Essentials
Distances:       180 km
Participants:    1300 (The entry is by ballot submitted in January)
Start:               Coniston Sports Centre
Cost:                £40
Transport:        Limited parking on-site
Windermere Station (12 km)
Many local accommodation options
Feedstops:      2 (83km, 140km)
Timed:             Yes (Necklace Tag “Dibber” system)
Signs:              Clear Black Arrows on a white background many sections are marshalled
Road:              A huge variety from pot-holed riddled near tracks to wide, flat, fresh tarmac
My Ride:         http://bit.ly/iPGVlh (Opening section, Coniston to Windermere missing GPS)

Summary

There are so many things this ride gets so right. Fantastic signage with many junctions marshalled and the sparse traffic controlled. Even where there is traffic there is invariably someone hanging out of the car window cheering you on rather than the usual beeping and bad feeling. Feed stations, although few, are incredibly well stocked with sweet and savoury and run in such a friendly, helpful way. Results are up almost live and even in the pouring rain people lined the streets all across the lakes to cheer you on, giving the whole day an incredibly special atmosphere. And the route: with so many rides nowadays calling themselves epic, the Fred Whitton needs a new superlative. Climb after climb after climb even if you discounted the legends that are Honister, Wrynose and the just plain silly Hardknott this would be one of the toughest rides in the UK. All this set to a backdrop of the most dramatic scenery England has to offer. Everyone should try this ride at least once but plan to go with a solid training base, a triple and maybe oilskins.

The ride

Since planning my season of Sportives earlier in the year this has been a ride I’ve been looking forward to and waking up at night in a cold sweat over in equal measure, it did not disappoint on either count.

Jon -my co-rider for this trip- and I travelled up on the Saturday, arriving mid-afternoon we headed straight to event HQ to register. There were many people on hand to make the process slick. Entering from one side of the building we first signed off our names, collected our race number then moved round the room to get our timing tag. We admired the Castelli ride shirts but decided we couldn’t legitimately buy them until we’d completed the event. That done with we headed on to our accommodation, the Holly How youth hostel a few hundred yards from the start, which tonight was mainly housing cyclists with a full to bursting bike shed. We set our alarms for 6:30 which we thought was early but turned out to constitute a lie-in in these parts as on Sunday morning we were the only ones left in the room with some up at 5am to catch the first Fred Whitton 6am start.

The morning was very wet, but we bit the bullet and pedalled down to the start and having sorted the registration we only needed to tag in at the start line and leave.

It wasn’t long until the route began to climb but I joined a fast group and pushed very hard north skirting round the top of Windermere. The pace was pretty relentless until we pulled off the main road and met the foothills of Kirkstone where the group quickly shattered and we were left to our own devices. Though not too steep Kirkstone was long and arduous and I began to get very worried when after a lot of climbing 20% signs began to appear but mercifully they turned out to be for the descent. Like much of the ride a lot of people lined the top of the hill cheering and encouraging you on. The drop down was very rapid and quite hairy in the wet as we passed into the valley bottom and on to Ullswater before climbing back out to meet the only stretch of major road the A66 which I was quite grateful to leave near Keswick, not just because of the traffic but being open to the strong wind made it quite hard going.

We dropped down again to Derwent Water for a brief stretch of flat, the calm before the storm as the next assault was the killer Honister Pass, a 25%-er which had everyone out of the saddle and taking Fred’s name in vain. The satisfaction of getting to the top was huge but short lived as no sooner had I dropped onto the equally vertical descent the heavens opened as only the lakes know how. This wasn’t that fine rain that soaks you through these raindrops could concuss and they were coming at you sideways. This was nothing less than a fight; against the rain to see and get some traction, against the wind to keep my wheels from flying out from under me and against the road to stop catching a hole or missing it entirely. Near the bottom there was an earlier casualty receiving some treatment at the side of the road a reminder, as if I needed any, to take easy if I could.

The rain eased a little as we approached the first feed-stop. The organisers had put on a great spread with a wide variety of sandwiches and cakes and water and orange to fill our bottles. Barely out of the gate and the road again bucked upwards followed by a drop into Braithwaite before the long slog up the Whinlatter Pass. This was a popular section for spectators and they lined the road for miles. Many families were providing support teams with impromptu feed and drink stops at the side of the road. The top of the pass was the first time check and ever helpful the organisers were quick to assist a bumbling bemused rider by fishing my tag out from round my neck.

A section of lesser ups and downs followed but still plenty enough to hurt the legs, at the top of one I stopped and downed three gels at once to try and bring myself round. Dropping off the last of these hills we glimpsed the sea and Sellafield in the distance. Calder Bridge, the rides most westerly point and second feed stop, had an even greater selection than the first. I was immediately greeted by people offering to take my bottles and fill them up for me but instead I opted to stretch my legs a little and tuck in some well deserved cakes. Quite a few riders were sat inside casually enjoying a cup of tea and a chat. Despite its size at every turn this ride managed to have a real community feel to it. As tempting to join them as it was I got back out and pushed on, back in land through fairly open and uncharacteristically flat-ish country lanes but we all knew what lay in store. The clouds gradually lifted the further I went and by the time I entered Eskdale it was an unrecognisably sunny day. The riders in the valley noticeably slowed giving our legs a break for what we knew lay ahead.

The first sight of Hardknott is just a 30% sign next to a wall and an innocent looking narrow track lifting up ahead. It’s not until you’re passed this that the full majesty of the climb hits home.

Because of its sheer drop and twists and turns the whole climb can be seen stretching out above you like some hellish ‘80s platform game. In this case with riders strewn to all sides like losers in some titanic, lycra-clad, lord of the rings battle. I was determined to get through this and dug in as it got steeper, I criss-crossed to give myself a fighting chance cutting a swathe through the walkers and the fallen. I managed the first half, where it flattens off to a ‘normal hill’ allowing a brief respite. In the second half I wasn’t feeling too clever and at some points was slowing to the point where I could barely force the gear, around two thirds of the way through this section I buckled as in turning to get a shallower line I turned my front wheel too far and collapsed exhausted with the bike on top of me in rather over-dramatic style. There wasn’t a chance in hell I was getting it going again on that slope even if I’d wanted to so I walked the rest.

The descent was another heart in mouth moment as this was one of the worst surfaced, my forearms ached as I reached the valley bottom with my brakes fully home. Set against blue skies the Wrynose valley is something else, even when feeling that fatigued. Thankfully I managed to make a better account of myself on the climb up Wrynose though it was really touch and go. I pulled out of the valley feeling totally spent but beginning to feel a glow of satisfaction, a little prematurely as the ride still had a sting in the tail with what in a normal ride would constitute a hill lying between the pass and Coniston. I got through it, I’m still not sure how, and the end of the ride was true to form with friendly faces lining the lane and cheering each and every rider home with the same enthusiasm as if they were the first. I tagged in and waited for Jon, who followed on not far behind.

Back on site and I exchanged my tag for my rider time with the minimum of queues. I then collected a certificate, again without a queue and we treated ourselves to Fred Whitton jerseys which we finally felt we’d earned. We collected our free meal and sat out in the sunshine and recounted stories of the day, each time getting a little further up Hardknott.

Learning

Participating in a full season of Sportives is a steep learning curve for me, at each event I hope to write a little about what I’ve picked up, or more likely still need to pick up. Perhaps I’ll help someone avoid the same mistakes or at least give a good opportunity to point and laugh.

  • Be prepared. The “Four Seasons” route was exactly that, decent waterproof kit that wasn’t stifling hot on climbs was probably what got me through.

Kit

Jamis Xenith Pro with Continental GrandPrix 4 seasons tyres

Topeak Aero Wedge pack, Topeak TriBag, Camelbak Podium waterbottles

Blackburn Air Stick III pump, Cateye Strada double wireless, Topeak Mini18+, Bontrager Air Rush regulator

Specialized BG Comp Road shoes, 2XU compression tights, Cyclosport Endura shorts and jersey, Gore Bike Wear Phantom II jacket, Gore Bike Wear Oxygen Gore-tex shell, Specialized Propero helmet, Gore bike wear Power mitts