Tackling the Lake District passes on the Fred Whitton Challenge.
Words by Matt Kendall, Photos by Paul Davy
Inspiration is everywhere. That was one of the first things I was taught at Art School. From the natural environment to consumer products, it sits there waiting for the right time and the right person to take on. Walking around Grasmere on the day before the 2014 Fred Whitton Challenge, I noticed Steve Chiltons book on fell running – ‘It’s a Hill, Get Over It’ in a shop window, it’s title becoming my mantra and inspiration over the next 24 hours. It neatly sums up so many of the reasons behind why I’ve signed up for what is widely regarded as the UK’s toughest Sportive. With 112miles covering 13,000ft of climbing, it’s not one for the faint hearted, or weak legged.
Backstory pt 1: I know these roads well. Having grown up riding these hills and trails, I’m fully aware of how grueling a day it’s going to be. This local knowledge is a great help on the day though, knowing exactly what to expect from these roads that are so unique in their brutality helps, rather than hinders my progress.
The Fred, organised by the great Lakes RC, is an event like no other on the UK scene. The severity of the climbs and the landscape takes no prisoners – the 2013 event seeing many riders abandon with hypothermia on the aptly named Cold Fell after the weather took a turn for the worse. And it’s not just the amount of climbing involved, but the type.
The passes of Honister, Hardknott and Wrynose all date back to Roman times. Now the Romans, like my adopted hometown of Manchester, have so much to answer for. Top of my questions for them now would be what on earth were they thinking trying to build roads as steep as that? Hardknott touches 30% in places around switchbacked corners and riding them requires as much skillful handling of the bike as it does pure power. And the joy of The Fred means you’ll be rolling onto the first ramp as you tick onto 98miles through your ride.
Backstory pt 2: despite growing up near these parts, I’d never actually rode up Hardknott. In order to prepare I made two training visits. The first left me unable to clear the climb without stopping – as I ground to a halt I had to stop and laugh as I took in the surroundings and the ridiculousness of it. But as the event drew nearer, and the amount of money I’d raised for Macmillan Cancer raced towards £1,500, I decided there was no way I was stopping on the big day. I was going to get over it, no matter what.
On the day, nearly 2,000 riders lined up to start the event. With the weather forecast to be changeable, there was a palatable sense of nervousness as the first riders rolled off at 6am. The first major climbs of Kirkstone Pass and Matterdale End offer nice warm-ups before heading up to Keswick and the first major pass of the day – Honister. Climbing up to the slate mines high above, it’s hits 25% in places and brought many riders to jump off and walk. That wasn’t an option knowing what was ahead though – if you can’t get over Honister, you won’t stand a chance on Hardknott.
Starting down the steep descent of Honister the signature bad weather made it’s appearance, the sky in the valley ahead turning black with horizontal cold rain to contend with as you descended. On a ride such as this you need to be prepared for anything – mechanicals, hunger, warmth. Any one can quickly and easily end your chances of finishing.
Through the valley floor and next up is Newlands Hause – a ribbon of a road hugging the hillside overlooking a stunning basin. The views up here are so amazing you don’t even notice the effort required to get up – it’s a truly solitary place. In complete contrast is Whinlatter Pass. Given its proximity the major hub of Keswick the climb was lined with supporting partners, families and fanatics – cowbells included – cheering us up the climb.
If the mood was slightly subdued earlier, this back leg of the route provides ample opportunity to reflect and prepare for what lies ahead. Sitting on a few wheels from a local club, all talk turns to the ‘Valley of Doom’ – also known as the Eskdale Valley, leading you to the foot of Hardknott Pass. A steady flow of condemned riders head along the valley in complete silence whilst we neck gels, sip bottles and strip down to the minimum required.
The climb kicks immediately, as does the atmosphere. Spectators clapping and cheering, riders panting and helping each other on. Many decide to get off and walk, but shout encouragement at those still grinding the gears. A slightly mellower section in the middle allows a few precious moments respite before a section of 30% hairpins, where all hell kicks off. Cowbells, photographers flashes, a car stuck in the middle, heart rates exploding. Cumbria’s answer to Alpe D’Huez is an amazing experience.
Backstory part 3: riding a climb like this (or a route such as the Fred) is what riding is all about for me. Much like any other creative endeavour I’ve taken on there’s resistance to overcome, and it takes determination and focus to get over it. Just as creativity should be driven by the desire to make something great not fame and fortune, rides should be about more than just Strava stats. Limits are there to be explored, not live by.
Wrynose Pass next, known as the Queen to King Hardknott. She’s an easier climb for sure, but a bad crash on the descent means waiting for the helicopter to do some impressive parking on the road to get the injured off, and provides some time to contemplate just how fine a line we ride sometimes.
The final few miles fly by in an adrenaline fuelled blur, before crossing to the finish line to cheers and congratulations. Riders chatting with of course the main question being “How did you do over Hardknott?”
I got over it – @matthewkendall
Thanks to: Paul Davy for the photos, all at RetroFuzz for their support, Tim for being a great riding buddy and putting in a heroic effort on the day, and my family for watching me disappear into the hills every weekend.
You can still donate to the very worthy cause of Macmillan Cancer here, and help those trying to get over cancer every day. http://www.justgiving.com/Matthew-Kendall
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