Approximately 10 minutes after crossing the finish line of the infamous 3 Peaks Cyclocross last year, I was thinking to myself, “I can go faster.”
So after getting round in 5 hours 11 minutes last year, this year’s mission was to break 5 hours. I have been training hard for months, self-coached this time, with the aid of a lot of reading and the very generous Christmas gift of a power meter from Chris. It’s my first year as a vet 40 and after coming 1st vet in the first round of the SCX series on Bute a couple of weeks ago I knew I was in good shape – but did I have the endurance? A typical 40-minute red-line-effort CX race is a bit different to slogging up (and down) Ingleborough, Whernside, and Pen-y-Ghent.
I was a bit nervous before the race but nothing like last year – this time, I knew exactly what I was in for and I was prepared for it. My bike had been checked over by my good friend and trusty mechanic, Martin of Roots Cycles. After the usual 3 Peaks tyre dilemma (and scouring the pre-race chat on Facebook) I had planned to try a set of Sammy Slicks a friend had offered to lend me; however they turned out to have not survived their previous 3 Peaks outing unscathed and had cuts in them. So at the last minute I decided to risk sticking on the tubeless X-One Bites I had intended to put on the bike after the 3 Peaks for the rest of the season. I figured the drag of the tread on the road would be outweighed by the weight savings of not having to use the horrible Land Cruisers again.
The day dawned mild and reasonably fine; there was a little drizzle but nothing to worry about, although the wind was forecast to rise later in the day. This time I got myself into the middle of the pack at the start, after making the mistake of starting right at the back last year. I slipped back a few rows right away because I’m just not that aggressive at fighting for gaps (at least not on the road, way outnumbered by blokes!) but I wasn’t too worried – there was still a long way to go.
The horrible slog up Simon Fell came round quicker than I remembered, but it was also over quicker too and it didn’t seem too long before I was dibbing in on the misty, desolate summit of Ingleborough. I had taped a note of my previous times to my top tube for motivation and was delighted to see that I was already 5 minutes ahead of last year’s time.
Briefly back on the bike before shouldering it again for a short scramble down a bit too steep to ride. Then it was back on the bike and I was flying down the grassy, peaty descent. I realised somewhere between the summit and Cold Cotes that my descending had improved somewhat since last year as well! I was riding confidently and having fun, and I made up another 3 and a half minutes by the time I got to Cold Cotes. I went flying past Chris with a cheery shout and was back on the road to Chapel-le-Dale.
I ended up in a group, but there was only another woman and I doing the work. She was getting a bit annoyed with the rest of the group, but I think they were just hanging on and not feeling strong enough to take a turn. Up onto Whernside and I was still feeling pretty good, managing to make up a few places by being able to ride some short, steeper sections near the top where most people were walking. At the summit I realised I was now 16 minutes ahead of last year’s time.
Last year I had walked a lot of the top bit of the descent off Whernside, not being confident enough to ride the rocky slabs of the main path. This time I carried the bike down the first lot of steps (which nobody around me was riding anyway) but then got straight back on as soon as possible. After a bit of banter with a woman riding right in front of me I slammed on the brakes and dismounted very un-gracefully when we came upon a steep, non-rideable bit and was still laughing at myself when another competitor said, “Why are you laughing?” – to which the only reply was, “Because this is fun!”
And it was. I was carried away by the ridiculous, adrenaline-fuelled madness of it, putting all my (admittedly still fairly meagre) bike-handling skills to use as I sought out the smoothest line, tried to unweight the front wheel to pop over rocks and attempted (with limited success) to bunnyhop rocks and drainage channels. Once I got to the flatter bit at the bottom and had to dismount for a couple of streams and other non-rideable bits I even managed, for the first time ever in a race, to do a proper cyclocross remount without an extra hop! I did get brought down to earth briefly when I went over on my ankle crossing a stream, but luckily the pain subsided quickly (and didn’t come back till after the race, at least).
I made up another 7 minutes on that descent alone, putting me nearly 24 minutes ahead of last year’s time by the time I got to Ribblehead. I was feeling good and pretty relaxed as I sought out Chris and got him to refill my hydration bladder while I took a gel. Last year I struggled to eat enough as I just couldn’t find time to eat in the race, so this year I was relying on energy drink and gels.
My timing was unlucky here as, just as soon as I set out from the checkpoint at Ribblehead, the marshals had to hold the riders back to let some of the traffic congestion at the junction clear. So I lost some time (and any hope of catching the two clubmates ahead of me, Christine and Graham). But the fact that several of us riders were delayed together meant that I had others to work with all the way to Horton in Ribblesdale. I ended up riding with two men who very kindly towed me all the way to Horton (I did take some turns on the front by I was quickly overtaken by my stronger companions – maybe good karma after all the work I had done on the previous road section!). The tailwind helped here as well.
Then it was on to Pen-y-Ghent with all to play for. Pen-y-Ghent is the peak that stuck most in my memory from last time, and it was just as mad as I remembered, with faster riders hurtling down, knackered riders grinding their way up, and walkers and supporters making a lot of noise and trying to stay out of the way. I saw my speedy clubmate Nigel descending on his way to a fast PB, and we yelled encouragement at each other. At some point on the slog up Pen-y-Ghent I started to feel a bit tired and low, but a caffeine gel perked me up. As I neared the top, bike on my shoulder again, the wind was battering me into the hillside, the bike acting like a sail that made it difficult to walk in a straight line.
Then I was dibbing in at the top of the third and final peak, a good half hour ahead of last year’s time and with one final, mad descent to go. Just below the summit I followed the wheels of two lads from Wakefield Junior Triathlon Club down a particularly steep, tussocky section that I am 100% sure I walked last year. I was halfway down it, the wind making my eyes stream so I could barely see what was in front of my wheels, before I wondered, “What the hell am I doing?” But it was too late to bail out so I just had to ride it out until the angle of the slope slackened off.
Shortly after the descent re-joins the main path there is a wide bend that I remembered as being not particularly rideable (for me-a-year-ago) so I made a split-second tactical decision to shoulder the bike and walk down the steep grassy slope I had previously come up, to cut the corner. This was going well until I tripped on a rock and fell forward, down the hillside. Somehow my bike flipped off my shoulder and I landed face-down on top of my bike. I was a bit stunned. A woman taking the same short cut stopped and asked if I was ok – miraculously, it seemed that I was, despite having been jabbed in the throat by my handlebars (this is why bar ends are so important, folks).
I think that shook me a bit because I didn’t make any more time up on the descent – although I did gain confidence as I went on.
I was trying to overtake the chap in front of me when I reached the new compulsory dismount section at the bottom, and narrowly avoided getting kicked in the face as he flung himself off his bike (my fault for being so close to him). A woman caught me up at the dismount but I was determined I wasn’t losing any more places. I flung myself back onto the bike, got down on the drops – and realised my bars were quite crooked. Presumably it had happened when I fell, and I’d ridden the whole descent with them like that, but because I wasn’t descending on the drops I’d never noticed.
Anyway, I had just a few miles left of nice smooth tarmac, a woman chasing me down, and I damn well wasn’t going to stop to straighten my bars. So off I went, rolling across the finish line in a new PB (by over half an hour) of 4:39, in 371st place overall, and 9th V40F.
Apart from a grazed knee, a sore throat where I landed on my bike, and an intermittently sore ankle, I’m feeling in reasonably good shape (albeit a bit weary). My bike has been cleaned and the handlebars straightened; I think the wheels are (unsurprisingly) a bit buckled and it’s got some new battle scars, but all in all we have both come through it in more-or-less one piece. I was particularly pleased with the new tyres, which performed really well and didn’t let me down or lose any pressure despite the abuse I gave them.
See you all at Callendar Park on Sunday for some more “normal” cross…well, as normal as cross ever gets…