Discipline: Road cycling
Area: British Adventure: Lake District
Type: One day cycling sportive
Mental strength: 2/5
Physical challenge: 3/5
Technical difficulty: 3/5
Isolation severity: 1/5
BAC overall kudos: 4/5 stars. Although the total ascent isn't that intimidating compared with Alpine cycling, the prolonged steep gradients and narrow Roman roads make this a challenging ride from start to finish.
Intro: The Fred Whitton Challenge is a cycling sportive that takes places annually in May, however the ride can be done any time of year either riding solo or best enjoyed in a group of friends. The 180km route, starting and ending in Grasmere, takes in the hardest climbs in the Lake District (and UK) including Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Hardknott & Wrynose passes. Riders rank it alongside legendary vents such as the Marmotte Grandondo Alpes in terms of difficulty.
Context: The challenge was created in memory of Fred Whitton, an extremely well liked member of the Lake District Road Club until his premature death at age 50. As well as acting as Secretary of the club, he's said to have ran it single-handedly. What better way to remember him than to cycle a perfect loop over every big Lake District pass in a day?
As well as raising over £1.2million for MacMillan Cancer Trust since it's conception, the event has become quite the benchmark for one day sportives, Although we completed the challenge of our own accord, I would wholeheartedly recommend taking part during the organised annual event
Time of year: Mid June, best mid week if possible. Pros: fewer people mid week Cons: UK forecast usually unpredictable, advisable to check forecast and get as close to a little to no windy day and slightly overcast as possible. Perfect cycling conditions! Weekends tend to make the last climb busier with traffic and motorbikes.
Guide recommendations: For further information, head to: http://www.fredwhittonchallenge.co.uk/
Logistical recommendations: Our group stayed in the YHA Langdale, but there are several convenient hostels around Grasmere and Ambleside to choose from.
Kit list notes: Ample nutrition, spare inner tubes. A compact of 27 at least if not 28, 29 or even 32 is advisable if you want to get over 30% gradient at Hardknott Pass and enjoy the other climbs enroute. You can google the many blogs/sites giving advice to leverage the expertise on this.
An early start to your Fred Whitton cycle route is advisable to ensure you hit the road fully energised. There are no doubts that it's a long day, so it'll be nicer to know you have plenty of time. Your first challenge will put you straight in the thick of it - through Kirkstone Pass, heading up the direction of ‘The Struggle’.
If you're not awake as you reach the bottom of the 484m climb, you soon will be once you hit the 20% gradients which start as they mean to go - steep! As well as being the highest point of your day, it's the longest climb, with a fairly good variety of gradients giving your legs a little rest here and there. Once reaching the third highest pub in England, you're in for a high speed, well surfaced treat on the way down to Ullswater!
Managing to coincide with an official triathlon race on the day, we were lucky enough to benefit from their professional photography team, and race supporters who naturally assumed we were competing, and who were we to tell them otherwise? After all, a little extra praise and cheering could only help us get around this monster loop.
Around one and a half hours in, knowing their nutritional limits - a pork pie stop was essential for some of our team; ensure you have plenty of snacks/treats to keep you fuelled throughout the ride. You do not want to be faced with a ‘bonk’ at any point of the FW route if you can help it. Surprised with our solid start, we'd reached Keswick, (around 60km in) and it was time for some more breakfast - Jan's Sandwich Shop provided the bacon and water refills though we were still no less than seven big climbs away from success.
There's a couple of sections that require cycling along the main road, namely the stretch on A66 on the approach to Keswick and A595 following Calder Bridge. Just exercise extra caution, heightened traffic awareness during your riding during these particular sections, especially at weekends. The highlight section for me has to be riding through Borrowdale valley, over Honnister pass, into Buttermere and back over Newlands- this is absolute textbook Lake District terrain and is an incredible couple of hours.
Though we were lucky, catching the Lakes of one of it's three sunny days a year, we'd always recommend packing a decent waterproof whatever the weather. Even on our otherwise fantastic day, the temperature dropped during our westerly section of the ride, and the weather in this area is notoriously unpredictable.
During the sportive it takes the top riders around 6-7 hours to complete the route and anywhere between 8 and 11 for everyone else. On our ride, the boys were planning a relatively leisurely day with a few pub stops en route (of which there are a multitude to choose from), but actually we hit the route fairly hard and ended up completely it in solid cycling time of 8hrs 20 mins. This doesn't factor stop times and we had a good few of breaks on the way round. For lunch we stopped at Whinlatter Forest, the Mountain Biking and walking park, where there is a nice cafe selling a hearty feed to refuel you for the afternoon ahead.
Each of the climbs on the Fred Whitton are challenging in their own right, but undoubtedly for most of the route you are bracing yourself for the final two, the most noteworthy Hardknott & Wrynose passes. Coming in at 393m; 30% gradient, a circa 180m descent before climbing back up to 390m, the difficulty really isn’t in height but the sharp corners and heart pounding climbs. You not only need to push hard on the legs, but you have to pull hard on too; feeling at times you may fall back on yourself. My front wheel did actually come off the the ground at various points because I was pulling so hard! It's any cyclists challenge to be able to complete each climb in one go and once you reach the top, don't forgot to pause, look back and admire what you just accomplished.
Most will be reliant on zig-zagging due to the steep gradient, be aware you will have to be dynamic in your approach to this one as cars and motorbikes will pass you at any point. Also worth noting the hairpin descents between the two are also pretty tricky and give you a great adrenaline rush in itself. Make sure brakes are in good working order and be careful of the sheep in the valley passing.
A first time visitor to the Lake District, we very lucky with the weather, which turned out to be mid to high 20 degrees and very little to no wind. Considering the weather forecast the week prior, we couldn't believe our luck quite honestly. It made the views on the climbs and passes simply breathtaking. Usually the one for stopping to take plenty of pictures, word of warning, you get seriously engrossed into the task of completing the climbs start to finish, so it's easy to forget. If you have a go pro, then it is most advisable as you will get some really great downhill footage and great reminders of the Lake District scenery thrown in the background for good measure!
Aside from cycling, the Lake District is packed full of accessible adventure sports. There are loads of places to hire kayaks, canoes, paddleboards not to mention amazing hiking, climbing and much more - definitely plenty fill a long weekend with so stick around!