Today we have a friend of Moots write about his experience during his 3rd 3 PEAKS “CYCLOCROSS” RACE—
Wes Ulrich resides in Germany and has been a long time friend of our sales director Corey Piscopo.
Wes also made a special trip to Eurobike to come and ride one evening with us, he’s a great guy
and super committed cyclist. He took his new ROUTT to the test this year at 3 PEAKS
and wrote this insightful piece about his adventure.
For Three Peaks the bike spends a good amount of time on your back.
Wes puts on his pain face at this point.
” It’s been four days since the race ended. I keep playing it over and over in my head. I suppose that’s the sign of a good race…. or obsession, or both. I’ll definitely admit being a bit wild about the Three Peaks Cyclocross. But apparently so are others, 650 riders line up to start, chosen from the over 1200 registrations. Pain is popular. I was riding this year with my friend Dave, a former pro. I recently moved to another country and was- er… underemployed for a bit which allowed me plenty of time to get in good shape, and to train specifically for the Peaks. This mostly involved sprinting up steep hills carrying your bike repeatedly. I also included it into my normal daily routine by always walking on my tip toes to train my calves. Inevitably you look like a bit of an asshat to most people. I religiously trained all summer. I finished in 4:38 my first year, and 4:03 my second, so I was shooting for 3:45 or better this time around.
But this training is for good reason. It’s a unique race. (For those not familiar with it, you can read all about it here) Basically throw most of what you associate with cross out the window. Instead of one hour, the winner typically finishes in about three hours, with the rest of the field coming in at up to seven hours. Rather than barriers, run-ups and the like, the ‘Peaks’ relies on only three climbs, which I’ll describe in turn below. Yorkshire doesn’t have the elevation, but it makes up for it with gradient, weather, and the absolutely silly condition of the trails: if you had a choice most people would ride full suspension bikes. As one of my support crew, Ed, put it, “the Three Peaks is a running race where one is inconvenienced by having to carry a bike.” Even the best riders will be walking for about 50% of their total time racing. And I mean that literally. On Simon Fell, it’s so steep that you are pulling yourself up by clumps of grass. When the gradient is headed downwards, many are still walking. It’s easy to spot those who haven’t either spent time training for the race, or aren’t good bike handlers.
Having ridden the race twice before I knew what awaited me. The race is often made so difficult not only by the course, but by the weather. Sunny days can quickly turn into a deluge. One wouldn’t expect the conditions on top of 700 meter ‘mountains’ to be so different from the valley, but Yorkshiremen are a hard bunch for a reason. 15 degrees Celsius in the valley often changes to 5 degrees at the top, and usually with a stiff wind.
The first time I rode it was in biblically bad conditions. Pouring rain with near freezing temperatures at the summits and sustained 40mph winds gusting to 55mph. The biggest challenge was staying on your bike. Riders would often find they could ride on the leeward sides of stone walls, only to come to the end of the wall and immediately be blown over. If the wind didn’t cause you to crash, the mud and water did. On one descent I fell off 12 times. You can only laugh at that point. It’s for these reasons that you are required to carry a blaze orange survival bag and whistle. See YouTube for examples of the silliness. This is an excellent video of the Peaks in bad weather.
The last two years, however, were exceptionally warm and dry. But even then it’s usually very windy at the summits. This year too was amazing and rare: a warm, dry, still day. Perfect for fast finishing times.
The race British Cycling, with a few exceptions. Riders must use a Cyclocross frame; no adapted 29er frames allowed. Drop handlebars must be used, not even flared drops are ok. And tyres cannot be wider than 35c. It’s still a fairly laid back race, there are no commissars roaming around with callipers to measure tyres and handlebars. So it works on riders being honest, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone riding anything that’s not allowed. Though I suppose with wider rims becoming common there is room for people to have a labelled 35c tyre measure a bit larger. Honestly though, it wouldn’t matter. Two extra millimetres of rubber won’t save you on the descents if you are rubbish.
I’m a bit of a kit geek and I have always gone to the limits of what is allowed. The first year I just hopped on my cross bike. My logic was ‘why change your bike for a single race’. I rode with my normal deep drop 42cm handlebars. Changing only to a shorter stem. Now that I am hooked on the Peaks though, that’s gone out the window. It’s usually the only cross race I do (I’m terrible at intense 1-hour efforts).
It turned out that riding what I had around was a poor idea. I quickly learned that certain changes- and not even expensive ones made for a much better race- and more fun. Among the changes include ‘B-levers’ (bar top levers), wide (46cm) compact drop handlebars, and less drop (differential) to the bars, and a mountain bike seat so I could get way back on the steep descents. A good rule of thumb is to basically make your cross bike as much like a mountain bike as you can. The B-levers and wide bars allowed me to descend on the flats of the bars and keep my weight further back. It also made the handling much more like a MTB. Gearing of course changes: in the front were a 46/33 tooth compact, and long cage rear derailleur, and an 11-36 cassette. I thought about putting on my mountain bike crankset, and a 42/28, but there are some very fast road sections and my 46×11 is already close to spun out.
Tires are key. Supple, high TPI tires get eaten alive by the sharp rocks in Yorkshire. Hands down the most popular tyre is the Schwalbe Land Cruiser. A wire beaded hulk that is tougher than elephant hide. It’s reliable, but also 600 grams. To avoid pinch flats most people run max pressures of 65psi. The Yorkshire wisdom being that lack of comfort is faster than fixing a flat. I suspect Yorkshiremen are simply double-hard-bastards and enjoy the pain. I’ve run tubeless the last 2 years and did again this year, allowing me to run a ‘comfortable’ 37/42psi and get a bit more grip. I guess I’m soft.
The final change I made was to use old MTB shoes. Super stiff carbon soled shoes are a bad idea- you’ll probably destroy them, and you’ll also get a full complement of blisters. Dave decided to use his Bont shoes. They ended up in pieces and his feet were wrecked. I have a trusty pair of 10 year old Sidi dominators that by this time have a fairly flexible sole. I proceeded to give the soles a good covering in Shoe-Goo to increase the stickiness on rocks, and then used blocks from old MTB tires to increase the grip in the toe area. Definitely a MacGyver job, but it worked wonders for running on slick rocks.
Lastly, if you check out the excellent photo galleries on the Three Peaks site, you’ll see a lot of pipe insulation on top and seat tubes. When you are carrying your bike for 15-30 minute sections this makes life much more enjoyable.
The peaks is a cultural experience. The northern accent is often impenetrable for me as a Yankee. We arrive at the start area, situated between a pub, a bunkhouse, and a farm. (This is the Village of Helwith Bridge). A weathered Yorkshire farmer directs you to park in his fields. Sheep look on in bewilderment. You sign on and get your ‘dibber’, an electronic wrist tag that everyone must ‘dib’ into a timing device at each checkpoint. From the moment you get out of the car you hear Roger, the race announcer. He’s real salt of the earth. If you can imagine Dick Ring (for the older New England riders among us), but from Yorkshire, you have the idea.
The riders line up in estimated finish order. This is usually a bit of a shambles as riders who haven’t ridden think they will be faster than they end up. (I made this mistake myself). I had a decent place this year, about 100 riders back. My starts are never good. I’m a bit of a diesel engine and need to warm up. My initial goal was to not let Dave kick my ass too badly. However, he decided to really challenge himself and ride his bike less than 10 times this summer. The gun went off and we started into the ‘neutral’ section of 5 miles full-gas on the road. It’s a bit nuts as the faster riders get sorted out into the front. I was in the red almost immediately. Dave, who apparently is always ‘on’, started about 500 riders back and caught me in the first few miles,. A bad omen I thought. I gritted my teeth to stay on his wheel, determined not to suffer the indignity of his utter lack of training beat me. We road together through the official start of the race- a cattle grate at a hole in a stone wall. Once the race was off road I felt a bit better, and my low gearing allowed me to keep riding where others were already running. (I am an awful runner). But I held back a bit still, as the first climb, Ingle borough is the worst. It starts off with a section called Simon Fell, which is steep enough that most people line up along a stone wall with a wire and barbed wire fence and use it (non-barbed parts of the fence) to pull themselves up. I was able to do so myself and it helped me stay comfortable. Once over Simon Fell there is a brief respite as you approach Rawnsley’s Leap, a latter over a stone wall where there are marshals that help you throw your bike over. From there you can ride a bit more before you have the final over a very rocky section to the top.
The descent from Ingleborough is only technical for the first bit. After that it can be very fast, and mostly grassy. The tricky parts are the frequent boggy sections, which can be deceptively deep enough to swallow a front wheel. I’ve made a habit of trying to watch the few riders in front of me so I can let them inform me if my intended line turns out to be a wet version of the pit of Sarlacc. I picked off about ten riders on the descent. By the time I was at the bottom of Ingleborough my arms were jelly. I took a feed from my excellent support team and hit the fast road section, spinning out my top gear before hitting one of the road climbs. Those who know me are aware that my climbing is mediocre at best, so I sat up a bit to recover and waited for the people I passed on the descent to catch me knowing I had about 5 miles of road ahead. Once they caught me we quickly started a chaingang and were motoring along. Another group caught us and the pace was quickly up to 27mph- on cross bikes! Fortunately for me the group was now about 20 riders strong, and the guys in front were either ‘strong like bull’, or ‘smart like bull’, and they did all the work as I sat in.
The group continued to hammer as we hit a small hill just before the next climb, Whernside. I ‘let’ the group gap me (or they dropped me, it’s all about your point of view, right Obi-Wan?). In some ways Whernside is considerably easier than Ingleborough. Whereas the latter is mostly grass, and is almost always somewhat wet (its Yorkshire after all) as well as silly steep, Whernside is simply rocky. Stone slabs have also been placed as stairs and to prevent erosion. There are a number of gates for livestock on the climb, but some kind Brits were holding it open. Being the polite people they are they were probably there all day rather than close it in some random riders face.
I was feeling great on the climb up Whernside, even running at times. My method was to run just long enough to pass someone, and then recover, and repeat. This was necessary in part because the trail is really only wide enough for one person and so you end up walking at the speed of the slowest person until you find a suitable place to run past. I picked off a few more people up Whernside and knew I was doing well if that was the case. Other years it’s just been damage limitation. At the top I was relieved to find that there was almost no wind. Reassuring since you ride between a stone wall made of sharp stone on one side, and a cliff on the other.
I started the descent off Whernside which is notoriously tough. The path on this side of the mountain has been turned into a long series of stone steps in order to prevent erosion. You can ride on either side, but the grass is quite deep and often hides wheel-eating gullies. If you can ride the stairs then you can gain huge chunks of time. I kept riding where others were walking, briefly getting stuck behind one fellow who wouldn’t give way, insisting that “you’ll just have to get off anyway mate.” 99% of riders at the peaks are super friendly and will give way when you want to pass. I was a peeved at this guy, and so buzzed by him- telling him “well, MATE, some of us are still ON our bikes!” No sooner than I said it than I realised I better not crash or walk or I would be the one looking like a wanker. Luckily I kept my composure and was able to ride down all the stairs all the way to the bottom.
The bottom of Whernside is a favourite spectator spot. On a nice day it’s gorgeous, especially with Ribblehead Viaduct as the backdrop. I was feeling great and rode down all the tricky sections with spectators, even giving a few “yeeeeehaaaaww’s”. (Though I’ve never even seen a cowboy). I grabbed a bottle from my crew and then it was onto the road again for another 5 miles. There was no one in sight behind be so I put my head down and gritted my teeth. Fortunately a very strong bloke caught me. He was flying along and I stuck to his wheel. He was a nice guy, never asked me to pull once.
At the bottom of the last climb, Pen-Y-Gent, I found out why he dropped me like a stone. Pen-Y-Gent is the only one of the Peaks that you can climb on your bike for any decent amount of time. I was feeling my effort at this point, and it was uncharacteristically warm. My arm warmers had been sliding off recently, the result of denying myself cake all summer except during the visits of Dave and Moots’ Corey Piscopo. I thought it a good idea to pin them up. I was regretting that. A few riders I passed on Whernside caught me. But there were more spectators, and that helped a bit. Pen-Y-Gent is an out and back climb and I was pleased to hear that the leaders had not come down yet. I looked at the Garmin and realised it was possible for me to go under 3:40. I reached the end of the rideable section and began slogging it up the hill. I was faster at this than others and caught a few more people by this point I was determined to go under 3:40 and was turning myself inside out. The leaders started to come down the hill and I kept to the left and out of their way as they were careening down the path. Some were going way too fast and braking too much- a fact confirmed when the retort of an exploding tubular rang out and I looked back to see a rider disappear into the long grass off the trail.
I reached the summit about 20 minutes later and hopped back on my trusty Routt and down the mountain. You don’t appreciate suspension until you ride a cross bike on a trail with rocks the size of soccer balls in the way. But the comfort of the titanium and the slacker angles helped keep me upright. The peaks is not a great race for a super quick handling cross bike. I quickly and passed some riders, even the nice guy who towed me to the bottom of the climb, telling him to hop on, but he was riding with full brakes on: skidding than rolling. This is a better idea than it sounds due to the frequent water troughs in the path made from large flat rocks that stick straight up, and are perfect for pinch flats. I was now in full nutter mode and proceeded to bunny hop them all, save for a few, much to the spectators delight. I was having the race of my life.
– THE SET UP –
Frame: Moots ROUTT
46/33 chain rings
11-36 cassette range
Note the “portage pad” on the underside of the top tube
Single bottle on seat tube so you can shoulder the bike
High tire pressures are required at the Peaks to prevent both pinch flats and dented rims. I ran tubeless tires at 37/42psi. I was almost to the bottom when my front wheel hit a sharp rock and released the full contents of Stan’s fluid. This was decidedly less delightful to both me, and to the spectators to my right side. I got off and check it out, a kind spectator offered to help with his pump, but the hole was much too large for the remaining Stan’s to seal. So off I ran carrying my Moots for about half a mile until I got to the main road and cried out for my mates to give me a spare. Unfortunately they weren’t there. They had not yet arrived from the previous support point! I never thought Dave and I would be far apart, but it turned out his race wasn’t going so well due to a combination of a complete lack of training, and multiple punctures.
Fortunately, some very kind guys from Velo Club Moulin provided me with a spare as their rider had just gone through. I hopped back on and proceeded to go flat out to make up the time. I was really hurting now but made myself crank it out. I felt like I was “going plaid”, or perhaps it was just burst blood vessels in my eyeballs. I could hear the Yorkshire drawl of the announcer and kept hammering, back over the stone bridge to the finish. 3 hours and 43 minutes. I collapsed in a heap for a full ten minutes before getting up again. I was a bit angry about the puncture, but quickly realised that it’s only a bike race, and, that by the standards of the Peaks, losing 3-5 minutes to a mechanical isn’t much. I was 78th, just over 45 minutes behind the leader, but still in the top 12% of riders. I had cut 20 minutes off my time. At this rate I’ll win in four years!
Analysing the splits I reached the first checkpoint in 110th place, and every one of the riders I caught except for a couple were on the descents. The Routt certainly helped in this regard, as everyone I passed was riding a lightweight, carbon frameset. No doubt good for your local cross race at the office-park, but not a great idea at the peaks where reliability and comfort count for a lot.
I was feeling a bit nauseated. It’s Yorkshire, so I partook in the best of local recovery cuisine: a chip butty with HP sauce. (fries on a bun to the Americans). Dave, out loyal supporters Oly, Ed and Daimo then had our ritual enormous curry and pints.
I’m already looking forward to next year. “