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Up and Down Yorkshire’s Three Peaks

Ahead of the latest episode of EF Gone Racing at the alternative calendar, read how Lachlan Morton fared in the legendary dash through the Dales.

25 September 2019

“I am certain that the Three Peaks has not been done on cycles. Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent are easy, but I am afraid Whernside might be a stickler.”
– Norman Thornbler, 1959

“Mate, that was even more chaotic than I thought it was going to be. And I had high expectations for the chaos.”
– Lachlan Morton, 2019

The Yorkshire Subterranean Society, which this year celebrates its 55th season of potholing beneath the Dales, makes its home in the Old School House in Helwith Bridge. Its walls are adorned with old black and white photographs of caving pioneers, its pantry overflows with chocolate digestives and hot pots of tea and there are two hot showers for the recently emerged. Occasional meetings; annual gatherings; the odd village birthday; it is exactly the sleepy hut you’d expect to find in these parts. Once a year, though, and always in September, the spelunkers make way for the cyclists. A platoon of riders, caked thick with mud and returning from one of the most bizarre, beguiling bike races in the world, cram two-by-two into the caver’s den to wash the hills from their ears. It is Roubaix-in-Ribblehead. The floor creaks under foot with the grime of the Dales and the grit of stray biscuits, hot breath and hot drinks steam up the windows, and the whole tiny place rocks with the laughter of 500 men and women who have endured about the hardest three hours you can spend in and out of a saddle.

On paper, the Three Peaks Cyclocross race is a simple thing. Riders summit and descend three legendary fells in the UK’s Yorkshire Dales; Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent as fast as possible. The first two stand a little over 700m and the last a shade under. The three are linked by a route that is 61km long, almost half of which is paved. The winners complete the course in less than three hours and repeat victories are common. Simple. Except, it isn’t. Of the 33km classified as “unsurfaced” - mostly bridleways and walker’s tracks - around eight kilometres are completely unrideable. Here, riders dismount and shoulder their bikes, running, scrambling, heaving up and down impossibly steep and rocky slopes, often through thick cloud and without any obvious navigation. And if the remainder of the unsurfaced course is “rideable”, it is not designated as such by any reasonable definition of the word. Race organisers, of which there have only been two in the race’s 57-year history, dictate all participants must use a drop handlebar cyclocross bike - a machine entirely unsuited to the terrain. There are in fact only a handful of kilometres on the entire course when a cross bike would be a rider’s first choice. Returning veterans of the event, who number in the hundreds and age up to 80, like to say that you in fact need at least four types of bike to comfortably get around the Dales; a cross bike, sure, but also a dual-suspension mountain bike for the descents, a road bike for the paved sections and a pair of trainers for the climbs. It is that last insight which reveals why fell runners have so often won this alleged bike race.

Moments after finishing the 3 Peaks, the latest event on his calendar of alternative racing, EF Education First’s Lachlan Morton understood why. “It’s so far from a bike race, but it’s one of the most enjoyable bike races I’ve done,” he said. “I’ve got no idea about running, really, so I didn’t know how to pace it. I just thought I’d run up them as fast as I could. Turns out, I’m not a fell runner. And the downhills are even more crazy than the uphill. You’re in the mist and fog. There’s no clear line. You’re not exactly sure where you’re going. You’re on a cross bike, which is totally ill-fitted to the situation and then everyone’s just sending this downhill as if they’re on a mountain bike. It hasn’t slowed them down at all. That’s when I realised a. This race is absolutely crazy and b. These guys really know what they’re doing on this course.”

Those guys are a handful of mostly local riders and runners who base much of their season around the 3 Peaks. Three riders - Nick Craig, Paul Oldham and Rob Jebb - between them have won every edition of the race in the last 20 years, with the latter adding the twelfth trophy to his haul last week. It is, they each admit, incredibly difficult for a first time rider to win the event. The course is too difficult, the required set up too precise, to rely solely on raw fitness and pure talent. Every inch of its 61km holds a secret that is only given up after years of practice and experience. A fact which makes it even more impressive that this year’s women’s winner, Kerry MacPhee, rode to victory on her first attempt.

Oldham, a former CX national champion, said: “You’ve got to be a bit of an idiot to do this - you’re never on the right bike. It’s rough, it’s dangerous and it’s all open. There’s been a lot of talk about Lachlan doing it, but there’s not many people who have won it on their first attempt. You kind of learn it; you’ve got to serve your time, a little bit.” Craig, who first won the race in 1991 and came second this year, added: “This event is so special because you can’t predict where the race will play out. It’s impossible. There’s punctures, crashes, all sorts of issues and carnage and all those things that happen. It’s not until you get to Pen-y-Ghent when you realise what this race is all about.”

Reflecting on his own ride, Morton, who finished fourth on his first outing on this legendary course, agreed: “Normally you can think of another race you can do to prepare for something. For Kanza, you can go and do another gravel race. Maybe it’s not quite as epic but you get the idea. Or with Leadville, you go race your mountain bike. What do you do to prepare for 3 peaks? Do you go running? Do you do a bunch of hiking? Do you ride around a muddy paddock? Do you focus on riding your road bike? It’s all of those things. I can totally see why it takes years of experience on this course. That’s what makes this very special - it takes a real intimate understanding of the country here. Unless you’re from here, or you spend a lot of time here, you’re going to have a very hard time ever winning this race.”

The 3 peaks is the shortest, most compact - in many ways, most provincial - race of the alternative calendar. But for the riders who come back each year, some of whom have completed the race as many as 45 times, it proves as challenging and rewarding as any ride, anywhere in the world. “For a lot of people who race the 3 peaks, this is the event. So much goes into it; into their setup, their preparation, everything. It’s all for this three to four hour event,” Morton said. “It’s totally unique to itself. I don’t think you could go to any other event, or any other race, anywhere, and find the same kind of community or group of people that you find right here. What they have here is very sacred - I just wanted to be a part of it.”

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