Words & Photos by Hollis Duncan with Photography from Jack Chevell
Held the last Sunday in September in the Yorkshire Dales, 3 Peaks is an iconic cyclocross race. Unchanged since the first running in 1961, the 38-mile course requires riders to shoulder their bikes up Yorkshire’s tallest mountains, Ingleborough, Whernside, and Pen-y-ghent, where notorious weather can quickly turn hostile.
A brutal but brilliant race, 3 Peaks is the epitome of grassroots cross. Held in the village of Helwith Bridge this no-nonsense race caters to hard men and women. One race number on your left shoulder will do. A proper pub serves good real local ales and steak pie which fuel riders up godforsaken fells. Fans stand out in the cold and wet to offer a track pump, water, or if you’re lucky a basket of fun size candy bars. The YSS Schoolhouse hostel where many riders stay offers two-up showers with iffy hot water. After the finish, I got a blank stare when I asked a marshal where the hoses were to rinse bikes?
It’s true until you get onto Simon Fell with a bike on your shoulder you can’t understand. Three Peaks is more of a fell runner’s race than a pure cyclocross event but that’s what makes it special, the impossibility of the terrain with the changeable weather. Only a handful of the top guys can run up the peaks while the field troops along in single file, only passing someone ahead if they slip, for the gradients are too steep to do otherwise, so you accept your place in the slow march uphill and get on with it.
“I remember even as a lad watching my dad the community spirit is ace. Everyone is sort of there to help each other which trickles to the fans because you all are nuts. You’ll love it. Enjoy the nerves, the pie, and the beautiful hills,” texted my friend Ian Walton in the anxious days before.
Photos by Jack Chevell
Ian’s father, Stuart, of Skelmanthorpe, West Yorkshire rode 3 Peaks in his 50s so when he got word through his son that I was flying from Barcelona to race this year he insisted on providing support. We met on Sunday in the rain about 30 minutes before the start to talk feed strategy. Stuart’s plan was to be at the beginning of each road section to hand me a bidon after the descents; I would slow to look for him among the throng of supporters, what could possibly go wrong?
With heavy overnight rain that continued at regular intervals throughout the day plus sleet and blustery winds towards the summits, this year’s weather was spot on. Thirty seconds before the start I realized I left my saddle bag with spare inner tube in the car. Six kilometers into the race I lusted for Femke Van den Driessche’s pit bike when a bloke in a Heinz Baked Beans in Tomato Sauce jersey passed me before turning onto the first off-road section.
After descending Ingleborough ahem Endoborough, I didn’t see Stuart so I hopped in a group hammering the road section when suddenly I spot Stuart beside his Triumph Bonneville about 3km from where he said he would be. I realized too late so we started the bottle game 0-1 with the rocky slabbed steps of Whernside looming.
Whernside was an epic struggle: I ran the entire sketchy descent to play it safe without a spare tube. In a word the moorland was primitive. I averaged 3.8kph running in cleats 1.1km down a 21% gradient which was only the “steps” portion of the descent, of course, this came after shouldering my bike up the steeper side and most of the boggy top.
Relieved to actually be riding, flying down the last stretch of gravel at Ribblehead Viaduct, I caught a green Caja Rural bidon out of the corner of my eye, snatching my Tour of Catalonia souvenir out of midair whilst shouting, “Thanks Stuart!” Whoosh I was gone mashing the pedals towards the third and final peak.
Swilling the 500ml bidon, my calves started cramping violently pushing on the penultimate road section between Whernside and Pen-y-ghent. Sooner or later I was bound to pay for not hydrating sufficiently for such a tough race. One bottle for 3 hours of riding is inadequate but that’s 3 Peaks in a nutshell, shit happens, and you try to get around the best you can.
On Friday driving up from Leeds airport, I stopped by Riders Cycle Centre in Skipton to chat with the owner Stuart Rider and pick his brain about the course. Benedict Campbell, whose film For the Love of Mud features 3 Peaks and inspired me to race, told me Stuart was a 3 Peaks geek. So while unpacking and rebuilding my bike in his shop, Stuart shared that a 24-time 3PCX veteran’s advice to first timers is 1) Don’t race your first 3 Peaks, 2) Put lots of pressure in your tires, and 3) Pace yourself. Happy to finish in 4 hours 17 minutes or 222nd place out of about 600 of my closest cyclocross friends, I would like to add 4) Enjoy a recovery pint in the Helwith Bridge Inn after the race.