Brian Vernor is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, photographer, artist and storyteller. More than anything, he’s a cyclocross racer. Here he talks about his experience tackling one of the most infamous cycling events of any discipline: Three Peaks Cyclocross Race.
Ritchey Design: Three Peaks. What is it?
Brian Vernor: It’s called a cyclocross race, but really it’s a long distance adventure through the English countryside. The course carries you up and over three significant peaks, all of which force you off the bike for an unreasonable amount of running, hiking and shouldering. I grew up in Santa Cruz, California and at the time it was (and still is) one of the hubs for cyclocross in the United States. I started racing there in high school and I heard whispers about “Three Peaks” from some of the elder statesmen of the sport who’d gone to Europe to race and explore the less conventional rides and races out there. Three Peaks was always discussed with great reverence. And fear.
RD: Why fear?
BV: Until I did it, I didn’t understand either. No amount of description does it justice. It’s just 38 miles, but it takes most people over four hours. And these are some seriously fit competitors. You spend half your time hiking and it’s just something none of us as cross racers normally do. It’s nothing like a conventional race.
RD: Is it an open event? Can anyone ride it?
BV: You have to apply and not everyone gets in. There are some arbitrary rules and you have to show some experience as a cross rider, and display some confidence that you’ll finish, and that you can handle yourself.
RD: What’s the start like?
BV: Terrifying. It’s 600 riders barreling down narrow country roads for the first five miles of the race. And the roads are open to traffic. There’s some hairy stuff going on but it sorts itself out pretty quick. Quite a few riders know they’re in it to survive and burying yourself in the first five miles to stay with the leaders is not worth the energy.
RD: What are some of the memorable sections of the course?
BV: Without a doubt, the first peak, Ingleborough. Most of the off-road sections of the course are not open to riding for the rest of the year as it’s a private land, so there’s no way to pre-ride things. As a first-time competitor your understanding of what’s to come is limited. You roll up on the Ingleborough climb, and you realize just what you’re in for once you’re forced off the bike by the steepness. It’s a 20% grade and over a mile long. You’ll be walking for 30-40 minutes. It’s memorable…it’s just not the sort of thing cross racers normally do. The scale of it is in your face, too. When you go hiking, you normally don’t see the top of the peak, but here (assuming the weather is clear) you can see just how far away the peak is, and it’s overwhelming to realize just how far you’ll have to portage your bike.
RD: How did you feel at that spot?
BV: You kinda feel screwed. There’s a moment where your soul is crushed. You’re in over your head and nothing you did prepared you for this. The first peak is covered in grass, and the grass is right in your face. You’re crawling on hands and knees sometimes. It’s that steep. But really, it's weird because the same sense of dread hits you on each peak. At the bottom of each peak the task at hand is staring you in the face and it ain't pretty.
RD: Sounds fun. What about the other side? Any near death experiences?
BV: The descents off each peak are loosely defined. You just find your own line down…there’s very little course markings. People who’ve done the event a few times seem to know the better lines, so you try to follow riders who appear to know where to be, but they might lead you into a bog, or off a cliff, and then you’re climbing down a pile of loose rocks. You can go all-out and make up a lot of time descending aggressively but the risks are apparent. I’ve ridden cross bikes on trails my whole life and I took quite a few risks but there were still riders going faster. It’s SO rough…it’d be rough even on a mountain bike. You can’t always see what’s coming next, and it goes on like this for 25 minutes. All around you riders are crashing, and people are yelping with fear and pain, and you think “Oh man I’m glad I didn’t hit whatever that guy hit”.
RD: What’s the ideal gear setup?
BV: Conventional cyclocross bikes are mandatory, with 700 x 35c tires and drop bars. I chose the disc brake bike and that was a good move. Low gearing is key…I had a 36x34t and a decently wide range, as there are some road sections between peaks and you end up in pacelines working with groups of riders.
RD: Here comes the standard cyclocross question…what air pressure did you run?
BV: I ran 80psi in clinchers. Most people with experience recommended even higher than that. Keith Bontrager was there, and he was very firm in telling me to run very high pressure, recounting one experience he had (he’s done the event four times) where he had six flats. And the high tire pressure worked….I had a clean ride, everything worked, no flats or broken parts, just a couple crashes but nothing serious.
RD: This event is pretty personal to you, as a bike rider as well as a photographer and film maker.
BV: I’ve raced cyclocross since I was a kid, well before I was a photographer and film maker. My first film project, Pure Sweet Hell, was about the US cyclocross scene, which at that time was still pretty small. It gave me an excuse to go deeper with the scene and people and it was a very positive experience. That experience lead me to make more films and also focus on photography. My interest hasn’t changed….much of my photography has focused on cross and it’s what I’m known for. It goes hand-in-hand: riding, racing and trying to capture the essence of it on film. When I’m behind the camera, I know what it’s like to ride and race and it creatively inspires me. Having thought about Three Peaks Cyclocross for 20 years, it was a pilgrimage to do it….but I also wanted to make a film project around this race because its lore and mystique are at the root of why I've raced and also why I picked up cameras. The earliest aesthetic seeds were planted in me by this race and I feel obligated to celebrate it. My film is as much about creativity and inspiration as it is about cyclocross.
Thanks, Brian. Look for a new Brian Vernor film documenting his experience with cyclocross and the Three Peaks coming in 2016.
Brian rode a custom painted Swiss Cross Disc with Zeta Disc wheels and WCS EvoCurve Bars.
You can view the trailer to Pure Sweet Hell here.