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Last Minute Tips For The Fred Whitton Challenge

Some sage advice for riders of the Saddleback Fred Whitton Challenge, the UK's toughest sportive.

The Fred Whitton Challenge is undoubtedly one of the most iconic cyclosportive events on the UK calendar, its combination of beautiful, almost otherworldly Lake District panoramas and staggeringly difficult climbs sparking excitement in the cycling community that ensures a sell-out event year after year.

It was Fred Whitton’s untimely death from cancer, aged just 50, that catalysed friends and family of the well known and adored Lakes Road Club racing secretary to organise the first memorial event in 1999. In the 15 editions that have since followed, the Fred Whitton has grown from 66 to 2,500 riders and raised over £1million for fantastic causes including Macmillan Cancer Support and local air ambulance and mountain rescue units.

To call the Fred Whitton an honest course is to utterly downplay its shark-toothed profile, quad-burning gradients and white-knuckle descents. Riders will have to tackle 3,285m of ascending and descending over the 112 miles of an anticlockwise route that begins in Grasmere in the heart of the Lake District and takes in the climbs of Kirkstone, Matterdale End, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Cold Fell, Hardknott and Wrynose.

Cold Fell is definitely one that people underestimate… it’s very exposed, with no escape from the wind.

With the event almost upon us, we talk to Fred Whitton event director Stuart Emms, to give you some last minute, practical advice – or early 2017 prep – on how to handle this most physically demanding and technically challenging sportive.

“It’s in the name,” says Stuart. “If it was dead easy and everyone could do it in five hours, it wouldn’t have the same attraction. It’s not a race, there’s no car coming up behind you with a windproof or handing you a bottle or anything like that. It’s a proper tough day out. People need to come prepared for a personal challenge.”

A leg-sapping climb at the Fred Whitton Challenge

Much of that preparation comes from event-day kit selection. “You see people setting off in full racing gear at half past six in the morning with lightweight tyres and if you’re chasing a time and you’ve got to fix a puncture, it’s not going to work. You need a different mindset: it’s not a road race, it’s a challenge. You’re better off putting some decent winter tyres on and getting round without a puncture than putting your 180g time trial tubs on!

“Take a pragmatic approach. Yes, it’s a big event – we make it the best event in the country – but it’s not glorious sunshine on perfect roads in the middle of France. You could end up 40 miles from the start in a lot of discomfort and the performance suffers, the enjoyment suffers.

“We’ve got more first time riders than ever, which is fantastic, but I think there’s a naivety. They’ve seen it in the glossy magazines – the continental approach of short sleeves and armwarmers – but it can be grim up here in May! In this year’s terms and conditions, I’ve put in that everyone brings a long-sleeved windproof as a minimum – and if it’s waterproof all the better.

“It’s just the common sense approach. It’s about being physically fit and practically prepared: your bike’s in good working order; your brake blocks and rims are in good nick; you’ve got sensible tyres. I’d suggest a baselayer; two jerseys; armwarmers; either three quarters or knee warmers; and lightweight overshoes to keep your feet warm. Also for people who haven’t ridden that distance, use a decent chamois – it might just make a difference.”

The Fred Whitton Challenge Castelli Jersey

Anyone who’s signed up for the Fred Whitton route will no doubt be fearing the infamous Hardknott and Wrynose passes, but it’s some of the lesser known climbs that can cause riders trouble on the day.

“Cold Fell is definitely one that people underestimate. The passes go between the fells on all the known passes and there are big mountains on either side, but when you’re on Cold Fell it’s very exposed, with no escape from the wind. If it’s a north-easterly, you’ll get a tailwind, if it’s the prevailing south westerly you’ll have a block headwind.

“It keeps climbing for quite a way – you can see it in front of you. It’s quite steep at the bottom: you start with a dead straight bit of road up the fellside and everyone thinks it’s alright. Then you get over the cattle grid and you can see the road wandering away from you into the distance. On a decent day, it’s got magnificent views over Sellafield nuclear plant and out to the Isle of Man.

“Irton Pike is another little climb people underestimate because they’re thinking that Hardknott’s coming up. It comes not long after coming over Cold Fell, after the Calder Bridge feed station. You get rolling roads, then Irton Pike kicks up at you. It’s quite short and innocuous looking, but it just catches people by surprise because you’ve got the best part of 85-90 miles in your legs. It can’t be more than three-quarters of a mile long, but it’s just enough demoralise people who aren’t expecting it.”


Pushing uphill at the Fred Whitton Challenge

These incidental leg-sappers just add to the challenge of tackling the remaining climbs, with Hardknott Pass looming up to the sky with over 90 miles already in the legs. “Hardknott is harder at the bottom, you can get a rest in the middle, but then it kicks up again even steeper, but it’s shorter there. I always think, ‘If I can get up the bottom bit, I can get out the top bit!’ It does level out slightly, it’s not flat, but more of a false flat through the middle section, but you can see it coming, and just how steep it is.”

While Wrynose is also an enormous turn-yourself-inside-out challenge, Stuart says riders should be equally concerned with the way down. “It’s not just about the climbs. You need to have your wits about you on the descents. Especially on the last big descent off Wrynose. People are getting tired and we’ve had one or two nasty accidents there. It’s very steep and twisty at the top, then there’s a sharp left hander over a stone bridge. Then it straightens out, but the road surface is awful and there could be traffic coming. It tightens up again near the bottom, so if you get out of control on the straight, there’s fellside and rocks to your left and rocks and a big drop off to your right: there’s nowhere to go. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve sighed with relief that I’ve got down Wrynose in one piece! If you’re chasing a time, you’re not going to gain it here.”

The Fred Whitton Challenge might be famous for its cruel climbs and death-defying descents, but it’s also set within one of the most gorgeous landscapes in the world. “The views are fantastic. It’s worth looking over your shoulder on the Matterdale End climb up to Dockray. It’s beautiful. It sums up the whole Lake District. There are yachts on Ullswater, high mountains with Helvellyn up to the right and on a good day you can look across to Blencathra, otherwise known as Saddleback – it’s absolutely stunning.

“Just take time to enjoy the views and the Lake District as you ride. If the weather’s good, the whole Lake District is just magnificent.”

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