The over-enthusiastic cyclist

If it involves pedalling then I'm probably into it…

Tag Archives: Challenge

Fred Whitton Challenge number five

The emotive sound of clanging cowbells and cheering crowds. It was almost loud enough to drown out the screaming coming from my legs as I crested yet another Lakeland pass. Yep, I was riding the Fred Whitton Challenge again. Friends and long term readers will know of my ongoing goal to get round in under seven hours. Would this be the year when everything fell into place?

My training had been substantial. A huge amount of riding and running during the spring had got my weight down to an all time low, with a recent visit to Tenerife to finish off the preparation. The truth was though, I just wasn’t feeling super-motivated leading up to the event. I wasn’t sure whether it was general fatigue or a touch of over-training, or maybe I just wasn’t up for these kinds of events anymore. Touring commitments had prevented me entering any events last year and it was all feeling unfamiliar.

The weather can play a huge role in the Fred. After several years of dangerously cold, wet and windy conditions, everyone had been praying for fine spring weather and it looked like our prayers had been answered. I set off feeling good and my Garmin was telling me that I was saving time on every section of the course. The weather was also presenting the Lake District in all it’s stunning glory, with Ullswater still and misty like a giant water colour painting to my right. No time to stop for photos though.

Some cycling snobs turn their noses up at paying to ride an event on open roads, pointing out that you can turn up and ride the route any time you want. That’s true, but you can’t put a price on the crowds who turn out to cheer everyone on, regardless of whether they know you or not. It really is part of the local calendar now and unlike many modern sportives, all the profits go to charity. Everyone’s a winner.

By 85 miles, I was way in front of my previous best and totally on pace to achieve the sub-seven. And that’s exactly when it all started to unravel. Despite filling both water bottles at the feed stop five miles ago, I’d been playing catch up with my hydration, and now I’d nearly emptied both bottles again. Worse, my right leg started cramping – a worrying sensation as you make your way towards Hard Knott pass. That warm weather I’d been praying for was taking it’s toll on me, and to make matters worse, a hot headwind was blowing hard as the route headed inland from the coast. I’m not great in the heat (thats’ growing up in Northern England for you) and as we approached ‘the big one’ the temperature was up to 25ºc and I really wasn’t feeling great.

Hard Knott pass is never easy, even when you’re fresh. I definitely wasn’t feeling fresh, but having done it ten times before I knew I just had to dig in, ignore the pain and get it done. The first half of the climb was probably the worst 10 minutes I’ve ever spent on a bike. Both quads were now cramping every time I got out of the saddle, but with gradients over 25% there wasn’t really any alternative. I was pleased to survive the first ramps and get to the middle section where the gradients ease off to just plain ‘steep’. I was in trouble though, with diminishing control of my legs and the road about to rear up to 30% again.

I’ve never pushed up Hard Knott pass before (or any other road climb) but on the next hairpin my legs defiantly let me know that they weren’t up for any more of this abuse. With a spasm so violent that I only just managed to unclip and get off the bike, I frantically tried to stretch them out to get them under control at the side of the road. I’d always been a rider who’d battle through the pushers, proudly riding up the steep ramps whilst taking the cheers of the crowd. Now I was on the side of the road, barely even able to push the bike. I felt sick, dizzy, frustrated, but most of all exhausted. I could feel my sub-seven hour ride disappearing as I pushed my bike to the top with wobbly legs. Despite having kept the calories coming in all day, I felt as weak as a kitten and I was in a mess. There was still Wrynose pass to tackle but it was the same miserable scenario. I could definitely kiss goodbye to my goal.

I limited my losses on the rolling section to the finish, crossing the line with a time of 7h 21m. Though initially gutted, as the evening (and beers) went on I knew I’d still done ok and that I am capable of the sub-seven. My time put me 242nd out of 2100 finishers, which is in the top 12%. Better than last time, though if I’d been able to ride the last two passes like I usually do then I would have been nicely under seven hours.

I’d been telling people that whatever my result, I wasn’t entering again and that I needed to leave this Fred Whitton obsession behind. Who am I kidding?

Trying to hold it together on hard Knott

Trying to hold it together on Hard Knott…

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7th time lucky at the Mary Towneley Loop

An event must be doing something right to keep you going back for more pain every year. That I returned for the seventh consecutive year says a lot about the Mary Towneley Loop Challenge. There’s obviously a great 46 mile off-road route with 6500ft of climbing through some cracking scenery for starters. There’s also the appreciation from the local mountain rescue service who run the event brilliantly every year in order to put your £20 entry fee towards saving lives. No commercialism at this event!

I’ve been chipping away at my ride times over the years and though I seemed to have plateaued at around 5h 25m, I still felt that I had a sub 5 hour performance in me. I had high hopes for this year, though the mystery virus of last week (and a few too many drinks on the Friday) left me unsure of my form as I lined up at the start.

Unlike road sportives, it’s a mass start for the 200+ riders. The mountain rescue Land Rover leads out the peloton for a high speed half mile of tarmac, before blocking the road to traffic and leaving the pack to fight for position into the first section of trail. If you’re at the back here you can get held up as the pack thins to single file and an onslaught of gates and mud takes effect. I’d shuffled near to the front on the start line for this very reason, though it did mean I was having to keep pace with some very strong riders. There’s a strategy specific to this event, which requires you to keep within a bike length of the rider in front as you pass through a gate. Each rider gives the gate a good shove to enable the next rider to pass through and shove it open for the next rider. And so on… The gates become less frequent later on and of course the pack thins out after the first few miles, but I found myself sprinting hard for some of the gates. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually quite skilful and almost fun.

After riding well for 35 miles, the mid-race lull finally kicked in and my average speed started to slip. An energy gel before the final climb of Rooley Moor Road managed to stir up some adrenaline but I knew I needed to put up some kind of fight to finish anywhere near 5 hours.

The next half hour was one of my finest ever on a bike. I made a conscious decision to ’empty the tank’ to ensure that I beat last years time. My body was screaming and the adrenaline was flowing yet at the same time I was totally calm inside, almost tranquil. All I had to do was keep pushing the pedals round as hard as I could and ignore the disturbing heart rate readings on my Garmin. Each rider I passed gave me more confidence and in my head I felt like I was about to win a stage of the Tour de France. The descent off the top was equally adrenaline fuelled, with the loose rocks feeling like minor inconveniences as my hardtail skipped over them.

All these ‘heroics’ meant that I not only shaved nearly half an hour off my previous best, but I finally broke the 5 hour barrier, stoping the clock at just under 4h 56m. The low-key nature of the event doesn’t stretch to clocks though, just a short stagger into the school building to give your name and number. Here you can feast on the free tea and cake whilst swapping stories with other muddy riders in various states of delirium and exhaustion.

Regular readers of this blog might now be realising that this is the only event of the year that I’ve actually achieved my target in. Trawling through the results indicates that I came 23rd out of 210, which is a satisfying way to finish the summer. Though I’m looking forward to an autumn of riding purely for pleasure, I’ll have the memory of this pennine triumph to carry me through till spring and get me motivated for next year. Under four and a half hours next time?

 

Leading the way / trying not to get overtaken

Leading the way up Gorple Rocks

Fred Whitton time again

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: Steve Flemming)

Hardknott Pass: not getting any easier… (Photo by Steve Flemming)