Thanks To Steve Worland who origiannly wrote this article for “What Mountainbike” magazine in January 2004
They say it’s the toughest cyclo cross in the world. Ask Steve Worland and he’ll probably agree. So just what is it that’s so great about hauling a totally unsuitable bike across the sort of terrain that MTBs were invented for? Steve investigates…
Stumble… curse… must concentrate… wheeze… cough… focus… right calf about to pop… wince… heart beats in my head… “Can’t get yer ouda my…” Kylie muffled by first cramp spasm… silent wail… reach forward…grab wire fence on dry stone wall… pause… steady as a nervous wreck…and pull… curse… shift bike off boney bit… wheeze… across to the middle of my neck… grab another handful of fence… cough… and pull…lower back’s ready to lock solid… stretch… sigh… groan… head down…one hand on the hill… steady… gather breath… lunge… put one foot in front of the other… repeat… repeat… repeat… don’t look up… don’t look down… nearly there. As a fan of the late, often great, Douglas Adams, I was tempted to assume that the 42nd birthday edition of the famous Three Peaks Cyclo Cross race would produce all manner of life-changing experiences, or at the very least a tiny glimmer of understanding as to why I put myself in situations that guarantee a level of physical anguish that would appear totally pointless to the average man or woman in the street.
But that’s the point surely. We do these things because we want to set ourselves apart from average men or women in the street. Suffering is arrogance… an odd arrogance that comes hand in hand with ultimately pointless heroism. Arrogant and ultimately pointless heroism drives all sorts of stuff in life, but it’s especially prevalent in ridiculously tough events like The Three Peaks. We enter events like this powered by naive enthusiasm, an enthusiasm that raises its pretty/ugly head as soon as a goal achievement becomes an aim in itself rather than a small part of progress towards a better understanding of things in general.
Well, that’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking by it. This was the third time I’d ridden The Three Peaks. About eight years seperates each. I guess it takes me eight years to forget the last time and re-build that arrogant heroism and naive enthusiasm.
I always try to analyse things when I’m hurting. It keeps my brain busy. I guess it’s my version of going into the trance that many athletes talk about, the trance that helps them to suffer in relative silence and win, whilst at the same time appearing to simply cruise along with the sort of nonchalence that suggests this was what their bodies were made for. Well, I was surrounded by the silent suffering of the less talented, the ones destined to reach the finish an hour or two behind the winner.
As I stumbled, tripped and tacked my way up the middle slopes of Ingleborough, the first big peak, time stood still as someone behind me whistled, in manic snatches, the intro to Perry Como’s ‘Magic Moments’. Someone up ahead held his head skywards, mute-screamed and punched his thigh over and over again. I was surrounded by lunatics.
By no means coincidentally, I was also surrounded by some of the most stunning countryside in the UK. The Three Peaks Cyclo Cross takes in North Yorkshire’s most famous hill tops… Ingleborough (723 metres), Whernside (736 metres) and Pen-y-Ghent (694 metres). 61 kilometers seperates the start and the finish and, whilst the idea of covering that distance on a bike is no big deal to a fit rider, no MTBs are permitted in this event and big sections of the climbs are impossible to ride. This is as much a fell walking (okay, running for the leading contenders) event as it is a cyclo cross. The descents are a technical challenge too. Well, they are on a skinny tyred cross bike. Only the road sections provide the opportunity to relax and take in the stark but beautiful landscapes.
The gnarly old men, plus a few women and juniors, started half an hour ahead of the ‘elite’. I was part way up the second climb, Whernside, by the time the leader, fell runner turned cyclist Rob Jebb, overtook me. Nick Craig, master of everything involving bikes, was trying to reel him in, but as the slope jerked up Jebb was off the bike and striding out as though a bike on his back made no difference whatsoever.
I gathered my senses, broke into a graceful ‘cross specialists run, broke straight back out of it again, coughed, cramped, winced, limped, tripped and fell flat on my face. Shit! I used to be able to do this stuff. All it takes is willpower. Oh, and technique. It can’t be so hard. I could see my quarry for the day, component guru Keith Bontrager, 200 metres ahead, and plodding. I thought… “I’ll catch him by the summit”. I looked further ahead and tried to focus on the ant-trail of riders winding up to what looked like the top.
Actually, this wasn’t so bad really. The sun was shining. I was as warm as I’ve ever been in Yorkshire. At one point I thought my head was about to explode, in surreal black comedy anime fashion, due to pressure build up on the more extreme stoned-step sections at the top of Whernside. A bit of heart-felt “go on lad” spectator (what the hell were they doing up here?) encouragement did me no end of good, not least because I haven’t been called lad since the last time I ‘raced’ up here. In what felt like no time I was slamming, brakes locked, still gaining speed, down the stone block causeway descent to Ribblehead Viaduct, now famous as the place where Harry Potter nearly fell out of his flying car.
I’d failed to catch Keith on the climb, but now I saw him crouched in a ditch at the trailside, mending a flat. He seemed okay so I left him to it,using my MTB experience to pick a safe line through the drainage channels and loose rocks that left the longest line of puncture victims I’ve ever seen. One guy appeared to be trying to stick a patch on a tube using blood from his gouged forehead. Another was holding a long piece of wood and surveying his frame, broken clean in two just behind the head tube. A get-me-home repair seemed unlikely.
The nine kilometer road section between Ribblehead and the base of Pen-y-ghent was a godsend. I unwound, ate, drank, stretched and felt happy to soft-pedal as tight groups of hard-working riders flew past. I didn’t really feel like doing the last peak but, before I’d had a chance to think this through rationally, I’d been marshalled off the blacktop and I was on the way up. A short way up Rob Jebb and Nick Craig came flying back down. I started wondering if there’d been any head-on smashes in the race’s 42 year history. By half way up, the trail felt almost crowded as those going up just missed those coming down on the same track. But like commuters on a footpath, intuitive last second manoeuvers worked.
Just before I dragged myself up the final few metres to the checkpoint at the top of Pen-y-Ghent, the little cramp spasms that had threatened all day suddenly blossomed into full blown hamstring hardwood. The St Johns people were nowhere to be seen. I dropped my bike, stood as still as a piece of hillside furniture on two wooden legs can stand and muted a wail. I suddenly felt very vulnerable. Then Malcolm Fawcett, long time MTB fanatic, dragged himself past and emitted enough words of nearly- there type encouragement to bring me back to my senses. A few minutes leg punching seemed to create some relief and I finally pulled my weary body up the last walking section.
Despite further, fortunately stifled, cramp twinges every time I tried to pedal, I positively flew back down the wild open stretches of the Pen-y-Ghent trail, now convinced that 110psi in my tyres gave me complete mechanical invulnerability. And it seemed it did. For the first time in my three attempts, I didn’t finish on a flat tyre that I was too shagged to mend. And for the first time in my three attempts, it didn’t drizzle… it was warm, and you could actually see the hills. Wonderful.
I cruised into the finish, the Helwith Bridge Hotel car park, went straight to the bar and downed two pints of a guest beer that made me completely useless to do anything else other than eat several bags of salt and vinegar crisps, crawl into the back seat of Seb the Snapper’s car and go to sleep. I’ll probably do it all again in about eight years.