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By Stephen Feeney.
Despite the unpleasantness of having to get up at 3:30am to drive to the lake district to take part in this years Fred Whitton Challenge sportive, a 112 mile epic taking in most of the famous (and incredibly difficult) lake district climbs, I couldn’t help but feel happy inside about the fact that I was actually making the journey and that I was fit enough to ride.
Back in January, when I entered the event, I had no idea that some shoddy riding on my part, in February, would lead to a broken hip and a spell off the bike to recover. Immediately after my accident and in the early stages of my recovery, the prospect of taking part in the Fred Whitton sportive in May, or any other bicycle related event, seemed very remote!
However, the operation to fix my broken hip went well (3 large screws inserted to hold the blighter in place!) and after around 4 weeks, when still unable to walk unsupported, I managed to climb onto my turbo trainer and turn the legs over very gently. Some eight weeks post operation I was back out riding and, thanks to a distinct lack of serious protest from my wounded limb, I was able to bank some road miles.
Unfortunately the warm glow inside me rapidly extinguished whilst driving towards the Lake District. The promised clear skies and sunshine had failed to materialise and, in typical Lake District style, black clouds and rain were prevalent.
At just after 7:00am I met up with my team mate John Bamford, also ‘glad’ to be riding after managing to shift a nagging chest infection, and a friend of ours, Mark.
After a quick debate on how to dress for the weather and a mutual acceptance of the fact that, no matter what we wore it was going to be a fairly grim day in the saddle, we hit the road at 7:15am.
This wasn’t a day for ambling along and we set off at a fair pace, quickly catching what looked like a decent set of local riders from the Honister ’92 team. We decided it might be worth tagging along with them for a while.
We rode fairly steady, in a decent size group up the first couple of climbs of the day, including the Kirkstone Pass, but as the group split up on the Pass, John, Mark and I found ourselves in our own small group again.
There are many gear changes required in an event like this, in fact every gear is used and one rarely gets into any sustained rhythm. During one of these many changes, I managed to derail my chain. It was back on after a quick stop and by the time we got going again, we were back with the Honister boys, who had regrouped on the descent.
We rode as a group to Keswick, along a rolling main road, and all the way to the Honister Pass. However, as the weather worsened and the mass of riders on the road increased, our group began splitting up again.
Although there had been a few drags before the Honister Pass, it is this climb at the 43 mile point that marks the start of the brutally steep ascents that make this sportive so challenging and infamous. The climb kicks off with a 25% section and drags steeply for a mile or so before a very steep and twisty decent, made more difficult today by the heavy rain and strong winds. The three amigos were still together at the first feed station at Buttermere after 50 miles.
After a quick stop to top up some bottles, we left the feed station with the steep ascent of Newlands pass beginning immediately. The weather was now worsening, the clouds had descended and visibility was poor, there was heavy rain and a strong wind. Even the Marshalls were warning riders that conditions may worsen! We ploughed on and got over Newlands together and then stuck together on the valley road to the bottom of the next climb, the Whinlatter pass at 57 miles.
This is another long drag with some steep sections thrown in for good measure. The cold and rain were adding to the experience. Here, John’s lack of training, thanks to his illness, and incompatibility with the harsh conditions (which normally effect me too) saw him hit a rough patch. However, I’m sure that he was helped up the Whinlatter pass by the amazing crowds, which lined the climb and thickened towards the top.
I must say that I have never experienced anything like this, even in a race! The crowds were cheering encouragement to everyone, ringing cow bells and getting really involved, it was like being on the Tour de France! I couldn’t help but smile, despite the conditions, and this support was to become a feature for the rest of the event. I cannot emphasise the delight such supporters gave to me and, no doubt, the other participants. They were cheering us like we were some kind of heroes (as opposed to a set of nutters riding 112m in the wind and rain) and, despite feeling unworthy of their admiration, I enjoyed every minute of it!
After a few failed attempts to keep together as a trio, Mark and I decided to try keep our pace going and allow John to ride at his own pace (not very charitable of us I know but we all know the score!!). We soon reached climb of Cold Fell, which proved to be one of the toughest sections of the route. The long steep climb was made worse by an extremely strong block head wind. There was no option but to dig in, plug away and get to the top. It was clear that the other riders were struggling here too!
Having gone over the top of the climb we dropped down the 3rd check point at Calder Bridge at 83 miles and decided to stop, take on some food and a hot drink, fill our bottles up and try and get a bit warmer. Mark and I weren’t too cold at this time but when I got into the hall and immediately saw a rider physically trembling and shaking as he stood beneath a hot air blower, I realised that we were riding in some terrible conditions. I think the fact that Mark and I were still feeling pretty good and getting stuck in at a decent pace meant that we hadn’t got too cold at that point!
After a few sandwiches, flapjacks and some millionaire shortbread, and taking the opportunity to stand beneath the hot lamps the organisers had set up in the feed station, we hit the road again with some 30 miles to go and the almost vertical climbs of Hardknott Pass and Wrynose Pass still to tackle.
Mercifully, the rain stopped on this final leg and the run in to the bottom of Hardknott pass was a reasonably nice experience, save for the feeling of increasing leg weariness!
As the climb of Hardknott loomed on the horizon, the challenge ahead of us truly dawned and we knew it was now every man for himself from this point on!
Early on the ride I had noticed some difficulty engaging my 27 sprocket (important as I was riding a standard chainset with a 39 tooth little ring). On the bottom steep section of the climb of Hardknotts I realized that my bike had, surprisingly, not repaired itself en route and that I may be faced with tackling the last 2 tough climbs on my 25 sprocket. Fortunately for me there was a strong tailwind up the climb and this helped me crunch my way to the very steepest part of the climb on my 25 sprocket, here I was able to engage the 27 sprocket but could only keep it in this sprocket by ensuring that I didn’t release the gear lever. So, I was focussing on riding up a wet 30% climb out of the saddle whilst holding the gear lever in such a position so the 27 sprocket could be used, this I did for long enough to get around the steep corner before my finger could no longer hold the gear lever in position and it was back on the 25 again. Luckily my legs were just fresh enough to have some fight left in them!
After a precarious descent, I managed to get over Wrynose, using the same technique to engage the 27 sprocket for the very steepest section, and from the summit of Wrynose there were some 12 miles left to the finish.
I managed to set a good pace all the way home although did wonder, at times, whether the finish would ever come! Mark and I had joked earlier on during the ride that we may be the only 2 people riding without a bike computer or GPS device but how nice it would have been near the finish to know how long was remaining!
I finished with a time of 6hrs 36, enough to earn me ‘elite’ status (click here for the full results). It was the 26th best time of the day, although some 40 minutes behind the fastest time and a little slower that I was aiming for (albeit that aim was set before breaking my hip). However, given the conditions and losing some time en route, I was happy with my ride. Mark finished 8 minutes later and John was another 40 minutes back so he had kept going at a decent pace after being abandoned by his so called friends, I mean after getting split up from Mark and I!!
Will I ride the Whitton again? I’m sure I will but maybe not next year, not unless they can arrange for some sun. The raffle system used for entry also means it may be out of my control but the experience of the crowds, the camaraderie of all participants on the road (apart from the bit where Mark and I left John behind!!), the enthusiasm and friendliness of the organisers and helpers, to mention just a few points, make the whole event a truly enjoyable and memorable experience and I would like to thank the organising team not only for putting on an amazing event but also for raising around £1m for Macmillan Cancer Support!