So on Tuesday I took the plunge and headed to the Lake District for the very first chosen challenge of my new EPIC7 project- the Fred Whitton Cycling Sportive. What’s EPIC7 you may ask? Read more here www.alexstaniforth.com/Everest.html
I wanted a simple event to begin the project with as a ‘warm up’, as they get progressively tougher in the build up to my holy grail: Everest. This isn’t a religious reference, but more a Monty-Python inspired utilisation of it’s second definition ”A thing that is eagerly pursued or sought after” which sums up Everest pretty well. After all, I didn’t want to fail the first challenge; knocking my confidence for the remaining 6.
I’d hesitated and delayed the challenge for a while, so a date was set- otherwise I’d never get it done. No excuses. I filled with dread that morning as I boarded the train to Windermere; today was going to hurt big time. Especially with a route like this: http://www.strava.com/activities/163649075
After an impromptu scone and coffee stop in Windermere, the rain lashed down outside. Tour De Drowned Rat seemed a fitting salutation. I loaded my rucksack up with the following: five slices of home-made Peanut Butter and Banana cake, one Soreen Malt loaf, one banana and five Isotonic Energels. I worried whether it was enough but knew my huge breakfast of porridge and sultanas, sugary coffee, wholemeal toast and two Beet It Sport (Beetroot Juice) shots would have kept me going for at least the first hour or two.
The Fred Whitton is usually an organised event in May every year, in memory of the Lakes Road Club secretary. Today’s effort would be entirely solo, so no feed stations, marshals, or anything else. I used the exact same route as this year’s event- which would be further than I had ever cycled before. But it seemed apt to entitle it ‘Tour De Fred’.
Setting off towards Troutbeck, the first 20 miles or so went particularly smoothly and quickly. I felt strong and loved the Lakeland scenery, pacing myself so I didn’t burn out. Kirkstone Pass was a doddle, especially compared to February when I was training with my friend Keiran from Summit Clothing and was shoving his little car up it in thick snow when we were utterly in the thick of it.
I stopped to refuel and take a photo, but having recently got new clipless SPD pedals on my bike, when setting off uphill again I lost my balance and fell off sideways into the grass verge. Bruising my ego and badly twisting my handlebars, it wasn’t a great start. These climbs though were steady and manageable- the weather now easing off and giving stunning views around me of the mountains that I love so much. I then zoomed through Borrowdale, passing Shepherds Crag, where I’d first started climbing about four years ago and been inspired to climb Everest.
Honister was the next big daddy. Started mega steep as my glutes and quads smoldered. But the forbidding incline mellowed and soon enough I was approaching the top without stopping as amused cream-tea drinkers watched on from the cafe. I locked eyes on an even steeper path through the mountains above but fortunately, this wasn’t part of the route…
A mega bumpy descent downwards to Buttermere, again, beautiful scenery. All was going great so far. The next climb was Newlands Pass. It was manageable with a stunning backdrop to my left, but I was more immersed in stopping myself rolling backwards down the hill. It went flat-ish for a while with cruising on country lanes past farms, fields, proper out in the countryside.
Next up was Whinlatter. The only one I’d done previously. Far shorter and more forgiving. But I had in my mind a memory of a few years back on holiday in the Lakes where I’d gone down the wrong side of the pass in pouring rain on my mountain bike, badly dehydrated and without food or the fitness I have now. That was an ordeal; especially when I knew I had no choice but to go back up.
Next up was views across to the sea near Gosforth, with Sellafield blotting the landscape slightly. Legs felt fine at this point to my amazement. Soon enough, I was imposed with Hardknott Pass which I’d dreaded all day. Posed sarcastically by the 30% gradient sign. Hardknott is the joint steepest road in the country, and in previous years events riders had been airlifted off after serious crashes. It’s more akin to a mountain bike course on the descent. The way up was painfully steep especially with 90 miles in the legs. My thoughts were focused on ‘What sort of idiot designed a road like this?’ as the smell of burning clutch filled my nose as cars struggled past me and sweat blinded my eyes.
As always with struggles, I look how far I’d come, rather than ahead, but I was literally crawling. Stop pedalling and you roll backwards. At one point I had no choice but to stop and push. But once you do, there’s no getting back on- well, I tried to, again losing my balance like I had earlier in my SPD pedals and falling sideways. This time bending my poor handlebars even further and cutting my knee badly. Not quite as bad as Chris Froome’s incident in TDF this week, but it hurt. Getting to the top of the pass was a relief- and I was extremely fortunate to have put new brake pads on my bike the night earlier. Had I not done this, I am positive that the descent down corrugated steep roads would have ended in disaster as I hung on for dear life. There was little respite as Wrynose was next as my leg continued to bleed. This one was tough and needed some walking. Another perilous descent and the worse of it was done with.
Feeling jaded, I took a wrong turn and realised my Garmin had got confused too, sending me towards Coniston instead of Grasmere to finish. I knew catching the final train would be tight, but now I was 9 miles away from Windermere with only an hour to go, and some chap in Coniston had told me the best way back was the hilly route I’d just come up. I could have cried, but by this point I’d already set off at full pace. A little voice in my head told me ”Your mission, if you choose to accept it… is to get back to Windermere!”. I seriously doubted I’d do it. How had I gone so wrong? But I gave my all, running low on water and not stopping. Every second counted. I was in an almighty flap, loaded with adrenaline. I asked my dogs in spirit to give me some good luck, to delay the train, or give me some sort of omen- I always feel like they’re watching over me. I was swearing at myself and pushing my exhausted legs to the point where I was managing 17mph for the final miles. How on earth, I’m not sure- but I gave it my best. I arrived at Windermere with four minutes spare. Slumped on a bench, I just laughed and told myself ”Good work son’.
Despite the detour I’d still cycled for 9 hours, 115 miles and climbed 11,800ft. I’d done it, to my amazement. I got the buzz and feeling of achievement I’d longed for- and the reason I started EPIC7. I’d enjoyed it (sort of) and pushed myself hard, but still within my limit. My legs were better than expected too as I tried to devour the 5396 kcals burnt. And I smelled so bad I got a train carriage to myself, eventually arriving home at 1:30am after an extra 20 miles cycling from the station.
So, an epic start to EPIC7 and it’s only going to get better. My next challenge will be announced soon!
All donations greatly appreciated to support the Sherpas- www.justgiving.com/EPIC7 or simply text: EPIC57 £1 (or your amount) to 70070.
Thanks to Westgrove Group who have recently made me their Young Ambassador and supported me with the EPIC7 costs, and to TRACS of Delamere Forest for supporting me with bike parts and services. Looking forward to more sponsors joining me to help make the journey to the top of Everest possible and becoming part of this journey- there’s still a long way to go.