Three Peaks and a whole lot of troughs

From a particularly gruesome grind 

Britain’s Three Peaks Cyclo Cross is renown as the toughest skinny tired rough ride in the world.

Evil, truly diabolically evil; there was really no other fair or just way to describe the weather conditions on that last Sunday of September, the day of the 50th running of the Three Peaks Cyclo Cross race, the grittiest and toughest cross race there is.

Some 600 odd starters had braved the harshly wind lashed and torrential rains to scramble their way into the water clogged high and mist shrouded peaks and fells of the Yorkshire Dales in Northern England.

Most were hoping to simply finish this 38-mile (61km) epic and rugged single loop race, which takes in the regions three highest peaks; Ingleborough (723 meters), Whernside (724 meters) and Pen-y-ghent (694 meters).

Along the ultra hilly route they would ride and carry their bikes over 18 miles of boggy and rocky dales terrain, which comes interspersed with 20 miles of tough road riding. Some of the “running” sections to the summits hit 45-degree pitches, and last for up to a mile in duration, all of these factors conspire to make the Three Peaks challenge, a true bucket list race.

The very first Three Peaks Cyclo Cross race took place back in 1961, and was organised by John Rawnsley, who also won this first race, and has gone on to finish 46 other editions and to organise all 50 of them; “Several riders had cycled the Peaks (Kevin Watson a 14 year old schoolboy being the first) during 1959 and 1960, I was asked by a local businessman to organize a race. I said to him "I will organize it if I can ride in it, as it is my type of race".

The race was on; “In May 1961 a route for the race was tested by Harry Bond (then British CX Champion) and myself, and the first race was held on 1st October 1961. There were 40 entries with 10 reserves. Some 35 riders started and 23 finished. I won in a sprint finish from Harry.” 

There has been an endless chain of“foreign” challengers for the Peaks title, but they usually fall short, as multiple winner Rob Jebb explains; “When foreigners come to ride the race they show up on super-light kit. They might be good cross riders, but they are not usually prepared for a race like this.”

Despite the comparative quality of the foreign opposition they’ve only ever managed to take victory on one occasion, as Rawnsley explains; “In 1979 we had a team from Belgium with Norbert Dedeckere (a past world champion). he retired with an injury on the second peak. The 1980 race was an outstanding success with a top Swiss team riding, 2 of them had ridden in the previous seasons World Cyclo-Cross Championship; they were Richard Steiner, Carlo Lafrenchi and Peter Hagi. They finished 3rd, 4th and 5th (Britain’s John North won). In 1981 Swiss rider Arthur Manz took the only ever foreign victory.”

Former world cyclo cross and mountain bike champion Thomas Frischknecht was amongst the starters this year, his first appearance in the race; “You English are a special breed” he stated after crossing the line in 30th place.

Browsing through the history books you’ll see varied and intriguing list of past victors – including top cyclo cross and mountain bike pro’s, amateur riders, and a good number of fell runners too, such as Rob Jebb, who is highly accomplished on both two feet and two wheels; “I’d say it’s definitely a cyclist’s race. People often forget that I’m a decent bike rider too, not just a runner. Years ago there was a lot more running involved in the Peaks, but not now.”

His analogy continues; “The Peaks is a tough race, and it’s very long. I think that the reason that fell runners have always done well is that they are generally very fit, and used to racing for 3 hours, whereas cross riders are used to racing for an hour. Plus fell runners do enter this race, but not regular cross races.”

During the 80’s and 90’s many top riders would turn out with huge fleets of bikes and support crews to match, often using track bikes of the ascents and even TT bikes for the road sections, which always ground the gears of the promoters and pushed the spirit of the race, as Rawnsley explains “In the early years cross bikes were the only ones used. In the 1980s riders started changing bikes for the road sections. MTB's were also used. In the 1990s we ruled that only cyclo-cross bikes with cyclo-cross tires could be used. In 2011 we banned straight handlebars, making drops compulsory.”

The Three Peaks is a truly inspiring, yet denying race, which commands great endurance and grit to conquer. It’s something every bike racer should add to that great bucket list.