An English Curiosity: The 3 Peaks Cyclocross Race

The countdown begins. 3 minutes to go. A light drizzle fills the chilly late September Yorkshire air. Jackets are reluctantly removed and thrown over other riders heads to the support crews and spectators crammed behind barriers. Last drinks are had whilst bottles are still clean and free from muck and back pockets are fumbled to check food and spares are firmly wedged in.

1 minute to go, legs are shaken out and foot of choice clipped in, the turn of the crank to get that pedal just right for the whistle. Chatter ceases and all eyes look forward to the Helwith stone bridge, that all being well and within a few hours, exhausted riders will cross for the second time that day. 

Welcome to the Three Peaks Cyclocross race

Take a race that’s hard. Add a bit more on top. Don’t be shy. Go on, pile up that hardness. The type of hard that makes your bones ache and your muscles cramp and scream for mercy. Nearly there. Kind of. Oh so you didn’t train? Or perhaps, you did? Irrelevant. You’re going to know all about how the next few hours will pass by kilometer 6. Welcome to the Three Peaks Cyclocross race, a rare gem of a humble and no nonsense English curiosity. 

Billed as the ‘the hardest cyclocross race in the world’, the Three Peaks lodged itself right under my skin before I even really knew what it was, and more to the point, what I was getting myself into.  

Some years earlier I was introduced to the race. Sat in a London cinema watching the premier of Benedict Campbell’s “For the Love of Mud” film, where beautifully brutal black and white images hit not only my eyes but all of the senses, I could taste the grit already. Together the audience watched bikes hoisted on the shoulders of riders who were what can only be described as ‘trudging’ up the scarred Yorkshire fells.  Tipping over the top of these peaks and down paths normally reserved for the hardy British walker complete with raincoats and leather boots, it was pretty clear just how much this race could hurt, which I can now testify is accurate. 

The race

Run since 1961 by the Bradford Racing Cycling Club, the race takes place on the last sunday in September.  61km of mixed road and off road tracks (7km of which is unrideable) take in 1524m of up. As the name suggests, the route traverses the three Yorkshire peaks of Inglebrough (723m), Whernside (726m) and Pen y Ghent (694m). Each peak is reached by the rolling stonewall lined Yorkshire roads and farmtracks. Each peak has its own unique  fierceness and charisma whilst all three share the requirement for serious respect. Riders must carry with them an emergency blanket and a whistle, and previous riding experience is taken into account when submitting an entry. At several points on the course, heroic marshals (who are usually stood in the cold and wet for hours on end) check in the riders using an electronic dibber and a shouty yet reassuring relay of bib numbers are recorded.

Rider support crews manically dash between two key points on the course, laden with spare wheels, food, clean bottles and sometimes fresh bikes. Riders look forward to spotting their crew at the appropriately named ‘Cold Cotes’ and the striking and quintessentially English Ribblehead viaduct.  Flags paint the sky and brightly coloured jackets are worn so riders can identify their crew in the melee. For those without a crew, it’s a day before task to leave spare bottles and kit in certain places on the route, a polite note usually attached asking walkers not to take the precious stash off the hill. 

It is however the terrain that makes this race so unique. The riders are either scrabbling up the (at points) 45% Simon Fell, creeping up slabbed stepped paths or tackling steep and varied descents. Each fell has its own speciality- nothing can quite prepare you for it other than to ride it, which makes training really quite tricky. Whether it’s negotiating the bogs of Ingleborough, the on-the-fly decision making about whether to run or ride the slabs of Whernside and finding the last bit of strength to stay on board down the loose and steep gravel stretch off the top of Pen y Ghent, this course would much rather suit a mountain bike. 

The Bikes

“Rule 14: The race is for CYCLO-CROSS BIKES WITH DROP HANDLEBARS ONLY.”

That answers that one then.  Weeks and months are spent in the lead up for new riders figuring out what the best bike set up is to cope with the demanding route, while also trying to get heads around tackling that sort of terrain, on Yorkshire whippet skinny ‘cross bikes.  The bike has to deal with a lot over the variable terrain right from wanting to be fast over the sealed roads connecting the peaks, to being bombproof yet still rolling over the rocky gravel lined descents, slabby ridgelines and steps, muddy paths with sharp stones, cobbled lanes, drainage channels and of course, a river crossing or two for good measure. 

I’ve had a solid two year run of no mechanicals nor punctures. Running the SRAM Force CX1 groupset in 2016 on a Trek Boone, and the SRAM Rival 22 in 2017 on a Specialized CruX Elite X1, both years 11-32/ 40T provided enough range for the demanding course.  Disc brakes are allowed, and the SRAM HydroR braking setup was really dialled giving me huge amounts of confidence even down the slippery and steep cobbled Pen y Ghent lane, tackled right at the end of the race when energy levels are depleted and the legs are on fire, or in many cases, crippled with cramp.

Tyre choice is key for the 3 Peaks. Tyres must be no wider than 35mm and be able to cope with the complicated terrain. After hours of research and blog reading, the Schwalbe Land Cruiser came out as being the most reliable. Not exactly the most lightweight or easy rolling but a great option when paired with the super light and nippy Zipp 303 Firecrest carbon wheels used for both races.

Go on Lass

Even though i’ve raced it twice, i’m still a relative novice compared to others who have raced it multiple times. The route will probably remain the same for a while to come, but the years can bring different challenges to the fore. 2017 included one stop to assist a rider with a dislocated shoulder on Simon Fell along with negotiating challenging wetter ground compared to the previous year. I am really only scratching the surface of learning how to tame this incomprehensible but utterly addictive beast of a bike race. There’s nothing quite like pushing with all your might up ‘that’ cobbled lane whilst race leaders fly past on the way back down and strangers shout you on, timing being done in the head as to whether your target will be met. 

Taking off 12 minutes on my second attempt, it’s becoming clear that 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. A bit of training and a dialled bike set up helps as well, of course. For the next attempt i’ll hope to be a little wiser with my knowledge of the course and the faith in my bike, but i’ve no doubt it will hurt just as much. 

The stone bridge comes into focus and the legs find the last push of energy. Taking the tight right hand corner towards the green finish arch the spectators applaud and shout as the throng outside the Helwith Bridge Inn grows steadily as more riders cross the line. The final dib is taken by marshals propping up riders and it’s everything you can do to walk through the tent with shaking legs and aching bones before collapsing on the grass. A short while later, pint in hand and breathing somewhat restored the year’s race is reviewed with friends new and old, and inevitably, the discussion commences about how next year could be made quicker. The Yorkshire Dales have worked their magic once again, and lodged themselves just a touch deeper under the skin. 

The 2017 winner Paul Oldham crossed the line in 3:04, with the first female Christina Wiejak at 4:05. Prize money is equal, thanks to the commitment and foresight of race director Mark Richmond and his team.

Words by Beth Bryn Hodge

Images by Jack Chevell and Cadence Photography

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