Cyclocross is a sport that rewards persistence and experience. It might take the newcomer a good few seasons to experience the full range of conditions and courses that you might get presented with every weekend from September to February. But when it comes to the annual 3 Peaks Cyclocross Race, even if you’re on your tenth start you’re still a bit of a newbie. A quick scan of the race programme will show that there are many who have been coming back to this race for more than 20, sometimes 30, years. Nonetheless, after managing to complete all nine of my previous attempts, this year I finally felt I could change a few things to see what might happen, loosen the reins on some of the long held beliefs and superstitions that everyone who has had more that a couple of goes at this unique event clings on to.
Well, ok, it was mainly about the tyres. This is an annually recurring, obsessive theme.
And, yeah, ok – I also had a different bike: a less than one-year old Trek Boone. On paper, the perfect 3 Peaks weapon with its Isospeed Decoupler do-dahs to take the sting out of the rattling descents (yet thankfully with not enough travel to fall foul of the “no suspension” rule). Oh, and a single chainring setup for the first time: 42T up front with an 11-42T cassette. All of these fine things supplied by my friends at York Cycleworks, of course. The tutting and sucking of teeth that accompanies a discussion about 3 Peaks tyres and their pressure can be heard from as early as June every year, usually from the mouths of those that have settled on the lowest common denominator, the old dependable, the bulletproof: the Schwalbe Land Cruiser. Until this year, I too was a Land Cruiser devotee. But it was time to move on and try something lighter and tubeless, so I stared misfortune in the face and settled on some Schwalbe G-One AllRound TLEs.
Everything else was the same as it always has been: training consisting of leg- and mind-numbing reps up the Chevin steps in Otley, plus the first few races of the Yorkshire Points CX series which are about as far removed from the 3 Peaks race experience as it’s possible to get.
The day itself came at the end of one of the driest summers in recent memory, although it dawned a little damp and grey. After the usual bun fight for positions along the first 5km on the road, the slog up Simon Fell and on to Ingleborough seemed to pass as it always does – with singing calves and a very real fear of rolling all the way to the bottom again if you lose your footing. But the descent off the top seemed to go quickly – minimal peat bogs and no mishaps for a change. On to the road at Cold Coates and I found myself in a small group containing 3 Peaks royalty, the race secretary Mark Richmond (who would later end up in an ambulance with a nasty cut knee – on the mend now thankfully) and blogger Dave Haygarth. We all agreed to work together and then 2 minutes later the group was splintered into ones and twos as a fella from High Wickham just put his head down and went for it, with only Mark managing to hold his wheel.
THE DREADED WHERNSIDE
Whernside is my least favourite. Its uneven steps punish even the slightest loss of rhythm or misplaced foot. But the top section seemed to be more rideable than usual and I was soon picking my way carefully down the other side, passing the inevitable line of puncture victims, although the G-Ones took it all in their stride.
The road section between Ribblehead and Houghton-in-Ribblesdale is usually where I start to feel the onset of cramp and experience the complete loss of power on the gentle rises – where a pair of Land Crusiers really begin to make their presence felt. But this year was different: I actually felt like I could still dig deep and have the bike respond accordingly.
The up-and-down-the-same-path nature of the Pen-y-Gent climb should by rights make it the worst. And if you’re cramping like I have on some years, it’s pretty grim. But this is offset by the fantastic support that all riders get from the crowds that gather all along the lane – this is the part of the race where you really know you’re riding a special event. Near the top I could make out another York Cycleworks rider (Ewan Sewell) no more than 30 seconds in front of me. But in my excitement at realising I might be on for a PB, I had forgotten to eat enough. This wasn’t a problem during the climb (although I never caught Ewan), but the light-headedness started to kick in during the relentlessly rocky descent, and no Isospeed decoupler was going to help me go any quicker now. Still, I made it down somehow and deposited all the watts I had left on the last few miles between Horton and Helwith Bridge to finish in 3:37:21 – a PB by nearly 6 minutes.
I wasn’t the only one. Nearly everyone at the finish when I got there was talking about how it was their fastest time also. Although the surface of the off-road sections was damp, it was nowhere near as soft as it sometimes is – especially coming off Ingleborough. Add to that the favourable wind on the road section from Ingleton and you have a classic year. You’ve got to take them when you can: anyone who was there will gladly bore you to tears about the atrocious conditions in 2012 and the infamous lake that appeared halfway down Pen-y-Gent lane.
EVOLUTION, NOT REVOLUTION
So, things to try changing next: Hydration – have always used a hydration pack which I hate only slightly less than trying to carry a bike with a bottle and cage. But is there another way? Support – have always been self-supported despite kind offers from many to wait with bikes, drinks & food. Shoes – carbon soled MTB race shoes are probably not the quickest up Whernside steps. Training – just start earlier and do more.
But whatever I change next, it’ll be evolution, not revolution. After all, I’ve got at least another 10 years to get it right.
Words by Tony Mills