Blue Monday – coming back down from the Three Peaks Cyclocross

No matter how I try, I can’t just let the 3 Peaks Cyclocross happen around me. It’s not something I finish, hose the bike off, and put away on a Sunday evening.  In the same way as the build-up swallows me in each year, the gentle float back down to earth is a bitter-sweet obsession.  Like my body, my brain goes through some recovery routine each year. Slowly the endorphins subside. The Sunday evening is a callous kick-in-the-teeth of utter fatigue mixed with endless re-runs of the day’s events. And that’s just when the race goes relatively without incident.

But it’s a special race, as I keep banging on.  The without incident thing is full-on impossible in the 3 Peaks. It’s too long, complex, multi-faceted and hard. There are too many variables for it to just pass and fade away by evening.  For everyone involved, it leaves a series of stubborn bubbles floating round the brain until eventually, in my case, I’m training for the next one.

Almost to Plan.
(And yet just nothing like it.)

My pre-race blog told of how I’d dealt with the pre-race demons by asserting what I measured as control on the race.  Pre-planning wherever I could, the aim was to minimise the randoms… The bits that could mean I was going to fall off and detach my arm from my shoulder… the right gear to stop punctures… meticulously adjusted brakes, the right bikes, food, drinks in all the right places… the training (yes, even the training)  etc etc.  It all went into the melting pot and what came out was a plan.

But on the day, the thousands of other factors came into play, as they always do. Not badly, not drastically, but today is about pondering those minutiae, taking stock, and, slowly, moving on. And eating.  I’m doing a lot of eating.

First things first: I was nervous. I had reason to be nervous. 600ish cyclists of varying technical ability belting along a narrow road for the first 4 miles is something to be nervous about if your main priority is to avoid the risk of crashing.  Brakes randomly applied, twitching wheels, and general unease is inevitable. It was hard to move up and I hung about 50th place on the road.  Luck was on my side and like most I somehow approached Gill Garth and the start of the race proper intact. But nerves had definitely not subsided. My heart was in my mouth going across those fields. Not literally, but whatever it was doing and wherever it was, pumping blood into my legs was something it seemed not to be doing.  I was wasted. On the limit. Oh, bother.

Simon Fell is notoriously tough.  The worst bit of the race on the body of the entire race is over first but it’s hit at such speed that you just feel ready to submit and knock it on the head almost as soon as it’s started.  Of course, the experience of finishing 15 events helps here – vastly – and I knew that I had to just dig in and see how it all turned out.  I’d been in this situation before on Simon Fell and, whilst it’s not easy to watch people lollop away from you, there is little you can do but bide your time.

The parcours was dry and the environment nothing short of timid as Three Peaks Cyclocrosses go.  Wind speeds barely capable of lifting a tissue on top of 2,342ft summits are something to treasure. It was a good day – for everyone there and, despite my nerves and a position I wasn’t pleased with (49th to the top of Ingleborough), I felt a definite joy tinged with relief at turning left and starting the nasty, rocky descent to Cold Cotes. A small box somewhere had been ticked.


What happened next has also happened before to me. A larger cyclist – 13 stones even at fighting weight – I don’t climb brilliantly compared to many around me. I try not to make a big deal of it and get on with it. But as if by some kind of Karma deal, I do go downhill pretty quick when I’m on top of my game.  And yesterday I was on top of my game, thankfully. I caught and passed a quarter of the people in front of me during the next 12 mins and 24 seconds. I flowed pretty smoothly and squeezed every bit of course-experience I had out to dismount and remount in all the right places. Not exactly satisfying but definitely gratifying to reach the tarmac in a much better position. And intact.

Alan’s support at Cold Cotes was perfect. A very quick change and a rare freewheel over the next 2k into Ingleton, drinking and eating on the go. The children were with Bill and Jean (my in-laws) clapping me through the corner. My heart very temporarily warmed.

The next road section was the usual mix of uncomfortable pace and getting what calories you can down your neck.  It passed pretty quickly and another bike change from Angus (nephew) and Anne (Sister in Law) went smoothly at the foot of Whernside.

And Up…

Whernside itself was, like Ingleborough, remarkable for its calm serenity. No wind, no rain, just a bunch of us (ten or so hit the slope roughly together) against the hill. I dropped a couple with some over enthusiastic running and a couple went off way too fast for me – but we were all roughly intact within a minute or so at the top by the time you remount.  No cramps or anything yet.  Sore as hell and bursting at the lungs, virtually flat-lining heart rate on the max, but no cramp.  Small mercies.

… and Down

In a way, for someone supposedly worried about being stuck on the side of a mountain with a detached shoulder, I didn’t display any outward signs of taking these downhills any slower than I needed to.  In my head, I was in control.  In reality, I was possibly pushing things closer to the edge than I’d like to have thought. These things are never black and white. One slip, one bad line, a flicker of the eyes and a momentary lapse and you can so easily be railing off the side of the track and down some ditch or worse. We deal with it by focusing very hard on what we’re doing.  Where the uphills are obviously more physical, the descents, despite burning forearms and aching necks, are more a mind game. I always think back to some great coaching by Ed Oxley and a ‘cross bike is no different. I hear him whenever I’m on that knife-edge. Chin up. Eyes where you want to go. Absorb the ground. Point your chest and shoulders through the bend. It might seem subconscious, but it’s not. You need to concentrate. There’s a lovely relief on that track to Ribblehead from Blea Moor. It’s pedalling, and hard, but you can ease off with the mind-stuff.

At Ribblehead, Angus and Anne were on hand once again to give me yet another smooth change and a Planet X nose-bag.  I hit the road with a couple of good co-workers and we hurried on to Horton as best we could. The first bit of that stretch is flat / slight climbing and it takes a mile or so before you can properly start to eat.  A banana and a gel and a good drink helped me feel refreshed. Approaching Penyghent with caught (for the second time) Tim Gould – back in the race for the first time in years and just turned 50,  Tim’s been afforded many ‘legend’-type complimentary titles over the years and I always used to watch him in awe.  Riding past him having a slight mechanical on the road was weird.


Riding into Horton I’d heard someone should we were not far outside the top 20. From 49th at Ingleborough, that was starting to feel good, but there is no way that you can convince tired legs that there is anything to do but just keep on at as near you can to your limit.  Any jumps in pace now are out of the question (not that they were within me before!) – it’s every man for himself stuff for the next 35 minutes. Just do what you can, don’t look over your shoulder, and get on with it.

But then it happened. Something that knocks you from your mental pedestal and takes some getting used to. It was the mental awakening and knock-back to end them all. Digging in and grinding away on my bottom gear, Tim Gould just whips past – and I mean whips past me in a gear that must have been twice as big as mine. That 50 year old. Oh… just… oh … my poor, tired morale. Just ignore it Dave.  Try to get focused. (Tim eventually took an incredible ten places back on the final climb to finish 13th and take 14 minutes off the V50 record!).

The usual palpable relief comes not a minute too soon. A minor, barely audible ‘wohoo’  dribbles from my lips as I start the descent. Penyghent is a tough descent at the top. It’s claimed my tyres, brakes, forks and collarbone over the years. I had to regain that mental-focus-thingie that I use going downhill. But very quickly, I found something was wrong.  The chain kept bouncing off the front chainset. Strange, I thought.  Ride it back on with the mech.  Nope.  Chain now twisting.  What’s happening.  Calm down.  Get off. Check.  Put chain back on with hands. People fly by.  I’m now not gaining downhill places but losing them quicker that I could possibly have contemplated. Chain off again.  What the…. ?

It transpired that, when I got onto the flatter sections of the descent, I couldn’t turn my pedals at all.  The front chainring had somehow banana-d itself and was throwing the chain off. Now running the flatter parts of the descent and cringing at every set of wheels that belted past me, I made up what time I could on the steeper parts. Flirting with the brakes where they should have been applied more. Glancing shoulders off people coming up the climb as I passed all-too-closely trying to nab a ‘keep momentum’ line up on Horton Scar Lane. My mind was on reaching Alan and my now essential pare bike.

I grabbed the spare bike after losing just too-many depressing places. Once more, Penyghent had been cruel to me in a way I couldn’t have possibly foreseen. But there are a load of tired legs around me and just over two miles on the road left. I knew what I had to do.

Meeting at first two riders and then after a deep dig another three, I pushed on hard and get tried my best to get them to help catch one or two more.  Help was limited and I tried as hard as I could to strike out on my own.  I desperately hoped that the same tired legs behind me that couldn’t help with the chase would also be too tired to reel me back in.  A few measly seconds off the front of them was all I could scrape before they brought me back.  There are no gifts in cycling.  I had to out-maneuver them if I couldn’t out-ride them. Approaching the final S-bend to the bridge and then the finish, I kicked as hard as I could and didn’t look back.  I clipped my foot n a yellow bollard and sent it flying in the melee – but just kept my head down and finished first from the group. Some slight payback for a dreadful Penyghent, anyway, but not quite a smooth end to the day.

The moment everything changes

25th place. 3hrs 24. I think that’s my 3rd fastest of 16 finishes.

Over the line and chatting to my wife, daughters, nephew and nieces, brother, sister in law, mother in law… it dawned on me that I was there in one piece. Something I’d been anxious about even happening at all. I was entering another part of not only the day, but the year. It’s sort of over now. The prep’s gone, the cyclocross season is almost over, really. My pre-op for the next shoulder surgery is a week today. But I’ve done it. There’s ‘the season’ and then there’s ‘The 3 Peaks season’.  I’ll be happy with just the one, after having had neither last year.



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