The over-enthusiastic cyclist

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

Tag Archives: lake district

Over enthusiastic walking

People who know me or follow me on Strava may have noticed some pretty big walks going on recently. Whilst I’ve always enjoyed a good hike round the hills, there’s been a specific motive behind all this recent leg work. As well as developing my own cycling company Peak Pedalling and freelancing for other cycling companies, I’ve recently been working towards my Mountain Leader Award. This is the industry standard qualification that covers you to take individuals and groups out in mountainous terrain in the UK – whilst keeping them safe and hopefully giving them an enjoyable day out!

And so here I am reflecting on what has been the most intense course I’ve ever been on: six days of training by Jules Barrett and his colleagues at Adventure Unlimited. I’ve always been pretty handy with an OS map, but learning the skills to locate any specific point in a wild and often featureless environment to the nearest few meters has taken the subject to a whole new level. Add in driving rain, low visibility and a 10 kilo rucksack and things get trickier still. And that’s even before we ascended the 902 meter peak of Bow Fell at night, standing on the rocky summit in total darkness (and more rain) before correctly finding the safe route down. Wild camping, multiple river crossing techniques, emergency procedures – it’s been a busy week but with a fantastic group of people.

It wasn’t all about the practical skills though, because a mountain leader needs an exhaustive supply of information about the local environment to inform, educate and entertain clients with. In addition to being somewhat of an outdoor ninja, Jules revealed himself to be a comprehensive authority on many subjects including geology, meteorology and different species of moss. All part of the mountain leader job!

So it seems that I’ve got a huge amount of practicing to do before my 5 day assessment in spring 2018. New subjects such as emergency rope use need to become second nature and my navigation needs to be so slick that I can chat merrily to a group about volcanic rock formations without them even realising that I’m counting my paces in order to cover a specific distance within +/- 10%. Yep, there’s a lot going on.

The other major learning point for me was that mid-range cycling jackets and budget waterproof trousers are not up to the job of trekking round the hills in the rain for days on end…

Thanks to Charlie for being the only one of us organised enough to take photos!


Safe river crossing (though rather cold)


Wild camping. No shower block or bar….


Emergency stretcher using walking poles and a jacket


Ropey emergency work


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…

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)

Nan Bield Pass (long forks and big balls required)

I’d been waiting to have a pop at the classic ‘three passes route’ for about 4 years now, ever since blundering round it in the wrong direction in 2008. My mate Kev has never quite forgiven me for the long carry up to the top of the Nan Bield pass only to be faced with a very tricky path down – carrying the bikes again.

Carrying bikes up mountains? Yes, this is the genre of cycling sometimes referred to as ‘Hike-a-bike’. It’s not everyones cup of tea, but the sense of adventure and epic riding that the occasional shouldering rewards you with is worthwhile for many. There’s several such bridleway passes in the Lake District, many of which you won’t find mentioned in your average guide book and it’s blogs like these that can help you plan your trip. This route is one of the more common hike-a-bike Lakes routes and is easily linked up with other more moderate riding around the Kentmere/Stavely area. The route I recently did sets off from Ambleside and does the three passes before finishing at Staveley, though Staveley would make a good starting point as well.

So if you’re considering one of these passes, here’s my advice:

1. Garburn Pass
Not really that epic, but it has the word ‘pass’ in the name so it needs a mention. Tackled from the West, it’s a great climb that’s all ridable with decent fitness. The surface varies from gravelly to rocky and it feels like it goes on forever. If you like a good climb then you’ll enjoy this, one to just get stuck in to and keep pedalling.

The descent is pretty technical. I’m sure I used to be able to ride it all a few years ago, but I was on a full susser then and less scared of injuring myself… If you are riding it, watch out for a sudden super-techy drop off type section. I got away with a comedy dismount and a bruised shin.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever done this the other way, but I’d imagine it would need a few pushes. The long downhill would be fun though.

2. Gatescarth Pass
Whichever of the delightful routes you choose over the Green Quarter from Kentmere to Sadgill, it’s worth making sure you’ve got food in your belly and you’re topped up with water, as you’re about to embark on an epic climb! Heading North out of the Parish of Longsleddale (apparently the original inspiration for Postman Pat) start climbing the Gatescarth Pass. Once this monster starts heading up and getting steep you’re in for a mile and a half of rough rubble and sharp cobbles, with hair pin bends ramping up to 27%. By the top, you’ll have climbed 1130ft and if you done it all without a dab then you’re a better rider than me! I managed about 85% of it and took 35 minutes and I felt like I’d done ok.

If you do this as a descent, it’s a riot of hand numbing fun, but I’m not sure that this direction makes for a great loop when combined with the Nan Bield pass.

Descending to Haweswater is a mile of incredible riding that even I managed without incident. The first few switchbacks are slow and techy, but it finally opens out and lets you get some speed up. The only problem with this, is that the massive views that appear make you want to stop and gasp, but the trail makes you want to carry on grinning. I suppose that’s the incompatibility between Strava and cycle tourism.

Some people like to ride/push/carry their bikes up this way, but I seem to remember it being pretty miserable. Each to their own though.

3. Nan Bield Pass
You’re into real remote feeling riding now. It’s classed as a bridleway but I’d pay money to watch a horse struggle up or down this pass. It’s hard enough to hike up in some places and having a bike on your back doesn’t really help matters. Still, the scenery is jaw dropping and once you get up to Small Water you can look out over Haweswater and even make out the radar station on top of Great Dunn Fell over on the North Pennines.

I can’t claim to specifically enjoy lugging a steel hardtail up to 2000ft. The last half mile averages 20% and requires sure footing and balance, but it is satisfying to get to the shelter at the top and look out over the Kentmere valley. However, the main purpose of lugging your bike up here though, is the long and twisty bridleway that will take you back to the lowlands and reality.

I’d been looking forward to this for years, even casing it up whilst hiking round there last year. When you walk a bridleway, you catch yourself looking at lines and drops and thinking “yeah, that’s a go-er, I could ride that”. Sitting astride my bike and cautiously lowering myself towards the first switchback, I had a change of heart.

Maybe it was all those pointy rocks just waiting for me to land on, or the knowledge of how badly time off the bike due to injury affects me, but I’m not afraid to admit that I pushed down most of the switchbacks that I’d waited so long to ride. To refer back to the title, my 140mm forks were probably long enough, but my balls were left sadly lacking. Once the trail levelled out to a more standard grade of danger, I cracked on with it and enjoyed the riding and views.

I could have felt disappointed, but the workout, sense of adventure and incredible scenery justified it all. To be honest I was just glad to make it back down to Kentmere in one piece.