Well, I didn’t see that one coming. When we signed up for the Fred Whitton Challenge back in January, we kind of bought out in the idea of torrential rain and high winds. We would have cashed in, if anyone promised ten degrees and grey skies, so when a forecast of twenty plus materialised, we were totally unprepared. The weather was simply perfect, overcast and mild without a breath of air in the morning and warm and sunny with a light breeze in the afternoon.
Perfect reflections over Derwent Water
The first half of the course is simply stunning and up until the bottom of Honister pass everything happens very fast. My 46 x 12 gear was not enough to keep up with a flying group on the A 66 towards Keswick and after two hours I was averaging 26 Km/h, well beyond any rosey expectation. Then Honister hits you in the face like a jab. A sustained 1 in 4 gradient gives a reality check to your ambitions and your gear choice. The descent is treacherous and steeper than the ascent, which is a shame as the scenery is magnificent and it would have been nice to be able to take some of it in, but it wasn’t meant to be, as losing concentration for a fraction of a second means a trip to A&E.
Next is Newlands hause (Cumbrian for pass), which is steeper than it looks from the bottom and then Whinlatter, which by then should be a walk in the park. Crowds of spectators with cowbells began to gather on the passes, taking advantage of the glorious weather. After Whinlatter, the run up to Calder Bridge is possibly the dullest part of the ride, as we got to the edge of the National Park we lost the drama of the mountains and the perfect reflections of the lakes. Cold Fell was to be renamed Hot Fell for a day. It is the typical annoying climb, not hard, but you never summit it, meaning every time you think you have, there is some more coming, it reminds me of Tan Hill in the Dales, but with less wind in the face and without a pub at the top.
Once restored, it was thirty miles to the finish, with the small matter of Hardknott and Wrynose, preceded by a nameless bump on the ride profile. So thirty miles means two hours right? Except it took closer to three hours! The run up to Hardknott was filled with apprehension and when I saw it coming I could not believe a surfaced road could be so steep. It is unlike any road I have ever seen and the pictures on the web don’t give the idea of how steep it actually is. You have to believe you can go up what looks more like a staircase than a road. Spectators lined up shouting encouragement and shaking their cowbells as seen up the ramps of the Mortirolo and Alpe d’Huez. The first half was steep and hot like a furnace, the second half was even steeper, but at least by then I had gained some altitude and a pleasant breeze prevented me from melting on the tarmac. Once summited, there is the small matter of coming down, as the other side is just as steep and just as twisty and then you are ready for Wrynose… which is more of the same, except not as much. By then I had dusted off the bike handling skills which are necessary to stand up whilst making a 2-3 mph progress up the slope. My choice of 36 x 36 gearing turned out to be spot on. It’s not that you need a 1:1 gear ratio to go up Hardknott and Wrynose if you have good legs, but that allows you to go slower and plan your ascent: you can slow down when someone in front of you is blocking the road or when a car is coming down, without falling off. Basically it gives you more options, which you don’t have if you are running a harder gearing and you have to keep a higher speed, to avoid stalling. The later you get onto the climb, the more walkers you will find and the harder it gets to find your line up a 30% ascent.
The descent of Wrynose (just as steep as the ascent) was the last hurdle of the day, to be handled with care, as fatigued muscles and brain tend to respond slower. Keeping the speed under control without smoking pads and rotors (or blowing up your tyres if you have rim brakes) requires a decent braking technique. From there, a number of deceiving panels put up by the organisers make you believe it’s nearly over (the three miles to the finish is more like 7), when in fact you’ve got another half an hour to go and it’s not downhill all the way as it appears on the profile.
I rolled into Grasmere in just under 8 hours, as the temperature rose into the roasting mid twenties. One of the best days I have ever had on a bike, one of the hardest, certainly the steepest roads I have ever been up or down and most likely the most beautiful ride in the country and the only one with an atmosphere worth training the all winter in grim weather for!