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  • 26.09.12

    The Dalesman

    Origins of the world's toughest cyclo-cross race, The Three Peaks.

    Words
    Photographs
    Sam Needham

On June 21, 1960, the letters page of Cycling magazine featured a letter from WH Paul. Mr Paul – William to his friends, Bill to close ones – was founder of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship, an organisation dedicated to off-road riding but strictly opposed to racing anywhere other than on tarmac. Turned out he’d got wind of the plan to run a cyclo-cross race over Yorkshire’s three highest peaks and was not impressed. Actually he was nothing short of “dismayed” that a route he regularly rode was to be turned into “another race route, possibly 100 riders riding, running, jumping and stumbling in a mad scramble to be the first across.”

A few weeks later, the magazine published a response to Mr Paul’s letter. It was from Mr John Rawnsley of Bradford RCC, the club planning to organise the event. In reassuring tones, he argues that there is absolutely no risk of 100 racing cyclists hitting the Peaks, in part because “we very much doubt if there are 30 riders in the country who will be prepared to climb three 2,500 foot mountains in just under four hours, with a total distance of 25 miles.”

John Rawnsley is a man of many talents but I guess clairvoyance isn’t one of them. To be fair, back in 1960 it was probably unimaginable that the Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross race would continue into the next century and attract 600 riders each year. But it did and it does and Sunday 30 September, 2012 will see the 50th edition of what has always (accurately) been billed as the toughest ‘cross race on the calendar.

The concept is simple enough: traverse the peaks of Ingleborough (723 metres), Whernside (736 metres) and Pen-y-Ghent (694 metres). The execution is anything but, both for the organisers and for the competitors. Nowadays the route is 38 miles long – 17 of them on the road, 21 unsurfaced, three to five unrideable. Only ‘cross bikes with drop handlebars are permitted. WH Paul’s vision of hundreds of riders running, jumping and scrambling ultimately wasn’t far off the mark.

But for the first year at least, concerns of a mass of riders disturbing the peace of the Peaks were unfounded (though even then John had slightly underestimated – 35 competitors lined up rather than 30).

One of those at the start line on Sunday 1 October, 1961, was a Martin ‘Ginger’ Garwood. A 27-year-old plumber, he hailed from Clapham in London and had made a 480 mile round trip to compete. It was the first time he had seen the Yorkshire Dales or taken part in a mountain race and it all came as a bit of a shock.

“We do a bit of riding down there you know, but this is different,” he told a journalist after the race. “It’s more of an endurance test.” Despite this and a few trips over the handlebars, Ginger finished third overall. He was asked whether he’d be back the following year. “It’ll need a bit of thinking about,” he said.

Extract from issue 34

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