‘Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’ (T.S.Elliot)
My legs burn as lactic acid floods my muscles, lungs gasping for air as my heart thumps against my chest at an alarming rate. A lone voice in my head commanding me to focus only on the next five seconds, the next turn of the pedals, the next metre of tarmac in front of me. Even that seems like an insurmountable feat right now as a stream of sweat pours down my nose. I keep my head down but I know what lies ahead, yet more suffering at the hands of this monster.
A climb for sadists and those bordering on the insane, Hardknott Pass doesn’t so much bite at your legs as savagely try and rip them off with gradients that soar up to thirty percent. Whereas many climbs snake their way over mountains Hardknott takes the direct route, virtually straight up and over. It takes no prisoners, only an astounding number of casualties.
What began life as a memorial ride for the late Fred Whitton, former club secretary for the Lakes Road Club, has turned into an iconic ‘bucket list’ ride for serious cyclists the world over. I rolled over the start line of the 2016 Fred Whitton Challenge just after 6am in a group containing, amongst several local riders, two Dutchmen, a German and an American, all with a sense of ‘we’re in this together’ as we set out on the road to the first climb of the day. Yet for all of the climbs that were to come, and there were plenty of them, it felt as though this was all about one defining stretch of mountain road, Hardknott Pass.
A ride of staggering beauty that showcases the very best of the Lake District, resplendent lakes shimmering in the early morning sunshine and any number of rocky peaks framed by clear blue skies, 'the Fred' is also a ride of immense ruthlessness. There’s nowhere to hide here, you either have the legs for it, or you don’t. As simple as that. Even then you need something extra, a mental toughness that enables you to push the body and mind past the realms of what’s possible, especially on Hardknott. I say mental because before it’s perverse gradients get a chance to break you physically it attacks your mind, taunting you from afar.
A flat scenic country lane, something of a rarity in this part of the world, leads you into the jaws of the beast, hidden at first and then without warning suddenly bearing down on. It’s exposed lie on the mountain leaves nothing to the imagination, the full climb laid bare in all its savage glory. It hurts just to look at it, to see riders struggling with their own battles in an attempt to make it to the top of this fiendish stretch of road. Its last dagger to the mind comes in being able to see the summit of the climb, in knowing exactly what lies between you and the top, a distant crest on the mountain.
Before I even made it to the cattle grid at the foot of the climb I knew that it was going to push me to my very limits, and beyond, and what’s more I knew it was going to hurt. A lot. If it seemed impossibly steep from afar it was twice as daunting up close but there was no turning back. This was it, this was the Fred Whitton Challenge right here. Any ideas I had of staying seated and getting into a rhythm soon went out of the window as my front tyre came off the ground, forcing me out of the saddle as I wrestled my bike up gradients that many were even struggling to walk up.
It rose violently up again, the brief respite offered by the middle section nothing more than a distant memory as I zig-zagged back and forth, working my way ever closer to the summit, legs turning and burning. Before heading for the Lake District I’d been told that the bottom section of the climb was the hardest, I categorically disagree. As the lactic acid built it became a matter of survival, simply staying on the bike and making it to the top. Time was of no consequence, it was a matter of pride, of finishing what I had started. Head bowed, body wracked in pain I finally crested the pinnacle of the climb.
Barely a moment to gather myself, to take in the glorious views and to get my breathe back before I was into the descent, after all what goes up must come down, and how it comes down. For me one of the joys of conquering mountain climbs is knowing that you can enjoy the descent, the exhilarating payoff for all that handwork but here there was no such luxury. One wrong move and the consequences of such a mistake are not even worth thinking about. And if it wasn’t enough to take on Hardknott a hundred miles into the ride, it’s followed immediately by Wrynose.
By the time I had reached the foot of Wrynose, the last major climb for the day, something strange happened. I looked up and was filled with a sense of excitement at what lay ahead. For so long I had been riding knowing that the hardest part was still to come, and now with that behind me I couldn’t help seeing this as a chance to enjoy myself, to see what the legs had left in them, to put those long months of winter training to the test on a brute of a climb. I would be lying if I said I flew up the climb, more of a gradual glide, but with enough left for two bursts of acceleration to take me up and over the final stretch.
A sense of immense satisfaction began to wash over me on the descent and ensuing miles to the finish, knowing that I had tested myself against one of the toughest rides in Britain and survived. To me life is about risking going too far to find out how far I really can go. And, after a Sunday in the Lakes, I now know that I can go a little bit further.