Anyone who knows me and my many cycling obsessions will know that I’m a big fan of the Fred Whitton Challenge. For those not in the know, this is one of the original UK cycle-sportives, challenging riders to a a gruelling 112 mile circuit of the Lake District that racks up 11,000ft of climbing. Since it began in 1999, the UK has become flooded with amateur events all claiming to be ‘classic’ and ‘epic’. Compared to the Fred, they’re not.
Back in 2010, whilst training for the Etape du Tour, I blasted round in a time of 7h 15m. Anyone finishing between 7 and 8 hours can be classed as a ‘Pretty Decent’ cyclist, enough to hold your head high in the company of most amateur roadies and I’ve enjoyed that status ever since. However, I wanted to join the category of cyclists who get under 7 hours, who could rightly be classed as ‘Bloody Good’. I’d tried and failed in 2011, suffering from bad weather and a lack of training due to injury. This year, I was planning to settle the deal.
Rather than make you read to the end, I’ll tell you now that I came in at 8h 01m (into the ‘ok’ classification…), so let’s get some excuses out of the way first:
- I’m a few pounds heavier than 2010 (serves me right for boozing too much and not dieting sooner)
- Other people had really expensive deep-section wheels so I probably needed some. (No, no, no. I’m not going to turn into an ‘all the gear and no idea’ kind of rider)
- I’ve not trained hard enough. (True, despite riding further and higher than previous springs, I’ve not been going as hard as I should have)
- Tragically wet and windy weather (Yep, this is probably the main reason!)
Rather than a boring hill-by-hill description of the suffering, here’s a concise account: I started well and stuck to the carefully prepared schedule that was precariously taped to my handlebars. After the first three climbs I was on schedule for my record time. However, hitting a strong headwind at 30 miles down the A66 and into Borrowdale, I slipped back 15 minutes. It also started raining. The rain started getting really heavy. Then the heavy rain continued till I crossed the finish line 6 hours later.
I had a quick sulk whilst hurtling down Newlands, but once I’d come to terms with being unlikely to achieve my target time, I got settled into ‘survival mode’ and kept slogging away through the cold and rain. Here’s a few thoughts from the parts of the ride that I haven’t erased from my memory:
- Even in the pouring rain there are crowds of people standing around to shout encouragement, clap, wave cowbells and generally implore you to stay on the bike and keep going. When you’re soaked to the skin and in a bad place this can have a profound effect.
- People who push or carry their bikes up roads like Honister Pass should probably enter a different event. Had they not looked at the profile? Hardknott Pass, the steepest road in the UK at 33% makes an appearance at 100 miles into the route, making Honister just a warm up… (also, people entering the event to walk up hills should be respectful and make way for actual cyclists)
- The event is entirely run by volunteers, yet has the slickest organisation, best marshalling at road junctions, great medical back-up and the support of the Lake District community. It has also so far raised over half a million pounds for charity.
- Worse than any other year or event, I saw far too empty gel/energy bar wrappers on the road, what seemed like every few hundred metres. Even the pro’s get fined for this now, so those cyclists fantasising about being professional need to do their homework and put the wrappers in their pocket.
Anyway, what I came to appreciate this year, more than ever before, was the concept of the ‘challenge’. I’m usually so consumed in what I interpret the challenge to be (breaking the 7 hour barrier and becoming ‘Bloody Good’), that I don’t appreciate the bigger picture. Some riders finish the day at over 12 hours even in good weather and that’s their challenge accomplished – and that’s just as valid as mine ever is. Today, the challenge for me had become getting up and down the steep hills and back to the finish without coming off and needing the increasingly busy ambulance service. To complete the ride with good sense of spirit and the motivation to continue with the pursuit of cycling was a worthy aim.
As I got wetter and wearier, I also became more determined and started passing more riders. Sometimes a conversation was struck up, though often just a glance between exhausted riders conveyed all that needed to be said. The words to adequately describe the desperation and bleakness of the situation were somehow hard to find. The second feed-stop at 84 miles resembled a temporary military shelter at the scene of a catastrophe: there was confusion, hysteria and blue-lipped traumatised riders sitting around shivering in foil blankets. I knew that I couldn’t stay there. I pressed on and found that the worse the situation got, the more determined I became. I was forced to dig deep and come out fighting.
And that’s the essence of the challenge. Clichés like “it’s character building” and “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” turn out to actually be true. You need to occasionally put yourself in these scenarios in order to claw your way back out. It might only have been a bad ride in the Lake District for eight hours, but it does give you hope that if you needed to, you’d have the strength to deal with whatever life throws at you.
Anyway, entries for 2014 will be open in January and I’d better step up the training now if I’m ever going to become ‘Bloody Good’.