They hoist the bike onto the weary shoulder, help the rider over stiles, and are used to grasp at tufts of grass on Simon Fell as the going becomes too steep. Because ‘cross bikes are so inappropriate for long, tricky descents, arms are also tested to the full on the descents in this special race. The pain of Penyghent’s descent on the forearms can be excruciating, and so much so that it’s easier to just stop braking and take risks. Arms are under-rated. #shutuparms
Bike. The bike. It’s not about the bike, but it so, so is. The modern rules state a cyclocross bike only but in the 70s and 80s people started to experiment with bike changes everywhere to try and get the best out of each bike for each part. Light single-speeds to carry to the summit. Mountain bikes to use on the descents, and road bikes, some even with disc wheels, used on the road section. That was all put to a halt (thank goodness) in the late 1990s, and rules came in about bikes, tyre width, and the exact places that riders are permitted to change bikes.
A tiny hamlet on the southern side of Ingleborough. You wouldn’t even notice it if you drove past it. But hitting Cold Cotes after the descent of your first peak is one of the most special parts of the race, to me. The atmosphere as bike after bike descends the first mountain. Sometimes out of the low cloud, sometimes both rider and bike tatters. The anticipation of what position people will be in. Who’s okay and who’s not. Then there’s the feeling for the riders as they hit tarmac and feel their bikes ease just for a few moments on the descent to Ingleton. A special 3 Peaks place and moment.
With no suspension or fat tyres, descents here rely on a lot of rider skill and good judgement. The split times introduced in recent years have shown how a lot of valuable time can be gained or lost on the descents in the 3 Peaks… startling chunks of time … and that makes it special. It’s not just a race for the runners or the climbers or the endurance specialists… bike handling skills and the ability to control the speed (without related punctures or mechanical mishap) is rewarded over the long three descents in the race.
The altitude of the 3 peaks relative to near-neighbours in the Lake District is relatively modest. In fact, at 736 metres (2,414 feet), Whernside (the highest point) would only rank as the 68th highest fell in the Lake District. Even the (roughly) 5,500 feet of climbing and descending in the (roughly) 37 miles of the event would make it just “v. hilly road ride” stats, but it’s when you take away the 19 miles of largely fast road and realise that almost all of those 5,500 feet of elevation change come in about 18 miles that you realise there is enough up and down here to hurt every competitor, albeit without ear-popping altitudes.
The race is long enough to require proper intake of calories, and there are only two real chances to do that properly… on the road sections after peaks 1 and 2. That means that the food of choice is crammed into the sides of cheeks until they’re at bursting point for riders who are hungry but too breathless to chew or swallow. Eventually it goes down there somehow though. Bananas, gels, malt loaf, Jelly Babies… whatever you like and whatever you can get down your mouth… it makes a difference on this face. Plus there’s the food at the finish of course… where riders are similarly undiscerning.
Similar to Cold Cotes, it barely warrants a name on the map, but the minuscule hamlet is where the race-proper begins. With a tailwind and a sensible lead car, the neutralised road section at the start can be a gruelling test in itself, (that uphill 3.3 mile stretch was done at an average speed of 23.0 mph in 2014!), but it all truly kicks off when that lead car pulls away and the riders turn off over a cattle grid and kick on through Gill Garth Farm and over Gill Garth beck into the fields and on to Simon Fell. A large smattering of spectators and supporters shout the riders on and much like a big road race, it’s all over for them in a matter of 2 or 3 minutes, and Gill Garth returns to 364 days of obscurity.
A small quarrying community barely on the map, where the B6479 branches off on a minor unclassified road to Austwick. On the last Sunday every September, it becomes the centre of the British cyclocross world for a few short hours. The field next to the small bunkhouse and the Helwith Bridge Inn is a festival of ‘cross, and the place where the storytelling begins, as riders cross the line and compare times, wounds and anecdotes about their day out. Despite H standing for Helwith Bridge, Horton in Ribblesdale was the original start and finish and in many ways. still a large focal point for the race, as rider pass through there on the way out, and twice on the way home.
It’s the hardest and steepest climb but your legs are at their freshest. The most dramatic-looking of the peaks has a wonderful view over the valleys of the rivers Greta and Lune, but riders get no chance to take that in. Asked to carry their bikes over the summit upon the northern and eastern edges of which are the tumbled remains of a wall, once believed to have been a Roman military camp but now known to be an Iron Age hill fort. Not that riding would be of any use… it’s hard going even though it’s flat. Nevertheless, getting Ingleborough under the belt is a watershed and you know the race is well and truly on when the first of the three peaks is ticked off.
The word ‘legend’ is over-used and can become tiresome, but we can guarantee that the record holder with 11 wins in the 3 peaks will still be a name people talk of in 50, even 100 years’ time. Rob Jebb’s prowess is often put down to his amazing palmares in the world of fell running, but he is also a supreme bike rider with an engine that could be applied to any endurance sport. An athlete and most definitely a legend.
Kit… it sounds pretty simple, but a race that takes you into significantly different microclimates over 7,000 feet of climbing can mean quite a lot of complicated clothing choices. Arm warmers in a chilly early morning at Helwith Bridge seemclimbulous by midday on the sun-drenched climb with a bike on your bike a bit later on. Waterproof jackets seem so needless in your pocket, but pretty much vital a couple of hours later. Then there’s the survival bag. Do you tape to the bike or carry in your pocket? Is all that jiggling food and a bag going to wobble in your pocket when running along Ingleborough? Will it all fall out? Even with a full support team you’ve still got a lot to carry. Decisions, decisions.
Late to the party in the desperately chivalrous world of sport, as always. Since Brenda Atkinson became the first female finisher in 1979, it took a good few years for the number of women competitors to pick up. Thankfully, and not before time, the women rider numbers have continued to grow a lot in recent years and the 55 starters on last year’s line was hopefully still just the tip of an iceberg of gender equality
I doubt that the people taking part int he first every 3 peaks in the 1960s could foresee a time when cars lined the streets of Horton in Ribblesdale to such an extent that parking marshals as well as race marshals would be needed. The growth of the race and a growing maturity in event organisation in the modern world means that scores of marshals are needed to make this event happen, and when you see some of them stood 2,300 feet up with rain blowing at right angles into their faces whilst they help the riders, it’s deeply humbling.
One of the defining things of the race that almost bleeds into the background too much is the sheer beauty of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Although the Yorkshire Dales were one of the first National Parks to be created in 1954, it’s strange to think how different the country was then and how cycling in our most precious countryside could become such a different thing over the years. It’s still a great privilege to ride (and carry) your bike over summits and down routes that are only open to that event on that one day per year. I just wish we had a bit more time to enjoy the stunning views.
I can’t find the stats anywhere, but I’m pretty sure that Neil Orrell (Zodiac CC) pipped John Rawnsley in riding and finishing the most events. A name to be reckoned with in the day, Neil just kept on coming and kept on finishing, into his early 70s. Although not the oldest rider to complete the race, Orrell’s record number of completions will stand for some time yet.
The last peak can be so uplifting – you’re almost home, the climbing is over when you reach the summit after the mainly-walking final couple of kilometers to the summit. But Penyghent has broken as many dreams as it has uplifted spirits. A fast and rideable descent is made tough by tired arms, fading brakes and a constant stream of tired riders coming up the hill. Shouts are made and collisions are thankfully rare. Punctures start to creep in from riders who are too tired to avoid the rocks. But it’s only a couple of miles from the bottom to the finish.
Alphabets being what they are, we reach the first tough letter. I’m going to have to say Quick Release, because of the number of times riders have to climb off and fettle their bikes in some way or other. Running repairs are common on most bike ride and even some races, but the 3 Peaks’ tough terrain is tough on the bike. Rarely do riders come through the 37 miles without some tale to tell of having to mess with something on their bike. My own list since my first race in 1995 is huge, but includes: about 1001 punctures, snapped spokes, a bent chainring, lost brake caliper, broken seat post, stripped crank bolt, “bruised” shifter, … you get the picture.
A member of the British Cycling hall of fame, this confident but unassuming man made a race that changed lives. Whether the Three Peaks is your way to get fit at the beginning of the season or the very peaks of your season itself, the British cyclocross scene would be a strange place every September if John Rawnsley hadn’t had the capability to not only get this race going, but to remain as its organiser for the first 50 years. R also stands for Ribblehead and Roger (Ingham), so it’s a crowded letter.
The first climb of the first peak. The hardest point psychologically, because you don’t just hit it hard, your speed ebbs away over a few hundred metres from flat-out tarmac bunched-riding to a journey up the rear cassette on the green fields until, bit by bit, everyone around you is at walking pace. The pain through all of these stages is constant, but the speed declines. That’s tough on us all, but especially so if you start thinking you’re on a bad day. This hurts. Are you on a bad day? Are you??
It’s also for Tubulars and Tubeless. Whatever… tyres seem to bother the 3 Peaks rider the most in terms of bike prep. With bikes so inappropriate for the terrain, punctures are such a risk. With even a fast puncture fix, so much hard work on the climbs can be undone. 4 minutes seems like an eternity. Tubulars can be useless or brilliant depending on the brand and those that perform well in normal ‘cross are rubbish up in the peaks. Clinchers are so prone to pinch punctures that 65 psi is almost a must for most riders. Tubeless seems a good option but with so much pressure they can blow totally before they re-seal. Decisions, decisions.
It’s not like a cyclocross – there’s one huge lap and a long list of other differences. It’s certainly unorthodox (another ‘U’!) in enough ways to make it stand out. Like the race itself, the bikes int he race occupy a strange niche too. Within the ‘cyclocross-bikes-only’ rule, riders push at the boundaries and spend untold time and money in preparing their bike for the big day. Bar-top levers are popular because of the long descents. Tiny gears that are worthless in traditional parkland ‘cross start to come in as a survival strategy for longer climbs. The tyre choice too (see above) is pretty special for a day out on the rocks. Padding on some bikes for carrying. Unique and Unorthadox -r-us.
There’s something about the growing prowess of the greying-haired rider that is very encouraging in bike racing, but in the Three Peaks it’s nothing short of phenominal. Take the 2015 event, for example. Four V40s and a V50 in the top ten, and the fastest ever Veteran’s time. Two of the 3 podium places to V40s. I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but this race seems to reward the experience of the older rider more and more.
W also stands for Whale-back, which this mountain resembles. Climbed from the east side on the tourist route it’s actually the quickest way you could get up with a bike, but obviously it’s steep and painful as a trade-off for that. The descent is technical and probably the most technical of them all. It claims the most punctures as the path changes surface from steppy slabs to hard-packed rock-strewn bridleway. Rivers are crossed by both bridge and ford, and the final burst down to Ribblehead is generally uplifting, but prone to wicked altitude-assisted headwinds.
Okay so the alphabet’s a bit hard now. I went for an X-Ray after my Penyghent broken collarbone incident of 2011. Does that count?
Young riders are not there in number at the 3 Peaks. It’s quite an undertaking and we have to accept it’s not necessarily the sort of event that a young body might want to put itself through. But those who do ride it young seem destined to big careers. Think the likes of Nick Craig and Tim Gould. Back in the late 80s / early 90s, the 3 Peaks was like a rite of passage for younger riders. Less so today, sadly. We need more. Y stands for Yawning Gap in this case.
Or Zoo? Can’t really think of a Z now. Maybe we’ll come back to that one.