Thursday 25 July 2013

A 3 Peaks Cyclocross survival guide

After the flurry of excitement in early June that is the lottery of how to obtain a Three Peaks Cyclocross entry, my Inbox has been reasonably inundated with anxious newcomers to the race asking how best they might prepare.

So without giving away too many trade secrets, and with all the hard work still to be done by the individual, here is my potted guide to getting round, or hopefully fully racing the hardest cyclocross race on the planet.

Into worsening weather up Simon Fell during the 2012 race


For me there are 3 main elements of specific fitness for the Peaks which distinguish it from fitness for a long hilly road sportive, for example, where threshold stuff is important and endurance essential.

Firstly, condition your body for the battering it is going to get - core fitness, upper body strength and endurance are all important as you are on and off your bike, picking it up for stiles/carrying/rocks etc on a fairly constant basis. If you have good overall conditioning, great but as most don't naturally have this, long off road rides help in this respect. Core work or visits to the gym will also pay dividends in the later stages of the race as your body really takes a good all-over battering from carrying, on and off stuff as well as the ubiquitous rough descents with a vaguely unsuitable bike.

Secondly, there is the running thing. Except for mortal folks like you and I, as distinct from Jebby/Craig et al, it is not running. It's trudging. If you like running, then run as it won't hurt your performance. More importantly though, make sure you are also trudging around carrying your bike as much as possible. Your shoulder will take a beating in the race, but it can be conditioned over time to withstand it. Hill reps carrying the bike, running or fast walking and a good deal of long carries on those long rides will all pay dividends over pure running training. Every time.

Lastly, many people struggle on the transition from riding (often after the road sections) to trudging climb. And back again to riding. I'm convinced that that was behind many of the cramp issues I used to have but have largely solved now. Think triathlete brick session - go for a ride and finish it running or walking up a steep hill. Better still, find a circuit which involves riding then running/walking then riding. Like mine and Dave Haygarth's Bull Hill sessions (below). Practice that on and off and on again stuff and it will pay dividends too.

I also do rides with off-road bits then hammer out a road section then more off-road. Gets you used to the rhythm of the race. But in the race, be careful you don't go mad on the road sections (see below).


Long cage rear mechs and dinner plate cassette are a definite advantage - think SRAM wifli or a mountainbike mech. A one-to-one gearing ratio is good only on Penyghent (nowhere else) but how good it is! I run 34 front and 32/34 rear. It's heaven up the Penyghent track when you are simply wasted. Elsewhere it is not much use as it's quicker jogging or you are walking. If you are on a 2 bike strategy, you can run 34 x 28 on the bike for the first 2 peaks and then swap to the crawler bike at Ribblehead.

Often people like to pad the top tube for comfortable carrying, sometimes using their orange survival bag. Personally I don't like it as for me it makes the bike harder to carry and I would argue that good carrying technique and some long rides will sort out the inevitable aches. Your call...

With tyre choice, punctures and sidewall rips are the big risk. You can reduce the puncture risk somewhat by using tubulars, 34mm ones at that. Artisan products from Dugast and FMB are risky unless they are the latex walled ones - instead use Grifo, Gommitalia, Tufo which are cheaper and often suitably general in tread performance. With tubulars you have the option to ride a bit on a puncture - it will probably trash the tub but can keep you moving till you pick up a spare wheel or bike. I have used clinchers too - only thick sidewalled ones (Schwalbe Landcruisers, Kenda Cross, Maxxis Locust) - but never tubeless. Some top riders are using tubeless with success, but I am not really qualified to comment on how good that set up is.

Pressure wise, go for 65psi in your tubs (or a little more) but check they will stand that sort of pressure. For clinchers look toward 70psi or even a little higher. Carry gas cannisters for easy inflation of a new tube but best of all don't puncture. The number of times I have had riders shouting to blast through on rocky sections only to hear the inevitable 'psssst' a few moments later.... Get down smoothly and with flow, not in a tearing hurry, and you and your machine will be in one piece, and not broken.

Tread wise, Ingleborough is usually greasy in the morning but after that the route is pretty dry, or at least gravelly and definitely only muddy in a very few places. Unless we have the 'off-the-hook' weather of last year.....  I have run file tread too before now, but braking can be hard on gravel or dust with file tread. On balance, tread is not really important for the Peaks, puncture resistance definitely is so choose accordingly.

Bike swap at Cold Cotes after horrendous weather on Ingleborough during 2013


I have half a bottle of carb-type drink over Ingleborough - you don't have time to drink more as it is either 'too steep' or 'too busy' with other riders around you jockeying for position.

If you have support, get a fresh big bottle and gel at Cold Cotes going onto road. Don't smash it on the road and neglect eating and drinking. Also your road legs can buckle when you hit the long walk up W'side. That said, watch out for a group to get in on the road as you can pick up time compared to riding solo. There is a fine balance between the two to be had, which comes with experience. You can get a cup of water at base of the Whernside climb where you have to off your bike anyway for the bridleway section.

Make sure you drink and eat something quick at Ribblehead when the descending calms down, grab a fresh big bottle and caffeine gel to drink and take on the road section before Penyghent You will need it...

Sometimes there is water high up on Penyghent, carried up to the turn by a kind man whose name I have never learned.

Overall, just be well hydrated before, carry something easy to eat and digest if you begin to struggle and try to drink on the road to Whernside as much as possible. Save a bit of drink for climbs up Whernside and Penyghent but there isn't too much you can do to drink if you are really going for it.

Unsupported is obviously harder and you will have to Camelback it. Same rules apply though about using the road for nutrition.


Simon Fell is off limits except race day, and the rest can mostly only be recced on foot, NOT bike. The main exception is Penyghent track till half way where you will still have to ditch the bike and run/walk to remain legal. Recce can either frighten you or reassure you - it's an odd one. Some knowledge of the terrain is useful and I now know every inch of the route, quite literally. But I'm not really any faster for it. Well, maybe a little.

There's plenty more to the Peaks than all that lot, but if you get hooked as I have done, you'll come back again and again and discover the nuances for yourself.

Have a good race!


  1. I know cycling on the route is forbidden in most places but is it possible to carry bike on the route as training or is that also frowned upon?

  2. Been seen with a bike on the route is likely to be interpreted as illegal riding even if it genuinely hasn't touched the ground. And as such would cause issues. To be honest the value of recce is in walking or running the route at a slower speed to get a feel for the terrain. Some of the Yorkshire lads used to walk the route in reverse as the best way of familiarising themselves. Alan

    1. The name of the man giving drinks high on Pen-Y-Ghent is Stuart Jackson, a 24 hours time trial champion some years ago. He caries an enormous amount of water and may be there this year.

      John Rawnsley

    2. He "saved" my life/race in 2011. Thanx Stuart Jackson!

  3. I thought that might be the case, i'll keep the training elsewhere then.

  4. Loving your 3 peaks blog - 6 of us here at are taking part this year. We're all virgin 3 Peakers so feeling a bit like lambs to the slaughter! Here's our blog -