Following on from a brief description of my Handsling Bikes CXD set up for the iconic Three Peaks Cyclo-cross, I thought I’d run through in a little more detail the whys and wherefores of the setup and how it addresses some of the unique demands this race makes on rider and rid, over its rough thirty-eight mile distance with 5000ft of climb.
I’d previously only ever used my CXD for one hour lapped cyclo-cross racing; a discipline where it excelled with a very usable blend of stiffness, stable handling and great mud clearance. Taking it over three mountains and down several gratuitously rocky descents was a different proposition however.
It was the lack of weight in CXD frame that drew me to exploring whether it would make a good Peaks bike, as I had previously used titanium and alloy offerings in recent editions of the race. Given the amount of climbing – and the fact that much of it involves actually carrying the bike – I set about trying to build the lightest, but strongest bike I could. With a few key parts to lighten the load where it was possible to safely do so, and gearing to match the demands of the terrain and attritional nature of the race.
Riding the Peaks requires an odd/unique blend of ability to ride hilly road time trials; run/jog/walk up ridiculously steep off-road gradients with the bike; then survive the technical descents back down again, some grassy, some gravelly, some rocky but all hard. It therefore neither favours a road cyclist, a mountain biker, a cyclo-cross rider nor a fell runner. Rather it favours someone who can do all of those things, smoothly and efficiently AND without breaking man or machine. Cue Rob Jebb, Nick Craig and the many others who blend a high level of skill in all those areas to produce the perfect Peaks package.
Beginning to test the CXD frame for its new purpose, I found that on bridleway bashing around my local Lancashire hills and fells, it was much more comfortable than I anticipated, despite the stiff power delivery that works so well in short sharp muddy ‘cross. Handling that was stable on the ‘cross course remained just as good when things got rockier, the front end just tracking where requested without being thrown off line by rocks or hard bumpy surfaces.
Gearing is always a difficult thing to gauge for the Peaks – fast road sections give way to the never ending grind up the rough limestone lane on the way to the third and final Peak, Penyghent, where the gradient whilst not steep when fresh, conspires to bring you to a halt on tired legs on the verge of cramping. Having gone for lower and lower gears over the (advancing) years, I have in the past used a 1:1 ratio of say 34×34.
This year, and wanting to go single ring to save weight, I opted for a 38 chainring with 11-42 SunRace cassette. Relatively light for its size, the SunRace has been a popular option amongst mountain-bikers and adventure riders for a little while now and whilst the 38×42 bottom gear is unlikely to be used much on race day, it’s still a good bail out option if things get messy toward the end. There isn’t a Peaks rider out there that won’t have cramped at some point in the race. I’ll probably be a little under geared for the road sections but will take the opportunity to eat and drink plenty on those anyway as refuelling is very difficult once off-road and climbing or descending.
Looking to keep the overall weight of the bike down, I opted to go for the lightest chainset and wheels that would also be strong and robust enough to survive the descents. A standard SRAM Red chainset is a very light thing but also strong, though it will suffer with the many small rocks and stones that the front wheel flicks up when descending. A single thick thin Hope chainring and SRAM Rival long cage mech with clutch means chain tension is enough to avoid chainslap on the CXD chainstays, and chain drop is not a problem.
The wheels are light Novatec hubs with replacement buttery smooth Hope bearings, built onto DT Swiss 29er rims and made tubeless by old Planet X teammate Dave Haygarth with IRC Serac Cx Mud (tubeless). A mud tyre may seem like an odd choice on an event with so much gravel, hard surface and road riding but they aren’t too aggressive. They also roll well on the road and give good bite on some of the greasy grassy sections early on, as well as off the final summit which can be muddy high up. The tubeless set up has been perfect, with no issues, some big hits on rocks in training and tough sidewalls. They also give an amazing level of comfort to the ride, better than the 34mm Tufo tubulars that I have always used in the past.
Other Peaks-specific options include a minimal 135g old school Flite saddle (you don’t spend much time sat down) and bar-top or ‘chicken’ levers on the handlebars. These give great control on steep sections as you can push your weight back towards the rear of the bike, as well as relieving some of the hand and wrist-cramping strain of long rough descents.
Braking is taken care of with TRP HyRd disc brakes – cable actuated but hydraulically operated from a cylinder on the calliper. They give strong, but even braking and will probably run with fully sintered pads as the Peaks in wet weather can eat a set of organic pads in just one of the three main descents. I’ll carry spare pads too if things are really bad, along with the whistle and survival bag that are mandatory kit. It is a mountain race after all…
Eating and drinking in the Peaks is, as it is for any long hard race, very important. Except, it’s not a road ride where you can take on fluids and food easily as often you are too busy hanging on for dear life, or climbing with a bike unhelpfully draped over your shoulder with the bottle out of reach. This year, following experience in some long fell running events, I am going for a Salomon race vest with softflasks for liquid and multiple pockets to stash food. Avoiding using a bottle cage on the bike helps carrying in comfort and allows me to use a skinsuit without bulging pockets. No bounce from the vest, and the supportive nature of the skinsuit will all aid comfort later into the race.
This is my first year back at the Peaks after a few years out following a serious injury, and with an unhelpful fell running accident resulting in bruised ribs three weeks ago, will probably see a more ‘steady away’ approach, in the hope that a strong finish can be achieved up Penyghent, the final of the three. Either way, the Peaks is an incredibly challenging but absorbing race to do, with its unique blend of terrain. Running in the Fell Race version earlier in the year, I was reminded of how gloriously ridiculous it is to take a ‘cross bike over that terrain, and that is why the Three Peaks grips me and many others like no other event. Roll on race day, even if the forecast is looking a bit wild on the tops with thunder storms, 40mph winds and heavy showers…
Check out Geoff Waugh’s video below of the 2012 edition of the Three Peaks, which was run off in slightly, mist conditions.
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