There’s no way to describe what I am about to describe. Which makes this piece of writing seemingly obsolete. But I feel it important to write down my experience as much for my own benefit to remember and enjoy what was one of the most surreal and incredible days I’m likely to have on a bike.
The Three Peaks cyclocross race is something of myth and legend. People travel from around the World to take part, yet it is the absolute opposite of a commercialised and gentrified beast. I am sure big sponsors would love to get their hands on something so steeped in history and respect- yet it does away with all of the material things that come with that- and just fills itself with incredible people, stories and memories. It truly is a beautiful event because it is run through pure passion and love and you can feel that from start to finish.
I could write pages about the hundreds of amazing stories and people that organise, volunteer, sponsor, race or just watch the event but they are already covered in the brilliant 3Peaks blog run by the superb rider and writer Dave Hagarth- check them out here: http://3peaksblog.ukcyclocross.co.uk/
If you don’t know what the Three Peaks is, it is a cyclocross race with specific rules for bikes- drop bars, 35c tyres max etc. The stats are as follows:
61kms (38 miles)
Road: 28kms (45mins – 1hr 5mins)
Unsurfaced: 33kms (2hrs 15mins – 4hrs 40mins)
Unrideable: 6kms – 8kms (dependent on individual ability & prevailing conditions)
Total climbing: 1524m (5000ft)
When you take into account that pretty much all the climbing is offroad- that’s 5000ft in 33km or 20 miles. But then you also must take into account the fact that half of that offroad is descending, so 10 miles: 5000ft. And 10 miles down 5000ft too. The rise of Simon Fell is 0.72 miles and 755ft!
Think about that. That’s beyond insane. That’s incomprehensible for someone with a bike: a road bike with slightly knobbly tyres.
That is what attracts people though, and certainly me. A challenge- a curiosity- just how mad is it? That is why I wanted to get this first one down in writing, because when I do it again (and I most definitely will, as long as I get in) it will be different, not worse or better, but different.
After getting in, I did a lot of reading and watching- the brilliant blog by Alex Forrester HERE, the race reports from years before, the GCN video, the Bombtrack video. All of which helped me understand what the race was about and how best to prepare without actually riding the terrain. I’ll be honest, I didn’t do enough specific work on the running/walking side. I have ridden my CX or MTB bikes exclusively since June and really got used to riding silly terrain on an unsuitable bike, got my fitness to the best it could possibly be since I hit the badger last October (see here for further info…) but simply didn’t have the extra time to dedicate to practise walking up steep hills or steps with my bike. I chose to ride my bike instead as time was limited with work, family and everything else. I’ll get to the effects of that late but in hindsight, it was the definitive limiting factor to being faster overall.
Seb and I travelled up on Saturday morning from down south, chucking the bikes in the back of Seb’s car, grabbing a Subway for breakfast and recording some low quality content for the podcast. 6 hour later and we were in the beautiful town of Harrogate. In a past life I visited a lot of towns and cities up North playing in a band- but never really got to see them properly. So it was nice to actually be somewhere up North and be able to look around and enjoy it. We walked the World Champs loop (after visiting Betty’s Cafe- which Seb was very keen on) and came to the conclusion that it is going to be amazing to watch, and that the final loop is as grippy as you like.
We then headed West across to Skipton, got some lunch, did a shakedown ride of the bikes as well as kit- I was in full gear, including gels in pockets to make sure it all felt alight, Seb chucked on a helmet and stayed casual- standard! Following that, we had dinner and a few gins and went to bed at the Premier Inn ready for the race the next day.
The race was 30mins away so we were up and out by 7:30am. As we drove towards the course on a bleak, drizzly road, the scenery became more and more spectacular. Partly hidden by clouds, sheer faces disappeared into the sky, segmented by stone walls. It began to dawn on the both of us that we’d be going up something similar, times three. But surely not the really big ones, that’s impossible…
Muddy fields and World Tour
We pull up to the car park, and everything is very low key- and I mean that in a very good way- one marshal pointing us into the field to park, one tent to sign on, 5 toilets, a finish banner connected to two wooden posts- everything working perfectly. Then suddenly, Lachlan Morton walks past, a very surreal moment, in a muddy, drizzling field in Yorkshire. We left him to it, and got down to sign on, where the brilliant team sorted everything effortlessly, gave us a keyring, fitted us with our ‘dibbers’ for timing purposes and sent us off. We set the bikes up, put our kit on and then Seb sat down for a bit. I rode one lap of the field where I saw people on rollers, riding up and down the road, even running up a grassy hill. When I got back (40 second warm up max) Seb was chatting to the bloke next to us who pointed to the mountain and said that was the first climb- we laughed and looked at each other. No point thinking about it now.
As we rolled down to the line the buzz could be felt- spectators lining the sides and ontop of walls- riders trying to find the best start position. We lined up somewhere near the front however we didn’t take into account people just joining the front and therefore moving us back a bit further than planned. There were some inaudible callups and then someone shouted ‘1 minute!’.
Snaking through and meeting Simon
Before we knew it, the race was on. Like the last cross race, I used my newly discovered skill of starting well to my advantage and quickly got through a good chunk of rows to the back of the leading bunch on the road. However as I tagged on, the road pinched and spread the group out. I decided against an all out road effort and settled behind some young riders who looked serious and girl from Hope racing who was clearly going to be quicker than all of those around her! The road section soon finished and we turned the famous left over the cattlegrid and up towards the first climb of Simon Fell.
Now I had been checking weather over the last week and it was always sunny in Ingleborough (the closest place for weather I could find). But within 2 metres of getting over that cattlegrid I had a small insight into what the race was going to be like. Water everywhere, mud everywhere, rocks everywhere, and this was just a Farmer’s driveway! The gradient swiftly rose and people started jumping off bikes, taking different lines and looking to move forward in position. I stayed on the bike longer than anyone else around me and took some positions before I had to balance/stop behind people walking through a gate. Eventually it was time to jump off and I remembered a line from one of the many things I read in the lead up: “don’t carry your bike until you have to, there is plenty of time for that and you want to save the energy.” So as everyone else was carrying, I was still pushing, which seemed to work fine.
It was at this point that I got to take in the race for the first time- before it had been intense road bunch riding and hard climbing. I kid you not, I laughed out loud in disbelief. You know the scene in Inception where the world folds over on itself? It was like that. Except there were people walking up it with bikes on their backs. I looked back to what was ahead, chucked my bike on my shoulder for the first time and started walking. Within 10 steps, I knew that this is where I was going to lose time, all those riders I had overtaken riding up were now walking past me- I could feel my calves and knew that pushing them harder would not end well. Seb came past ringing his bell and we settled into a pace where we weren’t losing places. The gradient was steep- and then it got steeper, and then it got steeper, to the point where you have to really concentrate and keep momentum to not fall backwards. Likewise, the ground was so high in a gully I found myself in that my front wheel was hitting it- and it was up on my shoulder! Looking up doesn’t help- you cant see anything- people are literally disappearing into cloud. You just have to dig deep and put one foot in front of another. An eerie silence descends on the once hectic and loud cacophony of riders shouting, mud flying, brakes squealing and gears changing.
Once at the ‘top’ of the near 50% incline of Simon Fell, you are then greeted with yet another climb that has been hiding in the clouds. It is partly rideable and Seb and I jostle for position to be the first to dib- he beats me by one second- clearly he has been training in secret with his dibber… A quick shout and thank you to all the brilliant volunteers who did the dibbing- a high pressure job- especially when dealing with such a large amount of riders at once! They were superb.
I was expecting a descent but it was actually a flat expedition across a rock and bog strewn field/stone. The bogs were a feature of this race- there wasn’t ever a ‘line’ more like 5 or 6 tyre marks of various depths across a plethora of muddy puddles. You had to gamble and hope that the one you chose wasn’t deeper than expected. I got this wrong once early on and managed to eject myself over the bars and landed on my feet. I learnt to use hopping and body position to get through and over them with as little fuss as possible. What followed was a superb technical ride across rocks, mud, giant stiles where amazing people take your bike for you, let you jump over and hand it back and many chances to crash or puncture. I found Seb once more (he saw he was slightly ahead and waited as he wanted to ride together- cute) and we began the actual descent.
Now I don’t remember this but according to Seb I went ahead and flying down- a big thing for me as Seb is one of the best descenders in the business. I think it was down to me choosing a better line though, as it had a very big influence on speed- there wasn’t 3 or 4 good ones, more like 1 half decent one, 3 awful ones and 1 good one if you like to bet with your collarbones. I chose well, by accident- as I had no idea where the course was going, just that it was down. We hit some more bogs and out of nowhere I heard the dreaded noise: PSHHHHH, and sealant fired out from behind me onto my legs. I hoped it would seal, rode through a few more bogs and stopped to check- completely gone. I took a deep breath, said goodbye and goodluck to Seb and got to work. Two mountain rescue chaps (again much respect to the wonderful job they do) were across the path and gave me someone to chat to as I got to work. I had two tyre plugs ready-taped to the bike but couldn’t see anything through the mud and in a rush just swapped to a tube. In hindsight, clearing the sidewalls, plugging and CO2’ing would have worked quicker maybe. I took a moment to check the pressure after the cartridge and decided to pump up some more with my hand pump- no point doing half a job and puncturing again. I was very aware that I was now running a tube and had only one left- with the hardest and rockiest parts to come.
Even though I lost 115 places and 9 minutes of time- I wasn’t stressing and just focussed on getting down in one piece and looking after that tube. I wasn’t pushing as much as I could but that kept mistakes to a minimum. The road was reached pretty quickly and I got to work on trying to gain some places. My road legs came into their own here and I made up plenty of time on others ahead and pushed hard. I could feel some hints of cramp after the punishment of Simon Fell and the first signs that the unusual test of my legs through walking up steep climbs was going to bite me in the arse. I cracked on regardless and got to the bottom of the next climb: Whernside.
Stairway to the rollercoaster
Another formidable beast- as I remounted after the compulsory dismount at the start of the climb, I looked up, laughed again and asked the bloke who was riding next to me if that’s where we’re going- he confirmed the inevitable. I got to work climbing up the lower slopes and the cramp was getting closer. Whernside is unique in that is roughly 4 billion steps whilst carrying a bike on your shoulder. Luckily, the cramp didn’t seem to increase when I was walking so all was good. I got into a rhythm and even managed to overtake a few people. Overtaking people when walking with a bike on your back is an awkward affair- especially when the path is no wider than a metre! At the top of the famous steps/stones I managed to ride the next section where others weren’t and took a few more places and saved the legs- pushing hard on the bike used up my quads more I felt, so it worked well. The tyre held up and I dibbed at the top, ready for the infamous descent.
The majority of descending down Whernside is as follows. Go down the stone path, with steps, gaps, gullys and humans walking up, or go down the side, full of mud, rocks and off camber. Choices choices… I did a mixture of the two, mainly sticking to the side of the path- thinking about pinch punctures on steps and whincing. I was steady, jumping off when needed but struggling to be fast on and off the bike due to my legs and impending cramps. I got through unscathed- and there is plenty of opportunity to do yourself some serious damage if you lose concentration of try to take too much out of the terrain. I took a few mad lines (there’s a picture of me coming out of a bush and I have no idea how I got there!). Jumping on the bike to start the final bit of downhill towards the Viaduct (it was a nice surface too- new gravel!) the cramp hit my right calf hard and I was stuck in position for a few minutes- I laughed it off, had a chat to spectator and got going once it wore off- This first attempt was all about the experience and learning- no need to ruin my day because I’ve lost a bit of time- chasing that 4 hour goal can wait.
Riding down towards the viaduct was terrific, rolling hills, river crossings and cheering spectators. It was made even better when Bruce from the Crosscast came past me and I latched onto his wheel- surely he’ll know the good lines! He did indeed, as he ducked right before a tricky stair set, round a few surprised spectators and down onto the dibbing point. I asked if he was who I thought he was and he confirmed- I told him I was a fan and we parted ways- I think he was busy filming as I didn’t see him again once we hit the road. I pushed on once more, took some more places but was very aware that the cramp was now entering more parts of my legs- the two big walking sections had really pushed my legs to their limits- Whernside’s steps were basically one legged 1000 squats with a bike. I hadn’t trained for that and my legs were letting me know!
The final push
Regardless, I pushed on, drank and ate a gel- my fourth and last one. It was now time for the final climb- the up and back of Penyghent. I was aware that this was the most ‘cyclist’ friendly of the three climbs and was hoping that pushing the hard gear could help me out. I rolled through the bottom section into a crowd of cheering spectators and riders coming down. I got my head down and started pedalling as hard as I could. I rode a lot more than those around me but not as much as I wanted- I was just running out of gas and decided to get walking and try to keep a decent pace before I blew totally. This worked as I didn’t lose places and didn’t cramp. I did see a spectacular crash by a young lady, who lost control and ejected into a bush at a startling pace. All around checked she was ok and she was up and away within seconds, she was flying! The spectators and crowds had been amazing all day but it was up this final climb that was lined with watchers where I realised just how special that is. It made for such a unique and special experience and without it, would have made the never-ending climb pretty much impossible. The crowd on the ‘shortcut’ grassy bit with the horn were a highlight- shout out to them. After a final twist and turn and bit of riding, the final dib was made and the run down to the finish was on.
Having seen the speed and sketchniness of some of the descending whilst coming up the other way, I was nervous for my tyre and body. I kept it smooth and steady as I didn’t want to throw it all away for a bit of saved time. The top end of the descent is very steep, steeper than anything I’ve ridden down South, plus there are step downs. I was so far back behind my rear tyre to save myself from going over the bars at one point, I shouted “I’m gonna die!” to the laughter of the grassy-bank-shortcut crew. I eased into though and started to really enjoy that final part- the shaking was mad and every bone and muscle was hurting but it didn’t matter. There were cowbells ringing and you can’t go slow past a cowbell can you? I was soon at the bottom and as I turned through the shouting crowd onto the road, a wave of euphoria and endorphins hit me so hard that I cried a bit. It was sheer relief, pride and joy.
I stepped on it for the finish, overtook a final few people, had no idea where the finish and began to realise that the second I stopped, my body was going to cramp all at once. I didn’t care.
One last dib
I rolled in round the right hand turn, did a skid because I’m an idiot, went through the finish and got dibbed for the final time. I was in a state of shock I think- just so relieved and proud of myself- I finished in 4:34. Slower than I would have wanted before we started but there’s at least 34+ minutes of excuses in the bank- it doesn’t matter though- It was an experience of a lifetime and the following times will be separate ones I am sure- but that first was special for its very own reasons. Seb was waiting for me just outside the tent and that was it- done! We stood and just discussed everything since we had last seen each other, recalling close calls, funny moments and mad line choices. Everyone else was doing the same, which made for a special atmosphere.
So there we have it- I wanted the honest and unedited version because it needs to be told in the same style I did with Seb standing outside the finish tent in the Yorkshire drizzle. That’s what this race is all about, creating experiences and memories, and within 38 miles I got more than I could ever have imagined.
And next year? (That’s if I get in)
-Proper fell running practice (need to find the closest thing to a fell down South)
-Lots of squats in prep
-Tyre liners like Cushcore so I can run lower pressure- 40psi would be a dream and the confidence of not having tubes will allow way faster descending- so long as I don’t puncture them!
-Line up in better position and get in the front bunch
-Get up those hills off the bike quicker
-Have as much fun as this year
-Go with Seb again, it was great fun and I want to thank him for making the trip brilliant!
Be sure to check out https://www.rideforcharlie.com/