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L’Etape du Lakes…or the Fred Whitton Challenge

The twists and turns of the lakes

Sunday May 8th saw my second time participating in what is rumoured to be one of the hardest one-day rides in the UK. Organised by the Lakes Road Club, it takes place in honour of the extremely popular member and club secretary Fred Whitton, who died an untimely death at the age of 50 in 1998. His name lives in the Fred Whitton Challenge
, which is a 114 mile road race (or endurance event, depending upon your speed and perspective) covering every major pass in the Lake District, and with proceeds being shared between two charities, the McMillan Nurses, and the Dave Rayner Fund.

I stayed at the Youth Hostel in Hawkshead the night before, and rode the five miles to the start with fellow Thames Velo club member Mike Inder. After signing on, and ‘dibbing’ our electronic timing dibbers, we hit the route proper, which starts with a small climb (actually back the way we’d just came). Things get steeper as the day goes on.

grab a cup cake as you fly past…

A Land Rover escorts the lead group (of a total of five hundred riders) for the first five miles, and then you’re on your own – or better still, you find a bunch to ride with. This makes the flat bits (of which there aren’t many) go faster, and at least you’ve got someone to share the pain with on the steep bits (which are multitudinous).

The first real hill by Cumbrian hard-rider standards is the 5km ascent of Kirkstone Pass, with an average gradient of 7.9%, and max of 25% – what better way to warm you up on a Sunday morning? With your body now thinking it knows what it’s in for, the descent off Kirkstone provides the next surprise – descents this steep going up are very, very fast going down – you need to get low on your bike, feather your brakes, and watch out for hairpin bends as the wind screams in your face.

There’s a clue there…

Three more big pointy bits – Honister, Newlands and Whinlater passes – come along in swift succession, all with 25% stretches. But these are a mere dress rehearsal for the main event, the fearsome Hardknott Pass – the sign says 30%, but don’t you believe it – parts of this so-called road are 33-35%. I have seen cars not make it, so the sight of a few riders walking the steepest section is no surprise, especially as this point comes around 90 hard miles in to the ride.

Once you make it to the desolate yet beguilingly beautiful summit, you are faced with a hair-raising plunge to the valley, before the final climb to Wrynose. If the 1 in 4 sections don’t finish you off, you are treated with a relatively easy, slightly undulating 10 miles to the finish, where finishing certificate, family and food await. I was pleased with the 45 minutes I’d shaved off last year’s time, to finish in 9 hours 4mins (207th rider – we had to have a look at the results – ed), but this pales by comparison to Wheelbase/Ron Hill rider Lewis Craven who shot round in 6 hours 5 mins.

“desolate yet beguilingly beautiful summit”
Paul goes all Wordsworth on us…

This is a great ride, full of slightly mad roadies, quite a few MTBer’s and I even saw a couple of awesome (in the truest sense of the word) guys on hand-cranked trikes. The event is supremely well organised, with two feed stations en route – none of your Southern Nancy-boy energy gels – here you get apple pie, ham and peanut butter sandwiches and a fantastic giant-Eccles cake type-thing – just what the doctor ordered at the 86 mile check in! Thoroughly recommended, and having said to my family at the end yesterday ‘never again’, I’m already thinking about my target times for 2006…

Who is Fred Whitton?
Until his untimely death at the age of 50 in 1998, Fred Whitton was an extremely popular member of the Lakes Road Club. In his capacity as club secretary he was full of enthusiasm for the club and ran it practically single handedly. He was the organiser of the Lakes Road Club Easter 3-day each year which attracted many of the UKs top riders.

Not only was Fred the main instigator behind all the clubs activities, he was always there on the club runs and training weekends, cracking a joke, having a laugh and generally enjoying the sport to the full. Amongst all this, Fred also managed to find the time to be the Lakes and Lanc’s Division Road Race Secretary and was well known and liked throughout North West cycling circles.

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