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The Notorious PYG

Coming off PYG

Paul Hartigan (Thames Velo) writes; …or my first attempt at the 3 Peaks
Cyclocross Race, Sunday 24th September.

I suppose I should have known that any event that bills itself as ‘The
World’s Toughest Cyclocross Race’ is not going to be a push over (although
ironically it did involve much of the same).

I had entered in a moment of weakness, and up until the final week or two
in the run up to The Big Day I was feeling pretty confident. Organiser and founder
of the race John Rawnsley (who at the age of 69 years, completed his 45th attempt
this year) ‘phoned me after receiving my entry. ‘What kind of cycling
have you done, lad?’ he asked, and I told him that this year I’d done
the Flanders and Paris-Roubaix cyclosportives, had done a few Polaris events
in the past, and completed the Fred Whitton for the past three years (‘Oh,
Paul Loftus – he’s a good lad’ said John). Anyway, this seemed
to satisfy him that I wouldn’t be a complete disgrace and my entry was
sealed.

It was only once I started to read the reports of other first-timers that I
began to realise that I had maybe bitten off a bit more than I could chew, and
it’s even worse once you dip into the world of the 3 Peaks Forum. The total
absence of fell running in my training regime was starting to worry me (fell
running, in the Chilterns, with my reputation?).

Anyway, nothing for it but to drag the family up to Yorkshire for a long weekend
(6 hours on the M1 on a Friday night), do a bit of sight-seeing on the Saturday,
get not-very-much sleep on Saturday night, and rouse Mrs H and the children
at 06:30 on Sunday morning for an early breakfast, and a lift over to the start.

The start itself seemed to be populated largely by whippet-thin Yorkshiremen,
but other nationalities too – I saw Keith Bontrager, another chap from
California, who said he had been trying to get over to the event for 15 years,
and was glad to have finally made it, and a tough-looking Canadian. More than
anything though, I was amazed at how friendly everyone was – we were chatting
merrily about anything right up until the start gun, which came at 09:30 for
me as I was in the Vets category.

I had been advised to get up near the front during the first 3 or 4 miles of
the neutralised road section, so as not to get blocked in once we got to the
off-road. This was fine, just like a road race, and then we hit the trails.
As soon as I saw the gradient that was the route to the first peak, Ingleborough,
I knew that this would be a challenge. Bits were rideable, but ascending what
seemed to be rock-strewn 45° slopes with a ‘cross bike on your back
brought home one of the statistics from the 3 Peaks website ("a 38 mile
course, of which 34 is rideable (20 cross and 18 road) and 5000 feet of climbing").
So this was some of the 4 miles of non-rideable then. Still, the scenery was
superb, and I was actually enjoying myself, with plenty of ribald comments exchanged
between competitors and spectators. It was here that I was overtaken by multiple
winner, Rob Jebb (‘Let Jebby past, lad’ shouted a marshal), who was
dancing up the staggering gradient at an impossible pace, his bike casually
slung over his shoulder.

Finally checking in at the top of the first peak, it was soon the relief of
downhill, and a good descent into Cold Cotes, after which followed a stretch
of road, where I managed to get into a bit of a bunch, before the second ascent
to Peak II, Whernside. Lots more bike carrying, as we entered the cloud layer,
and a seemingly different weather system to the one we had left back at the
start. As with the previous summit, there was a group of hardy individuals at
the top, to take your number, and your plastic tag (to prove you’ve done
it – and to help in case of having to track down a lost competitor).

The visibility was poor on top of Whernside, and some competitors were heading
off for the descent in the wrong direction before being ‘gently’ reminded
of the right way to go by the marshals (the ‘wrong’ direction would
have got them down a lot sooner though). I found coming off Whernside tricky
– lots of slippy slabs, and sharp-edged drainage ditches made it technically
hard work for me to ride down, and after seeing a number of crashes, I took
the safer option of walking/running/scrambling down, until we reached easier
terrain, and although this did cost me dearly in time, at least I knew I would
get round in once piece! Thus, I eventually reached Ribblehead – where
there were big crowds of spectators and helpers – lots of people carrying
spare wheels, bikes and drinks.

Up, down, up, down, up, down – ouch, argh!

However the stated 4 miles of non-rideable was moving towards double that figure
for me at this right. And my marathon running days feature only in my most distant
past.
Keen therefore to make up some time, I pressed on during the next road section
to the best of my ability, stopping only to retighten my headset which had become
a bit lose during an earlier rocky section.

Pretty soon, the notorious Pen Y Ghent (PYG) revealed itself on the horizon.
Peak III seemed to be unfeasibly far from ground level. ‘Are we going up
that?’, I said to the rider next to me on the road in. ‘Yes’,
he replied ‘but it’s not as much yomping as the last two’. And
it wasn’t – the track was more circuitous, but was more of a gradual incline
– making significant sections of it do-able with me sitting in the saddle,
somewhat of a novelty for the off-road sections of this ‘race’.

My delight was countered though by the fact that at this point my Camelbak
ran dry, and I was down to my emergency Mars bar for food. Eating a Mars when
you’re parched is a novel experience. However, I was offered a grape (‘Only
one – we’ve got to ration them’) half way up the ascent. You
don’t get that in the Surrey League. As I neared the peak, I was back to
walking, but was delighted to hand in my final tag at the final checkpoint.
At this stage, I was so tired that braking on the descent seemed to take up
far too much energy, making this my best – and fastest – downhill
section by far, my tiredness overcoming my lack of skill.

The final stretch of road was soon reached, and in that funny way where you
get an energy surge with the finish is in sight, I rode at probably my fastest
pace for the whole event, into Horton-in-Ribblesdale, and soon turned in to
the Finish, to pick up my 45th Anniversary medal, and to meet my family. There
was even a hot shower available with no queue. I got round in 5 hrs 44 mins.
I had secretly been aiming for around 4 to 4 _ hours, but was still pleased
with myself for finishing – this is a tough day out.

Will I do it again? Yes, definitely. Will I prepare differently? Absolutely
– some running (hills especially) I think for me at least would make a
difference. I’d also probably some more forgiving gear ratios at the bottom
end – maybe 34/28 – to give me a bit longer in the saddle on the off-road
ascents. But the biggest area for me to practice on will be descending the kind
of terrain that you wouldn’t really think twice about on an MTB, but which
I found much more taxing on my ‘cross machine. It’s also the only
bike race I’ve done where I’ve ended up with blisters.

All in all, the 3 Peaks is a truly superb, well organised, unique, slightly
surreal and baffling event – I can thoroughly recommend it, and already
can’t wait until next year.
Paul Hartigan

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