The Three Peaks Cyclocross race held early each fall in Yorkshire, Great Britain has earned the reputation as “the toughest cyclocross race in the world.” The route takes riders along roads, over paths and through fields while also climbing the famed three peaks. The race is a perfect fit for Cyclocross Magazine, balancing gravel’s spirit of adventure with cyclocross’ handling and running. Several miles of the 38 mile race are unrideable, so running is inevitable for participants.
Dan Monaghan was at Three Peaks this year and put together this photo essay that provides a look at the sheer beauty and challenge of the Yorkshire countryside along with a look at some of the unique aspects of the race. If are already familiar with the Three Peaks, enjoy Dan’s perspective on the race, and if it is new to you, perhaps you bike bucket list just got a new entry.
by Dan Monaghan
YORKSHIRE DALES, Great Britain—The 55th annual Three Peaks CX took place on Saturday, September 24 in the wilds of the Yorkshire Dales located in the North of England. The annual cyclocross adventure race brought out 572 of the most passionate—or crazy—off-road riders to tackle the mixed-terrain course.
The Three Peaks race has often given the moniker of “the toughest cyclocross race in the world,” thanks to its length, climbing, weather and unrelenting terrain.
The race was born in 1959 when a Yorkshire schoolboy rode, pushed and carried his bike 30 miles up the Whernside (2,419 feet), Ingleborough (2,373 feet) and Pen-y-ghent (2,273 feet) peaks.
The course has changed over time and in 2017 the total length was 38 miles. No matter the route, it has always included the eponymous three peaks and men, women and juniors all race the same course. The same distance, the same climbs, the same suffering.
This year’s Women’s winner Christina Wiejak explained the experience, “Unique, it’s a privilege, you would never be able to ride around here usually, it’s a select group. You can’t really prepare for it.”
The Three Peaks race is a perfect fit for Cyclocross Magazine because it combines cyclocross’ route choices and running—racers are guaranteed to have to run or hike for several kilometers—with gravel riding’s sense of adventure. Needless to say, like a Dirty Kanza or a Crusher in the Tushar, veterans know what they are signing up for, and first-timers will quickly learn how tough the famed ride is.
One aspect Three Peaks does not share with gravel races is the rules. There are not many, but the few that are in place help ensure riders’ safety and preserve the cyclocross spirit. The rules are:
- Competitors must produce a whistle and a survival bag… which must be carried at all times during the race.
- Competitors are advised to strap the survival bag firmly under their saddles.
- Cut off times are in operation
- The race is for cyclocross bikes with drop handlebars only. The use of mountain bikes and road bikes is prohibited.
- Riders must be “dibbed in’” at every checkpoint (wristband check-ins)
Simons Fell, the First of the Eponymous Peaks
Three Peaks starts at 9:30 a.m. sharp in the small village of Helwith Bridge.The first challenge on the course is Simons Fell, which tops out on the Ingleborough peak. Competitors have to run, climb and drag themselves up the side of the fell. Riders often talk about needing a rope to get to the top.
The Three Peaks race is an integral part of the United Kingdom’s cyclocross calendar, drawing locals and riders from all over the UK. The race is also becoming popular with riders from outside the U.K. Claude Sun, managing director at Team WNT explains, “It’s something special. It’s unique in the world. One of the toughest races in the world. We have riders from UK, Austria and this is our third year riding.”
This year Richard Groenendaal, former cyclocross world and Dutch national champion signed up to race the Three Peaks in 2017, but it’s the locals who dominate the race each year. “We know how to ride these conditions,” said three-time champion Paul Oldham. “Riding the terrain is what we train on, it must be hard for riders to train for this if they don’t have it on their doorstep.”
Back in the race, competitors ride across the ridge line of Ingleborough before descending back down the valley and back up the second peak, Whernside. Whernside is the toughest of the climbs on the Three Peaks parcours.
Once riders crest Whernside, they are quickly rewarded with a rapid descent. There are few paths on the descents and riders often have to choose their own lines down. Not surprisingly, these trips down the peaks are offen where riders suffer mechanicals such as punctured tires.
Even the bravest of descenders say they wish they had a downhill mountain bike for these descents, not the drop bar cyclocross bikes the rules mandate.
Before riders make the short ride out to the final Peak the iconic Ribblehead Viaduct comes into view. Here riders “dib in” and then make their way out towards Pen-y-ghent, the final of the three climbs.
Run What You Brung?
What about bike setup?
“‘You can’t prepare for it,” said Oldham. “On the uphill sections you’re running with the bike, on the downhills you wish you had a mountain bike and on the roads you wish you had a road bike. It’s brutal!”
Prior to the race, riders talk about tire choice, which may be a welcome departure from “What tire pressure are you running?” for any American riders who head across the pond for Three Peaks. Tubulars are a no-go and thick side-walled tires are a must.
Riders often have family and friends at strategic locations prepared with spare wheels, drinks and food, but for many, mechanicals happen away from the comfort of their support. It is a race that really takes a toll on riders’ bodies and gear.
Finally, Pen-y-ghent, a stalwart of the Yorkshire skyline looms large for the riders.
Once riders get to the top of Pen-y-ghent, the route has them turn around and come back the same way. Riders going up have to watch those who have already crested the final peak, while those heading down get the reverse feeling. After leaving Pen-y-ghent, riders have only a final few miles of tarmac to the finish line and perhaps the nearest pub.
In 2017, Men’s winner Paul Oldham (Hope Factory Bikes) finished the Three Peaks route in three hours and six minutes, and Women’s winner Christine Wiejak (Barrow Central Wheelers) finished in four hours and five minutes. Some riders would be on the course for another three hours, long after the winners have had their pint and headed back home.
So why do some many people keep coming back for the toughest cyclocross race in the world?
“It’s unique, there’s nothing else like it,” said Oldham.
The Three Peaks really is a special race. One you cannot experience anywhere else but in the Yorkshire Dales and one you will always tell your mates you rode.
With the 2017 Three Peaks done and dusted, riders now have time to clean their bikes, nurse their aches and start planning how they are going to make up valuable minutes in the 2018 edition.
Dan Monaghan Photo Essay: 2017 Three Peaks Cyclocross