It’s often been said that in the Three Peaks Cyclocross Race you want a mountain-bike on the descents, a road bike for the tarmac and no bike at all for the climbs. All I can add is that compared to the pain of humping my bike uphill and a relative lack of control on the descents (how I wished I was on my mountain-bike), the road sections, even on a cross-bike, were a welcome respite.
The race certainly deserves its reputation as one of the toughest cyclocross races in the world. As its name suggests you cross three famous Yorkshire peaks, Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent and you have to ride a cyclocross bike. 61km with 1524m of ascent.
The race is never going to be easy but I’ve summarised five things that I wished I’d known before I started, with the enormous caveat that my single completion of the course, in benign weather and an average time, does not by any means make me an expert.
1. Get into the start pen early
I was happily warming up until about 15 minutes unaware that the start pen was around the corner and filling up fast. When I got there the pen was full to far beyond the box for those expecting a 4 to 4.5 hour time. Luckily I managed to squeeze in at around the 4 hour mark but this was still well in the back half of the field. The first 5.5km of the race may be neutralised but the pace, back where I was, quick and lots of gaps were appearing as riders struggled to keep pace. I must have overtaken over 100 riders in that first section. Looking at a race video I reached the start of the race proper (at Gill Garth) over a minute and a half down on the leaders.
Well towards the back of the 521 starters! (Photo: Mike Adams Photography)
2. Practice walking or running up hill… preferably carrying your bike
The first climb (to Ingleborough) was the toughest of the three. I thought I was going at a sensible pace, fast but not flat out. However there is not that much normal uphill bike riding in the course so it’s probably worth pushing harder on the climbs especially the more gentle bits where one could jog (though no one was doing that where I was). There is space to overtake on the first climb but not on the second which is mainly a stone staircase. I will put some padding (e.g. pipe cladding) under the top tube of my bike next time as you need to carry the bike to run and move fast.
On the steepest section of the climb to Ingleborough. (Photo: Muddygorilla.com)
3. Descend on the drops
About half way down the first descent my hands were getting so tired on the hoods that I could hardly hang on and keep control of the bike. Unfortunately it took a couple of minutes until I could find somewhere where the angle eased enough to swap to the drops. Many riders had extra brake levers fitted so that you can descend while holding the flat bit of their handlebars.
On the drops on the final descent of Pen-y-Ghent. (Photo: Muddygorilla.com)
4. Run higher tyre pressures
I put in a few psi more than I would normally have for a CX race but my 32 psi was wholly inadequate. I heard people talking about having tyre pressures as high as 60 psi but if I did it again I would try 45-50 psi (with my tubeless tyres). The descents were about going as fast as possible whilst trying not to get a flat tyre. It was a delicate judgement; I passed several people mending punctures who had previously overtaken me.
5. Make sure your seat post is tightly done up!
I think my Canyon’s carbon seat post has a design flaw as I have previously had problems with it slipping. That said it was fine in a local CX race but the relentless pounding meant that at the bottom of Ingleborough it had dropped a few inches and by the bottom of Whernside a couple more. I had to stop and raise it there… as a corollary make sure that your multi-tool is handy and not wrapped in a plastic bag in the back of a saddle bag with a zip that catches and won’t open! The race is punishing for one’s bike as well as body.
Attempting to move fast pushing my bike on the top of Pen-y-Ghent … it doesn’t work so well! (Photo: Patrick Frost)
This isn’t really a tip as only an idiot would follow people off the marked route into the mist, but next time I won’t do that. The guys in front of me were trying to short-cut the dog leg at the top of the descent of Ingleborough which resulted in having to descend a steep rocky slope. This was definitely slower for me, partly because I still had a dodgy ankle from a minor crash a few weeks ago.
The results above show I lost places in the middle section of the course and it would appear from the placing that was mainly on the first descent; I took the descents slowly as my aim was to finish without mishaps. However, I was stronger on the final climb. I’d have liked to have been a few minutes faster and beaten the magical 4 hours which I think I could have achieved – without necessarily going faster downhill which would bring big gains – by starting nearer the front. I would have then been in a queue of people going slightly faster up the push / carry sections which I probably could have sustained without blowing up. That said I could feel incipient cramps in the final road section so maybe I did not have that much left to give. My seat post also cost me a couple of minutes.
So for next year, if I am lucky enough to get a place in the ballot, I will practice running uphill in my cycling shoes, descend a bit faster and pray for good luck and good weather (we had a bit of drizzle and some strong winds on the tops but it could have been a lot worse). Sub-four hours is within reach but the sub-three hours time of the winner (Paul Oldham in 2 hours 56 minutes) is hard to even imagine.
Note: The featured image for this post is after I had just gone over the top of Whernside. (Photo: Steharling Photo)