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The 3 Peaks - a harsh introduction to cyclocross! By Christina Wiejak

Velo Ulverston | 07/10/2016 16:10:00

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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…

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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