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 likely 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.
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.
After half a century, in 2013 John Rawnsley handed over the reins of the race organisation. “I can’t go on organising it forever,” he says. “And 50 years is a milestone.”
I find myself committing what I’ve always felt is a cardinal journalistic sin and asking him a question about how he feels – what his emotions are as he prepares to hand over the race.
“Well, it’s mixed feelings, really,” he says.”Erm…” He trails off and then lets out a sigh which is audible even on my recording of our conversation, made on the cheapest digital voice recorder that Argos sell.
This isn’t the first goodbye John has had to say to the race. In 2006 he had to retire from competing due to a breathing problem. “I know through bad health he can’t do it any more but he’d still be doing it this year if he could,” Nick Craig tells me. “He did every one of them, didn’t he, and he just kept doing it.”
I don’t have to ask how John feels about not competing any more. It’s obvious. He still walks the Dales and still rides with a local group and still enjoys it. But when we talk about it, I sense a simultaneous sadness that he can no longer compete in the tough, long distance events he so loved.
“They were just a challenge, a sporting challenge,” he says. “That’s why I miss it so much now; I can’t do them anymore. I have to moderate. I’m with the Leyburn Cycling Group. I don’t go out every week but I’m still riding.
“It’s mostly elderly people in this group. I think there’s 13 members now, we’ve got three women and ten men. We always go out and have a café stop or pub stop at lunchtime. It’s just…” He doesn’t finish the thought but I sort of sense where it’s going.
“My club is the Bradford RCC,” he later emphasises. “I’ve been a member since 1960.” (He sweetly wears its jersey when he comes to pick me up at Skipton station, so that I can recognise him.)
We talk a lot about the sense of community in cycling, how many people he’s got to know through the sport, the enjoyment of being part of a club or group. We talk too about the camaraderie of the Three Peaks race, part of my ongoing attempt to define why the event is special. John agrees that there is a particularly high level of support and encouragement.
“When we go up and down Pen-y-Ghent at the end, riders are passing you as you are going up,” he says. “And I’ll never forget in 2006, when I rode for the last time, everybody recognised me and shouted encouragement, you know, because I was one of the slower ones.” I notice he lets out another sigh.
I’ve heard a story via Rouleur editor and dedicated Three Peaks-er Ian Cleverly. A couple of years back, Ian wrote on the Rouleur blog about a very special surprise Fred Salmon gave [ten-time Three Peaks winner] Rob Jebb back in the 2010 race.
Rob was going for a record seventh win and three-time victor Salmon had promised him a shock during the race. If Ian’s version of events were to be believed, he got it, in the form of Salmon springing from behind a wall, naked except for a blond wig.
“I can’t remember what year it was but, yeah, he jumped out on top of Pen-y-Ghent stark naked,” confirms Rob when I ask him about it. “Made me go over the handlebars!” he says, laughing. Between giggles, I suggest this sort of thing might be another part of what makes the race so special. “Yeah, I think he could get away with it on that hill!”
Nick Craig, a three-time winner of the race, is quick to relate this incident too when I ask him for his favourite Three Peaks tales. He prefaces it with: “I don’t know if you could even possibly put it in to Rouleur magazine.”
Once I assure him that our standards are much lower than he had assumed, he regales me with his version of the story and promises to get me a photo of the moment, taken by a friend of his. “I used it in a presentation at work,” he laughs. “I love the Three Peaks,” continues Nick. “Absolutely love it.”
Lots of people do, I’m realising, not least its organiser and rider of 45 editions of it.
This article is an edited extract of one that was originally published in issue 34 of Rouleur