Racing cyclo-cross bikes over the summits of Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-ghent is not for the feint of heart or the feint of mind. Jon Sparks speaks to three conquerors of the Three Peaks Cyclo-cross
Jon Sparks: How did you train for the Three Peaks?
Nicola Davies: I’m pretty fit all year. I should have done more longer off-road rides. I think the leg cramp might have been less severe then. Mark Wildsmith: I do a fair bit of road cycling and got into fell-running this year. I tried to include steep climbs on my runs. I built the cross bike a couple of months ago and did more off-road riding to build up my skills, practicing descending and carrying the bike up-hill. I ran the Three Peaks the month before the race, which gave me a sense of scale and mentally prepared me.
Jon Bardgett: I started riding my cross bike for everything about three months before-hand. I also did a few “carry bikes” over High Street and other hills in the Lakes, and also did long days
out on the bike. And a bit of fell running as well.
JS: How did you set up your bike, was anything different from a normal cyclocross race?
MW: I haven’t done a “normal” cyclo-cross race! I rigged a 42–28 chainset using the inner two rings of a triple to get low enough gears for the steep bits and high enough for the flat road sections. I used cross-top brake levers – I was
glad I did as they gave a change of position on the long descents. Tyres were Schwalbe Landcruisers. Pipe lagging on the top tube is a good idea: there is a lot of carrying!
JB: Basically my cross bike was the same as normal, but I fitted a 11–34 block, an MTB rear mech and Landcruiser tyres at about 75psi, this offered excellent grip and low rolling resistance. They’re heavy but it’s worth it for the peace of mind of not puncturing.
ND: I tried to fit Landcruisers onto my wheels and then found out that they don’t fit onto my rims properly (it was the same as last year… short memory!).
JS: How did you feel on the start-line?
MW: Apprehensive! I started looking at other people’s kit and wondered if they knew something I didn’t. But I tried to stay focused and took some deep breaths.
JB: Nervous… sick… wondering what I was doing there…
ND: Surprisingly calm….though with the occasional shiver of fear!
JS: Was there a big scramble for position early on or did the neutralised start allow things to settle down?
MW: It didn’t feel neutralised to me! The hammer was down from the off with lots of people trying to get to the front. There were some collisions, so I made sure I had space and kept looking ahead… it was all a bit hectic really.
ND: There’s always a big scramble. I just try and stay out of trouble. There were several crashes and unexpected slowdowns. Mayhem…. It might have been alright up front.
JB: Behind the car the top riders have an easy time, a nice steady start. Behind, it’s a bit scary… a lot don’t know how to ride in a pack, so there are crashes, the compressions from corners cause blockages and the front of the field pull away. After Horton you can start to pick your way through the pack as the road steepens… Eyeballs out all the way…
JS: Did you ever have any doubts about finishing?
ND: No. It’s tough, but it’s still less than half a day’s exercise.
JB: When I fell off coming off the top of Whernside and started sliding down the steepest part of the hillside (the one place you wouldn’t want to fall!), finishing didn’t matter any more… I just didn’t want to get hurt. I also got bad cramp at Ribblehead and it didn’t feel like it would go away.
MW: Only once, halfway up Whernside. I was stuck in a line of people trudging up the endless steps. The question: “Why am I doing this?” popped into my head. It really wasn’t much fun, I had the beginnings of cramp and I knew the descent would be tricky. But once I reached the summit I knew I’d be OK.
JS: How technical do you think the course is? How much did you carry the bike and how much did you ride?
JB: The course does have some quite technical bits but apart from the climbs it is all ride-able.
MW: For me the only technical parts were on the descents. On a mountain bike you’d fly down. On a cross bike with no suspension and thin tyres you have to know your limits, when to ride and when to carry. The trickier uphill sections were too steep to ride anyway; I knew it’d be mainly carrying up Ingleborough and Whernside. I thought I’d be able to ride most of the gravel section up Pen-y-ghent but I ran out of steam and ended up pushing.
ND: I love the off-road stuff. There’s a bit of a carry on all three ascents, but it’s mostly riding… and just right for cyclo-cross bikes… bumpy but fun.
JS: Many people said conditions were the best for years. How did it seem to you and how did it affect your race?
ND: Conditions could not have been better. No wind (unusual), dry, and even not too hot. Perfect.
MW: It was comparatively dry, but it was a lot drier the week before. It was pretty boggy at the top of Simon Fell and parts of the descent off Ingleborough. In wet years it must be horrendous!
JB: Rain on Thursday had made some descents wetter than you might expect, but the course actually stands up to adverse weather very well… I think the weather on the day makes more of a difference. It made the race better because you could see who was in front of you.
JS: Which of the Three Peaks was best or
worst and why?
ND: They’re all good and very different in character. There’s a huge sense of relief once you get to Ribblehead after the descent of Whernside. Coming down off Pen-y-ghent you just pray you don’t puncture.
MW: I enjoyed Ingleborough the most. I knew Simon Fell would be tough so I was prepared for it, and the summit came surprisingly quickly. The descent is actually quite fun as it’s grassy on the lower slopes. Whernside I found soul destroying on the stone steps going upward; the almost rideable humpback is frustrating, and the stop/start of the downhill tiring mentally.
JB: They all can be the worst and the best… however, this time Ingleborough was the worst because the start is so hard… it’s good to be over it and hitting the fast road. Whernside was also bad because the descent is so hard you worry about punctures. But it’s technical fast and a good place to gain places. Pen-y-ghent another worst! Because it’s the last and hardest climb and your body is giving up. But it’s also the best because it’s the last descent…
JS: What was the highlight of the race?
ND: Not having any punctures/serious mechanicals. And of course completing it.
JB: The beer at the end. Seeing Nic and knowing she was having a good race.
MW: Getting my timing chip dibbed at the top of Pen-y-ghent knowing it’s all downhill and then smooth tarmac to the finish!
JS: Would you do it again?
MW: Unquestionably, yes.
JB: Of course… it’s the best race there is.
ND: Yes. It’s one of my favourite races (of any genre). It’s totally unique, and obviously quite crazy. Racing cyclo-cross bikes over the summits of Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-ghent…it’s bonkers!
Words and pictures Jon Sparks