After last years efforts to break the 7 hour hour barrier went astray, I had high hopes for 2014. I’d put in more miles and climbing than any other year and I was knocking decent chunks of time off my regular climbs. I felt that with good weather and a little bit of luck, I could finally get under 7 hours and get on with the rest of my life without having to suffer on the Lake District’s hardest roads every May.
But the problem with luck and weather is that they’re both out of your control and whilst I didn’t suffer any bad luck this year, the weather was up to it’s usual tricks: wet, windy and cold. It wasn’t quite as bad as forecast, but with the roads wet for most of the day descending was never going to be as carefree and fast as I’d have liked.
So how did it all turn out? Well I didn’t break the 7 hour mark so I’ll have to be happy with 7h 30m. But with hindsight I think I am actually happy with my time for once. I felt good round the first half of the course, setting a new personal record over Whinlatter Pass and generally getting stuck in. I didn’t seem to have as much cooperation from other groups as I have in the past and so rode the majority of the day on my own, which maybe makes the result fairer and more of an achievement.
The Hardknott/Wrynose Pass combo was as torturous as ever, but it’s also something that really epitomises the nature of the event. After 95 miles/6 hours of hard effort in adverse weather, you’re confronted with a ridiculous road that rises up at gradients of over 30%. If you haven’t put yourself through this ordeal then it’s hard to describe the severity of the situation. You’re battling against gravity to carry on turning the pedals when your body and mind is screaming at you to get off and stop the pain. It’s sometimes only made possible by the support of the crowds who’ve turned out to shout encouragement at the bedraggled riders. The Lake District loves the Fred Whitton Challenge, with Hardknott just one of the favourite spots for supporters. There’s really nothing like it in the UK. For example, the Etape du Dales route is every bit as challenging as the Fred, but local support amounts to nothing more than a few quizzical looks from bemused Yorkshire folk.
The Fred Whitton supporters really are appreciated. You can hear the cowbells and the cheers coming from high above as you grind the pedals round, whilst trying to ignore the pain in your legs, arms and lower back. I suspect that without that encouragement I might have got off this year, I really was hurting that bad. I knew that I couldn’t forgive myself if I gave up though, and with the summit finally crested there was just Wrynose Pass to conquer before the flat-ish run in to the new finish at Grassmere. By this point I knew that even beating my previous best of 7h 15m was unachievable so my target shifted to getting under 7h 30m and my second ever best time, which I finally managed by a matter of seconds.
In an effort to soften the blow of not getting under 7 hours (again) I looked back through the results sheets of previous years. My golden year of 2010 positioned me just outside the top 20% of finishers. This percentage had gotten steadily worse until this year, where I found myself ranked within the top 14%. The new route is now actually 112 miles – which it has always claimed to be, but was previously always a few miles short. Usually there’s a few fine specimens who get well under 6 hours, but this years best was 6h 02m, which further made me realise that I’d trained hard and ridden well.
So will I be doing it again? Is the quest for sub the 7 hour ride still on?
At various points of the ride I decided that I’d never do it again and I get the sense that family support may be waning (“Do you have to do it again next year?”) but I’m reluctant to leave it alone. If nothing else, gaining entry gets me off the couch and into the hills several times a week, even through the depths of winter. And I reckon I’m in better shape because of it. I was getting worried that my age was starting to impact on my performance but I’m fitter now than I ever have been. There were even two guy’s in their seventies who got round the course this year, so I should be good for a few more years yet.
Maybe one more year?
Hardknott Pass: not getting any easier… (Photo by Steve Flemming)