My preparation for this year’s Yorkshire 3 Peaks CX hadn’t gone well at all. Back in 2014 I gave it a miss and went for the World 24hr Mountain Bike Championships in Scotland instead. Having just turned 50 I fancied my chances of sneaking a category podium. And I did, but at a cost. A nerve injury that meant I couldn’t exercise at all for 12-months and was off the bike for almost 18-months. A really frustrating time made even more so by the fact that I couldn’t race my favourite bike race of the year.
As the entry date for this year’s race loomed I was still far from confident that it would be a good decision to try and get a place (there are around 1000 entries for 650 places so lots of people unfortunately miss out) as my nerve injury was finally easing but was still periodically flaring-up. As a test I did the Aggregate 100K gravel race and loved every minute of it, but afterwards the injury flared again. The good news was that it did settle down within a week and my decision was made. I wasn’t going to miss out on another 3 Peaks CX for the sake of an uncomfortable following week. Everyone suffers the week after from the battering they get so what the hell.
And I got an entry! The planned emails letting everyone know they had a place were delayed by around 6 days so my finger nails were bitten to the bone by the time it arrived. I’ve never wanted to get into an event so badly and I actually punched the air and yelled with joy.
Sometimes though events conspire against you and sometimes you just make poor decisions. I picked up a cold two weeks before and had to abort a block of training. I then entered the Ramsbottom Mountain Trail Duathlon the week before and had to abandon with a calf muscle injury. Great event but stupid decision to enter and risk an injury so close to the highlight of the racing calendar.
The week before I did everything I could to get the calf repaired and it did improve a fair amount apart from when climbing on tiptoes. So the first, steepest and most brutal climb, up Simon Fell on Ingleborough was going to be the acid test. If I could make it up I felt I would be OK on the remaining “gentler” climbs. So my plan was warm-up well, steady as she goes on the first road section and survive Simon Fell. And finish. I had finished all previous 5 races and desperately wanted to make it 6.
I knew that it was unlikely that I would beat my previous best time of 4hrs 17m in 2013 as back then I was in really good shape and the weather was kind. But I did hope that I could better my 4hr 56m in 2012 – the year the weather threw everything at us.
And off we went in the rain. All soaked within 10 minutes from the rain and spray. I did smile at the thought of the weather forecast email we got the day before from the organisers suggesting that we should consider taking a cap, sunglasses and suncream! Well intentioned advice based on the forecast, but it proves you don’t head into the Peaks unless you are prepared for anything.
Turning off the road on to the farm track you get the first view of Simon Fell. And what a sight it is. A super-steep long grassy climb with (by the time I got there) a long line of racers snaking up into the grey gloomy sky. It starts steadily and steepens as it goes. I plodded as carefully as I could, trying to protect my left calf. Walking sideways, zig-zagging, anything to avoid climbing on my toes. And I made it. It took ages but the calf didn’t give way. I was elated. There was a solid chance of finishing if I took it steady and looked after myself and the bike.
Thud. I wondered why everyone was taking a big loop around a patch of mud. It was deep that was why – over the bars I went. My left side completely submerged. I had to laugh. And in fairness so did most people around me – after checking I was alright of course. I rattled down the rest of the Ingleborough descent without any further drama and on to the road to Whernside. Just in time for a refreshing blast of wind and rain.
Climbing Whernside is different than the other peaks in that the only route up is a narrow path of slabbed steps that makes overtaking almost impossible, without being an arse. A third of the way into the climb you have to accept that you are where you are and very likely to stay there until the path opens up near the summit. Head down, trudging, fuelling, following the footsteps of the person in front. If they slow you head-butt their back wheel and set off a chain-reaction back down the hill – a different reason for wearing a helmet.
The Whernside descent is the trickiest descent. Slabbed steps that are really slippy when wet, with deep drainage channels and sections that you can approach very quickly that are unrideable. I’ve had a few big crashes on Whernside in the past and have to admit that I don’t look forward to it at all. It didn’t help when I passed a guy who had clearly had a big one and was receiving attention. Within minutes I got my line wrong, tried to adjust, dropped my front wheel off a slab and went over the bars. Smacking my knee on the slab and whacking the back of my left knee with my pedal. Bloody hell it hurt. After a minute of feeling sorry for myself I pushed on, even more cautiously, running sections that looked tricky. Didn’t completely help though as I slipped descending a grassy bank and managed to slide all the way down and get my right leg stuck in my bars. Thanks to the passing walker who helped me out.
I must have made up loads of places on the descent. Not because of my ability – well maybe a couple – but mostly as a consequence of crashes and mechanicals for others. The hill was littered with people fixing punctures, mostly due to whacking a wheel on one of the many pointy rocks, and picking themselves up after a crash. Not sure how I’ve managed it but I’ve never had a puncture on the 3 Peaks and this time was no different.
Getting to the viaduct at the bottom I breathed a massive sigh of relief. The worst climb and worst descent over. I made a mental note to myself to walk it a couple of times next year in preparation to learn the lines and see what shape it is in. It had been two years since I was last on it and it had changed a lot.
The road section to Pen-Y-Ghent always has a headwind and just drags. It is a great opportunity to take a final gel – a double caffeinated Clif gel for me – before the last climb. Halfway along there is little steep road climb that I have an irrational hatred of it. Bizarre on an event as tough as this but probably a consequence of fatigue.
Pen-Y-Ghent is different again. The only one that you can ride up a fair way and virtually all the way down. Gearing and talent permitting. It is also a great spectator spot as the riders head up and down the same path. Sometimes a little too closely and I just avoided being wiped out despite being as far left as I could possibly get by a rider trying to overtake two others on his descent– not smart. Shouts of encouragement from Simon (who took the main photo) and Cath Fox at the bottom and Andy and Patrick Watson half way up were great for moral and I summited at 4hrs 20m. And the realisation hit me that I would both finish and finish in a respectable time as long as I stayed in one piece on the descent.
And I did. Shaken to pieces with the likely onset of white finger (possibly), but no drama.
On the last short road section to the finish I started to well up. Really overcome with emotion. Fatigue and relief were factors I’m sure but it had been a really tough last 2 years and the possibility that I would never be able to do the race again had been very real. And I love this race as I’m sure everyone who has done it does. It really gets under your skin. The physical and mental challenge, the danger, the sheer beauty of the landscape, the unforgiving weather and the amazing feeling of having achieved something special by finishing.
Thanks to all the organisers and marshals for putting on such a great event. Thanks to all those that gave me some encouragement on my way around. Well done also to my team-mates Dave Powell, Phil Simcock and Rich Seipp for their brilliant races. Especially Rich for setting the record for riding it on a fixie! Rich you are a mad bugger!
I can’t wait for next year – fingers crossed I get a place.