Welcome to an introduction to the best race in the world. Ok, I’m probably quite biased here as I’ve not thought about anything else for a long while.
Shortly after having my first go on the muddy stuff at a windswept Cyclopark in Kent, a film came out entitled ‘For the Love of Mud’. Sat in the Barbican cinema that night I was immersed with the arty yet brutal black and white scenes of men and women straining up the seemingly impossible vertical fells of the achingly beautiful Yorkshire Dales with bikes on their shoulders. I wanted in. But possibly not quite at that point. Work to be done.
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3 Peaks Cyclocross Challenge: The History
Run since 1961 (1979 with a women’s field) the 3 Peaks Cyclocross Challenge takes place annually on the last Sunday of September. The first rider to complete the feat is said to have been 14 year old schoolboy Kevin Watson from Skipton, who set off against the odds and completed the journey now set as the annual race, unchanged. The route covers 61km, 54km of which is rideable, with a total elevation of 1524m. The cairn summits of Ingleborough (723m), Whernside (726m), and Penyghent (694m) are climbed by the riders, where the most hardy of race marshals stand often in the cold and wet.
The first women’s winner of the 3 Peaks was Brenda Atkinson, who completed the gruelling course in 4 hours and 35 minutes. This year’s winner was Delia Beddis, who, having won the race now for a second time trains and races in London. There have been so many interesting stories of the women who have raced the 3 Peaks over the years, and race director Mark Richmond was keen to emphasise that since taking on the role 4 years ago, the 3 Peaks awards equal prize money across all age categories- something that nearby Otley resident Lizzie Deignan [nee Armitstead] has lobbied hard for within the sport, saying: “I hope that other races can progress to offer equality as we have done".
3 Peaks Cyclocross Challenge this year...
On the last Sunday in September 2016 I was on the start line in the small village of Helwith Bridge. This is a no nonsense sort of race, and sign on is done in a tent in the pub garden next to the hostel where many of the racers stay the night before where hot water is not exactly guaranteed. The start comes quickly, and in a fast and furious few minutes winding over the bridge and round the tight bend, the neutralised start takes to the open road before turning off onto the first off road section some 6km later. It’s a race like no other.
Here’s a very small window into my 3 Peaks journey...
The Other Three P's - Planning, Planning and Planning
In early June the smoke signal goes up that entries are open for 3 Peaks applications. Be prepared for a somewhat weighty form requiring a previous history of cyclocross racing and riding required. A few weeks of uncertainty follows until the selection email hits inboxes across the world.
Kit for the 3 Peaks Cyclocross Challenge
The 3 Peaks is absolutely not a fashion parade. The weather forecast changed nearly every day shortly ahead of the race, thankfully getting slightly better as the week went on. Carrying a waterproof jacket was compulsory, but after that anything goes. With a damp day ahead I chose to wear bibs and a jersey, thick merino socks, a Rapha mesh base layer, and Rapha merino arm warmers, which are my absolute go to piece of kit. They did not let me down for this race, I kept warm, dried quickly after the couple of showers and didn’t overheat. Spot on.
I chose to not wear a racy pair of carbon soled MTB shoes that I use for regular cross racing, opting for a brilliantly comfy pair of Fizik M5 women’s MTB shoe, which were thoroughly worn in over a long gravel bike packing trip this summer. The only issue was that I could not get them done up quite tight enough, and with ascents of 45% to clamber up there was only one thing for it. Gaffa tape. Sorted.
To stud or not to stud took up a lot of whatsapp time in the week preceding the 3 Peaks. In the end, despite the predicted boggy and wet conditions I decided not to stud as I could barely walk across the supermarket floor without nearly going AoT, and with the ascents of Whernside featuring rocky slabbed steps more suitable for those 6ft + a more comical scrabble up the slippy Simon Fell on Ingleborough would have to be dealt with.
Training for the 3 Peaks Cyclocross Challenge
So what next? The 3 Peaks is all about preparation, mental and physical. I decided to use a coach as I felt a little unsure about what would be the best way to prepare for something so unknown.
Huw Williams, coach at Cadence Performance prepared me well using a mixture of brick sessions (riding then running immediately afterwards...and repeat...and repeat a bit more) to get my legs up to strength, running reps up steep slopes with the bike on the shoulder and one session with a park bench. Less said about that the better. Training was undeniably hard. And so it should be. I had to get my head in gear for the long game.
The 3 Peaks Cyclocross Challenge Bike: N+1
Bikes of all ages make the start line of the 3 Peaks, and even bikes that had been hand crafted for the event like the 5th Floor’s striking Mecredi bikes made by Adeline Moreau.
Bikes are checked by the marshals at sign on- no mountain bikes allowed, drop bar cyclocross bikes only here.
Safety equipment is carried by each rider including a whistle and an emergency bag which is usually strapped to the riders frame in some way, sometimes underneath the top tube to act as padding for the 7km of carrying the bike up the fells.
I hitched a ride on a Trek Boone 7, a complete dream boat of a carbon cross bike, running on SRAM Force CX1, a groupset I have come to love for its reliability and responsiveness. Gearing was simple. More easy gears the better for me. I used a 38 single front chainring paired with a 11-36 cassette, making rideable ascents on shot legs slightly more bearable.
Tyre choice is key for the 3 Peaks. History dictates this race’s rules- tyres must be no wider than 35mm. The bike has to deal with a lot over the variable terrain right from wanting them to be fast over sealed road, to being bombproof (and still fast!) on the rocky gravel lined descents, slabby ridgelines and steps, drainage channels and river crossings. After hours of research the Schwalbe Land Cruiser came out as being the most reliable. They became even more attractive when found for £8.50 a tyre… They worked with no punctures, no issues, and the weight of them were offset by the super light and nippy Zipp 303 wheels.
I wrapped my top tube with pipe lagging (multi pack, Wickes) to make sure I wouldn’t end up with severe bruising and secured with electric tape, and carried one bidon on the seat tube to enable me to shoulder the bike.
Safety equipment is carried by each rider including a whistle and an emergency bag which is usually strapped to the riders frame in some way, for me it was wedged and taped (and then taped some more) between the saddle and the saddle bag.
It is possible to race 3 Peaks without a support crew, but if you can find a group of people who are kind and mad enough to stand at the bottom of Cold Cotes (just off the first peak) and the Ribblehead Viaduct (following the second) you’re onto a winner and a way more confident day. The race would have been nothing without the support crew I was lucky enough to have, and to see the familiar faces ahead of me on those descents really powers you up to attack the next section.
The race: Luck and a Few Pounds
Luck is needed. In spades. A few pounds are needed too, but not in spades, the recovery pint in the Helwith Bridge Inn after the race where you can’t move for dogs and muddy legged racers will see you have change from a fiver.
The real learning comes from the doing, with the mud in your eyes and the grit between your teeth.
I finished my first attempt at the 3 Peaks Cyclo Cross race respectably. And I am delighted. However, as with many things in life, the real learning cannot come from reading a blog, watching a film or looking at photographs. The real learning comes from the doing, with the mud in your eyes and the grit between your teeth. You learn when, the clambering up that mountain grabbing the grass to steady yourself, and knowing which bog to run through after a few bad choices, which the descents to run rather than ride and the food to eat on the very fast go (I got that wrong).
With the shouts of the spectators still ringing in my ears a week on, I can’t wait to get my application back in to have another crack at the race next year, taking all those learnings from this year and expecting to learn a whole lot more.
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