Being a local to the Lakes, the legendary ‘Fred Whitton’ had always been an event I’d been interested in entering. Its mythical status of one of the hardest sportives in the country, coupled with local punishing climbs somehow appealed to my masochistic side!
Over a few glasses of wine during the Christmas holiday I managed to persuade myself and my long term cycling buddy Scott that doing it this year was a good idea. I don’t think there is a ‘right time’ to enter such an event. You can always find an excuse.
One of the issues with the Fred is the time of year it is on. It requires you to regularly train throughout the winter/spring months. Luckily this winter wasn’t particularly wet, but it was very cold. The rain held off until spring, when the last three long training rides were in atrocious conditions. This turned out to be a blessing (I think?!) as the second half of the event was in very windy and wet conditions.
I was happy with level of training done to get us round in 8 hours or less. It is always hard to judge whether you have done the right mix of distance and hills. Strava, the online app, did a good job of keeping me motivated, especially on a local climb where my time kept dropping each time I attempted it. It became a good marker for my fitness.
The weather forecast for the day was for calm, mild conditions until 12.00pm and then heavy rain and westerly winds for the rest of the afternoon. For this reason we set off at 6.07am, pretty much in the first bunch of riders. It was a great feeling to get going and the legs felt good on the first climb. Unlike my gears. Clunk, grind. My chain jumped off the top of the cassette and managed to bend my hanger into the wheel. Thankfully it was still ride able, although I was without my granny ring and in certain cogs it was jumping about like a man on hot coals!
The first part of the ride is beautiful and after getting over Kirkstone we got in with two other riders to share the work to Matterdale Rise. The Fred Whitton isn’t just about the 5 big passes, there are plenty of other hills to test the legs and Matterdale is one of them. This took us to the A66 where we grouped together with nearly 30 riders to cruise into Keswick. It gave you a feeling of what it must be like to ride in a pro peloton, being ushered through closed roundabouts and being cheered on by all the supporters round the course!
The flat roads quickly turned into the first steep ‘beast’. Honistor. It’s a grind to get out of the trees, the section over the bridge is insane, but the rewards at the top are worth it. A steep, tricky descent on the other side led us to the first feed stop at Buttermere, 52 miles in. Full of goodies we tucked in and I tried to get the bike fixed to no avail. She would have to get me round to the end. Newland awaited straight after the feed stop and we blasted over that still feeling good.
It was a long, quick descent down to the first ‘dib’ stop at Braithwaite and we got there in 3.43. On target for under 8 hrs. After summiting Whinlatter the route descends into West Cumbria. This is the toughest part in terms of keeping mentally strong. The road rises and falls (but generally rises) until the summit of Cold Fell at 81 miles. It was here the rain and wind started and thankfully we had ‘finish line’ fever and all those wet training miles helped keep the cold out.
After the second feed/dib stop we rode on in trepidation of the final two ‘beasts’. I’ve ridden both Hardknott and Wrynose a few times and knew what horrors awaited us. True enough they were horrible and I felt no shame in joining many others in walking up the steep sections. Looking back at my best time up Hardknott, it was only 3 mins slower walking than riding.
After Wrynose we knew we were hopeful we could make it under 8hrs and put enough into the final few miles to get there in time. The worst hill of the day comes at the road out of Elterwater. With all those miles in your legs it feels as hard as any 30% gradient. We got over that and then sprinted down the final miles to dib in with a time of 7.43. Well under out target! Shows we were tired as we couldn’t even read out watches properly!
The HQ ran like clockwork and you will never eat a better pie than the one served to you by the volunteers at the end.
All in all it is an amazing event. Considering it is run by volunteer’s and headed up by a friend of the late Fred Whitton, Mr Paul Loftus , you cannot fault the professional nature of every aspect. I will certainly be back.
Things I leant about the Fred Whitton
1) Give it some respect and train regularly.
2) Share some of the work with other riders on the flatter sections
3) Be careful on the descents. They are as hard as the ups.
4) Wear enough clothes for the day. Too many people didn’t and ended up shivering , some in hospital with hypothermia at the end. I had an under garment on, cycling shirt, rain gillet, arm warmers and a rain jacket. Knee warmers on the legs and booties.
5) Ride in SPDs in case you have to walk.
6) Take enough fuel but don’t go stupid. I carried far too much considering an energy bar and gel is generally enough for a 50 mile ride.
7) Say thanks to all the marshals and volunteers
8) Smile all the way round and remember why you are doing it!
9) Expect it to rain.
Stay at Coal Yeat Holiday Cottages for a few days training prior to the event.