3 Peaks: the hardest cyclocross race in the world?

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Britain’s 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross is renowned as the toughest skinny-tyred rough ride in the world. Steve Thomas headed into the wilds of Yorkshire to see what it’s all about ahead of this year’s edition of the race this Sunday.

Evil, truly diabolically evil. There was really no other fair or just way to describe the weather conditions on that last Sunday of September 2012; the day of the 50th running of the 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross race, the grittiest and toughest ‘cross race there is.

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

Most were hoping to simply finish this 38-mile (61km) epic single-loop race, which takes in the region’s 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 (29km) of boggy and rocky dales terrain, which comes interspersed with 20 miles (32km) 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, just one of the factors that conspire to make the 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross a true bucket-list race.

The very first 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross race took place back in 1961, and was organised by John Rawnsley. Rawnsley won that first edition, 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 and I was asked by a local businessman to organise a race”, Rawnsley told me. “I said to him ‘I will organise it if I can ride in it, as it is my type of race'”.

The race was on.

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“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. John 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, two 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 cyclocross and mountain bike champion Thomas Frischknecht was amongst the starters in 2012, 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 a varied and intriguing list of past victors – including top cyclocross and mountain bike pros, 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 caught up with Rob on a cold, dark winter’s night in England’s Lake District as he prepared for the 2012 edition of the race.

“I don’t mind it [training in the dark of winter]”, Rob said, pulling on his rain cape and gloves in preparation for his evening ride. “I start work pretty early and finish just as it starts to get dark. I get out on the road in the dark some nights, extend my rides to work some days, and do the dreaded turbo trainer sessions when it’s too bad outside.”

Robb Jebb in training for 3 Peaks.
Robb Jebb in training for 3 Peaks.

Rob is one of the few athletes who manages to combine full-time work and a busy training schedule year round, including regular international trips to both cyclocross and running events.

“I use my holidays to add a day on here and there, but try and fit things around weekends. With cyclo cross this is not too difficult, but with running it can mean racing in far flung places such Japan and Borneo, where ideally you could do with acclimatisation time, but there isn’t much chance for that.”

Rob, the 2002 Sky Runner (high altitude mountain running) world champion, came to cycling from running and first took on 3 Peaks in his teens.

“I finished well down the field, but really started to get the bug. I really enjoyed it.”

Within a few years Rob had progressed towards the podium, and in 2000 he took the first of his record-breaking nine wins; “It’s always a major thing for me, my year’s main cycling goal.”

“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 three hours, whereas cross riders are used to racing for an hour.”

Rob Jebb trains for 3 Peaks  ... in decidedly better weather than he experienced on race day.
Rob Jebb trains for 3 Peaks … in decidedly better weather than he experienced on race day.

During the 1980s and 1990s many top riders would turn out with huge fleets of bikes and support crews to match, often using track bikes on 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 John 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 cyclocross bikes with cyclocross tyres could be used. In 2011 we banned straight handlebars, making drops compulsory.”

As the wind continued to howl and the rain turned sideways in last year’s race, Rob Jebb rode out of the mist to take his ninth 3 Peaks victory, this time with a massive 11-minute winning margin. It had been one of the toughest editions ever of this great race, and a fitting 50th anniversary battle, as well as an end of an era – Rawnsley retired as race organiser.

The 3 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. Sure, it’s a little too late to sign up for the 2013 race — which takes place this Sunday — but you can add it to your hit list and keep an eye open for entries in the 2014 edition over at the race website.

About the author

Steve Thomas is an Asian-based British cycling writer and photographer. For around 20 years he’s worked as a full time freelancer, and works on many leading cycling, travel and lifestyle titles around the world.

He’s also raced and ridden bikes in anger for most of his life, both on- and off-road, and spent a number of years as a professional extreme mountain biker, taking on oddball records and extreme events all around the world.

You can check out his work at www.thesoftsaddle.com

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