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Whinlatter Challenge

Before the challenge

As the Whinlatter Challenge is exactly that, a challenge and not a race, I've not done any specific training for this event. The goal for this event is to enjoy it, ride well and see how hard I can push versus mountain, should make a nice change from the usual fairly tame cross country courses! When I arrived at Whinlatter there seemed to be a fair bit of wet mud around on the fireroads in the forest and some bikers were already spattered in mud, so I decided now would be a good time to wheel out my secret weapon, my new Bontrager Mud-X tyres. Never having used mud tyres before I wasn't entirely sure what pressure to set them to or how they'd cope on different terrain (switching from muddy to rocky for example) and if the slower rolling resistance would be noticable, but over the next five hours I was about to find out...I was about to find out very clearly!

During the challenge

There was a good turn out of around 420 riders, the line stretched from the start line hundreds of yards down the hill and for once I was there and ready and waiting somewhere near the front rather than rushing around like a lunatic, finally getting in line right at the very back of the queue. I had absolutely no pre-race nerves at all which made a nice change. There was no real plan other than to ride the full distance and push myself as hard as my body would allow, trying to identify when my body was working anaerobically and adjusting accordingly so I was constantly on the edge of working hard enough without going over the edge and ending up in oxygen debt and then bonking or cramping up. Usually my legs are ok at the end of a race, whereas aerobically I'm pretty much finished so hopefully my training will be paying off today.

The course used large parts of the man made Altura trail which runs throughout Whinlatter Forest, linked up with fireroad climbs and descents plus some new sections of singletrack which I haven't ridden on previous trips to the forest. It was also interesting to note as I rode round just how many new trails are being created. In the next few years, providing Clixby's continue at their current standard, this forest is going to be riddled with dozens of ribands of superb singletrack. The course was a real all mountain trail and had an excellent mix of the following features which, based on what I've already seen on the forums, tested even the best of the riders.

  • Map of the course for the Whinlatter Challenge
    Map of the course for the Whinlatter Challenge
  • 3D map of the course for the Whinlatter Challenge
    3D map of the course for the Whinlatter Challenge

The climbs on the course probably numbered around ten per lap, a mixture of either short, rocky jeep track climbs which were fairly easy and only lasted a couple of hundred metres, winding singletrack technical sections with roots, rocks and step ups, pro-longed fireroad climbs which had you climbing for ten minutes or more and the occasional very steep, very rocky jeep track climb where if you lost traction or stopped you would struggle to get going again. The climbs were tough, although the average rider would be perfectly capable of cleaning them, maybe with the odd wobble. The singletrack and seriously steep sections certainly kept you focused as you sought the best line to maintain forward momentum, balance and traction.

The terrain was generally a mixture of dry, rocky gravel or damp, grassy and muddy with the odd bit of ice thrown in for good measure on some of the sections that were sheltered from the sun although by the second lap, after 840 wheels had ridden over it most of the ice had melted. Some sections were smooth and flowing, others were rocky and required you to constantly change your body position and weighting of the bike to negotiate roots, rocks, ruts and jumps..there were even some boulder gardens which you had to either float over, carefully pick your way through or take on cyclecross style with a quick jump off the bike. The surface was pretty firm and as long as you kept your legs moving and your head up it wasn't too bad, more demanding than your average cross country race course but we were after a challenge and we got that in of the course felt more like "speed trials" to me, I must be getting too used to the flat, flowing cross country race courses of Thetford!

The downhill sections were eye wateringly fast. To make matters worse they were either in the thick of the forest and therefore quite damp so you ran the risk of losing control as you switched between the rapidly forming ruts, or were out on the edge of the mountain offering stunning views of the surrounding mountains and lakes, just waiting to catch you out if you spent a little too long enjoying the scenery! This is something I managed to do on more than one occasion, resulting in a brief moment of panic, the kind where you're only just under control and not only the back wheel is drifting left and right but the front wheel is too whilst you gently try to bring the bike under some sort of control. It's at this point that less experienced riders might panic at the feeling of the bike squirming around underneath them and grab handfuls of brake, a sure fire way to lose control and get you thrown over the high side of your bike! This "drifting" is a strange feeling but once you've experienced it a few times at race speed you're able to cope with it and afterwards, look back with a big grin on your face as you realise how close you came to an almighty stack! Everyone learns the hard way, I've certainly had my share of "bail outs" when it's all gone wrong.

The singletrack sections were fantastic. I thought that little would come to touch the final section of the North Face trail from Moor Top and having ridden Altura trail singletrack before (just after the first section of the Altura trail opened) I wasn't expecting it to be as absolutely incredible as it was. When we rode it in 2008 we all agreed that it needed some more time to bed in properly but since then it has really weathered well considering the amount of stick it must get as it's a very popular trail. The trail was fast thanks to the smooth, firm surface, occasionally huge berms would switch you back and forth as you dropped through the forest, jumps were also a regular feature including singles and table tops as well as the odd root and rock garden to negotiate. The course had it all, a real all mountain playground but with the changes of altitude you really had to put the work in if you were going to get round and complete two laps before the course closed after five and a half hours.

Anyway, back to the challenge which finally started and we were all suddenly climbing at a fairly sharp pace up the hill. I was probably about forty riders from the front and in the first mile was already aware of quite a few passing me. I wasn't going to get sucked into a race with anyone. This was going to be about me against myself, I knew the trails in the forest were quite treachorous and unforgiving in places so I wanted a clean ride with no 'incidents' and hopefully I'd learn a little more about pacing myself. The last thing I wanted to do was have an accident in an event which wasn't even a race. Close to the start there was a section which went through a fence and the trail followed the natural contours of the mountain, revealing a long line of riders climbing up the side of the mountain against an amazing view of Bassenthwaite lake. It was stunning sight making you wish you had your camera to record the moment and also demoralising as you knew not only you were already behind a good few riders but you had a stonking great big climb to get up! It was really enjoyable at this point, I felt good and it was great being out on the bike and just enjoying the trail and not constantly having your head down and not really appreciating the course, the banter and for once...the weather! It was a stunning day, although it was very sunny the descents were a bit chilly!

  • James took this picture of me at some point during the challenge.  I think it was as I was descending the final singletrack section on the second lap of the race.  I think it's a cracking picture, although it makes me tired just looking at it!  James has some stunning photographs of the Lake District at his website so don't forget to go and check his site out after you've finished reading this report ( or use the link top right)
    James took this picture of me at some point during the challenge. I think it was as I was descending the final singletrack section on the second lap of the race. I think it's a cracking picture, although it makes me tired just looking at it! James has some stunning photographs of the Lake District at his website so don't forget to go and check his site out after you've finished reading this report ( or use the link top right)

Up the mountain we rode, climbing to the top before immediately dropping back down under the canopy of the forest on a grassy, muddy descent before hitting the first checkpoint. All good so far, I was grinning from ear to ear by the checkpoint before we continued to drop before turning off the fireroad onto some singletrack which led to a monster climb back up the fireroad on rough, grassy jeep track. It was amazing seeing the riders ahead of you crawling up the side of the mountain, not that far ahead of you but so much higher. Hitting the top, we continued to descend on the fireroad in top gear, passing the other riders who were still climbing the mountain for the first time. I'd already begun to notice that my front wheel was absolutely hopeless in the conditions and had come to the conclusion that it was down to the mud tyres I had put on which being a very hard rubber compound were not at all grippy on rocks obviously, they also had a very square profile so when you leant the bike over the amount of tyre you had in contact with the trail was minimal. I'm not sure about this "lower rolling resistance" people talk about with mud tyres, they certainly felt a lot slower which could have been psychological but the climbs I was struggling on I knew I should have been finding a lot easier than I was. About two thirds round the first lap we crossed a bridge and a spectator shouted to a Keswick Mountain Bikes rider in front of me that we were around 120th and already twenty minutes behind the leader. I stopped and let some air out of my bulging forty pound tyres (big mistake putting that much air in them!) and also adjusted my suspension to hopefully give me more traction and less of a bone shaking ride!

Getting back to near the visitor centre I expected the trail to just run through a wooded section and then cross the start line again but we were all in for a shock as the course then took us a mile or so down the public road before climbing up through the forest, dropping down the other side and then leaving us with a couple of miles of fireroad which gradually climbed steeper and steeper, before leading us back into forest for another cracking section of singletrack which had jumps, rocks, roots and more huge berms before spitting you back out at the water stop and the start of the second lap.

That was one lap done and it was hard going. I asked at the water stop when we passed the start\finish so I could grab another bottle and was told it was coming up shortly. I didn't bother with picking up any water and cracked on, immediately descending a narrow and extremely quick singletrack section before I got back to the hole in the fence that I remembered from the first lap...this wasn't right, we must have already passed the start. I thought for a minute about whether to carry on regardless but decided that was ridiculous as it was very warm and, due to the amount of snow around on the hills I'd opted for a fleecy jacket and I was cooking on the climbs and freezing cold on the descents. No choice but to go back up the singeltrack and fill up at the water stop. All I will say is that hauling your bike back up steep, narrow singeltrack when around thirty riders are hammering down it is not something I want to make a habit of and I didn't shout at the marshal when I saw her and she admitted her little mistake.

The second lap was hard work. I was really struggling as I was now on water so not only didn't have the energy boost and the caffiene kick from my spare bottle (I'd give up caffiene all week so I could get the most from the caffiene I took onboard during the race), I was no longer topping up my electrolyte levels and withing half an hour I was starting to cramp up. Stretching went some way to keeping me going but I was pretty much cooked. I rode as best as I could, just going for a finish and keeping enough in the tank that I could concentrate on the descents, rather than being so tired I couldn't raise my head and see the obstacles in plenty of time which has happened in other races usually with painful consequences! On the second lap sometimes I was cursing myself for not training more, not getting more sleep the night before, drinking too much over the weekend and then sometimes I was absolutely loving it. At the end of the day I wanted a challenge and that is exactly what I got!

I hope that the organisors don't make it easier next year as I've heard they got some complaints about how tough it was. This is a CHALLENGE to finish, not a race. The only thing I think they need to do is give the marshals more information about how the event is being run, information about the course (where you leave bottles etc, how to get to registration), but this is a minor point. If this is how they run their events (they also run a Grizedale Mountain Bike Challenge) then these two will be a permanent fixture in my calendar. An excellent event, well done to all concerned!

After the challenge

Headed straight home, absolutely shattered. Felt beat up Sunday and Monday, felt fine by Tuesday afternoon, if a little tired. Back into the training by Tuesday.

Things to change

TRY to get a decent nights kip the night before a race, hopefully not waking up with what feels like jetlag around 3am. Must be the adrenalin\excitement\panic\all of the above. Keep the mud tyres for muddy events!

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