Monday 14 November 2022

The Struggle is real - especially in the Lake District!

It has been announced that next year's National Hill Climb Championship will take place on The Struggle in the Lake District. Even the name of this climb brings fear, unlike this year's event which took place on The Old Shoe, in mid-Wales. That name sounds like that there's something particular about the hill, but not necessarily anything to be afraid of. Mind you, in my case as a non-climber, once there I would probably freak out anyway!

I didn't get to ride that particular climb, and I didn't feel I could prepare myself for those championships due to time constraints. The year before that the National Hill Climb Championships were contested on the leg-busting Winnats Pass, in the Peak District. That is a climb I know well, but I still didn't do as my previous attempts had been pitiful and I knew I'd be an embarrassment on the day. Watching the riders battle up it on the big day in biblical conditions confirmed that I had made the right decision to not sign up for it. I would most certainly have got wheelspin and keeled over within 10 metres of the start line!

Funnily enough, despite the scary name of the climb for next year's National Hill Climb Championship I am tempted to give it go. I cycled up The Struggle earlier this year, and although I wasn't particularly quick, I got through it without feeling the need to stop or put my foot to the ground. That's already a result on those demanding roads in the Lake District.

Before I sign my legs away and launch myself into the preparation I must take the time to reflect on what it was like riding up this challenging alternative route to the more gradual and gentler Kirkstone Pass. Here is my recollection from earlier this year.

In the centre of Ambleside I took North Road, next to the Post Office. It's a small turning on the left that can easily be missed as you are swept along in the tourist traffic going around the one-way system en route from Grasmere and Keswick. 

Immediately, I was on a short narrow uphill road. Gosh, is this it already? I thought. We were officially still in the town of Ambleside so surely it can't have been the climb. Surely The Struggle goes through countryside, right? At this point I was actually on Kirkstone Road away from the hustle and bustle of the high street, but still very much in the town.

As the road reached a T-junction it became clear that the infamous climb was still a little way off even if the general trend locally was for all roads to be going upwards. The roads aren't always really steep. You get lots of false flats going uphill. In any case, it was important to have low gears on your bike whenever you ride in these parts.

From the T-junction I turned right, going behind the stone buildings that housed various shops, cafés and hotels. The road climbed gently and the area became more residential as the village centre had been properly left behind. 

Wansfell viewed from The Struggle with Kirkstone Pass in the distance
I met with a few cars coming down the hill, and they gave way to me on the slightly narrow road. They seemed to give that knowing smile, that said, "I know what you're here for....and boy are you in for a treat"!

The mountain passes of the Lake District are very well known. The local pass, Kirkstone Pass is known for its spectacular vistas across the open valley as you go up to the summit, site of the pub by the same name.

Among club cyclists, real bragging rights are earned by taking this back route to the Kirkstone Inn - The Struggle. So any self-respecting cyclist on a visit to the Lake District has got to try, if only once, the Hardknott-Wrynose duo, maybe Honister Pass too, and definitely The Struggle given its proximity to Ambleside, the most popular zone of the Lake District national park. 

Thus, local residents are accustomed to seeing streams of fit-looking cyclists on lean mean machines on their quest to conquer The Struggle. These Lycra louts form part of the wallpaper in this locality.

Eventually I found the start of the climb, indicated by a signboard with its name and a clear warning.

I felt slightly nervous at this point, and felt this was the time to stop, make sure everything on my bike was properly adjusted, including being in a more than suitably low gear, making sure my front water bottle was replenished, and I stripped off any excess clothing.

I also calmed my nerves, telling myself, "It will only be a mile or so of uphill riding, I do have the legs - but if I don't, it will be less than a mile of walking!"

So I started the climb, with a certain amount of trepidation. The opening metres of the ramp increased in steepness abruptly as I cycled passed some cottages. Given that the windows were close to the road and gave occupants a clear view of riders on the hill, I made an effort to try and look elegant - which meant going along at a slow but steady pace. 

False summit on The Struggle
As the road curved around to the left it ramped up again, probably to around 20%. I could feel the real work was beginning now. Furthermore, on this blind corner I needed to have a bit of physiological reserve in case I met a van when rounding the corner. So I dropped my pace, while still keeping enough cadence to not keel over. This became a real grind as I had to just focus and tell myself - "this will pass". Not knowing what would be around the corner, I mentally prepared myself for another ramp. And sure enough, there was - this time going to the right. By this time there were no houses, so I no longer needed to worry about spectators! As the road snaked left and right, the number of trees as well as the houses thinned out and the valley came into view. 

It has to be said, the landscape was spectacular. It was amazing to see a bowl to my right with lots of valleys and Wainwrights around Wansfell, and then the main road, the official Kirkstone Pass just behind it. Eventually I reached what I believed to be the summit and quietly celebrated the fact that I had conquered this beast.

Finally arrived at the Kirkstone Inn
In the area were a few people who had parked up to contemplate the viewpoint, as well as walkers. I got chatting to some local people who were impressed that I had managed to get up the hill. Reassuringly one of the woman, who herself is a cyclist told me that if I could get up The Struggle I would be fine to get around the Fred Whitton route. "Nothing on the Fred Whitton course is harder than The Struggle", she affirmed. I'm not sure if I should have believed her, but it sounded good.   

Onwards, I pressed, looking forward to the descent that immediately followed. the road twisted and turned a little as it wound around more hills and over little streams. This place is well worth a visit even without a bike. You just need to be comfortable driving up the steep narrow lanes and be able to keep calm if you need to give way to an oncoming vehicle, including an adventurous campervan!

Well, there I was thinking that the steep hills were behind me as the Kirkstone Inn came into view. In fact, they weren't. About one kilometre before the end of the road, my legs had a rude awakening as the road ramped up again. It was a real strain to get my legs back into gear to push my body over the last mound, and the final bend. 

Reaching the main road, the end of the climb provided a very painful sting in the tail to the point that it almost reduced me to throwing in the towel and walking. The gradient of this section must have been more than 20%. 

In a way I'm glad I did continue to pedal because at that point I heard the sound of cars driving by on the main road, denoting that I was practically at the junction and the Kirkstone Inn, the definitive finish line. Ah, my challenge was finally over and I had managed to ride the whole thing without walking. What a relief to have completed it. And what better way to end the climb than with a pub right at the finish line.

So that is The Struggle in a nutshell. I know I can ride it, meaning that I could prepare for the National Hill Climb Championships. All I need to do is to just work on going a bit quicker - simples. Err, now that may well be a struggle!

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Thursday 3 November 2022

Tackling Fred Whitton light (aka Lion and Lamb Challenge)

I have received an email reminding me that entries for the 2023 Fred Whitton Challenge through the Lake District will open on 1st December 2022. So in the next few weeks I must decide if  I want to put myself through the 175km cyclosportive over the lakeland hills next May. It's a beautiful part of the world, where I had the pleasure of doing two cycling trips this year, one of them to do the sportive.

Route map for Fred Whitton Challenge

In fact, I ended up not doing the full Monty and opted for the more clement, but nevertheless challenging Lion and Lamb route (yellow line on the route map). Here's what I remember of it. 

When the time came for me to do the event the event I was full of doubt and not really feeling confident that I could go the distance. I had done a fair bit of mileage - around 600km per month, but I hadn't done any practice events or pushed myself in any way. Time had not been on my side.

I had come very close to pulling out of the event. However, when I saw on the cyclosportive race pack that there was a shorter option I immediately decided I would go. The shorter route is known as the Lion and Lamb. Basically you ride the route of Fred Whitton, taking in Kirkstone Pass, Honister Pass and Newlands. Then when you reach the village of Braithwaite, instead of turning left to go up Whinlatter Pass you turn right and head back to Keswick. Then from there you take the direct A591 road back to Grasmere. 

The route is so called because the rocks along the side of the road, known as Helm Crag resemble a Lion and Lamb, though I must say I fail to see the resemblance! 

When I arrived in Grasmere on the eve of the ride to pick up my race pack, it was only then that I became aware of the magnitude of the event. The field around the race HQ had been turned into a massive car park as folks arrived from all over the UK to take part. There were stands selling bike equipment, clothing and nutrition, as well as a MacMillan Cancer stand, to which funds from the event would go. [Note, Fred Whitton was a member of the Lakes Road Club, who died in 1998 aged 50.]

Overall, there was a buzzing atmosphere and it was all-go in Grasmere. I managed to get in a little ride around the roads near where I was staying in Bowness-on-Windermere, though not on the actual roads of the route. But the fact that I had ridden on the main climbs a month earlier gave me the confidence to take on the challenge, even if I wasn't going to be quick.

Come the following morning, I was feeling fairly languid about the ride. Although I woke up very early - around 5.30am - I didn't want to rush myself. The importance for me, was about going out and enjoying a ride around the Lake District without getting stressed about making the cut-off. If I reached Bu by the cut-off at midday, then I would continue on to the long course. But knowing that I had the Lion and Lamb ride to fall back on (which was doable), I felt quite relaxed about things.

Summit of Kirkstone Pass

On the drive from my lodgings to the event HQ lots of riders passed in the opposite direction, ready to square up to the first difficulty of the day - Kirkstone Pass. All the riders looked lean and mean, riding in various small groups. This was quite the different from the figure I would be cutting. Yes, I was feeling fit, but far from being the finely tuned racer. I had no plan to ride in any group, and I would be carrying my trusty rucksack - hardly kitted out for a race-pace ride. As a result of my leisurely attitude it was almost 7.45am when I took the start line, and only minutes before the deadline for starting the ride. [Riders are allowed to start the Fred Whitton Sportive at any time of their choice between 6am and 8am.]

It was a largely solitary ride as I wound my way along the A591 back towards Windermere. Apart from a couple of groups of riders I hardly saw anyone else. Well, at least I could ride at a pace that was comfortable for me, and I wouldn't feel under pressure to force my pace.

On this early crisp and sunny Sunday morning I wasn't in a mood to remove my jacket and kept on all my layers. Once in the Windermere area I hit Kirkstone Pass via Holbeck. My experience of this climb had been via The Struggle - a 25% beast from the centre of Ambleside. As Holbeck was not such an infamous climb as the ramp from Ambleside, I hadn't expected it to be too difficult. However, I was wrong. Perhaps it was the time of morning, and maybe not being fully warmed up, it was deceptively testing. The bumpy rutted road surface didn't help matters either, as I had to expend extra energy to roll my bike up this heavy narrow road, closed in by woodland and farmhouses. At that moment I began to wonder not just if I could make the midday cut-off at Buttermere, but if I would finish the short ride before they closed the event at 6.30pm!

Just when I was wondering why the hell I'd let myself into this undertaking, my view opened up and I got sight of the familiar countryside that I had seen a few weeks earlier during my Easter weekend in the Lakes. Then the Kirkstone Inn came into view and that was reassuring too.

At the summit, knowing that a long descent lay ahead, I stopped to put on my jacket and grab a quick snack. What was also reassuring was the sight of other riders at the summit. As I moved off, they stayed where they were to sort out a mechanical, while another guy appeared to be just having a morning coffee. So at least I knew I wouldn't be last.

Whizzing down Kirkstone was a real joy, though it wasn't the time to become too complacent as the descent still required skill on a few technical bends. 

A left-hand turn took me into Matterdale where the scenery was stunning. That would be a recurring theme throughout my day. It was desolate but in a peverse way, still an inviting place. Given that I was in a cyclosportive this was not the time to stop for picnics or take photographs, though.

On reaching the junction with the A66, I met some volunteers who checked I was okay and warned me to be careful on the road. This is one section of the Fred Whitton Challenge route, that I am not a fan of, as it runs along a fast trunk road. Thankfully, a side section of the road was coned off, so I was sheltered from the worst of the traffic. Furthermore, it was still only mid-morning and on a Sunday the traffic wasn't heavy. Seeing the sign for Keswick was a welcome indication that I would be back on quiet roads for the rest of the ride. In this gateway town to Borrowdale, I knew exactly how to reach the road to Honister Pass without the help of the signboards or marshals, having reccied it just three weeks earlier. 

Given the time, and the fact that one of the toughest climbs would be appearing before long, I took the opportunity to stock up on fuel and take a toilet break near Derwentwater. By this time, I was all alone, having been overtaken by the other riders who'd had the mechanical at Kirkstone Pass. Maybe I should have felt concerned that there was no one else around, but in fact I felt free - free to just ride around at a pace I was comfortable with, and free to stop when I felt like it. I had food, drink, extra clothing if needed. Granted, I didn't have tent or bivouac, but if I did end up staying out so late I had money to stay in some lodgings!

Although I wasn't riding in any group, the number on my handlebars showed that I was still part of this event which is well known among all the locals. Many people who saw me ride by, applauded and cheered me on, even though I hardly looked like I was in any race. That was jolly nice of them.

Just after the village of Seatoller came one of the hardest climbs of the day - Honister Pass. It was important to remind myself that on my previous attempt I had managed to get up this 25% ramp without walking, even if I had almost pulled a wheelie in the process. If I kept that in mind, and stayed calm, I would be okay. The next half-mile became all about straining every sinew to keep the momentum moving forward especially on the hairpins, and hope that no vehicle would approach in the opposite direction along this narrow road.  

Once past the worst section of the gradient, I felt enormously relieved, though I was panting too much to have any real appreciation of this mini success. A car did emerge in the opposite direction, on the merciful 10% section. The driver kindly stopped to let me pass by as she gave me a big thumbs up while I trudged passed barely conscious.

Soon the road took me past a slate mine and then the Honister car park and tea room which marked the end of my climb and the start of the big drop down to Buttermere. By this time I'd got my breath back and was ready to celebrate my achievement, but this was no time to be complacent. I still had some way to go. 

However, it was at this point that I realised I would miss the cut off to do the full Fred Whitton Challenge, so my ride would now just be a mere 73 miles instead of 112. Furthermore, I would be deprived of the chance to ride up Hardknott and Wrynose Passes. Should I have felt disappointed? Maybe, but I wasn't! Having experienced these two beasts a few weeks earlier, and spent most of the time on foot rather than on my bike I knew that I wouldn't stand a chance of riding it during the cyclosportive, particularly as those climbs don't appear until around 95 miles into the ride! So in effect, the hardest climb of my ride was behind me, and everything from here on in would be straight forward....sort of.

The road to hell - aka Hardknott Pass - which I skipped in FW Challenge (thankfully)

Rolling down the Honister Pass is not the easiest of descents. Just as 25% uphill is tough, the same percentage downhill is no breeze. Control and good bike handling are required. I remember a woman crashing on this descent a few years ago and fracturing her skull. Er, I'd rather that didn't happen to me. So for those first couple of kilometres there was a lot of focus, as I made use of my descending skills learned (thankfully) from a few years of cyclocross. 

Nevertheless it has to be said that the area was breathtaking in more ways than one. The descent had me panting as the road snaked and sank between the stunning Buttermere and Borrowdale valleys. 

Eventually the gradient levelled off and my ride became more manageable, and this allowed me to appreciate the landscape, which was dotted with little streams, as well as sheep that looked on at me curiously. They probably wondered what this odd person was doing on their patch with a number on her bike and no peloton!

As expected, I missed the cut-off to continue on the main route, which was evidenced by the sight of organisers closing feed-station and the first-aid ambulance driving away. Good job I had my own supplies, as I tucked into another energy bar.

A couple of miles earlier a guy on a road bike had passed me and said hello. I assumed he was a participant in the cyclosportive, given the speed he passed me, and he must have had a mechanical that was now resolved. 

However, about 200m down the road I realised he was slowing down as I began to catch up with him. These moments are always a bit tricky for me. I think to myself, "If you ride so much quicker than I do, why overtake and then slow down? Then I'm going to catch you and you'll chase me down again...What's the point in that?" I'm never keen on this silly cat and mouse game. 

Initially, I began to slow myself down, in a hope that he would pick up pace again. It didn't work though, because it would be ridiculous to ride even slower than my already snail pace. Eventually I caught up with him, as he was stood admiring the beautiful Buttermere Lake.

Soon he caught me again, but rather than pass, he rode alongside me and struck up a conversation. "It's beautiful around here isn't it?" He said. It turned out that he had come across to the area from Newcastle with a friend who was taking part in the cyclosportive. He had failed to get a place during the lottery draw for the event, but came to the Lake District anyway to provide support for his team-mate. Knowing the route, he was happy enough to ride around the areas on the day and soak in the atmosphere. I'm not sure if my pootling along the course on my own provided much atmosphere!

We rode further on together, and began the climb up Newlands Pass. That was where I hoped he would leave me to my own devices, as the road became decidedly steep. Of all the climbs of the Fred Whitton, Newlands is the one I know the least. Despite having previously done the Fred on a couple of occasions I still couldn't remember much about this pass across that crosses the valley to reach Keswick. My assumption is that if it didn't stand out in my memory of the event it can't have been that tough. However, I was wrong. When inspecting it on an Ordnance Survey map this yellow road shows double arrows, denoting it being >20%. I wasn't looking forward to that. My new found pal eventually bid me good bye as he said he was going to explore other roads. Before leaving he described the rest of the route beyond Newlands Pass and gave me tips. Nice of him, but I did already know the route. I guess, judging by the way I waddled along he thought I was a newbie. And I must say, I felt too embarrassed to say I was a little bit more experienced than that!

Climbing up Newlands Pass didn't fail to disappoint, when it came to gradients. The narrow road wound around, up and up past the Moss Force waterfalls. At one point I really felt like I was in some kind of middle Earth as the place was desolate and looked a little grey. Funnily enough, I still think it looked beautiful. 

Only a couple of cars passed by, and like other motorists - as had been the trend on this day - they tooted their horns and either gave a thumbs up or shouted "well done" at my efforts. I certainly appreciated the encouragement as this road had a very sharp hairpin with a ramp that must have been in excess of 20% - not as steep as Honister, but tough enough. It caught me quite by surprise. With my remaining energy I squeezed every muscle to propel myself forwards. Thankfully, the road levelled off and then very shortly afterwards my bike wheels began to turn faster and faster as the road gently descended, and then I was rolling at full velocity, enjoying a lovely downhill towards Braithwaite. 

Apparently this quaint village is where your morale is made or broken a marshal determines whether you have a long or a short day on the roads of the Fred Whitton Cyclosportive. A left-hand turn takes you up Whinlatter Pass, out towards Cockermouth and then down to Eskdale Green where the dreaded Hardknott-Wrynose duo await. Alternatively, you can turn right towards Keswick and then take main road straight back to Grasmere. Depending on your persuasion your moral could be up because you're doing the long challenge, but also because you are doing the short challenge and can look forward to a relaxing afternoon. 

This right-hand turn could be a source of despair and disappointment at the hands of the marshal who has the interesting job of telling you you've missed the cut-off. Otherwise, it could be a moment of relief that it's official - you are on your way to an early finish that, with any luck gives you the time to enjoy a leisurely Sunday lunch and an afternoon walk. This was definitely my attitude. In fact, I was so late that the marshal doing this job had already packed up and gone! For a fellow rider Sonia from Bolsover, who I met on the day, she definitely had a sense of  the former. The right hand turn left her and her friend very disappointed and frustrated. Unfortunately for her, she was the woman I had passed at the summit of Kirktone Pass earlier and had had to deal with a problem with her gears. She and her friend had ridden like the clappers to make it to Braithwaite, only to arrive 15 minutes too late.

Fortunately for me though, it meant that doing the short course meant that I was able to have a very pleasant lunch with her back at the HQ.

Very happy to reached the finish line - even if I "only" did 73 miles

So after the right-hand turn at Braithwaite and a very pleasant descent in the shadow of Skiddaw mountain, I was back into Keswick, which had begun to feel like a second home, given that it was the second time I was passing through there on this day, and I had also been spent time in the village just a couple of weeks earlier. The roads and buildings were very familiar and I knew exactly which way I needed to go to reach Grasmere - handy given that there were no more signs or marshals. Sadly, I had forgotten about the steep exit to reach the homeward road, and I must admit that at this point I was beginning to feel the effects of the rugged Lakeland roads. It was a tour de force to winch myself over the 12% ramp, and even after that the main A591 was an unrelenting sequence of ups and downs, not to mention a slight head wind.

This section of the Fred Whitton Challenge is not the official course, and it's not publicised on the website. It was only when I received the pre-race pack that I became aware of its existence, and as such there were hardly any other participants on this road. In any case, it didn't make much difference to me as that had been the pattern throughout my ride even on the official route!

I was confident that the final 13 miles back to the HQ would be doable and my energy levels were high enough to get me home. I was far from hitting the wall, but I must admit I was getting a little bit bored, and the constant ups, downs and twists in the road were demoralising. Some sections had slight cross winds, and it has to be said that the there were some dual carriageway sections with fast-moving traffic so it wasn't a totally relaxing ride.

And where was the famous Lion and Lamb to keep me going? Apparently, you are meant to see these shapes in the nearby hills but I couldn't see anything of that description. I can only conclude it must have been something dreamed up by someone while they were on some fun pills. Of course, I am happy to stand corrected if someone sends me the photos.

About half-way along the road a guy passed me, going at a fast pace. That was reassuring to see that it's not just the slow coaches like myself who do this route. Soon after, a woman caught up with me. "It's not very easy here is it?" She said. I agreed. At first, I thought of hanging onto her wheel so that we could do a triumphant return to the HQ together - a sisters in solidarity moment. But she was actually stronger than I was, and as the wind subsided she gained a second wind herself and dropped me. No bother. I was just happy to have seen a couple of souls along the road, albeit briefly. That was enough to reassure me that I wasn't the only cop-out cyclosportive rider in the village.

Finally, the signboard for Grasmere came into view and the crowds along the roadside thickened as locals, friends and family cheered on every rider who crossed the finish line. I had a big smile on my face and a sense of achievement that I had got through the 73 Lakeland miles without wrecking myself - denoting that I probably had been strong enough to do the full thing had I set off early.

One guy who crossed the finish line at the same time as myself did say that I looked suspiciously fresh. So I felt obliged to make my admission, to which he replied - as long as you were in pain on Honister then you did it well. Well, it was painful, so I felt I must have done a good job.

Enjoying a post-ride walk around Grasmere and Rydal Water

Regardless of the fact that I had done the short Fred Whitton ride, it had been a satisfying day out,  I had done an honest day's work in the saddle, and I think I deserved my post-ride pie and chips. Then the day was rounded off with a beautiful walk along the trails surrounding Grasmere, Rydal Water, and Rydal Caves. I know I must go back to the Lake District and do the full Fred Whitton route at some point; though not for now. Hardknott and Wrynose may have to wait a little bit longer.

Related posts

Tackling the Lake District climbs

The Struggle is real in the Lake District 

Crystal Palace hills