Cycling Cyclocross Racing

Bonkers stuff on an inappropriate bike

The title of this post is taken from this blog, which I read recently in preparation for what was probably my most ridiculous challenge yet: the 3 Peaks Cyclocross race. That is, the Yorkshire 3 Peaks – Ingleborough, Whernside, and Pen-Y-Ghent – on a bike with drop handlebars and no suspension.

Remember not so long ago when cyclocross was my nemesis? I was so scared of falling off the bike that I could barely ride across a grassy field. Mountain biking was a bit scary too. Well, things have moved on from then. Largely due to just getting out there and doing a lot of riding, I am now much more confident off-road and absolutely loving cyclocross.

So when a bunch of people from my club decided to enter the 3 Peaks, I thought I’d  have a crack at it as well. Plus it gave me an excellent excuse to buy a new bike. One that a) was the right size for me, b) was not too heavy and c) had brakes that actually stopped me.

On race day my ever-patient husband and (on this occasion) pit crew, Chris, and I drove from our cosy B&B in the village of Clapham to the start at Helwith Bridge. We didn’t see any of my clubmates at the start, as they had all approached from the other side of the bridge while we were parked some distance away in the other direction. It was really handy that we had multiple bikes with us because Chris could easily get about during the day, as parking was inevitably pretty busy and he usually ended up parked about half a mile away from where he needed to be.

At the start I made the mistake of waiting in the marked area for riders expecting to get round in over 5 hours (I was aiming for within 5 hours 30). Turns out nobody pays any attention to the marked areas and that meant that I started right at the back. As soon as the race began I started to work my way up the field. It meant I started out quite hard, but I knew that the road sections were likely to be areas where I could make up places as I’m fairly strong and have done a bit of road racing.

By the time we got to the first off-road section heading towards Ingleborough I had caught up my clubmate Beth, who is usually fairly well-matched to me and who I was hoping to use as a pacemaker!

I didn’t really enjoy Ingleborough. I’d gone out hard on the road and my heart rate went right up and stayed high as the climb was relentless. It was a case of shoulder the bike and plod. Fortunately I’d done a bit of hill walking over the summer and I knew that my plodding speed would be faster than some. I was relieved to get to the top of Ingleborough and start the muddy, grassy descent down towards Cold Cotes. The descents had been the bit I was most nervous about, and I had feared having to walk a lot of the descent, but I found Ingleborough reasonably rideable. After a couple of near misses I did manage to go over the handlebars into a patch of particularly deep mud on one occasion. Jumped up, sore knee but never mind, back on the bike and keep going.

I reached the road just behind Beth and grabbed a gel from Chris, who was waiting along with Beth’s husband Steve with drinks, a variety of food and my spare bike, just in case. I had originally planned to eat something every half hour, along with drinking my energy drink, but it soon became apparent that eating on the hill was not easy. I’d only had one gel by this point and I was an hour and 40 minutes into the race. I managed to eat a mini malt loaf on the road as well, but it was difficult when I was riding hard to stay with Beth and the wee group I’d got into.

Just before we arrived at the next off-road section I realised my handlebars were slightly crooked! They must have got knocked when I went into the mud pit. I decided I couldn’t ride the whole rest of the race with them like that and pulled up once we had left the road at Chapel le Dale. I cunningly pulled up opposite Isla Rowntree, who had been due to ride but was supporting instead. She quickly produced an allan key and saved me having to rifle through my bag for my multi tool and I was on my way again quickly!

Another plod up Whernside and I was starting to feel like things were going well.

3peakswhernside
At the top of Whernside, with Pen-Y-Ghent in the distance. Photo credit Mick Kenyon (racingsnakes.com).

I carried the bike for part of the descent off Whernside – the main path was stone steps, and people had cut lines either side of the steps, but I decided it looked too dicey for my liking and gingerly jogged down with the bike over my shoulder until it looked more rideable.

3peakscarrying
About to get back on my bike! (Photo credit: Steve Harling).

I really enjoyed the rest of the descent off Whernside and even made up some places on the descent!

Back on the road again at Ribblehead and didn’t want to stop, but had to refill my Platypus hydration bladder. Chris was waiting again with bottles and we worked as quickly as possible to refill it then it was back on the bike again and working to catch up Beth.

I’d been told that you could make up places if you rode as much of the Pen-Y-Ghent climb as possible and I tried! Once or twice I was off and pushing because my legs were burning, but I made sure I got back on as soon as possible. It was a bit mad with riders pushing up, faster riders coming flying back down and walkers mostly trying to stay out of the way! The marshals (and any riders with breath to spare) did a great job of shouting “rider!” every time there was someone hurtling down.

Eventually it got too steep and uneven to ride, but it was pushable rather than carrying, so I was able to eat a cereal bar to supplement the gels I’d taken. Then I got to the final section of new stone steps, and shouldered the bike yet again!

3peakspenyghent
Nearly at the top! (Photo credit: Kate Thorneberry).

Finally at the top and then it was downhill all the way! I think the descent off Pen-Y-Ghent was the bit that will stick in my mind. It was relentless, absolutely brutal with no suspension and running tyres at 60 PSI! My hands just locked up and I couldn’t brake any more or less at one point – the braking I’d got was all I had! I can’t imagine riding that on my old bike with cantilever brakes. I’d have been too scared. At the time I was just in full-on race mode but looking back I don’t think I’ve ever ridden a descent like that, even on a mountain bike! It probably wasn’t as fast as it felt, but coming after years of patiently working on my confidence descending and riding off-road it felt like a triumph!

Back on the road and I was flying. Just a couple more miles, time trialling it down on the drops, and I was rolling over the finish line! 5 hours 11 minutes, well within my target and feeling exhausted but incredible. I couldn’t believe I’d done it.

Final result: 446th (I’m not sure how many finishers there were – the results website is currently showing only the top 500 but I know there were more than that!). And looking at my splits I was making up places at almost every checkpoint. I made up 34 places between Ribblehead and the finish – Pen-Y-Ghent went well for me!

Thanks go to many people: the amazing Chris, who trailed around after me all day with spare kit and a spare bike (thankfully not needed), and then drove me home. My clubmates, who have encouraged me at every turn when my confidence was lacking. Coach Gary Hand of Espresso Cycle Coaching, for making me do more intervals than it would ever have occurred to me to do. Stirling Cycles, who pulled out all the stops to have my amazing custom-built Ridley ready well ahead of schedule. Isla Rowntree for fixing my bike! And of course the organisers, marshals, mountain rescue teams and everyone else who created such an amazing – and bonkers – event.

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