The over-enthusiastic cyclist

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

Tag Archives: Fred Whitton

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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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)

Why do I do it?

That’s the question I asked myself at one point during today’s 104 mile fixed gear training ride. I’d been going well, but found myself going through that phase where everything just hurts and the end seems like a very long way away. I’ve been doing some big training rides recently. Last week I did 70 miles of mountain biking, intentionally biting off more than I could chew and suffering so badly in the last 20 miles that having a quick sleep under a hedge started to seem like a good plan.

So what the hell am I playing at? Is this rational behaviour for a man now in his 40’s? I’m not deluded enough to think that I can turn professional – I should have thought about that at least 25 years ago – but I’m obsessed with trying to push my body to some higher level of fitness. I’m not the only one either, there’s a lot of us at it.

Sometimes when I get home with wobbly legs and too exhausted to properly explain myself, my wonderfully tolerant partner looks at me more with a mixture of pity and bewilderment than any admiration for my athletic achievement. “Are you insane?” Did you have to do that much?”. Both valid questions, but I’m a man on a mission. I like to set myself a goal, even if it’s just beating my best time at an amateur challenge event like the Fred Whitton. It gives me a sense of focus and something to throw my energies at. Admittedly, devoting myself to charitable causes could be more spiritually rewarding or putting the same energy into my career could be more financially rewarding, but it’s the cycling for me.

But there’s more to it than that, it’s everything that goes with it. The euphoria of powering over the final climb and sprinting back home, the contrasting comfort of the hot shower afterwards, there’s a sense of adventure to it all and it keeps this 41 year old feeling alive and well. Some people go out to night clubs and take pills to get their endorphins going – and it’s not for me to say that my way is better – but the cycling works for me. I have been known to get a cycling come-down mid week though…

Graeme Obree recently said that “there is no better vehicle for obsessional behaviour than a bike” and whilst I’m not quite as afflicted as him, there’s nothing better after a ride than some Strava analysis to see check of your performance improvements. Likewise with the bikes themselves, there’s so much to learn about (and spend your money on…) that I just don’t seem to get bored of it. I’m sure there’s worse things in life to be obsessed with.

So next time I ask myself why I do it, I’ve got my answers ready. I can’t ever remember regretting doing a hard session on the bike and the memories of even the grimmest and toughest of rides soon fade away once you get out of the shower. So keep pedalling, it’ll all be worth it!

Spring: finally…

After a brutally wet and windy UK winter, this weekend’s fine weather seemed to mark the start of spring as far as us amateur road cyclists go. The Peak District’s roads get a decent amount of cycle traffic every weekend anyway, but there were subtle differences this time. Overshoes had been left at home, thermal bib-longs were replaced by standard lycra and there was even the sight of bare arms and legs. But the weather was clearly the signal for everyone to bring their ‘best bike’ out of hibernation. It’s been my first year of having a dedicated ‘winter bike’ with full mudguards, but I’m completely sold on the idea. The Planet X Uncle John’s dealt with everything the winter’s thrown at it and has gone above and beyond the call of duty. As well as letting my beloved Boardman Pro Carbon avoid the worst of the weather, it’s got me out pedalling when I previously wouldn’t have.

I hadn’t even ridden the Boardman since the Tenerife trip back in November, but once I’d dusted it off and got going, everything fell right back into place. The slightly racier position, the higher spec shifters with lighter wheels and tyres, it all felt amazing. So did the lighter overall weight and the responsiveness of the carbon frame compared to the Uncle John’s aluminium bulk. The Uncle John’s taken the blows all winter though and there’s been rides so windy that it’s extra weight has allowed me to stay upright when the Boardman would have been blown right off the road. It almost felt unfair that the ‘posh bike’ should emerge victorious to grab all the glory and Strava achievements, but I suppose that’s the point; I’ve been slogging up and down the hills on a heavy bike all winter and still performing well, so once I got back on the light bike it felt like I’d let the handbrake off!

I won’t be forgetting those winter rides though – the time’s I’d be shivering and numb at the bottom of a descent, that time I got caught in snow and fog and feared for my safety – I appreciate now that they were all worthwhile. I’ve paid for my spring and I’ve earned the right to race around in the sunshine on a high spec bike with a big grin on my face. No offence to anyone who’s only now decided that the weather’s good enough to cycle (and it’s not my style to discourage anyone who wants to get out pedalling) but do they truly appreciate what they’ve got?

Character building (or sometimes just “stupid”) is what people might call those winter rides, but despite some tough conditions, I can’t say that I’ve regretted a single ride. I used to just rely on fixed gear riding and mountain biking for winter rides, but thanks to the winter bike I’ve put in more way more distance and climbing than I usually would have by this point in the year. Things are surely looking good for the Fred Whitton in May!

Spring: worth waiting for.

Spring: worth waiting for.