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Fred Whitton: Conquering the UK’s Hardest Sportive

On 12th May a group of Wheelers completed what is considered the hardest one-day sportive in the UK, The Wheelbase Fred Whitton Challenge, a 112 mile (180 Km) sportive around the Lake District, now a World Heritage Site. Dubbed ‘The Daddy of them all’ by Cycling Weekly, Fred Whitton Challenge is ranked alongside European events such as the Marmotte in terms of difficulty. The ride is a charity event in honour of the late Fred Whitton who was a great advocate for cycle sport in Cumbria and North Lancashire. It is with respect to Fred and his ideals that the event remains just that, ‘a challenge’. Antonio Ferrín reports back from a big day out in the saddle.

Travel and Stay

Although it is possible to reach the start line in Grasmere by public transport it’s not very practical as the closest train station is miles away, so most of us decided to travel by car the day(s) before. In terms of stay, although there are plenty of options in this very touristic part of the world, I’d recommend to book a few months in advance (before or as soon your place is confirmed in December / January) to avoid paying high fees. I personally stayed in a B&B that I’d highly recommend just 5 minutes from the start line in Grasmere, and stayed there the night after the event, driving back to London on Monday.

Before the event

Some of us met at the signing area (located in the same area as the start/finish of the event) on Saturday afternoon. Very well organised, with a quick pickup of rider kit and a nice market where you could get from energy bars to bargain cycling clothes. And of course, a few food vans to fuel for the next day :). Everyone nervous about the big challenge coming and the veterans sharing some tips (or scaring us).

And the weather… in an area known for its totally unpredictable weather, we were extremely lucky and got warm temperatures and the sun shining for most of the ride. I can see the experience may be totally different if you get a wet day (I was personally thinking in dropping if the forecast was wet).

The ride

Sunday arrived and most people decided to start as early as possible to avoid the late afternoon forecasted rain. I personally started a bit after 6am, when the event officially kicked off, joining a group of local guys who were familiar with the roads and the route, although I didn’t stay long with them.

Although 2.000 riders may look like a big number, it was actually ok and from the start line and during the whole route I never found the roads overcrowded or the narrow steep climbs blocked.

Although I haven’t followed a strict training plan I have been cycling consistently for the 6 months heading to the event, mainly doing a lot of Surrey Hills rides (approx. 5.000 Km) and losing 10 Kg (that have helped in my climbing skills) on the journey… however, Fred Whitton climbs are a few levels harder than any Surrey ride I had done before.

So let’s go to the experience… or what I remember of it 🙂

First miles of the ride are quite easy, a rolling terrain on nice tarmac roads that get you easily warmed up for what is coming ahead. Just a few miles and you start the climb to Kirkstone Pass, a 5Km climb with 5.5% avg gradient on roads that are similar our familiar Surrey ones (potholes, gravel…) that I took very easy, keeping high cadence and not even having to stand up during the whole climb. At the top we had some public supporting and the first of the few event photos taken.

Descent from Kirkstone was long and fast, but tricky on the first few kilometers, mainly because the road was not in the best condition and at least my tyres (I was riding with Continental 5 Season, 28mm) didn’t get the best grip. After a few kilometres, we reached a beautiful road section along the lake shore on great tarmac.

After the long descent, we climbed Park Brow, that I wouldn’t even call it a hill but slightly uphill flat that helps to add fatigue to the legs and right after it … Honister, the first “monster climb”, a 2.3 Km climb including 25% ramps that left it first victims (I mean people putting the foot on the floor); I’m proud I was not one of them. Right after that, the first feed station…

Feed stations are in my opinion the main area for improvement in Fred Whitton. Just two stations in a route that many people take 10 hours to complete seems insufficient to me, and just sandwiches and crisps (and eventually some fruit) on those are not enough; I really missed the roast potatoes that you can get in events like Dragon Ride, and at least an extra feed station.

Right after a quick descent on a “gravel” road, another serious climb came, Newlands Pass, almost 2 Km at 10.7% and amazing sights of the Lake District when you reach the top. The sun was shining at that time, I was feeling fresh, so really enjoyed that climb, but not as much as I enjoyed the following section: a steady descent along beautiful country lanes.

Whinlatter Pass was probably my favourite climb of the day. 3.3 Km of nice and wide road, steady gradient (6.4% avg) and a massive crowd cheering cyclists. It felt like being in Le Tour de France :). It was followed by a fast descent on the same surface that even more enjoyable thanks to the marshalls that the organisation had positioned in every single corner, warning about cars coming and calling it clear… very impressed with that.

After the descent we had a long section of undulating country lanes (felt like Surrey) and a drink station, and then we started climbing Cold Fell. Even the organisation gives it a 6/10, its 3.7 Km where the hardest for me in the whole route. Not sure if it was because I was already tired and needed more food (I couldn’t get more of my homemade flapjacks) or because of the grey sky and head wind. Felt quite glad when I reached the top and initiated the descent to the second feed station.

I did most of the ride on my own, and the second first station was the first time I met other two wheelers, Adrian and Nigel. After getting some sauvory food (did I mention I couldn’t eat more flapjacks?) and filling my bag pockets with crisps (they later saved me) we started back together going through a undulating roads until we entered a closed road section when reached the start of “the Beast’, this is, Hardknott Pass. It is not possible to describe Hadknott with words or to compare it with any of the hills we have in Surrey or Kent… you just need to leave the experience.

To do Hardknott ramps at 30% you don’t only need to have the right gearing, but being physically and mentally strong to keep pushing for 10-15 mins standing on your bike at the lowest cadence possible. I couldn’t do it, put my foot on the floor on the second section and then walking until the top. Chapeau to the people like Matt or Nigel who manage to do Hardknott on the bike. Btw Hardknott comes after 100 miles, but to be honest, I don’t think it would be easier if it was at the start of the route.

If you don’t have enough with Hardknott, a 4-5 min hairpins descent (good to test your brakes) brings you to Wrynose, the “youngest brother” of Hardknott, peaking at 25%. Grey sky and headwind didn’t help either, so I felt totally happy when reached the top and initiated the descent on a “gravel” road to the last climb of the day, Blea Tarn.

Blea Tarn felt a lot easier than the previous two beasts, with an easy gradient during most of the climb; however, the last few meters at 25% just finish the only energy you have left in your legs.

After Blea Tarn the roads open again and it was just an approx 10 mile undulating section (did I mention that there are no proper flat roads in the whole route?). I had massive pain in my left foot thanks to a verruca right where I press the pedal so I just tried to keep it easy, not push too much and praying to reach the finish line as soon as possible.

And finally, I reached a cheering public crowed finish line!!! Got my medal, a glass of water and probably the second best beer I have ever tasted (Of course the top one is our Centenary Ale). Met other wheelers in the finish area and congratulated each other for the great achievement. I then got a reservation in a restaurant for a proper Sunday Roast with my daughter, the best recovery meal I’ve ever taken.

I heard about people only doing this ride once in their life, that is not my case. I really enjoyed the experience and would like to repeat it in the future. The public support, beautiful scenery and challenging climbs (and descents) are a unique experience.