Riding the Coal Road

I rode my ’cross bike to the station at Shipley and took the early train to Garsdale, up in the northwest of the Yorkshire Dales.

A November morning ‐ while the previous days had been freezing, it had warmed a little. I was pleased about that; it meant there would be less chance for ice‐induced falls on the untreated fell roads I would be riding home.

The old Coal Road

From Garsdale station the climbing starts straight away ‐ high along the Coal Road, the unclassified old way linking Garsdale to Dentdale and Newby Head.

While I was riding alone I was thinking of another. The person who inspired this ride would be sitting at home in Bingley. Warm in his front room, a fire in his eyes, his mind likely in other places. Maybe he would be reading through his diaries of when he cycled the Tour de Mont Blanc on unpaved roads in two days over 60 years ago, riding the Pennine Way in less than three days in the summer of ’76, winning the first edition of the Three Peaks Cyclo‐Cross.

John Rawnsley is a legend in cycling. The creator of the Three Peaks Cyclo‐Cross, a hero to many riders, and the man who won the race back in 1961 and went on to ride it 45 times.

Over the past month or so I have been spending time with John, talking of the ’Peaks and his other cycling and racing experiences. I have felt incredibly lucky to be told of the history of the race by John in his own words, along with tales of his own extensive racing achievements and wider cycling adventures.

Along with my friend and publishing protagonist Jo Allen, we have begun to piece together the stories of the race. We are working our way through the extensive archives John and his wife Brigitte have collected through the years and are going to make and publish a book: John’s Race ‐ the story of the Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross.

There are many treasures in the archives. In a scrapbook of thanks compiled by some of John’s friends and race competitors in 2012, the 50th year of the race and the last time John would organise it, in a letter to John, Isla Rowntree wrote:

’Your event (for it will forever be associated with you) epitomises the best of us ‐ determination, a certain perverseness, camaraderie and teamwork.’

Isla was so right. It is John’s race and their stories are intertwined ‐ he created it and has held it true to its gritty Yorkshire roots for all these years.

In both speaking with John and having access to the race archives, Jo and I are quite aware of the honour and responsibility we have been granted. This will be a labour of love that we want to do as well as we possibly can. Along with the wealth of history in the archives, there are lots of people we would like to speak to, lots of stories to collect. Winners, runners-up, every rider, supporter and spectator has their own anecdote, each of us has at least one tale of the amazing, weird and wonderful from the race. We would like to capture as many of these as possible and reproduce them in the book.

50th anniversary book of thanks for John

Ready for the 60th edition of the ’Peaks, the book will be a history of the race, from the first time back in 1961 through to the present day. It will also tell of John’s background, his formative years, cycling career, how he came to instigate, develop and then maintain the race, always keeping its unique and special nature.

Back on my November ride, after climbing up the Coal Road, I crossed Arten Gill Moss to Newby Head and then on to Ribblehead. From there I followed the road down to Horton and then Helwith Bridge, memories of the race flooding through me. From Horton I climbed the bridleway over the shoulder of Pen-y-Ghent, joined the road to Halton Gill, down Littondale to Wharfedale and followed the river to my home in Otley.

’That’s quite some ride’, John said to me the day after, when I told him where I had been. My goodness, I felt proud to hear him say that to me ‐ John’s exploits in cycling are immense, in many ways achieved way before their time. He is the quiet leader many of us follow, who made the best cycle race in the world what it is today.