The morning, at 4.30, is dark, and rain is clearing away, leaving pools and spray in the road. Why am I up at this hour, stirring microwave porridge and plunging coffee? I have a mission today: a 113 mile, 4000m cycling mission around the English Lake District. It is the Fred Whitton, and it is beltingly hard and brilliant fun.
First I have to get to the start. Raw Head, the Fell & Rock Climbing Club hut with the burbling beck to one side and the Langdale Pikes to the other is a familiar starting point. The club huts are second homes to my family, and at this time in the morning there’s the dawn chorus of snoring older males as a backdrop to preparations. The few miles pass quickly, skirting Loughrigg and arriving in Grasmere by a quiet back road. Hundreds of cars are trying to get into the field for the 6am start. The basic idea I had, to skip the stress of queueing, seems to have worked.
The idea for this ride started with an idle challenge issued by a pal on January 2. This is the peak day of the year for signing up for something stupid. Let’s both enter, then neither of us will get in and we can feel good, went the logic. So we both entered, and both got in, but for various reasons only one of us made the start line. He can do it next year. I’d looked at the Fred a few times and had considered it, but was put off by the gradients and ever-soggy Lakeland weather. And yet here I was, and at 6am, off we went.
The Fred Whitton Challenge – named, in the manner of the Bob Graham Round fell run, after a legendary Cumbrian road cyclist – passes all the major climbs in the Lake District where roads go. In many cases these are narrow passes from on valley to the next, and due to the terrain and the roads’ history as rough cart tracks are steeper – if much shorter – than Alpine passes. The jabby hills of the Ardennes are an approximate, but in truth there’s not much quite like them outside the UK. And 2,300 of us were going to spend our day testing our legs out on them.
Rolling out through Ambleside the event took shape. Keen but mid-paced riders like me being overtaken by high-class club riders, silent and aerodynamic. Sometimes later in the race I caught and passed people like these, a little overcooked, but most of the time I was the one being passed. On the first major climb over Kirkstone Pass I was relieved we weren’t taking the direct route from up the Struggle, instead the relatively benign climb via Troutbeck. And here the day’s first twisting, steep descent into Patterdale, where other riders whizzed past me, possibly or possibly not in control. I was happy to let them go and tightly grip the brakes, though doing this all day meant my fingers were unable to bend properly by the end of the day.
Kirkstone led to the rise over Matterdale End, then the A66 into Keswick, and the Borrowdale Valley in wonderful sunshine. Random passing cyclists get a running commentary from me as we pass Shepherd’s Crag, the Bowderstone, Castle Crag and then the morale-boosting sight of the Salving House, another lovely FRCC hut looking smashing in the sunshine. Honister approaches, with its 25% starting grind, casting cramping in quads and calves and a brief push. The gradient eases, the slate mine approaches, and then it’s down, down, down into Buttermere, an early casualty wrapped in a blanket, the lake coming in to view. After food, Newlands, ouch on the up, fast down to Whinlatter then over and up again. By my own slow targets I am flying and have sped through the first checkpoint. Coming down off Whinlatter I find myself thinking of my wife and children and having a small weep. It’s that kind of ride. It happens twice more.
By now the heat is starting to have an effect, though the passing rider who suggests ‘the tarmac is melting’ was a little over-dramatic. Loweswater, something called Fangs Brow and a lovely up and over at Cold Fell brings us to the second feed station, and it feels like I’m almost home. I know I’ll make it, and in a decent time (for me) and feeling good I put my foot down until the foot of Hardknotts Pass, with the whistle of the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway somewhere in the distance, and then drive hard at the cattle grid. Instant cramp, and nothing much in the legs so I join the hikers pushing uphill for a chunk of this one, too. Some riders keep going but I can only see a few making it over without dismounting. I ride the top section, then descend. Up and over Wrynose then down in terror. I did this a few weeks previously and today is far scarier, with the road dropping steeply and a sheer drop on one side. Another rider walks downhill in just socks, with cooked rims, or brakes, or both.
After 100 miles we’re back in Langdale, speeding along back to Grasmere, and then through the finish into the noise of the end. We’re held for a few moments to check we’re ok, then released with a pint of non-alcoholic beer, or ‘recovery drink’ as it’s being sold. I’ll take anything offered, but eating is not immediately appealing.
The best day ever on a bike, and I’ve had some thunderously enjoyable ones. Super everything, mind-blowing and incredible. Come ride The Fred.