The Bike List

Fred Whitton Challenge 2011

The rain lashed down and hail struck our helmets with tiny blows. Forcing our pedals round, we inched our way up the monsterously steep Honister Pass, 356m high and the third of eight tortuously steep gaps between the Lake District mountains on the Fred Whitton Challenge. I was suddenly glad I had packed my waterproof jacket. I looked over to my cycling companion, Rin Colombi, who was shivering in a very light shell. I was worried he might get hypothermia on the way down.

That's the Fred Whitton for you. If the 112 miles and 3950m of ascent with a maximum gradient of 30% doesn't finish you off, then the extreme Lake District weather will certainly have a go. This year was no exception - starting from Coniston and looping through the passes of Kirkstone, Matterdale End, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Cold Fell, Hardknott and Wrynose, we had every type of weather you could imagine. It ranged from light drizzle at the start to driving pellets of sleet and a headwind at the steep high points, which made for slippery descents. Then we had general rain on the lowland sections for a considerable chunk of the ride, then fortunately towards the end, the sun came out and we headed towards some blue sky. On the last two passes we were almost too hot! This was a blessing for the rain-chilled Rin who kept saying, "It's so nice feeling the warmth of the sun on my bottom." Maybe he did have a slight nip of hypothermia after all…

Aside from the weather, the climbs through the steep, green and rocky mountainside were truly arduous, and on many we saw cyclists stopped at the side of the road, distressed and overcome with cramp, stretching out their legs. Because of the alarmingly steep climbs, it makes sense to pace yourself over the 112 miles even more so than on other sportives. On my Specialised Secteur Elite Apex, I found the geometry very comfortable for all-day riding, and the gearing for steep climbs spot on. The SRAM Apex equipped bike with its wide range of gears (11-32T cassette) meant I was able to keep spinning up the steepest hills whilst others were forced to get off their bikes and walk up.

There were also several crashes on the perilously steep downhills, the most serious victim of which was still in hospital recovering three days later. When it was raining it was all about just staying on the bike, for me these were some of the fastest descents I've ever done at over 40mph in the rain. Rin, who has done the Fred Whitton before, told me that you can get to 60mph no problems on the straighter descents in good weather. The last two in particular, Hardknott and Wrynose were the most twisty, and if you mountain bike you might find you have more skills here. Make sure you check your brakes before this mammoth ride, my new break pads were well worn by the end.

The food stops were good, full of tasty real food like jam sarnies, bananas, scones, oranges and malt loaf. We especially liked the first at Buttermere where we really enjoyed the savoury food - the tuna sandwiches went down a treat. One word of advice though, don't over indulge on the lovely treats at the first food station as there is a ruddy great climb up Newlands Pass ahead of you almost immediately afterwards.

The ride is organised by the Lakes Road Club in memory of Fred Whitton, a first category rider, promoter of many road races and their racing secretary for many years until 1998 when he sadly died of cancer aged only 50. They call the Fred Whitton "the first of the sportive rides" and their experience certainly shows. The event was very well marshalled, signposted and organised. Four times during the ride we had to dib into a checkpoint with a plastic dibber secured round our necks, so you can see your splits afterwards. Registering the day before is also a nice option if you plan to spend the weekend in the Lakes and want a bit more sleep.

By the end of the 112miles we could feel every inch of the 3950m ascent in our legs. Stumbling off our bikes after 9 hours in the saddle, we collapsed on to the grass outside Coniston Sports Centre, then cooled down by sploshing our weary bodies into the stream that flows next to it. The fastest men round the course were Neal Crampton and James Dobbin with an unbelievable 6 hours 5 minutes. The fastest lady was Leanne Thompson with 6 hours 48 minutes and coming third for the ladies was The Bike List's very own gear tester Cheryl Frost with a brilliant time of 7 hours 42 minutes.

The Fred Whitton Challenge is a long, enjoyable ride with plenty of steep climbing and descending to keep your lungs burning and your legs turning. Places are limited and everyone is encouraged to get sponsored for Macmillan Cancer Support and The Dave Rayner Fund which sends promising young riders abroad to learn the art of international cycle racing. For info on entering next year's click here.

Photography by Saddleback