Eric Stone was the first person to win the 3 Peaks Cyclocross five times. An emigrant to the warmer climes of Australis for the last 30 years, Eric was able to visit the race again in 2014 – sadly being brought back to the UK to help family during a bereavement. I had a rare opportunity to catch up with this legend of the 3 Peaks before he left the Yorkshire autumn behind, to chat about the race.
Riding as an amateur in his first two races – 1967 and 68 – Eric took such a beating but he said he’d “never, ever ride it again” like a lot of people tend to say. For me, for the first time I did the race it totally dragged me in. I, personally think about it all the time when I’m training for cyclocross and almost all the time when I’m riding my road bike. So I needed to tease out what was behind Eric’s change of heart that took him from never wanting to ride all the way to 5 wins.
“The thing that tickles me a bit, having returned to England from Australia and met up with so many people, is no one seems to really remember me for all the other things I did. I think I won the North of England Championships four or five times. I never won the nationals but I finished in the top three on nine occasions. I also rode in seven or eight World Championships and in Belgium I got a ninth place as a pro.”
“But it’s true”, Eric continues… “I hold the Three Peaks in very high esteem. It’s an incredible race. I’ve met people on this trip to England and also seen people who I haven’t seen for 30 odd years and it is just incredible, the respect that people give you. I’m 68 now and I didn’t know it at the time, how special this race was, and I don’t think any of us realise how long it would continue to carry on being such a loved race.”
I asked Eric whether he felt the race had grown in stature.
“I saw a bloke in Ilkley bike shop today, and we were both saying how we were amazed considering cycling is so much bigger now The Three Peaks doesn’t get the coverage that we used to get in the 70s. In those days up north there was a reporter called Colin Wilcox who covered all our cyclocross avidly – there was only the cycling magazine (Cycling Weekly now) and International Cycle Sport.
“Cyclocross covered a good third of it during the autumn and winter. You could guarantee that some others would get on the front pages most of the time in the season. In the three peaks even papers like telegraph and Argos we would get a full-page it was a big story. That’s the only thing that has made me really surprised on my return; I looked at the papers and was quite disappointed. Because the Internet is so good at getting results out instantly the print media seem to have abandoned the idea of covering races and that’s a shame – especially races as big as the Three Peaks
I was keen to gauge whether Eric saw the 2014 race as vastly developed from the late 60s and 70s events.
“I first rode it the 1968 and it was in the days when we rode Ingleborough last. As I was coming down the side of Ingleborough I got lost in the bog. In 1969, I finished second and then I finally won it in quite controversial circumstances in 1970. The particular sponsor we had that year, RBN (Research Building Materials) decided we were going to have light bikes for going up the mountain sides. Really light tyres, single freewheels, all that sort of thing – anything that would sit right within the rules. We got into big trouble that year – that was the only year that it was ever done by me with those type of bikes and probably by anybody with those types of bikes. It wasn’t really in the spirit of the race.
“Pressure was just so hard from the sponsors who treated it like a military operation. They took a bus of their full of people from the company to support me and they had a VIP unit on the back of the semitrailer. It had gone from a full amateur event to an operation of total precision. The sponsors wanted us to win pretty much at any cost. There was TV coverage as well in those days. It was definitely a big thing for the sponsors and the preparation, too, was very full on. Two weeks before I was advised by the team manager to ride from Otley to Horton in Ribblesdale, do two trips up and down Penyghent and then ride back to Otley. And then I went out with the chain gang in the evening. I couldn’t do it like that now anyway!
“My overall philosophy and approach to the three peaks was that I was going to win it because nobody was training as hard as me. I’m not saying that they were not training as hard as me, but in my head if I knew I was training that bit harder than everyone else that was all that I could do.
Motivation is king.
Eric didn’t ride the race for a couple of years at his peak in the 1970s, and after his 1971 victory he did not win again until three on the trot in 1977, 78 and 79 Eric finally won again in 1982 to make it five wins – the first person to ever achieve that.
“In those intervening years – I packed up for two or three seasons, to concentrate on running a factory, and we were struggling in the UK as professionals in cyclocross, and it was hard to make money – A few of us were demanding start money at the ‘peaks. John Rawnsley was never in a position to do that, and I totally respect that now. But I do look back and think I could’ve won at least another couple of events in those years – it was suited to me.
“That seems to be the way the race has gone. Every few years somebody comes along and puts their stamp on it. Barry Davis, John Atkins, Tim Gould, and obviously Jebby are all people who one way or another have found that they are good at this race, and make the very most of it. If anything I wish I’d stamped my authority on it a little bit more now looking back but that’s easy to say looking back”
Eric valued the preparation aspect just as people seem to do today. “I remember one particular year in those days you could go and ride round the course one or two weeks before (it was called a ‘conducted tour’). It was like a bloody race. We all went like shit off a stick! We used to do Whernside first in those days. I remember in the training ride I jumped over the style at the bottom of Whernside with John Atkins. John just said ‘I’ll see you, then’ and I ran off. I was just pretty good at running compared to a lot of cyclists that obviously makes a big difference in this race. I was a cross country and road runner as an amateur before I took up competitive cycling and always enjoyed the running parts [Eric, pictured right in 1968, before his cycling career, as a successful runner].
A tough course vs a tough course
“How does the course nowadays compare to the courses in those days?”, I ask.
“Even John Rawnsley will say that it isn’t as hard now as it was then. The first time I rode we used to do Penyghent first, then Whernside then Ingleborough. [That’s exactly the same as the fell running race these days and the same way that most walkers would tackle the three peaks, starting and finishing in Horton in Ribblesdale]. Probably the only bit that has got any harder these days is Penyghent Lane because the quality of the track has degraded and it has got a bit looser. But once you get out of the lane now, the path up there is incredible and really fast compared to what we used to ride on. We were just jumping from grass tuft to grass tuft trying to stay out of the bogs in some years coming down Penyghent.
The course isn’t that important. The people who have won it each year have been the best people there and easily deserve to win it. Changes to the course are there, but they are not significant really. It is still a very hard race.
Sharing the knowledge
“What tips can you pass on from your era that you think will be useful to riders today?”
“I spoke to Joe Moses before the start of the race. I didn’t realise he was going to finish third, he is only a youngster, and did an amazing ride. I was talking to him about the preparation. This is all about the team you’ve got around you when you want to ride at the very top of the race. Just on the day but before the day too. I had 12 bikes in the first year I won it and 20 people dedicated to supporting me alone. It was like a military operation. Everything was calculated to the finest detail. Of course these days you can still do that but the rules have changed slightly, including where you are allowed to change bikes. It doesn’t stop people planning everything meticulously though. If you get to the race and you know you have made the best plans, you can just concentrate on racing.
“It’s not just the training, but all the equipment. You obviously need a bit of luck [Eric never had a puncture in any of his three peaks rides] but equipment helps too. In the 1970s I was riding a Speedwell titanium bike [see image, top] weighed 15lbs on Penyghent. That was in the 1970s.Having the right gear obviously helps”.