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Tales from the peloton, October 9, 2004

Peaking Out: Keith Bontrager rides the 3 Peaks

For what is turning out to be an annual pilgrimage for Keith Bontrager, this year's legendary 3 Peaks Cyclocross race in England's Yorkshire Dales region gave him exactly what he wanted: foul weather, gale-force winds, a sadistic mix of steep, rocky climbs, and valuable feedback on his tubeless proto's - the latter which may show up next spring in Europe.

Keith Bontrager
Photo ©: Bontrager
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Cyclocross racing and culture is strong in Santa Cruz and, within the small circle of those in the know, the 3 Peaks Cyclocross race in North Yorkshire is legendary. For me this was a pilgrimage, and work. I really like my job sometimes.

For those who don't know about the 3 Peaks Cyclocross

The race is a Yorkshire tradition and has been run there for over 40 years. There were riders who have ridden in almost all of them on the starting line this year too. It's not like other cyclocross races.

Yorkshire is, from a Californian's POV, a beautiful place. It's like racing in a storybook, a dark one though, maybe one that the Grimm brothers would have written. The course is laid out in the North Yorkshire countryside on some footpaths that are closed to cyclists the rest of the year. It's a sadistic mix of steep (real steep!) rocky climbs followed by not-quite-as-steep technical descents with fast, rolling road sections connecting them, the latter thrown in to make sure your legs are not too fresh for the next climb. And, of course, you compete on bikes that ignore the technical progress made on mountain bikes over the last few decades; skinny tires pumped up until they are very hard, no suspension, fragile frames. Cyclocross bikes. MTBs are not allowed.

And in addition to the difficulties you find out on the course itself, the race is usually spiced up with some choice North Yorkshire weather. The weather there is typically not the same as the weather I am accustomed to here in California. Sheep would be overdressed in California, but they are well suited to the weather in North Yorkshire. The locals seem to tolerate it well enough too - the hard Northerner bit is not fiction. Though people from California do not typically tolerate it as well, it seems to suit me.

Last year, my first year racing there, the weather was sunny and warm, perfect in every way, like it is everyday in California. Of course, I was disappointed and knew I would have to come back to get my full dose. This year it was closer to the Yorkshire tradition and I was happy about that. It wasn't raining hard or too cold though, so I suppose there is still something to look forward to next year. The weather was definitely a factor this year though. I was told that it was "a bit windy at the top". It was. The wind blew me off the course a few times, while riding and on foot. Exposure to the wind increased on the climbs and carrying the bike was impossible or suicidal as you approached the top. The bike filled with wind like a sail and made balancing while trudging up the rocky slopes impossible with it on my shoulder. I'd never ridden in anything like it before; I've never been in anything like it before.

Again: It's not like other cyclocross races

It was very muddy in spots, though the bogs were deceptive, not the wheel-eating bottomless sort (at least the ones I rode through). They had a bottom. It wasn't bad; fun in a messy way.

The steep climbs take some time to get used to. A climb goes something like this: Once I am off the bike the appropriate gait goes from a moderate run (it's a race dammit), to sort of shuffling along (in anger, though), to a determined walking stride (it's faster than the shuffle), to a fairly ponderous walking stride (in order to avoid losing my balance), to a drunken stumble (wind aided). Stumbling means I am close to the top, hopefully.

And it could have been worse. I was prepared for it this year, with plenty of sessions taking my bike for a nice long walk in the steepest hills I could find around Santa Cruz. Also I came to the UK directly from Whistler where we had a new product launch. Whistler is a renowned freeriding destination, about as good as it gets. On the first day, instead of riding, I ran/hiked up a double black diamond ski run into the clouds. I felt good and was stoked. Later that evening, at dinner, Andrew Shandro asked me why, when I was in Whistler, one of the best riding areas in the world, I went running, up a ski run. I tried to tell him about the 3 Peaks but I think he decided I was crazy...

In spite of a few sloppy details this year's race was a good one for me. I arrived at the start a few minutes after the race had begun due to a misunderstanding in the start times. That cost me a bit more time and leg since I had to ride to the first peak alone in time trial mode rather than in the shelter of the group. But in a race this long it is not a disaster. I rode with Steve Worland again, going back and forth with him during most of the event. The strange thing was that we had done almost the same thing last year, exchanging positions at the same points on the course. It was weird. He had some trouble with his front derailleur on the last climb, so I got away at that point. He descends very well and I was doing my best to stay away, and just managed to. I ended up 7th in Vets. I think I can improve on that next year if all goes well. Steve got 10th, and Mark Michel, a friend of mine and cross veteran from Santa Cruz who's raced the 3 Peaks quite a few times, got 4th.

There were some real fast guys there too.

Robb Jebb is a fell runner and has owned this event the last few years. Fell runners are off-road distance runners and there are some good ones up in Yorkshire. It's kind of a tradition there. Even when it is very cold and raining you see these spidery, fit looking types cruising along in the hills with bare legs and a stocking cap, trying to run the legs off their dogs. There were quite a few out on the day of the race.

Mr. Jebb caught me two-thirds of the way down the first descent, a little before Cold Cotes. He might be a runner by trade, but he can ride a bike well enough, too. Nick Craig, a decent UCI MTB racer caught me 10 minutes later on the road between the first and second peaks and was his usual friendly self with greetings and a smile before he flew by.

To put this into perspective, the Seniors start a half hour after the Masters and Women. The course starts on a few miles of twisty, rolling road, and then gradually starts climbing on a gravel and then grass path to the first peak. It gets very steep about half way up and you are off the bike most of the time after that. The climb is short distance wise, and might be 1500 feet total elevation. I am not blazing fast on any of this, but after the late start, I went hard on the road section and was passing people all the way up the climb, on and off the bike. I rode the descent conservatively to avoid crunching wheels but was also passing much more than being passed.

Jebb made up the 25 minutes or so I had on him in much less than 10 miles. He could have gotten a little of that on the road, but not that much. I rode behind Nick for a while when he came by and he wasn't going that much faster than I was, until the road turned up a little anyway. Jebb descended well and was going faster than I was on the descent too. But I got behind him for a while and stayed with him until we hit a bog that screwed me up. He was fast coming down and I was at my technical limit riding behind him, but he wasn't that much faster. 25 minutes is a big gap.

He made up the majority of that time on the climb, especially the steep stuff when we were off the bike, since that is what takes up the longest portion of the time on the ascent. That's what he does so well though, so it makes sense. It's pretty scary just how fast that is though. He must have run hard up the entire steep part of the climb.

He finished in 3 hours and change. It took me 4:41. That's about 30 minutes per peak.

Another friend, Julie Dinsdale from Brixton, finished second in the Women's Masters. The interesting thing was that this was her first cyclocross race, on her first ride on a (borrowed) cross bike. She is an experienced cyclist with many big endurance races in her past and a hard northerner originally, so that result isn't too shocking. But she barely weighs more than her bike. I have no idea how she managed in that wind. She's got my respect.

Talking tech

There was a technical side to the race for me too. Last year I DNF'd. After five pinch flats I ran out of tubes. I admit that I am not the most graceful cyclocross rider, but I didn't pinch five times in a row simply because I am that terrible on a bike. The first flat was deserved - a bad line and a mistimed hop, and maybe not enough pressure to begin with. Steve Worland and I talked about that a bit before the race. He recommended 90 psi or so, as did others. I started with 70. The second flat came quickly, because the 12 gram quick-fills I had didn't put enough air in the larger cyclocross tire. The third and fourth were because the MTB pump I brought topped out at less than 50 psi, also not nearly enough to avoid a flat these rocks. Number 5 was probably the same sort of thing, but I was pissed off by then so I might have contributed more. That was the end of my motivation, my onboard inventory of tubes and, without a patch kit, my motivation. DNFs are no fun, but this was turning into a nice day for a stroll down the mountain.

I learned a few things from all of that, so this year I came prepared a bit better. I am working on tubeless road wheels now, so this race was a means to test some of the prototypes in a situation that was far more demanding than most road courses.

Actually I have mixed feelings about these; I am still not sure how many typical situations will reward a rider using a good tubeless set-up on the road other than the sort of craziness the pro's ride in the spring. But a well sorted tubeless set up is clearly going to be a very good thing on a cross bike, so I had wheels set up in a prototype tubeless arrangement, with many large quick fills and a pump capable of refilling a tire to an adequate pressure just in case.

That almost worked. I still managed to pinch flat on a rock near the top of Whernside (the second peak) due to a particularly poor choice of lines.

At that point I made a new discovery: In spite of the preparations I'd made, I found a new complication to using a quick fill. Up in the clouds the air was so wet that the thing froze almost immediately after I opened it, and in that state it refused to allow gas through the valve. It was also stuck fast to my bare hand. I managed to get my hand free without any bloodletting and was getting impatient so I decided not to mess with the hand pump and got back on.

The first rock I hit went straight to the rim so I knew the tire wasn't inflated properly. Stop and try another quick fill, use the pump (I do not have good luck with these), or risk a puncture? Or, if I was careful, and lucky, maybe I could slow down a bit on the roughest sections, pick good lines on the way down and then use another quick fill or a track pump at the support area. I chose the latter, and it cost me a few minutes, but that was a fine bargain compared to another flat.

By next year, I expect to have the tubeless wheels sorted out well enough to go at it with less pressure in the tires. That will make riding fast on wet rocks quite a bit easier. And, with luck, the wheels or some variant of them might show up in some spring races in Europe under the Postal, err... Discovery Channel team. Seems like a natural.

See also: Keith Bontrager interview: The crossover man

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