The next big event of the season was the Fred Whitton. This long running UK sportive takes you on a full lap of the Lake District that includes some of the steepest climbs you will find in the UK. Names like Honister Pass, Hardknott Pass and Wrynose Pass strike fear into the heart of cyclists across the land. It also takes place in early May which often means rain, wind and cold weather. A true test for the hard men.
Entry is limited to 2000 people and competition for places is so high that there is a ballot system in place. Ian, Simon and I (now known as Team Hurt Route – more on that in a later post) got our entries in and then waited. Luckily we were all successful. Sadly Neil was less successful but is making up for it by taking on LEJOG instead – nice consolation prize.
The course starts and finishes in Grassmere
Race day dawned with rain coming in across the hills pushed by a strong wind. With low cloud and wet roads it didn't look promising. As we queued up in the traffic to get into the car park the heavens opened, drenching the poor souls who were riding to the start line. We then caught a lucky break as the cloud passed, the sky brightened and we got off to a dry start, rolling down the road towards Ambleside and the first challenge of the day – Kirkstone Pass.
As soon as we turned off and started heading up hill it felt like everyone was pushing on fairly quick. Interesting given what was to come later in the day. I did my best to keep up with Ian and Simon but their pace was a little strong to start with. Bladders soon intervened and I caught up with them about half way up the pass. It was a good climb to start the day. One of the longest that would take us up to the highest point of the day but not too steep that you had to dig too deep. I really enjoyed the climb. Ian and Simon did leave me again but not for long.
The descent was fast and flowing. This was my first proper decent on my new Zipp 303's and all I could think of was the horror stories of rims overheating and tyres blowing off. Coming round a corner to find Ian by the side of the road mending a puncture (he's just fitted some ENVE carbon clinchers) did little to help the situation. Knowing that they would catch me up I pressed on through.
Riders had started to thin out by now so it was in groups of two and three that we went round Ullswater. I'd not been in this part of the country for years and it brought back the memories of my DofE Gold expedition as we came through Glenridding. Ian and Simon soon caught up. I don't have as much of a problem staying in touch on the flat so I tucked in behind as we upped the pace towards the next major climb. Not wanting to blow too early I let Ian and Simon push on as I settled into my own rhythm. Imagine my surprise when around another corner, Ian was fixing another puncture. I handed him one of my two spare inner tubes and carried on. If he had another one then good luck to him. I only had one more inner tube and wasn't jeopardizing my chance of finishing.
After Troutbeck there is a long stretch of rolling road mainly down the A66. Here I had another piece of good fortune as a Scottish cycling club swept past me just as I joined the main road. This was too good an opportunity to miss so I jumped on the back of the train and held on for a roller coaster ride.
This is one of the best bits about doing popular sportives. I was in a group of about 20 people with some strong riders pulling on the front. Drafting about 7 or 8 places back you roll along at 40km/h with little effort. You start to feel like a proper bike rider! This carried on for about 20km. I was really getting into the flow of the ride. Legs were turning over well and we were eating up the miles. Then Ian and Simon swooped past again and I knew I had to at least show willing and jumped onto their coat tails and accelerated away towards the next climb.
Honister rears up and kicks you hard before you even know you've started the climb. An opening pitch round a left hand bend sees the gradient go almost immediately up to 25% and there is little let up from here to the top. Already people were walking and I'd engaged my secret weapon. My secret weapon is an SRAM WiFLi rear mech and a 12-30 Ultegra cassette. Not as silly low geared as a 12-32 so doesn't change the spacing too much over my normal 11-28. In fact it replaces the 28 with a 27, takes off the 11 from the bottom and puts it at the top with 30 teeth. It makes just that little bit of difference in helping to turn a higher cadence. I much prefer climbing that way and I think I'll leave it on throughout the summer to give me a few more options on the long climbs of the Alps. Here it was helping me just keep the cranks turning as my legs screamed with pain and my lungs gasped down air. At one stage I really thought I'd be off and walking and this wasn't even Hardknott. I dug deep into my reserves and clawed my way over the top. Looking back at the carnage with people walking and zig zagging up the hill I realised that I hadn't done too bad. Not long after, the welcome signs of the first feed station came into view.
And what a feed station! A fine spread lay before us. Sandwhiches, malt loaf along side the normal mix of jelly babies and sugar. Downing a few sandwhiches and filling up with water we carried on. Straight into the next piece of suffering. Newlands Pass. Steep at the start and steep at the end. By now I was settling into a rhythm on the climbs. Stand up and give it everything when it got really steep then ease off and try to recover using the low gearing when it got a little less steep. The weather was holding off thankfully.
Why is it that there always seems to be more up than down. It seemed like a minute passed before I was onto Whinlatter Pass. Ian and Simon had already disappeared up the mountain somewhere and I was just ploughing on at my own pace. My goal coming into the event was to beat 8 hours. A respectable time I thought. By this stage I was well over half way and 7 hours 30 was starting to look possible. Then the inevitable struggle started. You know the one where the wind is in your face, you aren't really going up or down but rolling lumps kill all momentum. You can't seem to keep the power going and the pain starts. That was how it felt from the bottom of Whinlatter all the way to the next feed station at Calder Bridge.
Again the food station was excellent. Sandwiches, sweets, gels, cakes, all laid out in a village hall where we could warm up and sit down. Oh and they had hot tea and coffee too. Just what I needed as a downpour 20 minutes earlier had chilled me to the bone. 5 minutes drinking a warm coffee and eating sandwiches and cakes was very nice! What also struck me was the amount of food still all wrapped up. I realised it was because not many people had come through the feedstation yet. This gave me a massive confidence boost. In previous years I'm usually in the latter half of the field and the food stops sometimes run out of water. To get there when most of it was still wrapped in clingfilm showed the training had been working!
All thoughts turn to Hardknott after the feedstation. Still ten miles away I tried to keep my legs spinning to prepare myself. I actually didn't feel too bad. I hooked up with another guy and we shared the workload as we headed down Eskdale. You could see Hardknott from miles away. The sky was dark and grey. Every 10 or 15 seconds a flashlight would go off as photographers captured the pain on the faces of those who could cycle up. Many couldn't and resorted to walking on the two steep sections. My second objective (after a sub 8 hour time) was to ride all the way up Hardknott. With 95 miles in the legs I wasn't too sure about it.
All you can do is give it everything you have left in your legs. If that's good enough to get you to the top then your good. As you cross over the cattle grid at the bottom it soon ramps up very steep. Standing up, I just tried to keep the peddles turning over. This was the steepest climb I'd done. After a couple of hundred meters the gradient eases off and you can get some much needed recovery. Soon, however, you are rounding a left hand bend and into the second steep ramp. Now it was really starting to hurt. The road was glistening with damp after the earlier rain, meaning grip was hard to come by. I did not want to give up though and kept grinding away. Fortunately a photographer was there to capture my pain and suffering!!!
And then round the right hand bend and it's done. Gentler slopes lead you up to the top. Only the descent and Wrynose then I'm practically at the finish line. Some descent mind. Steep, wet, no grip, scary!!! I think later in the day there was quite a nasty crash there which involved the air ambulance. Thankfully the braking on the carbon rims was not as bad as I thought it might be and I safely negotiated my way to the bottom.
Coming down after Wrynose I suddenly realised that a sub 7:30 time was on the cards. Way better than my target. So I started to really hammer it down. Where I summoned the strength from I don't know but finally I was sprinting up the last little ramp to the finish line and across! The timer stopped at 7 hours 22 minutes. In fact I was quicker than anyone expected as my cousins told the rest of the family that I'd be at least another hour yet and so they stayed inside eating buns! No one was there to witness my glory at the finish line.
It didn't matter though. I was so pleased with how I'd done. This is an event that a few years earlier I would have feared and worried over. Now I'd just finished in 7:22. A riding time of 7:05 at an average speed of 25.1 km/h. For 180km with 3400m of climbing. I was pleased. This was the best performance I'd ever achieved and I really felt that I was on the right track with my training for the Haute Route.