This winter, I totally lost my fitness. I don’t mean, I got a bit out of shape. I mean, I did nothing that would remotely count as exercise for three months solid, while eating my own (increasing) body weight in toast and twiglets. There were reasons of course. But the reasons did nothing to change the entirely predictable and truly unsavoury end result. Something had to be done. And so, finally dragging myself off the sofa of slothdom a little after Christmas, I did the only sensible thing I could think of and entered the Fred Whitton Challenge.
The Fred, for those who don’t know it, is a Cumbrian road ride that takes in all the main Lake District passes and indeed, most of the Lake District. It’s fabulous. And on the tough side. Hardknott Pass, with its front-wheel-off-the-ground steep sections, rears up in front of you after 98 miles, just for example. I last rode it ten years ago. Slowly. At this point, I need to be clear about something. Unlike some members of the Adventure Syndicate, I’ve never ridden extraordinary distances at extraordinary speeds. Bar primary school egg and spoon days, I’ve never raced at all. I’ve ridden quite far in some amazing places, but slowly. Slowly. This is not imposter syndrome; this is how it actually is. And so, from the multiple comforts of couch, distance from recent bike-related suffering and total lack of knowledge I blithely declared my goals: I would learn to go faster and I would beat my ten-years-ago time. How hard could it be?
Up to now my training strategy has always been of the ‘ride lots of miles, eat lots of cake’ variety. And I began that way this time too, digging my 28-year-old touring bike out from back-of-the-shed retirement and riding to Penzance, via Wales. Fabulous. Then Lee Craigie gave me a serious talking to and everything changed. A whole new world opened up, complete with its own intoxicating lexicon. Threshold training, reps, intervals, power outputs and heart rate monitors were routinely scattered across my daily conversation. I made notes in a specially designated training diary and I quit putting jam on my toasted tea cakes. I would become a lean, mean and much faster biking machine. As for the small matter of being now in my 50’s rather than 40’s… well we all know that ageing is just in the mind.
Amongst the highs and lows: a Wednesday ride in the Langdales, brilliant sunshine and snow on the fells, exulting in the mid-week freedom that is one of the definite plusses of my current role as a struggling author/unpaid activist. Stopping to watch red kites, suddenly vivid in a grey Cumbrian sky. A back-wheel puncture just as the forecast four o’clock rain sweeps in. The daftness of trying to train for a road race by riding laps on holiday on Colonsay, a stunning but small island with all of about ten miles tarmac. Riding Birker Fell in a beautiful dusk, and meeting Chris for one of several ‘best pints ever’ – and a lift home - in the valley pub on the other side. Tears of cold and pain after hours of windy, bitter, cold drenching that definitively answered the question, will these new (expensive) gloves really stay warm and dry? And, a few months down the road, still riding slowly enough to appreciate wood anemone, celandine, wild garlic and other roadside spring flowers in some considerable detail.
What’s been interesting overall is the degree of resistance. I’ve worked on bike-fitness before, of course, but this time it had a whole new quality. My body resisted, obviously. Three months of zero momentum bestowed a grungy, heavy, totally unflowing feeling on even short rides and meant that the longer, hillier ones properly hurt. I came down with two bouts of chest-cough that, prone to bronchitis, sent me scuttling back to the sofa. My lower back kicked up hell and sent vivid messages to the effect that my core muscle strength was not just low, but non-existent. The day after longer rides I was tired to a degree that was unnerving, with a sort of bleak emotional accompaniment. Life resisted my training efforts too. I was offered work on a sea kayak trip I couldn’t say no to, immediately followed by a few days of wall-to-wall meetings in a distant city, adding up to thirteen days off the bike at entirely the wrong time in my Lee-prepared training schedule.
Most disturbing of all, my mind resisted. I would catch it muttering, ‘you don’t have to do this anymore, you know. You could just settle into slothdom. It’s not so bad.’ And then, ‘can you really be bothered with all this effort? Why are you doing this???’ The notion that I was at some sort of crossroads where I could choose not to be arsed, to stay on the couch, to let that ‘why bother’ voice literally shape my physical future - a voice that was almost tempting - that was truly unsettling.
In the end, I ran out of time. The Fred, early in May, was suddenly a week away. I’d ridden it all in chunks and there was no way, bar a peloton-based miracle in conjunction with gale-force tail winds the whole way, that I was going to match my previous time, let alone beat it. I’d be doing well to get round and it was going to hurt. This dawning realisation, my stopwatch confirming again and again that yep, I really was riding that slowly, triggered several days of inner stomping, pouting, raging and distress. Better not to ride at all, surely, than come in with a time that would label me ‘old and slow.’ From a gender perspective, I couldn’t even bear to think about it.
And then, on my last long pre-Fred ride, the sun came out. There was fresh snow on the hills. It was heart-achingly beautiful. As I sat on warm tarmac eating a sandwich to the sound of skylarks I remembered. This is the point. This is the answer to the ‘why bother’ question and why I want my fitness back: to be able to ride my bike in places like this. To feel that truly alive feeling as my body kicks in up the slope and my bike tilts over the top and swoops the other side. To be out in the hills, sun and rain. To smell the gorse and pine and to have this combination of physical vitality and strength and time out under the big old sky; to have all this feed its magic into my confidence, my identity, my best self. As I dusted the crumbs off my leggings and got back on my bike, a big chunk of ego rubbish fell away back into its small confining box. Yes, I was still slow. No, I was not going to win the women’s super-vet category, (unless I was the only entrant), nor better my ten-years-ago time. But I was much fitter than I’d been at the end of the twiglet era – and than I would still have been, had I not entered the Fred. Which, after all, had been the whole point of entering, until my ego kicked in. Whatever happened now, bar accidents or injuries, it would be fine. Just fine.
And, amazingly, it was. The met office forecast veered from ‘cold and wet’ to ‘warm and wet’ to ‘warm and not that wet’ to ‘warm and dry’. Not that I was checking hourly or anything. I hate cold and wet, and I love warm and dry. I love hot and dry. I couldn’t believe my luck. Lee and I spent the evening before eating bicycle-shaped pasta in blazing sunshine on the Fred campsite, surrounded by mountains, the site quiet post-registration, bar a small cluster of campervans, the grass picked over by a troupe of jackdaws. We could almost see our tension fading away over the hilly horizon. There were toilets, even showers, all very plush by the standards of regular van-dwellers anticipating a night in a layby. Best of all, the purveyor of very fine lattes in the main marquee was to be back on duty at 5am. We could even have a pre-Fred expresso.
Away not long after 6am, leaving Lee to seek out a local speedy bunch, I rode the first half as fast as I’ve ever ridden anything. From Grasmere to Braithwaite via Kirkstone, Honister and Newlands passes, swept up in ever changing mini-packs that swooped through early morning Ambleside towards the first climb. With 2000 riders on the roads it was relatively easy to find a nice wheel to hang onto. I hung onto many, without scruple. Held my own on the flats, lost them on the climbs, caught up on the descents, advantaged by being local and knowing the terrain, knowing where you can let go when the roads are dry, sitting on the outside and hurtling down towards Ullswater, grinning, loving the novelty of overtaking, loving the sheer exhilaration of riding fast (or even slow) in mini-packs, loving being on the roads with multitudes of colourful cyclists and little traffic. At the 60-mile time check I was up on any previous time, managed a cheese sandwich, kept my stop short, wheeled off towards the next hill.
After Whinlatter, climbing up into the trees and whizzing down towards the small, and possibly startled, village of Lorton, the roads switch from fast and swoopy (or very slow and steep) to the neither one sort or the other uppy/downy roads I’m really bad at riding with any kind of pace. As predicted, I slowed right down. But that was fine too. There was still the stunning scenery, hill upon hill stretched over the horizon. There were still the lush smells of gorse and pine, and the crack and humour of the other cyclists - increasingly interspersed with expletives as fatigue kicked in alongside disbelief at quite how hilly and steep this route is. There were still the generous support crowds, heralded by the sound of ringing bells and banging pots, suddenly in sight on a steep section or at a crossroads, standing there in the sun all day to cheer folk on. There was still the generous, good-natured vibe that pervades the whole event, probably against the odds. Set up by Paul Loftus in 1992 in memory of a strong and much-liked local cyclist who’d died of cancer far too young, the Fred was a relatively small affair, raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support and providing a regular tournament for largely local talent. Despite rocketing in size and popularity, despite the professional caterers and marquees and time-keepers and exemplary marshalling and the riders arriving from all over the UK; despite all of that, the original spirit of the thing, the friendliness and good humour and the reason behind it has somehow magically remained.
I came in a bit over ten hours, about 45 minutes slower than ten years ago. But I came in smiling. No – ear-to-ear grinning. Lee, back for hours by this time, was there to meet me. Other friends appeared, and riders met on the road reunited. We sat in the sun and I ate my post-ride pie and peas and drank tea, fast followed by beer. It was not the glorious physical achievement on my part I’d briefly entertained hopes of, but it was a glorious ride. I had predicted being slow, but I hadn’t predicted being able to cycle more or less as hard as I could, revelling in the fact I could feel the fitness I did have by then willing and available in my lungs and legs, all the way around. I hadn’t predicted the bluebells. I hadn’t predicted actually enjoying it.
And wow, have I learned a lot. I’ve always known that ordinary, not particularly athletic bodies – like mine – can do massively more than they might have us think. But losing fitness to that degree was like falling over some cliff edge I didn’t even know existed. That bit wasn’t funny. Nor was the rather desperate, painful, nail-scrabbling, partial return. Now I know that cliff edge is there, though, I don’t intend to let myself fall over it again. I don’t intend to entertain any further doubt about the degree to which being fit – by which I mean, being able to ride my bike in hills, with exuberance rather than grunge-pain – is central to my identity, my sanity, my happiness. And I don’t intend to lose sight of the bigger picture again either. The whole Fred thing was a milestone on the journey back towards big-mountain cycle-touring after a ten-year absence (blame the sea kayak), and my ambition to cycle the length of South America is itself part of an aim to tell a much, much bigger-than-self story, to use adventure cycling as a medium of communication for some of our most urgent environmental challenges.
More on that latter. Meanwhile, I’ve put that ‘can I really be bothered’ question firmly back in its box, alongside the rightly battered ego-stuff. Take that, mind. Ageing, it is just possible, might be a little, tiny bit in the legs. But it ain’t going to be in my head. Not for a few years yet.