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The Fred Whitton Challenge REVIEW

by Jonathan Cook

Billed as a 112 mile ultra hilly challenge ride over all the famous Lake District Passes in a single day, the Fred Whitton Challenge gets it right on so many fronts living up to being arguably the toughest Sportive Event in the UK set against a backdrop of the most dramatic scenery England has to offer.

A classic Lakeland scene

Entry fee: £40 (The entry is by ballot submitted in January)
Distances: 112 miles
Start/Finish: Coniston Sports Centre
Timed: Yes
Participants: 1700
Feedstops: 2
Signs: Clear Black Arrows on a white background many sections are marshalled
Roads: A huge variety from pot-holed riddled near tracks to wide, flat, fresh tarmac

The Fred Whitton Challenge is one of those rides that everyone should try at least once. After riding the event for the first time last year in rain, hail, snow and strong winds I decided to venture back again and entered the ballot back in January - unfortunately missing out.

However after contacting the event organisers a couple of weeks before I secured a place via a dropout which meant cobbling together some last minute accommodation which turned out to be on the outskirts of Kendal, about 45 minutes from the start.

I travelled up on the Saturday arriving late afternoon and headed straight to the event HQ at Coniston where I was greeted with a hive of activity as other riders registered and made last minute purchases. 

Some last minute purchases

Registration involved entering the Sports Centre through one side, handing my race card and photo ID to one of the many people on hand before collecting my race number, goodie bag and having my dibber timing chip attached to my wrist which would stay attached until the end of event the following day. There were also official event jerseys and t-shirts available for purchase and the bar had been opened for those wishing to sample a local brew or two.

Relaxing at registration - Coniston Sports Centre

Unusually and quite originally riders were given an event calendar for the forth-coming year depicting the scenery of the surrounding area, on closer inspection it turns out the rider on the front cover was yours truly tackling the steepest part of Hardknott in the rain the previous year. Fairly chuffed with this and a little embarrassed I retired back to my accommodation ready for a super early start.

Some final tweaks at registration

After one of the worst night's sleep I can remember my alarm woke me up at 5am. Today's breakfast of champions came in the form of Morrison's ready-made porridge and piece of fruitcake. Still half asleep I made my way back to the event HQ in Coniston to be greeted at 6.15 with a queue of traffic a short way from the start. It didn't look to be moving so my co-pilot and I decided to turn around and park up in one of the lay-byes whilst I got ready.

Although dry, it looked to be a chilly blustery day in prospect, after fumbling around a little more for that elusive energy gel and scoffing another handful of Jelly babies I made my way to the start with a young rider riding the event for the first time. His Mother looked decidedly nervous as she waved us goodbye.

Registration was also open on the morning of the event for those arriving into the area after 5pm on Saturday. Having registered the day before I only needed to dib my dibber at the start line and set off. Riders are encouraged to set off as early as possible with the first wave departing at 6am.There then follows a 2 hour window where riders can leave, but be warned there are cut-off points out on the course.

Dibbing in at the start

Starting off past the head of Coniston Water you hit the first climb of the day, up Hawkshead Hill which isn't even mentioned in the pre event material and pales into insignificance with what lies in store later. However it still comes as a bit of a shock to the system. A  little over a mile long, with an average gradient of around 7%, it gets the heart racing before a quick descent past the aptly name Drunken Duck pub into Ambleside and skirting around the top of Windermere.

After pulling off the main road onto the foothills of Kirkstone, rising up and passing through Troutbeck, you join the main Kirkstone road and then it is three miles to the top of the pass. I actually quite like this climb, it isn't too steep and you can get into a nice rhythm particularly as you should be fully warmed up by now.

Even on this early blustery morning at the top of the Lake District's highest pass and like much of the ride, a lot of people lined the top of the hill cheering, ringing bells and encouraging you onwards. The descent it is pretty hairy at 20% and care should be taken particularly towards the bottom where the road twists sharply, after that it is a nice fast run through the valley around Ullswater before climbing back out over Matterdale End.

Following the descent you quite quickly join the A66 down into Keswick. This is the only stretch of major road, which I was quite grateful to leave, not just because of the traffic but the strong head wind made it tough going until I sheltered behind a group.

Once through Keswick it's back on to narrow country roads down the valley initially alongside Derwent Water heading though the small village of Rosthwaite towards Seatoller. I knew at this point what was coming next as when riding down the valley you're surrounded by hills with no obvious way out.

I chatted with a fellow Londoner, Sam from Crystal Palace, who had been inspired by the report of bad weather last year to enter into this epic event and judging by the darkness of the sky it looked like similar wet weather might well be on the way.

On to the first of the really steep climbs of the route, straightaway passing a sign warning of 25% gradients and into lowest gear and out of the saddle as riders toiled on either side of me fighting with their steeds. After the initial steep section there is a bit of respite before it opens up and you can see the final section of the climb, passing Honister Slate Mine before descending rapidly down into the valley towards Buttermere. Medics align the bottom of this climb which is a reminder that it is easy to let your speed get out of control on the descent and care should be taken.

Riders at the first feed stop - Buttermere

Arriving at the first feed stop of the day, the Youth Hostel just before Buttermere village, after 52 miles, the organisers had put on a wide spread of sandwiches, cakes, fruit, water and orange squash as well as a new addition for this year of Torque Energy drink.

Vast quantities of food were on offer

I took some time here to recover and probably made the classic mistake of eating too much but I couldn't help it what with the allure of all those cakes on offer!

Then 200m beyond the hostel you turn right immediately uphill onto the steep uphill climb up Newlands Pass. The middle part of the climb isn't too bad, but there's a very steep final stretch to the top. The road descends down Newlands Valley and is mostly quite straight; there was an unusually high amount of traffic which meant taking care on these narrow sections.

Plenty of water

Through Braithwaite and on to Whinlatter pass, a nice steady climb through shaded pine forest. I really enjoyed this climb, a popular section for spectators as they lined the road for miles which really did give you a lift particularly crossing the summit - it felt like a scene from the Tour De France. Many families were providing support teams with impromptu feed and drink stops at the side of the road. Shortly after the top of the pass was the first time check.

Although no major climbs, the constant undulating nature of the Lakeland lanes combined with a heavy headwind and riding on my own over the next 30 miles or so miles really took it out of me and I wondered where the other 1500 or so riders were? However shortly before the bottom of Cold Fell I was joined by a small group of riders and it was nice to once again chat and take turns to shelter from the wind. I recognised one rider from April's Lakeland Loop who I learned only lived eight miles from the start.

Relaxing at Calder Bridge

Dropping off of Cold Fell you arrive at Calder Bridge, the ride's most Westerly point and the second feed stop at 86.8 miles as well as the final check point. The feedstop was once again adorned with vast amounts of sandwiches, cakes, fruit, liquids and tea and coffee. With the sight of all this food I forgot to unclip my pedal and found myself on the floor. Immediately I was helped to my feet and greeted by people offering to take my bottles and fill them up for me.It was nice to see riders having a cup of tea and a chat and not appearing to be in any rush  - giving the event a real community feel.

More food at the second feed stop

Setting off again I joined a nice group as we made our way along the flattish valley floor of Eskdale, silence descended on the group as we all knew what lay in store, Hardknott!  I'd actually perked up and started to feel pretty good, however riding arguably the steepest road in Britain at any time is a challenge but with 100 hilly miles in the legs it is a real killer!

The first sight of Hardknott is just a 30% sign next to a wall and an innocent looking narrow track lifting up ahead. It's not until you've passed this that the full terror of the climb hits home. Thankfully the rain had stayed away this year and we now had a nice tail wind to assist us. The climb rises very steeply initially, then plateaus again before another really steep section including the famous hairpin before rising again to the summit. My arms screamed more than my legs as I made it to the top as many riders walked at not a much slower rate than me. Once again, being cheered on by local onlookers and spectators was a real boost.

The descent is extremely steep and bumpy and to make matters worse my glasses came off so I had to stop quickly. The spectacular Wrynose valley then stretches out in front of you for one final push up Wrynose. Although it is steep I found it to be relatively tame compared to Hardknott, but again after 100 plus miles it really is a battle and I was almost blown over the top 25% section.

Descending Wrynose

After negotiating another tricky descent, forearms burning, there was about ten miles to go which passed in a flash as I joined another quick group for the final burst back into Coniston - Surprised at how good I actually felt, as the previous year I just rolled along the last three miles. Crossing the finishing line back at the Sports Centre many a friendly face cheered and applauded you came home.

Collecting your race time

After handing my dibber in I was handed a printed receipt with my event timings and collected my event certificate and free meal which was a pasty with mushy peas or beans or for some riders - both. Kicking back, relaxing in the food marquee at the end riders recounted their own stories of the day and own private misery of Hardknott.

A well earned rest at the end

In my view, this is far and away the best sportive in the UK - there are so many things this event gets right. The signage with many junctions marshalled, feed stations which are incredibly well stocked with sweet and savoury goodies, and all run in such a friendly and helpful way. 

Race marshals guiding riders

As well as providing mechanical and medical assistance the organisers do a great job getting the locals involved which really makes a difference and all this is set to a backdrop of the most dramatic scenery England has to offer.

It is also worth noting that any proceeds from the ride are donated to the MacMillan Nurses and the Dave Rayner Fund. A fitting reminder that  the Challenge is run in memory of Fred Whitton who was the Lakes Road Club Racing Secretary for many years before passing away at the age of 50.

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1 Comment

22nd May 2012 8:46pm brianthesnail wrote:

Couldn't agree more. The Fred Whitton is easily the best and well run sportive of any of the many I taken part in.