Nick Craig (SCOTT RACING) rode his first Three Peaks Cyclocross not long before his 17th birthday. He’d been slightly too young the year before a few weeks before his 16th birthday and a ride in the race was in his sights. Nick’s father had come back to cycling in his late 30s and Nick’s youth. A number of years in the armed forces had meant that Ian Craig, who won the Three Peaks in 1963, had been unable to return to do as many of the events as he’d liked, but when he started to ride again, the passion for and fascination with the event was clearly passed on to the young Nick. Ian also won the veteran category in the early 1980s. Annual trips up there from the age of about 11 were enough for him to see what the special event was all about.
Nick’s eventual first victory in the three peaks was in 1991 at the age of only 21. Father Ian witnessed it and that still means a lot to Nick, after Ian sadly passed away in 1995.
With cycling being as it was in those days, Nick had to make a choice in the following years and with his being such a prodigious talent in mountain biking, Nick (and his coaches and sponsors) decided that the late-September date was incompatible with the preparation for the MTB World Championships and it took eleven years before Nick returned to the race in 2002. By then, Rob Jebb was in the early days of his incredible run of victories, and Nick recorded a string of second places. Nick eventually won again in 2009 after the longest gap ever and breaking the strangle-hold of Rob Jebb, then again in 2011 when Jebb was absent following surgery.
I chatted to Nick about his first events, prior to the first of those three wins. Nick had been racing since the age of nine and was the national schoolboy cyclocross champion at the age of 15 – expectation was starting to pile up … what were those early days like?
I found it so hard going up Penyghent in those early years
“It was all about learning, really”, says Nick. “I wasn’t cocky enough to think I could win it in those early days, and I’d been encouraged to get some finishes under my belt. It was always on my mind that I’d win it one day though – I was doing well [at MTB and on other more traditional ‘cross races] and I knew my dad had won it and so it was a big deal to me”. Like many younger riders though, Nick’s early races were cases of trial and error. “I found it so hard going up Penyghent in those early years. In the late 80s and early 90s, Penyghent was just a series of bogs and a very rough muddy path over the peat once you got to the top of the lane. Today’s track is barely the same mountain – it was really tough.”
I remember running up and down the beach, telling myself I was training for the Three Peaks, but I got a shock when the race came
Nick had the bug, (like we all get) and over the next couple of years became really keen on working out how to win the Three Peaks. “I was probably 40th or 50th at my first attempt and moved up quite quickly those first couple of years. I expected I’d just get better at the ‘peaks as I improved in cycling, but soon realised it’d take a bit of specific training. At the age of 19, we were holidaying in Spain and I remember running up and down the beach, telling myself I was training for the Three Peaks, but I got a shock when the race came. So the next years I planned more and the year I first won it Sarah (Nick’s wife) and I camped up at Horton in Ribblesdale twice – and I did some very detailed reconnaissance of the course.”
Nick was riding for Simon Burney’s Peugeot team and Mountain Biking had started to dominate the team’s aims. Nick was to ride the Cross Country and Downhill events at the Worlds in Northern Italy but Simon had also singled-out the Three Peaks as a target for Nick.
But after Nick’s 1991 win, the pressure of Mountain Biking took over and Nick took a long break from the event. “I was always intending to come back each year but the priorities became really clear and those were the (MTB) Worlds at that time of year.”
I was strong on the descents compared to others
“Back then, you could (legally) ride the Ingleborough descent” Nick explained, as the course came down the bridleway on the Ingleton side of the mountain. “It was really enjoyable riding a ‘cross bike down that and I was strong on the descents compared to others. The recce made that even better”.
Like Penyghent, the 80s route meant Whernside was really unrideable too. “It was really uneven and the descent (basically, the same way we go UP the hill now) was a run.” Nick’s possibly a bit modest here. When we look at recent results we think of Nick as a cyclist and Rob Jebb as a runner, but it’s more blurred than that. I’ve seen Nick in the top ten of fell racing results when he’s had the chance to race them over the years and you don’t get there by fluke. We chatted a bit more about Whernside and how it plays a role in today’s (post-1994) course.
“Since Rob (Jebb) has been winning it people tend to think that Ingleborough’s where his wins are made, but we (the other riders in the top half dozen) go up the steepest part of of Simon Fell at the same pace, really, whetherrunning or walking. The less-steep runnable parts of Simon Fell are the only place where Rob has that bit more speed. It’s Whernside where Rob kicks in, he can really move up there that much faster. If you look at the split times, I always close the gap after Whernside”. Indeed, Nick’s 2009 victory saw him catch-and-drop Jebb on Penyghent. With the 2015 race on my mind, I asked him when he thinks the balance of power will shift in the ‘elder statesman’ dominance of the race (Nick is 45 and Rob Jebb 40). “It’s obviously going to happen soon, but that depends on who comes through and sticks at it”, says Nick. “Joe Moses did an amazing ride last year and he gained some really valuable experience, but will he come under pressure to focus away from the Three Peaks soon?”
I love to win events but I also love coming 2nd or 3rd
Nick’s confidence comes through that the period of new winners is not yet on us… and rightly so – Nick’s performances are still first class. He has ridden senior top fives and top tens in the national cyclocross championships as long as I can remember, despite being half-way through the veteran 40-50 age groups and shows no sign of showing. His performances at MTB Marathon events (roughly around 3-4 hrs on most courses) is still stunning. “I love to win events but I also love coming 2nd or 3rd” says Nick. If you take enjoyment and learn from everything you do, it’s a recipe for wanting more of it and wanting to train”.
But Nick’s busy family and work life, like those of us mortals, means there’s never enough time to prepare for the Three Peaks thoroughly. “Training-wise I can’t complain. I normally ride the [Isle of Man] End-to-End and that sets me up really well. This year it clashed with the (Scott-sponsored) MTB Marathon in Ruthin”. Nick rode that at the weekend – and came in several minutes ahead of everyone, by the way. “Those type of events are great for conditioning and training – they set me up perfectly”. Nick’s ‘dedicated’ Three Peaks bike is also a little make-do and practical compared the three-bike multi-support crew setup of rival Rob Jebb . The standard ‘cross set up needs to be doctored for a fast ride in the ‘peaks, with dedicated gears and brake setup. “I ride a SRAM XX rear gear and a 36 tooth cassette. That usually gets fitted on the Thursday or Friday before the race along with interrupter (bar-top) levers. Then on the Monday after that all comes off again!”
Nick rides one bike and has spare wheels at the bottom of the three mountains. He’s used them regularly (17 or 18 punctures over the years is Nick’s rough count). Being at the front of the race, it’s well known that spectators / helpers will also help someone really racing for the lead. “One year I begged a wheel off someone then later found out it was Jebby’s spare front wheel – I didn’t catch him on Penyghent but I’d have felt a bit awkward if I did!” laughs Nick.
“When it comes to feeding and bottles, you’re lucky in that race to have some really good sections to take on food and drink. If you don’t use them, you pay for it at some point”. Says Nick.
I ask Nick about his sons (Tom and Charlie) – both extremely promising riders in their own right. Tom’s second Junior national championships earlier this year confirmed him as an almost too-temptingly obvious heir to the string of Three Peaks winners with the Craig genes. Younger son Charlie is a few years off, but heading in the same direction. “I’m not a pushy dad like that” Nick insists. I think Tom’s looking definitely capable of something like that – and he’s a natural, comfortable-looking runner, but there’s no way the GB coach would allow it right now. “
I can’t help thinking there would be an extra level of pride here for Nick – possibly more than he gives away. Given his dad’s win and his own, it somehow could just carry more fatherly glow than Tom’s other successes… We’ll see – I’ve tried to encourage Nick to be a more-pushy dad, anyway…