The Tour de Yorkshire gets underway this weekend, attracting many top pro riders from the world over to the self same roads they made famous when the Tour de France started here a few years back. But, there is another great Yorkshire bike race too, one with a long and dirty history, and one which although it receives minimal exposure in comparison, is one of the most respected and feared of all single day bike races – by those in the know at least.
So what is this great race? It is, of course, the Three Peaks Cyclo Cross, the toughest and meanest cross race on earth.
Yorkshire is, by British standards, a huge northern county, which stretches from the north east coast across the Pennine Mountains, through the industrial northern corridor and right over to the border with Lancashire and Cumbria in the wild west. It’s a tough and windswept place with an industrious heart of steel and a backdrop of stark rural contrasts.
The county is often considered as the cultural home of British cycling, and given the numbers of great riders it’s carved out from its harsh terrain that’s no wonder. Yorkshire is a rugged and welcoming place that pretty much stands bold with traditional northern values.
If it was declared a nation in its own right then Yorkshire would in sporting terms almost rival Great Britain itself on Olympic medal counts. A huge number of the national medal tally comes from Yorkshire athletes.
When the Tour de France passed through in 2014 seemingly the whole of Yorkshire came out to cheer the riders along, and such crowds are rarely, if ever seen anywhere else in cycling. In reality a good proportion of the crowd was from elsewhere too, but as soon as the race headed south you could see support fade away, which just goes to show the great passion for all sports in the north of England.
'Fell' running, or trail running as it’s often known outside of the region (fells are the open moorland hills of the neighbouring Lake District) is a big thing in the north west of England, and the long established Three Peaks fell running race is a major event on the international trail running calendar, and is what inspired the creation of the cyclocross version some 56 years ago.
John Rawnlesy, the creator, the first ever winner, long-time race organiser and rider of almost every edition explains the origins of the race; “Several riders had cycled the Peaks (Kevin Watson, a 14 year old schoolboy being the first) during 1959 and 1960, I was asked by a local businessman to organise a race. I said to him "I will organise it if I can ride in it, as it is my type of race".
The race was on; “In May 1961 a route for the race was tested by Harry Bond (then British CX Champion) and myself, and the first race was held on 1st October 1961. There were 40 entries with 10 reserves. Some 35 riders started and 23 finished. I won in a sprint finish from Harry.”
Things have progressed somewhat since then, although despite having attracted some of the bravest names in cyclocross to its trails the race has only once been won by a non-Brit (Arthur Manz of Switzerland in 1981).
It still very much remains a local village hall and tents affair, even if the standards of organisation way exceed this packaging, which all go to make this a real Yorkshire race.
Racing takes place at the end of September each year, during a season that can be blessed with cool and crisp autumnal colours and sunshine, or lashed with knee-deep early winter storms, both on the same day. With the Peaks you never know what you’re going to get until the day its self.
The vast majority of the 600 or so annual riders in the Peaks are there simply to survive and finish one the most eccentric and iconic British bike races. The route is loosely based around the running and hiking route, with many sectors only being permissible to ride on race day.
Although the route varies slightly it’s classically a 38-mile (61km) epic and rugged single loop race, which takes in the region’s three highest peaks; Ingleborough (723 meters), Whernside (724 meters) and Pen-y-ghent (694 meters). There’s a whole lot or bike pushing, carrying, running, some road riding, and a lot of wild off-road riding along the way.
This may not sound like a marathon challenge, but imagine being crammed into a washing machine with a bag or broken rocks, and then put on a cold wash and spin, and then clambering out and having to get that same washing machine up a greased mountainside, three times in a row. That’s what riding the Peaks feels like for most riders – although most do rush back and do it again and again (after given time to see the brighter side of things with a seasoning of nostalgia that is).
The first couple of riders usually scrape in just seconds under the three hour mark, while the majority come in two or three hours later. The racer with the most victories on his open tab is Rob Jebb, a Yorkshire born and raised legend of British cyclocross and trail running.
Rob has some 11 wins to his name, and finished second last year. He also holds the course record with a time of two hours 52 minutes and 22 seconds, which for anybody who has ridden the race is tough to comprehend.
If you’re looking for a true bucket list challenge that has little comparison in terms of character then this could be your headliner.
On the other hand, if you prefer to take things at a more leisurely pace and sniff the Yorkshire Dales grass and sip the famous ales along the way, then many parts of the route are legally open to ride on the other 364 days of any given year.
Check out www.3peakscyclocross.org.uk