I've just completed the 2016 3 Peaks Cyclocross; it was hard, but in a very unique way. I’m familiar with tired legs, but this was different. This race tested my mind, because when I glanced up to the top of those climbs to see distant figures across the top, I didn't know when or how I was going to get there. But I did. And then the descent was even scarier! So how did I, a total CX novice, without a CX bike, find myself not only on the start line, but also finishing with a smile on my face?
With a big favour from Scott Sports, and a very steep learning curve…
My 3 Peaks journey started in May; I'd just completed the Fred Whitton Challenge in a very frustrating 7 hours 1 minute; I’d surprised myself a little, and felt like many grim winter miles had paid off. But after the event, I lost any real focus and my training started to drift. I needed a project, and that's when somebody mentioned the 3 Peaks. I've spent a few years juggling running, road cycling and MTBing, but not really excelling in any; the 'Jack of All Trades, Master of None' scenario! Now there was a race where I could justifiably do all 3 in preparation-perfect, where should I sign?
Impetuously, I applied for my place with very few credentials, and when, surprisingly, I gained one of the 650 sought after entries, doubt kicked in and I set about finding every excuse in the book to wriggle out. My best card was a lack of CX bike- surely this would suffice?! But fortunately, I have some very good colleagues at Velo Ulverston, so in my absence, they explained my predicament to Scot Easter of Scott Sports. The next day, a very light and very bright 52cm Scott Addict arrived; mine to use until the end of September. Excuses and hesitations out of the window, I thanked Scot and the chaps in the shop, and got to work.
My first ride, in Grizedale Forest, was...well, sketchy. 60kms of road, fire tracks and bridleways after work, and I couldn't believe how much fun I’d had. Competitions aside, the bike is unbelievably versatile; it's surprisingly responsive and quick, and with the hydraulic disc brakes, the steep, wet, Lakeland descents were much more controlled. I immediately decided that everyone should own a CX bike-what's not to like?!
I started putting miles in, seeking out gentle bridleways and tracks that I moan about on the MTB; I failed to realise that the unrideable climbs and technical descents that I was avoiding, were exactly the things that I should have been tackling! Running-wise, I continued to do the odd training session, with a random trail half-marathon in August, for fun (it wasn't fun, but was fairly successful!). In hindsight, I should have upped the running, especially on the fells.
When mid-August came around, I flew to Greece for 2 weeks of ‘emergency bike-guiding’, with plenty of sunshine, pedalling and Greek coffee. Ideal preparation? No, definitely not! Having finished guiding a ride, I was attempting to do intense rides at midday; for a pale-skinned Cumbrian, that was tough! Returning to Cumbria with 4 weeks to go, panic truly set in. Around mid-September, I realised that I should have been doing some bike-carrying, (an area that I struggle with!). I enjoy the freedom of running, but there is nothing natural about having a bike on your shoulder. 5 days before, I ran (or more accurately, shuffled) to the top of Black Combe (my local fell, at approximately 600m), and took a photograph of the very rare, clear view…
And then I rode down. The horrific cramp this caused in my hands was unfamiliar, but I certainly became re-acquainted with the feeling on Pen-Y-Ghent later in the week. That afternoon, a recce of Whernside made me feel quite ill, as I worried that I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
With a last minute decision to run the bike tubeless, I bought some Vittoria XG TNT tyres (a great recommendation from Scot-thank you!), and went for a final play around on the bike with Stu from the shop, and Adam (fellow 3Peaks first timer, riding for Hope, and much more familiar with a DH bike). With the bike primed for the race by Ian and Matt in the workshop, I was as ready as I was ever going to be!
Race day-5am, and I wake up to find a flat front tyre, and it’s torrential rain; a lovely start to the day! Having arrived at Helwith Bridge and signed on, 9am came around fast. I headed for the start line, but found myself in the last 100 or so riders. This wasn’t ideal; perhaps next time I’ll be more optimistic with my time. I pushed on to Simon Fell, the climb that I’d heard all about; ‘steep’ apparently. No, this was more than steep; there’s practically an overhang! I plodded on to what I naively believed to be the summit. Unfortunately Ingleborough is bigger than I thought! The descent was a series of deep bogs and ruts, and to reach Cold Cotes with my bike and limbs intact was a huge relief.
Whernside came around quickly, where I joined the single file line of competitors up the slab staircase. Seeing the familiar face of Phil Blaylock behind a camera took my mind off the pain for 5 seconds, and I tried to smile…
But the higher we went, the colder and wetter I became, stopping and wasting time struggling with a combination of numb hands and a fiddly jacket zip! For me, this descent was more about damage limitation, but to my surprise, I found some composure and rode nearly everything. One competitor even shouted that I was “putting him to shame”-who’d have thought it! Another peak completed, I grabbed a bottle and slice of fruitcake (optimal nutrition!) from my supporters, and pushed on to Pen Y Ghent.
For reasons that I can’t explain, I have a soft spot for long, rocky climbs, so I gained a few places on the final ascent, but the foreboding image of the enormity of the final climb was horrifying even for me! Summiting Pen-Y-Ghent as 3rd lady was a very pleasant surprise, but the combination of my inexperience and the wet limestone turned me into a wet lettuce of a descender, so when Sarah Barber flew past me, regrettably, I just couldn’t chase. Reaching the road punctureless, and in one piece, seemed like a miracle. When I crossed the line in 4:15 hours, the relief was huge. I’d got myself so worried about the event; I’d had no idea that I would enjoy it so immensely, never mind finish as 4th lady, and 1st first timer.
That trusty Scott Addict had looked after me, and now I’ve gratefully but reluctantly handed it back; now there is definitely a CX bike shaped hole in the ‘fleet’. It’s Christmas soon, so maybe I’ll treat myself! If I’m lucky enough to gain a place next year, I’ve got a lot to take forward. I’d start much further up, do a lot more bike carrying practice, and a lot more steep descending. Finally, I’d wear more clothes, and not a silly marmite jersey (this lead to some marmite-related heckling).
Thank you so much Velo Ulverston, Scott Sports and bottle givers for the opportunity; I’ve now definitely caught the ‘bug’!
Photos by Phil Blaylock, Steve Harling and Craig Zadoroznyj