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Up hill, down dale on the Three Peaks

26 Feb 2019

The Three Peaks Cyclocross race in Yorkshire is one of the most challenging and unique events on the cycling calendar

This article was originally published in issue 83 of Cyclist magazine

Words Sam Challis Photography Alex Duffill

There aren’t many bike races that were instigated by the exploits of a 14-year-old boy from Skipton, Yorkshire, but the Three Peaks Cyclocross race is one such example.

A talented cross-country runner and long distance cyclist, Kevin Watson decided to ride his bike over the pre-existing ‘Three Peaks’ hiking trail, which summits three local hills: Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent.

He covered the route in six hours and 45 minutes.

‘At the time, late September 1959, the feat was deemed so unlikely it caused quite the stir in the local press,’ says Mark Richmond, the current organiser of the race.

This prompted three riders from Leeds CTC to have a go a short time after, and one of them bettered Watson’s time, completing it in six hours 30 minutes.

‘By this time the feat was starting to gain notoriety so Bradford Racing Cycling Club, no doubt in part because they wanted to prove that they could do it better than Leeds CTC, held something resembling an actual race along the route,’ says Richmond.

Of the 10 starters only six of them finished, but crucially the winning time was down to four hours 33 minutes.

A new benchmark had been set that more and more riders were keen to measure themselves against.

‘As such, Bradford Racing set about organising an official race along the route and the first edition was held in late September 1961,’ says Richmond.

The event has stayed in the same place on the British race calendar ever since in honour of Kevin Watson’s pioneering escapade.

‘John Rawnsley of Bradford Racing founded the official race and won the first edition,’ says Richmond.

‘He went on to organise the next 49 editions and is still very much involved in the race organisation, despite handing over the reins to me in 2013.’

In its 57 years the race has seen a fair bit of development, including an increase in distance to 61km, up from around 40km originally.

‘There have been a number of route changes that have been required in line with landowner access and the availability of the start/finish field,’ says Richmond.

‘But we’ve tried to keep it true to its grass roots as it has grown.

‘For example, we appreciate that technology moves on and that has many benefits, but we need to ensure it stays as a cross race and doesn’t unintentionally become something else.

‘In recent years we’ve prohibited suspension and the use of flat handlebars to support this.’

The Three Peaks’ difficulty hasn’t affected its popularity, however.

The event has only become more popular and now there are two applicants for every one of the 500 places available.

‘The standard has rocketed as well,’ says Russ Jones, Three Peaks veteran and owner of clothing brand Hackney GT.

‘I was talking recently to a mate who has won it a few times in his age group, Carl McDonaugh.

‘He won the over-50s with a time of 3:45 a few years ago.

‘I went up to the over-50s this year and I did a PB of 3:49, which got me 17th place in that category.

‘Less than 10 years ago that would have got me third.’

A particular appeal

That Jones and McDonaugh are battle-scarred experts of the race is a pertinent point.

‘I’ve heard so often that the race gets under your skin, and you have to return,’ says Richmond.

That is certainly the case for the race’s most prolific winner, Rob Jebb, who has an incredible 11 victories to his name.

‘I did it for the first time when I was 17 and I’m 43 now,’ he says.

‘Nearly everyone who does it comes back because it’s unique. Riding 61km on cross bikes or running on roads, through fields and over mountains?

‘The format is a one-off, as is the variety of terrain, the skillset required, even the weather is totally unpredictable.

‘No one edition is ever the same as the previous one and it allows cross racers, mountain bike riders and even fell runners to compete because each person will have different strengths depending on where they are on the course.’

Reigning Three Peaks champion Paul Oldham echoes Jebb’s sentiment.

‘It’s just totally different to anything else anyone will do in a race season,’ he says.

‘You’re never on the right bike.

‘On the road you’d like an aero road bike; when you’re going up the peaks you’d rather just have a pair of trainers; then coming down you’d love a mountain bike.’

Given the race’s specific demands, kit choice and race tactics are a hot topic and every rider has their own secret recipe. Jebb races with a compact chainset, whereas Oldham goes for 1x.

‘Jebby always gets away from me on a particular road section,’ he says.

‘I occasionally panic but I usually make up the time later in the race.’

Jones says he has his strategy dialled in: ‘I race with two bikes and my mum and dad are my pit crew.

‘My mum always wears a pink coat so I can spot her in the pits.

‘I use my lightweight carbon cross bike for the first section because Whernside is the steepest climb.

‘Then I change to my old-school steel bike for the rest, which is way more forgiving over the rough ground and means I can go faster on the Pen-y-Ghent descent.’

A look at the results table highlights that hardly anyone has won the race at their first attempt.

Oldham explains that experience is absolutely key to success: ‘People win it in blocks – they work out a little formula that works for a few years.

‘I’ve won the last four, Jebby won seven then four consecutively, Tim Gould won six in a row.

‘So it’s all good for a few years, but then someone will come along with a better formula and they’ll have a run of it.’

Whatever the strategy, though, there’s no getting around the physical preparation required to be competitive, due to the demands the race subjects a rider’s body to.

‘Nick Craig, multiple UK cyclocross and mountain bike champion, three-time Three Peaks race winner and all-round nice guy summed it up well in two words: “Absolutely brutal,”’ says Richmond.

‘Then again, you’ll still see him back on the start line the next year.’