It’s now a month since we took on the Fred Whitton Challenge, a ride widely regarded as the toughest sportive in Britain. The statistics say it all: 112 miles, almost 4,000m of climbing over seven of the Lake District’s toughest road passes, and a maximum gradient of 30 percent.
After spending most of the daylight hours in the saddle and battling through torrential rain, hail showers and crippling headwinds, the thought of doing it all over again the next day was unappealing. So we felt much sympathy with 44-year-old Leon Bond, who wouldn’t only be coming back the following day, but the following nine days.
The task in front of him was formidable; riding solo for 10 days, covering 1,120 miles and climbing almost 40,000m, was a challenge even he admits was daunting. BikeRadar caught up with Bond to see how he fared and to discover his motivations for taking it on in the first place.
BikeRadar: So what made you decide to take on a challenge like this?
Leon Bond: I’ve always been an endurance runner, competing in races like the Brathay Challenge (10 marathons in 10 days around the same complete loop of Lake Windermere). I’d did it with my wife in 2010 and it’s typical of the kind of thing we like doing together. I’d planned on doing more running challenges, but in January last year I made a long standing knee injury worse, which put a spanner in my plans. My doctor advised me to stop running, so I started cycling. And I started to really enjoy it.
My wife was still training for the marathons at this point, and it was tough to sit on the sidelines. So I asked myself, what could I do instead? I knew of the Fred Whitton Challenge, being a regular visitor to the Lakes, and I knew of its reputation. It was almost an off-the-cuff comment, but I suggested to my wife that, rather than do 10 marathons, I’d do 10 laps of the Fred while she was out running.
I dismissed it immediately. But a few weeks later, I was doing hill rep training and realised I was almost subconsciously training to do it. I put it on my running forum as a topic of discussion and after that it was written in stone; I was doing it. People dismissed the idea – they thought I had no chance. In the end, my wife had to pull out of the marathons, which was very unfortunate as the whole idea was doing this thing together.
What’s your background in cycling, and in the Lake District in particular?
I’ve always cycled, but I wouldn’t say I had any kind of pedigree. My love for it was only reignited recently, with this challenge. I had a road bike for years but it was only after my injury that I began training seriously on it. I had a head start with my running fitness but bike challenges like this require a lot of time in the saddle. I’d ridden parts of the course before – Kirkstone, Keswick, Whinlatter. I’d done a lot of it, but never so much in one ride.
What kind of support did you have?
I had great mechanical support from the guys at Cyclewise at Whinlatter every single day. This was after around 60 miles, so knowing I could guarantee getting my bike sorted, get refuelled and generally regroup at the same point every day was reassuring. I didn’t have an official support crew; all the help I got along the way was just offered to me.
What bike were you riding?
I rode a Trek Pilot 1.2, with an upgrade to Easton EA50SL wheels, which made the bike roll much better. I used a standard triple chainset (50/39/30T) with a 12-26T cassette. I did wonder whether I’d need a bigger top sprocket, given the ultra steep hills on the course.
What were you goals during the 10 days?
My realistic goal was just to finish and not to blaze round as fast as I could. So I put a strategy in place; if I could do each one in eight-and-a-half to nine hours, I could leave myself enough time to recover each evening. Ninety-five hours was what I had in mind as an overall aim. Only two fell outside that target – one being the first day, which I treated very much as reconnaissance.
What were the biggest obstacles to you finishing?
I had all sorts of mechanical issues throughout the challenge. The weather was abysmal for a lot of the time, which meant a bigger threat of punctures. Day three was the worst; I had two punctures in the section between the summit of Hardknott Pass and Wrynose (the toughest part of the course, with 30 percent gradients coming after the 100-mile mark). It was my lowest moment of the challenge, the longest day and left me mildly hypothermic.
Day six was the toughest physically and my legs just felt completely empty. I knew it would become a struggle around that time but I’m experienced enough to know that if I could just stay on the bike they’d come back to me. And they did!
The climbs may be the things that people look at on the course and think of as being the worst part, but without a doubt it was the descents. They’re so steep, so technical that it takes a lot of practice and a lot of time to get to know them to become confident on them. I actually looked forward to the climbs. I had the fitness so it was just a case of puffing away to the summit, but there’s so much that can go wrong on the descents, especially in the conditions I went through.
How did the challenge compare to what you’ve done in the past?
It was harder than anything I’ve done before but I enjoyed it much more as well. Lakeland is such a beautiful part of the world. Looking back it was brutal, but as a physiological challenge it was enjoyable. The thing that made it this way was the support I got. People had read about what I was doing and they’d join me en route to offer moral support. Having people to ride with meant I never got bored.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of doing the Fred Whitton?
Know the route, be confident in your climbing ability and set your bike up to cope with the hills. The hardest climb comes after 98 miles so preserving your energy is vital.
So, has this made you hungry to take on more cycling challenges?
My surgeon has told me more running would be damaging to my knee, so if I can’t run, I’ll cycle. As long as I’m physiologically capable of exercising, I’m okay with that. So I’m expecting plenty more time in the saddle. I’ve nothing currently planned. [Ideas for challenges] always come out of daft conversations, so I guess I’m waiting for another daft conversation before I think about the next one. Right now I’m just recovering. It’s difficult to put into context what I’ve done at the moment.
Leon was cycling in aid of MacMillan Cancer Support and had a target of £10 for every mile completed– £11,200. He’s nearly hit £3,500 and is still collecting at his Just Giving page.