This time last week, if you asked me to write a list of the things that appealed about the Three Peaks Cyclocross Race, I’m not sure it would be a very long list. I hardly ever ride road, I’m built more for long distance than I am for speed, I’m not really a fan of carrying my bike and I’m not much of a runner. I guess it appealed because it looked hard, and it’s been running for over 50 years, so it’s got heritage. Anything that old has to be good, right?
The race is described as “the toughest and biggest cyclocross event in the UK”. Benedict Campbell titles it as “The Epic” in his film Love of Mud, and various winners and former entrants describe the punishing terrain and sometimes harsh weather conditions that take their toll on bike and body. But then, a distance of 38 miles, of which 34 is rideable and 18 is on tarmac doesn’t sound that bad, all things considered?
What isn’t conveyed in those brief metrics is that the four miles that isn’t rideable is invariably at a gradient of 30-45 degrees. This point is brought firmly to your attention as you face Simon’s Fell, just 5 miles into the race. Rising up with as fierce a gradient you’re ever likely to tackle on a bike, it represents a particularly brutal start to the race. Grassy and boggy at the bottom I managed to find traction more than most to elevate my position from one mid-field placing to a marginally better mid-field placing. Once the gradient steepened, it was time to shoulder the bike and trudge to the top. A procession of riders took the left hand line by the wall, some making use of the adjacent fence to help winch their way up the slope. I broke rightwards onto slightly rougher grass, enjoying the space and choice of line, where I could pick my way up the slope on tiny ledges probably forged by many hundreds of riders over the past five decades.
The summit of Ingleborough came after just over an hour, which I was quite pleased with. The descent was tricky to begin, with a short trot down a steep grass slope punctuated with rocks. A smoother trail opened up briefly, but my descending nerves still a bit edgy and I didn’t really make the most of it before we veered off onto softer ground to begin the descent down to Cold Coates. I got my rhythm towards the bottom, gaining in confidence on the bike. Through the checkpoint and suddenly a misjudged compression and BANG BANG, the sound of rapidly escaping air and latex and the flapping of rubber around my rims. Double pinch puncture on an unseen rock in the grass. A loud “Oooo” resounded amongst the onlookers lining the course as I rolled to a stop.
With a remarkable degree of composure and minimal fuss, I set about fitting my only two spare tubes. I hadn’t even got my front wheel out when I chap arrived with a track pump offering help. What a star. In 6 minutes, and at 60 psi, I was on my way again with a short road section to Whernside.
The whaleback of Whernside had been visible from some distance down the road, but it wasn’t until I was a bit closer that I could make out the thin line of racers traced up the hill towards the summit. Unrelenting steepness, I once again resorted to shouldering the bike up the limestone slab steps amidst a dense procession of riders. The beginnings of cramp developed in my quads, which needed a bit of massage part way up before we gained the ridge and I could ride again.
The descent off Whernside down to Ribblehead Viaduct was far more technical than Ingleborough had been. Rocky, narrow and steep in places, choice of line was limited and penalty for a slight mis-judgement would be high with no replacement tube. With some relief I reached the smooth gravel track beside the viaduct without incident and hit the next tarmac section back down to Horton in Ribblesdale. A welcome glug of drink and my second gel would hopefully see me to the finish. A roadie offered his rear wheel as he passed by and I “enjoyed” a high speed tow down to the Pen-y-Ghent turning.
Last climb, last summit. Pen-y-Ghent lane had looked rideable on the map, and I’d hoped to have left enough in my legs to make it up the majority of the way. Where the rough stone track became footpath, cramp had returned and continued to plague me right to the summit; stopping every few minutes to massage the offending muscle. The summit came at 4 hours and 9 minutes, and I embarked on the steep and loose descent back down the way we had come up. The technical upper section with ridden with precision and confidence and gradually I made up some of the places I’d lost on the way up.
Once I’d reached the safety of the tarmac, air still in tyres, I lit what was left in my legs and made the dash down to the finish, mopping up a couple of places on the way. The finish was almost an anticlimax in comparison to the splendour of the landscape I’d just raced through. I dibbed my dibber for the last time, and collected my timing sheet. A total time of 4:32:52 to achieve 300th place.
Weary. Sore. Thirsty. Hungry. Happy. Really happy.
It was an utterly brilliant race. The position didn’t matter. The time didn’t matter. I’d ridden as hard as my body would let me. It was easier to take stock of the things that didn’t ache than the things that did. I’d pushed and carried the bike over four miles, though it felt like more. My nerves and skills had been pushed on the technical descents, and I’d still come out of the other end with bike and self in one piece. Victory 🙂
Link to Strava File: www.strava.com/activities/401927315