Alternative racing up Yorkshire’s peaks

“There’s not another race like it. It’s a race that has absolutely captured my imagination.”

– Lachlan Morton

With summer coming to a close in the northern hemisphere, it makes sense that the next alternative racing adventure on EF Education First Pro Cycling’s calendar would be a ‘cross race.

Of course, 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross isn’t just any old ‘cross race. Among the world’s first off-road bike races, 3 Peaks is a truly unique event with a long history of pitting athletes against terrain that is as distinctive as it is treacherous.

“There’s not another race like it. It’s a race that has absolutely captured my imagination,” says Lachlan MortonLachlan Morton, who will take on the challenge for EF Education First Pro Cycling on Sunday, Sept. 15.

“It draws in fell runners, it draws in cyclocross guys, it draws in road guys like myself, it draws in mountain bike guys. It’s an event a lot of people can succeed in but from what I understand it’s a very hard thing to master.”

Centered on the iconic Yorkshire Three Peaks – Ingleborough, Whernside, and Pen-y-ghent – the event was first raced in 1961, and today’s race remains steeped in tradition.

“The race was run by founder John Rawnsley and his wife and remained largely unchanged for 50 years,” says Mark Richmond, the race secretary. “You probably couldn’t find a more grassroots cycling event. It starts in the garden of a pub, with minimal equipment and signage. One of the things that John asked when he asked me to take on the race, one thing he really stressed the importance of, was keeping that grassroots feel.”

Riders compete with cyclocross bikes and cover numerous sections that require them to dismount and carry those bikes, much like in a standard ‘cross race. The way 3 Peaks traverses its path through the Yorkshire Dales, however, makes for an event that is very unlike a standard ‘cross race. Instead of covering a succession of laps on a short circuit, racers take on a 61-kilometer course that visits the eponymous three peaks one time each.

Twenty eight of those kilometers are on road. Thirty three are not, and of those 33 off-road kilometers, six or more are unrideable, requiring riders to dismount and shoulder their bikes. That’s a lot of time on foot, particularly for a rider without any ‘cross racing experience.

No, that wasn’t a typo. Morton has never raced cyclocross in his career, and he’s elected to get his first taste of ‘cross of it on some demanding terrain.

“You’ve got some rolling, lumpy road sections. You’ve got descents over tussocky grass, descents over stone slabs, descents on gravel,” Richmond says. “You’re shouldering up incredibly steep grassy slopes, up stone steps … Understanding how all these bits fit together is the challenge.”

For Morton, 3 Peaks is a chance to race through the Yorkshire Dales again after he rode through en route to victory at GBDuro earlier this year. He returns to the area having experienced the highs and lows the area can present to those who dare to ride through.

“It’s quite remote, steep, grassy terrain where the weather can play quite a large factor in that you can be on the top of a hill that can be 700 meters tall but there can be gale force winds and fog where you can’t really see much in front of you,” Morton says. “Then again, it’s beautiful. Gorgeous.”

Flat bars and suspension might come in handy as the 3 Peaks participants traverse the Dales, but that’s just not how the race works. Full suspension mountain bikes weren’t an option for Rawnsley and the rest of the early 3 Peaks riders back in the ‘60s. Taking on the difficult course on a bike not quite made for it is a tradition organizers preserve by simply requiring modern racers to ride on ‘cross bikes, even if the route has shades of a cross-country marathon MTB course.

“The history and the tradition and keeping it a cyclocross race rather than moving it into a different format … that’s what has led to the fact that today we have a cyclocross race that doesn’t look like a typical cyclocross race,” Richmond says.

As Richmond points out, veterans with years of experience navigating the parcours have a way of thriving at 3 Peaks. Morton knows his first appearance at the race will be a massive challenge.

“Of all the alternative events, I feel like this is the one where I’m most likely to get my butt kicked,” Morton says. “The people who do this are very good at it. It’s a very specific skill set.”

The freshness of the undertaking has Morton all the more excited to take it on (which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed his alternative adventures this year). He’s hoping that excitement is enough to see him through a challenge unlike any other he has faced yet.

“Motivation can get you a long way,” Morton says. “Occasionally it can trump experience—but I think next weekend we’ll see how far motivation can get me compared to experience.”