Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Fred Whitton Challenge

It's been a shameful while since I wrote about one of my cycling adventures, but the one I did yesterday deserves a write up. The Fred Whitton Challenge, for those who don't know, is a famously hard ride in the English Lake District. It is named after a chap who was secretary of the Lakes Road Club and who sadly passed away at the early age of 50 in 1998. In it's current form, the ride is 112 miles long and involves about 3700m of vertical ascent, going over many of the major Lakeland passes, which are bad enough to get over in cars, never mind ride over on bikes. It is run as a sportive event each May, but there is always the option to do it outside of this event, which is what Sam and I did yesterday.

Needless to say it was very hard going in places. It was a long day in the saddle, perhaps the longest I've ever done. For me it did involve some walking, up the steepest gradients, but there are several reasons for that, which I may come to later.

Newlands Hause. The white speck is Sam.

Every year around the anniversary of my appointment with destiny (June 21) I try to do something to mark it. Plus it is Sam's 40th birthday next week, so here we are.

The route starts and finishes in Grasmere, but it is a loop so I suppose you could start anywhere. However I know a nice hotel in Grasmere, The Swan, so Sam and I stayed there on Sunday night. We wanted to leave early but breakfast was at 8 so we couldn't. One of the reasons for going 'on our own' was that we could choose whether to actually set off based on the weather. The past few years of the sportive have seen some horrific weather, which, I think, makes this ride quite dangerous as well as a miserable experience. Rain is one thing, but imagine riding around these beautiful roads and not being able to see anything? No thanks.

We decided to do this ride on a Monday on purpose, for two reasons. Firstly, we figured there'd be a lot less traffic on these little tourist roads than on a weekend, and second, things would be open, think bike shops etc., should we need them.

The weather that greeted us on Monday morning when we woke up was about the worst possible from a decision-making point of view - light rain. Heavy rain = no. Sun, light cloud etc = yes. Light rain = ? The weather forecast was saying thunderstorms in the afternoon, light rain all day in Grasmere, Keswick and Eskdale. In other words, the whole ride in light rain. Not fun.

At about 9am it didn't look too bad so we went out and got everything ready. Not raining, good. Plan A was to set off and see how it went weather-wise. Because of the route, after about 20 miles in it is possible to return to Grasmere from Keswick quite easily until about half of the ride is over. After Whinlatter, more later, you're on the 'wrong' side of the Lakes and quitting from there is more difficult. So at the very least crossing Whinlatter is the 'point of no return', kind of. Anyway, flexibility is good.

I should say as usual I have spent a lot of time thinking about this ride, looking at the map etc., reading about it and other peoples' experiences of it, and I really wanted to do it. But, contrary to popular belief I am not an idiot and I was prepared to bail if I thought it wasn't sensible, even after 55 miles.

We had it in our minds that there were quite a few things that could go wrong apart from the weather; mechanical issues mostly. One thing neither of us thought about was road closures. So I laughed when we got to the bottom of the first climb of the route, up Holbeck Lane near Ambleside, to find a 'Road Closed' sign. At this point I was thinking we were doomed not to succeed today, and any idea we had of following the 'official' route exactly was now gone. We went south a bit to Troutbeck Bridge and turned left to Troutbeck to meet the closed road up the hill.

Road closed, honest. Not something we anticipated!

What this meant was that I biked along the fateful stretch of road past White Cross Bay for the first time. I wish I could say I remembered exactly where it happened, but I don't, I just know where it was because of the map the police gave me. Maybe it's better that I don't remember, what I do remember of it is bad enough I suppose!

Kirkstone Pass.

OK, official route rejoined at Troutbeck, now going on to join the Kirkstone pass road. This is a pretty easy climb akin to what we do in the Peak District, or what we did on the Dragon Ride two weeks ago, a steady gradient gaining height. At Kirkstone Summit there is the inn, and the junction with the road called 'The Struggle', which I thought the Fred Whitton went up but doesn't. So that one will have to wait for another day. Kirkstone Summit is the high point (elevation) of the whole ride, and right near the beginning, but even though the other summits are lower, getting to them is harder...
Dropping off Kirkstone into Patterdale was a good few easy miles, the descent fast because the road is obvious and visible. Some flat miles along Ullswater and then turning left a climb over  Matterdale End, affording great views back to the lake.

Looking back to Ullswater on the way up to Matterdale End.

Another drop down and we joined the A66. This is not a good road to ride a bike along. We could have taken the back road (and should have) but this would take longer of course. Needless to say I had quickly had enough of being passed by big lorries and fast cars, so at Threlkeld we came off it and went over the hill via Castlerigg Stone Circle, much better. Also we get to go through Keswick centre. I suppose the official route bypasses Keswick a bit and uses the A66 for time reasons, to make the whole route faster, but I think it should go on the back road, it's much nicer and safer. Deviation number two then from 'official'.

Anyone who knows the Fred Whitton knows that the first major obstacle is Honister Pass, which is about 7 miles south from Keswick. All the way along this road I am getting anxious about what we will face. Honister is famously hard. I should say I've never ridden any of these passes before, but 25% gradients are not good wherever they are. We could see some traffic coming down the road about a mile before we got to the base, and it is obviously very steep at first. At Seatoller an ominous road sign announces the impending ramp. Still, take it easy, and don't panic, it might be OK. Of course I knew Sam would disappear up the road, he's much stronger than me and has a multitude of other advantages over me which I might go into later on... anyway, that's not a problem. I just focus on myself and my own struggle. The first few minutes of the really steep bit were hard but out of the saddle I seemed to be doing OK. Then the killer that kills me every time, you round a little curve and see the gradient continue without relenting for another 150m or so. Beaten, psychologically I think. I still don't like unclipping, especially on a steep slope, but I did. I had to. I will say this again in this post, but next time I ride this road I will do better, because I will know what's coming. I have heard it said that it's better not to know, which may be true for you, but for me it's always better to know.
So, now I've a new problem: I have to walk for a bit, until the gradient relents enough for me to get back on the bike again. Walking for me is hard, in cleats is harder still, up hills is harder still. So I swap one form of physical suffering for another. Remember: I'm here voluntarily, nobody has coerced me into this, I could be at home (at work actually it's Monday) but I'm not, I'm here on a 25% slope struggling to push my bike and trying to keep my left foot in the shoe because it doesn't stay in... I was never going to lose it mentally, it's just really hard, especially knowing Sam has danced up here minutes ago.

Having a rest on Honister Pass.

OK, the gradient has slackened off a bit, so I can get back on, and now I see what I wanted to know and what will make me do it next time: there's a flat(ish) bit here where you can recover before the next slope. The next slope which is hard but not 25%, so rideable, and ride it I did. The top of Honister has a Youth Hostel, what an awesome location, and a ski-resort style cafe. Stopped for a picture, then off over the other side. This descent was steep but not too bad, of course we had good visibility and dry roads, but it was fun dropping down into Buttermere. I like Honister Pass actually and I know I can get up this properly now that I know what it is like.

Sam at the top of Honister Pass, with the superbly located Youth Hostel.
Looking to the left on the Newlands Hause road.

At Buttermere a right turn signals the start of the second major pass of the day, Newlands Hause. This is famous for being a road that's carved right across the slope of a big hill, steep slope up on your right, steep down on your left. I knew that round the bend I could see, it continues, so the bend is not the top, so I couldn't be knackered there. But, very different from Honister, I can see the road from afar so I can see where the efforts are and where the recover points are. So even though I again watched Sam disappear in the distance, I was confident I could ride this. I did stop to take pictures, but by choice (honest) (no, honestly). There are a couple of nasty little bends after the bend you can see from a distance, but you know the top is there so you can max out on those knowing you'll get a rest. Looking down the other side, great feeling knowing there's a good few miles of downhill ahead, almost all the way to Braithwaite.

The way ahead from the summit of Newlands Hause.

Things were not looking promising on the way up Whinlatter Pass.

Braithwate, turn left, up Whinlatter Pass, a doddle in comparison. Well, it is, but now we're both getting a bit hungry and the plan A of having lunch at Whinlatter Forest Park has gone wrong slightly insofar as it has taken us a lot longer to get here than we would have liked. We were both I think getting a little crabby, and the light rain had started to boot. On the way up this hill I was thinking hard about whether it was sensible to continue, this being my 'point of no return' really. The rain didn't really look like abating, but we were stopping anyway so no decision had to be taken yet.
Whinlatter Forest Park is a bike centre. The trails in the forest there are really good fun, high in altitude and in number. It is my favourite of the trail centres I've been to, and one day I will come back with the MTB and ride them again. Maybe soon! It is a mountain bike trail centre, but in the cafe they won't fill your bottles up, you have to go round the back to where the toilets are and use the water fountain. This, even if you are buying your lunch and sitting down inside. I think that's a bit mean.

It was 3 o'clock, and we both knew that it was going to be a late finish now, maybe 8 or 9 o'clock. 58 miles down, 55 miles to go (although we thought 50). On the plus side, the section between here, Whinlatter Summit, and Eskdale has two climbs on it but otherwise should be quite fast. After we had eaten and had coffee, refilled our bottles and so on, the rain had gone away and now it didn't really look like returning. This, now I think about it, was kind of a miracle. When we walked in I wasn't sure we'd be carrying on. When we walked out all doubt had disappeared. And it didn't rain again.
The next miles went quickly. I have not spent much time on that side of the Lakes, so I didn't really recognise any of the fells as we made our way past Loweswater and turned south. There's a hill called Fangs Brow to get over, and quickly enough a sharp descent to Croasdale with some hairpins on it that I feel sure must have caught out some riders in the past.

Lovely weather now on Fangs Brow.

After Ennerdale Bridge there's a climb onto and over Cold Fell, which is quite serious but actually was OK. When the gradient flattens out onto the moor this is a quite beautiful road. The sun was out now too, and there were Herdwick sheep a plenty. This was one of my favourite sections of the whole ride. Sure, the sun helps, but it was an exposed road with no traffic, easy ups and downs, moorland and sheep. Also horses.

The road to Cold Fell, one of my favourite stretches.

It's now that you know that the next proper uphill is the big one. Sure, there a little lump to get over at  Santon Bridge, through the woods, but your mind is already set on the inevitable. Arriving into Eskdale Green and just before the turn off towards Hard Knott, there was a pub where we stopped for a refuel. I did have a half, after 90 miles I felt it was OK ;) Also some jelly babies and water and a gel. We probably stopped here too long in hindsight. As soon as we started riding again I knew we couldn't stop again, my bottom was getting sore! 4 miles down this road is Hard Knott Pass. It's only 20 miles now to Grasmere, which normally would take about 90 minutes tops, but the difference here is you've got one of the hardest roads in the country to get up, and, by then, you've already ridden 95 miles.

The base of (very) Hard Knott Pass.

There is the obligatory road sign announcing that you're about to suffer, and the road kicks up. Really. You have to go over a cattle grid which is not big deal really, then there's a little layby which I rode into to try to reduce the gradient a bit, didn't really work. I look up and I can see the first right hand bend, but it may as well be a hundred miles away. I'm not strong enough for this, certainly not at this point. My mind gives up, I unclip. Walk up to the bend, OK I can get back on here. Taking it really slowly and measuring every pedal stroke. Problem - there's another really massive ramp ahead. Just keep calm. Halfway up this really steep bit I simply could not push/pull the pedal down, it was like the chain had stuck. I'm not good at unclipping at the best of times, but this was a new experience for me. I fell off. To the right and into a few nettles, but thankfully not over a 100ft drop. I lay there for a bit trying to get my left foot out of the pedal. OK. Walking now up this really steep bit. Next time I could get back on, decided not to clip my right foot in so that what just happened doesn't happen again. OK. Up the next steep bit, new problem. My left leg is not as strong as my right, it hasn't been since it was reconstructed and I think my mind protects it. So it doesn't work as much, and now, because my right foot is unclipped, it has to work more that it's used to. A really sharp pain in my inner thigh, cramp. Oh dear. Meanwhile Sam is probably at the summit cairn having a lie down. I got off, drank pretty much all the fluid I had left, stretched a bit. What if I get back on and it hurts the same? Don't know. Walk for a bit, OK. Hard Knott is like two passes really, there's the first miserable pitch, then it's reasonably flat for a bit and you can see the second steep bit ahead. I rode most of the flat bit, of course, and walked most of the second steep bit. I guess Sam had waited about half an hour for me. He managed to ride all the way up. How that is possible I do not know. I am not sure that even at my 'prime' whenever that was (2009/2010 probably) I could have got up this. It's simply unbelievably steep in places.

One of the benefits of having got off and walked (trying to find some positive here!) is that I could look back and take some pictures in the failing light, very nice. I'd rather have been able to bike up though. One of the benefits of it being quite late in the day is there was virtually no traffic.

Hard Knott summit cairn, looking ahead to Wrynose.

Next: descent off Hard Knott, steep but again nothing to worry about in the dry. In the wet this would have been a different story, but we were lucky with that. You're down at about 240m now, from ~390m at Hard Knott summit. Wrynose Pass is next and the last obstacle of the day woo hoo! You know the elevation change is not great, it can't be. I did have to walk up a bit of it, but not much, only the steep left hander, and I could easily do this were it not coming after 100 miles. Next time this one won't be a problem. You can see where the top is, that helps immensely.

Looking back to Hard Knott from Wrynose.

Sam feeling pleased with himself on Wrynose summit.

The rest is downhill, mostly, then a frivolous loop to Elterwater and bizarrely not going over Red Bank straight back to Grasmere but returning to Ambleside and taking the Rydal road north back to the main road. I think if it's going to Elterwater it should be to go over Red Bank, but hey. On the plus side that last few miles is very fast, as typically you unload any reserves of energy you have held back because you know the end is a mere 15 minutes away.

It was almost 10 o'clock when we got back to the hotel and the car. Elapsed time 12.5 hours, that's surely the longest I've ever been out on my bike for. Later I discovered that the moving time was 10h10m, which means were were stopped for 2h20m, much more than I would have guessed. 10 hours for this route is probably not too bad.

What have I learned?

This is an amazing ride, but in bad weather you need to forget it. Didn't I already know that? Yes I think I did, but doing it has reinforced that. If I entered the sportive and woke up and it was raining hard... Having said that, the forecast was bad, it looked bad both before we set off and halfway round, and it didn't turn out to be. Even more so that the Peak District I think, the Lake District has massively changeable and unpredictable weather. You could set off in bright sun and finish in heavy rain or vice versa. I think you have to be able to bail if it doesn't look good. Hard Knott would not be a good place to be in a storm. But, if you get to the base of Hard Knott and the weather turns, then what? I don't know. I think with this, you have to say a prayer beforehand that it will work out. We were very lucky with the weather, I know that. We didn't get wet even though the forecast was light rain all day, thunderstorms in the afternoon. To read how bad it can be, look no further than my super-fit triathlete friend John's account of his experience on the 2013 sportive.

I am unfit. I did not prepare for this in nearly as proper a way as I would have liked. Yet, I only really struggled when the gradient was above 20%. Conclusion, I am not strong enough to get up the steepest slopes. Didn't I already know that? Well, yes. I am not sure how much of it is lack of training and how much of it is the limit of what my legs can do now. Because I spent a silly amount of money on the Garmin Vector pedal-based power meters, I know that my left/right power balance over that ride was 44%-56%. After the next op, this is something I need to consciously work on, the strength in my left leg. Nevermind how fit I am overall, I have to pull my left leg up to somewhere more equal.

Cardiovascularly I must be OK. I've only ridden 500 miles this year, very unusual for me, and 200 of those were in the rides I did yesterday and the Dragon Ride two weeks ago. Preparation was not ideal, yet it wasn't endurance that made it hard.

Do I need a new bike? Probably. This one has served me well but I feel like it's had its day. I wonder if it didn't get a bit damaged in my accident on the Tour of the Peak and the rear mech is definitely bent a bit. It's not the bike's fault, but having a nice carbon machine like Sam's would certainly improve the chances of successfully getting up those slopes. I could lose kg off my body too of course.

I have finally sorted my in-ride eating, I think. I now find it a lot easier to know when to have a gel or munch on something, and now I don't seem to think I don't need to eat because I feel OK now, only to suffer later. I wasn't hungry once yesterday, or two weeks ago.

It feels like I'm being characteristically hard on myself. Doing the Fred Whitton challenge was this year's event to mark the anniversary of my accident, and as such it was a good choice. Having learned last week that I will be having another major operation in the autumn has affected me I'm sure, and I  guess I'm feeling a bit sorry for myself. How about this: when I recover next time, I'll recover stronger in my left leg, I'll buy a new carbon road bike, I'll go back and do this ride again and smash my times on these passes. That's better, positive :)

*UPDATE* After looking at some of the footage I got from my handlebar camera, it appears I didn't walk as much as I thought I had. Funny how these 'failures' sit large in the memory. Particularly on Hard Knott, I made it up a lot further than I remember, even though it was yesterday, before I had to have a rest.

Kirkstone Pass: no real problem, easy gradient steady climbing
Honister Pass: super steep at the beginning, rest, less steep bit to finish
Newlands Hause: steep but recovery possible, very steep but short after the bend
Whinlatter Pass: harder than I remember
Hard Knott Pass: impossibly steep, two major pitches with recovery possible in between
Wrynose Pass: from this side, steep but short

Fred Whitton Challenge: long ride made hard because of super steep climbs, not to be underestimated, not to be undertaken in bad weather.

Looking back to Eskdale from Hard Knott Pass.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome ride by an awesome rider! So glad you made it round and the weather held! We've all done the walk of shame before, if your head goes your body follows. Mine was only up a 20% slope but that not knowing how long it will last and if it will get steeper is a killer. So glad the actual off bike was a lot better than you remembered. And definitely get yourself a new bike. I've got one this year, I'm not sure I'm that much faster but heh it's a good excuse to ride more!