Travelling from Stirling to take the women’s title in the 3 Peaks Cyclo-cross this year was 33 year-old BikeLove-Genesis rider Kerry MacPhee. Like more than half of the record 78 riders entered in the 2019 women’s field, Kerry was a first timer in the 3 Peaks. The women’s field has seen a much higher proportion than men in first timers taking the win, but with defending two-time champion Christina Wiejak unable to make the start line this year, it looked very likely that a new women’s champion would be on the podium in Helwith Bridge.
However, some big names were also there to threaten, including first-timer and U23 Ffion James (Hope Factory Racing) – the young but incredibly experienced European Cyclo-cross star. Helen Jackson (Kendal CC) was also a big name to watch, with some incredible fell running experience.
Kerry’s being a first timer should not, of course, be mistaken for a lack of experience. As the current Scottish MTB cross-country champion, a rider in MTB World Cup races, and 13th finisher in the cross-country MTB race in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Stirling-based Kerry was not new to either gruelling or highly competitive events.
But this is the 3 Peaks which, as many will know, is unique. I talked to Kerry about her impressions of the world’s oldest off-road cycle race, and what brought her to the start line in Helwith Bridge, Yorkshire.
What brought Kerry to the ‘Peaks
“It was an event I’d always been interested in, and I love races where you’re suffering. But I remember when I first heard about it, I didn’t think it was for me, because of people changing bikes, swapping them for the road sections and everything”, Kerry told me. “I just thought there’s no way I can compete with that because I don’t have that many bikes and that kind of support.
“…then it transpired that this was stories from the distant past, and I found out that you had to ride a cyclo-cross bike, so I started to think that one day it may be me.
Then on the day the ballot closed, Davie Graham [of Mull, well known on the Scottish off-road scene and long-standing fan of the 3 Peaks] told me to enter it. My initial reaction was there was no way – I didn’t have the bikes, didn’t have the support, didn’t know any of the race… but he just said “Well, just do it, then you’ll find out”.
There’s a sad story that lies behind Kerry’s being on the start line. In October 2018, Kerry’s partner Lewis died quite suddenly. The pair had been inseparable because of their love of cycling and raced together or supported each other racing every weekend. When they didn’t race, they rode and adventured. It was Lewis who’d told Kerry she should do the 3 Peaks originally. Lewis was a fit guy who had a brain bleed in 2002. Although he had been fine, he occasionally had seizures.
“Lewis knew if he was going to have a seizure, and that day had texted me from work to say he was going home. I was away working in Stornoway, and when I didn’t hear much back, I texted a few times. I decided to contact Evan [Oliphant – Lewis’s well-known cycling brother] because he only lived 30 minutes down the road. When Evan went round, Lewis had been dead for some time.
Lewis had played a huge role in supporting Kerry in her cycling, and got her interested in cyclo-cross himself. Davie Graham [of Mull, well known on the Scottish off-road scene and long-standing fan of the 3 Peaks] told Kerry she should enter the 3 Peaks.
“My initial reaction was there was no way – I didn’t have the bikes, didn’t have the support, didn’t know any of the race… but he just said “Well, just do it, then you’ll find out.
“After Lewis’s death, Davie had me a photo of his dog, Ruby, every morning without fail. He (and Ruby) had been an important part of dealing with my loss”.
So with a bundle of YOLO-type ‘just get on with it’ energy, Kerry entered the race at the eleventh hour.
Kerry makes the point several times that she is learning through her emotional pain to understand and tackle the physical suffering that endurance sport presents.
“I struggle to go really, really deep in XC races because my body’s still feeling the pain of the grief, but my ability to suffer and endure pain has gone right up”.
I’m struck by how quickly it seems that Kerry has spotted this in herself, and seen it as a potential strength to be harnessed and developed.
Solo means solo
Kerry came to the event on her own. There was no support team or infrastructure. She made the journey down to the 3 Peaks with only a few anecdotal comments from people in the Scottish cyclocross community saying “Oh, so-and-so can take a bottle for you..” and the like.
On the day, and scarily close to the start line, Kerry managed to turn those loose promises into actual people to take bottles for her. She also managed to get a friend from Manchester Paul Davies to take a pair of spare wheels around.
Kerry and I discuss and agree that this type of thing is a recurring theme in cycling and in cyclocross in particular.
“So many people in Scotland said “Oh I’ll help you out if I’m around. Whilst I’d rather not travel to do events on my own and I’d much prefer bigger plans, it’s just moving that so many people are on hand to help out in cycling”.
I’m keen to find out Kerry’s first impressions of the course and race itself. It’s the Tuesday after the race and if we’re not careful, those fresh thoughts and memories can quickly subside. The pattern of first impressions is familiar to me as someone who loves to read people’s blogs and accounts of the race.
“It was a lot harder than I expected. Simon Fell was amazingly hard.”, says Kerry. “I’d been out and done some hike-a-bike reps on the steepest hill in the Ochils – just outside Stirling. I’d been trying to find something that looked like the photos I’d seen of Simon Fell.
“… but once I was on Simon Fell [the notorious and brutal climb with bikes carried up the first peak of Ingleborough], I realised that I’d only really got used to the carrying position and stuff. I’d never done it at race-pace. It was so, so hard.”
Kerry also feared of the mass bunched start. Over 500 cyclists heading off up 5km of gentle climb into a headwind at over 35 kmh can be a daunting thing, regardless of your experience.
“I thought I was going to get swamped, knocked off, or popped out the back. But I managed to start really well and stay out of trouble. I had to work really hard for it though.
“Then when I got onto the lower slopes of Simon Fell, it seemed to tough and so slow as well. In your head you’re thinking ‘Should I run or should I pedal’ … it’s that slow.”
But Kerry, like any rider in this race, eventually gets to the summit and the unique ‘cross bike descents in this race made an impact on her too.
“The descents were amazing”, says Kerry. “Ingleborough was really good fun. Really boggy and it was just brilliant coming down the hill to suddenly see a bunch of people waiting at the bottom.”
It was at that point that Kerry found out for sure that there was a proper race on…
Close run thing
“Everyone was shouting, “You’re first woman” and I was suddenly getting the support of loads of strangers.
“Then the climb of Whernside was also tougher than I thought. I’d known from reading up that there was a lot of steps and a man-made path, but there was no rhythm to be found there – the steps were so hard and steep. Then the descent of Whernside was somewhere where I thought I could have benefited from having ridden there before. Some riders were taking what looked like nicer lines just away from the path but I stayed on the safe option of knowing I was on the path, just in case I went into some bog or something. It was a lot harder than I’d expected after the fun descending Ingleborough.”
Then the final climb, Penyghent, is where the ‘riders’ traditionally can claw back a bit of time on those more experienced in running.
“I tried my best to keep a good pace but I was cramping. I’d been cramping on and off since Ingleborough, and then I had ended up in a group of riders who didn’t want to work on the (8km) road section, so I’d ridden that mostly on my own.
“It was also a bit scary because I didn’t have any time gaps, and I knew that Ffion would be breathing down my neck. “
Kerry wasn’t wrong. After three gruelling mountains and 3 hrs 43 mins of racing, Kerry finished just 1 minute and 8 seconds ahead of Ffion James. The closests finish in the women’s event in its history. The finish time was also just 4 minutes down on Louise Robinson’s 2002 record, and made her the second fastest woman around the 3 Peaks since Brenda Atkinson was the first woman to complete the race in 1979.
“As soon as I had crossed the line, it was, like, minutes until I was thinking how I want to come back next year and do it again. I was also really emotional. There was a Scottish woman at the finish who I knew, but not particularly well, and I just hugged her – I was so choked up.”
To have been so close to the record, and with Ffion so close behind, Kerry is in no doubt that for the 2020 event, the record is a genuine target.
“Having never done the race before, and doing so well, I will come back and find out where there is time to be saved. People who know where to go on some of those descents – those ‘micro’ lines – will help me feel like I know the course better. A walking recce of some of those sections next year is definitely something I’ll plan.
3 Peaks Cyclo-cross 15 Sep 2019 – women’s results top 5
1st Kerry MacPhee – BikeLove-Genesis 03:43:31
2nd Ffion James Hope Factory Racing (U23) 03:44:39
3rd Helen Jackson (V40), Kendal Cycle Club, 03:57:01
4th Hannah Saville (U23) Cyclocrossrider.com 04:04:45
5th Viviane Spielmann (V40) TG Hütten (SUI) 04:05:08