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The Fred Whitton Challenge

By Dave B

Question: what does one do after a weekend fit for a King ?

Answer: Four lucky Waldys decided to take on the famed ‘Fred the Dread’.

Dubbed the Daddy of them all, The Fred Whitton Challenge has iconic status as one of the most popular and difficult, ranking alongside serious European sportives like the Marmotte, but beating them for gradients! 112 miles around the World Heritage site of the Lake District with over 3500m of ascents. With only 2500 balloted places available, it attracts a strong group of determined riders from all over UK and abroad. The fastest complete it in just under 6 hours but it is not uncommon for the average sportive rider to take 11 as it includes all the Lakeland passes with the hardest 3 climbs arriving at 95 miles into the race.

With heavy cloud hanging ominously over the start in the beautiful setting of the Grasmere Sports Ground, the scene was set. Fellow Waldy StuART (official artist to the race no less) was already on hand to see (some of us – Adam, David T and Guy G) off around the agreed time of 6.30am, all nervous of the task ahead and keen to get going to ensure we were past the first cut-off at Braithewaite by 1130am (and Calder Bridge by 2.30pm) to avoid the ignominy of the broom wagon. Dave running late, 15 mins behind them. Starting the day with the mantra of ‘No heroics, just tap it along and save your matches for what’s to come’ seemed to reflect all the advice received. But perhaps if I’d concentrated more on getting dressed, I’d have remembered to pack socks and chammy cream!

After 11 miles, the Kirkstone pass is the first BIG - and highest (alt. 454m) - climb of the day, ramping to a max 16% . After a steep descent, there’s some lrespite through Patterdale, up Matterdale End and through the lovely villages of Troutbeck and Keswick. When not maxed out in the granny gears it’s a feast for the eyes and the soul all the way - rolling through stunning lakeside lanes dappled in sunshine, whizzing through picturesque villages and along green valleys filled with fields of lambs and mountain streams.

Beyond Keswick, you’re straight into bottom gear for Seatoller at the bottom of the Honiston pass, which starts ultra-steep at 25% and almost on a par with the hardest of them all, Hardknott. From here the road rolls through the Buttermere valley and onto the first (of two) feed stations where 3 of us met, Adam electing to pursue a no-stop strategy to beat his mate’s time with carefully selected family members around the course to act as soigneurs.

It’s a trap for the uninitiated here, eating too much causes immediate misery as it’s straight on up to Newlands Pass with its hellish final section (350m at 25%). Whinlatter Pass follows quickly, a steep forested section that seemed to go up forever but with great support all the way. The spectator cowbells ringing out on every climb and village was one of the many highlights. Kirkstone summits at 55 miles after 2 miles of climbing with a straight and fast descent onto the road to Ennerdale. Scale Hill and the wonderfully named Fangs Brow (it was evil) await, and a chance to acquire ever more new bike skills - picking your way through those already walking on the narrow climbs, becoming expert on high-speed cattle grids and the art of dodging sheep and dropping litter into buckets while still moving.

All was still well in the world as the sun was properly out, but this was short-lived as we hit the never-ending ascent of Cold Fell in heavy cloud. It was the bleakest and loneliest section of the whole ride, 76 miles in at 290m alt. with gradients up to 21%. Straight and steady with a steep very exposed section in the middle followed by a steady pull up to the top of the windy moor, it was a relief to roll over the top few miles and down to the second feed station at Calder Bridge.

A welcome sight after that, and the one part of the day when we all stood around shivering, the 3 of us met up and departed together for the final 35 miles. Santon Bridge and Eskdale Green follow, and up over the lumpy Irton Pike to Eskdale Green for a climb to the valley of the Hardknott pass and finally, the moment we’d all been waiting for. Its reputation is well deserved. It kicks up viciously from the very bottom between 22-25% over cattlegrids with already many riders walking. If you make it up this killer section, the climb relents a bit when you need to take what recovery you can muster before the road swings left then right through the most ultra-steep gradients of the whole day, maxing at 30%. By now 80-90% of the field are walking so kudos to Guy for digging very deep and attacking it successfully to the top at 393m.

You have to get on the brakes immediately over the top as the descents always start very steeply – in some cases you’re going slower downhill than climbing up!!! Off the top of Hardknott in particular is quite terrifying and trickier than anything I’ve experienced in the Alps. Gravel, potholes, and super tight, off-camber hairpins await with the smell of burning brake rubber filling the air. 200 % concentration is required to stay upright to counter back wheel lockout and lift off ! At the bottom, we headed up a long valley towards Wrynose pass, another monster with a challenging 25% at the top and a very twisty descent with an almost immediate sharp turn onto Blea Tarn and the final climb of the day, a mile up to 25%. 10 miles through the beautiful Langdale valley and you’re home to the most amazing support and a well deserved pie and beans!

There were mercifully few incidents (although plenty of traffic rider jams on the narrow lanes, not helped by the skinnier racing snakes finding gaps in the crowd that didn’t exist). We did see a particularly bad crash as a result of excessive speed off the back of Hardknott. But with all of us safely home by just after 4pm (some of the last riders didn’t get in until 7pm due to high altitude accidents) we could feel proud of our top half overall finish and an incredibly satisfying day out.

A classic event, true to its humble beginnings – and quite simply the best organised, most supported and scenic (did I mention, hardest) sportive in the UK IMHO. Oh, and the winner was a 17-year-old boy (a Hampton classmate of my son) who even broke the course record in around 5 ½ hours. Finlay Hawker is his name and he’s going to the Olympics (soon). As the t-shirt says, (a nod to the folklore of the event), it was a ‘good effort’ by all.

Oh, and thanks a million to Birdie's for the gold standard FWC-proof service, I couldn’t have done it without you, and the 34” on the back !!

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