The proposal

After 17 years of marriage, we’d bought houses and had kids together but still hadn’t really committed. When discussing the race with Jen, there was some confusion and emotion over the difference between couldn’t and shouldn’t do the Three Peaks. We decided to spend a few days in Giggleswick at Easter so she could have a good look at Whernside and take things from there. Inevitably she entered and, in doing so, I lost a member of my support team and took on an extra set of kit to prepare.

Preparation

In previous years my preparation has been quite meticulous. This year we went on holiday instead.  That holiday did though involve riding from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean on cyclocross bikes: LA MAMA

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Shoulder conditioning on holiday
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The Three Peaks maybe wouldn’t seem so daunting after this
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A bit steady for ‘proper’ training though

When we got back home from France we did a token bit of running. I hurt my leg but Jen looked pretty good!

Hill training (so far as it’s possible in Hampshire)

In the workshop

(if you’re more interested in the race and suffering than the bikes, you might want to scroll down a bit!)

All cycling families have an underlying objective of getting all members on the same number of gears and the same wheel/axle size/spec. One of us deciding to, for example, move to Campagnolo would be as complex and divisive as Brexit. I’ve very nearly got us all on 700c, 12mm front & rear axles and Shimano/SRAM 11spd. The last cyclocross bike upgrade for our eldest son Douglas resulted in him getting my old SRAM Force brakes and gears. This left the door ajar for me to get something new. I went for the new Shimano GRX Di2!

This is a real game-changing groupset. It is Shimano’s first dedicated 1x system. The best bit is the Di2 shifter itself. The brake lever pivot is 15mm higher than other levers, meaning that on-the-hoods braking now feels more like the power of MTB brakes than road brakes. The hand position on the slender hoods is far more secure than other Shimano or SRAM options, meaning you can tackle more difficult terrain in this position.

I had hoped to have the ‘sub levers’ (also known as ‘cross top’ levers, and fit either side of the handlebar stem) for the race but these are not available yet. Next year…!

GRX Di2 levers

The rear derailleur easily handles the 42 tooth sprocket I’d be needing for the Three Peaks.

GRX Di2 rear mech, with clutch to keep the chain from bouncing off the chainring

With my hitherto chief supporter Jen now riding, we were a bit short on personnel. We decided to team up with old Uni friends Leon and Vicky Gierat. Leon was riding 160mm disc rotors on the front so we had to swap all our bikes over to 160 to make all spares compatible. This is easy with flat-mount brakes but Jen’s post-mounts required some digging around for adapters in the box of spares (and thieving from my fatbike).

Converting to 160mm disc rotors

With four bikes and a further two pairs of wheels, we needed to make sure that all the wheels fitted all the bikes without needing to re-adjust gears or brake calipers. In theory, there shouldn’t be any issues, as all our Novatec wheels have the same spacing. However, the Novatec Alpine 29er wheels don’t actually come with a 12mm front axle option so I modified on my antique lathe some spare 15mm end caps Novatec sent to me. Jen’s Ridleys have unusually deep slots in the front dropouts so I also had to turn down some end caps to fit these.

A bit of fettling!

While I’d got the lathe up-and-running, I thought I could also save some money and weight by making my own Dynaplug insertion tool. Dynaplugs are the ultimate tubeless tyre repair system. The plug itself is a short length of sticky chord with a pointed metal tip that you spear into the tyre. Upon withdrawing the insertion tool, this tip remains inside the tyre and the sticky chord seals the hole. Dynaplug sell a range of snazzy insertion tools. Mine is rather more minimalist and I taped it to my stem.

Homemade Dynaplug insertion tool (ricin not included!)

The equipment

Alex
  • Frame: Forme Calver
  • Groupset: Shimano GRX Di2 1×11 (40t front, 10-42 rear); Bike 2 SRAM Force 1×11 (40t front, 11-42 rear)
  • Wheels & tyres: Novatec Alpine 29er, Kenda Flintridge 35mm; Bike 2 Novatec CXD, WTB Cross Boss 35mm
Jen
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Bikes all prepped!
Wheels labelled up to avoid confusion on the day

Spares/food

(all in pockets + gels up short legs)

Alex
  • multi-tool
  • chainlink
  • CO2
  • minipump
  • Dynapug
  • whistle
  • foil bar
  • Clif bar
  • 2 SIS caffeine gels (one consumed on the start line)
  • 1 SIS standard gel
  • gilet
Jen
  • multi-tool
  • chainlink
  • CO2
  • minipump,
  • Dynapug
  • whistle
  • foil bag
  • 2 Clif bars
  • 2 SIS caffeine gels (one consumed on the start line)
  • 1 SIS standard gel
  • waterproof
Getting our drinks, gels, and spares in order
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Pockets stuffed (safety pin to shorts stops jersey riding up on descents)

Support team

Alex’s mum would be at Cold Cotes (after the Ingleborough descent) with bottles and a bike. We went and had a look at where she’d be standing (and met race founder John Rawnsley while we were there). Dad would be at Ribblehead, Douglas on Blea Moor, and Vicky and Charlie at Gill Garth and on Pen-Y-Ghent.

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Cold Cotes reconnaissance
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Bottles labeled too!

The big day

As we narrate our Three Peaks adventure, we have torn apart gender stereotypes by highlighting Jen’s bits with a pink background.

Start

(support team ->)

(Dad with Alex’s spare bike and wheels)

Jen was in her usual state of panic and despair before the start. I left her near the ‘under 4 hours’ sign (I believe predicted times are treated a bit like describing the size of a fish you’ve caught) and tried to relax! Just like wedding day: I’m at the front chatting, trying to look composed, wondering if she’s ok and if she’ll make it to the finish line.

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Shooting the breeze with Three Peaks royalty, legends, and World Tour riders [Photo: Adam Hughes]

I knew so much about the Three Peaks…how could I not…the detail about every part of it had been relayed to me on many occasions.  The start (the road race, the big bunch, the moving up on the outside and dropping back through the middle), then the all-important turn over the cattle grid.  When it happened, the truth was, my Three Peaks was somewhat different, especially that first sector.  When the countdown ended and the front row was off, I, and my fellow 4-4.5 hourers stood still for a bit but once the wheels ahead started moving it was, indeed, full-on.  Not full-on like a big bunch hiding in the wheels, full-on like the people you are riding with set off before you’d got your mits on and when you looked up you had to chase them down in a full-on time-trial.  As it turns out Alex, at the front, had pushed off at around the 600W mark, so the chase was maybe somewhat futile.

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Alex’s power and speed for the ‘neutralised’ section

Still, I knew that I had good tyres for the road and I was heavy so more suited to this part of the course.  I had to push on, and hope that I could recover from all that effort while ‘running’ later.  I caught Amber half way to Horton (she’d started three rows ahead), then continued jumping from wheel to wheel as best I could as the whole thing strung out until the rise before the cattle grid turn where there were no wheels, just a big gap, and a sinking feeling…I was a long way back.  Now, it was about survival, and fun (apparently, according to my expert husband “it’s a great day out”!)  The cattle grid, well, I had plenty of space to negotiate that safely.  My main fears now – cramp, and getting lost, or freaking out on the steep bit – I’d seen the photos, and some old friends of mine will tell you that I don’t have a great record when it comes to steep grassy hills.  Onwards though…I also don’t like to give up.  Mentally, it was a good day for me, pre-race nerves were minimal.  I’d eaten well, stayed hydrated, and managed to go to the loo (I’m sure I can’t be the only person who is concerned about this prior to a long event).

Shortly after the start

Ingleborough

(support team ->)

(Gill Garth – Vicky and Charlie with wheels)

(Cold Cotes – Mum with bottles, Jen’s spare bike and wheels)

Awesome cheering from Vicky and our youngest as the climb started.  Oh god, I had to do it now.  Was this really a good idea?   So many people supporting, so much effort by Alex’s parents, and Alex.  Oh god, I was here, about to ‘run’/scramble/trudge up Simon Fell.

Over the cattle grid and up the track at Gill Garth
Leaders approach Ingleborough
Jen approaches Ingleborough

Ingleborough is where the chickens come home to roost. As you press on up the mountain you can feel the training bursting out of your legs or, as is often the case, see your hopes go out of the window. This year was mostly the latter. Take heart though! Stay calm and there’s plenty of racing left to salvage a good result. A quick re-evaluation of expectations and setting new, reasonable goals is all that’s required. Around this time I thought of Jen for the first time and wondered how she was doing. I think I really just thought how great it was that she was back there plugging her way up the mountain too. My new goal was to get past Sam Allen, have a good descent and see who I could pick-off on Whernside.

Slow going, but I was fit, and I knew it.  It wouldn’t last forever.  I just had to keep moving.  This was a small hill.  Keep moving, just keep moving.  I think that’s all I thought, all the way up, except when I was caught by Kate, said a quick “hi there” and trudged on.  We stayed close for a bit but I took the fence line and she went straight up the grass.  I like the idea of the safety net, but the muddy steps were slippy so I climbed a little away from the wall.  As we hit the steepest section (Alex had warned me there were two, so I wasn’t shocked when I hit it), the silence was eerie.  I wondered if it was reminiscent of a battle.  No words were spoken but hundreds of stomping feet, heavy breathing, and a few jangles of the equipment we were carrying.  Surreal.  At that point, each of us against the mountain, not a race against each other, not for now at any rate.  One wobble and a “steel myself” moment, and a few more steps, and panic over – it was the top of Simon fell and the race was on – apparently there was a rideable section coming.

Over the top of Simon fell and I had got past Sam! But then he got back past me and started to disappear into the distance. This was not ideal. I resolved to burst into life on the final run to the summit and cement my position in the top 10. I struggled past Sam but that was about it. I wasn’t exactly bounding up the mountain – more of a steady trot. Gary MacDonald was within reach at the summit (where I was in 15th) but he’s such a good descender I was unlikely to close him down on the descent.

After a full-on race up a mountain, it’s hard to recover for a fast descent. However, my lack of ‘zip’ up Ingleborough meant I had quite good control of my extremities and descended well. Not quite as well as some though! I was passed by Hamish Fletcher-Cooney and Ian Taylor. That gave me a wake-up call, I flicked the insanity switch and let the brakes off!

Just over an hour into the race, Jen is nearing the summit of Ingleborough as Alex reaches the road at Cold Cotes.

Actually, I had just extracted myself from a bog…having reached the top of Simon Fell I was expecting a reasonable section of riding, and wasn’t disappointed. I was loving it, feeling in my element, and passing people through the mist. However, I wasn’t quite ready for the boggy nature of the ground and tried to pump a small ditch. Doh! Front wheels sink into bogs if you push down and, as you can probably guess, I flew straight over the bars! I had learnt my lesson, and was undeterred – it was unlikely I’d get through this race without at least one tumble and I was just pleased it was a soft landing. After straightening my left lever and ascertained that the brakes still worked despite a little rattle, I pushed on, resolving to keep ‘racing’. That meant using all my cx skills when dismounting and mounting, which was possibly a mistake as I jumped on causing the saddle to jerk backwards. It wasn’t too bad, but I now had a decision to make – to change or not to change, that was the question. Eugh – one slightly distorted but reliable bike versus one with a potentially leaking rear brake lever and slightly slack hood (Alex had done what he could to ensure it was as good as possible but it hadn’t been tested in anger, only on a short spin on the road the day before)?!

Hiking over the top, it was busy. I made ground on my rivals alongside the rocky steps, and was extra pleased to find very clear marker tape towards the marshals. Starting down wasn’t so easy though, and some much more experienced fell runners coasted past me running down. At least they were showing me the way – some others at the front of the race weren’t quite so lucky!

Cold Cotes to Chapel-le-Dale

A slick bottle  & gel hand-up (thanks mum!) and I was out onto the road in 12th just in time to get in the wheel of Nathan Edmonson. We closed down Ian Taylor but the pace was a bit high for me (or should I have cracked-on with Nathan?) and I rode into Chapel-le-Dale with Ian, where we passed Hamish. Still chafing from the drubbing he’d given me on the descent, when he helpfully informed me that he was in 10th, I responded that he was actually now in 11th (actually I think he had been in 11th and was now in 12th). Luckily he took it well and we were all smiles approaching mountain two.

Decision made…I was on the best tyres (Vittoria Terreno Dry), and a saddle tilted slightly back may even be an advantage plugging up Pen-Y-Ghent?! I swooped past Alex’s mum taking my much needed gel and bottle. Felt very odd being on the inside looking out, and so much less stressful! A little slip on the tractor tracks had me caught by a couple of other women riders as we joined the road. We resolved to work together (the chap who was with us stormed off up the first rise)… questionable tactics I thought, but his physique was somewhat different to ours…must have been well over 6ft tall. We tried to ride together, but after the steep bit it was clear that, on the road, I had a significant advantage and I needed to capitalise on it. Tucked in a time trial position, and with one of the two ladies still on my wheel, we stormed past quite a few riders (including the 6ft gentleman who started with us). We caught and passed one of the skilled runners and I gained a small gap as the hiking began again.

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Approaching Whernside [Photo: Nicola Smith]

Whernside

(support team ->)

(Blea Moor aqueduct – Douglas with Leon’s spare bike)

(Ribblehead – Dad with bottles, Alex’s spare bike and wheels)

I wasn’t quite sure of the wisdom of easing up a bit on the road and it was time to get to work! I could see a line of riders strung out tantalisingly in front of me. One was in quite distinctive pink kit and had to constitute my overriding objective for this mountain. I thought I ran well up Whernside, and convinced myself I was closing down Lachlan Morton. I was still nearly two minutes behind him at the summit though, and still in 11th place. It wasn’t too long before the World Tour rider was in my sights though and wizzed past him with reckless abandon! On past Douglas, ready and waiting, reliable as always, with Leon’s spare bike clutched between his knees for a quick change, should it be needed. As the path levelled, I noticed my gears weren’t indexing correctly and the bike was feeling a bit ‘floppy’. I dismounted and realised the thru-axle had come loose. I gave it a tighten and changed bikes when I reached Ribblehead (9th place). It transpired that it was actually the dropout that had come loose, leaving the wheel and derailleur (and me) in a rather precarious situation.

Into the third hour of the race and  Jen is now on the climb of Whernside…

Wherneside was frustrating initially…we all bunched up. I almost forgot it was a race as people chatted around me. The time passed fast, but our pace had slowed…at the time I just settled in…looking at my heartrate I wonder if I could have done more. But then, as the summit approached I spotted Kate. Excited to be anywhere near the second-time Three Peaks rider and triathlete my spirits were raised. I wondered how far Alex was, and what my time was looking like, but decided it was best not to look at my watch…once out of the queue I would push on as best I could… knowing the time wouldn’t change anything now.

As a somewhat competitive person I was dismayed by the kissing gate scenario unfolding ahead if me…bikes lifted over the fence, then through the gate, then pick up the bike…oh dear – as we approached, I said to the guy just next to me, “we can do this faster” lifted my bike above my head, pushed through the gate and jumped straight on, as did my companion…at least 3 more places gained!

The weather was clearing, as has been the case for every Three Peaks I’ve supported. But the tricky bit was still to come. Unfortunately, I’d not remembered the lines from our Easter recon and my confidence was lacking…more running, and more lost places (although I now know I made more places than I lost when I passed the many less conservative riders with mechanicals on the way down). I was still in one piece and when I realised I could hop the drainage ditches it did indeed feel like ‘a great day out’. A cheery “go Jen” from Bruce as he fixed his 6th, yes 6th, flat and the reassuring sight of Douglas with a spare bike at the aqueduct were great motivation. It felt like I was nearly there. I knew Pen-Y-Ghent from walking it, I’d ridden the road before. I tried to resist thinking I’d make it…many fall foul of a flat, or other disaster, on the last descent. When I arrived at the road with my second gel and bottle from Alex’s Dad there was no one in sight. The three women that ran past me at the top of Whernside were long gone. Time-trial position instigated…off we go. I still felt fast…I suppose that’s what seven full days of climbing in the Pyrenees does for you!

Ribblehead to Horton-in-Ribblesdale

My mechanical issue had left me with only a 20 second lead over Lachlan. We soon coalesced with two Wheelbase riders, who towed us down the road at a good old rate. Bombing down Ribblesdale with a World Tour rider on my wheel (remember to commit that one to memory!). Giles Drake had been a pre-race favourite but was having a nightmare race after getting lost on Ingleborough! Disaster nearly struck when David Duggan front wheel puncture through Selside, nearly taking Lachlan and me down. It was very well held by him in the end. Giles pressed on and Lachlan came past me a bit too hard for me to hang on (funny that this was the exact point where I went past Tom Pidcock last year). I let them drift away, keen not to go into the red so soon before Pen-Y-Ghent (the second time I wimped out on the road – or maybe it’s a case of knowing your limits and choosing your battles).

Pen-Y-Ghent

(support team ->)

(Gate at top of bridleway – Charlie with wheels)

(1/3 way up – Vicky with wheels)

(Near bottom – Mum with Jen’s spare bike)

It really can go either way on this hill. I felt in pretty good shape but was in now in 11th and really wanted to get into the top 10. After 3rd two years ago, this still felt like a consolation goal. Such goals are easy to let slide but the Three Peaks is such a major event for me, I was going to throw the kitchen sink at this one.

There is always a great atmosphere up Pen-Y-Ghent, with plenty of cheers from both my Derbyshire and Wessex home contingents. I persuaded myself that riders were coming back to me and then David Duggan came past. I don’t know how he recovered from that puncture so well, and it was a bit of a kick in the teeth. Then Ewan Thorburn came past. It was becoming difficult to picture my passage to 10th.

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I thought I was going quite well at this point! Look – no one in sight behind me! [Photo: Bob Barber]

Salvation was ahead of me though in the form of a near-delirious Hope rider. Phillip Pearce had clearly bonked. I handed him a gel as I ran past, and took a caffeine one myself. I now just had to make two places. They look far ahead up the steps near the summit but I was 42 seconds off David Duggan and 52 behind Ewan Thorburn by the top, and they were out of sight. Insanity switch located, I set off in pursuit. Suddenly there’s a moment of pure terror as a steep, grassy, rocky bank takes me by surprise. no chance of braking! I’ve got at much control as on a log flume and just have to hope! I stay upright!

I think David may have fallen, as I passed him not too far down the rocky track. I closed in on Ewan by the gate at the top of the bridleway. You have to remember that riders are coming up the track too and there are a few steep, tight bends to slide the back wheel round, while threading a path through the oncoming traffick. We are all paying attention though so there don’t tend to be any collisions. Below the gate is maybe my favourite section of descent of the Three Peaks route. It is super fast, with lots of humps to get airborne off and boulder-strewn sections to rattle through. My second bike had much lighter wheels (Novatec CXD – 250g lighter than the 29er wheels I’d planned to use on this descent). They held up fine though – highly recommended! I pull out a minute or so gap on the riders behind but I’m not going to catch anyone else.

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Brakes off! [Photo: Bob Barber]

It is such a relief to look behind on the road to Helwiith Bridge and see that there is no one chasing. I get out of the saddle up the final rise and both legs immediately cramp up. I can sit down though and pedal in in 10th for a much-needed cup of tea.

As I finish, Jen is approaching Horton in Ribblesdale and the climb of Pen-Y-Ghent

And there she was again…ahead I spotted Kate! I guess the other three women had passed her too. How great would this be…ride in together and sprint finish 😀. She had different ideas…Kate set off up Pen-Y-Ghent Lane in front of me and her running prowess was evident, but I plugged on. She gapped me when it steepened, I stayed on my bike a little longer when she hopped off. As it reached its steepest on the grass by the hairpin she paused for a slight missed footing and I led the way to the top.

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Final climb! [Photo: Bob Barber]

On the bike again I was sure we would be together on the road. Again, wrong, Kate blasted past me after the fun grassy drop at the top. She was taking risks where I wasn’t willing to and stacked it twice in front of me. I slowed to check she was OK and continued on down at my speed. Knowing that the faster I went the faster the discomfort would be over didn’t help me speed up. It was like the Trouée d’Arenberg but loose, and with no chance of loosening your grip on the bars or using a big gear to smooth it out…it’s, well, pretty awful. The cross bike felt, well, wrong, like it hadn’t at any other point in the race. OMG, then came Kate…I couldn’t stay with her, but I was confident… I would catch her on the road….

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A rather sudden, slippy and scarily steep bank at the top of Pen-Y-Ghent [Photo: bhp digital]

Breaking out onto the final road section, my heart sank…I couldn’t see her…the gap was huge! Still, this was a race, and I’d caught her before. I still felt strong. Puppy dog position engaged once more. There’s a long straight just out of Horton where she came into view…I could do this, well I could try…the last rise would slow her and maybe I could make it. And I did, but just too late, as she rounded the corner towards Helwith Bridge I was two bike lengths behind…we finished together, and I was happy with that.

The reception

You often don’t know when you’ll be reunited with your support crew and/or car keys so it’s good to leave a kit bag (including cash for the pub) in the Yorkshire Subterranean Society bunkhouse before the start. They’re a lovely bunch in there. I was the first customer this year! It’s so lovely to relax with a cup of tea and biscuit after such an effort. There’s a double dose of happiness: having finished the race and, after a long stint in the south, having a proper northern chat! They’ve had new showers fitted, and they even let me use the ladies’! Teammate Tim Gould was next in, with Dan Alexander not far behind. Together we’d won the veteran team prize. Now everyone’s in there: Rob Jebb, Nick Craig, James Furniss, Dave Haygarth, Lachlan Morton, Ian Taylor,… – it’s Yorkshire’s answer to the the Roubaix velodrome showers!

I’d only just got time to get a beer (White Witch) across the way at the Helwith Bridge Inn before I heard Jen had come in.

What a race, so much to think about, so many different skills needed. Surprising how well I’d done on the climbing and how relatively poorly I had performed on the descents. Alex asked what my “best bit” was…unfortunately I could only think of the road sections, which might suggest I was in the wrong race, but the road was best because of what had been before. There is nothing to compare with that hike up Simon Fell and I understand why it gets under your skin. Not sure yet if there will be a next time. I can’t imagine being better trained for it, but experience counts a lot and now I’ve got a bit more of that, well, who knows?!

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2nd V40! Love this picture!
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Veteran team podium. There are some Three Peaks tales to be told between this lot!

Finally, a brief note about our World Tour guest. It turns out Lachlan Morton is a really nice guy. We had a good chat afterwards. He said he really only got the hang of riding a cyclocross bike by the third mountain! I hope he comes back next year. If you’re not familiar with his exploits, check out some of the shots of GBDURO by cadence images:

Lachlan Morton looking lean in GBDURO

(The Cyclocross Bible contains lots of their images too)

My friend Fraser is a bit of a Lachlan fan, and we recorded this for him (I messed up the sound a bit so have added subtitles):

A message for Fraser!

Thanks to…

Mum, Dad, Douglas, Charlie, and Vicky for their perfect support.

Novatec Wheels for furnishing us with a full set of wheels for MTBing and cyclocross, plus extra dedicate Three Peaks wheels.

The Zepnat Foxcats and Capt. Julian Gould for being a great bunch of riders.

Zepnat Cycles for being the best cyclocross shop out there; last-minute spares always turn up on time. Gav Slater is the go-to man in a bike shop!

John Rawnsley for conceiving this amazing event.

All the Three Peaks Cyclocross organising team, marshalls, and emergency support teams.

Further Reading

The race has a dedicated section in The Cyclocross Bible

We have written blogs on the Three Peaks in general, and for the 2017 and 2018 race

Dave Haygarth has loads of stuff on his blog