3 - Peaks Cyclo-X Race

Jimmy Wilson attempts to explain his enduring obsession with the UK's most extreme Cyclo-X event

Posted by Jimmy Wilson

Jimmy wilson 3peaks2

Jimmy on Simon Fell - picture by great Cyclefit friend, Andrew Shore (Sigma Sports Oakham bike-fitter).

"I can’t remember deciding to race the Three Peaks. It seems to have happened to me."

Three Peaks Cyclo-X by Jimmy Wilson

I can’t remember deciding to race the Three Peaks. It seems to have happened to me.

The person responsible for exposing me to it is a former Condor Cycles colleague of mine, Greg. He, even in his late twenties had worked in the bike industry longer than most others I knew. Greg had, and I’m sure still has, an intimate knowledge of bike components. Compatibility queries satisfied with almost instant recall, along with tangential data covering inter-manufacturer mashups of the “it’s not supposed to work..” variety.

It's 2003

It was 2003 and I had just started criterium racing, and Greg had just started a family. He had less time and energy for bike riding, but was always interested in how I had got on at Crystal Palace or Eastway. His interest and excitement was a big part of what motivated me to race more. And so, at some point, probably towards the end of the season, my first cross bike emerged from the workshop.

Starting Cyclo-X

I rode with Greg quite a bit. Our days off coincided so we would meet somewhere travelling in opposite directions along the Herford Union Canal, then follow the River Lea north to Epping Forest. These were 4 or 5 hour rides with a long stretch solo from where I was living near Old Street along the Regent’s Canal then left onto the Hertford Union.
Once in Epping Forest we would ride for a couple of hours on single track. I would ride back on my own as Greg lived in Broxbourne. It must have been during one of these rides that he told me about the Three Peaks. I only remember it being mentioned in the general context of cyclocross, not as a separate entity. I had already started racing London League and knew that once I had the requisite off-road racing experience that I would try to get a place on the Three Peaks. I seemed to take it on so willingly and unthinkingly. I’m not sure why. There had been a couple of significant life events around that time. A relationship ended not long after a bike crash left me with a fractured skull. I had stopped drinking and had smoked (when drinking) up until that point too. The time I had spent in the pub was now devoted to cycling, I had replaced beer drinking with bike riding. Cycling was leading, I was happy to follow.

"Cycling was leading, I was happy to follow"

Jimmy Xcrace

Racing in Cyclefit kit

Jimmy Xc

Trek Boone - now replaced by Seven titanium

"Upland Cycling Experience"

One of the many unique things about the Three Peaks is that you must give evidence of sufficient and suitable riding experience to qualify you for participation. I had raced two full cross seasons before my first application in 2005. I duly filled out my application and sent it so that it would arrive on the on the opening date for entries. It was addressed to John Rawnsley. John would read each entry and his was the decision, based on cyclocross racing and “upland cycling” experience. My application for the 2005 race was successful, as was Greg’s.

That first year, we must have convinced Grant (Condor’s owner) to let us both have the Saturday off, and to borrow the shop van. We arrived some time in the afternoon and stayed the night at a B&B in Austwick which neighbours the start village of Helwith Bridge. Both Ingleborough and Pen Y Ghent were clearly visible from the B&B. Whernside was couched behind Ingleborough, partially concealed for the time being.

Indelibly Stamped

These names, now marked as indelibly in my brain as the names of my siblings, were new to me. I couldn’t even remember which one we went up first, or which was the “grassy”, the “stepped” or the “stony” climb. Early on Sunday morning we drove the short distance to the start. The high dry-stone walls along the winding road made the journey quite interesting. We managed a slight crash on the way. This ensured that the work van was definitely not available in subsequent years! But, that’s another story.

Jimmy Seven

One-bike philosophy - Seven titanium - big-mile commuter and weekend racer!

"Woolly hats, Yorkshire accents. Mountain Rescue"

Woolly hats, Yorkshire accents. Mountain Rescue

Competitors' vehicles line up on Austwick Road opposite a quarry. Supporters' vehicles are parked facing back the way they came in readiness for the rush to the first place they are allowed to hand up bottles and spare bikes/wheels at Cold Cotes. We park up and make our way down to sign on. It's cold. Coats on.

The sign-on tent is in a field next to the car park of the Helwith Bridge Inn. There are mountain rescue vehicles, portable toilets and a team of marshals directing cars into another field being used as a car park. I see John Rawnsley (I don't know it's him). There are groups of competitors chatting, arms folded against the cold. Woolly hats, Yorkshire accents. Mountain Rescue have a vehicle there, and there are cross bikes of course, most have an orange survival bag attached under the saddle or taped to the frame. The scene is both strange and familiar, the atmosphere both welcoming and intimidating. I am suddenly nervous for the first time.

Imposter Syndrome

By the time I line up for the start, I am in a state of mild panic. I have the same sense of impostor syndrome I felt when I did my first London League race. I calm myself with the knowledge that the first 6km is on road and "neutralised". The flag drops, we clip-in to shouts of support from spectators, the lead car accelerates over the eponymous Helwith Bridge. I am probably 100 riders back from the front as the lead riders swing left and rise on the B6479 towards Horton in Ribblesdale. The field stretches out as we hit the slight rise, it now feels like a road race. There is nothing "neutral" about it. I am on the limit within the first 500 meters, 40kph fighting to hold position. The effort is familiar, and I take some comfort from the knowledge that I can sustain it. The fact that I'm doing it on fat tyres with cold legs is the unsettling bit. The pace stays stratospheric, the only respite comes as we dogleg back across the river Ribble accompanied by the unmistakable squeal of cantilever brakes.

The first off-road section is accessed through a farm gate with a cattle grid. We bunch together as the race slows to make the left turn. I am too far back to avoid the bottle neck; I have to unclip and struggle to get going again over the cattle grid. I watched the first 50 riders ride through at speed. I log that for next time.

Simon Fell - Jimmy Dismounts

The stony farm track rises slightly, and we are now lined out. I can't resist pushing into the red a couple of times to pass riders I had seen come by me at the cattle grid. We then enter a farmyard, slick, wet and stinking of cow shit. We have to slow down but I can't brake as I'm riding 33c knobbly tyres at 60psi. We freewheel left towards another gate/cattlegrid combination.
Beyond rises Simon Fell which constitutes the steepest bit of the "grassy" one. I dismount several times on the boggy section before the climb proper. I dismount once more and lift the bike on to my shoulder without knowing it will stay there for the next 30 mins. There is no way I would have believed anyone if they had told me how hard this part of the race is. I was working just as hard as I had been at 45kph on the road, but I was now travelling vertically quicker than horizontally. I had never felt as much strain on my calves. I hadn't done anything like this in training, never had the bike on my shoulder for longer than a couple of minutes. I will be better prepared for this bit next time too.

Jimmy Laura2

Jimmy works his day-job with a familiar face

Jimmy Cx Boone 170320 170257

Back in his happy-space - he shares with Jules

"It's always better to have the bike carrying you, than to be carrying the bike"

Learning Curve

And so it goes, throughout the race, I experience further extremes and learn more about the idiosyncratic demands of the course: Ingleborough to Cold Cotes is the fastest and longest descent I have ever done on a cross bike. I need to practice somehow; I lose speed and places because my lines are wrong, and I have to brake. I find that my front mech cable outer had split because it was a bit worn through contact with the headtube. This, and having the bars round at full lock as I carried the bike had caused it to fail. I had no big ring for the rest of the race. I won't let that happen again. The steps on the way down Whernside are unrideable for me unless I can get my weight back, I can't do this without secondary brake levers on the tops. Another equipment change for next year.

Pen Y Ghent

Pen Y Ghent has lessons on the way up and the way down. I need easier gears so I can stay on the bike longer on the climb. It's always better to have the bike carrying you, than to be carrying the bike. I watch the leaders hurtle past me as I make my way up. Their speed is incredible. It is all too easy to brake too much on the big stones on the lower bridleway section. I will take me several attempts before I feel some of the "flow" the faster riders have.

14th Time Lucky

Every edition I have done (2022 was my 14th Three Peaks) throws up new questions and precipitates more learning and adaptation. This is the essence of why I love it so much to the point of mild obsession. You can only get better at it by doing it. Raw fitness will only get you so far. This is true for cyclocross in general but is amplified for the Three Peaks because much of the course you can only ride during the race. Equipment technology has ameliorated some of the difficulties around shifting and braking. Gearing is now lower whether you like it or not. My 2005 race was on a 48/38 double chainset with a 12-27 cassette, and cantilever brakes. Now we all use disc brakes and in 2022 I raced on a 38 chain ring with a 11-40 cassette. Bikes have become lighter and tubeless tyres have eliminated the need to over inflate clinchers to avoid pinch flats on Whernside.

Benevolent Motivator

It is no exaggeration to say that I am thinking about the Three Peaks every time I ride my cross bike. I carry it around. It gives my training a purpose and serves as a slightly threatening yet benevolent motivator. It has been a constant in my life for 18 years and I feel incredibly lucky to have picked it up so unwittingly and effortlessly. It is just as rewarding when I get a PB as it is when I finish after mechanical problems or when I am not very fit or unwell.

New for the 2023 race? Even easier gears! Maybe switch to a SRAM drivetrain to achieve this. More training on technical descents, I was on the brakes for too much this year. More long rides off road, maybe South Downs Way etc...

3 Peaks Cyclo-X Race

About the author

Jimmy Wilson, Bike-Fitter / Writer

One of the most experienced bike-fitters in Europe. Loves titanium bikes, border-terriers and cyclo-cross. Amongst many other things

View other posts by Jimmy Wilson


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