I've taken on some epic races over the years including the Marathon des Sables, the 6633 Ultra in the Candian Arctic and numerous brutal days on the bike including the 250 km Paris-Roubaix Sportive and the Fred Whitton. Whats been the toughest is a question I've often been asked.
Well for sheer brutality and the feeling of total exhaustion at the finish, the 3 Peaks Cyclocross is well up in my rankings. I've taken it on three times and never quite got it right.
My first time, I was still living in London and I was in a state of awed shock all day. I pancaked my back wheel on the first descent, picked up five punctures and limped home in a woefully slow time a broken man. My second attempt saw me only pick up two punctures, feel an awful lot better throughout most of the race but then die a slow and painful death on the climb of Pen-Y-Ghent. I shaved a few minutes off my previous effort but still finished a traumatised wreck. 2008 saw my most recent attempt. I'd moved up to the Peak District, trained well and was feeling confident of a sub 3:30 finish. The 3 Peaks had other ideas. I crashed on the first descent, snapped off my front shifter and was stuck in my small chainring for the rest of the ride. This removed my main strength of being able to ride fast on the linking road sections and, to add insult to injury, the puncture fairies paid me three visits. I scraped under four hours, a PB but not what I'd hoped for. I'm still suffering from PPSD (Post Peaks Stress Disorder) and haven't returned but, maybe next year. If you reckon you're a handy fell runner and/or cyclist and want a real challenge, maybe the 3PCX is for you.
If you're a complete masochist, you can follow Inov-8's Matt Brown's example and take it on riding a singlespeed. Here's his account of his 2012 race, held in attrocious conditions, to inspire or warn you off.
My 3rd Three peaks CX and 2nd time riding single speed.
Last year I managed to get a pretty good time of 3hrs 45mins single speed - 5mins short of the record and 15mins faster than my time with gears two years previous!
With a good start position and a little better weather, I thought I could have easily made up the 5mins plus more. This was one race I was looking forward to!
Race day came and inevitably the weather was worse than last. Not just by a little, the course was flooded and there was a pretty strong wind with weather reports of heavy rain mid-way through the race.
My preparation hadn't been ideal either...
Two weeks before, I'd ridden the Kielder 100. After that I caught a cold and had done little or no riding in the next week. With a week to go to the event I had a MTB ride at Whinlatter, a 40mile road ride, a 30min roller session and 2 days riding into work. I'd also done a few token runs. On all of the rides my lung still weren't right and I still had a bit of cold. It was the same on the runs and I really struggled on the steeper stuff. Not great!
On race day, I woke at around 6:45, didn't feel like eating and slowly got ready and packed the van. The journey took around 40mins from Kendal with quiet roads and I arrived at 7:50. I parked up and had a walk to sign on. My first problem arose - my emergency bivi that I've used for the event the last 3 years was rejected for not being regulations. Gutted. As I had no cash to buy a 'proper big old skool orange style bivi' the kind lady at sign-on gave me one. I think she felt sorry for me...
As I was getting my dibbled confirmed, the guy didn't think I was 'Matt Brown' - he then went onto say 'FU23' - female? what? I think it's time for a hair cut.
I got back to the car after making sure I was MU23 and got my kit on. I wanted to make sure I was on the start line early enough to get a good placing. In the last two times I'd done the 3 peaks, I'd been stuck at the back.
I got to the start line about 09:00 and got talking to Phil Winskill. It was his first time and originally didn't get accepted. I even felt gutted for him knowing how much he wanted it. He then got an email saying he had a place - result. Getting closer to kick off, a lot of people started moving further and further forward… we ended up quite a way back!
And then we were off.
The first section is a lead out on a short road section. Have you ever tried to keep up with a group of riders traveling at 30-35mph? Not too bad. Stay behind someone and it's in a biggish gear. Ever tried it on a single speed with CX gearing? It's hard work. I eventually started moving further and further back.
We eventually left the road and I managed to claw some places back.We ended up crossing a river (I'm sure it wasn't there last year) and starting the climb up Simon fell. It's usually muddy, but this was very muddy. It also didn't help the steeper it got.
After the pain of Simon fell, the wind hit. Getting a little flatter, some sections were ridable. If riding, you had to struggle to stay straight. If not riding, you had to stop your back wheel from flying away.We climbed over the stile and carried on riding.
This section is pretty technical, usually where I'm fastest. The queue of people kept that at bay and we slowly freewheeled along trying to steer away from the wall.
We eventually reached the top of Ingleborough and started the descent. At this stage in the race there was still a lot of people bunched together (where I was anyway). The descent was basically a case of trying to get around them and ride away. Traffic meant I didn't have a great time but gained quite a few places moving from 123rd to 95th by the bottom. Not forgetting to showboat at Cold Cotes, I didn't stop and kept going onto the road section.
I was able to get up quite a bit of speed and spin until I couldn't make my legs go any faster. I even passed a few people with gears on this bit! I caught up to a guy with gears just as we started climbing back up and made sure to keep with him on the road section. I did a lot of the work and then he took over and let me tuck in behind. We had a tail wind but I could tell he was helping drag me along.
We turned off the road and went over the cattle grids passing the spectators and continued up to the base of Whernside. My legs were still tired from spinning on the road section so I took it easy walking to the top.The wind was even worse here, and it even started to hail! Pretty cold and miserable. Arriving at the top after losing a few places I knew the descent from Whernside was another strength of mine.
I ends up going from 93rd to 77th by the time of reaching Ribblehead. 38th fastest time. The traffic had't helped but still not a bad time.
Another long road section on the road came next and the rain started getting heavier. I ended up catching two riders and dragging them to the bottom of Pen-Y-Ghent. By this time, my legs were gone from the road sections. Fighting the wind and trying to spin too fast had killed them off. I felt like I had no power to ride the single gear up the first section of PYG. I slowly pushed the gear around not putting too much pressure on the legs. It's a long climb to the top! I got off when I needed to and took it steady. A few riders had passed me now as I took it steady away walking to the top. The wind was really blowing and I was getting pretty tired. Before leaving on the morning, I forgot my more wholesome food like cereal bars and the like so I only had 4 gels for the whole race. I'm not too good with gels and could only stomach two of them and by the point of PYG, I was feeling tired and hungry. I was relieved to reach the top, said my little speech to the mountain rescue and started my descent down PYG.
I know I got a fast time last year (I think 5th fastest) so I was aiming to overtake as many people as possible. I did have one problem. I had no brake pads left.
I had a little bit in the front, but the back didn't do anything. My spirits were high so just went for it.
I caught quite a few at the top section (where you leave the grass and go back onto the track where it gets pretty technical) and as they all got off ad started walking down the left side, I skipped passed on the right shouting "RIDER" "NO BRAKES" narrowly missing people climbing and bunny hopping over rocks. Sorry if I annoyed anyone, I genuinely couldn't stop. I managed to take the steep left hand corner a little slower and then started dodging people again. Getting off the steeper top sections I started to get a little more flow and started getting faster and faster. I remember still shouting "NO BRAKES" but now started shouting "RIDE IT LIKE YOU STOLE IT" at spectators. I was having fun. Near the bottom I caught up to another rider who I just couldn't get passed as the track narrowed. We hit the road together and he steamed off and no matter how hard and fast I spun I couldn't catch him.
My legs were tired, they felt like cramping and it was all I could do to keep them turning. I caught a rider on the road who was also suffering and managed to pass him on the incline before the descent to the finish.
I managed to get the 12th fastest time over the last section. That’s including the road section where the single speed really fails. I'd love to see a split from the top of PYG to where you hit the road. Much more in my favour!
I moved from 84th (top of PYG) to 73rd by the finish in a time of 4hrs 9mins. 4th MU23 and I'm pretty sure 1st single speed.
My slowest time from my three 3peaks and 30mins off my aim.
Even though I was gutted at the time, it was one hell of a ride and one I'll never forget.
The wind, the rain, and no brakes. I'd only eaten 2 gels and drank 1/3rd of my bottle - and to think I lugged that all the way up Simon fell!!
Anyway, there's always next year…
What have I learnt from this year?
I need discs, a lighter bike (steel is bloody heavy), better prep, a sandwich or two, ideally some support which includes giving me a bottle at Cold Cotes, and possible a bigger gear for the road sections.
And after that, then there's fixed!
Then again, may try it again with gears. But that sounds boring…
Check out Matt’s blog at http://singlespeedmatt.posterous.com/
Follow him on twitter @singlespeedmatt
If you reckon you’re tough enough for the 3PCX, go to http://www.3peakscyclocross.org.uk/
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