Fred Whitton 2017
By Gary Jones
“Slow down! Slow down! STOP”. The marshal stood before us with his hands out ready to hold us upright.
Kev and I gave each other a handshake trying not to look too pleased it’s over.
“Now gents, well done! You’ve finished. Stop your Garmin, I’m afraid you’ll have to walk from here. That way, past the bar to collect your recovery pint, and out of the finishing area.”
That’s quite an approach to recovery drinks, but this is quite a ride. The Fred Whitton Challenge is billed as the hardest sportive in the UK. You may or may not agree with that, but it is undoubtedly amongst the toughest. We’d just ridden 112 miles and climbed 11,000ft on hills as steep as 30%.
After collecting our drinks and our Fred Whitton tankards we made our way to a clear patch of grass. The sun was shining. It was warm. We were amongst the spectacular scenery of the Lake District. It couldn’t get much better than this. Until we were given our recovery meal of pie and beans. And then it certainly couldn’t get better.
The sports field slowly filled with bambi-legged cyclists, some wobbling to a halt and awkwardly lowering themselves to the ground whilst others were working through a series of twister-inspired moves to get back up again.
All this was unimaginable a few months before when I entered the ballot for a place on a bit of a whim as a training goal. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like, in fact I avoided thinking about it as that always resulted in worrying about the climbs; what the weather might be like on the day; how I’d prepare for the ride from a hotel room; taking the right kit; and lots of other things. It all seemed very worthwhile now. The whole weekend had gone incredibly well and ‘The Fred’ had become one of the best Sportives I have ridden.
It turned out that Kev and Terry had also entered. They’d got different accommodation to me, but we agreed to meet at the start and set off together. At just after 6:30 in the morning we rolled out of the sports field and past the timing point. This was it. We’d decided to ride together until our individual pace and schedules broke up our group. Unfortunately Terry got separated from Kev and I quite early on and we didn’t see him again until we met in the sports field at the finish. Cycling through great scenery early in the morning is always enjoyable. It certainly helped distract us from the first climb of the day. Combined with fresh legs, worrying about what was to come and the banter of “not going too fast too early” the scenery kept us distracted until we were at the bottom of Honister Pass. At that point there is nothing to think of except the tarmac in front of you, and occasionally looking up to where the road climbs and climbs and climbs out of sight. On the plus side, there was only one more big hill after this and we were half way!
After half way we were in a bullish mood. We were ahead of schedule. So far ahead that we might’ve got too confident. We sped past the second feed station, tagged onto a fast group that came past, predicted new finishing times we hadn’t previously dreamt of. Then came Boot, the village at the base of Hardknott Pass, and the 30% gradient sign. For the second time that day our distractions were stripped from us and we had nothing to do but face the reality of what we had to climb. Or at least I did. Kev’s brain retreated somewhere further and refused anything except several lines of an old Sussex song that I hadn’t heard of. For a while his singing was the only sound, but gradually it was replaced by our exclamations of disbelief, our swearing, our puffing and panting and our search for lower gears than our bikes had. We got over both Hardknott and Wrynose passes but I still don’t know the words to Kev’s song.
From there it’s all down hill. At least that was the lie we were told by the marshal. The finish was 10 miles away and although the last 2000ft of climbing had ruled out our unrealistic finishing time, we were still in with a chance of A Very Good Time. But ironically those last 10 miles were the sting in the tail of this ride. The distance ticked by very slowly, making each mile seem many times longer than it was. And they weren’t all down hill at all.
We’d reached the point where neither of us had any energy. ‘The Fred’ had taken everything. All that was left of our thoughts of a good finishing time was just finishing. Kev suddenly shouted and pointed. Somehow he sped up and we covered the last half mile to the sports field.
To the huge shared sense of accomplishment.
To the comfort of sitting on the grass.
A quick mental check of how I felt was surprisingly encouraging; aches but not pains. But then it was my turn to get up to go to the bar… lets see what I remember from playing twister.