved to California in the first place. The Ribble handled really well and climbed like a goat although I was plagued by a nasty sounding freehub and some gear selection problems (nothing too serious to worry about). I had completely forgotten how narrow and bumpy the Lake District roads are and made a mental note that I was really going to have to take some care on the descents in the Fred.
The evening before the Fred my constant soakings and no doubt some bug I picked up on the plane created a monster sinus infection and I was very congested and unable to get much sleep. By morning the sinus pain had eased a lot but I had a mild head cold and felt pretty rough. I had my fingers crossed that the weather would be kind and I could still finish the event.
We arrived at Grasmere for the start around 5:30AM and the rain was absolutely hammering it down and the wind was blowing hard. I have no doubt at all that living in California has made me soft. I really couldn’t cope with the wind, rain and cold at all. I opted for thermal rain booties, thermal waterproof gloves , thermal leggings, thermal Jacket and a rain jacket. I never took any of these off all day. There were people riding in shorts and short sleeves and they didn’t seem to mind the cold at all.
From the first climb of the day I knew I was on really bad form and decided that survival was the order of the day. I planned to ride at “Double Century” pace and to try to save something for the two monster climbs of Hardknott Pass and Wrynose Pass at the end. The wind was pretty strong and the roads were waterlogged so drafting people was a miserable experience and I ended up riding on my own most of the time.
The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful when the rain stopped even if only for a short while and the Marshalls and people watching round the route were inspiring. It was really special to be slogging up some 20%+ climb in the pouring rain with crowds of people cheering you on (they are hardy folks in the Lakes). The low point for me in the first section was the A66 where the wind and rain were just relentless and I though so hard about packing.
After Keswick I got in a small group and the rain let off for a while so my spirits lifted even though I knew we were heading to the first real test of the day , Honister Pass. Honister Pass is a brute of a climb and I was really glad I had opted for a 34×29 bottom gear as this allowed me to stay seated for longer periods on the soaking wet and slippery roads. On this climb I saw my first people having to get off and walk and all the riders seemed to go strangely silent.
The descent of Honister is a notoriously dangerous bit of road and the marshalls were telling everyone to take it easy. Some rider crashed on here and had to be airlifted to hospital. Even though it was raining I didn’t find it too bad as there was a monster headwind to slow you down. The Ribble bike also handled really well and inspired confidence so I made good progress to the first rest stop. I just stopped long enough to fill my bottle and grab some Soreen Fruity Malt Loaf to eat on the hoof which was a good job as we were soon climbing again.
The trouble with having a cold is that it is really difficult to eat and breathe at the same time and I had to give up on eating as I climbed the quite challenging Newlands Pass. This climb was timed but I was in no state to be racing up anything. Despite not really pushing myself I began to feel worse as the miles progressed although my legs actually felt OK.
The descent after Newlands took the award for the worst weather of the day and I was battered by strong winds and heavy rain. My waterproof gloves and booties couldn’t handle it and I had soggy feet and hands. I was soaked to the skin and grumbling to myself about the rain and cold when a rider passed me in shorts and short sleeves and I suddenly felt very lucky.
I really don’t remember much about the next section to the second feed at 86 miles other than Cold fell was horrible , damp and foggy and it all seemed to be headwind. I do remember the fantastic spectators and volunteers who cheered anyone and everyone on. I forced myself to take a break at rest station number two as my morale was low and I knew the worst climbs were still to come. A nice hot cup of tea raised my spirits and I set off in search of Hardknott.
Climbing Hardknott Pass without stopping is another item on my bucket list and fortunately it is on there no longer. It is an absolute beast of a climb and the 30% section is one of cycling’s true greats. Despite not feeling my best I had a huge sense of achievement when I finally crested the top. The scenery was worth the effort despite the very gnarly descent meaning that you had little time to appreciate it.
Ahead of me lay the last climb of the day, Wrynose Pass, which my friend told me would be a complete walk in the park after Hardknott. Although it was no walk in the park it certainly seemed a bit tame compared to Hardknott. Up Wrynose my rear cassette began to make some strange noises and on the descent it was wailing like an air raid siren. I kept my fingers crossed that it would get me home and get me home it did.
I finished tired and shell shocked but a happy man. My legs were not too bad but I felt very drained and fatigued. The Fred Whitton really was a challenge for me and I could not even consider attempting it again. My time was a very disappointing 7H50m30s which was nearly 2 hours slower than my mate who was the fastest rider home.
On the Monday after the Fred I developed a heavy chest cold and then on Tuesday I contracted Salmonella poisoning which left me sick for 7 days. I am glad to be back in nice warm California but the lake District is still one of the finest places on earth. The Fred Whitton should be on every cyclists bucket list.