The 114-mile Saddleback Fred Whitton Challenge has a well-earned reputation as being Britain’s toughest sportive. OF’s Malcolm Bradbrook was one of the participants.

Other events might claim more ascent or greater distance but there is something about brutally steep roads, challenging weather and iconic scenery that draws the connoisseur to ‘The Fred’. 2,500 riders set off from Grasmere this year, the 20th anniversary of the event named in memory of a well-loved and respected cyclist from the region who died in 1998.

I trained expecting rain and wind, as a study of the history books showed inclement weather during the event in recent years, but all forecasts were showed a cloudless and windless day. That meant a cold 6am start and my car’s temperature display read 0oC as my club-mates from Oxford Tri and I shivered our way into our shoes and onto our saddles.

Numb hands couldn’t dampen spirits though. Misty waters and the quickly rising sun made Grasmere, Rydal Water and Windermere look stunning as we trundled through Ambleside and towards Kirkstone pass – the first climb of the day. It was a lengthy ascent up via Holbeck Lane with some significant ramps but it was nothing to be afraid of, and the added warmth caused by 20 minutes of solid effort was welcome.

Cracking walnuts

My decision to seek out a new bike seemed better by the second, as the comfort of my Ribble Endurance SL Disc and the gearing brought by an 11-32 cassette seemed inspired. Holding myself back was my biggest challenge as I kept pace with the fastest in my group, despite knowing that he was much stronger.

Three falls since turning 40 six years ago challenged my youthful bravado and I hailed my disc brakes on the descent while clamping on the levers like I was cracking a tricky walnut after too many ports on Christmas Day. I cursed my caution at the bottom as I was 150m behind my club-mates. They claimed to be soft-pedalling while I caught up but my burning quads from the five-minute chase told a different story.

My inexperience in sportives showed on the fastest section swooping down the A66 towards Keswick. I knew I should conserve energy but the spirit took me and I powered down that long drag towing a long line of grateful cyclists.

Nicely warmed up, I toyed with removing layers but opted to stay cosy in my fleece-lined leg and arm warmers, spring gloves and hat. That was my second big mistake of the day as we rounded a corner, heard murmurs of ‘Honister’ and steeled ourselves for the next challenge.

We immediately hit a long ramp of 25% and, looking up the slope, I briefly wondered if there had been a mass puncture incident as cyclists ground to a halt and toppled from their bikes. My legs screeched as the heat started to kick in and for the first, and hopefully only, time in my life I stripped off layers with one hand while riding up a ridiculous slope.

Arm-warmers were pulled down, gloves stuffed inside my top and zips yanked to straining point as I tried to ease the suffering. This was the Fred Whitton I came for and my extra training kicked in and I struggled onto the moderate midsection to suck in air. Cooling off, I managed to enjoy the final ramp to the slate mine.

The chaos of the cramped food station was not the respite I had been hoping for as a narrow road and surface that was challenging in cleats caused the odd adrenaline spike but I managed to strip off further, stow clothes properly and head off.

A haze of flapjack fuel drove me over Newlands towards the beautiful Whinlatter Pass, a climb featured on the Tour in Britain in 2018. At more than 3km, Whinlatter is one of the longer climbs but the beauty of the forest and the ‘moderate’ gradient of up to 15% enabled me to enjoy my time here.

Accept defeat

Cyclist on country road

Top of Blea Tarn

We trundled into the second feed station, which was everything its predecessor was not. It was relaxing and spacious, and nervous smiles passed between riders who had one thing on their mind: ‘just 16 miles to Hardknott’.

Hardknott Pass is one of the steepest roads in the UK and The Fred’s decision to put it at mile 96 is both ludicrous and inspired. It is ‘only’ 2.2km as the 25% lower slopes give way to respite of ‘just’ 16% before a final push of 33%.

My legs drained after a few minutes of effort and despite my pleas I simply couldn’t turn my pedals and had to accept defeat. Walking on cleats through those sharp, steep turns was no easy feat and it was a relief to get back on the bike. Cramp immediately kicked in and I again had to dismount as the steepest section began.

Wrynose Pass followed shortly after and is only slightly behind Hardknott in terms of severity. Cramp afflicted me again and my best efforts of cycling up 25% using only my left leg faltered in a few pedal turns and I had to dismount again before getting back in the saddle and finishing off the summit.

Just one climb lay ahead and my race plan of not walking was in tatters. Blea Tarn was one of the shorter ascents at 1.7km but again offered ramps of 25%. Twitches of cramp plagued me with every rotation and my speed dropped to ‘negligible’ but I stayed on to the summit.

I envisaged a glorious power to the finish but the reality was a 10-mile limp interspersed with increasingly desperate horizon scanning as I sought out the finish at Grasmere showground.

The Saddleback Fred Whitton Challenge is a glorious event. It’s excellently run and draws experienced cyclists, so the bike-handling and etiquette is far above big city sportives.

Lessons learned

If accepted in the ballot I will be back next year, but I have three key learning points:

  1. There’s never ‘enough’ hill training (up and down).
  2. You don’t need enough food and water for a long weekend in the Sahara.
  3. Going fast burns energy, no matter how good it feels.