3 Peaks – The world’s toughest cyclo-cross race
The ultimate guide to race prep, on the day action, kit choices and everything else to be considered.
Held the last Sunday of September annually it has run nearly every year since 1959.
I have been competing in the event since 2004 having only missed a few years due to major illness, foot and mouth outbreak (not personally but nationally) and getting married. This year will be my 11th outing. The event just seems to get better with age and experience and is now proving super popular and pretty hard to get an entry. People come from all over the world and all ages from 16 to 80+ of both sexes take part.
Part of the attraction is the truly grass roots nature of the event. No big sponsors, cold showers in the local bunk house to finish and an obligatory pint in the pub adjacent the start-finish line. It feels ‘Yorkshire’ to its core. Honest and hard but extremely rewarding. Views to die for, climbs to break all but the sternest, descents that are second to none and a really great atmosphere. Never does a 4-hour race seem to go so quickly. It is effectively a single lap so there really is not time for getting bored.
One of the big attractions of the event is the endless discussions and deliberations of what kit to use, bike set up and preparation. Only standard cross bikes are allowed. 35mm tires, drop bars and no suspension.
Having done it a few times and with a personal best of 3hours 49 mins, I have gained a reasonable amount of ‘insider’ knowledge and experience on what I consider the to be hot tips for all aspects of the event.
In no particular order here are a few of my suggestions for making a great day out and hopefully a time to be proud of. Some of these tips can also be applied to cross racing in general and staying fit and healthy through the winter.
I now have worked out what I consider the best of all worlds and lucky enough to have the kit and crew to make it work. I use my Specialized carbon Crux for Pen-y-Ghent ascent and descent and then swap at the bottom to my own Hackney GT ‘Cockney Rebel’ steel set up. The carbon option is super light for the hardest of the climbs and only the top of the first descent is rocky. Then for the other two ‘hills’ I find the steel option a bit more heavy but so much better for the downhill, more comfortable and more controllable. If I had only one bike it would be steel. Never tried it on a aluminum frame so comment but I guess it would be similar to carbon, light, but going to knock you around a bit.
Brakes – First and foremost thing is to make sure they work well. Whether disc or cantis new pads are a good investment. I have cross top levers but don’t really use them as I find they make the bars too narrow for safe and fast descents. Adjust the brakes up (when using cantis or cable discs) with a little less slack than normal as the pads will wear down especially if it is wet.
All changes made to the bike should be done at least a week before the event and used a couple of times to make it is all running smoothly. The first year I did the race I was putting a new chain on the morning of the race. Not a good option. If chain does need changing it is always a good idea to change the cassette as well. I use a simple park tool wear checker and as soon as it reaches .75 wear I swap the chain out. This way the cassette and chainings seem to last a long time.
What ever is your preferred energy product, stick with it but an isotonic option is good incase it is hot. Replacing lost minerals to avoid cramps is essential. I tried tonic water once. The quinine in it is meant to help prevent cramp (as recommended by Carl ’ Elbows‘ McDongah, 3 peaks G Vet champ 2008) but it did not work for me.
If it is hot, which it could be you will need a decent amount of fluid, at least two liters. If you are riding unassisted then that is a lot too carry in one go but one year I did not carry enough. The race started off pretty cool but by mid morning it was really heating up and I did dehydrate . An option is to put some bottles out en route the day before in easy to remember locations. There is a drink station for water at the bottom of Whernside where all riders must dismount. Could be a chance to fill a bottle up here.
If riding assisted then get your crew ready with bottle swaps. An issue is where to carry fluids. Bottle cages are not the best option for carrying your bike or bumpy descents. Personally I use two camel backs. From the start line I take no drinks and then pick up the first camel back at the bottom of Ingleborough. I then swap again at Ribblehead. That way I don’t have to carry any extra weight up the first climb and keep the fluid weight to a minimum for Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent. I also have spare supplies in each camel back, at least one tube and a hand pump, etc.
Another option for carrying drink is to use flexi juice cartons with small screw tops. They fit will in the back pockets. Buys some juice drinks, empty the contents then you have your receptacle.
Finally if all else fails and your in that mood maybe a tequila shots holster might be the way to go but would not suggest necking the said spirit.
If you can get someone to crew it is advisable. Good for carrying spare wheels, spare bike, tubes and energy bars and yes they will need a car to get around in or on a well laden bike. Good idea is to get them to wear something distinguishable so they can be spotted from a distance. My mum wears a pink walking jacket, which stands out a mile. The pits at Cold Cotes go on for quite while and downhill therefore it’s probably best to have your pit crew near the bottom where you are carrying less speed.
Accommodation and travel
Depending on where you are coming from but I suggest it is good to be up there the day before if travelling from far. The Saturday is a good chance to reckey bits of the course. The decent of Whernside can be ridden up to the halfway point and then walked up the rest. It is well worth a look. Again if you have travelled far I don’t suggest driving back the same day. There are camping options but I normally hire a local cottage for the weekend.
Food on race
Not an expert on this but I know I never feel hungry despite being out for 4 hours plus and exerting a lot of energy. Normally 4 hours with out food and I would be ‘starving’ with this in mind I always try and take on at least a couple of energy bars . Note they can very difficult to swallow when you are pushing hard so get something that goes down easy or maybe old fashion fig roll biscuits or a couple bananas could be good option.
I will normally carry a couple of gels and have my crew loaded up with a handful too. They are particularly handy at the end of the race to help get you over the line.
It could be super hot and sunny or hailstones, hurricane winds and epics floods. I have experienced all of them. Literally being blown of my bike, hailstones so hard they hurt my eyes, water up over my knees and then also blistering sunshine. Be ready for whatever although the forecasts should give you a good indication close to the event. Best take kit for all eventualities and decided on the day. If the forecast is not good all riders are required to carry a waterproof jacket. I take the lightest thing I can find. With a moderate amount of protection
All starters must carry one. Nowadays there are superlight weight versions rather than the old fashion large and heavy orange polythene bag version. I use a lightweight one, which can be picked up on line.
The weather can get real bad and it has been known for riders to get lost. Rules state that all entrants must carry a whistle
Shoes- Important thing is to get a pair that fit well and do them up tight. Particularly when climbing Simon Fell on Ingleborough it is very steep and unless your shoes are on well there will be a tendency for your feet to lift out as you lean forward. A more heavier ‘trail’ shoe with a higher cuff or a lace up shoe could be good. Try not to use something super stiff as a bit of flexibility is good. Studs are not generally necessary as most of the ground is hard pack. Too long a stud would be uncomfortable. Shoes covers are not necessary. You will be running through at least one stream and you feet will get wet regardless
The holy grail of 3 Peaks is what tires to run. I have used Schwalbe Slick Sammys for a few years and found them to be excellent. They have a puncture protection layer, file tread in the middle and knobbles on the edge. Run them at about 70 psi. I never punctured with them and hey are pretty lightweight.
I have used Land Crusiers many times. They are strong but very heavy and I found them to be too baggy on the rim.
A tubeless option could be good to save weight and reduce pinch punctures. There is a new Cross XN Pro file tread tyre from Vittoria, which is tubeless ready. Two of these is saving you two tubes and depending how you feel two spare tubes. That adds up to quite a bit of weight. Non-tubeless rims can be easily converted using Gorilla tape. Read more here. https://www.pinkbike.com/news/Tech-Tuesday-Gorilla-Tape-Tubeless-Conversion.html . If running tubeless I would still carry at least one spare tube as a back up and a decent robust tyre lever.
Might be worth carrying a tyre repair kit in case you damage the side wall. Park Tool makes one.
You will want a low a gear ratio as is possible. There are a couple of steep ascents on Whernside (near the top) and Pen-y-Ghent that with a very low gear are rideable and will save you time and potentially energy
I normally use the traditional double ring at the front 46/34 and 10 speed 45/12 at the rear. This means changing to a long cage rear mech.
A 1 X set up will be good with the new super wide ratio cassettes 46-11 would be perfect. Bear in mind that you want a reasonably high gear for the roads as lot of the sections are flat and if you can get in a chain gang and work together you can motor along.
Staying well pre race build-up
Cramp is something that if you are pushing could be a problem, especially the descent of Pen-y-Ghent when there is not a lot of pedalling and essentially crouching over the bike off the saddle in one position. This has happened to me several times. Having tried different remedies I have found that magnesium oil applied daily in the build up the race and on race day has helped me to have a clear run. Do your own research for more info on this.
I take a very high quality vitamin c daily and backed up with large quantities of organic pumpkin seeds, which are a good source of zinc. The two combined together are meant to be a powerful combination for boosting your immunity. Again you can research this. Since following this and making it a regime, I have only suffered two colds in four years. I purchase my supplements from www.cytoplan.co.uk. I would not bother with most of your high street brands. If you do feel a cold coming on then Echinacea is reputedly a good natural remedy. Very hot baths with a large cup of Epsom salts is meant to help with removing toxins from the body and thus also strengthen your immunity
I go for old school traditionally laced Mavic Sup rims with Shimano 105/ Ultegra hubs, something reliable and strong. I always get my crew to carry spare wheels too as you can never have enough wheels. As mentioned before a tubeless set-up could well be a preferential set-up, as new tires get better and more reliable.
Tools and spares
Minimum 2 tubes
Mini chain breaker
Mini multi tool although probably a single 4.5 Allen key should suffice. I use a cheap one from Planet X
Spare chain link and make sure you get the right size.
Air canister x 2 and inflator
I take a mini pump too in my camel back as a backup. Somehow I don’t always trust canisters to work
Spare, rear mech hanger. A good friend travelled all the way from London to wreck his mech and hanger on the foothills of Pen-y-Ghent. With no spare the race was over.
Speak with someone who has done it a few times before if possible. There are a few sections where there are options. Not going to give too much away here, as I don’t want to responsible for someone going wrong or heading off a steep drop.
Training (in the South)
I tried to head out to Box Hill in Surrey at least a couple of times. It is probably the best we have close to London. The ascent via the stepping-stones is a reasonable test and there is a very short but sharp climb off of one of the hairpins bends on the zigzags. The South Downs for a day out would be a good option and close to my hometown of Hackney I head out to Pole Hill in Epping Forest.
Ian Cleverly and Simon Scarborough both formerly of Cycling Weekly used to do lunch time sessions up and down the stair well of their high rise office tower block with bikes on back. A possible option for city dwellers
Further reading and research
Facebook group - https://www.facebook.com/3peakscx/
Official website http://3peakscyclocross.org.uk
Dave Haygarth 3 Peaks Blog - The best one out there http://3peaksblog.ukcyclocross.co.uk
Youtube . 2016 race https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVK6tR4s9LA
Happy ridding, climbing, walking, sweating, cramping, grinning, descending and racing.
Copyright Russell Jones 2017