After the Two Counties Half Marathon success I didn’t do a whole load of running – I picked up a few niggles and opted mostly for the safer world of cycling on Zwift, which served a twin purpose as I was set to take part in my first and only Duathlon of the year at Stathern on September 23rd. This was originally scheduled for March but was postponed when Beast from the East II struck the area and made it impossible to run, let alone cycle on most of the local roads.
I went into the race reckoning I had a chance of doing fairly well but knowing that I was a little lacking of Duathlon specific training i.e. I’d done nowhere near as many post ride brick runs as I have done in the past few years. I was looking to rely on my running strength as I reckoned my cycling was a bit down on my best, particularly as I’d not done a whole lot of cycling since the end of July.
The hours before the race were fairly low key and thankfully stress free – my mind wandered back to the Rockingham Duathlon the previous year and the dramas with the punctured wheel shortly before the off. I was one of the first to arrive and rack the bike, I went on a two mile warm up which served to get an idea of the run leg. We then had the pre event brief, a final chance to visit the toilet and before we knew it it was ten am and time to race.
I didn’t know many of the field at Stathern – Adam Madge was a familiar face and at his best someone who could beat me, but his running is not at it’s best this year due to injury, although he is flying on his bike. I recognised a few cyclists trying their luck at Duathlon, mostly finding that running is harder than it looks!
From the off for the opening 5K run leg and it was swift, mostly because it was ever so slightly downhill. I sat in fifth before slowly moving to the front of the field to take the lead at around 2/3s mile.
I felt good going through the first mile in 5:29, working hard on the quiet country lane to the turn around point, where I would get to gauge the competition. I kept the effort fairly high, running at around 10K HR, the second mile 5:40 and the third mile 5:46 as I began to prepare myself for the run and slowed a touch as we went slightly uphill.
My ‘5K’ split was 17:05, but we ran only three miles so it was more like 17:30 – good but not amazing. Transition went fairly smoothly. Mindful of the trouble I had at Rockngham trying to get my feet into the shoes once on the bike, I opted to put shoes on at transition and run in them. This may have cost me a couple of seconds (At 53 seconds it was actually one of the quicker transitions) but 1. it kept my feet dry on the wet grass and 2. It took the stress out of a tricky manoeuvre made doubly so by the tight corner out of transition.
I reckoned I had a 30 second lead as I left transition. I had begun to get a little warm wearing a tri suit with thermal top, temperatures only around 10C, but this soon became feeling very comfortable as the bike ride commenced. The bike leg was just under 11.5 miles, the hardest bit coming right at the start with the ascent of Stathern Hill, which was easier on the road bike with clip on tri bars (I was one of the very few riders to use a disc wheel) that I was forced into using now that my TT bike has been written off. My legs felt fine up the hill, my bigger concern was the Garmin bike unit resolutely refusing to recognise any of my Ant+ devices, meaning the only data I had was GPS speed, distance, and average speed. Having got used to riding to power and always relying on my HR to gauge effort, this came as something of a major distraction and didn’t help my cause. At least my GPS watch was recording the data for me to look at after, although during the ride the information was not available.
Once up the hill it was a gently rolling affair to Belvoir Castle before heading downhill to Long Lane and the long ride along a dead straight road back to Stathern. Being in the lead I gauged my effort as best as possible, waiting really for stronger cyclists to come and catch me. This one of them did as we approached Belvoir Castle, his cause helped by me being stuck behind some slow moving traffic trying to get into a new shopping complex that had opened since the Duathlon course was created. I didn’t know him at the time but the guy who passed me was Tom Marshall – more of whom later.
Drafting wasn’t allowed at this race so I gave him the allowable distance and tried my best to hold onto his wheel as we went down Long Lane. We were fortunate this year as this has often been the scene of some very strong headwinds. Today there was virtually no wind and any there was was a side wind and had negligible effect.
By the time we turned left back into Stathern I had been passed by two more riders to sit fourth, but the gap to me and Tom in the lead was only around 30 seconds. I misjudged my effort slightly on the bike, thinking we had further to ride than we did, so could have put a bit more effort into it. The data after the event revealed a 21 mph average @ 246W which is not bad for me off the back of a run (albeit 5K was the shortest I had done in a leg one run at a Duathlon). Perhaps more tellingly at 33:00 I was only four seconds slower than Adam Madge, who was almost a minute quicker than me over 10 miles at the summer Witham Wheelers time trials, and less than three minutes slower than the quickest cyclist (who luckily for me wasn’t the strongest runner).
My second transition wasn’t the best, despite having successfully gotten my feet out of the cycle shoes before dismounting. I lost a few more seconds to those around me, especially leader Tom Marshall. Sitting fourth I soon got into my running, another 5K along the same route as the opening run leg. I quickly passed the third and second placed runners, giving me over just over two miles to try and catch Tom. Normally I’m one of the strongest runners on the second run leg of a Duathlon, but no matter how hard I pushed Tom just wouldn’t get any closer.
The first mile 5:38, having turned around at halfway it was 5:46. Despite encouragement from those I was passing in the opposite direction there was little more I could do and at two and a half miles I more or less admitted defeat, moaning to myself how the sun had come out on what was meant to be a cloudy day and I hadn’t worn my sunglasses.
With a final 5K split of 17:43 I finished in 1:09:35. This would have won me the previous two Stathern Duathlons (albeit they were held in March in worse conditions) but Tom Marshall was 34 frustrating seconds quicker. We were quick to congratulate each other and analyse our performances. It turned out that Tom was fresh out of Ironman training and racing which what he lacked in outright run speed he made up in great endurance – his second run split was just a second slower than his opening. It also turned out he was a pretty decent runner – he was fourth in the Sleaford Half Marathon where I was second.
I was nearly two minutes clear of the third placed finisher – Richard Marshall, meaning I was surrounded at the finish by Marshalls! – with my nearest Belvoir Tri Club competition Adam coming home fifth. This meant I was finally the BTC Duathlon Champion! It also meant the beginning and end of my 2018 Duathlon Season – having turned down the opportunity to take part in the European Championships this sport became little more than a footnote, which was a shame because I quite enjoyed my one and only foray in 2018, a little disappointed to have not won it but pleased to be second to an athlete who was simply better on the day.
The Mablethorpe 155 about at some point on the Sunday during a particularly crazy day working on the French Grand Prix. Not overly enamoured with the prospect of working eight weekends in nine weeks and pretty annoyed at a morning’s bike ride I had planned but had failed to execute thanks to the early abundance of not particularly significant images, I decided that I had to do some kind of crazy bike ride during the week that would make up for the lack of opportunities in the coming weekends.
In a matter of literally 10 minutes the route for the Mablethorpe 155 was created, checked, and signed off. I’ve long fancied the idea of riding out to the beach on the east coast – Grantham > Skegness is quite a popular route. I faniced Mablethorpe as it’s a bit nicer than Scunthorpe and also invites you to ride through the Lincolnshire Wolds, which bring some lovely views and some welcome hills when much of the surrounding fens are pancake flat. I also wanted to ride further than I’ve ever ridden before in one day, which was around 125 miles. 155 miles would beat it comfortably, so the return from Mablethorpe would see me head northwest and then back via Market Rasen, a town I was familiar with having spent a few days there with the family in 2017. And as for which roads to choose, it was a mixture of acquired knowledge of suitable roads and a bit of guesswork helped with the friend that is Google Street View that can help advise whether the A Road is too busy to consider riding on or the quiet country lane is a viable road or a track only passable with a 4×4 or perhaps a mountain bike.
With no roadside breakdown assist (the wife) available on Monday and Tuesday and the work recommencing on Thursday, Wednesday was pencilled in as the go day. A look at the weather forecast was highly favourable, highs of around 24C with a gentle breeze coming in from the East Coast, which would mean a head wind on the way out and hopefully a tail wind for much of the way back. I had to be back by 7pm so reckoned that leaving at 7 am would hopefully see me back in time and would allow a coffee stop at Mablethorpe (60 or so miles into the ride) and a lunch break at Market Rasen (at 100 miles). I ran on Monday and Tuesday, and helped marshal the Witham Wheelers TT on the Tuesday evening, so was not entirely rested ahead of the ride, but taking it relatively easy by normal standards.
Up at 6 am, which is usually a tough affair, but not so hard at this time of year when it is bright so early outside, I had pretty much everything prepared and ready to go once I’d had the obligatory porridge and rocket fuel strength coffee. I left shortly after 7 am with little in the way of fanfare: the kids were getting ready for school and are well used to seeing me disappear in the morning for some form of exercise.
The weather early doors was pleasant enough – early morning cloudy waiting to be burnt off by the sun meant that temperatures were only around 12C at the start of the ride – cool enough to warrant arm warmers. I knew that pacing myself would be crucial. I had to ride within myself for the best part of the ride even if I felt like I could go much faster – much like most endurance events. Quite quickly around 170 watts average (around 2.6 w/kg) felt like the right level of effort that I could sustain all day long.
Hills of course demand more power – the first of which was Hough on the Hill at six miles , which I am well familiar with and it’s 7% average gradient and tackled with little difficulty. The second hill at 9.5 miles – Frieston Hill – I’d ridden once before but had not expected it on this ride. This shocked the body a little bit and numbed the legs despite it being a slightly less hard hill, averaging 6%. Thereafter though it was relatively plain sailing for the next 30 miles, with a generally downwards trajectory and nothing more than some gentle rollers that I’d normally tackle in the big ring, but today demanded a drop into the small chain ring to allow some spinning. The biggest issue was trying to navigate myself across the busy A15 at the height of rush hour. It was hard enough for the cars with all that horsepower at their disposal, to find a big enough gap to cross, one man, a bike and clip in pedals, made it really difficult.
Not far after Bardney I finally found somewhere to make my first pit stop for the day. I found I had some attention in the form of some inquisitive sheep! With the liquid load lightened and feeling all the more comfortable for it I began the food and liquid plan for the ride. I had two bidons with electrolyte drink and had electrolyte tablets in the back pocket to replenish the bottles when refilled with water at lunch. I bought an entire malt loaf to be consumed at 10 mile intervals from 30 miles, again up until lunch time. At lunch I would take stock of how I felt and buy whatever I could and what I felt like to see me through for the rest of the ride.
Back on the road, the sun had broken through the clouds and it was, aside from a little cloud on the coast, blue skies for the rest of the ride. With that came increasing temperatures. I stopped at around 36 miles to remove the arm warmers, which coincided with the road just beginning to climb upwards as I approached the Wolds. The roads were quiet, the skies were blue, the countryside could not look better and I was loving the ride!
Compared to many other parts of the country the Lincolnshire Wolds would be considered relatively flat. But in an area surrounded by near billiard flat fen land, which barely rises above sea level, the Wolds in comparison are a veritable Alps in comparison. Stage one through the Wolds was around 12 miles consisting of three climbs, Belchfield Hill which proved to be a bit of a challenge that made me thankful for a 32 on the rear cassette as the climb briefly touched around 14%. Normally this would not be an issue but I found my breathing a little on the wheezy side thanks to the very high pollen levels. The view from the top though was worth the stop for a quick photo (which doesn’t really do it justice) and a breather!
Not long after there was a long descent from around 420 ft back down to sea level and the six or seven miles to Mablethorpe, which was made harder by the head wind which was noticeably stronger here being closer to the coast and heading into the exact forecast direction of the wind (Coming from the North East).
I arrived in Mablethorpe around the back and through a car park, which I knew from having run here while on holiday at Sutton-on-Sea a couple of years ago would take me directly to the beach and some cafes. I originally thought fish and chips would be appropriate, but I looked at the time and thought that, at just after 11 am would be a little extravagant, as would an ice cream, which like me and alcohol, does not happen before midday (unless on a plane / boat or airport terminal….). I settled instead for a scone and butter and black coffee. I’ve had better, but it was pleasant enough and did the job of keeping me alert and fuelled for the next 40 mile stint.
After that brief trip to the sea side I was back on my way. With the head wind on the way out, plus the Wolds, and some crawling along a footpath to the cafe, my average speed for the ride had slipped from the 17 mph it had been up to the Wolds down to around 16.5 mph. This was not a competitive ride but I rarely do any ride without setting myself some kind of arbitrary challenge and so it was decreed at Mablethorpe I would try and average 17.0 mph or better for the Mablethorpe 155.
Once out of Mablethorpe I headed in a broadly northwesterly direction, skirting east of Louth, inching towards the Wolds and heading not too far from Grimbsby, a town I’ve never visited. I thoroughly enjoyed this 25 mile or so section. I made a point of stopping at near enough exactly 77.75 miles, the unofficial halfway point, to take a photo. This scene was typical of the roads in the area. The mostly deserted country lanes were in good condition and far more scenic than I imagined an area close to Grim-sby could be. There was also a taste of the tailwind I would enjoy for much of the final 60 miles of the ride, and even the periods of side wind were not unpleasant.
At 85 miles I crossed the A16 on the Grainsby Lane and there was a change of terrain and surrounds as I passed through what felt like a private road which was fenced off and surrounded by cows, climbing gradually upwards as the Wolds approached. Immediately after crossing the A18 I was officially in the Wolds and with Hawerby Hill one of the harder rides of the ride, although at 2/3s mile, 6% average and with a tailwind to assist, was not especially taxing.
This effort began 10 miles of undulating riding, most of it on the B1203 which was thankfully not especially busy and a pleasure to ride on with the scenic surrounds. It was here the only mapping error occurred on the ride, a path at the Church of St Martin that looked dubious when I approached and on quick inspection and the look of more dirt than road I chose to ride past and ignore. A quick check on the map showed that a right at the next junction would see me back on track and on a road I ran along when staying in Market Rasen – it passing the caravan site we stayed at, not before I enjoyed a nice long descent of Walesby Hill that brought up the 100 miles on the Garmin and a stop for lunch at Market Rasen.
Aside from fish and chips we failed on holiday to find somewhere decent to eat in Market Rasen and, unless I missed something, I again failed to find that idyllic cafe to enjoy a hearty lunch before heading home. Instead I settled for Tesco, buying lunch at the petrol station so I could keep an eye on my bike and eating it outside the store, where there was the welcome benefit of shade (it had got quite warm now – approaching 25C in the sun) and a bench. I passed up on the opportunity to join others having their lunch in the sun in the car park garden.
It was a simple lunch based around what I could get in the £3 meal deal, which meant a falafel and hummous wrap, a king sized Double Decker and a bottle of Lucozade (I would have had full fat Coke but the didn’t appear to stock that). Add to that I bought a 2 litre bottle of Evian to replenish the bidons and three packs of fizzy cola bottles. One pack would have sufficed but the 3 for £1 offer was just too tempting…. While it wasn’t the glamorous lunch stop I had in mind it harked back to the numerous petrol station and supermarket raids I pulled off during my Land’s End to John O’Groats trip 11 years ago. For that reason it felt somewhat appropriate that my longest ever ride to date would pay homage to those stops for Haribo and malt loaf.
Back on the road and homeward bound I soon left the main road for Cycle Route 1, At 105 miles I turned left, then immediately right onto a quiet road heading towards Buslingthorpe I was just thinking how idyllic this ride was when BANG! A huge jolt which nearly sent me flying over the handlebars! In the shade of some trees must have been a large pot hole which I missed and rode through. I feared the worst and, sure enough, 5 seconds or so after the hit I felt the deflating noise of the front tyre rapidly losing its air pressure.
I came to a halt by a couple of houses and a white fence which was above a small stream. For a couple of minutes I worked out where best to set base to assess the situation, settling on the fence. I messaged my wife something along the lines of ‘Disaster!’ having just let her know how well the ride was going. The issue was, even if it was just a puncture, I am quite happy to admit I am shockingly bad at being able to change a punctured tyre, usually resorting to taking it to a bike shop or handing it over to my wife, who is more adept at tackling these technical issues than I.
Running out of battery on my phone (schoolboy error leaving GPS set to high accuracy…) I made sure my wife knew where I was in case I had to be picked up, which she did thanks to the Garmin live connect thingy which we had set up working properly. Having little faith in my ability (A wise call), she even gave an eta for the rescue party to arrive given the kids had to be picked up from school. I told her I would attempt to fix the puncture, although not holding out much hope. The 155 mile ride had become a mere 105 gentle jaunt, losing nearly all of its satisfaction.
I gave the wheel a quick inspection: all looked well. Having survived a similar pot hole induced puncture on a chain gang ride last year I know they can take quite a whack. I attempted to get some air into the inner tube to see where the puncture was. After Googling to see if I had a Presta or Schrader valve (It’s Presta – must remember that), any attempt to get air in with the small pump proved futile, the valve eventually snapping off, ruling out the use of the Pit Stop Sealant I had brought with me.
Removing the solitary inner tube from the saddle bag, cursing my misinformed impression I had two spare inner tubes, I knew I only had one shot at getting this right – no pinching when fitting the spare, knowing that a previous attempt at fitting a tube saw me pinch flat no less than 4 tubes before giving up and taking it to the shop…. Removing the tyre using the levers proved unusually straight forward, I usually have them pinging off across the room or wherever I happen to be standing. I removed the tube and looked for any obvious signs of damage, of which there were none, before giving the wheel a cursory internal inspection for damage, of which there appeared none.
Knowing my stuff… I put a little air into the inner tube before attempting to place it in the wheel. Relieved that the pump did actually work, I tried that step again when it dawned on me I’d put basically no air into the tube. I slotted the valve through the hole (I’ve funked that up before) making sure it sat flush in the wheel. Then using tips read on the internet and left as a parting gift by Whattsapp message by my wife, I began working the tyre bead into the rim from the side opposite the valve. To my surprise within a minute or so I had got to the 95% on stage, with just that last difficult bit that requires a bit of brute force to snap into the rim. Given that to get to this stage usually takes 5-10 minutes, I was openly optimistic that I might just pull this off.
Attempt one. No good. Attempt two. No better. I stopped, composed myself, took a big deep breath and mustered all the power I had in my pathetically weak thumbs to prise the rubber tyre into the metal rim. POP! just like that in it went with a satisfying sound like a muffled click. It looked like a wheel with a tyre. Round with no bulges. I couldn’t quite believe it. I very carefully attached the pump to the valve, weary that the last valve snapped and I have a habit of snapping valves. I pumped, fearing that the tube would be pinched and the hard work would be in vain. Ten pumps, no bang. Twenty pumps, the tyre looked and felt quite firm. I stopped to take a picture to show the wife my efforts. I was quite proud of my work, I knew she would be too.
Fairly confident I’d done a good job. I began pumping the tyre. Anyone who has done this by the side of the road knows it’s not a quick affair – there’s a reason why man carry CO2 canisters to speed up the job. I must have given it 200 or so pumps before I was reasonably happy that it was nearly as hard as the rear tyre. I fitted the wheel back on the bike, tidied up, put my helmet back on, touched some wood and rode off, knowing that if something was to go wrong it would probably happen quite quickly.
The first rest came after less than 50 meters, a level crossing to negotiate. No drama! I rode another couple of miles before letting my wife know the good news that all seemed okay. She congratulated me on my surprisingly good and relatively swift repair job (Just under 30 minutes…). I put it down to the heat of the day warming the rubber and the rim of the wheel to make it just that little more malleable than in normal cooler conditions. Either that or I’d developed strength I didn’t know I possessed.
Another five or so miles later and I’d almost forgotten I’d changed the tyre. The only concession I made during the remainder of the ride was to pay more attention than ever to the ever present prevalence of pot holes, which are a national disgrace and particularly bad in Lincolnshire. My mind was back on riding home and preferably doing it as swiftly as possible and before the 6pm curfew I had set myself. No more stops for photos, just the one pit stop to relieve myself of the Lucozade and half litre of water I’d enjoyed at lunch, and a very brief stop to retrieve a Power Gel buried deep in a jersey pocket, which I consumed more for the caffeine kick than the energy it provided – thinking I needed the extra concentration powers to avoid pot holes.
The vast majority of the last 45 miles had either a tailwind or at worst a side wind. This meant that, although it was never a particularly strong breeze, it was easier to keep the speed above desired 17 mph average. Indeed with it being generally flat with just a very slight overall incline for the last 35 miles, the speed hovered nearer 20 mph. With the sight of the average speed creeping up from 17 mph to 17.5 mph, then 17.6 mph, the desire was to try and crack 18 mph. When you’ve ridden 140 odd miles any incremental increase (or decrease) takes a long time time. I found myself pushing more watts than I did when I was tackling the tail wind, my highest 20 minute average (miles 146 to 152) were 204. It was pleasing to be able to put more and more power into the pedals having been in the saddle in the heat for over eight hours. It crept up to 17.7 mph, then that proved hard to improve upon as a change of direction at Doddington meant a head wind for much of the final miles.
On familiar roads for the last hour or so of riding, and legs seemingly no worse than at the start of the ride, I eventually came home having completed 156.45 miles in 8:45:54 moving time, averaging 17.8 mph. A frustrating 0.2 mph short of 18 mph but comfortably better than the target I had set myself earlier in the ride. There was no euphoric welcome once home – one daughter wanted to show off her new shoes, the other blissfully unaware of what I’d just done. My wife was proud of me, not just for the very long ride but the successful changing of the puncture, which for most would be a trivial matter, but for me I finally broke a 25 year voodoo of not being able to fix a puncture out on the road!
Once showered to clear the grime and sun cream off the body, the body finally realised what it had done and I could do little more than slump myself on he sofa for three hours while watching the football and reflecting on the ride I’d just done and what I could do in the future. The dream is to do LEJOG with a similar daily mileage. It seems like a tough ask but not insurmountable. One for summer 2019 I think!
Compared to running races, where I have at least 136 recorded finishes to my name, I have a grand total of one cycle race and not many more sportives on my palmares. For those who are not aware of the difference between a cycle race and a sportive, whereas a race usually sees everyone departing at the same time with the goal to find a winner and losers, a sportive is basically a group ride on a course against the clock. For legal reasons to do with road closures (lack of, primarily) and the like, in the UK a sportive can award riders with things like gold medals or distinctions for completing a ride in a certain time. What it cannot do is give you a finishing position – although a lot of results are published in such a way to make it fairly easy to sort by time and then add a column with position if you are curious to see how your performed relative to others.
My first sportive was in November 2007 when I took part in the Exmoor Beast – a tough introduction to group rides, which I thoroughly enjoyed despite the severity of the climbs and suffering a heavy cold at the time. Six months or so later I took part in the Dragon Ride in Wales – a bigger, more famous event, but in my opinion quite an easy ride in comparison to the Beast at the time. Not long after my eldest daughter was born and with the sudden lack of time available to train given the demands of parenthood and my job requiring a lot of overseas travel, cycling pretty much went out of the window for a good number of years.
It was when I fractured my sacrum in 2014, now living in Grantham, when I rekindled my love of cycling that I’ve had, on and off, ever since I began cycling at three years of age. Unable to run, or walk, but strangely able to ride, I joined a cycling club, Witham Wheelers, my first since a very brief membership with Leamington Cycling and Athletics Club back in 1999, I began taking part in group Sunday rides for the first time ever. The following spring I began taking part in their time trials, did badly in my first and only TLI organised bike race, then took part in a small sportive in Yorkshire called the Bronte – where I snapped my chain on the first hill and somehow managed to finish using gears not designed for 20% climbs.
Since 2015 my cycling has slowly increased in volume but has continued to play second fiddle to running. My participation in Duathlons has meant I’ve had to practice the Time Trial more than any other discipline – an event I’m not particularly good at, but need to work on to improve my Duathlons. In 2016, in another busy summer, I took part in two sportives on consecutive days in mid-July: the Wiggle Stratford (Warwick really) Tempest Sportive (Epic) and the Tour of the Cotswolds Sportive (Epic).
The current cycling boom has seen sportives transform from a fairly limited number of events often low in numbers to the current situation where there are literally hundreds of rides to choose from all over the country, some of the largest requiring a ballot to enter and having thousands of riders taking part. One such event is the Fred Whitton Challenge. A 112 mile ride in the Lake District which features 12,000 feet of vertical ascent and traverses some of the park’s most difficult climbs including – Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Hardknott and Wrynose passes. The first Fred Whitton was in 1999 following the passing in 1998 of the Lakes Road Club Secretary whose name was given to the newly established event dedicated to his memory. It has now established itself as one of the largest sportives in the country, with over 2000 entrants, on the sportive calendar, and this year came under the indirect ownership of the ASO, organisers of the Tour de France no less.
I think I first became aware of the event back in 2007 when I was searching for my first sportive before settling on the Exmoor Beast. Back then the Fred was by the far the daddy of all British sportives, harder than any other and with a bigger reputation. Since then other sportives, such as the Prudential Ride London have become bigger in terms of participation and other sportives, such as the Tour of The Peak can rival the Fred Whitton in terms of the challenge on offer. But the Fred Whitton Challenge largely retains its position as one of the few must do sportives for any keen amateur cyclist.
I’d ducked out on entering in 2016 but entered the ballot in January 2017 for the ride taking place on May 7th. To my joy I was informed a few weeks into the year that my application was successful and I was taking part! One of the challenges of an early season event is that training for the event is not easy over the winter months. It’s more of an issue for myself in that the winter and spring months my training is heavily geared towards the London Marathon. So preparation for the Fred Whitton consisted of the Witham Wheelers Reliability Rides, spinning sessions at the gym and one specific training ride a month or so before the event – the 13 Hills of Belvoir Ride which took in the best of the local hills on a well know club route, done twice in one go. At 118 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation it wasn’t exactly the same as the Fred, but at least it was something.
Another issue was that Fred Whitton comes just two weeks after the London Marathon. I’d expect it will take around a month to fully recover from a marathon. I made the mistake of maybe over doing the running post marathon, acquiring a minor overuse injury, but more worryingly suffering deep fatigue over a week post marathon, which saw my watts drop noticeable on the bike and elliptical trainer, and saw me dropped literally very early on during a chain gang on the Thursday before Fred. I made do with an easy 30 mile ride instead and the reassurance I had two days where I could rest up and recover as best as possible.
Originally the plan had been for the family to head en masse after school on the Friday and spend the weekend in Kendal in the caravan before somehow getting the kids back to school on the Monday morning. Ten days out though the logistics of this through work for my wife in particular meant this idea had to be shelved. Instead I opted to stay in a B&B on the Saturday night and drive home directly after the event. Booking so close to the ride meant very little local availability, but I settled on a The Old School B&B in Tebay. This is around a 50 minute drive from Grasmere, the host town of the Fred Whitton, but I reckoned this would not be too much of an issue with a very early start on the Sunday morning.
I drove up to the B&B on the Saturday afternoon. It was a really easy journey up the A1 to Scotch Corner then along the A66 – roads pretty quiet, weather good. I arrived at the B&& at around 4:30pm. Being the last to book I had been assigned a small broom cupboard of a room, but it was fine – I had a shower, a kettle, a bed and supefast wifi to hook onto and literally catch the last five minutes of the Giro stage. There was no room for the bike, that would have to stay in the boot of the car, but it was well hidden from view on a very quiet road and I felt fairly confident it would still be there in the morning.
With that watched I thought I’d go and loosen the legs with a half hour walk or so. I’d hoped for something super scenic, alas I mostly followed the path of the neighbouring M6 as I walked along the surprisingly sandy footpath alongside the river below.
The walk duly loosened the legs a little stiff having spent the best part of three hours driving and worked up an appetite. Luckily I’d sourced a pub nearby which was serving food. The Cross Keys Inn has been around for 100s of years. It certainly has a lovely view which we were encouraged to enjoy from the beer garden.
Alas it was a little too cold to be sitting outside so I had to make do with a pew inside, complete with a glass of wine to help unwind and hopefully send me to an early sleep. I turned up not long after 6pm hence the rather empty appearance of the pub. It wasn’t long after that the pub filled up quite nicely.
Food ordered I reread the final ride instructions for the event, taking good note especially of where the hardest climbs and most dangerous descents were. Fortunately the weather forecast was looking dry and not too windy, even if it was set to be a bit chilly first thing in the morning. The food arrived – a pie, which if I was brutally honest, wasn’t the best I’d ever had, but it served a purpose. I treated myself to a sticky toffee pudding for desert, reckoning I’d be riding plenty long enough in the morning to justify the extra calorie intake.
With dinner done and dusted by before 8pm I took another short walk before heading back to my little room – the sun setting offered the opportunity for some nice light as I walked part way up a short, sharp hill. On another day I could have explored for longer, but being sensible I headed back to put my feet up for an hour or so before attempting to get to sleep at around 10pm.
I’m not the best at sleeping in a strange bed, not the best at nodding off at an early hour, and not the best when the mattress is a little on the soft side. It took longer than I would have liked to finally get to sleep as I saw my clock tick over past 11pm, but it was better than it could have been. Paranoid that I wasn’t going to wake I set two alarms for 5am, as is fairly typical for me I woke up two minutes before the alarm went off…
I didn’t have long to get my groove on. The instructions said you could start from any time after 6am, with the last riders being allowed to leave at 8am. I had no intention of being one of the first off, but had plans of wanting to leave at around 7am. Back when I rode a sportive in Yorkshire and had my chain snap on me, I ran perilously close to being eliminated by the broom wagon as I’d set off late. I didn’t want to risk that again.
It was too early for the B&B to offer me any breakfast. I’d come prepared with oats and skimmed milk powder in a newly acquired food thermos. I got the kettle boiled, made myself a proper strong coffee, filled my oats with water and went about getting changed into my cycling shorts. I tried to eat a little breakfast but it was too early, so I packed it in my bag to eat at the start. I did though drink all my coffee before having one last check to make sure I’d not forgotten anything and headed to my car.
To my surprise on an early May morning the windscreen was covered in frost. The temperature read 2C! I hadn’t anticipated it being this cold! Luckily as I set off and headed to Grasmere the temperature soon increased to around 7C. Nippy, but much more comfortable to ride in than barely above freezing. That drive to Grasmere was glorious as the sat-nav avoided the M6 and I had a wonderful former A road all to myself. Even the run in from Kendal to Grasmere wasn’t too busy, albeit probably busier than it would be normally at 6:15am with tell tale bike racks aplenty.
As we approached Grasmere we were confronted by swarms of cyclists who had started the Fred Whitton. The adrenaline began to hit! Inexplicably rather than take the normal A road on the final miles to Grasmere, my SatNav took me the wrong way around the lake, taking in some pretty narrow, steep country lanes. Definitely not the fastest way, I breathed a sigh of relief that the only traffic I faced coming towards me were a couple of runners.
I arrived at the start at around 6:50. The makeshift car park was pretty packed already. Being so late I thought I’d be miles away from the HQ. As luck would have it I was guided in to a spot pretty much right next to the finish line!
There was plenty to do in a short space of time. First off I went to collect my number and helmet tag at ride HQ. I passed the Bike Channel TV crew on the way who were preparing to put their first piece of the day to camera (The event was filmed to be shown at some point). Number collection done far faster than expected, I returned to the car.
Boot lid wedged with old trainer (The struts don’t work in cold conditions!) I got out the porridge and began to eat – a few spoons at a time while preparing the bike. Luckily there wasn’t much to do aside from putting the front wheel on the bike and pumping the tyres, turning on the bike computer and calibrating the power meter pedals. With that done I got changed into my cycling kit and headed to the portaloos where I had to take off my cycling kit to do what I had to do before putting it all back on again. One day I’ll remember that bib shorts are not as easy to deal with in such situations as running shorts…
With the load suitably lightened I had little more to do other than a final bike check, make sure I had everything I needed with me such as malt loaf, gels, compulsory rain jacket, money, phone, car key, inner tubes and so on. By fortune a small saddle bag I’d bought during the week had turned up earlier than expected on the Saturday so I was able to put my tubes and so on in there – otherwise I think I will have struggled to carry everything.
At the start we were offered a banana which seemed to good to resist. A guy wanted me to wait with him so we could ride the first miles together, but he was taking too long so I decided to go it alone. Unlike a running race there is not a lot of fanfare with a sportive start as riders set off when they like, solo or in small groups. I set off solo but within a couple of minutes I was caught by a couple of riders and we then caught three or four more.
The first miles on the A591 to Ambleside are an easy introduction to the ride, being gently undulating at worst. I was trying to conserve energy but with the adrenaline pumping the HR crept a little high for those first miles as we averaged comfortably over 20mph. What wasn’t high was the power meter reading which, despite me feeling I wasn’t riding full gas yet, was showing very low figures, often less than half what I’d expect having ridden with them for several months now. I thought at the time maybe the calibration was wrong, indeed later in the ride during a stop I re-calibrated them to no avail. This lack of power information was a bit annoying as I’d been planning my ride around hitting certain power limits on the climbs especially. On the flip side it meant I had to do what I’ve done for most my life and ride the climbs based on how hard it feels rather than sticking to a prescribed limit. This may or may not have helped me.
(Post ride I was pretty annoyed by this and assumed the pedals to be faulty. The following day I did a Google search, as you do, and found the answer to my lack of power issue. My bike computer has two bike profiles for a Cervelo and a Trek. Normally I just choose the Trek no matter what I ride as the crucial bike measurements are the same. On the morning of the Fred I chose the Cervelo profile, which I assumed I’d checked thoroughly for discrepancies. Sadly there was one and it’s crucial for my pedal based power meter. The crank length, which is a standard 172.5mm, had for some unknown reason changed to 110mm, which is probably an eight year old bike’s crank size. They say a 2.5 mm difference can cause a 20% discrepancy in power readings, my 6.5 mm difference explains why I reckon my average watts was down by around 100 on what I’d expect.)
We swept through Ambleside – a town I’m familiar with on my numerous holidays around Lake Windermere and onto the road where I saw all the riders swoop past me earlier in the morning. The majority of the field had certainly left earlier than I had – it was 7:30 before I finally set off. I knew from driving in that we’d soon turn left off the main road and up the first hill of the day.
That first climb was Holbeck Lane – the Strava segment has it at 0.9 mile at an average gradient of 7%, I took it fairly easy up the climb using it as a good opportunity to try and wake the legs. They didn’t feel brilliant but they did feel as though they could come to life later in the ride. Feeling in my element on the hills I soon left all but one of the riders I had ridden the opening miles with. I left him not long after the steepest bit of the hill which we both remarked on being a good wake up for the legs. I soon began picking off more riders making their way up the hill. This was what I had hoped for by setting off quite late, working off passing up riders to give me more encouragement.
The first climb done there was a little respite before the first major climb of the day – Kirkstone Pass. This was actually the only climb of the day I’d ridden before, albeit on the previous occasion I think I started the climb from a different road perhaps lower down. Just like back then I didn’t find the climb that difficult at three miles long at an average gradient of 6%. Then again, I didn’t ride it that hard, taking time part way up the hill to consume the first of seven small slices of malt loaf I’d planned to take every ten miles. It was on this climb I hooked up with a rider I stuck almost like glue to for the best part of the next 40 miles. Of eastern Asian appearance with what looked like a German inspired cycling jersey I assumed that if he’d traveled from at least Germany to ride he must be pretty good to follow. I actually think he was from Yorkshire, but I liked the idea of having a continental peloton to ride with.
The only real reminder that we had been climbing for the best part of 30 minutes was when we passed the famous Kirkstone Pass Inn – the third highest pub in the UK – and continued climbing, temporarily losing the brilliant blue skies as we rode literally into the clouds. The high point of the ride at 1,489 feet, I was grateful that I was wearing a base layer under my cycling jersey and had opted to ride with full gloves, knee and arm warmers as I felt the chill when climbing, let alone when we started descending.
The first major climb done was followed by the first big descent. The first part was tricky with a 25% initial descent with some tight bends, but it soon leveled out, relatively speaking, and became less twisty, making for an enjoyable drop back down to around 500ft above sea level. The next ten miles were pretty flat. I rode with my German / Asian / White Rosed cycling buddy taking it in turns to keep the pace semi-decent before being caught by two quicker riders. We both sensed an opportunity for a quicker ride at a reduced effort by jumping on their wheels. This proved a success with the pace comfortably averaging over 20mph, despite being held up for a while by a slow moving horse box which allowed an large group of very swift riders to catch us. Staying on this train proved to be hard work, but the speed benefit was worth it as we approached the next climb, especially as we were heading north and into a slight headwind.
We hit the climb to Matterdale End at dead on 20 miles which was unfortunate timing to take on the malt loaf, struggling to swallow and breathe hard at the same time. This large group had some really good riders, some of whom proved to be a little too hot to keep up with. Me and my buddy stuck together on the climb with the two others we had ridden with, which was now proving pretty difficult as there were scores of riders scattered pretty much all over the road. At 1.3 miles and averaging 7.0% this was a challenging climb in that it was steeper in places that it looked making it mentally challenging. That said I rode up it fairly well, especially when we passed the small car park at Aria Force, which I had visited with our family last year – spurring me on to statistically my best climb of the day, as I currently sit 19th for the year on Strava for the hill segment (I assume that most of those times were set on the Fred).
Past Matterdale End came another climb steep at averaging 10%, but only half a mile long so not a big challenge. This took us to Troutbeck and a left hand turn on to the A66. This is a busy main road, one I’d driven on just the previous summer. We were encouraged to use the refuge inside the white line if possible, but I know that riding on this part of the road is an invitation to attract a puncture, so I, like nearly everyone else, rode close to, but just to the right of, the white line. Avoiding the raised cat’s eyes did prove something of a challenge at times as the train gently meandered left and right like a slithering snake. We were advised by the police apparently to ride single file and for the most part this was respected by the riders. I’m not totally sure but I think I was somewhere near the back of a long train of bikes (perhaps 30 long) which may have had some of the quick riders I’d tried to stay with on the Matterdale End Climb.
We rode on the A66 for ten miles and although not entirely effort free, it will be some of the easiest miles I’ve ridden while averaging close to 25mph. Mostly gently downhill and aided with a slight tailwind and the long train of bikes, it was a good opportunity to recover, take on another bit of malt loaf, drink some energy drink and prepare myself for the harder miles that lay ahead.
The A66 journey ended at a large roundabout 34 miles into the ride where my Garmin Edge 810 decided to turn itself off. Normally this leads to a corrupt post ride FIT file and the prospect of having no evidence of my efforts. I was calm though as I’d prepared for this eventuality and was riding with my Forerunner watch which was also recording the ride and has, touch wood, been infallible when recording long bike rides. I turned on the Edge and it slowly came to life, taking around a mile or so to find the satellites and remember what ride it was meant to be following. The only real annoyance was that I didn’t know the overall distance of the ride, nor my average speed without referring to my watch, which I find hard when riding. No major issue, but something to stew over as we continued meandering along some flat to gently undulating roads alongside Derwent Water.
The large group had split up braking for the roundabout and I now found myself in a small group of around six riders, still including my original group of two club mates and Asian / German / Yorkshire buddy, who I never actually talked to, but felt comfortable enough in his bike skills to follow his wheel like glue, unlike some others who were sometimes a little erratic in their braking. At this point we were slowed quite a bit for around five miles by a double decker sightseeing bus who was struggling to get past slower riders further up the road. A few decided to take some major risks passing the bus on the twisty, narrow, main road. I and most of the others in a swelling group opted to suck it and accept that these obstacles are part and parcel of a sportive held on open roads.
Thankfully we passed the bus when it stopped as we bid farewell to Derwent Water and we enjoyed our last few miles of easy terrain as we passed through Rosthwaite and Borrowdale. At 42 miles passing through Seatoller we had our third big climb of the day and by far the hardest so far in the ride – the Honister Pass. Like the Kirkstone Pass earlier in the ride we were riding up it in the opposite direction to what is recommended in my favourite cycling books 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs and Another 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs. Whereas Kirkstone Pass has a 7/10 for difficulty, Simon Warren rates Honister as 9/10 and the difference in difficulty was soon apparent (Incidentally for any Grantham based people reading this: for comparison, our most feared climb Terrace Hill, scrapes into the first 100 climbs, but is awarded a measly 1/10) . The Strava segments have the climb at 1.5 mile long averaging 10%, with the steepest 0.4 mile averaging a challenging 15%.
After an initial ramp of around 10% the climb soon got tough with a section of 25% to really test the legs. I was very thankful I’d invested in getting a 11-32 rear cassette on the bike – whereas in previous sportives I’ve been desperately trying to turn the pedals on a 25 sprocket, this larger cog at the back made it possible to keep the RPM at around 55 on the steepest sections as opposed to the 30 or less you can expect when trying to turn a bigger gear. It was here I said farewell to my continental / local friend as I pushed on, sticking to the wheel of the two club mates we had picked up way back at the descent of Kirkstone. With the sun shining for the first time I began to get a little warm in the kit I was wearing, but still not enough to justify stopping to strip off. The biggest issue now, aside from keeping going as the climb continued to alternate between stretches of anything from 8-25% was steering a path through the mass of riders all over the road trying to get up the hill with varying degrees of success. Add to that the odd car trying to creep down the hill to contend with and you had plenty on your plate trying to stay upright and in one piece.
I made it to the top, setting the 26th best time on the day for the steep bit on Strava, greeted by loads of spectators cheering us on. Plenty chose to stop and take a rest, I pushed on, albeit extremely carefully. The descent is described as the most beautiful of the lakes passes by Simon Warren when he was climbing it. It was frankly terrifying trying to tackle the 25% descents round hairpin bends on the opening section of the descent followed by technically an easier section made alarming by the huge slab boulders stuck randomly by the road side waiting to catch anyone who made the slightest error on the descent.
I followed the advice of the official instructions and began braking the moment I started to plummet and pretty much kept them on for the worst of the descent, briefly easing off to avoid too much heat build up on the rims. I was concerned by the number of bodies of fallen riders strewn by the side of the road, being tended to by concerned looking marshals and paramedics. I’m fairly sure I passed this poor chap who I believe, speaking to my car park neighbour after the ride, came to grief when his tyre exploded on the descent because of the brake rubbing tyre instead of rim (It may not have been the seriously injured man, but certainly someone crashed because of this on this descent).
My sense of mortality truly awakened by the descent I was relieved to finish the descent and have a fairly easy five miles as we passed through Gatesgarth and approached Buttermere. I heeded the advice of the instructions and took the opportunity to stop for a comfort break ahead of the first official feed station (although I used the trusted farmers’ gate rather than public toilets that I failed to see anywhere en route. My two club mates (Not my club mates but two riders who were probably mates who rode for the same club) had stopped for the same reason a little earlier on the road. I didn’t see them again. This break saw a two minute thirteen second pause as I also fiddled with my pedal calibration without joy, as noted previously above.
The first feed station was small in size, frantic with seemingly hundreds of riders milling around, but brilliantly organised by volunteers who had clearly manned at this point many times in the past. Unlike the Wiggle sportive last year where the first feed station saw a queue as long and as static as the M25 on any given Friday, we moved along the table packed with tempting morsels like an efficient factory conveyor belt. Acutely aware that we were less than half way into the ride and with much of the hardest miles yet to ride, I dived for the malt loaf, then took a piece covered with jam, took two pieces of flapjack, two jaffa cakes, a cheese and onion sandwich, two SIS energy bars, then one more piece of malt loaf and jam just for luck. I ate all of this except for the energy bars in the time it took me to walk back to my bike. I made the mistake of not bringing my empty bottle with me so had to return to have it filled with some electrolyte, costing me two or so more minutes. Removing my bike from the stone wall was a precision exercise as around 20 bikes were all relying one another to stay upright. Thankfully the rider next to me was leaving at the same time and we worked like a crack team to prise our bikes from the chain without mangling our or anybody else’s precious carbon. Six minutes seventeen seconds was the time taken at the first of two feed stations, which wasn’t too bad considering the business of the cramped venue.
As warned by the pre-race instructions, there was not a lot of time to keep down your food before the next big climb of the ride – Newlands Hause (#81 in the 100 Greatest Climbs). It was here that the organisers decided to stick in a KOM timed hill climb challenge. I didn’t get off to the best start when I was stuck behind some slower riders, but with them out of the way, i made really good progress, feeling like I made light work of the 8/10 ranked ride which Strava reckons averages 11% for the 1.2 mile ascent. The final results show I finished just outside the top 50 for the climb, which is pleasing in a field of over 2000. The organisers really went to town as we hit the steepest part at nearing the top of the climb with polka dot flags, music and enthusiastic supporters urging us on.
The five mile descent that followed was thankfully a lot less challenging and therefore pretty enjoyable once the steep opening section had been safely negotiated. By now I was largely riding solo, passing more riders than I was being passed by, although every now and then a small group of riders on another level ability wise would come shooting past me with no hope of me jumping on their wheel.
Immediately before the next climb there was a brief delay when another bus (Single decker this time) again struggled to thread its way through the oncoming traffic. Thankfully some highly efficient marshaling meant we our disruption was kept to a minimum and we could attack the next climb, #82 in the 100 Greatest Climbs – the Whinlatter Pass. This was probably my favourite climb of the ride. It only rates 5/10 in the good book which meant it was a challenging, but not overly taxing affair. I rode it well, feeling strong, buoyed on by the crowds of people who had been encouraged by the organisers to use this climb as a vantage point, and they did so, lining the road cheering us on like we were in the the Tour De Yorkshire or other less well spectated bike races, like the Tour De France.
With the descent that followed there was another five miles of fairly easy riding to the sixty mile point before the 20 mile section described amusingly on a Strava segment the shit bit. Whether this is a reference to the undulating terrain that begins to tax on a rapidly wearying body, or the relative lack of scenic surroundings compared to the majesty of the rest of the Lakes (we had a good view of Sellafield Nuclear Power Station by the Irish Sea at Calder Bridge) I’m not sure. Regardless I ploughed on, enjoying the challenges of such climbs as Fangs Brow at 65 miles and Burn Edge (#180 in Another 100 Greatest Climbs) at 75 miles. This one was a 6/10 and as Simon says, it’s a climb that cries wolf, appearing to end then going on again and again for what seems an eternity. It did end though, a gazebo with very loud music welcoming us with biscuits handed out on the fly if you were lucky enough to hold onto one (I managed, just).
That climb tackled there were a couple of tricky hairpins to contend with as we approached Calder Bridge and the second feed station at 82 miles. This was where my biggest mistakes of the day were made. I’d been feeding quite happily on the SIS Energy Bars, and still had a couple of bits of malt loaf and two Power Gels remaining. With 30 miles to go I should have just taken on more electrolyte, bagged another couple of energy bars, maybe a small piece of flapjack and been on my way. However I let the prospect of Hardknott Pass ten miles or so up the road interfere with rational thinking and so went on a ridiculous binge: a coffee while I returned to my bike to get the bottles I forgot again; I filled the bottles with electrolyte, then put the bottles back on the bike, to head back to the feed tables where I ate 3 or 4 bits of malt loaf with jam, three bits of flapjack, a couple of Jaffa Cakes, another cheese and onion sandwich, all stuffed down the gullet before I returned to my bike with another couple of energy bars stuffed into the back pocket. What with taking a minute to have some sun screen applied to the back of my neck (which I’d forgotten to do back at the B&B) and then removing the long fingered gloves and arm warmers, only to stop immediately after and put the arm warmers back on, I spent over eleven and a half minutes at the second feed station when I could have and should have spent a maximum of five, and could arguably have done without stopping at all.
Back on my way there was a brief section on the main coast road which wasn’t that pleasant before we headed onto a much more scenic road that would lead to Hardknott itself. Before then we had Irton Pike, which averaged 9% at it’s steepest part but wasn’t too troublesome. That tackled there was a section of four miles that was gently rising. It was here I began to feel the affects of taking on too much food. I felt distinctly queasy, nauseous, and at times quite dizzy. It was a little unsettling, the only thing I could be thankful for was that I was cycling and not running, so at least the stomach wasn’t being bounced around leading to inevitable, catastrophic, gastric distress.
We’d had warning signs a little way back that a road followed that should not be navigated by anything other than small, light vehicles, Then, in the distance I spotted a gap in the trees with a solitary red telephone box that I knew from The 100 Greatest Climbs meant the start of the hardest climb of the day – Hardknott Pass. Ranked as 10/10 for difficulty and described by Mr Warren as the king of climbs and arguably the hardest climb in the land. I’d seen the footage on Youtube and knew this was going to be tough – probably too tough with the way I felt right then, right now.
Past the telephone box and another set of severe warning signs there is a short steep climb through some woodland, over a cattle grid and out into the open where you are faced with the enormity of what awaits – a ribbon of narrow tarmac that just disappears off into the sky. Simon says the first switchbacks are 25% followed by a section of 30% before it levels off before it’s finale at the end where there is a section of some more 30% to battle up.
Sadly today I failed on the first 25% section. Feeling rubbish and swayed a little too easily by the pre-race instructions that suggested it’s almost more worthwhile walking than trying to cycle up, I unclipped at the first section of 25% and walked rather than risk grinding to a halt and falling off. At that moment the prospect of trying to ride up that hill seemed like the most ridiculously hard thing I’d ever been expected to do. So ridiculous, there was little point.
Detemined to minimise time lost I wasted no time in trying to walk up as quickly as you can up 1:4 and 1:3 roads in cycling shoes with their cleats pushing a bike and all that goes with it. It turned out that was almost as quick as trying to ride as many inched past me still in their saddles before I inched back past them feeling the strain in my calf muscles and hamstrings.
Once the road leveled a bit I was back on my bike, arm warmers down, jersey partially unzipped, working hard. Leveling though is a relative term with the gradient regularly in excess of 15%. The benefit of walking up the steepest bits was that, a bit fresher, I was able to re-pass a lot of the riders who had managed to ride past me and were now out of gas.
There was just the matter of the final kick of 30% to tackle. On another day with a happier digestive system and body that wasn’t having a blood sugar overload emergency on its hands, I would have given this climb a bloody good stab at riding the whole damned lot. With a compact crank on the front (that’s smaller chain rings attached to the cranks and the pedals) I would have definitely got up there. That’s why if you watch the video above some appear to be getting up with relatively little difficulty, whereas others are pedalling as though the cranks have been super glued, and others, like myself, have resorted to walking. The really sassy ones also fit mountain bike cassettes to their back wheel which means you can spin up 30% climbs with relative ease, not relatively quickly, but you look cool still on your bike as opposed to the failures who have resorted to walking.
So with those excuses put on the table – I walked the final section, along with around half those around me. I did though mount the bike before reaching the very top. The brutal part of a climb like this is that, unless, you stop and have a moment to compose yourself, you have to concentrate hard on the very dangerous descent that follows immediately after. There was no time to recover, it was full on pulling the brake levers as hard as I could just to keep the speed under check, let alone consider coming to a halt. There were moments I thought I wouldn’t be able to stop, like two guys just a few moments before me, who had just gone done and literally gone off the mountain, falling hard apparently onto some form of ravine.
There were cries from spectators for help, for medical assistance. It didn’t sound good. Other riders offered up to stop and assist but we were informed that there were already people down there trying to assist. Just like in London I felt I was in no position to help, so the best course was to try and get down avoiding the distinct possibility of joining them on the casualty list. (As far as I know those riders were not badly injured in the accident).
Thankfully just when I thought my upper body could not hold onto the brakes much longer, the steepness of the descent subsided and I was able to recover somewhat. In another moment of questionable tactics I stopped at Cockley Beck where someone was handing out bottles of water. I had a full 750ml bottle of electrolyte remaining which would have easily lasted the 15 or so remaining miles, but the preservation instinct kicked in and I spent the best part of two minutes slowly filling my bottle. When I got home and lifted my bike with and without the two nearly full water bottles (I didn’t take on much more liquid after Hardknott), I realised how much extra weight I was unnecessarily taking with me on the final hard climb of the day that immediately followed.
Wrynose is #85in the book, ranked 10/10 and described as the queen to it’s neighbouring king (Hardknott). This coming at nigh on 100 miles into the ride and so quickly after Hardknott meant it was a real beast. I knew it was coming and was warned, but much less is made of it than Hardknott. Mentally that made it easier, for although some of the gradients were in excess of 25% the climb, apart from the last little section (which I may or may not have walked – I genuinely cannot remember, although my cadence data suggests I walked 🙁 ) it wasn’t as taxing and I made it up with minimal distress, starting to feel a little less nauseous.
The final major challenge of the day was getting safely down Wrynose. Although not as steep as Hardknott, the section where near permanent braking is required is longer. My arms were by now killing me and I had to shout to myself to summon the energy to keep on braking. It’s a ridiculous situation where you are working nearly as hard downhill as you are uphill. The rather uncomfortable situation was amplified by some alarming squeals coming from the front brakes as I kept on plummeting down the hill while braking fully. Luckily just as I thought that something catastrophic was going to happen we had a long stretch of straight descent and I could release the brakes and allow them to recover. On inspection at the end of the ride I noticed they had worn significantly over the ride, but I think the squeal was more to do with heat build up than impending brake failure.
With 100 miles in the bag I knew from the instructions that the final 12 miles to the finish were relatively easy. On quite a technical descent I got on the back of two riders who encouraged me to join their train. This was quite beneficial as the lead rider seemed to have good knowedge of the roads and I could follow his quite fast lines fairly safely. I thought I would be able to hitch onto their train for the remainder of the ride but on the last little drag on the ride they slowed and then eased up to wait for a friend they had dropped.
Feeling quite fresh after the strains of the two previous passes I pushed on as best I could with a rider stuck firmly to my rear wheel (He thanked me at the end for the free ride, which was kind of him). Like many others arriving back into Grasmere at that time of day I lost a couple of minutes with slow moving traffic that had to be safely navigated. This made it impossible to give it full gas, thankfully any hopes of a super-sub-7 hour ride had long since passed and i was just riding to the finish.
That I did safely and relatively fresh after my uncomfortable section at 95 miles. My official time was 7:16. There are no finishing positions in a sportive, but a re-sorting of the results suggests I was around the 120th fastest rider on the day and I was awarded a First Class Distinction, a gold medal, so to speak, based on my finishing time. My Garmin time which takes out the stops, was 6:42:43, but I think that misses out a fair chunk of Hardknott when I walked and the computer auto paused. Still it means that the cherished sub 7 hour ride was within grasp, as it was for two guys who finished just behind me, almost in tears and hugging each other having cracked 7-hours on their tenth attempt. With knowledge of the course, more nouse at the feed stations and probably a compact crank, I think I can do it too. For the record only 10 riders broke the magic 6 hour barrier, the fastest Nick Williamson in 5:45.
There was a bit of a queue at the finish as riders stopped to collect their print out of the results and their commemorative pint glass – filled with Erdinger alcohol free beer if you so wished (I politely declined). I phoned my wife as soon as I returned to my car to let her know I had finished safely. Originally I planned to hang around and recover for an hour or two before driving home. However, after packing the bike and having a quick wander around (Where I picked up my finishing certificate), I realised that I was probably best off trying to leave the still pretty full car park before the majority of the field attempted to do so. There was little to stay for as the the queue for the free post race meal was horrendous and I felt like I would never have to eat again after the second feed station (It took until 10pm that evening before I felt like doing so).
I left shortly before 4pm. For reasons best known to my satnav, rather than take me on the easy, mostly dual carriageway route I took getting to the Lakes, it would take me on a tortuous run through to Bradford. before finally hitting the via the M62. It took over an hour to cover the first 12 miles, it would be four and a half long hours before I got home, almost more painful than the ride itself thanks to some sciatic pain.
To conclude…. An amazing ride, as hard and as brilliant as I thought it would be – Hardknott perhaps harder. The organisation is quite informal but quietly slick, the marshaling and signposting exemplary. I can see why it is still arguably considered the daddy of all the tough sportives we now have in this country. I will definitely want to do it again – an official sub-7 as enticing as a sub 2:45 marathon. Whether I’d do it in heavy rain or wind is another matter. It’s a hard and at times dangerous ride without those elements bringing more dangers. We were blessed with near perfect conditions, it was nearly a perfect ride. Damn you Hardknott and too much food!!!
I also would love to do the ride in a more informal manner, taking in the majesty of one of the my most favourite places in the world (Except when it is full of tourists, which is most of the time…), fully enjoying the breathtaking views and treating the feed stations more like relaxed coffee stops than the raids they turned into.
Thoroughly recommended, not for the novice cyclist, but a ride that any cyclist who likes their hills should be looking to complete.
I had two weeks following the success of the Holdenby Duathlon to prepare for the Rockingham Duathlon, where I was taking part in the standard distance – 10k run, 38k bike, and a 5k run to conclude. The week following was a mostly easy affair recovering from the duathlon which had certainly taken it out of me. It was the first time since early September where I tried to resume running relatively normally. The left Achilles continues to be a source of some pain and frustration. I was testing out my new Hoka Hoka One Clifton 2 trainers, which were certainly packed with cushioning and pretty light with it. Both Wednesday and Thursday’s run were noticeable for the high heart rate for the pace, a legacy of the racing and the lack of running miles in recent weeks. Thursday’s run saw the Achilles ache a fair amount. I was most enthused by Saturday’s run though. Out of the door later than usual thanks to late night working on Mexican time, I was back in my Brooks and I managed 13.4 miles around town with barely a whiff of Achilles aching and coming in just under seven minute per mile average.
Sunday saw a rare excursion with the Witham Wheelers on a 55 mile or so ride which was mostly gentle in pace. Still feeling fresh once home I headed out for a brick run which turned into a ten km effort. With the first mile an easy 6:27 and the second a still comfortable 6:10 I was enjoying this run loads, even if the left Achilles was grumbling away. I kept the effort up, putting on a near flat out effort on the Auf Widersehen Pet Strava segment to regain my KOM which I’d lost a couple of days earlier. This effort proved a useful fartlek style effort as I returned from sub five minute mile pace to run the final mile and a half at 5:40 pace. Sub 38 minutes for any training 10k is pleasing, more so off the back of a bike ride and with a crazy fast effort two thirds of the way into a run.
The week before the Duathlon saw less running – a rare intervals session on Tuesday with the Harlaxton Harriers was run at 80% effort as I was feeling tired after a long weekend of work and exercise. I put in two easy effort two hour efforts on the elliptical trainer, an easy turbo trainer session and a GRC town run where I was hopeful of experiencing no Achilles pain, but came away disappointed to see it the worst it has been for some time. That aching meant I reluctantly opted not to take part in the first anniversary of Belton House parkrun, putting the time to good effect with an extensive stretching routine on the left calf especially, hoping (believing) that the source of the Achilles discomfort is coming mostly from the calf muscles.
After a particularly mild and dry October, weather forecasts for race day were looking fairly appalling, with strong winds direct from the Arctic feeding heavy rain showers over Rockingham Motor Speedway from 9am through to early afternoon. Thankfully when I awoke on race day morning, although it was dark I could see that the skies above Grantham were clear – an indication that the weather forecast was maybe not quite 100% accurate. What was apparent though was that it was cold – temperatures only three or so degrees above freezing. What with the cold weather and the onset of a cold brewing (I was full of cold by late afternoon) I opted to eschew some aero performance and wear a long sleeved thermal base layer below my tri suit, tights over the top of the shorts, with long socks and half overshoes for the bike leg – hastily purchased midweek when forecasts predicted the cold snap. I even went with the buff worn around the neck to offer some extra warmth on the bike leg in particular. I did though opt to not wear my thick cycling gloves and made do with the same thin running gloves underneath the cycling mitts used at Holdenby. It was a bit of a gamble but I had big problems at Rutland Water in March trying to fasten the helmet with big gloves on, so I was prepared to risk a bit of frostbite for a swift transition.
Rockingham Motor Speedway may be something of a white elephant when it comes to motor sport – the number of races actually held on the oval are probably in single figures – but it makes for a pretty good sporting venue when cycling and running is concerned. As with most motor racing circuits, facilities are better than most races with ample parking spaces, plenty of places to warm up and ample permanent toilet facilities. I arrived 80 minutes before the start with my family in tow. Registration was painless and I was pretty relaxed before the start, making sure the bike was okay, my transition area was prepared, and my warm up done with the minimum of fuss, even if there was a little aching in the Achilles. I had the chance to meet some club mates from Belvoir Tri Club and my good friend and work colleague Russell, who is making his first steps in the world of duathlon and had an impressive fourth place finish on his debut a few weeks previous.
I headed to the start ten minutes from the off for a pre-race briefing. All seemed fairly straight forward, and I was pretty relaxed as we were called to the start line at the pit lane exit at 9:30am. With a countdown from ten we were off.
I made a bit of a tardy start but soon found myself third behind the two runners leading above who quickly established a gap on the rest of the field. I put in a bit of an effort in the opening couple of minutes of the race to catch them then, as we made a U-turn off the oval and onto the infield circuit and into the stiff headwind, tucked myself nicely behind the two of them, trying to seek as much shelter as possible. We were soon faced with something I wasn’t expecting – a small incline which saw the runner in the grey top drop back. I kept with the blue-shirted runner as we passed through the first mile in 5:41. I kept on this guys heels for around half a mile further as we endured the worst of the wind, but I sensed the pace was dropping so I pulled alongside and passed him, pulling clear fairly comfortably as I clocked 5:46 for the second mile.
At this point I had a runner in the sprint event come haring up to us and past us just after he inquired which way we should be going. I laughed inside at his inability to follow the course, I wasn’t laughing so much a few minutes later as we headed back to the pit lane to complete the first lap. I wasn’t sure whether I should follow him on the inner pit lane entry or bear right and take the later exit or even stay on the oval itself by passing the pits. I went for the later exit and very nearly headed down the main straight before a marshal guided me the right way.
Approaching transition and with 5:58 clocked for mile three, another marshal assumed I was second in the sprint event and tried to send me into the transition zone. It was only at the very last minute another marshal realised I was in the longer event and sent me down the correct pit lane path. It was stress I could have done without and sent the adrenaline pumping. Looking back to see that no-one was behind me, I made a conscious effort to ease the effort. That said the fourth mile was still fairly fast at 5:43, although this was all within my half marathon HR parameters, so I felt comfortable.
While trying not to exert too much energy I knew I couldn’t relax too much on the run for I was likely not to be the quickest on the bike. Mile 4 was 5:43, mile 5 a 5:56 and mile 6 slowing a touch to 6:01 as I battled with the headwind and the slight incline.
As I approached transition I tried to relax, remembering that my bike was racked by garage 22. I clocked the 10k in 36:05, which was the fastest by one minute fifty four seconds. It also transpired that this was just six seconds slower than the winning time in the supporting 10k road race held after the Duathlon.
Despite rehearsing the run into my pit box a couple of times, I still managed to run a few yards past my bike, but, thankfully, only lost a few seconds and managed to not panic following this slight error. Attempting the elastic bands securing the bike shoes to the pedals trick for the first time in a race, all that needed doing was trainers taking off and helmet putting on. I spent a couple of extra seconds making sure the trainers were neatly placed for the second run, but other than that transition went well. It turned to be the third fastest of the race. Given that some efforts in other races have seen me near the bottom three this was pleasing. I didn’t quite manage the flying mount, preferring to stop and get one foot in a shoe before heading off, but it wasn’t long before I all in and racing along.
I enjoyed around 30 seconds of tailwind riding before turning into the headwind. The easy 30 mph quickly became a battle to break 15 mph as there wasn’t just a stiff cold wind to contend with but an imperceptible ascent to climb too. With 16 laps of this I settled into a rather dull, repetitive ride of a minute or so of easy fast riding and three minutes of headwind hell. Although I’m feeling far more comfortable in the TT tuck position of late I opted to sit up on the tailwind sections, partly to try and catch the wind and also to stress different parts of the quads which I feared could suffer if I maintained the same position for over an hour of riding which afforded absolutely no opportunity to stop pedaling.
The ride was pretty monotonous – riding around in fairly small circles, completing each lap in a shade over four minutes. What kept things mildly interesting was the volume of traffic to negotiate with over a hundred sprint and standard distance cyclists on the circuit at one point. The speed differential between slowest and fastest was significant, thankfully the oval circuit is very wide and it wasn’t difficult to sweep around the outside of riders.
I didn’t think I was having the best of rides – I felt unable to give it absolute full gas. That said the lack of people passing me was relatively reassuring. I was passed by one other rider at around halfway who soon pulled clear. I wasn’t totally convinced though he was actually ahead of me in the race, reckoning he may have unlapped himself, so to speak. One other rider approached me and sat on my wheel for a little while before being warned by the race referee for drafting. I didn’t see him again. Another rider pulled up to me, passed me, then didn’t move ahead as I rode fairly close behind him for 2/3s of a lap, pulling out wide on the banking to make it clear to anyone watching that I wasn’t drafting. I was then able to pass him on the main straight and he quite quickly dropped back, presumably having made a big effort to catch and gone too fat into the red doing so.
It was at around this point, after around 12 laps, when I began to to get very concerned over how many laps I had completed and how many I had left to ride. I had used the auto lap feature on the Garmin to lap every 1.48 miles, this being the official length of the oval. However this was proving to be none too reliable thanks, in part, to forgetting to attach the speed and cadence sensor to my bike and so relying on GPS. Lap one was clocked at the start of turn one, by lap 12 it was nearing the approach to turn 2, pretty much halfway around the lap. That wasn’t helping. In the heat of the racing I also couldn’t decide whether I needed to complete 16 full laps or come in at the end of the fifteenth lap. With perhaps one or two laps to go, my support crew (the wife) didn’t seem too sure either when I began gesticulating with a couple of laps to go – they suggested I needed two and I decided to err on the side of caution and complete sixteen full laps.
I headed into transition, successfully removing my feet from the shoes and dismounting before the line. I found my rack position and got the trainers on without cramping up the left calf – a first in my brief duathlon history. I had time to ask two spectators what position I was in. ‘Third or fourth’ came the reply. Bugger! Something was amiss. The scenarios quickly ran through my head as I left transition (in the third quickest time, I’m pleased to report retrospectively). Either I had done too many laps; two or three competitors had done too few; or the spectators had mistaken the standard distance competitors for straggling sprint competitors. Whatever the scenario I was pleased that I was quickly into my running; a quick look at the average pace suggested that comfortably sub six minute miles was attainable, should it be needed.
In reality the final 5k was uneventful. The nearest competitor behind was the one who had passed me on the bike leg, but he looked to be several minutes behind. Other than a couple of sprint event stragglers I passed, there was no-one within visual distance in front of me for the entirety of the run. The legs felt okay, but the right glute in particular felt a little numb, cold from the wind chill on the bike. I opted to keep a steady pace as I clocked the three miles in a 5k in 5:54; 6:00; and 6:09 – pretty much even paced when the hills and wind were taken into account. The biggest issue I had was trying to keep my number visible and actually on the belt, the wind having ripped it clear from three of the four attaching pins.
As I came to the finish line it was strangely quiet. My wife and family cheered me home but there was no-one at the finish line. The PA, which I’d vaguely heard while on the bike, was quiet. I hadn’t celebrated as I crossed the finish line, I got the impression I hadn’t finished first. I turned the corner and headed into the race HQ building to be handed my medal and to be told I finished fourth. I was pretty upset, but managed to remain relatively calm. I explained that only one rider had passed me and he was still out running. If I had completed the correct number of laps I could not have legitimately lost the lead.
I was told to try and find the race officials, who I found near transition in a van huddled around the timing system. As it happened they were trying to work out the discrepancies in the bike leg times between the top five finishers. I was six minutes slower than the rider who had come in first. Either he and the top three had ridden one lap too few or I had ridden one lap too many. It was when I went to collect my bike and see that my bike computer logged 24.6 miles that I feared the worst. 38km is 23.75 miles, evidently I’d ridden a lap too many (Post race Strava analysis suggests those who rode the correct number of laps rode 23.1 miles – it also suggests around 10% of the field made the same mistake I did, including Russell, who would have finished well inside the top ten had he not committed the same faux pas I did).
When this unfortunate result was confirmed to me I was disappointed but far less upset than when I first thought I’d been robbed of victory by competitors who had ridden too few laps. I made a mistake, lesson learned, and it won’t be made again. I didn’t miscount the number of laps, no elastic band or tape system would have helped with that. I just got confused out on the circuit what 16 laps meant. In hindsight it was obvious, the 10k run required two laps which saw us head into transition at the end of the second lap. I should have swapped bike for trainers at the end of the fifteenth lap, rather than the end of the sixteenth. Something to do with how the brain treats large numbers differently to small numbers is what I blame – that and not fully prepping myself before the race. At least I wasn’t the only one!
So rather than the winners’ trophy to take home, I was resigned to just taking the rather snazzy medal and first place in my Age Group (No prizes for that, alas). My final 5k run was timed at 18:57, which was 39 seconds faster than the next quickest (A guy who finished 11th) and 90 seconds quicker than the winner. It is estimated that had I completed the right number of laps I would have won by over a minute. The actual winner was genuinely around two minutes quicker than me on the bike, but I was three minutes quicker on the runs and around 30 seconds quicker through transitions.
A disappointing outcome but there were plenty of positives to take from the race. After a couple of miles the Achilles ache disappeared and I didn’t feel it again for the rest of the race. My transitions were light years better than they were back in March when I took part in my first proper duathlon. My runs were solid but with room for more, as was the case on the bike – a different helmet (the pointy bit was too high in the air a lot of the time), some proper wheels and wearing aero kit are all free improvements to be gained in the future (As well as improving the actual riding bit). Most pleasingly, I stayed mostly calm at the end of the race and didn’t make a total idiot of myself (A little one maybe….) At the end of the day we were just running and cycling around in circles. There are far more important things in life – such as seeing Russell’s new baby daughter for the first time at the end of the race. That, I am sure, was the moment I lost any anger from the outcome of the race. As long as I stay fit and healthy there will be other opportunities to race and hopefully do well. For now I have a tell to tell of the race I through away by not being able to count. I’ll see the funny side of it one day!