Sportives are normally a fairly nice way to ride in a semi-organised fashion around a reasonably nice part of the country that you could do on your own any other day of the year. In return for a small fee you usually get a box of energy gels and the chance to ride with a few other people. They are great for people new to the sport, those looking for some route inspiration and anyone who likes eating their bodyweight in Jelly Babies at food stops.
After doing a load of them, by last year I was a bit bored and declared I’d never do another one, in favour of more racing, club rides and riding in new places without the influx of mamils and questionable saddlebag choices. Apart from the Fred Whitton, because that was meant to be a bit special.
This year, after 3 attempts, I was successful in the ballot along with another BBBCer, George, and off to the Lakes we went this weekend.
And my God am I happy we got in, as it was probably my favourite ever day on a bike, up there with any day in the Alps or Mallorca, and certainly in a different league to anything I’ve done in the UK.
It has a reputation as being the toughest sportive in the UK, which is a hotly contested title. As much as the notorious climbs, it’s the famous Lake District weather that makes ‘The Fred’ such a fearsome challenge. A quick scan of Google Images shows how the ride is usually thought of, with riders battling not only the absurd gradients on Hardknott, but also the double whammy of gale force winds and lashing rain. Something like this:
I wont lie, I was absolutely delighted in the lead up to the event when the weather forecast was suggesting neither rain nor wind. My 9 hour slog round The Monster last July was not something I was too keen to repeat again in a hurry.
I’d heard from previous accounts, a lot actually from the aforementioned Monster, that the bulk of the route of The Fred was not really too tough, until you hit the finishing combo of Hardknott followed by Wrynose passes. On the whole, this was bang on the money.
The first climb was up Kirkstone Pass, a 9.9km rise up into the cloud capped hills to the highest point of the day. It was comfortably the longest climb on the route, but at an average of 4% and with no real steep kicks, it was a fairly friendly way to get into the climbing. After a fast descent, the next climb from Ullswater was also fairly long at 5.5km but again gentle in terms of gradient.
There then followed 20km or so of fast, flat road that lead to the foot of Honister Pass. I timed my arrival perfectly here, getting into a fast train from one of the local clubs (Thursday Flyers, I think) which chewed up the valley roads at 40kph or so which was an invaluable help. Strava later confirmed we’d done an undulating 11.1km in under 19 minutes. It turned out they had organised for two of their mates to ride as domestiques for the first 70km of the day, and they then gave up at the foot of Honister, having done their work for the club (and the rest of us who shamelessly wheelsucked).
After 68km, Honister was the first real test of the day, 2.4km @ 10% with a couple of kicks up to 25% along the way. Turning round to admire the view behind as I neared the top was a good choice, as it was absolutely spectacular.
I was feeling pretty good still at this point, and the first food stop followed at the bottom of the descent. As a relatively early starter, I was one of the first to reach here, and was impressed by the mountains of sandwiches, cake, sweets and SiS products on offer, and shoved a load down my throat in the 90secs or so I stopped for.
Newlands Pass was up next, which was also a ‘timed’ KOM climb. Not really sure of the point or benefit of this in a sportive, so I rolled up at around 280w which was loosely my climbing strategy for the day, basically to avoid going too deep too soon. This was another sensational bit of tarmac, snaking up the left hand side of a hill before building to a steep 20%+ finish.
Whinlatter Pass came next. Another from the 100Climbs series, this was 2.9km @ 7% with a ramp in the middle of around 16%. Unlike most of the other climbs, this was predominantly in the trees.
As usual with rides of this length, a lot of the bits in the middle blur into one. I remember reading online that Cold Fell was the most underestimated climb on the route, because it is ALWAYS done into a horrible headwind. Fortunately for us, the sun was out, it was nearly 20 degrees by this point, and we were nurdled up with a light tailwind, and it was no trouble at all.
After the second and final feedstop, the impending inevitability of Hardknott followed by Wrynose was now impossible to ignore. It was coming. I shoved a couple of caffeine gels in and prepared for impact.
The famous warning signs at the bottom marked the start.
From here it was 34/28 all the way, and hope for the best. I’ve not done anything this steep before, and with the first twinges of cramp in my thighs appearing as I crossed the cattle grid at the bottom I was a little apprehensive. I rode as easily as I could on the less-steep bits to help my legs recover, and ground out the stupid parts as best as possible. There are two famously vertical sections, one a third of the way up, and the other around two thirds up.
The first bit was fine. The second was a bit longer, and a bit tougher. There’s a left hand bend, followed by a right and then around 150m of steep, straight road, all of which is at 25-30%. This was bloody tough, a real grind. But with the supporters lining the road and the fear of having one of the photographers taking a pic of me in club kit walking up a hill, I pressed on and made it to the top in around 16 minutes.
A comically fiddly descent followed, with a string of hairpins falling down the hill at 30% just 25 metres apart from one another. Be sure to bring some decent brake pads.
From here, the top of Wrynose was in sight, and with it the end of the day’s climbing. Wrynose is one of those roads which looks scarier from afar than it actually transpired to be. It’s steep at the top, but with Hardknott in the bank, it didn’t compare in terms of difficulty or length.
The descent from Wrynose is pretty quick, and with a group of five or six riders we bashed out the final 20km or so in decent time, with some dropping off the back or nipping off the front as we neared in on Grasmere. 177km: done.
The Best Bit
The Fred is a bit special, certainly moreso than other organised rides I have done. The reason for this is the thousands of people who take the time out on their Sundays to line the climbs, village greens and other random spots along the way. The best bit was at the top of Whinlatter Pass. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled so much on a bike. It was amazing, with everyone there cheering wildly, ringing bells and dishing out high 5s.
Honister 92 road club set up an area at the top of Cold Fell which was also great, but there were pockets of people all round the course which made a massive difference to the day. Normally I’d advocate doing rides like this on other days of the year to save money on the entry fee, avoid crowds and take your time to enjoy a pub/cafe stop or two on the way, but this is different.
The marshalling is also excellent all the way round, with every single junction manned with volunteers stopping traffic and waving you through.
The weather was incredible. I’m not sure I can ever really do this event again, as I know the chances of it being nearly this nice again are minimal, although locals will tell you it doesn’t count as a proper ‘Fred’ experience unless you’re drenched and frozen at least part of the way round. I wasn’t complaining.
So that was that. An unforgettable day on the bike. 178km of picture perfect valleys, green fields, dramatic hilltops, great climbs and one ridiculous 2.2km bit of road that the Romans built in 110AD and definitely didn’t intend for it to one day be ridden up on a bicycle.
The Fred and The Monster compete for the title of ‘UK’s toughest sportive’. They are hard for me to compare due to the wildly different conditions I had when riding each. The Monster does pack in more climbing and distance, and also has barely any moments of respite with a day of pretty much relentless up and down. The Fred’s climbs are generally more memorable, and interspersed with some valley roads. The Monster is probably harder overall, but Hardknott is a bit of a trump card for the Fred. Let’s call it a draw.
We stayed at the YHA in Langdale which was ideal, and they put on a great value dinner and breakfast before the event. Just don’t ride the 3km to registration on the Saturday in flip flops, because it turns out Google maps didn’t fancy telling me that there was a 25% climb on the way back. I should have known better.
Everyone should ride this event at least once, it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced on a bike before.