I wrote this feature about my first attempt at the legendary Three Peaks Cyclocross Race. With entries for this year's event currently open I thought it timely to share it here. Article reproduced with the kind permission of Cycling Plus. Photos by Jack Chevell.
Explaining cyclocross to a non-cyclist can lead to some raised eyebrows – “so you jump off a moving bike and leap over hurdles?” Tell them about the Three Peaks and they’ll be measuring you up for a straitjacket. 38 miles of the wildest countryside Yorkshire has to offer, 3-5 miles unrideable and 5000 feet of climbing. There’s Simon Fell – the toughest climb in cycle sport - a calf-destroying grapple up a field too steep for even the robust local sheep. There’s insane descents with rocks, drop offs and hidden bogs to contend with. Oh and don’t forget that you have to do all this on a drop handle-barred bike, carry a survival bag and rescue whistle and give a donation to mountain rescue when you enter. You’d have thought all that might have put me off, but I love cyclocross and as Dean Barnett, Three Peaks obsessive and runner up in 1995 told me – the race is the pinnacle of UK ‘cross: Wembley, Wimbledon and Twickenham all rolled into one. June 20th, the email arrives – I’ve got 14 weeks to prepare for the hardest cyclocross race in the world.
In the beginning...
In 1961, 35 competitors turned up for the first Three Peaks. The race was won by John Rawnsley of Bradford RCC, the man who would go on to run the event for over 50 years. Even those 35 racers surpassed expectations. In response to a complaint in Cycling Weekly about this new “mad scramble” across the Yorkshire fells, John replied “we very much doubt if there are 30 riders in the country who will be prepared to climb three 2,500 foot mountains in just under four hours, with a total distance of 25 miles”. The race has evolved over the years – this 53rd edition covered 38 miles and attracted 650 riders. The basic principles remain the same, those 2,500 foot mountains still loom large and strict rules govern the type of bike that can be used. Those competitors from 1961 would have understood the benefits a full suspension mountain bike might have given them, but such technological advances are of no more help to the 2015 field. Only cyclocross bikes with drop-handlebars are allowed. This respect for tradition is one of the things that make the event so special, there is no big money corporate sponsorship here. With entries heavily oversubscribed and riders attracted from as far afield as Pakistan, the US and New Zealand, it’s a tradition that clearly works.
So how do you prepare for the challenge? This is where the great community spirit of the Three Peaks comes to the fore. It may be super-competitive at the top end of the race, but for the rest of us mere mortals there’s a feeling that we’re all in this together. Numerous blogs tell tales of previous editions and give out priceless advice - the excellent “ThreePeaks Cyclocross Blog” collating them all in one handy site. The magic of twitter meant I was able to get helpful tips from Dean Barnett and one of the race favourites Paul Oldham. Most of that advice could be summarised in one sentence: ride your cross bike a lot, ride it on rough off-road and shoulder it as much as possible. Leicester Forest clubmate and Three Peaks veteran Nick Walling was a bit more specific. “Carry your bike up hills so steep you couldn’t run if you wanted to.” Unfortunately, whilst the rolling countryside of Leicestershire provides excellent cycling, vicious gradients are not scattered widely - I was directed to the Iron Age hill fort of Burrough Hill. Steep ramparts built over 2000 years ago to ward off rival tribes provide a perfect training ground for calf-burning hill reps. I got a few funny looks from dog-walkers as I lugged my bike up the embankments time and again - in ancient times I might have been burnt as a witch. Trying to fit in training between my jobs as a GP and an educator at Leicester Medical School and occasionally spending a bit of time with my family was turning out to be a challenge. Finding suitable places to practice became something of an obsession, culminating in numerous visits to the Arts and Humanities department at the University. Not to seek inspiration in poetry or literature, but to take advantage of its 18 floors of stair-climbing goodness.
It's all about the bike
With body preparation well underway, it was time to get my bike ready. Having spent most of the spring upgrading my trusty Cannondale to a fast and lightweight race machine, I had to do a bit of rewinding. A punishing course featuring boulders, loose rocks, raised drainage channels, muddy bogs and 18 miles of tarmac would make mincemeat of my carbon fibre wheels and soft handmade tubulars. The race has been described as the most inappropriate terrain on the most inappropriate bike – I had some work to do. First up: the tyres. Schwalbe Landcruisers – a solid clincher built for commuting and touring – are the most popular choice. I found them to be fairly useless in mud and opted instead for the hardly more glamorous Smart Sams. With rocky descents making pinch flats a constant hazard, I was advised to pump them up to 70psi – a level of pressure sufficient to cause nosebleeds in most cyclocrossers. Cheap and chunky alloy rims with 32 spokes per wheel and my bike was getting positively hefty. To compensate for this I nicked the cassette off my mountain bike giving me the granniest of granny gears - a 36 tooth rear sprocket bigger than my chainring. Cross top levers completed the package enabling me to brake hard from different positions to allow some respite for my shoulders on the long descents.
And so to Yorkshire. Greeted by an unexpected sunny morning as we made our way to Helwith Bridge, it was obvious that this was no ordinary race. A hot air balloon was slowly taking flight by the carpark, mountain rescue teams enjoyed a cuppa and a commentator was getting the atmosphere going with an accent that made Geoffrey Boycott sound like a soft southerner. Signing on, I received my race number, had a small timing chip strapped to my arm and got on with my pre-race faffing. Survival bag taped to the top tube, Camelbak filled up, pockets stuffed with energy bars, I took my place at the start – a melee of riders crammed into the street with barely room to swing a cleat.
It's all go!
Looking round I struggled to imagine how we could all get going without a mass pile up. It was all fairly amiable though and my nerves settled as I got chatting to my neighbours. When the start did come, it was significantly less dangerous than my last league race and flying along the fast rolling road to Gill Garth I began to think that this could be fun. Hitting the first off road section a grunt behind me marked the first crash of the race and reminded me of the need to take things seriously. I was going well as we hit a succession of short climbs punctuated with treacherous boggy sections and I made up a few places. Suddenly, there was Simon Fell to bring me down to earth – a string of riders disappearing up a tussocky cliff. Battling my way up the iconic climb it was noticeable how quiet everyone had become, pained heavy breathing replacing the previous chit chat. Not daring to stop for fear of toppling backwards, I pulled on the grass, gritted my teeth and dug in. Finally the gradient started to ease and I risked a look over my shoulder to be greeted by a magnificent view. Low cloud clung to the valley far below as bright sunshine shone on the seemingly endless procession of riders making their way to the fell.
Fantastic teamwork from cheery marshalls got me and my bike quickly over the style known as Rawnsley’s Leap and a bit of post-Simon Fell euphoria set in. Not that it lasted long. It soon became clear that the climbing of Ingleborough was definitely not over, as another summit reared up out of the peat bog. Bike back on the shoulder, a rocky clamber in unsuitable shoes and the welcome sight of the checkpoint - I’d cracked it! One peak down, two to go and time to experience my first Three Peaks descent. Before the race, it was the descents that gave me the most anxiety. Technical downhills have never been one of my strengths, and the prospect of ending the race in my orange survival bag seemed all too real. Riding across the plateau, I tightened my brake cables and prepared for the worst. I needn’t have worried. After an intial, unrideable plummet, a rough track gave way to a wide expanse of moorland. Following the line of previous riders I started to pick up speed. This was actually enjoyable. I’d obviously bought a winning ticket in the Ingleborough Bog Lottery and stayed upright all the way down. Several riders were less lucky – somersaulting dramatically into a muddy bath as their front wheels sank deep. Laughing a little manically I careered towards the marshalls and the gateway off the moor.
Over the top
Back on the smooth tarmac I took the chance to refuel, shovelling in energy bars. A group ahead was making good progress and I worked hard to get on the back, shamelessly drafting to the foot of Whernside. After the rigours of Simon Fell, I was hoping the worst was behind me - the endless stone steps up the fell had other ideas. This was a real grind, and every rider fell into their own pace – for every rider that passed me another cramped up at the side of the path. Reaching a false summit it was back on the bike before an ungainly encounter with a kissing gate – the less said about that the better. Past the summit, another checkpoint and it was time for best descent of the whole race. Famous for its stone steps, raised drainage channels and boulders a-plenty, the long and fast rattle down the mountain requires constant concentration, but is no less fun despite that. Against the odds, I stayed upright again and on reaching Ribblesdale Viaduct and the welcoming crowds I allowed myself a “weeeeee” as I shot down the final grassy slope. Two peaks down, just one to go!
The road to Horton in Ribblesdale provided another chance to refuel, spin my legs out and take a turn at the front of a small group, trying not to notice Pen y Ghent looming ominously ahead. Off the tarmac, onto another rough track, my granny gear found its niche as the gradient increased. Fast riders were coming down from the summit and constant concentration was required to avoid a collision. Through a gate the gradient finally won and I started the laborious shuffle to the summit. Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, the final peak was bagged and it was downhill all the way! A moments relaxation, a loss of concentration and I was grovelling on the gravel – my first crash - right at the end. No serious harm done, though my saddle was now pointing at a somewhat alarming angle – not that I was spending much time on it. I don’t remember much more about the descent - it was rough, it was rattly and there were moments when I was hanging on for dear life, but I made it down and onto the best bit of tarmac I have ever ridden. 4 hours 21 minutes after that hectic start, the commentator was still in fine voice – a Yorkshire accent never sounded so good. I had survived my first Three Peaks in one piece, my survival bag and whistle unused.
Worth the pain?
So did it live up to the build up? Was it worth the obsessive preparation, the mysterious bruises, the “Three Peaks shoulder”? I’ve had some fantastic experiences on my bike down the years, but the atmosphere, the views and the brilliant riding mean this one definitely tops the lot. I’ll be back next year – I just need to sort out my kissing gate technique.