The 56th Annual 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross took place on 30th September, and I raced it and finished it. I have wanted to ride in this event for years now, but as we shall see there’s more to it than simply rolling up and pinning on a number. Happily for me 2018 was the year when the stars aligned, plans worked out, and I was able to line up for the chance to pedal, push and carry my bike over this remarkable course.I have always loved the countryside of the Yorkshire Dales, ever since my parents brought me here as a kid and we climbed Ingleborough via Gaping Gill. Despite the underlying rock being closely related to that beneath the hills of my home in terms of geological history, and less than fifty miles further north, it is a very different terrain to the South Pennines. Obviously pockmarked and porous in a way that our millstone grit is not, the limestone bones of the land also give the place a more open feel. The dales are wider and the ridges and peaks stand apart from one another, more distinct than the wide plateaus and narrow valleys of my part of the world. The summits are higher too, having a good 100m or more on the highest tops of the Dark Peak. They felt to a ten-year old boy like gigantic mountains, the conquering of just one a monumental endeavour that left me exhausted. The idea of traversing three of them in one day struck my young mind as being somewhere along the spectrum of intrepid achievement not far short of climbing Everest. I must confess, about thirty years on, that I have still not got round to Doing The Three Peaks on foot (nor have I climbed Everest, for that matter), but they have always held a strong attraction for me and I have returned to the area many times. One of the first holidays I took with my wife was at the foot of Ingleborough exploring the limestone pavements around Trow Gill. Penyghent was the first proper mountain my son climbed, aged six, and I made sure he went up and down all the way under his own steam, because you treat these hills with respect, son. I’m getting a bit involved here, sorry, but suffice to say that I really rather like these mountains, and the idea of racing a bike around all three appealed enormously.Running or hiking the Three Peaks is a classic big day out for pedestrians and people do it all year round, but there is just one day a year when a few hundred lucky racers get to legally take bicycles over these tops. Nowadays the race is sufficiently popular that the organisers have to run a lottery for entries, and unless you marshalled the year before (or are fast enough to be invited) then you aren’t guaranteed a ride. You also have to provide some evidence that you are fit enough to haul yourself round the course in a reasonable time (my effort at the Glentress 7 seemed to suffice). You are only allowed to use a cyclocross bike: drop bars, 35c tyres, no suspension. If you don’t make the cut-off times at various checkpoints then you get sent home. These barriers to entry combine to make just lining up at Helwith Bridge with a number pinned to your sleeve feel like a small achievement in itself.There were about 500 of us at the start last weekend, loosely organised into ranks by estimated finish-times behind the sub-3h elite riders on the front row. I took up my customary place at the back with my friends Rik and Andy, theoretically putting us in line for 5h-plus finishes, although I was hoping to beat that mark if possible. I wasn’t sure how I was likely to feel, as the previous week had been wiped out by a cold, and to be honest my efforts at training had suffered from the inevitable summer holiday slump. A good few hilly miles in September had helped give me some confidence that I’d get round, but a satisfactory time wasn’t exactly certain.When the flag dropped the bunch shot off up the road towards Horton and we enjoyed a few flat miles of bunch riding sheltered from the blustery winds before leaving tarmac for the farm tracks leading to the first fearsome climb. Before we had even reached proper off-road terrain a rider directly in front of me was barged to the ground by a stray sheep. He seemed to be okay as he picked himself up (the sheep was fine), but the incident served as an excellent reminder that this is no ordinary race, and takes place out in the real world in a living, working landscape. I negotiated the remaining farmland with no further mishaps and began the astonishing climb up Simon Fell, the first section of the first peak of the three, Ingleborough. The ascent starts steadily enough over a series of shelving fields, but you can see the pack stretched out in front of you like a stream of multi-coloured ants climbing a wall where the hill rears up to about forty-five degrees. Here you have no choice but to shoulder your bike, hanging on to tussocks and fences as you trudge towards the top. Matching the slow pace my fellow back-of-the-pack racers as best I could, I was near my limit all the way up, and those riders with more of a fell-running background enjoyed a clear advantage here. I had left my friend Rik a little way behind on the flat road section, but he caught and passed me with ease here thanks to his superior hill-jogging skills.Photo by muddygorilla.com
The top of Simon Fell was blasted by wind and rain, but the terrain was mostly rideable, and the traverse across to the foot of Ingleborough’s summit pyramid allowed a little time for recovery before the inevitable slog up the slabs to the first checkpoint. Having dibbed-in we swung left for the descent to Cold Cotes, down a rocky path which gave way to sweeping grassy terraces off Little Ingleborough. I started to enjoy myself, opening up the brakes and letting the bike fly past some more careful riders, making up a good few places by the time we reached the bottom. Slotting into a group on the road and picking our way through motor traffic on the B6255 I made good progress to the foot of Whernside. This ascent is less absolutely precipitous than the first climb, but is perhaps a more relentless slog overall. I passed through the summit marshal point where I had stood last year pretty exhausted (see pic below), and picked my way down to Blea Moor over some of the most technical sections of the entire circuit, winding up the pace to another enjoyable blast once the drops, slabs and drainage ditches of the upper reaches of the hill were dispatched.Photo by racingsnakes.com
After passing through the crowds at Blea Moor the road to the foot of Penyghent gave me chance to catch Rik again, but inevitably he reversed the situation once more on the final climb, and my pace dropped and dropped the higher I got. By now I had a headache, my back was ruined, and my legs were on the verge of cramping at nearly every step. I was reduced to stumbling along at a couple of miles per hour, wheeling my bike up the final slopes, utterly wasted. As I climbed back on and started the descent from the last summit checkpoint I felt too tired to even dismount again, and resolved to just hold on and grit my teeth for the whole descent, or crash, whichever happened first. I let go of the brakes and allowed the bike to run once more, freewheeling and clattering down any available line. I trusted that my finely-honed mountain-biker instincts for picking soft spots to stack onto would save me from total disaster, and as my legs slowly recovered a little I found I was even passing a few riders. The lower sections of Penyghent Lane are covered in loose babyhead rocks, a surface that seemed to cause problems for many other riders, but which I normally find enjoyable and entertaining to ride on, and with the final few miles in sight I felt my spirits lift and I picked off several more places. The last road stretches to the finish are almost flat, and unbelievably I found myself sat on the front of a miniature peloton as I span along, happy enough until we reached the fearsome Cote De Helwith Bridge. This is fifty yards of approximately 3% incline which normally wouldn’t even register as a gentle slope, but at the end of this race it slowed me from about 20mph back down to little more than walking pace. My passengers shot past, leaving me to roll back to the finish line for a completion time of 4h43m51s and 389th place, supremely pleased just to finish, and over the moon to do it well under my target of five hours. Rik managed to beat me to the final checkpoint by two seconds, and Andy made it round in 5h39m28s.For those who care about this stuff I was on a Fuji Altimira 1.3 2017 with mostly stock kit but with a KS Zeta 50mm dropper post (highly recommended) and Vittoria Terreno Mix tyres run tubeless at 50psi front, 60psi rear, which were great, but do seem to wear out fast. I ran 36 x 11-32 gearing, and could definitely have done with a lower ratio or two towards the end of the race. I had no punctures and no other major mechanical issues, although there were a few creaks and groans coming from the bike towards the end, so it’s going to have a bit of a service before I race it again. I drank about 1.5L of water carried in a Camelbak and ate four gels and half a bag of jelly babies. I’m still aching all over several days after the event, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and the horrible bits (the hills) were mostly horrible in a satisfying, type-2 fun sort of way. Even the slog up Penyghent was worth it in hindsight; getting yourself to the top of something when you feel like it’s almost impossible is gratifying in a way that an easy ride will never be, and just letting everything hang out on the descent afterwards was highly rewarding. I will probably see if I can get a spot on the race next year, and if not I may well marshal to ensure that I can ride the year after. I’m definitely interested to see if I can better my time, getting closer to 4h30, perhaps by doing some proper training or something crazy like that.The atmosphere and support from the volunteers and spectators all the way round the course was brilliant, everyone seemed happy to be stood out on windswept hilltops or in boggy fields to encourage and safely shepherd herds of lunatics on unsuitable bicycles around the place. Most of the walkers encountered were happy to share the paths with us (with one exception in a miserable old baggage on Penyghent, who hopefully didn’t manage to actually knock anyone off their bike with her inconsiderate antics – mardy-arse ramblers would perhaps be well advised to choose from the thousands of other paths in the area that aren’t used by the race for the few hours of the one day each year when it takes place, just a suggestion). All my fellow racers were kind and considerate to one another in what are pretty testing circumstances, and I saw no poor sportsmanship or shenanigans at any point.As an event, the 3 Peaks CX is unique and brilliant, and should really be on any serious bicycle rider’s to-do list. It is sufficiently difficult that even the very best will find it challenging, and pure fitness alone will not carry you through. I lost count of the number of whippet-thin roadies who looked out of their depth on the downhills, fell-runners without pedalling miles in their legs will find the linking road sections a serious chore, and mountain biker adrenaline junkies will be in over their heads if their fitness and abilities on a skinny-tired, rigid bike aren’t up to scratch. You need to be both a good all-rounder and in pretty good trim to even finish this race, but it’s well worth the challenge.