Fred Whitton Challenge 2013; blog and review

I dedicate this article to Richard Ritz and the folks from John Morefield tackling the Fred this year – all the very best!

You will find a lot of discussion on the web about gear ratios for the Fred Whitton but something not discussed much is clothing, which can also be crucial to a successful ride. There are several factors to consider but the general rule of thumb on the Fred is that it’s better to be overdressed than undressed. Remember that while the weather can be very varied on the course; the valleys can give a false sense of security by offering warmer, sheltered weather while on the tops (and the notorious section through Cold Fell) it can be several degrees colder. If you get wet on such sections, then you’re likely to need even more insulation.
The BBC forecast for the day in Coniston was 11C maximum and 8C minimum. Rain was forecast from 1200 onwards in the area and with than in mind I chose:

  • Coolmax socks
  • Lycra summer shoe covers~
  • Leg warmers
  • Club bib shorts with excellent quality chamois
  • Thermal vest
  • Thermal second layre – Helly Hansen (photo of Peter ascending Hardknott, courtesy Stephen Fleming)
  • Light cycling jersey
  • Altura Jacket
  • Cycling Cape
  • Thermal skull cap
  • Cycling cap
  • Spring cycle gloves with full fingers
  • Track mitts

For the record I rode a fully carbon frame using standard 38-52 front rings and a 13-29 at the back. I had two bottle cages (with the compact frame you can only carry one 700ml bottle which was fully filled with my usual carb drink) but I mixed my carb drink into the second (small) bottle and filled to about 1/5, intending to add water at the first feed stop. For food I took:

  • 4 Zipvit energy bars
  • 4 energy gels
  • 2 drink tablets, making about 500 mls each
  • 1 drink powder solution to make 500 mls.

I started with the full finger gloves and stuffed the track mitts into a pocket. We arrived at Coniston at around 6am, and set off at 6.15am (having registered the day before). The morning was dry and cool, about 6C. On the first hill, Hawkshead, my pal got a pinch puncture which we changed quite quickly. Having lost about 10 minutes, we got to the top and began the somewhat technical descent, dodging the numerous potholes on one stretch. Virtually all of the junctions were superbly marshalled, with the marshalls stopping traffic where possible to allow easy and safe access. We joined in with a useful group and headed through Ambleside and to the bottom of Troutbeck before the day’s first major climb up Kirkstone.
Kirkstone is a super climb and most satisfying for anyone who enjoys climbing. It is not too steep and climbs at a fairly constant rate. We had a light tailwind up the climb and most riders proceeded at a fairly constant rate. The descent was rapid and not too technical but, as with any part of this route, you do need to keep control of your bike and be ready for sudden bends. Having again got in with a very good group which did turns at the front, we skirted Ullswater and then began the climb of Patterdale End. The beginning of this climb caught a few out, since it is steep – one feature of the Fred is that you tend to constantly change gears on certain climbs. Again, Patterdale End is not that steep and before long we had joined the main A-road of the day, the A000 to Keswick. There is a 1 metre strip to the left of the road but you have two problems in selecting it – firstly, if you’re faster than riders in front, you’re constantly having to rejoin the main carriageway which leads to danger no. 2 – the cat’s eyes. We tended to stay on the main carriageway to the right of the 1-metre strip with its cat’s eyes – since there was not a hugh amount of traffic at about 7.30 in the morning, it worked.
We entered Keswick by the western entrance – beware the large roundabout off the A0000 which is marshalled, but which could have fast-moving traffic on it. Keswick was quiet, apart from a good few race supporters and again we joined a decent group to set off south towards Seatoller. The Derwent valley is sheltered and we hardly felt the effects of the oncoming southerly wind. The road is windy but hardly hilly before Seatoller, and we took the advice of the Fred’s notetaker to stop at the public toilets at Seatoller car park. Incidentally, if you’re recording Strava/Garmins, don’t forget to pause when you deviate from the Fred’s route. Having departed slightly lighter, we then threaded through the small village and immediately reached the steep slopes of Honister. Some compare this to the infamous Hardknott – it certainly has steep sections but lacks the relentless grade of Hardknott (there are recovery sections between the 30%s). I felt sorry for a couple of riders walking up Honister and wondered how they would fare later on. There were some people cheering on riders but not too many, given the exposed nature of this mountain. On reaching the top we had been warned about keeping control of the bike from the very start, and this proved true since there were several steep declines with nasty bends at the bottom for the first mile or so. We passed a nasty accident where a rider had hit a stone bridge on a bend, even though the bend was not that severe. Marshalls flagged us to slow down and we passed by the incident without adding to it. The second part of the descent to the first feed at Buttemere was much better, and we enjoyed the less severe gradient and managed to save the brake blocks a bit.
Buttemere Youth Hostel was the first feed, and there was a very good selection of sandwiches, home-made cakes, water, orange drink and fruit. As usual, it was tricky trying to find a place to leave your bike. My pal had gear changing problems and got prompt assistance from the Saddleback mechanic. We departed about 15 minutes later, going the short distance before the sharp start of the next time up Newlands. Though not near as steep as Honister, this was a little leg tester and we paced ourselves up nicely. Again, the start of the descent is steep, but the real danger is about 1.5 miles further on with an unexpected chicane. The rest of the descent was on narrow roads and we reached Braithwaite checkpoint without incident. Here we did our first ‘dib’ where Marshalls take the first electronic check from your wrist device.
The climb up Whinlatter Pass was excellent – nothing very steep and a lot of spectators, despite the grey day. The majority of the climb is wooded and sheltered, and though it started to spit rain from the summit, we didn’t get the full effect until later. On the descent we passed an accident where a rider was lying on the right-hand side of the road on a very straight (but relatively fast) descent. We didn’t know the circumstances but hoped all those riders who hit the deck were not badly injured.
We were directed left off the Cockermouth road and then headed south-west through the lanes, passing Loweswater lake and the head of Ennerdale lake. At this point the rain got very heavy; with the distinct disadvantage of a westerly breeze we were soon soaked through, despite rain capes. I had started the day with my spring full-finger gloves and wore them again until the end. The approaches to Cold Fell are undulating, and tedious in that you’re never sure which rise is Cold Fell! Having topped some very open moorland we then began the drop to the second feed at Calder Bridge, remembering to control the brakes for a severe left-hand turn before the feed (one rider who had no control of his machine sailed past me on the wrong side of the road while attempting to make the left, and was lucky there was no oncoming traffic or there would have been a collision).
At Calder Bridge there was carnage – bikes were lying around on the ground and a lot of people were trying to get warm and queue for tea/drinks and food. The rain was very heavy by this point, and I suffered a bit of exposure – I spilt my tea due to my hand uncontrollably shaking. Avoiding the medics (who might advise me to withdraw), I managed to drink the remainder of the hot nectar and got some sandwiches and bars down me. My pal John was also cold but we decided to try and warm up on the bike and get to the finish, spending about 30 minutes at the feed.
The weird thing about departing Calder Bridge was that there were now very few cyclists on the road. We passed very few and were not passed by many either. The route from here to Eskdale is fairly flat with a few little rises, and as we entered Eskdale we heard a toot from the steam railway nearby (the “Ratty”). With the route now turning easterly but the rain incessant, we had sufficiently warmed up to tackle the two toughies of Hardknott and Wrynose. The approach to Hardknott is very deceptive; you’re threading through single-track roads on slightly undulating territory with no idea of the sudden change ahead. The change onto Hardknott is marked by a cattle grid, and the mountain and gradients hit you without warning. Suddenly we were on 20-30% grades with riders and cars strung out on the road ahead of you. Apart from having to conquer up to 30% grades, there are three main problems climbing single-tracked Hardknott:

  • slower riders weaving in front of you
  • riders suddenly deciding to stop in front of you
  • vehicles passing or approaching you (although there are plenty of passing places)

I found the best policy to avoid been taken out by weaving/surrendering cyclists was to give a friendly shout such as “Passing you please” or “Coming through on your right please!” The other dilemma about Hardknott is – do you look upwards at the road ahead (and potentially dishearten yourself) or keep your eyes firmly planted on the immediate road? Personally I like to see where I’m going, mainly to see if I can estimate when and where the 30% gradients slacken, and where I’m likely to get some respite. Other riders I know find this puts them off, which is fair enough. I had practised for Hardknott by finishing all of my training spins with a short 25% or 20% climb, despite the weather or tiredness of my legs. It seemed to do the trick since I managed to thread through a number of walking and slower cyclists, and avoid oncoming traffic as well. At the top I waited for my pal who had started well but found the severe grades too much, but then decided that I was going to get exposure again and decended to the Wrynose valley.
The descent off Hardknott is technical – again demanding total control of the brakes and being seated most of the time. At one point the bumpy road almost propelled me out of the saddle but I managed to keep it under control. Most of this descent was made at no more than 10mph, which gives time to see the road ahead. At the valley bottom I waited a few minutes and then got cold again and headed up Wrynose. This is nothing as severe as Hardknott, but has its own challenges and you need something left in the tank to complete it. It felt shorted than Hardknott (although I think the latter is about a mile), and the descent following was exhilarating, with the exception of a few technical corners and more potholed or bumpy road. The next two junctions were fully marshalled, including a road closure and total priority which was welcome. At the junction of the Coniston road I waited for John whose saddle had come loose on the descent off Wrynose. We then made the final climb and headed into Coniston, getting an official time of 9 hours, 39 minutes.
Despite the weather I believe we did a successful ride, in that we completed the course safely and well within the cut-off limits. Were there any lessons for a future assult on the Fred? I think I would like to fit a compact 34 front ring – while the 38 was do-able, it would have made it more comfortable on Honister, Hardknott and Wrynose. Instead of lycra shoe covers, full winter overshoes might have been better, but then you run the risk of sweaty feed if it gets warm later. With experience you think you could do it in a faster time in the future, but the great danger is overstretching yourself and reaching Hardknott with nothing left in the tank.
There are many people to thank for their support but specifically:

  • The author hauls himself up Hardknott Pass, May 2013

    The author hauls himself up Hardknott Pass, May 2013

As to the burning question of whether I will compete in the Fred again – I’m tempted to say yes, even though most of the four lads mentioned above said “Never again!”
Peter Scott (PS. Sorry not to have worn new club kit but there was no time to test it beforehand).

Blogger Peter Scott models the new Cestria CC kit.

Blogger Peter Scott models the new Cestria CC kit.