3 Peaks Cyclo Cross

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Nov 02 2018

3 Peaks Cyclo Cross

By Sarah Rowell, former Olympic Marathon Runner and British & English Fell running Champion, 1995 and 1996

For one group of slightly mad devotees, the end of September means only one thing; the 3 Peaks Cyclo Cross.  The history of the event dates back to 1959, when a 14 year old schoolboy, Kevin Watson was reported in September to have ‘rode, pushed and carried his bike 30 miles to the summit cairns of Whernside, Ingleborough and Penyghent’, complying with the accepted conditions of the 3 Peaks walk by finishing at his start point in 6hr 45 minutes

October that same year saw 10 riders setting off to try and get around the 3 Peaks in under 4 hours, with 6 completing the whole way and three of them setting  a ‘new speed record’ of 4 hr 33 minutes. By 1961 the race was on, even though at the time it attracted some resistance, with the founder  (and first winner) John Rawnsley noting  that he ‘very much doubted if there are 30 riders in the country who will be prepared to climb three 2,500ft mountains in just under four hours with a total distance of 25 miles’.

3 Peaks XC Simon Fell
The ascent of Simon Fell (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Fast forward to 2018 and the event is well established as the highlight of many riders’ cyclo cross year with the entry limit of 600 being reached soon after entries open. I’ve ridden the event once and supported numerous times, and can honestly say the latter is much more stressful.   As a novice who just wanted to get round, the ride was in many ways easy – one bike, a friend giving me drinks at a couple of road crossings and then just trying to avoid any major mechanical issues and limiting falling off to single figures – all of which were achieved.

Supporting a serious rider on the other hand…….for about a month before the race even less of Andy (the rider in question whose race stats stand at 2 outright wins, 24 completions and still going) is seen in the evenings than usual, due to industrious workings going on in the cellar as tubs are glued, tyres are pondered over, cassettes changed and bikes tinkered with.

However, after doing this for over 10 years race day itself sort of runs to a well-established schedule, well, as much as anything  can which involves riding a bike over rocks, drainage ditches, through bogs and down paths and lanes which at best should be tackled on a full sus machine. What has changed massively over this time is the volume of rider support, creating a mini army of vans and cars which move between the three road crossings where drinks and spare bikes/wheels are most easily provided.  This year, to try and counter some of the issues the race organisers banned any support being given on the road sections of the course.

Andy Peace ridge riding on the 3 Peaks Cyclo Cross
Andy Peace ridge riding on the 3 Peaks Cyclo Cross (Photo Steve Harling)

The popularity of the event also means you get probably nearly as many cyclists watching the event by bike as riding it. At face value this seems like a good thing, practically it creates a nightmare for the racers on the roads.  With cars getting held up by slower riding spectators, it means those in the race have to overtake both cars and bikes.

But back to duties. First, well before the race starts, we head off around to get a good position, parked as near as possible to where the riders will come off Ingleborough at Cole Cotes (indeed, contrary to what it might seem, supporting a rider near the front of the race means you actually see very little of the race, rather you spend most of your time in a van or sprinting back to one). At Cole Cotes we join all the other support crews and with nervous light hearted banter wait for the first riders to appear. With Paul Oldman coming through well clear of Rob Jebb it looked like a limited battle for 1st place unless major mechanical issues struck (and indeed, so it played out, with Paul winning in one of the quickest times for a number of years.)

All being well for us the changeover means handing over a bottle with a gel taped to it (stand on the right hand side, hold the bottle by the nipple with an extended arm) and nothing else.  Unfortunately not so this year as bike number 2 is grabbed and we are left with a muddy bike number 1 complete with dropped chain (single ring without a catcher, the latter, which I am reliably informed, will be added for next year).  Andy gone, Barry and I sprint back to the van, put the chain back on the block of bike number 1 and drive as fast as legally possible round to Ribblehead and stop number 2.

Andy Peace, face fixed in concentration, on the 3 Peaks Cyclo Cross
Andy Peace, face fixed in concentration, on the 3 Peaks Cyclo Cross (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Meanwhile the riders chug up and down the second peak – Great Whernside, where on the descent of Blea Moor the chain on bike number 2 jams (definitely adding catchers for next year).  Like many of the top riders Andy has bike number 3 being ridden by a competent supporter down behind him. After a bout of chain pulling and swearing, a bike swop and he is on his way again arriving at Ribblehead viaduct where a very smooth transfer of bottle and gel takes place (if I may say so myself) with him shouting that he wants to swop back onto bike number 1 at the bottom of the final climb, it being lighter than bike number 3 on account of having tubs.

A second sprint back to the van and on to Penyghent with bike number 1 in the van, the aim being that I jump out of the van with the bike at the bottom of the lane, get a short way up before Andy arrives and then change bikes. Arrgh! For the first time ever, due to the volume of cars and cyclists on the road, we do not pass Andy and he therefore heads off up the lane minus any additional drink or gels and on bike number 3, not number 1.

Bike number 2 meanwhile is being ridden by his support rider, going half way up  Penyghent Lane, to the shooting Lodge, from where he will then follow Andy back down again ‘just in case’.

Now it is just time to wait, offering water/gels/jelly babies to any other suffering riders who I recognise as they wearily make their way up the lane, most still managing to ride, some down to a push.   Once the leaders start coming down, it remains a total mystery how they both manage to stay upright (most of the time) and avoid crashing into one of those still slogging their way up. Whizzing down in 25th place Andy is soon down with no further mechanicals and just a final sustained push along the road to the finish.

Brief respite from the hills with the magnificent Ribblehead Viaduct as backdrop (Photo: Stephen Smith)
Brief respite from the hills, a rider on the gravel road with the magnificent Ribblehead Viaduct as backdrop (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Once showered and changed it’s time for the riders to exchange stories in the pub while waiting the prize ceremony.  Support duties are however not over, there is still the obligatory end to the day – driving said rather tipsy and tired riders home  – at least with age they now tend to leave the pub well before closing time….

For those interested the event in 2019 will take place on 15 September to avoid clashing with the UCI World Road Championships being held in Yorkshire

The bike on the day had:

  • Tufo Cubus 33 tires
  • A single speed 38 on the front and 11 x 40 on the rear
  • The 2019 version will also have chain catchers…..

About Sarah Rowell….

Sarah Rowell is a British former long distance runner. In 1983, aged just 20, she ran 2:39:11 at the London Marathon. At the 1984 London Marathon she ran 2:31:28 to qualify for the British Team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, finishing 14th. She broke the British Record in the 1985 London Marathon in 2:28:06 finishing second behind Ingrid Kristiansen.

Later, Sarah was a prominent Fell Runner, winning the Three Peaks Race four times. She finished second in the 1992 World Mountain Running Trophy and won the British and English Fell Running Championships in 1995 and 1996

About Stephen Smith….

Stephen Smith is a freelance photographer and spends most of his time capturing cycling, running and other outdoor events. He is based in West Yorkshire. www.smithphoto.co.uk

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