While many will be glued to the small screens during the wee hours to tune into the great battle for the UCI Road World Championships titles this weekend, for others on home turf their attention and focus will lie much closer to home.
As British as a Friday night tikka masala washed down with warm beer, as tough to chew on as an old Brooks saddle, almost as mad as bog snorkelling and as sketchy as cheese rolling with roller skates on, it can mean only one thing: it’s Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross weekend.
Is it the greatest off-road bike race on earth? It may not have the muddy gore or the sand-blasted glitz of the great Belgian cyclo-cross classics, the mass participation numbers of the big US gravel events or the miles of the epic marathon mountain bike races, and yet this quintessentially British affair well and truly holds its own. 'The Peaks' has a home-baked reputation that has simmered through the decades in marquee tents with flavouring from Yorkshire Tea and homemade cakes, and it truly is unique within the world of cycling.
It is arguably the toughest cyclo-cross in the world, and most definitely a race quite unlike any other out there, thus comparison makes about as much sense as black pudding...
Held annually at the end of September (apart from 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19 and twice more earlier this century due to foot and mouth outbreaks) the race is staged in the wild, boggy and windswept Three Peaks region of Yorkshire, and is loosely based on the route and ethos of the trail race bearing the same name.
On average some 600 cyclists manage to score a prized entry for this race each year. It plays out on a mix of small roads and open moorland trails, which have varying degrees of harshness: there’s fast rolling and heavy road riding, lots of tough, sluggish and boggy riding, rough and rocky trails, epic uphill bike pushes and carries and so much more to be endured along the 38-mile route that runs out from, around, and then back to Helwith Bridge.
Needless to say, the course includes the famous Three Peaks of the region: Ingleborough (723 meters), Whernside (738 meters) and Pen-y-Ghent (694 meters).
The race was first held in 1961, when its founder and long-time organiser, the late John Rawnsley, fittingly took the honours. John was very much the life force behind the classic event, and was largely responsible for preserving its low and key yet high profile status during the 50 years that he organised the race, also competing in 45 of those editions himself.
Sadly John passed away late in 2019, which makes the first race since his death all the more poignant.
What makes the Three Peaks so special?
The Peaks means different things to so many riders. To some, simply taking part and finishing is a bucket list achievement ticked off; for others, it’s a near lifelong obsession and quest for glory.
Those who have mastered its raucous ways have generally done so after many years of tough love and apprenticeship on the job, earning their scars and bruises with true Yorkshire grit, which is what it takes to become a champion of this great race.
This is often a race where experience prevails over youthful flare and exuberance, and since the turn of the century only three names have appeared on the men’s Three Peaks Trophy. All three are now over 45 years of age, and all will be in Yorkshire this weekend, one way or another...
Yorkshire-based champion fell runner-turned cyclist Rob Jebb, aged 47, has a staggering 12 victories in the event to his name, marking him out clearly as the greatest Peaks racer of all time.
As he fine-tuned his act for this year's race, we asked Rob what it means to him.
“I guess it’s just so unique, racing your bike over three mountains on dropped handlebars and skinny tyres", he says.
“I dreamed of maybe winning it once, but to win 12 is a bit surreal. Who knows if I will win another, Father Time waits for no one! I would love to win, but equally I’m happy with my past achievements.”
Nick with Rab Wardell (right) who sadly died in August (image via Twitter)
53-year-old Nick Craig from Derbyshire is a multiple national cyclo-cross and mountain bike champion, and three-time winner of the Peaks with his first victory dating way back to 1991. Staggeringly he’s rarely been too far from the podium in this race ever since then, and this year again he starts with a long shot of making it number four.
Nick’s heritage and his motivation when lining up for this race are both humbling, and we caught up with him as he prepped his bikes for the big day:
“It’s such an amazing atmosphere, like no other cycling event. Before, during, and especially afterwards.
“It’s cyclo-cross, but it’s such a combination of different things: walking, riding and hanging on to an inappropriate bike.
"You’re never actually on the right bike. On the downhills you want a mountain bike, on the road you want a road bike, on the gravel you want a gravel bike. And going up Simon Fell, you don’t even want a bike!”
Nick’s dad Ian was also a two-time winner of the race: “Having won in 1991 when my dad was still alive meant so much to me, as we’d ridden the previous four years of the Peaks together, which was where I worked out how to win.
“The first step was beating my dad, which happened one year before I won. It was a very wet and cold day and I had my cape on when descending Pen-y-Ghent. I stopped and handed my cape to my dad for his ascent. At this time he was in the early stages of leukaemia, which took his life in 1995.”
Nick’s determination to keep going for Peaks glory cuts even deeper than most could imagine. Having tragically lost his son Charlie a few years back, a young lad who was all set to continue the Craig family tradition in this great race, Nick now rides under the Ride for Charlie foundation banner, raising funds and creating awareness of health monitoring and offering support for young riders.
“What is hard, and a reason I‘m still going, is that Charlie told me he wanted to win it one day," says Nick.
"He had a plan that he had already started in 2016, by running Pen-y-Ghent. He said that when he’d recced it he’d be old enough to race for the Ian Craig Trophy for first junior, That’s now the Ian & Charlie Craig Trophy.”
Lancashire lad Paul Oldham, 45, is a four-time Peaks champion. For the past 10 editions of the race victory has been shared between Paul and his Hope Factory Racing teammate, and arch Peaks rival, Rob Jebb: “Yeah, the Three Peaks is a funny race," says Paul
"I didn’t enjoy it when I was younger, but as I got older it became more appealing.
“I was surprised by how highly regarded it is in cycling. I’m referred to as the “former Three Peaks champion” rather than former national champion!”
Sadly Paul will not be in the hunt for glory this year: “This year was never going to happen for me. It’s too much running and too risky for a crash. I’m only just over six months since having a full hip replacement.”
Even so, in Peaks terms he still has age and experience on his side.
"I don’t know if I can ever win it again, but I’ll definitely be back to riding it at some point.”
In the meantime Paul will be out there learning the inner workings of his nemesis from the pit side: “I’ll be up there helping the team.
"Hopefully Rob Jebb can make it 13 wins. I don’t think 12 wins will ever be equalled, he is the best ever Peaks rider by far!”
Voices from the mist
The long and winding Peaks story and its soul run deep for many others too, including Tim Gould who with six victories to his name, was the benchmark Peaks champion before Rob Jebb came along.
“Back in the day the Peaks was always featured heavily in the magazines, and it was toying with becoming an international race with having a Swiss team and a GB team" says Tim.
“The organiser used to run a training weekend of the course a couple of weeks before the race, which was the only time apart from during it that you could practice.
"Even as a 16-year-old I could keep up with the lead riders, which sowed a seed in my mind that it was a race I could do well in.”
Tim moved to mountain biking during that era, and went on to become one of the best in the world; yet after retirement it was the Peaks that lured him back to action:
“I decided to make my 50+ comeback in the Three Peaks, because I thought it would be easier to start with a race that was more stamina oriented.
"I set off reasonably steady, and consequently I had quite a lot more energy left for the last peak and was able to gain a lot of places and finish strongly, in a record time for 50+ riders.”
Tim finished fifth overall that year.
“Going into the race my only ambition was that race, but I enjoyed it that much that the next week I bought another cyclo-cross bike, and so I had a spare for the rest of the season.”
After making his mark on the 50+ national cyclo-cross and MTB scenes for a while, Tim was forced back into competitive retirement by health reasons, but his name lives on in Peaks history.
The race is also unusual in cycling terms, because it has included a women's category since 1979. Since then, female competitors have lined up with the men and race every last mile.
Sue Clarke (nee Thomas) won the woman’s race in 1998 and 2000. She remembers: “It’s such a unique race, I last raced it in 2000, and the atmosphere was amazing.
"It was a big mass start along with the men. From elite racers to regular riders simply out to finish the course, there’s a real camaraderie.”
“The first time I rode I remember looking up and seeing a huge line of riders carrying their bikes and disappearing into the mist. That was a real eye-opener for me. The race just cannot be compared to anything else.
“At the time I only had one bike and used heavy hybrid tyres, and still punctured three times! I fixed them myself because sponsorship didn’t stretch to spare wheels.
"I would have killed to see how far I could push regarding the course record by using today’s equipment and with support. Maybe I will have another blast out there, one of these days.”
In 2019 World Tour rider-turned endurance racer Lachlan Morton raced the Peaks as his first ever cross, and finished fourth.
He said of the race: “That event, it’s so unique. What is it? It’s kind of a bike race, but you spend half of your time on your feet, and you’re never on the right bike. It’s just such a challenge on so many levels.
“The thing I like most is that you have to know it; you have to learn it. It’s not like you can look at profile and say I get this.”
“I just had a blast being involved in it. It’s just so absurd from my perspective; but for the people who do it year in year out, it’s an institution. And, from doing it one time I totally get it.
"I’m just itching to go back. It definitely got under my skin.”
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