3 Peaks Cyclocross 2011 - Singlespeed
Twitter is a very dangerous piece of technology. It can get you into all sorts of trouble as many a tweeting politician will attest. However, it’s not only those who tweet that are at risk, followers put themselves in the line of fire as well. I obsessively follow cyclists. I shouldn’t, because the vast majority of them simply tweet their middle class credentials all day long. Inanely informing me of the latte they crave or the Ella Fitzgerald track that’s just been played on Radio Two. But once in every while there’s a danger-tweet;
“Entries now open for the 2011 Three Peaks Cyclocross ->[link to online entry]”
Why did I even bother to read it? I’ve never ridden a cyclocross event in my life. I don’t possess a cyclocross bike and all I knew about this event was that it is supposed to be quite hard. I’m still unsure as to why I opened the online entry webpage and am completely and utterly stumped as to why I filled it all in. I was vaguely aware that it is oversubscribed every year so what chance did I have of getting in?
To make matters worse, I was presented with a box along the lines of “Why should we let you race if you’ve never done it before?”. I haven’t raced anything for years, so I scratched out a few palmeres from the past that I hoped would cover my entry. Some of these may have been “bigged up” a little.
- Podium finish in SITS 24 hour race (sixth mens pairs actually, but Pat Adams did get us on the podium and give us racing jerseys as a prize)
- Hill climb championship winner (local road club, no more than 15 entries)
- High placed in international alpine gran fondo (ninety forth …. but 1000 entries)
I didn’t hold up much hope to be honest and forgot all about it. Until a month or so later I received an email telling me that I was in. Cough up the race fee now or lose the place. The email was opportune. I’d spent months riding hard road routes in a vague attempt to turn them into a book. Cycling had morphed into work and the only variety lay in the scenery and route. I needed a little bit of light relief, so what better than the hardest cyclocross race in the UK to break it all up a little. Twenty three credit card digits later and I was committed. Time to go looking for a bike.
The rules for 2011 were quite clear:-
“This race is for CYCLO-CROSS BIKES WITH DROP HANDLEBARS ONLY.”
Optimistically I opened the garage door and checked each of the fleet in turn for suitability.
Three flat barred mountain bikes failed scrutineering immediately. Two road bikes looked keen but were clearly too light and too expensive to venture off road. The kid’s bikes all hid , leaving only one suitable candidate, a dropped barred singlespeed hack bike with cantis, my On-One Pompino.
Singlespeed would be nuts though. Looking at the race route there was 5000 feet of climbing and surely some of this must be in the saddle? Furthermore the bike was running a 48:16 ratio, I can hardly get up my drive on that let alone Yorkshire hills. The bike had no gear hangers so adding derailleurs would be a pain. I googled hub gears, subtracted prices from my bank balance and was forced back to the garage by a set of negative numbers. Singlespeed, could I do it? More googling. A guy I knew had ridden fixed a few years back! I dropped him a line to ask for advice and it came in spades.
“You’ll be alright Dave, it’s doable if you make the cut-offs. But for f**ks sake don’t try and ride on 48:16”
Cut-offs! Great. I projected forward to the humiliation I would feel as an unbending grim northern marshall held up a flat hand to an exhausted naive singlespeeder then pointed to the showers. The pressure was beginning to mount. Not only did I have to ride on one gear, I had to maintain a reasonable speed if I was to tick the finish.
The next few weeks followed an interesting cycle. I’d take the Pompino out for a off-road blast and buoy myself up. Returning home I’d be full of a future where crowds parted to cheer the macho singlespeeder home reveling in the awe of his thighs. Then I’d speak to someone who knew a mate who’d done it. Phrases like “It’s nails” were uttered and heads would be shaken when I mentioned one gear. I’d pick up snippets on the internet that would reinforce this view. Self doubt would magnify and turn inward. Why was I doing this? I don’t even like cyclocross. What’s the point in going off-road without gears? I’ll hurt myself and never finish writing this book.
It came to a head a week before the race. All my training said I’d be “OK”. I’d managed near 100k rides off-road with hardly a walk. I was pretty fit and coping with riding reasonably technical stuff downhill. But the devil on my shoulder told me I’d fail. Late one evening I sent this email to the organiser:-
I may not be able to make the race due to a commitment in Northumberland. Do you have a reserve list of riders and could somebody take my place”
Cowardly shite. The commitment was of my own making and could be put off. I was looking for a way out before I’d even tried and hoping I’d get a “don’t worry sonny someone else can ride” reply. John wrote back:-
“There’s no reserve riders. Your name’s in the programme”
Terse but exactly the swift hobnailed boot up the arse that I deserved. It took me back to a round of the national XC that I’d spectated at. An elite rider realised he was being caught by lesser mortals and so he packed. At interview he gave this excuse;
“The fans don’t want to see me ride like that so I stopped”
“You arsehole” I fumed. You should have finished, lesser riders were going to beat you today and that’s what they deserved. You’ve subverted their right to battle past and properly gain another place. Now I’m no elite rider, but I owed it to those who were going to beat me and those who’d missed out on a place. My name was in the programme. I’d not get to see it unless I took part. One line of text and memories of a distant XC race proved more powerful than any training ride. Fuck it, I’m going. If I fail I can at least point to the gears as an excuse, but I’d struggle to cope with the failure to even have a go.
Saturday 24th September 2011. I drove my motorhome into the campsite at Knight Stainforth and parked up. The Pompino was dragged from the van and briefly inspected:-
- seattube foam present - check
- 39:16 gearing set-up and working -check (slight grindy noise from freewheel but we’ll live with that)
- front tyre inflated to 100psi - check
- rear tyre inflated to 100psi - shit, there appears to be about 20? Great! the valve on the new slime tube is knackered
- rear tube replaced with standard road tube - check
- rear wheel looking bloody stupid as only available road tube had deep section valve on it -check
- adjustable seat collar present - check (I’d out fox those cyclocross types on the descents by lowering my saddle, an old mountain bike trick)
- left hand crank still tightly on the spline - check (it had developed the worrying habit of undoing itself on training rides.Typically, I actually did something about this the night before the race by applying threadlock)
I put the bike back in the van. Ate some tea then promptly felt ill. From nowhere a mixture of nausea and head cold appeared, frustrating as hell as I’d only just ditched a cold. I attempted to mitigate by drinking lots and going to bed early. This resulted in a sleepless sweaty night and seven toilet visits. I should have remembered. There’s never been a pre-race night when I’ve slept like a log. I toss, turn, worry, sweat and conjure up all sorts of strange thoughts that are about as motivational as a Gordon Brown speech.
But oddly the four hours sleep I did get seemed to work. I awoke on race day feeling refreshed. The phantom illness had morphed into a sweaty duvet allowing me to attack breakfast with zeal. The attack and strong coffee prompted a further three more extended toilet visits, but by 7.45am I was packed and ready to ride the the race. Skies were grey as I pedaled towards Helwith Bridge, however, I dismissed them in favour of the national weather forecast that suggested clement weather and a lack of serious rain.
Registration was smooth. I’d read the rules and presented my orange plastic survival bag, whistle and waterproof. Others tried to negotiate with space blankets and ignorance. The organisers were unbending and replaced protests with a bag sold for a bargain four pounds. In fact registration was far too smooth and I was done by 8:01am with the race scheduled to begin at 9:30. I scouted around for a few friends and shared some merry banter mostly at the expense of my gears.
Then it began to rain. We trouped to the start where a set of yellow placards awaited us. Each had a time range inscribed upon it and we were asked to stand near the card that represented our estimated finish time. Half the field had piled to the front and were looking to finish in under four hours. I crapped myself a little bit. FOUR HOURS! I was aiming for six. I’d be chuffed with 5.30 and anything higher was inconceivable for a singlespeed newbie like me. I mentioned this to fellow rider Clare. “Don’t get left at the back, Dave”, she advised, “You’ll be queuing at the first ascent”.
I shuffled forward to four hours fifteen. It felt fake, I highly doubted my ability to finish so fast. I was there to survive, no pretensions to race. Many more minutes of hanging about in the rain passed by. Jacket went on then off then on then off and back in the pack. The drizzle was falling but it felt warm and I hate stopping to faff. I gambled that the weather would clear but the time for fretting was gone as the race set off and the riders in front of me clipped in.
The race instructions say the following:-
“The first 5.5 kms will be escorted. Competitors will ride behind the lead car. Any rider passing or attempting to pass the lead car will be disqualified”
I’d expected a 5k warm up at a nice steady pace. The opposite happened and I would suggest the race organisers rephrase the above mentioned paragraph:-
“The first 5.5 kms will be escorted. Competitors will ride behind the lead car. Any rider passing or attempting to pass the lead car will qualify for the British Olympic track pursuit team”
I reckon I had 30 seconds of easy pedaling to the bridge then it all kicked off. Suddenly my cadence was in the 200rpm area as I fought tooth and nail to stick to the wheel in front. “Fuck me we’re doing 27mph!” I heard. didn’t I know it. Within one mile I was at lactate threshold just trying to hold on. “A hill, a hill….my kingdom for a hill” I thought, anything to make the furious spinning stop. Less than five minutes into the race and I wanted to get off. Fortunately a gradient intervened and the big ring boys went backwards a bit. Shifters went off around me like a swarm of cicadas. I had no choice but to stand and gurn. They were clicking, I was stamping but the lack of gears forced me to climb hard and I gained places as we climbed all too briefly.
It was 6km before we headed off road for the first time. Marshals harried us into line and over a cattle grid, funneling us out onto the moor. Two riders beside me discussed the best place for a beer. I envied their casual conversation, my mind was shouting, “Survive! survive! survive!”. The course struck out onto increasingly inclined moorland. We rode a bit, carried a bit, rode, carried, rode, pushed, carried. Our objective was hidden in the mist, the steep climb of Simon Fell.
In my mind gears played no advantage over this section. Conditions were poor and traction only really available to water based lifeforms. I maintained my position within the group as we thrutched our way up to the wall that is Simon Fell. This climb is a three peaks legend. Countless pictures are captioned “The camera is not tilted” as riders are shown carrying their bikes up a 45 degree slope. I doubt they’ll be many pictures this year. The mist shrouded us as we shouldered and made our way up. Banter stopped, replaced by breathing. I’ve never been surrounded by so much breathing. It was everywhere.
The ground was wet and horribly steep. I focused on each footstep. Find a foothold, press gently, then extend, look for the next. Riders were slipping and falling, clutching at clumps of grass to arrest their descent. Others dragged themselves up the wire fence to the left. Step, push, breath, step, push breath. Singlespeed, gears? it makes no odds here. all that matters is weight, muscles and lungs.
I lost myself for a bit, focused on the task. It was over sooner that I’d thought it would be, the sense of relief was immense. One three peaks legend out of the way, three more to go.
Next we fought our way to the top of Ingleborough. Sometimes we rode, but conditions were wet, boggy and terrible. I’d describe it as more of a forwards slip than riding. Mostly we pushed and carried. I’d certainly have welcomed a lower gear but to this point 39:16 was survivable and not many were riding by me. A white line had been laid to guide us to the top. We needed it! The cloud was right down and visibility was close to nil. I found this helped as I concentrated on my local predicament rather than what faced me ahead.
Over one hour into my race I made my first dib (sportident transponder into timing system). At the top of Ingleborough I clocked 1:08:08, turned and faced the decent. I had no idea of my time, I’d left all timing devices in the van. But something odd had happened. “Survive” had been replaced by “Race”. I felt in a pretty good state, things ached but there were no real complaints. The bike was riding without issue and I seemed to be maintaining my place in the bunch. Time to head down. Time to show these “cross boys” what descending is all about.
Actually, it wasn’t. The descent from Ingleborough was a right mess. No obvious lines, deep peaty sections, messed up ruts and varying abilities of rider. Sometimes the hazard was on the ground in front of you, other times it was the rider who’d made a poor choice or decided to stop and carry. “Race” flipped back to “Survive” and I descended with care, saddle dropped, arse back, brakes covered.
“Thee’s gam riding them gears laddo, or stupid”
I think that’s what he said. “Both”, I laughed back. The comments had come thick and fast from the start, everything from “Are you fixed?” to “I was planning on riding singlespeed this year”. I tired a bit of “You’ve forgotten your gears mate” but had to laugh at “Your back wheel’s going round..just”. Riding singlespeed stimulated a certain amount of banter, but not much.
I was struck by how focused all of the riders were on their race. In other events I’d experienced more of a laid back attitude, but this seemed pretty serious. Riders only stopped when punctures or rocks forced them to. There wasn’t much chat and if you eased up at any point a body on a bike would shoot by. As the descent eased I wound back into the race and could hear the encouraging crowds as I caught sight of the marshaling point at Cold Cotes.
A brief stop for a second dib, then a sketchy descent onto the road watched and cheered by many.
Someone shouted “Nicely done Swindon Road Club”.
“Thank you”. “Thank you” whoever you are and even if it was a lie. Another single line of shouted text that spurred me on. I stuck the head down, cadenced myself up and hammered out over 10km of road with a prevailing wind. This section felt good, there was enough climbing to keep the big ring boys at bay and I felt that I kept my position in the race. Occasionally I’d work with a rider and often lose them as the road went up. My road training and single gear paid dividends for this section. I had time to eat and catch up on my drinking which had gone into arrears climbing up to Ingleborough. I made the first cut-off at Chapel-le-Dale with nearly an hour to spare, I had no idea of this at the time.
Next, the climb up to Whernside. I’ve sat for ages stopped at this paragraph trying to remember it. All that comes back is steps. I think we started up a loosely surface lane that was hard going on the singlespeed and then I remember a brief descent followed by a carry up stone steps. I could cheat and search the internet for another’s account, but this is meant to be a dump from my mind. So steps it shall be. Loads of them and steep in places. Carrying was beginning to hurt now, I shut myself off for a while and listened to my breathing instead. Keep it rhythmical, don’t draw too hard, align it to your footsteps. I think we rode briefly before the steep and loose finish to the top. Can’t remember as a single statistic was going through my mind. 66% of peaks done at the top of this one. 66.666% of peaks done, 33.3333% to go.
Forgetting the ascent is possible but the descent from Whernside will always occupy a small corner of my memory, labelled frustration mixed with indecision. The descent started loose and rutty before morphing into more steps. At first the steps were easily rideable and the frustration came from those in front who’d get off and force me to brake just when I was getting into the swing. Then the steps got bigger. I could ride them, but I wasn’t sure about the wheels. Thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk. Four steps, four big hits. Four moments of “Is the wheel really going to take this?”. So I stopped and became the frustratee instead of the frustrated.
Fortunately the steps gave way to track and it was rideable. I sneaked up upon the wheel of another rider who appeared to know his way down. I agreed with all of his line choices and decided to follow. Suddenly a little bit of fun had crept in. He was blissfully unaware of the service he provided as I abdicated some line choice to him and his bike. We were off the fell in no time. Another dib and a view of Ribblehead Viaduct.
An overheard start line conversation had started something like this:-
“I love it when I see the viaduct at Ribblehead, it’s then I know I am going to make it”
I would have liked to gently shake the speaker by the throat as I faced 10 kilometers on the road into the wind on my own. The field was well split by now and not matter how fast I windmilled I couldn’t catch the riders up the road. Others who caught me passed, I struggled to get the singlespeed into any kind of rhythm and strangely yearned for some off road to slow me down and give me some rest. If only I knew what was coming, I’d have sat up and enjoyed the tarmaced view. As it was I ate drank and moaned to myself until Horton and a drastic turn to the left.
The track to Pen-y-Ghent started shallow but kicked up after a few hundred metres. Not so bad with a 32 teeth cog at the back, but sheer terror on the singlespeed. Up until this point I’d only really wanted higher gears, but now I was begging my front ring to shrink and rear to expand. I had to dig real deep to drag the bike up this climb and caught two riders ahead. They were spinning away on lovely low gears and a leisurely pace. I was forced to slow by the narrow lane and riders descending on the right. Slowing down increased the pain. I needed to attack the climb and keep my cadence high, but congestion prevented this.
Climbing slowly on a singlespeed is purgatory. It stretches and strains the leg muscles until they sing, a silent melody that screams loud in the brain of whom they are attached. Pedal faster is the only remedy, but when there’s traffic ahead you’ve no option but live with the song. I managed to pass a few riders early on the climb but downhill traffic increased and we were forced to single out as we climbed. Pain pain pain, I wanted the cycling to stop. I yearned for a walk but the track was too shallow and I’d lose too many places. Everyone else was riding and so shall I, slowly grinding my way up the hill.
There were comments from aside, encouragement, disbelief, “dig deep, dig deep”. I am fucking digging deep, can’t you see that? A rocky corner forced us off for a brief walk, up ahead I saw the carriers, halleebloodyuya a carry. I can’t believe I was looking forward to a carry. This is why you don’t do the three peaks on a singlespeed. It’s these few kilometres near the end that will disassemble your legs into component parts and hand them back to you neatly displayed on mother’s best china.
A bit more climbing, gurning, thrutching and finally I’m allowed to get off and sling the bike over my shoulder. The walk up Pen-y-Ghent has begun and not a moment too soon. We solemnly march silently up the steepening path, picking our way over to the rocky traverse. The cloud is still down and I have no idea as the distance to the top, but I don’t care. I’m free of the pedals. I listen to the metronomic clatter of my cleats upon the stones. Click click another metre, click click another metre. How I envy the riders bouncing down to my right. They’re nearly done, I still have god-only-knows-what of this climb ahead of me.
The traverse melds into the hill and begins to flatten. I’m able to drop the bike and push it a while and then I hear the voices in the clouds. “Cooomonthaleetleboogerthasnarlydooonit”, I think it’s Yorkshire for “Well done old chap the summit is in sight” and it was. Four men holding timing devices have never looked so beautiful. I’m on my own and spoilt for choice. I ask them which is the better looking, they point at the big guy with a hat. He gets my dib and nearly got a kiss, but his eyes ward me away as I turn, mount and ride my bike down off the hill.
It starts boggy, then steeps as I ride above the rocky traverse. Like some perverse cliched movie ending the sun has come out as I make my way down. Round a steep corner and onto the rocky track, I’m picking up speed now and loving the trail I previously learnt to hate. But I say to myself, “concentrate, concentrate, concentrate”. This is not the time for a puncture, this is not the time for an off. Keep it together and enjoy the way down. Others pass, I’m tempted, but listen to the voice. I’m not sure whether I’m controlled or mincing. All I know is that I want to finish now, I’ve done all the bloody hard work so deserve my reward. A last steep nervous bounce down the track then it’s the road.
I check with the engine room to see if it’s OK to engage the legs. The message comes back to give them a try, four stiff pushes and the news is good, we’ll probably make it home. I spin up the single gear and set the rider in front in my sights. A young lad screams past then sits up wreathed in pain. He clutches his right calve, teeth bared eyes wild. Cramp. No time for sympathy from me I’m afraid as we’re nearly home and he’ll make it. But the lad in my sights is getting away. The final three kilometres prove to be cruel. They stretch into what feels like ten and I’m passed a few more times as the gradient favours the big ring.
Finally the bridge, I sense a rider behind and give it full gas. I’ve given up enough to geared riders already let me finish at least one position higher and I do. Five metres of loose shale and it’s my final dib. I ask for my time but the holder hasn’t a clue. We’re shepherded into a tent and robbed of our timing devices and numbers. A small piece of paper is thrust into my hands.
It looks like a shopping receipt. But for once I’m elated with the number at the bottom. Four two four two seven. You can write that number on my grave, soon you’ll probably be able to rob my bank account with it. I’ll never forget it. I set out to finish the ride and hopefully get in under 6. This time was never even contemplated. I want to run round punching the air and giving out high fives, but this is Yorkshire, so I eek out a wry smile and feign indifference as I exit the tent.
The celebrations come as I meet up with friends. Two of them are hurt, Andy’s hurt badly and smashed up his face, but he gaffer taped himself up and got back on his bike. We all marvel at the brutality of the event and smile the smiles of plane crash survivors who’ve walked out alive. I share a beer then get back on the bike and grind up the hill back to the van.
The sun’s out and it’s time to reflect.
Firstly the race. It’s best described as “properly northern”, hard as nails and ridden by riders who are equally tough. Nick Craig won it in 3 hours 8 minutes. He could have showered, dressed, cooked dinner, hoovered and laid the table in the time it took for me to catch him up. There are no fatty sportive riders on incongruous carbon bikes here. I was passed by big fellas and whippets alike. The grim air of determination pervades, it’s a race and everyone I rode with were determined to show me their arse.
Next the singlespeed decision. If I had a geared cross bike, I’d ride it. Riding singlespeed simply turns the hardness wheel up a couple of notches. For sure, the bike is easier to clean and you get the odd admiring glance but a large number of riders will finish before you. I’d never attempt it unless properly fit. Self depreciation aside, I climb like a goat at the moment and I suffered on the track to Pen-y-Ghent. There’s no grace in a grimace (actually there is) and I’m dreading the photos that feature rider number 473.
Would I do it again? Writing this with sore knees, bruises, chainring scars on my legs and the aftermath of dehydration, probably not. But next year I’ll be idly browsing Twitter, *that* tweet will pop up and I’ll have to fight a very strong urge. A little blue bike in the garage will be whining like a dog needing a walk.