*** many thanks to Jamie "Tron" Atherton for this race report ***
‘The Fred’ is a 114 mile bike race across the heart of the Lake District in Northern England. It’s a stunning part of the world. Green everywhere, glass like lakes round every corner, and lots of mountains to climb. Lots and lots of mountains. Whether on foot or on your steed the mountains, or passes, don’t stop. There are seven major hill passes in total, including Kirkstone, Honister and Wrynose, scattered with sadistical precision at inopportune moments along the course. Hardknott Pass, with its 33 percent gradient, is the joint steepest road in Britain and it rears its head after 100 leg-sapping miles. The road up it was originally put together by the Romans, no doubt they were all larruped on red wine when they got up there as the surface is no different to the moons.
There’s almost 13,000ft of climbing, and plenty of opportunity for even the hardest of athletes to consider retiring to the local alehouse for cake and scrumpy. The route profile itself resembles a particularly unhealthy ECG reading. All that said I couldn’t wait to get cracking and I don’t think Ive ever jumped out of bed faster than the morning of the flight back to blighty.
I met up with 4 old pals when I got to the Lakes, Lieutenant Mowser, Unabrow, Forro, and PC Greenfinch. We were all giving the Fred a go. Even though they had all been training hard and looked in good shape, I was no doubt still more handsome with my Dubai tan, and all round lush bod. We quickly headed down to rego before taking in a recce of the course. The sun was shining and there was that pre race buzz in the air. Id missed that, what a winner. The course recce however was somewhat, well, disturbing. I’d done all the training and felt fitter than a bull on creatine, but the car could hardly get up the hills. How the f%^k was I suppose to get up them buggers if the car can’t? I live in Dubai, where its flatter than a nutella pancake, and even though Id put the miles in, it did start to un-nerve me ever so slightly…
After the standard pre race steak and salad and a decent nights kip, we were down at race start at 6am ready to crack on. Its worth noting that there were 2300 athletes at The Fred, that’s a lot of bikes on the weekend roads. The start was then staggered meaning you could get going anywhere between 6-8am. We got cracking at 6.30am just as it decided to piss down. Thanks for that. It was also bitterly cold, but baring in mind Ive lived in Dubai for the past 14 years Im sure it was like the Bahamas for some of the locals. I saw one young chap applying sunblock to his face. Erm mate, Im dressed in every piece of clothing I own and you’re applying sunblock? Tit. I was wrapped up in all kinds of stuff. Base layer, full strip, warmers, and something called a ‘rain jacket’. No idea what this was but it kept me dry.
That’s it then, we’re off with the masses and heading into the unknown. I had enough nutrition, tubes and C02 to sink the Belgrano and felt in great shape. Just love racing, you can’t beat it. It’s fairly rolling and flattish for the first 5km, lulling you into a false sense of security before the real work starts. Just before the first climb of the day the saddlebag drops off, a brief stop, strap on the bag again (strap on! Ha) and we’re away and climbing. Not too pressing at first but then I see Lieutenant Mowser fixing a puncture at the side of the road. Ouch. I stop to assist and just as good as he blows both his canisters and needs mine to get him going again. We get going after 15 minutes only for his tube to blow AGAIN. We have a look and its his tire, basically cut in 2. That was it, race over for Lieutenant Mowser, only for a support van to roll up and give him a new tire. Jammy git. 30 minutes for the total stop and we were back on it. We climbed a bit and then hit some little rollers where I had a dig and got us back into the feel of it. That was the last time I saw Lieutenant Mowser, he slowly pulled away on the first big climb of the day and the next time I saw him was at the finish line. Strong boy, although bald and ageing badly.
I passed by Unabrow, Forro and Green not so long later, they were on their 3rd puncture of the day. Nice. They weren’t so far behind by the end but I didn’t fancy taking my gloves off to replace tubes, it was Baltic.
The next 6 hours or so are a bit of a blur, mainly due to the torrential rain and severe cross winds sweeping across the course. That said I remember Honister Pass quite clearly, it was the 2nd biggie of the day and had me in 1st gear from the get go. My Garmin would revert to 0.0km/h at the bottom of each pedal stroke and half the cyclists around me were off and walking. Crazy. Anyway I got up the fettler and wished it good riddance as I set off on a nice slippery descent back down to Mother Earth.
Ive got to say, the spectators were incredible. It was moderately early on a cold and wet Sunday morning and they were out in full, cowbells, food, even handing out cups of tea in plastic cups. So much encouragement out there it put a chill on the back of the neck. Awesome.
Id been going some time now and got into a nice group before we were suddenly halted by a race marshall. A bus had crashed into a cottage in front of us and there was glass all over the floor. Some lads just bunny hopped over it, I instead chose to get off, throw the bike on my back for a minute or two and take in a couple of gels while I was at it. Shortly after, a rider and I had been together for about half an hour when one lady marshal shouted HORSE HORSE! Right then a nag the size of Bournemouth bolted right between us, Im not messing this thing would’ve scared the shit out of Goliath. The other rider turned to me and said, “crikey I nearly lost it then, thank God for that marshall”, of which I replied, “I thought she was saying she had a bad throat!”. Terrible Dad gag and didn’t even get a grin let alone a laugh. Right over his head. He was a tit an’all.
I must say I love climbing, I really do, its not that its hard and we all do this because we like to suffer, but its when I got to Hardknott 100 miles in that I realized things were about to get tough. Hardknott Pass is basically a massive great big whopping climb with 30%+ gradients that I wouldn’t fancy Contador getting up let alone us mere amateur mortals. However, we do this because we love it, we love to suffer on hills, we embrace it. We love getting in that zone where we take our bodies to the brink. So, I attacked it as best I could, I got up the first section before the road starts to wind left and right. It wouldn’t be half as hard if it wasn’t for the 90 degree turns, and on the 2nd turn upwards I couldn’t get my pedal down and fell off to the side of the road. I didn’t mind the fall so much, and the bird who helped me up smelt of marzipan so every cloud as they say. I did though have to walk about 10 metres up to a section with a lesser gradient so I could clip back in. I got going again and passed a guy who was walking sideways up to the peak. That climb, at 100 miles in, was brutal. To be completely honest on the run up to the race Id been told about it and warned that it wasn’t for the faint hearted. Whatever, Im Tronny I thought, fit as a fiddle me lad etc etc. Yeh I suffered up that climb, 1 nil to Hardknott. I started the descent, passing the ‘warning’ and ‘danger cliff drop’ signs as I hurtled towards 70km/h. Its not long before I hit the last Category A climb of the day, Wrynose. Another 30%’er but only 400 metres before again you’re hurtling towards earth at warp speed praying the brakes on your overpriced carbon rims hold up and don’t buckle re-entering earth’s atmosphere. In Dubai Id never been into 1st gear before, this day 1st gear and I became good friends, we jostled and laughed for hours. It was the start of a solid friendship, and we promised each other we shouldn’t leave it that long till next time.
Over Wrynose now and 15 miles or so of small rolling hills to the finish. I got with 4 other guys and basically smashed this last portion of the course. Thank the Holy Lord above for the flats near the end, Id had enough climbing for the day and welcomed some decent speeds. By now the sun had come out and I was able to get the jacket off. Coming into the finish I knew my time wasn’t what I expected but I was looking forward to seeing the boys, refueling and getting out to the battle cruiser sharpish. I rode over the line, 9 hours and change after starting earlier that morning, shattered and battered, but utterly elated.
What a fantastic event, I loved every second of it despite the driving rain and wind for most of the day. Next year 7hrs 30mins is the target, I actually rode an 8.37 this year but the mechanicals pushed me over 9. The winner came over in just under 6 hours, how he did that Im not so sure but rumors were that he had a rocket surgically inserted up his backside the night before, and kept it on a low burn throughout the duration of the race.
On a more serious note, the majority of you will know that the main reason behind competing at the event was to honour a fallen pal of ours. Nigel Black was a long term mate and best man at my wedding. He passed away several years ago after a brief battle with Cancer. I miss the bugger every day and this race was for him. Ultimately it was also to raise much needed funds for Cancer Research UK. You can still donate by following this link - www.justgiving.com/Nigel-Black
Im pretty sure that halfway up Hardknott Nige would have been shouting, “you’re all bloody stupid, get yoursens indoors…”. Well we decided to do this for you anyway mate, its another way in which we can remember the good times we had together, and feel at ease letting you go a little bit more…even though we all know you’ll always be there. Love you mate.
Nearly forgot, off to the alehouse we went. It was certainly handy that Lieutenant Mowsers Ma and Pa owned a sensational little pub nearby. We ate, we drank and then drank some more. Good times and good lads.
An absolute pleasure riding with 4 close friends over that beautifully brutal course. Cant wait for next year to do it all over again. Would I do anything different next time? For sure. Id set the gears up with a semi compact and a 32 (sorry, bike tech talk) and Id get out to some climbs here in the desert for training. Id also probably have a second helping of that whisky and berry crumble at the pub after. That my friends, was a sensation.