Flashback to September 2017. I’m stood at a gate halfway up Pen-Y-Ghent Lane, watching a stream of cyclists coming uphill. The first twenty or so look strong – still on their bikes, giving it full beans up the uneven rocky surface. The next fifty or so are riding, but can’t mask the hurt as they tick off the final big climbs of the race. And the riders that come after them look broken. Literally, broken. If a domestic appliance was operating as slowly as them, and making similar noises, it would be whisked away to the tip. I’m there marshalling because I want to see what this race is like, and because I want to do it myself. I promise myself there and then that I will prepare. I will train. I will not end up as one of the broken people.
Fast forward to 2019, and I am one of the broken people. I inch my way up Pen-Y-Ghent on a borrowed bike, forcing my legs to turn even though they’re locking up from cramp. Each metre forward is a victory, but a hollow one, because I know that there are many more of them to follow. And not only that, when I get to the top I’m going to turn round and ride straight back down the track I’ve come up, which is covered in loose gravel, rocks and square-edged water bars. What’s the point of carrying on?
Welcome to the Three Peaks Cyclocross. One thing everyone knows about this race is that it’s tough. “The hardest bike race in the world” is a phrase you hear often. On paper, it shouldn’t be that bad. 40-odd miles, 5,000-odd feet of climbing, 4 hours if you’re a decent rider. Not that challenging, surely? Well, it kind of is. There’s a convoluted entry process because it’s hugely oversubscribed. There are ridiculously restrictive rules on what type of bike you can use (Tyres have to be 35mm wide at most, handlebars have to be drops, absolutely no suspension allowed.) Everyone knows about the notorious, precipitous carry up Simon Fell, and the sketchy, rocky descents. But the whole race is hard. Get up Simon Fell, and there’s a load more pushing and carrying to make the proper summit of Ingleborough. The rideable bits are soft and draggy, or rocky and bashy. The fast gravel tracks are dotted with water bars and river crossings. Even the road sections are 25 mph time trials.
Still though, it’s hard not to find yourself thinking that you’ll be able to cruise it. If you’ve had plenty of experience of plodding up steep hills, can ride off-road happily on drop bars, and don’t mind hurting yourself a bit, the temptation to have a go will eventually become irresistible. I’d marshaled, so I was in automatically. Time to see what all the fuss was about.
To be fair, the first half of the race wasn’t that bad. I got signed on in good time, spotted mountain bike legend Nick Craig cracking jokes in the toilet queue, and jostled into a start position that wasn’t too optimistic or pessimistic. The first road section went off a bit fast for me, but I got in a group and didn’t ruin myself before the race properly started.
The climb up Simon Fell was every bit as bad as expected, but despite a lack of toe studs I didn’t slide fifty feet back down the hill. The descent on the other side was wild – riders going over the bars as the bogs gobbled their front wheels – but I followed someone who’d clearly ridden it before and managed to stay out of trouble. After a surprisingly hilly road section (where my seatpost chose the worst possible time to start slipping) it was up the huge stone steps of Whernside, and I felt good enough to overtake a couple of people on the way. Then I got an inkling that all might not be well, as I made the top plateau and my legs started to give way. I’d heard the tales of the legendary Three Peaks cramp, which kicks in on Pen-Y-Ghent and leaves riders hobbling to the finish, but here it was in all its leg-locking brutality, an entire hill earlier than expected.
The only option at this point was to keep going. The descent from Whernside is frankly terrifying on drop bars, and all around me I could hear the crack and hiss of tubeless tyres exploding against square-edged rocks. My home-made tyre inserts (basically a skinny bit of pipe lagging tucked inside the tyre) seemed to be doing their job, although my course knowledge was lacking, and missing out a short cut line cost me a few places. But then the track levelled out and I started trying to make up the lost ground.
At this point my bike handling skills ran out, and I found myself flying through the air, before landing very hard in the middle of a rocky track. Both of my legs immediately cramped solid. Having established that my collar bone was still in one piece, I dragged myself off to the side and lay in the heather, listening to the hiss of air escaping from a punctured back tyre. From hero to zero. A nice spectator helped me reinflate my tyre and I jumped back on. Then jumped back off again to straighten my brake levers. Then on again. Then off again to straighten my handlebars. Then on again. Let’s do this.
The problem now (apart from adding a load of scrapes and bruises to my personal pain tally) was getting round the rest of the course. Despite having a load of sealant inside, my tyre had a hole through it which wasn’t sealing, and from previous experience of tubeless punctures I knew it was likely to be a faff to get it sorted. The procedure for fixing them involves poking a sticky rubber strip into the hole from the outside, then pumping the tyre back up, but the idea of crouching next to my bike for even a few minutes was more than my cramping calves could stand. Luckily I had a contingency plan – my support crew (a.k.a. Celia and the baby) were at the Ribblehead Viaduct, and Celia rides the same size bike as me.
So, back on the bike, and off down the hill, my rear rim clanging out a merry tune every time it hit a rock. Luckily the tyre insert seemed to be doing its job, the clangs were muffled, and I could pedal on. I got to a river crossing but couldn’t lift my feet high enough to get onto the stepping stones, and just blundered through the water instead. The long flattish section to Ribblehead, which I had thought would be a great section to rest up on, seemed to drag on forever. Finally I arrived at the viaduct and babbled something like “It’s all going wrong! I need your bike!”. Said bike came equipped with a rack, a child trailer hitch and skinny 33 mm tyres with inner tubes. (For anyone not familiar with the niceties of 3 Peaks bike setup, using inner tubes is generally considered to be a bit like turning up to a fell race in crampons.) Not the ideal machine, but the best option under the circumstances. Just one more hill to go – how hard could it be?
One strange aspect of the 3 Peaks CX is how it seems to shift from being a race to a social ride, with the competitors chatting and joking, then on some hidden cue it turns back into a race again. On the tarmac, heading towards Pen-Y-Ghent, it very much turned back into a race again, and I could only twiddle my legs in frustration as rider after rider came past me. Even worse, I knew what was coming – a long, drawn out slog up the final hill. It’s mostly rideable but that only makes it worse.
I kept thinking about the enormous mountain bike cassette on my first bike, although if I’m being frank, this was a classic case of a workman blaming his tools. I actually managed to ride a surprising amount of the climb (by which I mean some of it), but as alluded to earlier, the uphills at this race aren’t the sort where you can just settle into a rhythm and get them over with. There was a long steady drag, then a long steeper drag, then a rocky push/carry, then a load of steps. By the time I got to the steps, I would probably have been overtaken by a passing mollusc. Luckily there were none about.
I finally wheezed my way to the summit, stopped, and pumped my tyres up as hard as I could get them. Then started off down the descent, a useless passenger on a runaway dandy-horse. Somehow I made it to the bottom without wrecking the fragile air-filled chipolatas on which my race finish depended. Another short section of utterly horrible undulating road and I was at the finish, where I celebrated in the traditional 3 Peaks style by slumping against a dry stone wall while shivering uncontrollably. Even with multiple disasters I’d managed a finish time of 4 hours 24 minutes: not disgraceful, but annoyingly close to the magic 4 hours. Which means I’ll probably have to go back for another go. I’m sort of hoping they don’t let me in.