Race report - Oli Leach
Trying to pin down when this challenge began is pretty difficult. Was it the moment I clicked the 'complete' button on my laptop to confirm my entry for the ballot? Was it while planning the cycling club's events for the year and hoping for a strong showing here in the Lake District (the ballot soon put paid to that as only Tom Fraser and I got places)? Or, best of all, was it while sat in a hospital bed in north London on Easter Saturday, three weeks before the event, waiting for a vascular surgeon to pump 1 litre of normal saline into my leg then use a probe to heat my long and short saphenous veins to 800oC and collapse them permanently, meaning almost two weeks off training?
Ultimately it was probably whilst trudging through a muddy field, dragging my bike to the start line. "Eating already Oli?" quipped Tom as I tucked into a banana just before the start line. "Second breakfast mate." We rolled out of the start with a generous tailwind and the occasional rain shower. I decided to immediately test out my tyres by riding over a huge drain cover. Everyone in my vicinity, including me, was relieved to see me hang on as my front wheel slid out from underneath me. My ride was almost over before it had even begun.
We hurtled past Windermere and soon hit the first climb up to Kirkstone Pass. This is one of three main approaches to Kirkstone (and the easiest), being a long, gradual drag up to what is in fact the highest point on the course. We were soon overtaking cyclists, which would be the order of the day, and Tom and I both wondered if we were over-dressed as we started to sweat and the heart rate jumped to 180bpm. The approach was completely sheltered until nearer the top where the winds started to swirl and we began to cool down again. Down we went into Patterdale then Glenridding, with Tom complaining that he'd been stuck behind "some idiot on 50mm carbon wheels blocking the road..." He wasn't impressed.
The climb up Matterdale from Ullswater was a surprisingly slow drag but we were soon on the A66 bombing down to Keswick. I say bombing, in reality it was rolling and we soon felt the full force of a vicious headwind that would be with us all the way until we turned away from the coast at Gosworth many miles later. "I know the wind's strong when I don't even need to pedal behind you" said Tom. This also began our mini battle with a chain gang of triathletes who seemed to be constantly speeding up and slowing down, in contrast to our steady pacing set by Tom. "The thing about triathletes is they can't climb. Flat courses or on their own? They're fine. But they're sh*t at hills." "But hang on Tom, aren't you a triathlete?!" "No..." After Honister Pass I don't think we saw many of them again.
The next section was very scenic: rolling terrain along wooded hillsides beside Derwent Water. Before long we were ready to tackle the first really steep climb of the day. Honister, though not the worst by any stretch, was still a brute. The steepest section is right at the very bottom and immediately there were people around us getting off and walking. We weaved our way through a jumble of legs and wheels, only stopping when I dropped my sunglasses. I then seriously struggled to remount on such a steep gradient, in the end resorting to jogging to a less steep section, finally cleating in again and going off madly in pursuit of Tom.
Throughout the ride Tom was full of handy hints and local knowledge. "If you want a gel before the next climb, now's your last chance." "Coming up here from the other side is much worse." And my personal favourite: "This next section is going to be the worst part of the ride; it’s going to be horrible." And so it was, soon after Honister we battled Newlands Pass: less steep but starting to feel it in the legs with a lot of riding still to do. The views across the valley, though, were exhilarating. Following soon after that was the wooded Winlatter Pass. Now the legs were really starting to burn. "Beware, there are a few false summits up here." He was right. The support up Winlatter was tremendous. Supporters lined the road, shouting and ringing bells, photos flashing left and right. I guess this is as close as The Fred comes to Dutch Corner.
With the Honister-Newlands-Winlatter trio of death completed it’s easy to feel like a chunk of the work is behind you. But the next stretch to the coast is deceptively tough. The rolling terrain can really take it out of you and sensible gear selection is crucial to keep the legs spinning. Aptly-named Fangs Brow and Cold Fell were particularly draining. We were now riding up with some more serious-minded folk. No more rucksacks or hybrid bikes here. Just the chiseled faces and determined expressions of cyclists looking for a solid finish time. I dropped Tom for a long stretch and by the time we reached the second feed stop it was clear from his face that all was not well. "It's my back. It's so tight it's getting harder and harder to reach the hoods." "'It hursts' is the one thing you're not allowed to say on this ride" I jibed. "My legs too..." he went on. We didn't stop for too long as we wanted to keep moving but almost as soon as we rolled away again Tom fell a good way behind. I was feeling pretty strong and he'd said at the feed that I should go on alone. I didn't want to but when I next looked around I couldn't see him for at least 100m back, so I pressed on.
By now we had regained that beautiful tailwind not felt since Windermere 80 miles and over 2000m ago. It felt like we were floating along the smooth tarmac. My heart rate dropped to 120bpm as we negotiated a series of chicanes and zipped through small villages. But we all knew what was coming next. The field was pretty well spread out by this point but those that I saw were clearly backing off the pace, occasionally freewheeling, readying themselves for the impending onslaught.
We were nearing Hardknott.
Now, Hardknott is renowned as the toughest climb on a route packed with tough climbs. And with good reason. It ramps up to 30% in places and despite some brief respite around halfway up it is utterly relentless right from the moment you pass the red telephone box at the bottom. One of the hardest parts, the infamous back-to-back switchbacks near the summit, are truly killers, and an eager photographer was in position, ready to catch every grimacing rider that passed by. Then, just when you know you've almost reached the top, it ramps up one final time, a real sting in the tail (or, as Jensie would say, "a swift kick in the balls"). But beat it we did. A seasoned rider I was chatting to for parts of the way up (and who was having cheerful conversations with passers’ by!), gave me encouragement at the summit: "Solid ride there, lad, you've done well." "Thanks" I gasped. "But does it count if you accidentally weave off the road into a stream, only to immediately get back on again (this I had done while trying to stop my front wheel from lifting off the tarmac)?!" "Aye, absolutely, you rode it all."
Good enough for me. There had been no walking on Hardknott, that much was certain.
The descent from Hardknott is, frankly, ridiculous. So steep you feel like you're back wheel could lift off at any moment, you are plunged (literally) from a place of pure leg-burning hell into pure arm- and hand-aching fear, desperately clutching the brakes for all you're worth. And after a very brief respite you then hit Wrynose Pass. Not as steep, or as long, as Hardknott, but one of the hardest parts of the ride for me as my legs simply hadn't recovered from the 30% gradients they had just been subjected to. Fortunately, as you descend Wrynose you can afford to have a wry smile knowing the worst is over and you're nearly there. As I reached the summit I turned to a rider nearby: "Thank god; I was worried it would be a false summit." But he seemed not to hear me and had a peculiar look on his face: "Mate, mate, we've bloody done it, we've bloody done it!" He was clearly being overwhelmed by some seriously strong endorphins so I left him to it. The GPS agreed though, with less than 30 minutes of riding left to do.
Suddenly riders were surging past, trying for one final push. Everyone had gone from a weird kind of survival mode to “how quickly can I finish this bugger off?" We swept through a set of turns and short, sharp hills, urged on by enthusiastic marshals at every corner. We were racing for time, but I couldn’t hold anyone’s wheel. I desperately scoffed a protein bar (I was out of gels) as I began to feel that dreaded, all-too-familiar hunger knock of an impending bonk. Spectacular timing. But with my stomach temporarily appeased and telling my brain that all was well again, it was time to fly. The last few miles went by in a blur of spinning legs and swooping turns. I hit the A591 to Grasmere, stealing a few glances at Rydal water as I sunk into the drops and put the hammer down, pedaling with all my remaining energy, slipping into time trial mode and mopping up a few straggling, fading riders who had just passed me on my mini bonk.
And there it was: the final left-hander to the finishing straight under a Castelli kite. Tom came in a little over 20 minutes later, having seen rather more of a stone wall than he wanted after overcooking a corner. Luckily both rider and bike were fine. We both posted decent times but the windy conditions had ruined our hopes of going sub-7-hours and gaining elite status. That goal remains for another year perhaps. Tom was then adamant that he needed to lie down, while I went off in search of some much-needed calories.
So The Fred was done with. All 180km and 3400m of it. Tick that off the bucket list. Now to peel off this cold, wet kit and climb into a warm bath...
Overall, a great race and a pretty decent challenge. The event organisation, including the marshaling, was all first-rate.
Total time: 7hrs18mins18secs
Strava moving time: 7hrs06mins36secs
Final Placing: 166 / 1730
Calories burnt: 6371
Max. HR: 183 (93%)
Avg HR: 146 (74%)
Km ridden: 179.1
Avg speed: 25.2kmph
Avg speed up Hardknott: 8.1kmph
Metres climbed: 3414
Number of UCL riders shamelessly dropped: 1
Number of competitors airlifted to hospital: 2
Of the approx. 2100 riders who started the event, around 400 would not finish it.