Russell Owen and Simon Fox represented Darwen Dashers running club in the 2006 Three Peaks. Thanks to Simon for sending in this report (and great pics Russell), originally written for their club magazine.
Words: Simon Fox
Art: Russell Owen
And now, like a scene from some corny war film, my universe is a two-foot square field of vision. ‘Left … right …left … right.’ I struggle on up the hillside, the bike on my shoulder with its front wheel catching on the ground due to the steepness of the slope. There are many others around me but I may as well be alone. The one thing I am aware of is that I must get to the top of Pen Y Ghent… The start – Helwith Bridge Three hours and an eternity before I was at Helwith Bridge on the start line. I was a different person then. As we’d got the bikes out I spotted Keith Bontrager, US Mountain bike manufacturer and legend, strolling past. I couldn’t help grinning to my self. How cool is this? Russ and I were about three rows back on the line. I chatted to a few other riders in this first wave (vets, juniors and women go at 9.30am, the senior men at 10.00am), surprising myself by how calm I was – how ready I was. I’d been idly dreaming of taking part in this race for years, been given the opportunity at the start of the year and then had been confirmed as accepted three months before.
Every fell race, mountain bike race, every training run or ride I’d done was geared up to this. It was seldom far from my thoughts – I knew this would be more than ‘just a race’. So, this was it. 9.30am came and we set off. ‘We set off’ is a woefully inadequate way to describe the pent-up energy releasing like an overtautened steel hawser suddenly snapping. Two hundred riders charged down the road, lungs burning. Amazingly this was an escorted start – we had to ride behind the pace car for the first 5.5km on the road. Russ, who had provided the cyclocross bike I was using (plus support and inspiration), had already warned me that, despite the 38 miles and the three mountains to come, it was critical to be as close to the front as possible here so as not to get caught when riders inevitably bunched up when we turned off road. Two riders crashing down on a wet concrete farm track covered in sheep and cow shit proved this point.
Ingleborough (723m) The gradually sloping field rears up to stop our attempts at riding. This is Simon Fell. I’ve heard stories about Simon Fell – ‘near vertical’, ‘impossibly steep’ and ‘you haul yourself up using a fence’. The stories are all true. You may have seen images of cycling gods like Rob Jebb or Nick Craig running with bikes on shoulder here but in the real world, with real human beings, being able to walk is achievement enough. Most of us adopt a disjointed, awkward stagger with heads bowed as if in respect and indeed we do haul ourselves up with one hand on the wire of a fence. As we’d climbed we had passed into low cloud just to make it more of a challenge. At last we gained reasonable rideable ground. The technical riding – little drop offs, bogs and tricky lines – were ideal for a mountain biker like me and I knew I could stay with Russ here. The murk cleared enough to reveal the marshals at the summit checkpoint where we had to hand in the first of our three tags. To my surprise it also revealed Mark Walsh who had picked a grim spot to spectate. We had run the section off Ingleborough prior to the race and now I was concentrating hard to remember the racing lines we’d spotted then. Soon we were flying down the grassy slopes towards Cold Cotes. This was the first support crew area – Sue for Russ and Cath and the kids for me. Now, I don’t know if it was down to the amount of wine consumed during the ‘team meeting’ a few nights before the event but somehow both Russ and I were under the impression that we’d arranged for our drinks to be handed to us as we whizzed by. The support crew had different ideas. Russ reached them first shouting ‘Drink! Drink!’ Cath told me later that she couldn’t help thinking about Father Jack, the drunken Irish priest from Craggy Island. Somehow Sue ended up handing Russ my drink which he promptly threw on the floor in disgust! My drinks handover was also a fiasco – I had to come to a complete stop, not the ideal scenario when you are racing. The banana I also grabbed managed to find it’s way out of my jersey pocket by the time I reached for it on the road section towards Ingleton. Fortunately Russ had a spare energy bar that I wolfed down as we bitched and moaned along the road. We were waved across the next road junction by a very enthusiastic policewoman, who shouted encouragement as we sped by. The road sections which stitch the 3 Peaks route together are often a good chance to either get in a group and work hard to gain some speed or to just sit in and let someone else do all the work. I did a bit of both, stupidly taking my turn on the front just as we reached a steep little climb.
A training run in near biblical torrential rain had been my first introduction to the steepest of the Three Peaks. Conditions on the day were comparatively benign. Approaching a stile once we’d headed off road, Russ remarked ‘It’s about Jebb time.’ Sure enough, moment’s later people behind were shouting encouragement to Rob Jebb as he trotted, seemingly nonchalantly, on his way to a magnificent sixth consecutive win. To my mind the 31 year old Yorkshireman is probably the finest athlete in Britain, as he has not only had successes in the 3 Peaks cyclocross but also the 3 Peaks fell race, divisional road cycling championship, he was 2005 sky running champion and many, many more achievements. If he was American he would be rich and famous, in Britain he is almost unrecognised and working for BT. On the two occasions I’ve been on Whernside the summit has been hidden by cloud. Perhaps it always is, a bit like that island that King Kong lived on. After yet another lengthy bike carrying trudge I emerged above the cloud and remounted before handing in my tag at the rainy summit. There is one reasonably smooth line along the top path. On the right is a drop, the extent of which is hidden by the ever-present cloud. This is, of course, where I fell off. There were some runners coming towards me and I was distracted for a moment, my front wheel slipped over the edge and I was plummeting. The bike, with my left shoe still clipped into the pedal, stayed where it was. Uninjured I scaled back up to it and set about catching up. The next section is pretty damned dodgy with drop offs, rocks and wet stone slabs. I knew a lot of riders wouldn’t be too keen and I was quite pleased when I caught Russ running along the slabs I was riding. ‘Come on Russ, what’s up with you?’ I ribbed him as he moved over to let me by. Suddenly the slabs had big puncture causing gaps between them and then became steps. Aargh! I was committed to riding them now. Luckily the 90psi I’d put into each tyre did the trick and I escaped unscathed. Again our training run of this course paid off as Russ had pointed out to me that it was quicker to run down the grass at the left side of the course than to risk riding the next bit. I had a moment of doubt as a rider shot by but Russ’s better judgement proved itself again as the poor guy had a crash on the rocks. After a couple of stream crossings we were heading towards the lonely railway station at Blea Moor. I was passed by one of the seniors that I knew, Dave Haygarth. To my surprise I found myself catching him back up and having a brief chat with him. My ego got a bit of a knock when he mentioned that he’d got a flat back tyre and was riding to his support crew at Ribblehead Viaduct rather than lose time fixing it. He then pulled away again!
Just before the viaduct there is a flight of rocky steps where the vultures like to gather to watch the unwary come a cropper. My moment of glory in riding down them was snatched from me as Russ jibbed in front of me at the last minute and I had to brake and lose momentum. There was a mass of people, both support crew and spectators waiting here. I’d arranged for the kids to have a large England flag with ‘Go Mr Sparkle!’ (my forum name) on it so we could spot them. The bottle handover was faultless this time and we were soon out onto the road and heading for the notorious PYG. A peleton formed comprising of Russ and I, a couple of other Vets, one of the leading Ladies and we were joined by some Seniors. I was feeling quite good, pleased to be still with Russell with two of the Peaks down. Glancing across at the Senior next to me I said ‘How’s it going?’ He slowly turned and took in the bike, which has seen a bit of action in its day, now resplendent with a plastic Homer Simpson zip tied to the front. Then he looked me up and down with the sort of expression people use for something they’ve discovered festering under the sink. ‘Yah, only one to go.’ he eventually responded. ‘Yeah, piece of p*ss now, eh?’ I said, just to rile the arrogant tosser. Grrr! Zipping down towards Horton in Ribblesdale we crossed a singletrack humpbacked bridge which had us all bunching in. I’d like to think there wasn’t just me holding my breath here! Then we could see people standing at the inconspicuous turning up Pen Y Ghent Lane.
Pen Y Ghent (694m)
We’d pre-ridden the bridleway up here previously and I knew that it was going to be bloody hard. The track is largely made up of fist sized rocks and the incline at first is not too severe. These two factors make it just about rideable when you’re not too tired. Suddenly the effort of riding the previous two Peaks hit me. I started feeling twinges of cramp in my legs. I mentioned it to Russ and he sympathetically buggered off into the distance. Someone came past me and knocked me off line, I stalled and I had to get off push for a while. I had to dig deep now to keep it going. I gave myself a good talking to and remounted. A while further on I came across Dave Haygarth again, he was just finishing mending a broken chain. I commiserated and he said ‘You don’t know the half of it, I’d already given my chain tool to a teammate. I’ve had to run for a mile with the bike to borrow one.’ He was soon making up for lost time and running (running!) up the hill.
This is the point we came in at. Mentally and physically on the limit I pushed and carried on up to the summit. Russ had gained a couple of minutes on me on the climb and I saw him coming back down (PYG is an out and back). We made eye contact and grinned at each other. I think Russ expected me to catch him up as I’m a little stronger on the descents but I had no chance. Even descending was such hard work, my hands ached from reaching out to the brakes and my triceps were killing me as they got rattled by the rocks. I had to control my speed coming back down PYG, as it is really steep but the pain in my hands meant I was largely having to use one brake at a time. At length I neared the bottom with my neck also now in agony due to craning upwards to see where I was going whilst braking. Lost in a world of pain I heard my name. It was Cath and the kids. They were about 4 feet away and I hadn’t even noticed them. ‘Do you want anything?’ I shook my head, too far gone for speech. I tried to pedal and realised that the chain had come off. Forcing it back on with the shifter didn’t work and I opted to freewheel to the foot of the lane and put it on by hand when I reached the road. Cramp spasms gripped both of my legs as I got off. Spectators were treated to a brief but memorable burst of florid language before I got back on for the final short road stage to the finish back at Helwith Bridge. There is a small rise in the road here, you’d barely notice it in a car but it seemed to have tripled in size when I reached it. I could see a couple of riders ahead of me and I gave it everything I had left now (probably not a lot) to try to catch them but to no avail. Then I could see the final bend that gave onto the finish in a field. Under the finish banner and I’d done it! I heard the commentator, who is somewhat of a wag, saying ‘And from Darwen Dashers, Simon Fox. Tally ho!’ In a daze I had a finishers medal put round my neck and my number taken off. I found Russell and we shook hands.
The more I’ve looked into the Three Peaks cyclocross race the more people I’ve met who are obsessed by it. And now I’m one of them.