The Fred Whitton, the one and only Fred Whitton, the toughest baddest sportive in the land. Some are longer, some gain more altitude but only the Fred has the climbs of Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Cold Fell, Hardknott, Wrynose and now Blea Tarn, and for this reason alone it is without parallel. My ‘relationship’, and yes for all the pain it has caused I do love it, began back in 2009.
I entered because I knew a lot of the climbs I needed to include in my first book were on the route, in fact six of them, so what better way to experience them than one after the other, and yes, what an experience it was. All started well but once on Hardknott pass, after I’d cramped trying to force a 39x26 up the 30% bit, snow began to fall. I can tell you honestly that I have never been more afraid on two wheels before or since than I was that day descending first Hardknott and then Wrynose on a road that was fast turning white. Dropping down through 25% hairpins in the dry is a test enough, this was just insane, and on top of that my hands were so cold I could no longer move them to change gear. I rolled across the finish line, a broken man, vowing NEVER to do that again. Two years later I came back though, only to wake on the morning of the ride to see people taking canoes to the HQ. It was so wet I grew gills by the end and was so cold that people had to help me put extra layers on at the second feed because I was shivering so much. NEVER AGAIN. Until 2013 that is, third time lucky? Not a chance. The weather was so bad when I finished I looked like I’d spent a week in The Somme. The entire seven hours were just a battle and that was it, I meant it this time. NEVER AGAIN.
The years passed, and the memories didn’t fade, then I got working with Human Race who took over the running of the event and ended up creating a guide to its hills for them and naturally the opportunity to return arose. OK, then, it’s been five years, ONE MORE GO, it had to be sunny this time, just had to be.
All week the weather had been looking average at best and I had been my usual pessimistic self, but then on the morning there was hardly a cloud to be seen, could this be the day I have been waiting nine years for? I traveled up with my mate Nick, if I was going to suffer, then he would have to also, and as we woke at 5am people were already riding past our hotel to the start line. This always gets me anxious, I feel I must be on the road but we had a plan and were going to stick to it. I always give Nick an hour’s head start and he tries to beat me to the first feed so Nick set off and I hung around. I liken waiting to start the Fred to a surfer waiting to catch the perfect wave. In order to post a good time, you need some help, you need some strong legs to follow to share the work on the flat bits so I started to size up the groups waiting to begin.
Historically the ‘fast men’ wait till last then hoover up all in front of them, and massing near the start at just after 7.30 were about 10-15 riders from Harrogate Nova CC. I knew they were a strong club, I’d been witness to them tearing up the Etape du Dales a few years ago and it was obvious at first sight that they had a plan, and were organised. They set off as if they were fired from a canon, with me on their coat tails, I had struck gold here, this was just the train I wanted to catch, it was all smiles. I’ve started with strong groups before only to drop them all on the first climb but today was different. The group had a ride captain who was calling the shots, keeping the pace high on the flat but making sure we soft pedaled up the early climbs. The smart money says you shouldn’t turn a pedal in anger until you reach Honister after about 45 miles and this is what we would do. We rolled over Kirkstone and up Matterdale and it was all very jovial then we hit the A66 on the way into Keswick and hurtled down the dual carriageway like a giant snowball gathering riders as we went. By the time we reached the town our group must have swelled to 40, as riders who could handle the pace jumped on for the ride. We belted through town and out the other side then charged through Borrowdale, shedding all those who had tagged along to where the real action starts. Honister Pass.
At the base of Honister a few goodbyes were said, and like a rocket shedding its stage one boosters team mates were discarded never to be seen again. A smaller, lighter, more agile group surged forwards up the 25% slopes and I soon found my self at the pointy end holding the wheel of their strongest rider Tom Denwood. As he began to gap me higher up I let him go because to go too deep here would not be sensible and anyway the plan still was to preserve the core of riders for as long as possible. Unfortunately at the top of Honister there was a blockage, and we assumed someone must have come off on the treacherous descent so ended up standing around for a bit, naturally frustrated, but hoping no one had been badly hurt. The urge to move forward soon overwhelmed us and unable to navigate the jam we scaled the jagged stone wall and headed forward across the hillside. I instantly regretted this as my pristine white shoes sank into the boggy grass but it was essential if we were to post a good time. Tom was first to hit the grass and he raced off ahead and that was in fact the last we saw of him. I was desperate to keep in touch with the Nova boys and followed them to where they rejoined the road and when we were allowed to descent tried to hold their wheels but couldn’t and ended up fighting like hell across Buttermere Fell to get back on.
I’d normally stop here to fill my bottles, but before he disappeared Tom invited me to use their feed stop away from the scrum over the other side of Whinlatter Pass which I kindly accepted, and thanks again for this. Up next was Newlands Hause, my favourite of the Lake District passes and for today’s event it, the venue for a KOM competition, do I blast it right from the base? No, that would be silly, it’s far more important to think of the whole so I rolled up, all be it at a good pace, taking photos along the way. Even though I’d ‘kept a lid on it’ I found myself alone at the top here but set off regardless as I knew they would catch me and they did, ensuring we still had a solid group to share the pace up Whinlatter. After our quick feed and wee stop we began the long trek round the back of the course which in my previous three attempts is where my moral had been seriously tested.
Today though spirits were up, it was warm, hot even, the sky was a cloudless deep blue and the surrounding hills were just looking fantastic. Yes we were smashing the road up, taking turns, keeping the pressure on but it would be criminal not to appreciate the beauty of the surroundings, this was the Lake District at its finest. I was feeling strong now, I ripped it up over Cold Fell leaving my new friends for a while but as always they caught me again, and with little drink left I was eager to get to the second feed in Calderdale to top up. As we approached the entrance we slowed, but... they went straight on. “You not stopping” I shouted, “NO” they replied. Oh hell, what do I need the most, drink, because I know I will cramp, or wheels to follow. The idiot inside my head choose the wheels, even though I have cramped every single time I have ridden Hardknott in the Fred, so fingers crossed. This next part was the best I felt all day, I hit a real purple patch, devoured Irton Pike and thundered through Eskdale on the way to the King of climbs, the one and only Hardknott Pass.
Like I said, every year during the Fred I cramp on the 30% part of Hardknott, but this year I had my new secret weapon, my 34 tooth chairing, I still took it VERY steady, trying as hard as I could to be relaxed, which, yes is impossible, to make sure my legs were in the best shape they could be when they got to the 30% bit. This stretch of road has no doubt appeared in more cyclists nightmares than any other, it takes 100% effort to simply stay upright and with close to 100 miles in the legs that hurts. I made it though, I made it without cramping, why had I been too stubborn to use smaller gears before! Down into the valley I was now feeling jaded but got up Wryness OK then hurtled off the other side. I hate that descent, hate it so much, it’s SO fast, so bumpy and I’m just simply too chicken to not ride it with the brakes locked full on. Immediately after the bottom of Wrynose it is usually quite straight forward home along rolling roads but this year, just to hammer one final nail in the coffin of our battered legs we had another vicious little climb.
I bumped into Paul ‘Lofty’ Lofthouse at the start and saw the twinkle in his eye. “You like that new climb we added Simon” “NO, Paul!” “Oh come on, you love it”. “No Paul, it’s sadistic” “But think of the views from the top into Langdale” “That is not what I am thinking off Paul” He shook my hand and went of laughing. I sat their eyes narrowed, cursing him under my breath ;-)
Now alone with none of my adopted team mates anywhere to be seen I crawled up best I could but was fast approaching survival mode. Over the top, which isn’t exactly where one of the marshals shouted it was, (thnaks) I knew I was empty, like a car out of fuel the message to the legs to push was falling on deaf muscles. Then a Nova rider caught me and passed me at speed, I tried to react but just couldn’t match him, now I’d have to dig deep. He gaped me further on the descent and had 200 metres on me once we arrived in Great Langdale. I turned my self inside out to try and close it but made no indent, trapped in a futile pursuit of a prey that sat at seemingly the exact same distance ahead I churned the biggest gear I could through the flat valley but to no avail.
Passing through the waiting crowds outside Elterwater, of which there had been many vocal pockets throughout the day I made it to the A593, and then the turn onto the tiny road back to Grassmere and then past the five miles to go sign. FIVE MILES! Are you having a laugh! I’m sure it said 10 miles to go about 8 miles ago and now it is still five! I lost it. My only hope was my emergency peanut and chocolate bar which was still in my pocket so I rammed in my mouth, not that I had any liquid left to wash it down with. I was caught by another Nova rider, Stuart Newton who let me sit on his wheel all the way back and I can’t thank him enough for that.
I sprinted over the line and then that was it. I was dry, I was even a bit pink, I was empty and ready for food but it had been fun. For the first time it hadn’t just been a battle against the elements and rather than wishing it to end I’d soaked up and loved every minute of it (apart from the last 5 miles)
I didn’t have a target time, and bumped into the talented Oliver Bridgwood from Cycling Weekly at the finish who had got round in just under 6 hours so was very happy, even with the hold up on Honister to be just 20 minutes off that.
Now I can say NEVER AGAIN, it won’t get any better than that, good legs, blue skies, I have made my peace with The Fred now...Or have I...
If you rode and are looking for the perfect souvenir then check out the Hardknott Pass print on my website, just £17.50 including P+P.