Riding 112 miles over every major pass of the Lake District is challenging in clement weather; in bad weather it's the sort of event which make entrants swear "never again."
The 13th annual staging of the Fred Whitton Challenge took place yesterday, starting and ending in Coniston. All 1223 riders started in the rain, many finished in the rain, too. On the course - the exposed roads of Cumbria - riders had to contend with hail showers, and rain so hard it was bouncing off the road, hampering visibility.
Despite the treacherous conditions there were only five serious injuries. One required an air ambulance but the rider was walking wounded later in the day, and instead of feeling sorry for himself, was seen asking medical staff how he could retrieve his carbon-fibre bike, left in a Cumbrian field. One of the injured riders is still in hospital.
The event is now sponsored by Saddleback, distributor for Castelli clothing and Felt bicycles. Responsible for the neutral service, Saddleback replaced 16 shredded tyres, 83 blown inner tubes and made singlespeeds out of nine bikes with bashed rear mechs. The tyres were replaced with Vredestein's, the tyre brand distributed by Saddleback. In lieu of payment for the replacements, riders were asked to later make a donation to the Fred Whitton's lead charities, Macmillan Cancer Support or the Dave Rayner Fund.
"All our staff were there on a voluntary basis," said Andrew Griffiths, marketing manager for Saddleback.
"We all work the event to give something back to the sport. And because it’s such a great event to be involved in."
Huddled beneath their E-Z Up shelter at the start of the ride, Saddleback staff let riders sample Mule bars and taste For Goodness Shakes drinks, as well as looking after bike journalists and bike shop owners who had been invited to take part in the ride. 15 had turned up at the event (with another 15 having last minute desires to painted their sheds that day).
The VIPs who braved the climbs and the weather included Jason Turner, owner of Sigma Sport; Neil Walton, manager of Altrincham Bikeshak, and Dave Atkinson of website Road.cc.
One of the VIP guests went home with a smashed bike. But Chris Jones of Tweeks Cycles was lucky. His three day old Wilier - with him on board - smashed into a wall on one of the many hairpin bends on the route. His front fork was snapped in half; he escaped with bruising.
Jones was one of 89 riders who did not finish, with many riders pulling out at Buttermere, the first feed station at 52 miles in, having already done Kirkstone and Honister passes but yet to do Newlands, Whinlatter, Hardknott and Wrynose passes. Many other riders had to DNF because of pronged wheels and other bike nasties (sportives are good for the bike trade).
The hailstones and rain slowed even the elite riders. The Fred Whitton - like the 100 UK sportives which it spawned - is not a race. There's a 'first finisher', but not a winner. This year's fastest finisher was James Dobbin of the Adeo Cadence RT team, sprinting in at 6 hours five minutes, twenty five minutes behind his usual Fred Whitton time. Dobbin usually spars with Rob Jebb but Jebb wasn't riding. (Dobbin is pictured above, in the middle, with Andrew Griffiths of Saddleback on the left, and organiser Paul Loftus on the right).
The Fred Whitton Challenge is organised by the Lakes Road Club in memory of Fred Whitton who was the Lakes Road Club racing secretary before his death from cancer at the age of 50.
Bathed in sunshine at the Coniston finishing line (and just before the heavens opened again), organiser Paul Loftus said: "You can do a self-led Four Seasons Fred Whitton at any time of the year but we had four seasons in one day today. It's sunny now but there were hailstones bouncing off the road earlier. At least it was warm."
Warm? I did the ride, too, and can report that there was a time on one of the long descents that my hands almost froze to handlebars and my Lycra jersey, arm-warmers and lightweight jacket were inadequate protection. I'd bought kinky Castelli booties from a bike shop the day before ("we do a roaring trade before sportives," the owner told me) but nothing could stop the ingress of cold Cumbrian rain. Before the climb of Hardnott I wrung out half a pint of water from each sock. Best to tackle those two ascents light.
It was a cruel day. I'll be back next year. And so will many of those who swore "never again."