I had survived 50 years on this planet. My wife, had instead, decided on a rather elaborate way to get rid of me using someone called Fred Whitton.
About the Fred Whitton
She had, as a surprise present, bought me an entry to the fearsome Fred Whitton. The “Fred” is reckoned to be the UK’s hardest cycle sportive. Not the longest but indeed the hardest. Set in the natural beauty of the North Lake District, it is 182km loop containing 3,500m of vertical climbing.
Those numbers, do not tell the full story. It contains 8 climbs of note. Each one of these climbs would easily be the-piece of any other cycling sportive. I could explain the sequence of the hills, their legendary names, the length, and the gradient but to be honest that’s not the point. Suffice to say – they were all long and steep but like a silver-back gorilla or the alpha male in a pride of lions, one climb stands above them all, dominant, all powerful, omnipotent, and terrifying – The Hardknott Pass.
Frankly it ruined the event. The beauty of the Lakes, the surprising sunshine, the supportive crowds , the camaraderie of fellow riders, was all lost to me too, because of this fearsome climb.
- Just over 2.5km long.
- Average gradient 13%.
- Maximum gradient 33%.
This last number indeed bewitched me. It had the impact of making climbing 25% gradients (Honister, Wrynose, Blea Tarn) seem straightforward – it completely reorientated my view of hill climbing.
I had heard about this cycle climb from other club members who had taken part in the Fred Whitton. Jeff, in particular also told me horror stories about Hardknott and that I would walk. Luca was triumphant in his success in getting up it without walking. It began as small acorn of concern and as the days counted down grew, exponentially into an oak tree of anxiety.
I read books about it, studied the gradient, tried to imagine the rhythm needed. I took my mind off it by, instead, opening the other bag of concern for all cyclists at this time of year – what to bloody wear. The weather forecast looked ok but I just took everything up with me. We arrived two days before the event to enjoy a nice hotel/spa and have a look around. Naturally I brooded about the Hardknott.
Preparation for the Fred Whitton ride
The other bizarre thing about the Fred Whitton is that the rider notes have a whole section on descents. Jeff had gone to great lengths to describe the perils of descending. As an unreconstructed traditionalist, on my “best” bike I unfashionably pursue a love of rim brakes, married to nice carbon wheels. This I soon realised was like turning up to a medieval joust with a piece of cooked spaghetti.
As I frantically walked around Ambleside looking for a spare set of Swiss Stop Yellow Kings brake pads, the laughter of bike shop owners rang in my ears, and their stories of warped rims and exploding tyres. Christ, and this was a present!
Anyway, I started the day itself with New Malden Velo bib shorts, short sleeved top and natty New Malden Velo arm warmers and a spare set of pads. This turned out to be the best decision. The sun came out. It was extremely hard but not impossible, I ate a lot. The descents were horrible but I stayed upright. The feed stops were packed but had nice sandwiches. I watched with trepidation as my brake pads slowly disintegrated and even more alarmingly, my carbon rims. I got up and got down, never, in either case elegantly but like a slow moving lava stream I approached my nemesis – The Hardknott.
Full disclosure – I cheated. The day before I took the car and my bike and had a go at Hardknott. I thought if I knew how bad it was I could do it. Other climbs in the past that had defeated me I had conquered on the second attempt. I almost made it up.
It is unbelievably steep and remains so for a long way. I weigh over 100kgs and simple physics tells you, getting that and the bike up 33% isn’t easy. I got three quarters of the way up – if you know the climb it ramps twice, at the beginning and the end. The cognoscenti say if you can cycle the bottom section, you can do the top, that’s rubbish.
I lost traction by almost overbalancing and walked. Never mind I thought – I pictured on Strava, my triumphant return on the day of the event and slaying of Hardknott, encouraged by throngs of supporters. I visualised the high fives of achieving this feat and the sweet taste of the local Wainwrights Pale Ale.
Nope, I didn’t even make it to the top section. I could list a number of excuses. It was busy, and lots of people were walking their cycles. Someone had a medical emergency just in front of me, which was inconsiderate and off-putting. But I walked because it had beaten me in the head before I had turned the cranks over on the day, I finished the rest of it.
It was nice, I even had some left in the tank for a fast return into Ambleside, I enjoyed a roadside beer and posted an OK time, but the knowledge that Hardknott beat me took the shine off it. I had the Club trip to the dolomites coming up later in the year, so at least it was good climbing training.
Normally I should say something inspiring like, I’ll do it again and beat it. F**k that, I never want to see that ribbon of road ever again. Like child-birth (I’m told) or queuing to get into a nightclub, I will forget the pain and tell everyone how great the Fred Whitton was and recommend it. But next year, maybe, darling, just a nice meal out?
Ben Parker, May 2023