A glance at the profile, and any veteran of the 3 Peaks or Alpine Classic might look at the elevation toping out at less than 500m and wonder what the fuss is all about. It does, however, have a similar elevation gain to the Alpine Classic over a similar distance.
Preparation was not textbook. I was resigned to the fact that the machine du jour would be the 11kg steel machine, a springy but far from gazelle like climbing machine. Five weeks off the bike during the move did me no favours, either, with the first few weeks of riding in particular (and only 5 weeks out from the day) painful and demoralising. This cycling game is so much about confidence. I had gone from Everesting Mt Macedon South to climbing like a flatlander; "Those brakes must be rubbing again", "I thought this was a compact crankset, it feels like a standard double". I considered pulling the pin on the Fred but a few weeks later I pulled this ride out of the bag and it all came together. I don't know if Lisa had slipped something into my coffee, but it clicked both physically and mentally. I was ready.
I'm not one for the organised ride in general (the Alpine Classic being the exception), but the camaraderie of the day is always the big benefit. I was staying in the Ambleside YHA and the whole place seemed to be booked out by cyclists up for the Fred which was starting in Grasmere, 7km up the road. An exotic collection of machines was lined up on the backs of cars and, although I wasn't going to win too many bling awards, based on the forecast, I was happy I had mudguards - we were due to be rained on for most of the day with moderate to stiff westerly winds blowing into our faces on the way out but at least giving us a push home.
I was feeling confident that I would get around without the need to walk up Hardknott if I could get a clean run at it. This meant not being blocked in by other cyclists delivering the mail or clip-clopping up the cliff so I was determined to get away early and ride at a solid pace to stay up near the front of the 2000 odd riders. I set myself a time of 8 hours elapsed as a target, not easy and requiring careful management of stopping time but achievable even on the king of steel
The first pass is Kirkstone, the longest but certainly not the hardest of the day. It's a cracker rising in steep waves to its bleak summit. The rain was coming in bands with sufficient time in between the spells to partially dry out. The descent of the other side is somewhat hairy in the wet but the road is reasonable wide and only steep for a short while. Once down into the valley, I joined up with a few others and we rode in a reasonable organised bunch until turning to climb up Matterdale, the easiest pass of the day. That was the last time I rode in a bunch, although I did on occasion ride in twos and threes. Coming up Matterdale, I briefly rode with a guy who was grinding a huge gear!
"I'm going to ride the whole thing in the big ring and its a 56T", he told me in a matter of fact manner. "Good luck with that, mate", I replied, whilst wondering how that was going to go when the road turned north of 20%. I saw him later on the 25% section of Honister in the small ring... Which brings us onto said climb, the first real tester of the day, with a beautiful approach from Keswick. It's a brute rising from the gun out of Seatoller, across one of "those" cattle grids and onwards to pass through an almost impossibly narrow gap and down a somewhat terrifying descent (where some unfortunate soul came a cropper and was airlifted out) to the first food stop.
Conscious of time, I stopped only briefly at Buttermere, grabbed some scran and hopped back on the pushie. Two minutes later, I rounded a corner and was served a slice of the lower slopes of Newlands, a deceptively tough climb that lays it all out in front of you. Fortunately, this stunning landscape allows the mind to wander why the legs labour. The recent rain meant that there was water cascading everywhere down the sleep slopes, although I suspect that this is a place that always carries a fair amount of water.
Such is the terrain that quickly you've finished the descent (and it was a cracker), whipped through a sharp left then right and are immediately heading skywards again up the next pass, Whinlatter. Its a more refined piece of road without the need to test your limits of traction. I haven't mentioned the people on the roadside yet. It is a big event for the locals with odd groups and people clapping along and offering encouragement but on Whinlatter, it entered a whole different level. There were crowds two deep at the summit. It was like a Grand Tour and provided an amazing lift.
After dropping off Whinlatter, I was into the wind and on my own - where were those bunches now? It was rolling terrain with the highlight crossing Cold Fell (hmm, I wonder why it was called that?) with views to the sea before dropping into Calder Bridge for the last feed stop and the gateway to Hardknott and its feared 30%. I was in need of a cuppa after the headwind and the awesome vollies didn't disappoint.
I was bang on schedule, so grabbed a last sanga and rolled out the door. The wind was now at my back, the rain jacket was stowed away and the road was a delight. The valley soon started closing in and the great bulk of Scafell Pike loomed to the north. Hardknott. Conquered by the romans in 2AD who in their madness built a fort up there. You can see it from a fair way out. The rock walls close in and a little notch appears. If you look closely, you can a sliver of a "road" heading straight up the slope. It looks more like a waterfall, but, trust me, that is the way!
So does it live up to the hype? How can I put this, it pulls no punches. You immediately hit 20% through the trees and across a cattle grid (shakes head, sighs loudly), before the dial hits 10 and you grovel through a couple of 25% switchbacks. Don't worry it flattens out to 15% for long enough that you can see the full horror of the next section before rearing up to an almost unrideable 30% pulling through a seemingly vertical left then right switchback, cowbells clanging, people figuratively pushing you up the hill with their encouragement. Get through this section and it is an armchair like 20% push over the top and you are there. If you are pushed into the apex by traffic, you have no chance. If you are packing a Beach Rd friendly gear, you have no chance. If you think the Frankston Alps are steep, you have no chance. But, my, what a climb. Insane. Mad. Stupid. Epic. It goes to 11.
After Hardknott, Wrynose feels like a pimple (it isn't), although the descent of both (in the wet) could be described quite accurately as "brown knicks" time, where sheep just stare and probably wonder what all the fuss is about! I heard later that there were two ride ending crashes on these descents.
After Wrynose it is an easy and beautiful run for home. I was feeling strong, I was well up on time and pushed hard over the last 10 kms now chasing close to 7hr 30mins. I crossed the line - with the MC exclaiming "Another good time. And he's on a steel bike!" - and stopped the clock (if not the bike, thanks to the mud!) at 7hr 34mins as my official elapsed time. I was rapt with my efforts. Time for a baked spud and a brew!
A truly epic place to ride a bike. Thanks to the organisers and all the vollies for their amazing efforts on the day and all the locals of the lakes for being so welcoming.
Stunning landscape (some more photos below are from the day after when the weather was cracking!). Stats below include the ride up and down from Ambleside plus some junk kms to round out to 200km for the day!
Total distance: 201km
Elevation climbed: 3554m
Elapsed time: 8hrs 14mins (7hrs 34mins for the official course)
Ride data: http://www.strava.com/activities/139906833