The Three Peaks Cyclocross has been a big part of my life ever since I first rode it in 1996. I don’t think about it every single day, but at least a few times a week in November, building to every day early June, and then it’s never out of my thoughts from July onwards. I still haven’t given up on winning it one day. Obsessed is a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated!
Below I have some advice for those who’ve never entered before (not sure why anybody would be in this situation), and also those who’ve given it a try and want to get round a bit faster or perhaps have fewer incidents on the way.
Entries open on 1st June all the information about this, race route, rules, etc. is here. It’s not first-come-first-served. The organiser gathers all the entries together, a certain number of fast riders get accepted and then it’s random selection. Since there is a team competition, I wonder if you have more chance of getting in if you are in a recognised team with a bit of Three Peaks heritage, than an independent, unattached entry?
The sure way to get an entry is to help out marshalling one year, which guarantees you entry the next.
I wish you luck in getting on to the start list!
Lot’s of people try hard on the day, but it’s training that makes the difference. I’m sure everyone tries hard in their exams at school, but it’s only those who’ve done the revision that will reap the rewards. The really smart ones go to the lessons and revise the really important bits of the course, working on their weaknesses, and honing their strength areas. The Three Peaks is no different.
Now I live in the South, I don’t have access to the hills I’d really like to train on for the Three Peaks, but here’s an example training ride.
I’m not a coach (I’m working on getting a bit of content on the site from one in due course), but I can help with what’s important for this race. I’m afraid the list is long and painful. It’s roughly in order of importance:
- lose weight (yes, off your bike(s), but mainly off you – these hills are really steep!),
- aerobic fitness (by this I mean the sort of fitness that mans you can ride faster for an hour),
- downhill (difficult to place in the hierarchy, but you can gain/lose big time here),
- punchiness (as the race hits the first climb, it’s a bit like the Tour hitting Alpe d’Huez – your heart rate soars and you need to be able to cope with this and recover for the first really steep bit),
- endurance (if you have 2&4, pacing is easier and this is less of a problem),
Note that if you’ve not done the training, 5 leapfrogs 2&4; you’re going to be out there for hours on end and it will be a whole different sort of experience. Keep reading though, as you can try to mitigate your summertime delinquency.
For me this means low-alcohol beer, reducing carbs (particularly wheat) and upping the protein. That, and loads of training has seen me lose about 15kg since I returned to racing two years ago.
It’s great to go out and smash is with your mates on every ride, but try and take time to get some really consistent riding in, where you don’t go too hard, but you never ease off. This means you can really get in a lot of training without destroying yourself for the next ride. A power meter really helps here.
The descents in the Three Peaks are awesome, I will describe each one later. For now, suffice to say that you need to be riding your cross bike throughout the summer to be ready for the challenge.
- Get comfortable with bunnyhopping gaps/rock,
- work on getting the front wheel up and your weight back for ditches, and
- practice for unplanned dismounts and running downhill with your bike on your back (yes – you will need to do this).
Strava segment hunting means most of us have got a bit more punchy. If you are doing interval training for cyclocross races anyway, then keep doing this. If not, work on a range of intervals in the three to ten minute range. Find a steep hill to do this running (or staggering) with your bike on your back too.
Keep up the long, sociable rides. I think the kind of ride where you go out on the ‘cross bike or mountain bike planning for about 2.5 hours, but get a bit lost and end up out for more like 3.5 hours are the best sort. That is, you’ve gone out at a faster pace than you should and end up totally stuffed. That’s what the Three Peaks is often like!
I’ve ranked this last as I think being a good cyclist tends to mean you can run up hill quite well. That’s all that’s required really in the Three Peaks. Yes, there’s a bit of running on descents, but it’s having the strength to put one foot in front of the other up a steep climb that counts. I therefore don’t think you have to do loads of running without the bike, but you should do plenty of training up steep hills with the bike on your shoulder.
Deciding you need a new bike is I think for some one of the best bits about getting your Three Peaks entry accepted.
There’s nothing in particular that makes a bike better for the Three Peaks than for a normal cyclocross race. Some riders get very excited about their disc setup or that their’s is a ‘gravel bike’, which are made for long races so must be good for this long race. Yes, discs are great, but there is a weight penalty. As much as those with discs may have that extra bit of confidence at speed and less achy fingers, riders with worn out disc pads do get overtaken by those with still-functioning cantilevers. Get the lightest bike(s) you can afford, and if this has some nice, hydraulic discs, so much the better.
I usually dent at least one rim, so bear this in mind when choosing how much to spend on wheels. Traction is not usually an issue and there are long road sections, so go for a low rolling resistance tread pattern.
I don’t pad my top tube. Years of cyclocross and a paper round have helped here. My right shoulder has developed a sort of fleshy pad to cope. You do see people carrying their bikes in all sorts of strange ways, and this can’t help with the pain. More on this below.
One bike, no support strategy
For some this makes the race more ‘pure’. I think that’s rubbish. The team support, often from family members (even for the pro riders) is one of the things I love about cyclocross.
I do, however, admire those who set out solo on this epic.
The is the biggest issue unsupported riders will have. If you’re prepared to stop, there’s a drink station at the start of the second mountain (I haven’t called them my name yet, as I would like to introduce them properly later). You can also beg for some water from the many spectators on the last mountain. So, one large bottle could do the trick. Make sure you drink all of it between each of the above refill points though.
I don’t think a Camelback type system is necessarily suitable. They are a bit of a faff to refill, so you’re looking at carrying upwards of two litres of water on your back, which isn’t going to help on the climbs or descents. I find a bottle on the down tube still lets you carry the bike ok. A one litre bottle may be a bit much for some cages on the rocky descents though. Each to their own, but train with the setup you’re planning to use.
With no one waiting with spare wheels, you need to avoid punctures, but be able to fix them quickly. This means running a tubeless setup. Run them hard (towards the upper end of the recommended pressure – >50psi), take a canister of CO2/sealant mix (e.g. Vittoria Pittstop), repair worms, a mini pump and a spare tube and lever just in case. To perform on the descents, you need to keep the contents of your pockets to a minimum, so tape some of this stuff to your seat pin.
If you are running tubes, pump your tyres up to the absolute maximum allowable pressure.
One bike, spare wheels & supporter
With the chance to refill en route, you can start with one small bottle, take another small or large one after the first mountain and a large bottle after the second. Have an energy gel taped to each bottle.
With a set of wheels waiting at key points on the course, you may not want to spend time repairing a puncture and could consider tubulars. Tufo tubulars are not competitive with the more expensive, delicate cotton versions the pros use, but are a good choice for the Three Peaks. Put some tubeless tyre sealant in, pump them up to ~60psi and you’ll rarely puncture. You can also ride them flat without them rolling off the rim (if you’re not too far from your supporters and spare wheels). Take a can of Pittstop too.
Some riders still prefer tubeless, with the wider tread options and bit of extra width (up to the 35 mm limit).
Now you’re entering a new world, where you sometimes feel you need operations research and race simulation to plan the support team’s day.
The choice of equipment remains as above, but you might want to actually plan to change bikes after each mountain, with a new bottle ready in the cage. With all the bumping around on the descent you may not notice an issue with the bike you’re on, and it might be safer to change anyway rather than wait till the road section and find out when it’s too late.
Last year I had wheels at some key points on the course, a bike before and after each mountain, with an extra bike halfway down the final descent (dedicated, not obsessed!) I can confirm that all supporters were family members, so it was in the true spirit of cyclocross.
It is totally possible to do the whole race on one bike.
The route and the mountains
You can spend a while looking at the heights of the mountains, the contours, etc., but each part of the course has its own character and it is this I think that determines the relative dosing of pain and delight.
Intense, misty and complicated
Before you get to this one, you need to negotiate the start. There is a huge field for this race. Everyone lines up in order of their expected finish time. We all set off and it’s a bit fast for the first half mile, but then generally a reasonably civilised affair I find (compared to a road race). There are a few nutters trying to get further up the field than they perhaps ought to. The turns over the humpback bridges in Horton in Ribblesdale always promise to bring everyone down, but it always seems to be ok.
Maintaining position in such a large bunch is tricky. The usual rules apply, that the outside tends to move forward and the middle of the group backwards. There are a couple of steep climbs once you’re through Horton, and these will give you a hint of how you are going to get on that day. It all gets very nervous as the field approaches the left turn off the road, over some gravel and a cattle grid and on to the track through the farm to the mountain. There’s no easy answer to this bit. I have sleepless nights about falling, chains breaking, etc. at this point. Just try and keep your cool and change down before the turn, not after. I’m told Nick Craig once punctured here, changed a tube and still managed 2nd place, so all is not lost if you have an issue.
[Above] The turn onto Ingleborough at Gill Garth
Now it is like the start of a standard cyclocross race; everyone charging to get a good position for the narrower bits to come, while putting their adversaries under pressure. This is why you need to do those intervals in training.
The track surface worsens, there’s a tricky, rocky gateway, the gravel turns to grass, and the gradient goes up.
When you first need to get off your bike, I advise you to push it, as they’ll be plenty of time for carrying later. As Simon’s fell approaches (try not to look at it), you’re on and off your bike until it becomes clear that they’ll be no more riding for the foreseeable future and shouldering your bike is the only option.
Carrying your bike
It’s worth taking a moment here to consider how to carry your bike properly. You need to be completely at ease with this before you tackle the race, so take time to practice.
I suggest you pick the bike up by the down tube. You won’t have to lift the bike as high as if you use the top tube, and every little bit of energy saved helps. Position roughly the middle of the top tube on your shoulder (not the top tube/seat tube corner) and either:
- put your arm under the down tube, reach through and grasp the lower section of the drop handlebar (this is the quickest way to shoulder your bike)
- put your arm around the head tube and grasp the brake lever hood (this is perhaps the most secure carrying position).
I switch between these, but generally use method 1.
Spar Francorchamps is the closest the pro riders get to the Three Peaks (Mathieu van der Poel on the left uses method 1, while Wout van Aert on the right uses method 2):
Back to the race…
Depending on the weather the true enormity of Simon’s Fell may not yet have become apparent through the mist. It is truly brutal! You’ll find yourself leaning forward and taking handholds on the grass in front of you, or using the fence on the left for support. Try and keep a rhythm, staying as upright as you can for as long as you can, rather than adopt a bent over staggering approach.
Then the climbing is suddenly over and you’re left with rolling moorland. This is where the cyclocross riders make time over the runners. Keep your cool as, with everyone in oxygen dept, a lot of falls happen here. Getting the right line is important. Look ahead to see the riders in the know break left over a grassy hill before the final assault on the summit starts. This is up a barely rideable track that degenerates into rocky steps. You’re almost there now though, so take heart.
You can ride a lot of the pan-flat summit, which is covered in loose rocks. Once you’ve turned left at the summit marshals (almost doubling back on yourself), look right for your opportunity for a sneaky run down the hillside; cutting off the worst of the rocky track.
Then it’s rocky path, followed by boggy moorland (keep your weight back for the bog crossings – you have to get off for some) and then an eyeballs-out grassy descent to the marshals and road. Make sure you know where your support crew will be. Get them to shout like mad and wear stupid coats and hats so you’ll spot them.
This video shows rear-view footage of the approach to and climb of Ingleborough
Steps up, danger down
Before you get on to the next mountain you have a fast road section to Ingleton. Have your gel and a drink now. The climb out of Ingleton is quite brutal really. You need to try and stay with the riders you are with, as they’ll be useful on the long road ahead. Don’t push the pace though. A long, predominantly flat, often windy road then leads to a stiff climb before the left turn to Whernside. Keep it steady along the track that follows, but don’t ease off.
As the track begins to climb, you have to get off due to some arcane byway law, and can fill your drink bottle if you need to.
There are a series of gates on Whernside. If you’re in a group, clearly you must give the gate an extra shove for the next person. I’m never quite sure how far ahead you should be before it’s considered ok to slam it shut so it holds the next rider up as much as it held you up.
Have a go at riding up the rocky track as far as you can. It’s the most fun you’re going to have before the summit, so why not? Now you’re in for a long haul up a very long set of stone steps. Just try and keep a rhythm. Only the very fastest mange to run these, but you’ve got to keep pushing. There is a lot of time to gain or lose here.
You can ride a lot of the flatter top section of Whernside. Don’t go crazy, as you’ll need your wits about you for the most dangerous bit of the race: the Blea Moor descent. Try and catch a glimpse of the view over to Inlgeborough and the final mountain.
A fast gradual descent lures you into a false sense of security before the track plummets down drop-offs and rocky chutes. Things then get worse as the path is replaced by huge paving slabs with occasional drainage gaps to bunnyhop and steps that put a cross bike at its limit. If it’s dry you need to think about your speed. If it’s wet you should be thinking more about your life. Discretion is the better part of valour and running some of these sections may be a good idea.
You can then increase your speed as the surface improves, but there are still jagged rocks sticking out of the surface all over the place. I broke a rib here in 2015. I didn’t look too happy in 2016 either (see feature image).
There are all sorts of choices to make to bypass the last couple of steep sections that follow. You also have a river to cross and a few short rises along a well-maintained gravel path before you arrive at the viaduct and your support crew. To give you an idea of how intense this descent is, I didn’t notice the viaduct for the first three years.
[Above] The unmissable Ribblehead viaduct
Cruel & kind
Now you really have to look after yourself. Get on whatever wheel you can and then tuck into a gel and have something to drink. You’ve got a couple of stiff climbs on the road ahead of you – in particular the climb out of Selside. Then you can keep the tempo, while trying to drink and recover before the turn onto Pen-y-Ghent. You have to go hard from the outset on this one if you are going to make it up the lower rock-strewn track. Then you can assess how you are getting on. If you can tell you are in a game of survival, keep the gear low and just concentrate on getting up the thing. Hopefully this is where you can make some time though if you’re a good hill-climbing cyclist. There is a bit of fun part way up where you have to battle through a bit of a boulder field (I ripped a rear mech off here in 2015 and had to run the rest). Then a short descent before the real climbing starts. This is proper mountain bike stuff and you’ll need a low gear (I run 36/32). Just get up it as far as you can. Tim Gould is something to behold on this sort of terrain. It just gets too steep and relentless; you end running/walking before the track hairpins up to the right. You can cut off the corner. There are usually people with drinks here.
Most of the rest is running. You can try and get on the bike here and there. You are really close now! Give it all you have! You can still make time and places!
It’s an about turn at the summit followed by a bit of a boggy descent. Bear slightly to the right of the path you took on the way up. If you are in good shape the descent ahead of you is a joy – really one to remember for years to come. If you have blown on the way up, it will be absolute torture – really one to remember for years to come.
Ride or run when you hit the rocky track. I get on the bike as soon as possible and ride round the hairpin rather than run and cut it off. They’ll be riders coming up as you go down. Somehow people don’t seem to crash into each other. It’s a steep tack and you need to heave on the bars to hop over the drainage ridges.
Once you’re through the gate, it’s a series of sprints up slight rises and just hanging on. When you hit a boulder field, keep your weight back and let the bike go where it wants to go. You’ll be thrown off if you try to make any real manoeuvres. There are some good bits of weightlessness, compressions, OMG how did I get through that, etc., Then left turn on to the road and the chase to the finish. There’s just one slight rise before the drop down to Helwith Bridge.
Even after such a long race it’s often a sprint at the finish. I’m afraid I’m not going to give you any advice on that as I never know who I’m going to be up against.
[Above, photo Steve Flemming] Pen-y-Ghent is bound to leave you with some memories and stories to tell
What to wear & carry
This depends a little on how long you think it’s going to take you. It can get cold out there on Whernside. If you’re three hours in at this point, then a full waterproof will be a good idea. If you’re aiming at the 3.5 to 4.5 hour completion time, I would suggest:
- bib shorts
- undervest (warm or lightweight, depending on forecast)
- short sleeve jersey (it normally gets hot by the end of the race)
- arm warmers (it is normally cold at the beginning of the race)
- windproof/waterproof gilet (you often have to take a waterproof at the direction of the race organiser)
I pin my jersey to my shorts so that it doesn’t work its way up on the descents. Put your survival bag in your right pocket where it will act as a pad against your bike. Gilet goes in the centre pocket, gels up the shorts, whistle and small multitool with chain link in the left pocket, CO2/sealant, etc. taped to the seat pin.
Drop me a line if you’d like any more elements of the race and preparation to be covered. Nearer the race, I thought a support crew guide might go down well?
Any good pictures of the event would be welcome too.
I’m not sure of the origins of the featured image of me descending Whernside. Do get in touch if you know, so that I can give credit.