The Saddleback Fred Whitton Challenge returns for its 17th year – and we were along for the ride at the UK's toughest sportive...
Known for the knee-grinding gradients of its savage climbs, the 2016 Saddleback Fred Whitton Challenge marked a break in the run of notoriously wet and cold weather to offer 2,500 riders a tour of the Lake District in glorious sunshine.
As ever, Saddleback was the title sponsor, supporting the event with our roving neutral service vehicles to offer salvation to mechanical-stricken cyclists as they toughed out the 112-mile course, with its devilish 3,900m of climbing.
The Fred Whitton event village was buzzing with nervous excitement the day before the ride as athletes of all shapes and sizes signed in to collect their race packs. Our wrench meisters had plenty of gears to tune, saddles to straighten and spokes to tighten, even helping a few less technically savvy riders to avoid an event-day catastrophe by giving out some tough love and replacing unsafe equipment. To all future Fred riders: servicing is best booked before the event, rather than after it!
On the morning of the ride, we leave the event HQ in the bright sunlight already burning away the dewy daybreak. The last time the sun shone on this brigade of two-wheel warriors was 2008 and as we get underway, there’s a shared sense of optimism about the good fortunes the dry roads would bring: fewer mechanicals for riders and more time for us to enjoy the Lake District’s stunning sun-drenched beauty.
Our teams quickly got set up at the Buttermere and Calder Bridge aid stations, giving a respite to riders with food, drink and mechanical support after 50 and 84 miles respectively. That left two vans to follow the route signage and help out where we could along the way.
As the day continues to warm up, so the number of punctures begin to rise, putting paid to our hopes that the dry would make for an easy day of sightseeing
Kirkstone Pass is the first real test of riders’ legs, early-morning enthusiasm seeing some ferocious out-the-saddle efforts from some athletes who would go on to set incredible times; and others who, 80 miles later, would wish they’d not got caught up in racing their clubmates. As the road tips over the crest of Kirkstone, some 454m above sea level, we follow the riders past the Kirkstone Inn – the highest pub in Britain – and then downhill with a view of the sprawling valley far below us, lingering mist rising in the distance.
The descent requires a safety conscious approach as the road whips back and forth following an initial straight section that’s all too easy to build up a head of steam on. Here we witness some spectacular bike handling from a rider whose inner tube’s life ends with a bang at 40 miles per hour. Holding the wheel true, he comes to a safe and leisurely stop in a perfectly placed layby at the roadside. Not our first flat of the day and certainly not our last.
In fact, as the day continues to warm up, so the number of punctures begin to rise, putting paid to our hopes that the dry would make for an easy day of sightseeing. Our huge box of spare tubes, tyre levers and rubber-blackened thumbs see a lot of use as we spend the next few hours leapfrogging groups of riders only for them to retake us after each stop.
After whipping along the A66 in the shadow of a snow-dappled Blencathra – the mountain after which Saddleback is named – we hit the climb up Honister Pass, where riders are succumbing to the gradient and pushing up the steep, rutted tarmac road. Over the top and we’re surrounded by a stunning landscape of broken slate, the valley bisected with a deep, plunging descent down to the edge of Buttermere.
The shore of this most beautiful of lakes is the site of the ride’s first aid station, coming after 50 miles of gruelling effort, but with the knowledge that the day’s biggest tests still lay ahead. The tasks to come were made tougher for some as a surprising number of carbon wheels had melted under hard breaking in the heat of the day. Naturally, there wasn’t an ENVE among them, but spare wheels became scarce as the pile of ruined rims grew.
Newlands, Whinlatter and Cold Fell are the next serious climbing challenges, made tougher for some riders who wait helplessly by the roadside for the sight of our van. Chatting with riders as we help out, the continued enthusiasm for the course is touching: despite the temperatures soaring into the mid-20s and the fatigue evident on every face, there are plenty of smiles too as riders battle through the headwind across the peak of Cold Fell, overlooking Sellafield power station and a glimpse of the sea.
Our arrival at Calder Bridge means the day’s second (official) break for riders. We pull in an hour or so before the cut-off time and the place is packed. Bikes litter the ground while a troop of volunteers strove to restock the decimated food supplies including bananas, malt loaf, millionaire’s shortbread, Jaffa Cakes and Jammie Dodgers – everything the energy depleted cyclist (and mechanic) needs!
In what can only be described as an act of mechanical heroism, Ross and Jason (two of Saddleback’s aforementioned meisters of the wrench) manage to breathe life into a broken rear derailleur. As the rider looks on with the air of a worried parent, the cage is stripped off and hammered back into shape, giving another rider the chance to finish his ride. And making us feel warm and fuzzy for that fact.
With nearly 30 miles still to ride and no more feed stations until returning to Grasmere for the finish, plenty of riders seem by this point to have switched over to self preservation mode; doggedly spinning the granny gear regardless of the terrain, faces gaunt and pale despite the continued sunshine.
It’s in this state that so many riders arrive at the foot of Hardknott Pass, an inordinately steep climb with the narrowest of roads. The signs at the bottom indicate that only idiots should proceed. There’s a large exclamation mark; a 30 per cent gradient; a warning of “narrow route severe bends” and the declaration that the road is suitable for cars and light vehicles only.
Breaking out of the tree line, it’s immediately clear why all those signs are there. More riders are pushing up, Sidi shoes in hand, than dancing – or even slogging – on the pedals. Corner to corner, gaunt, pasty, defeated-looking cyclists stare at us in the van with pleading expressions to make it all stop. Even with an engine, Hardknott goes on and on and on.
The real kicker is that even once the climbing is over, the narrow, dangerous descent is followed by a view of what’s still to come; the similarly nasty, sharp hair-pinned ribbon of rough tarmac up Wrynose Pass. Like Hardknott, by the time we arrive a line of cycling pilgrims is weaving up the hill, pushing their lightweight bikes laboriously ahead of themselves while a few champions work out of the saddle against the almost impossibly steep road.
Such is the twistiness of the following descent that a fair few cyclists were walking down the other side too. Hair-raising even in the neutral service van, the zigzag way down Wrynose demands considered and considerable use of the brakes. But, once hands have been pried off the levers, there’s an almost tangible wave of relief emanating from the worn-out riders: there might be 10 miles left, but the worst, finally, is over.
That’s not to say there aren’t any nasty little climbs yet to tame: not long after the five miles to go point, we come across a nasty 25-percenter to test what’s left of your morale. Then it’s on to the closing miles, safe in the knowledge that every pedal stroke is bringing you closer to food, beer and the moment you can finally unclip once and for all.
In fact, while the magnificent fell-filled vistas seen from the top of the climbs never fail to inspire a sense of awe, the final section of countryside skirting the edge of the River Rothay has its own idyllic beauty. It’s a serene view of lush vegetation that can also be enjoyed in context of its proximity to the finish line and in its glorious flatness. For us, it’s the last leg of a long day on the road, though to be fair, I think most riders would argue our level of hardship in comparison to their own.
While some riders do the Fred looking for a specific time, the vast majority just want to get round. The fact they’ve completed it is so much more important than the numbers on their certificate. This point was underlined as we passed by a rider we’d helped hours earlier. He might have been less than a mile from the finish, but there was no way he was going to pass up the chance to stop by an ice cream van by the side of the road and celebrate with some cold, sugary goodness.
We pull back into the event village to witness an atmosphere that’s even more energetic than before the ride. Walking through the giant marquee full of athletes merrily eating and drinking and seeing the looks on the faces of the riders rolling towards the finish, it’s clear just how special the Fred Whitton Challenge is.
It’s the picture postcard beauty of the Lakes combined with the sheer arduousness of the course; its ability to break your heart with each leg-torturing climb, then mend it again as you swell with pride for making it over the top. Whether fist-pumping in euphoria to cursing ‘this stupid sport’ upon crossing the finish line, as pies are eaten and bone-deep fatigue diminishes; it’s only a matter of time before every rider’s thoughts reflect on their personal victory – and the promise to sign up for this most iconic event again next year.