The Saddleback Fred Whitton Challenge takes place this Sunday – and this year's route is even tougher than ever before!
As the long winter finally succumbs to spring, the sportive season is suddenly upon us and the Saddleback Fred Whitton Challenge seems almost impossibly close once again. For those riders seeking to truly test their mettle against the most infamously difficult sportive of them all, the time is ripe for long hilly rides and a prescription dose of panic-induced training as the big day looms near.
Those wondering whether the event’s reputation as the UK’s toughest is entirely warranted probably haven’t attempted to scale the staggering steepness of Hardknott and Wrynose with 100 cramp-inducing miles already in the legs. Those who have will appreciate exactly what this year’s contingent of riders is up against.
And it seems that there is no shortage of riders who are up for tasting the punishment. The number of ballot entries went up by 20% for this year’s edition, reaffirming the Fred Whitton’s bucket-list credentials and furthering its almost mythical status as the granddaddy of UK sportives.
The event’s popularity isn’t too much of a surprise – after all, the satisfaction, and bragging rights, of getting around the course are only enhanced by the promise of low temperatures, rainfall, battering headwinds and broken road surfaces.
On the other hand, there’s no denying that for every tortuous turn of the crank, there’s spectacular natural beauty on offer for those still able to appreciate it.The Lake District isn’t exactly a hidden gem, but those who haven’t visited recently would do well to remind themselves of the area’s stunning vistas, shimmering bodies of water and arresting rock formations, all of which are visible during The Fred’s arduous journey. It’s the personal struggle of self-inflicted human suffering in a landscape of epic scale that sets the event apart.
As the name suggests, it truly is a challenge and one that gets underway pretty sharpish from the event start in Grasmere. After heading through Ambleside and skirting the edge of Windermere, the climb up Kirkstone Pass begins at 9km in. For the 1,700-odd riders, it’s decision time – conserve for the tough day ahead or throw caution to the wind and hope the legs will hold up later. If you’re not completely sure of your leg strength, the prudent course is to find the granny gear, ignore the early enthusiastic racing of other riders and edge your way to the 454m summit – the day’s highest point.
The view from the top of Kirkstone is truly remarkable; the road snaking away to the valley floor below. It’ll be eyes firmly back on the road for the heart-in-the-mouth descent though, where it’s all too easy to pick up frightening speed before the twisty, stone wall-lined corners.After following the shoreline of Ullswater, Matterdale End is up next, coming at about 32km into the route. It’s a solid test that tops out at 343m and sees the gradient tip into double figures for the first time – though the 11% max is but a taster of what’s to come later.
After shaking the legs out on the fastest section of the course – the smooth A66, which boasts fabulous views of Blencathra, Saddleback’s namesake – the route shoots though Keswick, then alongside Derwent Water before depositing riders at the foot of Honister Pass. Things begin gently enough at the 65km mark, but a couple of kilometres later and the cracked, rutted road will soon force many riders to walk as the gradient hits 10% and only gets relentlessly steeper from there, ramping beyond 16% over the next k. It’s here that the enormity of the task ahead really sets in – you’re not even halfway there and the climbing’s only going to get tougher.
There’s no relaxing over the top either; the steep, narrow descent down to Buttermere is one of the route’s most treacherous – as attested to by the annual collection of delaminated rims visible at the aid station here. Soon after Buttermere village, there’s a sharp right up Newlands, another tester that gets steeper up to the summit. Meanwhile, the descent offers sprawling layered views of the surrounding fells as the road cuts through the landscape.
Whinlatter Pass kicks in at around the 88km mark, the roadside becoming festooned with the rich woodland of the Whinlatter Forest Park for the 4km climb, which after all that’s come before (and is still awaiting the legs), is a fairly-steady respite averaging 6.5%. The long descent is a time for reflection: the halfway point has been passed and 1,840m of climbing conquered – facts that could be cause for celebration or despair depending on your physical and mental state.
A gradual uphill past Loweswater takes you onto Cold Fell. Exposed to the elements and plagued by a perennial headwind, the road meanders into the distance, disrupting your riding rhythms with ups and downs of varying steepness. The summit looks out over Sellafield and offers a peek of the sea if the typically dreary weather clears.
Following the downhill run to Calder Bridge, the aid station here offers sustenance to the thinning army of pallid cyclists who’ve made it this far. It’s tempting to tarry here a while rather than contemplate the upcoming battle against the atrociously tough pairing of Hardknott and Wrynose. Before that, though, there’s the little spike up Irton Pike. Usually missing from the list of the Fred Whitton’s most infamous climbs, it’s a short, sharp shock to the system that tenderises the legs and shouldn’t be forgotten on the day.
At 150km, Hardknott Pass fills the horizon: 2km long and with 300m of ascent, it’s a solid wall rising from the valley floor. The slim ribbon of cracked tarmac leads the way upwards past warning signs of 30% gradients, then the trees drop away to the view of riders strung out in an agonising battle of man and machine versus a crippling average gradient of 13.5%. It’s at this point that, every year, a zombie-like procession of shoe-holding riders wear their socks thin on the rough ground pushing to the top, the pain compounded by the distance already covered. Anyone who stays on their bike throughout deserves a hearty, non-ironic ‘Chapeau’.
The views from the top of Hardknott’s 393m summit are undoubtedly beautiful, but to the cyclist who’s already braved nearly 3,000m of vertical ascent, the panorama’s majesty is marred by the zig-zagging final ascent of Wrynose Pass ahead. While not as toothy as Hardknott – it maxes out at a paltry 16% – all momentum from the preceding (and dangerously narrow) downhill plunge is quickly lost on the climb’s early slopes. Coming so soon after the UK’s most celebrated leg-burster, it’s perhaps one hill too many.
Once upon a time, it was also the shortest route home. For the 2018 edition, however, the route deviates in typically sadistic fashion by taking a left up Blea Tarn road and past another 25% sign. The 2.5km climb adds another 125m to your overall elevation gain and is followed by a wit-testing downward plummet: narrow, steeper than the way up, lined with rocks and featuring a double S-bend that riders must negotiate before kinking right over a cattlegrid.
After that ordeal, things do get easier. Grasmere is almost within reach and the distance left begins to seem manageable – though every upwards metre on the far from pan-flat roads will feel like an unnecessary, and very personal, insult.
And then, finally, it’s back to Grasmere and the mouth-watering prospect of saying so-long to the bike and hello to some well-deserved food and drink, all while basking in the satisfaction that you’ve conquered The Fred. It’s a buzz that lasts and makes so many riders sign up year after year. After all, it wouldn’t mean anything if it weren’t such a challenge.
If you're heading up to the Fred Whitton Challenge this weekend, check out our limited-edition Castelli jersey at the event HQ – available exclusively at the event!
We'll also be on site along with Wheelbase, so you'll be able to check out some of the latest cycling gear from our brands.