Monday 13 May 2024

Back up in the Lake District for the Fred Whitton Challenge

Another year, another trip to the Lake District, and once again I did the Fred Whitton light (also known as the Lion and Lamb Challenge), which still has some tough climbs. I felt definitely fitter than the last time I did it though.

Once again I made my two-yearly trip up to the Lake District for the Fred Whitton. The last time I was there it was a good day out. I must say that whenever I go to this part of Cumbria, in north-west England I always say to myself the same thing - why don't I come here more often?

Newlands Pass
It's such a stunning part of the world. Nothing beats the sight of the mountains surrounding lots of beautiful lakes. When I'm up there I feel really invigorated in the pure clean air set in peace and tranquillity.

Okay, I mustn't exaggerate. You do get lots of traffic jams in the Lakes given the comparative scarcity of roads, so that's going to give rise to pollution - certainly between Windermere and Ambleside. Also, in a scandal with the water companies, Lake Windermere has been flagged as being severely polluted as a result of extensive sewage flows.

So, it's not all rosy - but nevertheless - I do enjoy going up to the Lakes, and particularly to the lesser frequented areas nearer to Keswick.

When I arrived at Grasmere to sign on for the Fred Whitton the sun was out and lots of folks were out sunbathing or having picnics in the surrounding field at the registration hall. Crikey a heatwave had come to the Lakes - it was 25 degrees Celsius. That's not normal!

Picnic area at Fred Whitton Challenge HQ, Grasmere
Unfortunately, the weather forecast for the following day, when the ride was taking place, wasn't looking great. After a sunny spell, heavy rain was due to hit the area in the mid-afternoon - right when I would be cresting Hardknott and Wrynose Passes. Well, I really didn't want to be caught up in that. 

Those hills are bad enough in the dry. I was already prepared for a walk up Hardknott Pass, considering I have never been able to ride up this climb with the 30% gradient yet. The 25% Wrynose Pass would be doable for me, provided I could get out of the saddle. But in the wet, I would have had to do that while seated, in order to maintain traction of the back wheel and avoid wheelspin. Could I ride up a 25% gradient in a seated position? Probably not. Crucially, would I be able to ride down a 25% gradient in the wet? I don't think so - or at least not safely. I really didn't fancy risking a crash and breaking my collarbone.

Of course I could avoid all these issues by setting off with the speedy bunch of local riders who do a really fast chain gang, cane it up Kirkstone Pass and blast around the 180km (112-mile) route in six hours and be finished by lunchtime - in my dreams!

I could also have ridden around with a nagging thought in my mind, hoping and praying that the weather forecasts had got it all wrong. But to be honest, I just wanted to feel comfortable during my ride. My motto has always been to arrive on the start line feeling confident that I would be able to do what I needed to do, and that I would be able to handle the situation in a stress-free way. If I want stress and worry I can do that on Mondays to Fridays between 9am and 6pm. Weekends are for fun, care-free pursuits.

So I made the decision to ride the Lion and Lamb Challenge like I did last time around. With the spare energy I would go for a pleasant walk around the nearby trails.

As I drove along the main road to Grasmere from my lodgings at Bowness on Windermere I spotted lots of mini pelotons of cyclists starting out their ride. They had keenly started at 6am, though I got going at 7am - which was fine for me, knowing that I would be doing the 118km variant (73-mile). 

Compared to two years ago I was setting off about an hour earlier, which meant that I saw more riders along the way - though many overtook me. Riders were friendly though, and we all greeted each other and wished each other well.

Kirkstone Pass, with The Struggle in the background (Photo:
The initial part of the ride was a fast spin along the main road back through Ambleside, towards Windermere. Then after five miles (8km) came the first difficulty of the day, Kirkstone Pass, via Holbeck Lane. This climb is easier than The Struggle, but is harder than the first part of Kirkstone Pass near Windermere.

There were a couple of steep stretches above 10%, so was a little bit of a rude awakening for the legs. Once Holbeck Lane joined the main Kirskstone Pass road I was in a lovely wide valley. Great views, shame about the road surface. Every time I come here I like to think the road might have been resurfaced. But it isn't. So I just have to put up with heavy rutted roads, because I'm just not working hard enough! At least the gradient was manageable. 

Once the steep winding road to my left, The Struggle, came into view I knew I was near the summit of the Kirkstone Pass, the highest point of the ride at 454m, and I would get the chance to rest a little during the descent. Soon enough I arrived at the Kirkstone Inn at the top of the road, and I could enjoy a beautiful descent. On this side of the hill the road surface gave a sharp contrast to what I had previously endured. The descent was lovely and smooth, with sweeping bends. It was still important to pay attention though when handling the bike. 

After a short stint through the Patterdale valley the next climb was Matterdale End, where I was entertained by a couple who were belting out Europop and cheering me on madly as though I were Wout Van Aert. Sorry to disappoint you guys!

A few other folks overtook me on this climb, though they were still going slow enough that they were in view when doing my least favourite part of the ride, along the A66 towards Keswick. It's nice to go along here and not feel totally alone.

I wanted to keep my stoppages to a minimum, but Borrowdale, just below Keswick was a good time to stop and eat. before tackling what would be the toughest ride for me, Honister Pass.

When the Fred Whitton Challenge comes to town everyone in the Lake District knows about it and the locals are always very enthusiastic and supportive of the riders. Many of them cheered, applauded or gave me the thumbs up along the way as I rode along. Funnily enough, even while I was standing at the side of the road close to Derwentwater people still cheered me - for eating Clif Bar? Well, I'll take that!

This day seemed to have a few amateur sports events going on. I saw various riders travelling in the opposite direction doing what appeared to be a charity randonnée ride. Furthermore, a couple I had met the previous day had said they would be doing a type of quadrathlon involving cycling, running, paddle boarding and something else. There's no shortage of sport to do in the Lake District.

After a long stint in the valley in the shadow of such peaks as Skiddaw, the road ramped uphill suddenly at Seatoller. A guy passed me at that time, saying "This is where the work begins". I knew what was coming, after having suffered it in the past. My main strategy was to twiddle in the lowest gear and at the lowest cadence I could get away with just so that I could save a bit of energy to deal with the really steep hairpins.

Hard work riding up the Lakeland climbs, like here at Newlands Pass
A couple of ramps at the start of the climb, which included a steep bend to the left had me panting slightly. I still felt ready to take on this fight. But every 20 metres another short extremely steep section was thrown at me. I recall being in this situation last time and having to wrestle the bike to the ground as the bike tried to pull a wheelie. No such thing happened this time, as I felt very much in control. Meanwhile, my fellow rider who had passed me earlier smoothly riding past out of the saddle had suddenly stopped riding and was resting at the side of the road. He then got off his bike and walked. He was actually a pretty strong rider, but I think his bike was a bit over-geared to cope with the gradient. I passed him on the climb and he later caught up with me once the road finally levelled off at the Slate Museum. Do you know when the feed station is? He asked me. By his accent I could tell that he was French.

The poor lad must have underestimated the English roads thinking that nothing would be harder than Col de Galibier or Alpe d'Huez. He was properly being proved wrong!

I told him it would probably be after the descent in around three miles (5km), and also cautioned him of the descent, which would be very steep and would need a lot of care and attention. I bid him good bye, thinking I wouldn't see him again, as he sped off. In fact I caught up with him again on the descent as he came to an abrupt stop having been freaked out by the steepness of the descent. 

It's fair to say the descent from Honister Pass is not to be underestimated. It is probably the most technical descent of the whole ride, and was evidenced by the numerous mountain rescue staff and first aiders ready to help any rider who came into misfortune. I had to use my mountain biking skills to the max by keeping my body weight so far to the rear of the bike that my bottom was almost resting on the back wheel! That was the safest way I knew.

Thankfully I got down the hill okay, and enjoyed a lovely twisty ride along a more reasonable gradient, towards Buttermere and into the feed station.

By this time I was close to the cut-off of being past Braithwaite village by 11.30am. To be honest those of us at the feed station had already decided we wouldn't be doing the full Fred, so I was able to enjoy my stop and chat to the staff and volunteers there. I was very pleased to chat to Lynn Whitton, Fred's widow. She was very happy with the way things had run, particularly on this 25th Anniversary of the event.

One tip she did tell me was that although the race is oversubscribed there is a 10% drop-out rate and so you can actually get to ride the Fred Whitton if you contact the organiser a couple of weeks before the event.

After stuffing myself with some tasty Ritz biscuits I was back on the road and taking on my favourite of the Lakeland climbs on that ride, Newlands Pass.

Reaching the summit of Newlands Pass (
The 2km climb up Newlands Pass is not easy, but it is more of a steady climb with a few short 10 or 15% ramps at intervals followed by sections to relax the legs. Meanwhile, as the road twists around Buttermere Moss on my right, on the left are the dramatic fells at Whiteless Pike and Bleak Rigg. You never quite know when you are at the top of the road as the road twists and turns quite a lot, and reveals a little bit more of road to climb up. Then the very last bit of the uphill includes a steep gradient at more than 15%. Then you feel pleased with yourself for having done something that was hard enough to be a proper challenge, but not so hard it's not doable. Having said all that, I could see a couple of riders ahead of me in the distance who did have to walk up Newlands Pass. So maybe it wasn't that doable! 

Descending into Braithwaite was not straightforward as the road is not a steady downhill, but a mixture of ups, downs, twists and very sharp turns. Once at Braithwaite a marshal let me know that I wouldn't be able to do the full distance - confirmation that I would definitely be doing the Lion and Lamb! "No worries," I smiled. "I hadn't planned on doing the long course." 

The road from Keswick back to Grasmere
My route back to Grasmere via Keswick was once again along the main A591 trunk road. When I cycled along this road two years ago it had been a real struggle to get up the hill out of Keswick, and the main road had seemed interminable.

On this occasion, however, I was able to tackle the climb with gusto and enjoy the ride and the views of Helm Crag and Thirlmere. I passed a few riders along the way, and there were others who passed me looking pretty fit. It seemed that the Lion and Lamb was not necessarily a route being done just by slow riders. This section of the ride was quicker than I had anticipated. In fact when I saw Grasmere lake come into view I hardly believed my eyes. It was a surprised to already be in the home strait.

Crossing the finish line with the exhausted fast guys who had done the full distance, I looked suspiciously fresh, and felt compelled to admit to the marshals that I had only done 73 miles. Just to be clear!

As ever, there was a fun ambiance at the HQ, with a descent hot meal, deck chairs and picnic area on the grass, as well as a band playing. I got chatting to a woman called Katherine from the Isle of Wight. Rather like Sonia who I'd met two years ago when having my post-race meal, she was also disappointed not to have been able to do the full Fred. Where Sonia had missed the cut-off because of mechanical issues with her bike, Katherine had been caught up in traffic entering the event HQ. Apparently the queue to get into the car park early in the morning had been so long that Katherine was not able to start her ride at 6am as planned, and didn't get going until around 7am, which put her under pressure to get through the full ride in a timely way. In any case, we both enjoyed the event and hope to be back again.

Personally, I would like to be back again because I do enjoy the Fred Whitton weekend, and being in the Lake District. Also, I must say the number of women participants is very low - less than 10% - and it would be good to see more women getting involved. So I would be more than happy to get in my participation in the ride on behalf of the fairer sex!

All smiles at the finish line in Grasmere

After the cyclosportive I drove over to Pelter Bridge car park, from where I went on a walk around Grasmere and Rydal Water. I must say that I felt a bit silly in the end because the weather turned out to be very pleasant, and the rain didn't arrive until around 8pm. So in fact, I could have done the full Fred. Given how I got round the ride, and how I felt at the finish line compared with my previous experience, I definitely felt fitter. So I really must do the full course next time around.  

I hope to see you on Hardknott Pass in the not-distant future. 

Related posts

Operation Etape du Tour - Understanding the challenge 

The Struggle is real - especially in the Lake District

Tackling Fred Whitton light (aka The Lion and Lamb Challenge)

Cycling my own mini Surrey Hills climb classic

When in Geneva get on a bicycle

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