Updated: Jan 22, 2020
For those that haven’t heard the terrifying words "Fred Whitton Challenge", it is a cycling sportive that has a reputation as one of the hardest single day cycling challenges that you can do in the UK.
A badge of honour for any Northern rider. It takes place each year over some of the toughest fells of the Lakes in early May and is ridden in the memory of Fred Whitton, racing secretary of the Lakes Road Club, who died of cancer at the age of 50 in 1998.
Starting and finishing in Coniston, the route is 112 miles (177km) and takes in about half of Everest in climbing over these passes and mountains:
The Kirkstone Pass
Glenridding and Ullswater
The Honister Pass
The Newlands Pass and the Newlands Valley
The Whinlatter Pass
The Western Lake District: Lorton, Loweswater, Lamplugh, Ennerdale Bridge, Cold Fell, Calder Bridge, Gosforth
The Hardknott and Wrynose Passes
It’s a frankly terrifying amount of climbing for one day. Much of it at persistent 15-30% gradients.
So if you're taking it on for the first time this year (or want a taster of the route they ride on the day without the full 110 miles of savage challenge) then we've put together a little route that will give you first hand experience of some of the route's tough climbs but won't ruin the mystery of the day itself. We parked up just outside Keswick - but you could easily roll from a hotel or B&B in Kesick itself or park in town. The ride immediately kicks off with a truly breathtaking wheel around Derwent Water. It’s easy pedalling. Nice roads. Stunning scenery.
Then you arrive in Borrowdale. Which sounds like a near neighbour of Hobbiton. In fact, something about the base of Honister Pass feels very much like you’re on the outskirts of a beautiful version of Mordor.
Out of Borrowdale it’s a very sharp climb onto Honister Pass. It’s nearly 7km to the top. And the first 2km is mostly between 20-25% gradient. Savage. You'll probably be out of the saddle and slowly turning your legs over for the whole thing. The road is narrow and doesn’t even provide much scope for zig-zagging. It’s a grit your teeth and bear with it for 7km kind of climb. In the wet (as it often is for the Fred) it would be a struggle to keep the rear wheel from spinning on the lower slopes. When you get past the wooded area, the climb lets up, but only a little.
The scenery at the top is truly astonishing. After catching your breath at the slate mine you descend down the perilous 27% gradient between the stone gates (of Mordor). Note that off the top the descent is VERY steep and a little bumpy to start with but gets better and is truly amazingly fast and flowing once it levels out to about 10% or so.
From Honister, it’s a long way down into the valley and then only about 4-5km run until a sharp right turn onto Newlands Pass. Nothing like as steep as Honister, exposed, narrow and sometimes into a block head-wind. But despite a steady 8-15% gradient with a few 20% kicks, it’s only the very top that is truly horrid for 200m or so. Again, the hard climbing for 8km is worth it for the amazing view.
The drop off the other side is a 20%-er, but it’s very short and then there is a lovely long valley and nearly 10km until arriving back at the top of Derwent Water and before starting the climb onto Whinlatter Pass. Here you catch a glimpse of Bassenthwaite Lake. It’s narrow through the valley, but fast and undulating. Lovely views in every direction.
The views disappear quickly on the wooded slopes of Whinlatter Pass. The easiest fell on this route, it is several miles of climbing at about 8-10%. After what you’ve endured before around Derwent, Whinlatter seems relatively straightforward. And at the top of this climb there is a great cafe run by the Forestry Commission and easy access to loos.
If you're knackered at this point it's a fair sign you need to do more training before the Fred, even so you could turn and descend back into Keswick and the start point — But you won’t be doing that on the day. You'll continuing on to the ever more Tolkeinianly named Ennerdale and Cold Fell and the most terrifying things of all, Hardknott and Wrynose Passes.
Instead of returning home, we recommend continuing on to Lorton and then round to Crummock Water and one of the best views in the Lakes of Buttermere and then taking on Honister again from the other side - the side they rode in the 2013 Tour of Britain and which features in the 100 Greatest Climbs Books. After descending back into Seatoller you can take the quiet roads back to Keswick around the other side of Derwent Water.