It’s legendarily tough, it’s held at a generally miserable time of year and it’s a byword for hurt and suffering on inappropriate bikes. Yup, the Three Peaks cyclocross race has been and gone once again, with hundreds of competitors taking on 38 miles of mixed riding and pushing, 1,524m of climbing and the Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen Y Ghent.
Three Peaks newbie Martin Boddy decided to take it on…
“I once worked in a ‘local bike shop’ where people went to hang out amongst bikes and bike stuff. The shop sold all kinds of bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, time trial bikes. If you looked nearer the back you would see cyclocross frames too.
Each summer a few customers would ask, “you doing the Three Peaks?”. I had no idea what the Three Peaks Cyclocross Challenge was. I had heard of cyclocross (or “cross”) though.
Of course I had road bikes and mountain bikes but I’d managed to resist the “do everything”, “this year they’ll be massive”, “commuter-cum-road-cum-MTB” ‘cross bike. Aren’t they a bit niche? And don’t they look gawky…?
It was those customers that drew me in. They were not the roady poseurs or the Hope-obsessed weekend warriors. They weren’t young or old. But they were happy to talk about the Three Peaks. They made it sound like I’d been missing out.
So I got hold of a cross bike and instantly felt the same elation as shifting from road bikes to mountain bikes. And when I found out my Three Peaks entry was successful, I could imagine the colossal parent of fate, gripping my saddle, and shoving me onwards.
Seven a.m. on the last Sunday of September. I’m opening the van back doors to reveal mist, wet tarmac and sheep tucked in against dry stone walls. I hear more vehicles arriving. I get dressed and go out.
Helwith Bridge is a T-junction next to a stone bridge. There’s a pub and some houses dotted around, and you’d be able to cycle straight past in about ten seconds. But not this morning… it’s thronging with bobble hats, down jackets and lycra. All the participants seem to know what’s happening, and they’ve clearly been here before. I sign on then go off to look for people who are meant to be here.
The start line is at the foot of the bridge, and stretches out behind with several hundred riders all bunched up ready with ten minutes to go. There’s banter broadcast over a tannoy, but I can’t hear whether or not rain jackets have been made mandatory. I’ve got mine on. It’s drizzling, not cold and not warm. I’m glad I’m wearing my longs.
We’re moving off. Fairly steady near the back, and spreading out nicely as we head up the road towards Horton and the turn-off for the first fell, Ingleborough.
The route is up Simon’s Fell and it’s known for being steep, muddy, and sudden . It’s relentless. I shoulder my bike and I’m quickly too warm. I try to pass slower people on the slope by going wide. It’s steep enough that you can grab onto tussocks with your free hand. Looking up I see more people in the mist. We keep moving.
Height gain brings a drop in temperature, strong winds and sideways rain. Rushing slowly upwards through the mist we’re trapped in the same moment. No beginning, no end. We’re all on our own.
Then there’s the top. Electronic dibbing and shouting my race number then it’s the descent. It’s gradual, but very gusty and raining still. Soon we’re below the clouds and can take in the view of the Dales. Eyes back to the ground. Ride a little, now too rocky, quickly off, push, run, jump back on, ride some, blown sideways into rocks, nearly off, recover, keep going.
There’s support waiting on the tarmac at Cold Cotes. The helpers look proud for everyone, beaming smiles and shouting encouragement.
So soon we’re off-road again and shouldering our bikes for Whernside. This is not like before. I think, “this is relaxing”. The pace slows and our procession winds single file, up stone steps and into the mist.
When the stone path disappears we fan out and stagger upwards at our own pace. The gusts point my bike like a weather vane. The isolation brought by loud wind and thick fog gives this an allegorical or biblical feel. We’re struggling around a giant loop, to end up at the start. My brothers are isolated too. We all die alone….
Topping Whernside, we squint against hailstones coming from the opposite direction to before. It’s very windy and even flat sections of footpath are impossible to ride. To the right looms a wet, grey void.
A peaty, boggy descent brings us out onto tarmac and crowds of supporters. Stung out down the road, we push on in twos and threes. I ask a neighbour, “how far have we got on this road?”. He says, “I don’t know. My mind is blank”. My mood is shifting too. Not to full-on bonk, but the beginning, the sudden, irrational annoyance that warns me to eat soon, very soon.
On the Horton road, by the railway, is a farmhouse with a sign offering teas and food. Without a thought I’m already off the bike and running to the front door. Inside is the caramel shortcake and the fruitcake that gets me up and down Pen-y-Ghent. I return later with money and thanks.
Pen-y-Ghent starts as soon as we turn off the road. A cart track winds up a fair way, and those with low gearing and calf muscles left can ride much of the ascent. Meanwhile fast riders are already flying down the other side of the track. Stewards shout “rider down” quickly followed by a rattle and flash. Near the summit however, everyone succumbs and shoulders their bike to the top.
For me, self doubt waits in the mist on Pen-y-Ghent. “So what if I give up?”. “I chose to do this, it’s my choice now”. “This is exceptional weather, everyone will understand”. “There’s always next year”. “I was feeling the bonk”. I’m starting to imagine a clean, dry duvet…
Then in the mist appears a volunteer handing out water, he’s saturated, bloody hero. He says it’s ten minutes to the top. I think that was a lie. But it got me there. More electronic dibbing and shouting of race numbers.
And back down. Riding through tussocky, wet grass I go over the bars again, but it still makes me laugh. Cantis just not working in the grit and the water. But I’m feeling better: downhill is more rewarding and I’m dropping below cloud for the last time. But downhill is less energetic and I’m not warm at all. I look at the other faces going uphill, and keep my mouth shut. What’s to be said? They’re on their own too.
Back through a swollen ford (it’s got to be three feet deep by now) and onto the tarmac to Helwith Bridge. It’s going to be okay. I watch someone shifting their rear mech. with their foot. Turn right then left over the bridge, loud tannoy and cheers, under the finish banner…
…and wait to be dibbed. Get given your time, medal and T-shirt, then it’s clean clothes, food, people and a brew. Drive out of Helwith Bridge, more traffic, then motorways. About an hour down the M1 I saw two cross bikes on a van, and then they were gone.
Arthur Miller’s “A View from a Bridge” describes an obsession leading to humiliation and self destruction. The Three Peaks isn’t like that. But it is dramatic. It’s a time and a place that some people are passionate about.”
|1st||Robert Jebb||Team Hope Factory Racing||M||03:09:21|
|2nd||Paul Oldham||Team Hope Factory Racing||M||03:19:55|
|3rd||Nick Craig||Scott UK||MV40||03:25:02|
|1st||Victoria Wilkinson||Team JD Cycles Ilkley||F||03:59:17|
|3rd||Astrid Wingler||London Phoenix CC||FV40||04:54:12|
Thanks to the talented Sam Needham for the photographs.
If you like ‘cross, then Issue 78 (out December) will contain a special Cyclocross supplement for the muddy winter months. To subscribe (and get a free T-shirt for Direct Debit customer) head here…
For history fans, here’s an exchange between the founder of the Rough Stuff Fellowship and the first organisers of the race. Our favourite line has got to be “we very much doubt if there are thirty riders in the country who will be prepared to climb three 2,500ft peaks”…