The 3 Peaks cyclocross race in Yorkshire is in it’s 52nd year and is heralded as he hardest of it’s kind in the world. It is one of those races that are often talked about with reverence, many are curious to find out if you have tried it, but few have done so themselves. This year would be my first.
The countryside really is quite lovely in Yorkshire
I had co-ordinated with Alexandre from Malteni and Clemént Shovel that they would pick me up at Gatwick Airport (They had driven from France) and we would head north to the Yorkshire Peaks District. I had persuaded them to leave a day earlier than they usually do (it would be their third race) so we could at least enjoy being up there a little longer and give us more time to explore the area.
This was an attempt at exploring the local offerings on the coffee front. Next year I will be bringing my own… Photo – Alexandre
The area was stunning, a cyclocrossers dream. There are ancient footpaths crisscrossing the landscape in every direction giving unparalleled access to off-road riding (for the most part bikes are allowed). Luckily Clem and Alex had a reasonably good knowledge of the area and when they didn’t know where exactly we were were happy to ad lib it as long as an adventure was to be had.
The road to nowhere
We also took a little time to check out the parts of the course that we were allowed to ride on, the famous and ominous ‘Peaks’ of the race looming above us. Just standing at the bottom of one of them it was hard to imagine having not only to climb it but two more just like it.
Checking out the course gave us some time to take in some of the sights that we would otherwise be too busy to notice
I could see from the beginning that 3Peaks isn’t a race you just ‘show up’ and pull out a good result (unless you have a team of helpers behind you). Not so much the fact that you need to know the course itself but you need to know what you are up against. Only one water depot for example. Both Clem and Alex had drink systems on their backs. I had chosen bottles on the frame (and had only bought one) not the best of plans especially given how much time the bike spends on your shoulder. Tyres need to be extremely durable and preferably brand new. Me choosing not to change out the worn Kenda’s on Milton’s wheels for something a little fresher proved to be a very bad idea. Freeride/hybrid shoes, made for walking in, not carbon soled race shoes. Running tubeless would have been a good idea too. These are all things that in hindsight could have changed my race and my result. As it was the race was very educational and I have gotten even faster at changing tubes, and become less squeamish about the combined smell of swamp and animal feces than i was before.
Nope, no coffee here…
The race starts with a 4 mile master start. The Master car pulling off just before the beginning of the first climb. The first section is quite rideable and it isn’t until you get really close to the bottom of the hill that it is time to dismount and start walking. If you have only ever seen one photo from the 3 Peaks race then it is quite possibly of this first hill. It is ridiculously steep and the trail basically just follows an old stone wall going straight up. Any line up is permitted but should you choose to stick close to the wall then you will be placing your feet in foot steps worn in the hillside by 52 years of madmen throwing themselves up the slope, bikes on their shoulders. I got a little nostalgic at this point. It helped distract me from the number of places I had already lost in the first few hundred meters of the climb by nimbler more enthusiastic racers. I had decided from the beginning to do my own race. Find a pace that I could climb at and stick to it, not getting distracted by what others were doing. This started to pay off already on the 2nd half of the climb as I quietly plodded past some of the more over enthusiastic of my competitors.
The first climb. Photo – Alexandre
The descent, once I got some of the rockier sections out of the way and the first puncture of the day, was off the hook! I had soooo much fun! The Shimano hydraulic disc brakes on the bike allowed me to ride so much faster and more recklessly than I otherwise would have and I just had a blast blowing down the hill. I already began to see the attraction of this race and why it brings riders back year after year.
Cutting across the countryside. Photo – Unknown
The next climb was quite different, with stone steps laid in the hillside the choice of line was more obvious. In fact the stony nature of the climb gave an idea of what the descent would also be like. A thing I had really started to notice was the fact that these trails had been made by and for walkers. This often meant that we were met by the most ridiculous stone gardens filled with sharp rocks all pointing up towards us, it was a truly inhospitable environment. A good portion of it was more of those stone steps, horrible things to ride on. This is where a little previous experience came in with other riders choosing quite different lines, careering down the hillside, cutting their own path through the grass. At least I made it down without any flats this time.
The end of the 2nd descent. Photo – Grit.cx
The final peak and the only one I really know the name of, Pen y gent, would prove to be my undoing. The climb went well. Again a steady pace proving to be the way forward. Note that on this hill the path down is the same as the path up so we would get to see the first riders as they made their descents (a loooong way in front of us) I made it to the top in 33rd place, a nice recovery after my first puncture that moved me from 28th position at the top of the first climb to 59th by the bottom of the same hill. This is where it all started to go sideways. I had only bought one tube and one co2 cartridge with me so my 2nd puncture didn’t go down too well. I was saved by a lovely man on his way up giving me both a spare tube and a pump. This held for about 20m more down the hill before flatting. By this time I was a little beyond frustrated but luckily I ran into Clem who provided me with both a pump and a another tube. It was while changing this that I realized that I had torn a rather large hole in the side of the tyre. (Sorry Milton but your wheels won’t be coming back with any tires on them ) Thank god for gels! Having quickly sucked back on a GU sachet I soon had a tyre patch and could continue down the hill. Dan Treby had just ridden past on his single speed and I saw this as a good opportunity to give chase. I had to bomb it down to catch him, probably going a little faster than was sensible, this, with about 500m to go till the bottom, resulted in my 4th and final puncture. I gave up on the idea of changing any more tubes at this stage, just threw the bike up on my shoulder, and proceeded to run the rest of the way down the hill. I thought that the end of the race was at the bottom, so once I hit the asphalt I just kept running. A nice man ran up beside me offering me a tube, I asked him how far it was to the finish, and when he said about 3 miles i decided that my first plan probably wasn’t the best and stopped. At this point Jon Clay made an appearance with the bike he had bought as Dan’s spare offering me it to ride to the finish on. I have never been so grateful to see a Singular before, albeit with a rather low gearing on it.
Yeah, we are smiling, now…
And so ended my first ever 3 Peaks experience. A crazy race covering quite improbable ground, with a strange combination of self supported riders carrying everything that they need with them to those that have bough support crews, dotted across the landscape with spare bikes, wheels, drinks, you name it, helping their riders along the way. DEFINATELY going back next year, who is with me?