The Fred Whitton

It had just gone 7am as I looked out of the window of the climbing hut, the valley was enveloped in low grey cloud and it was raining, if not heavily but persistently. A typical Lakes day then, one where it is hard to imagine it ever being dry again, yet you irrationally hope will clear quickly.

Now it was 8.30am and the start time loomed, the rain had become heavier and was bouncing off the floor, a few last minute checks on equipment and visits to the toilet only delayed the inevitable, we simply had to get going. Time to introduce you to the cast:

Waiting to start in Patterdale, left to right Paul, John P, Mick, Dave, John K is taking the photo. It’s actually raining quite hard despite the smiles.
Waiting to start in Patterdale, left to right Paul, John P, Mick, Dave, John K is taking the photo. It’s actually raining quite hard despite the smiles.

John Kelly. John is a keen cyclist and club run regular and while enjoying the odd climb in moderation it is fair to say that he felt that this ride included too much of a good thing. John very generously offered to be our team car/broom wagon/soigneur/mechanic for the day. We all hoped that he would master the art of the ‘sticky bottle’ and ‘magic spanner’ as the day went on. The ride would have been really difficult without him. Oh and he also narrowly beat Mick in Dave Kirton’s Best Snorer competition the night before the ride.

Dave Kirton. Judge of the Best Snorer competition, owner of the biggest rear sprocket, a 32! And eternal optimist. Completer of two Marmottes, Dave likes to see himself as a strange mixture of propulsion devices: a powerful diesel when he’s churning along undulating roads, he ‘gets the turbine going’ when he winds up the pace, but as he nears his limit he ‘lights up his boilers’ and on rare occasions when he nears collapse ‘the dashboard warning lights will come on’. Dave is also a man who likes a sandwich or rather a small suitcase full and generally a good man to have around.

Mick Rennison. Mick is infamous for his lack of bike maintenance and as you ride with him expect bits from his bike to gradually loosen themselves before rolling down the road. Despite admitting that hills are not exactly his strength (Mick prefers to focus on developing his formidable sprint) he was going to ride round this on a normal chainset until I scared him with horror stories of Hardknott. Mick would also become our unofficial Weatherman for the day.

John Price. Paris Brest Paris finisher (1,200 km) and veteran of other numerous long distance Audax events, as well as a vast experience of long distance fell running and rock climbing, John was my banker to get round this come what may. It worried me a little therefore when the night before he told me that this ride worried him, mainly due to the severity of the climbs.

Paul Christon. That’s me, solid cyclist and fell runner, I along with John P had the disadvantage of knowing the Lakes really well and more or less every inch of the route. In a cycling sense I suppose hills are my strength but in the grand scheme of things that doesn’t mean an awful lot!

A mention must also go to Ian Jones who was hoping to do the ride with us but unfortunately had to pull out. Ian had done much of the preparation rides with us including a ride up Rosedale Chimney. A bit of a mountain goat I’m sure that Ian would have got round. As the saying goes ‘the hills will always be there’.

It is now 11 am and it is still raining despite numerous hopeful comments by us all, but mainly Mick, saying that it was about to clear. I am feeling rather sorry for myself as I freewheel down the beautiful Newlands Valley. My attempts to recover from a cold haven’t been helped by forgetting my waterproof cycling jacket so I’m wet, cold and considering slipping into our Broom Wagon. More worryingly John Price, of all people, has just told me that he’s not feeling too great, are we going to get round?

As planned we had set off in the rain just after 8.30 from Patterdale rather than the traditional Coniston start point. Being a circular route and with our accommodation being right on the route we felt that this made sense. For those of you not familiar with it the Fred Whitton is an 112 mile sportive event that is run in the memory of the man himself who died in 1998. It takes in the six big Lakeland passes – Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Hardknott, Wrynose and Kirkstone as well as six other tough climbs. We had thought about entering the official sportive event but it is massively oversubscribed so we may not have all got in. So as an alternative we came up with the idea of taking to Wheelers’ Club Run on Tour. The first challenge of the day was the drag up to Matterdale End, a steady climb of around 5-6% this was a gentle introduction to what lay ahead. We all eased ourselves up this before taking it steady down towards the A66 and then Keswick. We had decided beforehand to take the sections between the climbs really easy and enjoy the route rather than press on for a quick time.

The bit down Borrowdale started with Mick’s computer unseating itself and flying off down the road. As we approached Honister it was… well wet… very wet and is best summed up by this quote from John P afterwards:

‘Riding down Borrowdale Mick our team meteorologist declared, “that’s it, the rain’s over”. Since at the time we were approaching Seathwaite (wettest place in England at 126 inches per year) I thought Mick was being a bit optimistic. Five minutes later the cardboard peak on my cap started dissolving in another downpour of biblical proportions. All this while I’m trying to winch myself up Honister Pass’.

Honister is a brute, from either side, but from the Borrowdale side it starts really steep at 25% before easing then kicking up again right at the end. Bearing this in mind and what was to come later I decided to employ my bottom gear of 34×29 and try to get up as easily as possible, which still hurts by the way. Another problem we had was the fact that it was wet which meant that as soon as you got out of the saddle the rear wheel slipped or had ‘Major Traction Problems’ as Dave called it. I rode up with Dave and we both nearly came off due to this before realising that you had to stay seated.

By this stage I was already soaked and my hands were cold and barely able to feel the bars never mind the brakes on the descent. I was really glad get down in one piece and to see John K waiting for us at the bottom. Here I decided to change into full finger gloves and another dry but unfortunately not waterproof jacket. Dave later admitted that he was getting concerned about my condition at this point. After taking on board some fluid we were off towards Newlands which follows Honister more or less immediately.

Newlands is, rather surprisingly in my view, not mentioned that often as a serious climb, but believe me when I say that it is. Kicking up from Buttermere it then levels off before kicking up viciously all the way to the top. Only a small ease in the gradient before the final 25% section makes it anything other than a fight for survival. John and myself had done this before and we both felt it was as difficult as Honister from Seathwaite. The descent down the Newlands Valley from the top of the Newlands Pass is normally one of the most enjoyable bits of road in the land. Today though it was wet and I was cold and this was the point which I talked about earlier where I honestly thought about the Broom Wagon.

At the end of the Newlands Valley we reached the lovely village of Braithwaite and the climb of Whinlatter starts straight out of the village. Different in character to the previous climbs as it is wooded throughout Whinlatter is a long climb rather than severe but still has some steep sections in it. I really enjoyed this climb as it was the first time for about two hours where I hadn’t felt anything other than freezing cold. Having the lower gear fitted really came into its own on this climb as by spinning it was possible to save the legs for the horrors that were yet to come. As we were greeted by John K at Whinlatter summit it was a turning point for me. I was warmer, though still wet, and the legs felt okay. The weather finally looked to be turning and John K informed me that he had heard a weather forecast and the expected better weather for the afternoon had been confirmed.

I wasn’t the only one feeling this way, again John P takes up the story:

‘I struggled until after Whinlatter. However, after that point I remember I resorted to the most up to date, scientific nutrition available to the competitive cyclist. A pork pie. Strangely enough all went well after that. I know I said I was going to shoot myself in the legs but actually I’d decided just to break my toes instead’.

So we all set off for the long section heading towards the western lakes and the Hardknott/Wrynose ‘challenge’ that lay before us. Only John P and I knew this area, possibly a disadvantage, but also knew that the section to get us there should not be underestimated. Although there is no really big climb there are four testing climbs plus some heavy rolling exposed roads, so thinking too far ahead can be counterproductive.

Easier said than done though isn’t it. Ever since I’d organised this event, well I say organised what I really mean is roughly pulled it together with a few emails and casual conversations, the main thing I’d been thinking about was Hardknott. I’ve stayed at Eskdale Green many times and driven over it and walked over it more times than I can remember. ‘How bad is it?’ Dave asked me a few times. ‘Really bad, imagine Rosedale Chimney but twice the length and a more difficult road surface and you’re about there. You know when you see a road as you approach it and it looks awful and when you actually get there it’s hard but not as hard at it looked? Well when you see Hardknott it is as bad as it looks, worse even’. These sort of conversations obviously scared Dave as about a week before the ride he informed me that there was no way he was going to walk up it and proudly showed my the new members of his family, a shiny healthy set of sprockets, the biggest of which had 32 teeth! Overkill I thought at the time, yet as we made our way towards the next climb of Fangs Brow I couldn’t help but look on with envy as he twiddled along with all his fancy low gears.

Fangs Brow is a sharp little climb, the sort of thing you typically find lurking hidden away on the North York Moors. Not long after this you do the less steep but longer climb of Kelton Fell. Neither are particularly difficult but they all take a little bit out of you. It’s an attritional ride where conserving energy is key, particularly if you want to get up the climbs towards the end of the ride. Saying all this after a café stop at Ennerdale Bridge at 56 miles I hit a definite low point. I wish I could have blamed Mick’s flap jacks but I politely declined one despite the tempting offer as he passed round the open box ‘would you like a flap jack, they’re not very nice’ he said in a very matter of fact way.

In the meantime John P had pressed on preferring not to stop and we arranged to meet him at Boot just before Hardknott. Unlike me John was getting to grips with the latter part of this section:

‘The western leg after Honister to Gosforth seemed to drag but the next section into Eskdale was great. Sunshine, fabulous scenery and although Irton Pike was a bit of a graunch I really enjoyed that part of the ride’.

Straight after Ennerdale Bridge we began the climb over Cold Fell. I knew this road, it is steep to start with and then drags on over the top of the fell for quite some time. It is not really typical of the Lakes in its character, feeling in some respects more like the North York Moors, and it is very exposed. Mick and Dave were going quite strongly at this point and I found myself having to work a little harder than I would have liked to just to stay on the wheel. I felt like this all the way until the Irton Pike climb just before Eskdale Green. This is a tough little climb, probably around 10% to start with before levelling off, in some respects like a miniature Whinlatter. I began to get worried about my prospects for Hardknott judging by how poor I felt.

Mick at the top of Hardknott
Mick at the top of Hardknott

After the descent and the run through the picturesque village of Eskdale Green we approached the turn off towards Boot and the warning sign for Hardknott and its 30% gradients. We met John K and John P at Boot and looked nervously down the road that would take us towards the crux of the route. Mick and John P set off a little ahead of me and Dave. I then decided to stop for a ‘natural break’ leaving Dave to ride on. This was a situation that neither of us was unhappy with I suspect as climbing this was the one thing on the route that was going to be an individual affair, Man against Hill.

So here we go. I had imagined climbing this hill for many years, imagined riding smoothly up in triumph, imagined struggling manfully against the slope before collapsing heroically at the summit, but also I’d imagined gradually grinding to a halt before falling off in a heap. What was it to be? Well none of these really. I knew that the first bit was super steep but thought it would be a bit easier than it was. Right at the bottom I went straight into my lowest gear and literally thought just one turn at a time. It was by now dry (at least on this side of the pass) so getting out of the saddle was thankfully an option. It really is just a case of grinding up negotiating as best you can the tight bends and the poor surface. I came up alongside John and Mick similarly battling away, although they were disadvantaged by their 26 and 27 biggest sprockets, we mumbled some brief encouragement to one another. Getting to the top of this, just the first section, is harder than anything else on the route, harder than Honister, harder than Newlands and is probably as hard as Rosedale Chimney Bank. I just focused on getting to the top of this while trying to push the top section to the back of my mind, trying… problem is as soon as you finish the bottom section the top section comes into view ‘Oh S***!’

If the first section was harder than I though then thankfully the middle section linking it to the top section is easier than I expected. It still goes up but if you have a small gear you can recover a bit, just take this as easy as you can. I could see Dave up ahead approaching the top section, he looked to be going really easy in his 34×32 gear, I cursed him. What can you say about the top section other than it really is survival. At one point as I approached the first really steep bit Dave was going up a ramp that swings to the left. I could see this side on and the angle looked totally ridiculous, what’s more he was in the saddle whereas before he seemed to be riding mainly out of the saddle. ‘Why?’ I thought. A minute of two later when I got there I could understand why, there was water running down the road. Getting out of the saddle would almost certainly mean wheel slip or ‘Major Traction Problems’ and coming off. This is the steepest section of the climb and was followed by another steep section to the right, it’s as much as you can do to keep moving. Eventually you get to flatter ground, probably around 15%! then providing you aren’t in a state of collapse you know you’ve done it. Dave was wheeling back down a short way from the summit towards John K who was taking photos ‘the top’s just up there’ Dave said pointing to it, if I’d had any breath available I’d have said ‘really is it? I was just about to stop right here thinking I’d done it’ I know he was trying to be helpful but I was knackered you understand. When I joined Dave and John K Dave said ‘10’ this was a reference to the ratings that we’d been doing for the climbs on the North York Moors for the club website. He’d given the Chimney only a 9 and I’d asked him what he’d give a 10 to, well this was the answer, fair enough. John P came up not long afterwards having climbed the second section but having to stop briefly at the top of the first, and then Mick who vowed to return with lower gears and conquer it, knowing Mick’s level of determination I wouldn’t doubt it.

John P neatly describes his ride from Boot onwards:

‘Something strange happened after that (the stop at Boot), a sort of Thomas Voeckler on the top of the Galibier moment. Except I looked like that for about 35 minutes. Sitting down in a cafe at Coniston was a high point and the remainder just sort of happened. However, I thought the road to Troutbeck was as hard as Kirkstone’.

Hardknott Conquered! I’m asking Dave if he’s really giving it a 10
Hardknott Conquered! I’m asking Dave if he’s really giving it a 10
John ‘winching’ his way up Hardknott this time!
John ‘winching’ his way up Hardknott this time!

So you’ve got up Hardknott job done? Think again. First you’ve got to get down the other side. In the dry I imagine that this is really difficult, it was still wet when we did it and it really is a brakes full on job for much of it. Being weedy cyclists with little upper body strength (well at least in the case of me and Dave) this along with all the other braking required on the route is a full body workout! Then there is Wrynose, no where near as hard as Hardknott but it nearly did for me. I opted to go up Hardknott as light as possible with only half a bottle of fluid and forgot to top up before setting off again. I’d lost fluid by sweating on the way up as it was now the hottest it had been all day and this coupled with general fatigue meant that I was seeing stars going up Wrynose which in itself is a steep climb and long enough, even from this the easier side, to tip you over. I pressed on the pedals but couldn’t really feel anything, it was weird, and I thought I was going to have to get off. I just kept going and we regrouped at the top. I borrowed a bit of drink off Dave and we headed for Coniston our next meeting point. The descent off Wrynose is another to test your brakes and bike handling and then even the rolling roads to Coniston itself is hard work. Normally this would be the end of the route of course, but for us we still had two climbs and around 25 miles to go. By the time we got to Coniston I was on empty and was quite pleased when the consensus of opinion was that we should stop for Coffee. By this time the sight of John Kelly opening up the boot of the car was the best thing in the world; I was hungry and had been day dreaming for the past hour about the sandwiches stashed away in my bait box.

Nearly there…

Hawkshead Hill just outside Coniston is a really nice ascent, twisting up through a wooded area at a fairly constant gradient of somewhere around 6-8%. Despite topping up my food and fluid I still didn’t have much in the legs while Dave flew up this climb, now all I was thinking of was getting to the bottom of the final climb of Kirkstone.

Paul nearing the Top of Kirkstone ‘Where’s that bloody Inn?’
Paul nearing the Top of Kirkstone ‘Where’s that bloody Inn?’

Before that though there was a nasty little surprise, it went up Holbeck Lane to Troutbeck. This was quite steep in places, perhaps up to 12%, and goes on for quite a while, the gradient varying all the time. Strangely enough I actually started to feel a little better on this climb. Eventually the road drops a little and joins Kirkstone part of the way up. Now it was just a case of going up until you reach the inn at the top. The climb is a strange mixture of short steep ramps of around 10-15% followed by short flatter sections and I just settled for selecting a low gear, finding a rhythm and getting to the top, as did John P and Mick, Dave preferring to let it all out from about a mile out to the summit and quite fittingly I thought, the highest point of the ride. Then it was just a case of the wonderful descent from the mist at the top to the sun in the valley below. We all grouped together for the final run in. 112 miles and 3,800 metres of climbing in around 10 leisurely hours with a ride time of 7.52, job done!

Back in Patterdale, Dave is on the left (complete with helmet hair), John P, John K and Mick on the right with me taking the photo.
Back in Patterdale, Dave is on the left (complete with helmet hair), John P, John K and Mick on the right with me taking the photo.

You’ve read my ups and down of the day, but on the whole it was the most enjoyable day on the bike I’ve ever had. Here’s what the others thought:

Mike :

‘It was a great day even if a long one. I must agree with all your scores (see below for the hill ratings). My two walking efforts on Hardknott and Wrynose, these were too steep for me with a lot of miles in the legs, Honister and Newlands were as steep in places I thought I scraped over them cos the legs were a bit fresher then. I had a little bad spot about a mile off the top of Kirkstone Pass where I stopped and had yet another little stroll to get my legs working again, then I was fine and will be out today, Monday, for a couple of hours on the bike. The flap jacks offer was funny because when you’re tired you say the wrong things, “would you like one they’re not very nice “I also think the route is the most scenic one I’ve been round so that must score a 10 and is a must to do . The views on route more than make up for the pain of all the hills and I enjoyed the finish, a big thanks to John for the back up drive thanks again John. I would do it again but this time with a dinner plate on the back, it was great.

John P :

‘Great day. I’m really chuffed I managed it. Many, many thanks to John for the support because I think that made all the difference. Now about thoughts of the day – where do I start? I reckon Honister Pass was the second worst, hard and serious with an evil downhill section as well. Anyway, Sunday, when I managed to pull myself out of bed and remembering the out of body experience on Hardknott I decided to count the number of teeth on the big sprocket. One member of the team (big girl’s blouse) had 32. What did I have? I don’t know whether I should admit to this because it’s really, really stupid of me – there were 26. Anyone reading this ramble – don’t ever make the same mistake.

Dave :

‘Memories of ride. John Kelly’s snoring. My creaking bike rack. Finding the toilet in the dark. Telling u all that Rob Carter doesn’t think we will make it made us determined. Looking like mad men setting off in rain. Cold start, I was concerned about your condition. The miles seemed to clock up quickly, think its cos we weren’t concerned with time. Did Mike say the rain’s definitely stopping this time? Mike’s flap jacks! Mike’s gritty climbing ability. Mike’s bar tape. John’s plodding on strategy. Me and Mike following blindly hoping you and John knew the way. Forearms aching more than legs on descents. Balancing act over handlebars on Hardknott to prevent wheelying. Telling John Kelly that I’d just done brakes on my car myself and that they should be o.k! (John was driving Dave’s car on the route). You seeing stars on Wrynose. Cafe stop at Coniston we’re all going to make it easy now with 22 to go. Views over Windermere and sun set. Difficulties on Kirkstone everyone starting to blow. Fast descent to finish. For some reason Mike didn’t want to sprint. 10hrs 1min. call it 10. We are all chuffed to bits to all make it round as a group, changed and recovery tights on, 12 inch pizza when I get home.

John K :

There was one point in the ride which made a lasting impression on me. It was when I was stopped in the valley between Hardknott and Wrynose. I could see you all climbing up to the top of Wrynose and the road from that distance seemed almost perpendicular, so much so that the feeling was you could start to slide down backwards if you weren’t too careful. That may now sound a bit fanciful but that’s what struck me at the time. Other things also come to mind – the dreadful conditions at the start, the kind of morning where if you’d been at home you wouldn’t have gone out but gone back to bed instead. The water cascading over the road on the Honister Pass. Me trying to warn you and coming to the conclusion that mobiles are a waste of time in the Lakes. Wringing water out of clothes at Buttermere and everyone feeling a bit despondent. The weather beginning to turn for the better at Whinlatter and a corresponding change in mood. John Price scoffing his pork pie at Boot before the big push up Hardknott. I don’t know why but a pork pie at that juncture seemed a bit incongruous, perhaps it’s the staple of the Audax crowd. Dave appearing approaching the top of Hardknott muttering something like “I couldn’t have got up here without the 32 on”. The feeling that the worst was over in the cafe at Coniston. Then the big sting in the tail consisting of Hawkshead Hill, Troutbeck and Kirkstone Pass. Troutbeck especially seemed to go on for ever.

Doing the Ride

Probably the easiest way to do the ride is to enter the Sportive itself, if you can get in that is. Otherwise you can officially enter through the Four Seasons option registering at Coniston, details are on the site along with the route, profile and loads of other useful information. Or like us you could start at any point on the route. The route itself is very obvious in some areas but not in others so it does help to carry a map if you don’t know the area.

You’ve read about our choices of gears and how we fared, it really depends how well you climb and how heavy you are but Hardknott is going to be difficult whatever gears you have. Don’t forget bike handling too, we have all been riding bikes for years but we still found coming down Hardknott and Wrynose in the wet extremely difficult. It is the Lakes so prepare for anything and don’t forget your waterproof jacket like I did, it nearly cost me dear. On the whole though I would say that any reasonably fit cyclist could get round as long as you’re not pushing it, we’ve all done century rides before, and much longer in some cases, but pushing the pace on a course like this is flirting with danger. One other advantage we had was John K in the support car, we all agreed this made things a whole lot easier, especially as we didn’t have to carry loads of food and drink from the outset and it’s comforting to know that we had some options if someone got ill/had a crash/had a major mechanical.

Facts and Figures

As we’ve been rating the climbs in our area (see Killer Climbs on the website) Dave and myself thought it might be interesting for us to rate these climbs for anyone who’s thinking of doing the route or the sportive. These are in the order that we did them. Dave always marks hard so take this into account, he reminds me of my teachers at school!

Climb Ratings
Climb High Point (ft) Paul’s score Paul’s comment Dave’s score Dave’s comment
Matterdale End 1,125 4 long and steady 2
Honister Pass 1,167 9 Vicious start! 9 Major traction problems
Newlands Pass 1,092 9 vicious end! 7
Whinlatter 1,043 7 Long 5 Alpine style climb
Fangs Brow 721 5 Steep ramps 4
Kelton Fell 837 3 Easiest on route 3
Cold Fell 968 6 Starts steep then drags on, where does it finish? 5
Irton Pike 357 5 Winds up through the woods 3
Hardknott Pass 1,289 10.5! Bonkers! 10 The hardest hill I’ve ever done in the U.K. as well as strength good bike control also required. I don’t think I would have made it without 34×32 gear ratio. It’s awesome. Even car drivers move out the way and wave at you in respect. Remember my reaction at the top, I just said 10!
Wrynose Pass 1,289 8 It felt like a 10 to me at the time, but I think it was because I was having a minor meltdown! 8 A real difficult final 100m especially after Hardknott
Hawkshead Hill 646 5 Great surface, lovely sweeping bends just wish I’d felt better at this point! 4 A really nice climb with switchbacks, I really enjoyed opening the throttle on that one, always feel good after cafe stop
Holbeck Lane 640 4/5 Watch out for this one! 6
Kirkstone Pass 1,489 7 The Kirkstone Inn will appear eventually, honestly! 7 Is more difficult than it should be with over 100 miles in legs, lots of nasty little ramps. Cracking descent down to the finish though

Paul Christon – October 2011