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Photo ©: Chipps

Test to destruction: The Keith Bontrager diary 2005

Keith Bontrager is best known as the bike and component design guru behind his eponymous road and mountain bike components, but behind the scenes the man universally known as KB is an enthusiastic and well-respected endurance mountain bike racer.

KB has taken part in a over 50 24-hour races in the last few years, and in his diary takes us inside the mental, physical and technical challenges of long-distance mountain bike racing, starting with one of the sport's greatest tests, the seven-day TransRockies Challenge.

Index to all entries

3 Peaks Cyclocross - November 6, 2005

Looking back at the 3 Peaks

It's been over a month since this race went down, and I have been pretty slack... errr... busy since. When I have time to write these things they tend to get longer. I am not sure if that is good or bad.

The bike biz and racing have taken me from Santa Cruz to North Yorkshire, to Utah and then spit me out in Costa Rica, all in a month. I am here for a few days, hiking a bit, and hacking along in very poor Spanish before I have to make a presentation to dealers in this country (in English unfortunately). There is finally time to catch up a little.

Keith
Photo ©: Phil Ingham
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My temporary office is on the patio outside my $30/night room in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. La Fortuna is a backpacker's travel spot, simple, cheap and friendly. It would have been nice to work on my farmer's tan a bit in an attempt to smear the mid-thigh and upper arm transitions I've burned in with all the miles on the bike this year, but there are some storms raging right off the coast in the Caribbean that are, according to George W's crack team of Sunday Science advisors, NOT the product of the global climate changes that are NOT occurring because we are cranking up our own version of the earth's heater a bit too much... Never mind. Still it's the tropics, and it is warm enough.

Yesterday's hike took me along the base of Volcan Arenal, a very active volcano. It's a perfect cone, like in a cartoon, and fairly barren from recent eruptions. What is not cartoon-like are the rumbles, hissing, pops and snorts that come out of the thing constantly - menacing stuff. Those combine with the chattering, shrieking tropical birds and monkeys on the jungle sections of trail and provide a soundtrack for the day - the MP3 player got a rest. The trails were good and steep, and I earned my dinner.

Now I have a very good cup of coffee to power me (Café Britt Dark Roast brewed strong), and some of the best bananas and oranges on the planet cut up for breakfast (given to me by the farmers who grew them). After eating the bananas here it's tempting to never touch the sad imitations sold up north again; the difference is like the industrial tomato-like vegetables sold in the local mega grocer and the ones you can grow at home. Costa Rica is a nice place.

3 Peaks Cyclocross 2005

So is Yorkshire. The bananas don't rate very highly, nor do the locally grown coffee beans, but the beer kicks ass.

John Rawnsley
Photo ©: Phil Ingham
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John Rawnsley organizes the 3 Peaks Cyclocross. He's also ridden in every one of them - that's 43 races dating back to 1961. He won the event the first year and finished with a respectable time again this year too. Yet another reason why this race rules.

He asked me to help out with the awards presentation this year and I accepted, in an instant. I am lucky just to be here. The awards ceremony would also be a personal incentive to finish in a reasonable time and in a reasonable state too. It would be fairly embarrassing to roll up to an empty parking lot covered in mud, blood, and (probably) tire sealant.

I can picture it: "Errr... since the guest that was supposed to help present the awards is just starting the ascent of the third peak we'll wish him well and get on with it..." or something like that. At least there would still be somebody in the pub, no matter how late I turn up.

Since this is the third time I'd been here and have put a little effort into improving my results each year, I'd come over with a cunning plan this year too. I was to race in the Merida MTB event the weekend before in Wales, hit a dealer meeting in Coventry early the following week, and then, with one or two stops along the way, including a ride around in the Peak District (and something called Jacob's Ladder), and a cold stroll up Snowdon (in a gale), spend the rest of the week in Yorkshire, riding, running, and acclimatizing. The adaptation included some adjusting to the strength of the local ale of course, but only a little. After all, it is a traditional form of upper body conditioning in the North and that is an important aspect of cyclocross.

I got to Yorkshire in one piece, bike and body. Given that I was driving a rental car this was no small accomplishment. My destination was a remote barn converted into a cottage and managed by the Landmark Trust. It was on a working farm, with sheep pens (and sheep!) everywhere. There was a kitchen so I could cook, and the shaggy beasts surrounding the place weren't the fierce party animals they're rumored to be, so it was quiet at night. Larder stuffed, bike assembled, map in hand, it's time to check out the course.

Preparation

Louise Robinson
Photo ©: Phil Ingham
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The 3 Peaks course includes sections that are in a national park and most of it is closed to bikes on all but race day so there would be no pre-riding of the course. But that was not a problem. Other than the descent off of Whernside (the second peak, the killer) the off road sections of the course are challenging but rideable, so there wasn't a lot to me gained by riding them. Knowledge of the ascents up the first two peaks is critical in this event though, so that was what I wanted to check out. Knowing where the top of each is and what sort of effort is appropriate to get you there quickly helps, especially when you can't see the top (they are often shrouded in mist). So my plan was to hike and run up the first two climbs without a bike to get a feel for them.

That wasn't as simple as it seemed. I wasn't able to find the way up Ingleborough (the first peak). I went a little ways, but it looked like the course might lead through private property and I am not familiar with the legalities of trespassing in the UK, so I backed off. Whernside was easier to navigate, so I hiked and ran up to the top, then turned and came back down the way I'd gone up. It was hard, but the familiarity would be useful, especially the false summits.

I rode around on the roads and bridal ways in the area the rest of the time, getting used to riding rocks on skinny tires and enjoying the sites. The riding wasn't as easy as it sounds though - a bridal way that was shown clearly on the map ended up being a slog. I figured this contributed to my running with the bike form a little too. I don't race well when I taper too much anyway… It would have to do.

The bike I had with me added some complications. It was a last minute decision because the new frame that was coming arrived the day after I left. I didn't have much time so I didn't work on the bike I brought. It was in exactly the same state as it was after the last cross race from the season before and it worked OK in that race so I figured it would be ready to go. It almost was.

Chipps Chippendale
Photo ©: Phil Ingham
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The fine print under all of this is that I thought things were going pretty well. The previous weekend's results in Ruthin were good. I'd shortened up on the route distance because previous attempts to get off a plane and race for 100 km the next day had not worked out too well. In the end I was first in my age group, riding on a cross bike in an MTB race, and tenth overall on the short course. The main thing was that I felt good in that event and had some snap on the climbs late in the race. I ran up the tough bit of Jacob's ladder and, other than almost being blown off the edge, the stroll up Snowdon was fine too. Between all that and the ton o' riding I'd done in the months before made me optimistic. The only flaw in the program was a lack of time on the cross bike, but overall I was looking forward to it.

By Yorkshire standards the weather had been kind the week before the event. It wasn't quite as nice as it is in California during cross season, but it was tropical by North Yorkshire standards. That ended up being the case on race day too. There was a little rain here and there, but nothing bad, sort of soothing on the climbs. The wind was tame compared to last year, though it managed to whip up some hail. None of this was too bad though.

Race day

After arriving late last year, I put a priority on showing up to the event on time this year. John generously set me up with a parking spot right at the finish line, so the morning was relaxed and easy. I found Mel and gave her my spare wheels. I met her and Shaggy at the SSWC and we talked about the race a bit. She offered to carry the wheels around the course, and I accepted. It was all coming together, so I warmed up a little and rolled to the line. I met up with Steve Worland there and he seemed ready. Steve was my teammate in the TransRockies and he'd had a scary problem with his lungs in Canada. Since then he had been recovering and he thought he was back. This was going to be a good test.

The race starts with a neutral section before it opens up on a rolling road that leads to the first peak. The pace of the neutralized bit is on the fast side though, so the race effectively starts when it starts. I was sitting on wheels for this and was comfortable after getting opened up properly on the first small rollers. It was encouraging to see the front of the group 20 meters ahead as we turned off the pavement and onto the lane that leads to the ascent up Ingleborough.

The first peak

It was less encouraging to be in a minor tangle at that point. The first section of the lane is a steep double track with slippery concrete wheel tracks for farm vehicles. Someone turned a wheel over on the slick surface and stopped, and the next riders piled into him from behind. I was in that scrum, and it took some time to get untangled. Luckily there was no harm done and it was at a point where things string out anyway. There was time to chase.

Rob Jebb
Photo ©: Phil Ingham
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The climb up Ingleborough went well. I was locked into a line of riders and was comfortable at the pace we were going, including the toughest section of the ascent where you use the wire fence on your left to pull yourself up. I even caught Steve at the top, so the chase back worked out. He is very fast going downhill so I figured I would try to lock onto him on the descent, the way I did in Canada, to up my pace a bit. That started to come apart when I got my bike caught in a wire fence we had to clamber over at the top. Somehow, as I lifted the bike over the fence I got the pedal and QR caught and wound up in the wire. By the time I'd managed to get it out, I was behind Steve ten riders or so, and some were not too fast on the technical sections. Bye Steve. Still, I got down with only one trip over the bars and was feeling like this was going well.

The road section between Ingleborough and Whernside is a good place to eat and drink, and a section where I can gauge my pace in the race. Both years Nick Craig passed me somewhere along here, and we have a brief chat as he does. He is always friendly and I look forward to seeing him, but the longer I can put it off the better things are going for me. This year Rob Jebb (winner of the last five editions) came by on the road where Nick had. Cool. The guy I was riding with asked "Is that Robb Jebb?" as he vanished up the road and I confirmed his suspicion. He replied, "I hate him". He was smiling when he said it though.

Nick Craig
Photo ©: Phil Ingham
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Nick caught me on the way up Whernside, on the section before I had to dismount. He had a small train of Scott riders along with him. They were working together to try to pull back some of the time he'd lost to Robb on the first climb, so he wasn't in a chatty mood this year. As far as I can tell he is a little stronger than Robb on the bike, but he loses so much time on the steep climbs to Robb that he can't close up the gap before the end. I don't want to mislead you - Nick is not slow on the climbs, and Rob is not slow on the bike either. But Rob is a serious fell runner, and a damn fast one. He won the running version of this event this year, one of the few folks to get "the double". That is the key to winning this race. For Nick, having teammates to help out on the road sections seemed smart.

Problems

The first of my mechanical woes turned up on the way to Whernside. My saddle started to come loose. The bike had been ridden pretty hard for the last week and raced prior to that without a problem, but for some reason it decided to come off here. My ace mechanic friend Chris would tell me the fasteners needed grease… Yeah, she is probably right - again. I stopped before it fell off, at a point where I was dismounting anyway, and tightened everything up quickly. I didn't want to stop, but it was getting hard to sit on the bike and I didn't want to lose the thing or be digging around on my hands and knees in the mud for the fasteners.

Things started to unravel for me physically on the ascent up Whernside too. About a third of the way up I felt like I had no power and even started to cramp a little, which caught me off guard. This was only a little over an hour into the event, way too early for a cramp. I'd been eating and drinking properly so far too. My only chance to salvage things was to back off a little, drink, and try to recover.

I think, looking back at it, that I started the race a little dehydrated. I hadn't been as focused as I should have been on this the days leading up to the race and the riding and running I'd been doing was wringing me out pretty thoroughly each day. That caught up with me when the pace went up in the race. It pissed me off but there was nothing I could do about it, so I kept rolling and hoping that things would improve. They never did.

Adding to that, the descent down Whernside was a little too typical for me. This portion of the course is the wheel killer, and the most technical section on the course. It got me again.

Carl McDonagh
Photo ©: Phil Ingham
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I'd set up two sets of wheels for this race. Both were a 'tubeless hybrid' configuration (I'll leave it at that for now), using large cyclocross tires and sealant. I ran them at 70 psi which is high for a cross race but low for the 3 Peaks. I wanted to have the extra traction that the lower pressure gives and hoped the tubeless configuration would prevent flats. (I found out later, in the pub after the race, that 100 psi in a large, heavy duty touring tire is the hot set up). Sometimes things don't go the way you want them too though.

The first puncture occurred in roughly the same spot it had the first two years, just as I started to roll down the back side off of the summit. There was a brief spurt of sealant out of the front tire which meant that it was a puncture on something sharp and not a pinch flat. I cursed. Then the sealant sorted it out after two revolutions. I smiled. The set up was working.

The next problem was a pinch flat in back. I rode down the long row of stones that come up a little ways into the descent (they are laid end to end to form an elevated path over a marshy area - you'll just have to go there and race to get a better idea of what they are like), and was on the edge of control the entire time. Actually I might have been a little past the edge and was just lucky to stay on the bike - it's hard to tell sometimes. But the stones were slick, braking without locking the wheel was tricky, and so was everything else that wasn't just rolling in a straight line. At one point I mistimed a drainage gap, hit the back wheel on the edge of the stone on the far edge, and that did in the tire. But the tire sealed up again after a few revolutions. The tire configuration was doing its job, sort of.

The next problem taught me something new. After a puncture the tire loses some pressure while the sealant does its thing. It ends up resealed, but less able to resist pinching again on the next impact because it's lost pressure. When I pinched it again, it sealed again, but at an even lower pressure, and so on. The incremental air loss would not be a big deal in a typical cyclocross race. The puncture resistance would be an advantage, especially at the lower pressure one would typically use on a normal cyclocross course. But this is not a normal cyclocross course and there were a lot of rocks still in front of me. Still, all things considered the wheels had been a success of sorts to that point. There was enough air left in the tire to roll along fairly quickly rather than having to stop and change the tube after each puncture.

Heather Dawe
Photo ©: Phil Ingham
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That all came to an end when something kicked into the spokes and broke the top of the Presta valve off. The sealant cannot deal with that. Now the rear tire really was flat.

That's when the other unanticipated benefit of the set up became apparent. The tire in this set up stays on the rim when it is flat, like a tubular. So, even though this part of the course is slightly downhill, fairly fast and very rocky in spots, and the rim was taking a serious beating, I was able to rumble and crunch along at about 1/2 speed to get to my spares. I found Mel, changed to my spare wheels, and carried on. The new wheels got me up Pen-Y-Ghent the last climb and back down again without another wheel problem.

Then my saddle decided to come loose again. I think now that the cause (in addition to me being a slacker and not greasing up the fasteners properly) was the horrible vibration the saddle is exposed to when I am riding out of the saddle on the fast rocky descents. That's something that I only really do in a race, so the bike hadn't been exposed too much beforehand. The front derailleur decided to stop working too, but I jammed it onto the middle ring with my hand and heel and just left it there.

In spite of all that I celebrated the day by staying in front of the guys I finished with at the line too. There is no easy way to sprint to the line at the end of this race. The run up to the finish includes a sharp right turn with a small curb in it just before the short, narrow finishing straight. Having the lead coming into the turn is the best way to be in front at the line unless you want to risk taking out a handful of spectators trying to come around someone after the turn. That might be OK, or at least understandable, if you were sprinting to win, but would not be too cool if you were fighting it out for 145th. I ended up taking 15 minutes off my time from last year, and finishing the in seventh place in the M50 category too. At least I made it back in time for the awards…

The gongs

Steve Worland
Photo ©: Phil Ingham
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The awards ceremony was fun. It was a chance to see the leaders when they were going slowly enough to recognize them. Louise Robinson was the fastest woman around the course. Carl McDonagh won the M50 race, and he rides for Brixton Cycles, so they both deserve a plug too. In addition to posing for shots with the category winners and trying hard not to look stupid, I gave out an award to a guy who was 70 something and had finished the race in style. The alarming/encouraging/cool news was that he'd have to come back next year if he wanted the 'oldest finisher' record. I'd like to be there for that and I wouldn't mind being tough enough and fit enough at 70 to still be racing here.

Steve beat me by 20 minutes and placed well up in the race. His version of the day was a good indication of his fitness and recovery from the troubles in Canada. "It was almost a perfect day. People were crashing in front of me on the descents to show me where the bad lines were, and I felt good the entire time." It was good to see, and definitely a result he deserved after the days of suffering he had to put up with in the TransRockies. Now I have to figure out how to match that sort of fitness by next August so we can go back to Canada and do that event up properly. That will be my motivation preparing for next year's racing.

Stuart Hathaway
Photo ©: Phil Ingham
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The last trial in the event was being bought a round by Rob Jebb in the local pub. I had a chance to meet him and some of the other very fast folks, including Chris Young, Louise Robinson and Isla Rowntree. I provided some entertainment with the description of my hacked up wheel experiments and they told me the real way to set up wheels that work. I listened. Unfortunately I had to abandon this session early (many pints, err, hours before it ended I suspect) because I had to drive myself back to the barn without hitting any sheep or ending up in the ditch. I cashed in my race prize for a round and headed off.

Next year. See you there, right?
KB

Results

Photography

For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Phil Ingham/British Cycling

  • Keith and yet another experimental tyre set up
  • Carl McDonagh on the way to winning the men's 40-50 category
  • Chipps Chippendale riding with gears, skinny tires and those funny little levers
  • Heather Dawe - first in the under-40 women, but behind Robinson. Experience helps in 3 Peaks.
  • John Rawnsley won the first edition of the 3 Peaks and has ridden every race since.
  • Louise Robinson on the way to yet another victory in the women's race
  • Rob Jebb on the way to yet another 3 Peaks victory.
  • Nick Craig won in 1991 but struggles to best Jebb's speed in the running sections.
  • Steve Worland - the well known British MTB journalist had recovered from KB's attempts to break him at TransRockies.
  • Stuart Hathaway - smiles are legal in the 3 Peaks Cyclocross