3 Peaks Cyclocross
Our German resident, Aidan Doyle, recently completed a pretty epic adventure over in Yorkshire at the 3 Peaks Cyclocross event. Have a read…
Well the three peaks cyclocross challenge has come and gone and to be
frank with you I am glad to see the back of it. I have to be honest and say that
that was the biggest beating my body has taken in quite a while and even now
many days later I am still feeling quite tender all over.
As with many of my “wonderful” adventures the seed is sown by one or the
other of my two brothers. This time it was Peter’s turn to casually mention
something about a strange event in England which was supposed to be the
world’s toughest cyclocross race. My ears pricked up and I logged this
thought into the depths of my memory and got on with my life.
Then one day, like St Patrick’s calling, I heard voices calling me and telling
me to investigate a little more about this so-called toughest race. A bit of
internet research led me to learn that there was indeed such a race, it was
called the 3-peaks cyclocross challenge and it took place in the Yorkshire
Dales on the last weekend of September and had been doing so for the past
50+ years.So that was it I registered and was lucky enough to get one of the 650 places
available and two days before the event I flew to Manchester, hired a car and
headed north to my base for the weekend, the scenic small town of Settle.
The route was 60km with a total of 1800 metres of climbing. About half the
route is on roads and is grand, but the other half is a combination of the
famed bridleways and country lanes of northern Yorkshire and unrideable
rough terrain. The 1800 metres of climbing is pretty much equally distributed
between the three peaks of Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-ghent.
The day prior to the event I went for a ride on the road sections of the route.
We were not allowed to go on the climbs, because they were either on private
land or hiking trails generally forbidden to bikes. Riding the road I realised the
hills would be long, steep and hard and that the descents would be very tough
indeed. I was not wrong!
On my way to the start line I came across all the cars with riders warming up
on trainers. They all looked fit, lean and ready. As usual I found myself asking
myself what I was doing there.
At the start, the check-in process was remarkably simple. You go to the desk,
get your starter pack (which consisted of a shoulder number (mine was 434), 4 safety pins and a program. Then you get your transponder which they stick
on your wrist. After that you just wait around until the start.
At the start line, the thoroughbreds get to occupy the very front, while the rest
of us had to line up at points which indicated our expected ride time. I had
heard that a 4.5 hour time would be quite decent for a newbie like me, so I
duly lined up at the sign 4:00 – 4:30.
Waiting at my sign I looked around and noticed that out of the 650 starters
there was maybe only about 50 people behind me. Was I really going to be
that bad? Was the calibre of the field really that high that almost everyone
expected to finish in less than 4:30? I was intimidated.
Right on time the starting whistle sounded (I think) and we were off. Not more
than 50 meters later and someone about 30 metres ahead of me was on the
ground. The first casualty-of-war had fallen.
The next 7 km were on the road and were done at a fair clip (upwards of
35km/hr I estimate, which is not bad for a CX bike).
Then before we knew it we were turning off the main road and heading up the
bridleway towards the first peak Ingleborough.
To get to Ingleborough you ride through a farmer’s yard and onto a dirt trail
which leads up the hill. Basically you keep riding until the slope is so steep
that you either can’t ride it anymore or you would be quicker on foot.
Simons Fell is the route that leads to the hill and it is tough, it is no
exaggeration to say that at certain points the slope was 1 in 1 i.e. 100%. With
the bike on the shoulder CX-style the difficulty is that the front wheel keeps
hitting the ground in front of you (yes it was that steep) and knocks you off
balance. Plus there is the added bonus of getting whacked in the face by the
tires of the bikes being carried all around you – it really is a 3-peaks rite of
passage and happens to everyone.
Simons Fell climb – yup it is that steep in places.
Somewhere where I had to carry the bike.
Slowly but surely the distance to the top got smaller and smaller until I finally
crested Simons Fell. But alas this was not the top of Ingleborough. No this
was merely a false summit, the real summit was some distance off and some
bit higher. However, the next kilometre or so was rideable, albeit on rough
terrain with lots of boggy sections, mucky bumps and rocks strewn
everywhere. Eventually, after just over an hour (01:04:01 to be exact) I tagged
in at the top of Ingleborough, the first of the three peaks. It had taken all that
time to do just 12 kilometres.
Thus began one of the bits that I feared the most – the downhill to Cold
Coates. The first bit of the descent is unrideable, because it is simply too
steep – I know because someone near me tried it and failed! I shouldered the
bike (again) for this section and gingerly made my way down until the terrain
levelled out a little bit, then it was back on the bike and down the hill. This
descent is quite quick as far as off-road ones go, but it was by no means
easy. What trails there were were very bumpy and had a lot of boggy wet
patches. Prior to the event I had been told that even if you fell off on this
particular descent you would be ok because it would be a “soft landing”, well I
hoped they told this to the guy I saw about 1km down who was on the ground
nursing what appeared to be a broken collarbone. He looked in pain, maybe I
should have stopped, but it was all I could do to stay upright myself, plus
cycling is a cruel sport in that way and mostly people are left to their own
devices. It did give me a bit of a wake-up call though and had the effect of
making me brake a lot more on the slopes – though in hindsight this was not
the best way to approach the descents. The most difficult parts of this
particular descent were the bits where I came up upon small boggy sections.
There was no way of telling how deep and “gluey” the boggy stuff was. Most
of the time I was fortunate and could look at how / where the rider in front of
me went. If he got through ok then I simply followed his line, if not then I went to either side.
Unfortunately, at one of these sections there was no one close
enough that I could see a line and I had to go for it. It really is just chance,
either you get through or you stick. Unfortunately, this time I stuck – or more
precisely my bike did and I continued. The front wheel sunk about 12 inches
into the mud and brought the bike to a halt. Unfortunately, I continued and
soared over the handlebars and beyond the bike into.. well into the bog to be
precise – face first! Thankfully though it was a soft landing and no damage
was done to me or the bike. I hopped back on and continued down the slope
going as fast as I dared and paying real attention to the lines taken on the
boggy patches – I had no desire to test the landing surface a second time. I
eventually got to the bottom of the 5km descent – it had taken me 20 minutes,
but it felt a lot longer and to be honest my nerves were a bit frayed. This was
supposed to be the easiest of the three descents!!! I was in trouble!
The next ten kilometres were pretty uneventful in that they were on the road
out from Cold Coates up to Chapel-le-Dale. I made good time here and was
happy for the possibility to relax the mind a bit.
Then all too soon it was over and we turned left off the road onto yet another
rutty, rocky dirt country lane which led to the base of the second serving of hill
for the day Whernside! Whernside is not as steep as Ingleborough but it is as
challenging. On the way up there are steps hewn into the hillside and they
really make the calves and thighs work hard. It is basically a long slog up a hill
with a bike on your shoulder. At the top you effectively follow a ridge for a
kilometre or so – this is rideable all the way. Then you have to go down :o(
After my experience on the Ingleborough descent and the chat I had with
John Rawnsley, the founder of the event, I had already decided that I would
not tackle the top third of the descent, which was on uneven and slippy
limestone slabs, on the bike, rather I would shoulder it for the umpteenth time
and jog down – I think it was the right decision – the top third was hard and I
saw a few people come a cropper and even those that cycled by me did not
really take too much time out of me. Once the terrain got a little bit easier I
hopped on the bike again. However, a bit easier does not necessarily mean
easy, it merely means less hard than the previous section. The remaining
portion down to Ribblehead was by no means pleasant. The route was rocky
and uneven and the trail had lots of diagonal drainage troughs surrounded by
vertical slabs cut across it. These things could be lethal to a wheel or worse
still a cyclist so vigilance was required. All good things come to an end and
eventually the descent was over and despite being a bit the worse for wear
and 2:49:48 after leaving the start I arrived in Ribblehead and back onto the
road for the smooth 9 kilometres to the base of the final climb Pen-y-ghent.
Yes, I really did feel as bad as I looked – this is on the way to Ribblehead with Whernside in the background.
The final peak – Pen-y-ghent – yes I had to go up there.
Now Pen-y-ghent is quite simply brutal and I hated every second of it. It is
somewhere around 4km from bottom to top with about 600m of climbing and
simply put you go up the trail and then you come back down the same way.
Sounds easy right? Wrong – it was easily the hardest part of the day and it
destroyed me. The first two kilometres going up are rideable but are on very
very rough trails with lots of rubble. They are steep enough too, averaging somewhere around 8 – 10%. I managed to ride all this, but then the last two
clicks really kick up and you simply have to get off and push / shoulder the
bike. This was really a mental challenge, because at all times you could see
exactly where you had to go and how far away it was – many times I thought
about taking a break, but forced myself on. The difficulty was compounded by
the fact that the way up was also the way down so one had to contend with
riders racing down the uneven trail towards you at full speed – scary to say
the least. Anyway, I slogged up the hill and eventually reached the top, but by
this time I was drained.
Somewhere up on Pen-y-ghent
The top third of the descent was too steep and technical for me and after a
few close calls I decided to simply shoulder the bike and jog / slide / stumble
my way downwards. Graceful I was not!
Around 1km down from the summit I hopped on the bike and tried to ride a bit.
I was doing ok until I came face to face with another competitor on his way up.
He was exactly where I wanted to go down and so I had to take evasive
action and go further left than I would have liked. In so doing I managed to
avoid some of the rough stuff, but ended up going faster than I liked and was
still right on the edge of the trail and going too fast to have much control over
the direction in which I was heading. Then, suddenly right in front of me
appearing out of nowhere was a big hole – I couldn’t avoid it and went straight
into it. It was a big one about 1 metre across and 1 metre deep – I just fell
straight into it and ended upside down under my bike and still clipped into the
pedals. I think the backpack I had on my back softened the landing and I was
uninjured. However, much like the tortoise or ladybird who has somehow
ended up on their back I couldn’t bloody get up. I was stuck upside down legs
and arms flailing everywhere. After what was probably only a few seconds but
felt like a lot lot longer I managed through force of much grunting and groaning and twisting and turning to get out. My head popped out of the hole
like one of those prairie dogs and gave quite a shock to the lad who happened
to be passing by at the time.
Needless to say that fall removed any confidence I had left and the remaining
two kilometres of the descent were most unenjoyable. The bike was sliding all
over the gaff and I was being beaten up by the vibrations coming up from all
the small stones on the trail, this Paris – Roubaix x 10. Horrible! I was in pain
and just wanted to get off the hill.
The last section of Pen-y-ghent
Eventually it was over, as I completed my descent I passed a crowd at the
very end and raised my hands as if I had actually won something – they gave
me a wonderful cheer and that was enough to help me find some extra energy
for the last 5 kilometres on the road.
I crossed the finish line, more relieved than anything else, I knew that my time
was ok but not world-beating by any stretch of the imagination. Still
remembering back to my conversation that morning with John Rawnsley and
the comment he made that a time of 4hrs 30mins for a newcomer would be
very respectable, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my official time for the
event was 4hrs 21 minutes. I guess I should be pleased. However, out of the
650 participants there were over 290 who had done the thing faster than me.
Humbling to say the least!
Immediately afterwards and for a couple of days I said I would never do it
again. Now, writing this I am not so sure – the physical pain has more or less
subsided and I am certain that I can get under the “magic” 4 hour ride time
and get a first class time as opposed to the second I got this time round. I could of course be a bit fitter and could shave about 15 – 20 minutes of the
totality of the ascents and flat sections, but equally important is the fact that I
have room for improvement on the descents. There were substantial sections
of the downhills where, with a bit more technique and experience, I could
make substantial time savings. In fact, I reckon there would be about 15
minutes to play with there. The combination these savings would have me
under the 4 hour marker. I think it is possible, but only with work on both the
physical and mental side of things.
Would I do it again? probably yes, will I do it again? hard to know. If I have a
partner then perhaps.. Peter??? Conor??? [Ed: Nope!]
The event is very rough around the edges and is certainly nowhere as sleek
as the continental events which I am used to. However, this is Yorkshire and
things are done like that up there – there is no time or energy wasted on
glamourizing things, there are no free gifts, no medals, no refreshment
stations, nothing this is a true grit event with none of the frills and sure why
would it be anything else?