The Three Peaks Cyclocross Race, located in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, not far from the bustling city of Manchester, bills itself as the world’s hardest cyclocross race. I personally have not participated in every cyclocross event in the world so it would be hard for me to ratify this statement; I also find such bold statements are reasonably meaningless when put in to perspective. In fact, it’s arguably not even a cyclocross race. It traverses mountain ranges and high peaks (three of them coincidently), with plenty of long gnarly descents and granny geared climbing more suited to a mountainbike than a skinny tyre, drop barred bike. However the race itself was around before mountainbikes were even thought of and as the English are sticklers for tradition, a cyclocross race it remains.


Hosts and fellow cycle fanatics – Hugh and Pauline

The first Three Peaks Cyclocross Race was held in 1959 and took in the three highest peaks of the Craven Dales – Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-Y-Ghent. Over the years the course leading to and from each peak has been tweaked, however the three peaks have become a permanent fixture in the British cycling calendar and an event that any self-respecting cyclocross addict aspires to complete. Finding myself in that neck of the woods, the draw was too much, I had to do it.

By June last year I had received news that I had made the final cut and that I had three months to put in some decent training. The training was a bit hit and miss, but I did manage to fit in a few decent blocks and as September neared its end, it was too late anyway. I packed my bike and off to Manchester I went.


Wayne and I negotiate the rocky descent of Pen-Y-Ghent pre- race day

Staying with friends and fellow cyclists not far Race HQ I filled my stomach with pancakes and lashes of bacon the morning before the big day. I then ventured out onto the course to loosen the legs after a day of travelling, and to attempt to prepare myself mentally for what would be in store for me race day. Steep rocky staircases, gravel surfaces with chip the size of golf balls, my body shuddered at the thought of it all; and with 70 psi in my 35 mm wide tyres (that was the maximum allowed width) to avoid the inevitable pinch flat, the bike (and I) shuddered wildly at the reality of it all. Nothing that a lunch of pie’n’spud and a pint of shandy (I was driving) with some friends at Helwith Bridge Inn (the race start) didn’t cure of course. By bed time that night I was rearing to go.
Helwith Bridge race day; usual population in the single digits. Three Peaks race day, five hundred very fit cyclists and supporters probably giving the population of the village that lowest average body mass index in the whole of Britain at that point in time. However for such a well-known event, things were remarkably low-key; the only hint of corporate sponsorship being a Hope air balloon briefly hovering overhead.

I had been warned to get to the start line early in order to get a decent starting position but by the time the race brief was over I had already been shoved well down the starting order and was languishing about mid-pack. At 9.30 we were off. Five hundred of us shuffled forward, clicked in to our pedals and after the first squeeze of the day had been negotiated safety – the narrow stone pillared Helwith Bridge, conveniently located about 50 metres from the start line, we hung a sharp left onto the main road and we were off.

The first road section was ‘neutralised’. The definition of neutralisation seem to be ‘as fast as we could go’ and I used this time speeding along at 40-45 km/hr over the rolling landscape weaving my way closer to the front. I was glad I had started out my life as a road cyclist – OK, you can stop reading now if you like, but it definitely helped me stay upright and I was relieved that a large tangled mess of carbon and bodies that crashed heavily to the tarmac beside me didn’t actually include myself.

Through the small village of Hoton we wiggled and not long after that, the lead car veered sharply left onto a farm track, inconveniently stopped in the middle of the narrow gated entrance. After we had negotiated our way around this impediment, we were off road for the first time of the day and heading up towards the Ingleborough, the first of the three peaks.

The oute negotiated some farm buildings before being thrown out onto a bumpy field. By the end of the road section I had managed to fight my way up into the top 100. There was a bit of hussle and tussle for lines and position once the going got rough, but with the soaring heights of Ingleborough looming above, losing or gaining the odd place on the now snake like procession of cyclists seemed a little a bit arbitrary.

The Ingleborough then bent upwards, the bikes were dismounted and shouldered, and off up the hill we ran… well I think I took a full bountiful strides and then thought stuff that and started to walk. And up it kept going. Twice I looked down behind me to see not the view but the awesome sight of 500 plus cyclists, bikes shouldered, heads lowered, heaving themselves up the impossibly steep climb two abreast for as far as the eye could see like a giant cyclocrosser’s conga line. You could only smile at the absurdity of it!

The climb didn’t relent particularly quickly and at times the wall of hill in front of me was so steep, even shouldering the bike was no good as the front wheel bounced off the ground in front of my eyes. The only solution was to sling the bike even further back so that the frame lay parallel to your back, push your face into the grass and gain altitude by pulling oneself upwards with the aid of tufts of grass or the fenceline which served as a sort of guide to the heavens.

After about ten to fifteen minutes the gradient eased somewhat and the next twenty odd minutes were spent part riding, part carrying to the top. Our electronic dibbers were dibbed at a check point at the summit and mine was dibbed at just under an hour. I had done 12 kilometres and the first 6km of road had been done in the first ten minutes.

The descent was not particularly straightforward. From the summit it headed over a boggy / rocky plateau before dropping off so steeply, the bikes had to be dismounted and dragged down the slope while we slid down on our backside. Then a mine field of jagged rocks greeted us and with 70 psi in the tyres, my eyes shook in their sockets in such a chaotic fashion I actually couldn’t focus on anything up ahead… something I have never experienced before.
As the path began to level out and the rocks gave way to some hard packed grass a crowd up ahead signalled the start of the second road section. I cornered off the last few bumps to hit to the welcoming tarmac, immediately taking my hands of the handlebars and treating my wary body to a well-earned stretch. Then some sod sprinted past me at speed, I stuffed half a bar into my mouth, forced myself back down onto the drops and took off in pursuit.

From Cold Coats to Chapel-Le-Dale the race sped along like a rocket. I caught the guy in front and soon we were five. One of the five was intent on setting the world ten kilometre cyclocross speed record and that suited the rest of us just fine, as we largely sat in his slipstream taking only the most cursory turn at the front while mentally preparing ourselves for the climb up Whernside, the highest of the three peaks.

As soon as the road section was over, the bumps returned. The climb up Whernside was marginally more rideable than the Ingleborough, but only by the smallest margin. It’s the climb I have the least memories from although I do distinctly remember a lot of very steep rock steps. Near the summit I made the most of every riding opportunity, more to give my calves a rest that for any other reason. I spotted Hugh and Pauline (my hosts for the weekend) who cheered me on. Hugh (a triple winner of the Three Peaks running race) ran up beside me asking me if I needed anything. He was probably wandering what the point was of carrying the bike when you could run without it much faster.


The descent of Whernside – yikes!

The top was a relief until the decent started. Sharp jaggered rocks through which there was no natural riding line littered the landscape. It wasn’t long until I jumped off my bike once more, shouldered it and started running down – it was faster.

I took the rest of the descent cautiously in order to avoid the inevitable pinch flat and/or broken bone. I was surprised to come across a lot of walkers going up the rocky trail. We had been warned that the track wasn’t closed but I wondered at the folly of some people walking up a mountain with 500 near uncontrollable cyclocross bikes coming down towards them.


Ribblehead railway viadict with Whernside looming in the background

Near probably the most famous landmark of the race – the railway viaduct at Ribblehead, I picked up speed and weaved my way through the crowds holding spare bikes, wheels and nutrition and once again hit the glorious tarmac. There wasn’t too much relief to be had this time though. A head wind coming up the valley put an end to any easy ride and for the first time in the race I found myself fairly isolated. I was also quite knackered and I still had one final behemoth to get over. I shoved some food into the mouth and reasonably sedately made my way down the valley readying myself for the next and final climb.

The Pen-Y-Ghent was a different beast compared to the others. Where the approach to both the Ingleborough and the Whernside were largely on rough farm tracks, the ascent up Pen-Y-Ghent was on a formed gravelled track. Not that that made it any easier mind you. The day before when I had ridden the lower reaches of the course, I found the lower reaches of Pen-Y-Ghent to be a stony mess. I had childly sprinted up one horrendous section to see what it was like, however I was now under no illusions that this would be even remotely possible with 50 very hard kilometres in my legs and nearly 3 hours in. I did manage to ride the lower reaches on race day though… just.

I wasn’t actually that far into the slog when calls up ahead of ‘rider’ alerted me to fact that if things weren’t hard enough, another peculiarity of the final climb was that you came down exactly the same way that you went up. Rob Jebb, a fell runner by trade and winner of the past 10 editions, then whisked past me, skimming over the rocks like he was on a full suspension mountain bike, and on his way to his 11th straight win. I was a little stunned that I was only just on the final climb and soon the pointy end of the race would be sitting in the pub drinking a pint!
From the top I plummeted down into the oncoming rider’s fast, bunny hopping anything that looked like it wanted to sink its jaws into my tyres and attempting to keep the cramp in my calves, which had been threatening me since the first climb, but was now getting tighter and tighter, at bay.

I swung back onto the road at the bottom with relief. Riders were still heading up for their final douse of pain but I just had to survive three more kilometres and the torture would all be over. A rider flew past me but I couldn’t summon the strength within me to try and catch up. Then a car up ahead held him up and a built in aggression together with someone else to share the load, we hunted him down. As a trio we raced towards the finish.
As we took in the final few bends my legs were cramping badly and I resigned myself to simply rolling in after them. However a bad piece of cornering by one of the other riders saw me squeeze in between both of them for the final twenty metre grassy sprint to the finish line.

I had finished. A print out gave my time as 3:46:16 and 95th place. I was pretty happy with that, I don’t think I could have gone faster on the day, I was spent.

The race summary gives a total distance of 61 kms, of which 6-8 kms are unrideable and 33 kms are unsurfaced. The climbing, at only 1524 m doesn’t seem to fairly reflect the severity of the event but I would hazard a guess that the gradient in parts is well over 50 %. The possibilities for such an event in New Zealand are virtually limitless. On day… maybe.