Yet again I feel compelled to put down on paper my Three Peaks story – for the three-fold purposes of therapy, self-publicity and, of course, hopefully, your enjoyment. If you’d like more information on the course and how to tackle the event, there’s a large section devoted to it in The Cyclocross Bible.
As always The Three Peaks was a big date in the Forrester calendar, but this year perhaps more so than ever. My preparation had been good and my legs were good. A recent resurfacing of the sinusitis that had ended my 2017/18 season early had been affecting my concentration and focus but once on the fells I was confident I would be in my best shape ever.
I’d gone to great lengths to get my equipment right too. For example, to help with the lengthy road sections I’d opted for the aerodynamic advantages of a skinsuit with internal pockets, an aeroshell helmet cover and deep section carbon wheels. My bikes would be Forme Calvers (my first time on discs at this event) and, as always, I had my secret weapon: Inov8 fell running shoes with homemade carbon soles fitted with clipless pedal cleats.
With a field nearing 600 riders, the start is always a nervous affair. Being on the front row naturally helps in staying away from the initial, frantic jostling for position. I still, however, soon found myself battling to stay in the top 30. While my position on the left-side offered some element of safety, as the chancers duelled with each other in the centre and on the right, I was rather hemmed in. The hump-back bridges through Horton-in-Ribblesdale thin out the field and this gave me a chance to switch to the right and then move up to the front. A bit of energy used but it left me in second-wheel as we took the tricky left-hander over the cattle grid and on to the farm track through Gill Garth. The race was on….
Unfortunately this is where it started to unravel for me. It was one of those days where I just couldn’t push on the pedals hard enough, go deep, get in the zone, however you want to put it. I’d done so much training and really focused on this event so it was tough to see the front of the race drift away from me, especially as it was as we passed by my dedicated, cheering mum. I knew my running form was good so resolved to make back time as soon as we hit the steep slopes of Simon Fell.
I did indeed make up some ground here, along with legend, team mate and long-time mentor Tim Gould. If you’d told me 25 years ago I’d be racing Tim up Simon Fell I’d not have believed you. Racing round with Tim that day is a memory I’ll keep!
The wind over the top was pretty brisk to say the least. Past the checkpoint, a brief bit of riding on the plateau, before off the bike and diving down the steep slope to the initially rocky track. The ground was dry so the usual boggy ditches were rideable. This was going to be a fast day! Unless, like me, you lost a contact lens at this point! The descent off Ingleborough is mostly grass, with drop-offs, bumps and dips a little too subtle to detect with hampered vision. I managed to make a fair fist of it but Tim was out of sight by the time we reached the crowds at the foot of the descent. I did at least manage to catch one rider (Oscar Pujol Muñoz).
Here I had a slick bike change courtesy of my youngest, Charlie (8) and an anonymous bike catcher (thanks!). I had tackled the first mountain on lightweight Novatec R3 Tubular Disc wheels fitted with intermediate tread Tufo Primus tubulars. Gearing was 40t at the front and 11-42t at the back
As soon as I got on to the road it got a bit surreal with Oscar trying to do a piece to a camera, with a motorbike immediately in front of us. I gesticulated a bit for him to start riding. It turns out he’s quite handy on a bike (as well as a nice chap I found chatting to him afterwards) and proceeded to drop me up the climb out of Ingleton, still taking into a microphone. Nice confidence booster! He proceeded to blast up the road, and straight on past Tim Gould in the distance. I too caught Tim, but did a nice turn on the front into Chapel-le-Dale like good friends do! I complained about everyone being faster this year but Tim thought it was just a fast day.
I think Whernside might be my favourite. I like getting to the stone steps, setting a good, steady running pace and holding it as long as I can. After all the excitement of the start and the complicated Ingleborough ascent, it’s just nice to get stuck in to a prolonged bit of pain!
As the pain really starts to set in, I know they’ll soon be momentary relief when the mood is lightened by my annual encounter with Bob Barber taking photographs. Check out his Flickr account — there are some really nice images on there. He also makes a mean hot chocolate at Pedalon (I’m sure he does other useful things there too).
With my podium dreams in tatters, I was now focusing on taking some pride back down south (I’m from Derbyshire originally but have spent so much time in Hampshire now that I fear I’m semi-Southern) and had my eyes fixed on Adrian Lansley on the ridge up ahead, hoping I could catch him, while holding off his Pedalon team mate Sam Allen, who was chasing me hard up the steps.
My low friction, low drag set up had let me catch Tim on the road but it was no match for him on the descent. However, although I had to be a bit careful with the carbon wheels, the tubeless Tufo tubulars are close to puncture proof and, after passing a snake-bite stricken Lansley, I also sped past Tim, with sealant gushing everywhere (agonisingly not long after he had passed his wife Jill with the spares). Both had a long way to go to the next support at Ribblehead.
As the surface conditions eased, I was starting to get used to my one-eyed vision and my mojo was coming back. The next feature I was looking out for was my eldest, Douglas (10), who had been handed the responsibility of walking up from the Ribblehead viaduct as far as he could with a spare pair of wheels. There he was, cheering me on and, to his credit, offering up my wheels to Adrian Lansley when he got to him. Perhaps against the odds, my Novatec aero setup was still going strong and ready to come into its own again on the road to Pen-y-Ghent.
Before then I had to take on more sustenance from my Dad at Ribblehead. With a new hip due to be fitted in a couple of weeks, he was a stationary member of the support crew this year. You can make out on the image below an energy gel and foil-wrapped rice cake taped to the bottle he handed me. I’ve taken on Pen-y-Ghent thirsty and in bad shape before. I’m not thinking of doing it again!
After settling into a good tempo on the road, I noticed I was closing on a group of riders ahead. It became clear from their body language though that they were just out for a spin on the road, but it seemed to be taking me a while to close down this Sunday club run. The reason for their speed with apparent ease became clear though when I finally overhauled them up the climb just past Selside. Tom Pidcock grinned at me at let out some words of encouragement. I let out a surprised expletive!
As I hit the final mountain in 8th pace (I believed – actually I must have been in 9th), I thought: have a good ride up and down here, make three places and 5th will be a great result. I passed Charlie, holding my spare wheels, and things were going well. Pretty soon I’d been passed by three riders and re-imagined my goals to a top ten! I think a big thing about endurance events is this sort of changing psychology. You can’t come to terms with losing places too easily; you have to hold the wheels and battle for positions. That being said, it’s important to be able to re-assess the situation and be happy and motivated even if things don’t go to plan. I don’t think I did to well at this on Ingleborough this year.
Sam Allen passed me just about when I got a bike change from Jen. This bike was my secret weapon, with Novatec Alpine 29″ wheels and bomb-proof Kenda Flintridge tyres (well I suppose they weren’t bomb proof for Tim on Whernside). The 40/42 lowest gear really helped tackle the ever-steepening gradients after the gate halfway up. I was able to make ground here on one rider (Jonathan Pugh) and then just had to run hard on the upper slopes and steps to get back on terms with Sam.
last year I was near enough winer Paul Oldham not to see him coming the other way on his descent. This year I saw the top five riders were well ahead of me as they passed me while I was still gong up. This is a bit of a kick in the teeth but by this point it’s just about focussing on getting up to the top and feeling that the finish is in sight. Three of us (10th, 11th, 12th) were together at the top. Passing is tricky on the upper slopes of the descent, with rocks and drainage gulleys everywhere and riders ascending all around.
As soon as we hit the wider track I push hard on the pedals, stopped using the brakes and pulled out a good lead. It is worth all the pain of the Three Peaks just for the thrill of this final descent. The speed is incredible, with lumps and drops to get air off here and there, punctuated by rock strewn turns, threatening to throw you off if one of the rocks is just that bit too big. You don’t pick a precise line as such – just suggest a route for the bike to take and let the tyres and ground work it out between them.
So, past my cheering support crew, on to the road (adhering to a bizarre new rule that makes you get off and on your bike before doing this??) and a brief dash down the road to the finish. Often this short road section is absolute purgatory. This year, however, with a good gap on my pursuers, I was able to savour the thoughts of the upcoming hot shower, tea and biscuits, and later beer and pie!
There’s always a good atmosphere at the end of the race. I’d left a kit bag in the Yorkshire Subterranean Society, where the lovely folk provide tea and biscuits for riders while we all reminisce about our woes over the fells that day. Then it’s over to the Helwith Bridge Inn for some proper beer (my first for months due to the training for the event). Then on to the presentation. With Tim Gould and Dan Alexander, Zepnat took the first veteran team prize. Andy Boyd also helped us to third team overall. Now that’s not such a bad result is it?
And what better way to round off the weekend than with Mum’s meat pie (the ‘OK’ formed by Charlie refers to my performance!), a ride with Jen and a Yorkshire cafe stop?
[feature photo: James Lucas @RabAusten]