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Chez Nick: Peak Fitness

Although classified as a cyclo-cross event, the Three Peaks is unlike any other race on the domestic calendar. Half off-road challenge ride, half hike-a-bike fell race, the 45-year old classic over the Yorkshire hills of Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-Y-Ghent really falls into a category of its own.

As such, training to ride the Three Peaks is not a straight forward affair. It’s three or four times longer than traditional cyclo-cross events and demands a lot more climbing and on-foot skills. When I decided to enter the Three Peaks back in July, I knew my normal cycling diet of medium intensity road miles and the odd midweek club time trial would probably not suffice as preparation. I therefore set about seeking expert advice on how I might go about shaping up for my debut in this unique 38 mile epic.

“Right,” said former winner and regular podium placer Nick Craig when I called him up. “I’ve know a six-week programme that will be just the ticket.”

It actually turned out that my preparations for the event got off to an earlier than planned start when myself and Nick were forced into an impromptu training session when working on an entirely separate project during the Tour de France. Having taken our cross bikes along a rugged and rocky trail halfway up Alpe d’Huez, we were suddenly faced with a prolonged and unrideable ascent.

“This will be your first day of training for the Peaks,” announced Nick, showing me the best technique to lift and carry the machine. This basically involved putting my right arm through the main triangle and resting the top tube on my shoulder. I then secured the bike by placing my right hand on the drops and turned the bars so their left hand side pressed against my chest.

For the following fifteen minutes we carried our bikes like this and clambered out of the ravine. With time my lower back started to ache and my shoulder throbbed.

“This is just like what have you to do in the Three Peaks and if there is one thing that make’s the difference, this will be it,” said Nick explaining the core element of his six week programme. “The aim of these sessions is to get used to stretching your calves and bruising your shoulder before the event. Do this up a steep hill for 20-minutes each week and it will really sort you out.”

While combining this ad-hoc session with plenty of in-saddle climbing time in the Alps all equated to good training, I had a problem when I returned home. 20-minute hills proved hard to come by in Suffolk and the best I could do was repeatedly traipse my bike up and down a short stretch of sloping wasteland on the edge of a nearby town. Whether it was having the desired effect or not I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t half keep the local motocross kids amused.

With Nick disappearing on holiday for the bulk of August, I sought some further consultation on the Three Peaks’ website’s discussion forum. Out of curiosity I asked how other entrants who live in the flatlands prepare. One poster replied that he spent his lunch hour training on tower block staircases while another replied that I should worry less about the hills and concentrate more on improving my general endurance. Of course, I’d been doing this by getting some long road rides in.

But as always tends to happen with these well-intentioned training programmes, normal life got in the way. As the summer got busier, work, weddings, festivals and holidays demanded my attention and I found myself away from home without a bike every other week.

In these situations I had to improvise and variations in my training included playing football, the odd run and -while working on the Tour of Britain- endless lengths in hotel swimming pools. In Norway I tried to simulate the bike-carrying exercise by walking up a mountain with friends while carrying a rucksack laden with rum. We had a tricky old time coming down, mind.

Come mid-September the Three Peaks event was suddenly looming large. Despite my efforts to keep things ticking over, I still felt mightily under-prepared and travelled up to the Peak District to join Nick for another training session.

When I rolled up at his home in the village of Hayfield, Nick was out on driveway surrounded by a scattering of bike parts. He was getting his Scott ‘cross machine ready for the race, replacing his standard chainset with a triple and doubling up his bar tape. The technical preparation is almost as specialised as the physical, and I added to my kit bag a list of modifications that I needed to make to my bike.

Out in the hills, Nick took us on one of his usual pre Three Peaks sessions, a twenty minute steep uphill bike-carrying hike combined with an out and back ride. I passed the walking session with flying colours but my descending was terrible. “This is just like the terrain at the Three Peaks,” said Nick. Having crashed three times –face planting on one occasion in sheep’s poo- this didn’t exactly instil me with confidence.

Having become so focussed on gaining uphill fitness, I’d completely neglected nurturing any technical ability. For the following week I insisted on riding my cross bike everywhere, speeding along whatever off-road rights of way I could find. Lowland East Anglian bridleways may not have been the best place to recreate the precipitous and rocky trails of the Yorkshire Dales, but I did at least find some very short but steep banks where I practiced effectively distributing my weight and using my brakes to improve control.

Come race day, I believe my accumulation of specific preparation did pay off. I certainly had no problems carrying the bike and in the absence of any grand illusions of victory, I’d fulfilled my simple aim of completing the course with a solid effort.

My worst patch was without doubt at the very beginning of the race after turning off the road to tackle the steep ascent up towards Ingleborough. A fast start is one of the few characteristics the Three Peaks does share with conventional ‘cross and this is an area that I could have worked on. Certainly doing a few races in the build-up might have helped.

Cautious after my mishaps in the Peak District, my descending was also below par. From the top of the final climb to the finish, I lost up to three minutes on riders I’d been with at the summit. I imagine this to have been the same on the other two descents. Still, I’d rather lose time than a shed load of skin.

The most valuable conclusion I made from this year’s race, was that the experience gained would count for a lot in the future. I rode the race having very little idea of what terrain, hazards or surface lay in the fog or round the corner ahead and this affected my pace judgement. On the road sections that sit between the hills I felt pretty strong and perhaps held back a little too much on the climbs. Hoping to make the most of this year’s experience then, I fully intend to return to the Three Peaks, and ride a harder, better prepared and more knowing race.

Suffolk, September 2006


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