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A Most Peculiar Cycle Race
Photography by Wig Worland
I’m a cyclist. I wear Lycra (and Sportwool and merino) and, oh yeah, I’m proud of it. Why then, have I just donned running shoes to climb repeatedly up the biggest grassy hill I can find near to my home. Why, a week ago, was I scrambling up (and back down from) two northern mountain summits? Why will I push myself up a third Yorkshire mountain, on foot, tomorrow in training?
The answer, if you haven’t guessed, is that the Three Peaks cyclocross race is just six days away. I’m tackling the race for the sixth time. Held in the Yorkshire Dales amid majestic limestone upland scenery, this famous race transports upwards of 400 competitors over the mountain tops of Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-ghent. And all, improbably, aboard skinny-tyred cyclocross bikes.
The final run-in to the event billed as ‘the world’s toughest cyclocross race’ is the period that most invites doubt, apprehension and soul searching. Even an experienced ‘Peaks racer’ cannot afford to take the event lightly as it will viciously expose any weakness in your racing armoury.
On my first attempt, in 2003, the severe gradient on the first off-road climb highlighted an immediate flaw in my relatively casual preparation. I hadn’t walked up a mountain in a decade and my calves began to burn unbearably. In the years since that inauspicious debut I’ve done increasingly more running and climbing of mountains on foot in preparation for race day. The road riding sections between the summits are spent feeding yourself and, where possible, following wheels. The real business in this most English of events takes place on the mountains.
Off-road descending on a cross bike is about seeking out the right lines and executing them as fast as nerves will allow, which usually means at speeds that seem less than wise. It tends to be something you are either good at or less good at. I’m convinced, therefore, that the ascents are the parts of the race that should be worked on and trained for the most. A goodly part of this unique race is spent walking up rocky mountain paths or near vertical grassy slopes with your bike perched on your shoulder.
In 1961, Martin ‘Ginger’ Garwood, a London plumber, was third in the inaugural race. “We do a bit of riding down there, you know," he remarked afterwards. "But this is different, it’s more of an endurance test.” When asked if he would return the following year, he replied: “That’ll need a bit of thinking about.” The Three Peaks, as Ginger realised, is a serious undertaking. It is not to be underestimated and is certainly the most unusual of cycle races.
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