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It seems like only a couple of weeks since adventurer Sean Conway got back from cycling round the world – 16,000 miles, and he didn’t let a little thing like a broken back stop him. For his latest challenge Sean took on the Three Peaks Challenge, that is climbing the highest mountains in England, Scotland and Wales (Scafell Pike, Ben Nevis and Snowdon respectively) – and cycling over 400 miles in between, all within 60 hours. He was accompanied by fellow adventurer Sophie Roberts. Here he tells us about the trip, and offers a few tips for anyone thinking of taking on the challenge. Words and pictures by Sean Conway.
So, the challenge was to see if I could do the Three Peaks Cycle challenge in a long weekend. That involves cycling 140 miles and climbing a peak each day. Although it’s far off a record attempt, it’s by no means an easy challenge. I had planned to do it with Andy Brown (The fastest person to row the Atlantic solo), but due to other commitments he had to pull out at the last minute. I was all prepared to do it solo until Sophie came to the rescue!
I had only met Sophie the week before and mentioned the challenge to her. I loved the fact that she is a spontaneous adventurer and decided quite last minute (the night before actually) to commit. I was looking forward to sharing my adventure with someone but was also equally nervous. What if she was really slow, or really fast? I haven’t cycled much since I got back, which was two months ago now. I could very well be sub par on this. I also knew nothing about Sophie and she knew nothing about me. But in a way I loved that. Two people who have a passion for adventurous challenges meeting up and getting on with it.
So on Thursday afternoon Sophie and I, along with Jon (our driver and photographer) and Jez (in charge of nutrition, route planning and an experienced Three Peaker) all set off for Snowdon. The drive was long and wet but we eventually arrived at the foot of Snowdon, had a pub dinner and found a place to camp wild. It was late and the rain was coming down sideways. Not the ideal start but our excitement overshadowed any discomfort.
After about 4 hours restless sleep we got up. It was 4.30am. By now the rain had stopped and we started to climb Snowdon at around 5.30am. It was dark and a little spooky as we head torched our way up into the mist covered mountain. Within the first mile I knew that Sophie and I were going to get along. She was constantly smiling and getting us all together for some fun photos. She was clearly super fit too and has done the Three Peaks twice before. I’d have to step up my game in the walking department to keep up. Walking uses a whole new set of muscles which I’m not used to (too much time cycling!) Another good thing was we seemed to both have the same goals in mind for this challenge. Push ourselves without sacrificing adventure, while having a good time along the way.
We made it up and down in 3.5 hours. The scenery was incredible, and Jez even managed a cheeky cold swim on the way down which we all naturally watched and took photos of.
Our changeover to cycling was by no means fast. In fact we’d probably have been disqualified from any triathlon. It’s always like that at the beginning of any adventure/challenge. You still need to work out a system – like don’t leave your cycle shoes right at the bottom of your rucksack which is right at the back of the boot. By 10am we were on the bike and greeted by 10 miles of downhill as we left Snowdon. Our legs were fresh and our pace fast. Sophie was clearly a strong cyclist too. We headed North-East towards the coast and then along and around to Liverpool making the most of a good tailwind. We made good time and only stopped once for a puncture. Jon and Jez stopped 45 miles ahead for a feed station. We had a sandwich and a shake and hit the road again.
Getting through Liverpool wasn’t fun. It’s always slow with all the traffic lights and cars. I kept thinking there must be a better route but there isn’t really. We slogged on though and eventually managed to get off the busy A roads and onto some quiet farm roads. By nightfall we’d done about 115 miles. Sophie was definitely a strong rider but failed miserably on having enough light for cycling at night. Luckily I had the mother of all bike lights (1000 lumen) and managed to keep us both out of trouble.
Jez’s parents live in Kendal which was a convenient stop for day 1. We arrived by 9.30pm to the best lasagne I have had since Italy, made better by a few beers. My body felt good but I was very sleepy from a not enough sleep the night before. At least we had a bed tonight.
Total mileage cycled: 145 miles.
Up at 4.30am again. It was dark and a little cold. We were ready to go at around 5am only realise Sophie had another puncture overnight. There is nothing worse than waking up to a puncture. We fixed it and started the 40 miles ride to Scafell Pike.
The mornings are always slow, and today was no exception. Partly because we were tired and partly because the scenery was so beautiful we were stopping loads to take photos. We were both tired but still managed to find ourselves in stitches a lot of the time. It’s great when people see the funny side when things are tough and Sophie was certainly good at that. A true adventurer. We were talking a lot about challenges, past and future. We both have some big ideas and it was good to see another person’s view on all things adventurous.
It was a lot hillier today and we eventually made Scafell by 9am. We were a little quicker at the turnaround this time. I didn’t even bother changing out my cycle gear for the climb (bar shoes of course).
Scafell was a lot harder, longer, and more technical. It was slow going but we eventually made the top by around midday. The views were incredible and the weather had pulled through for us. We all sat in the sun eating a few homemade sandwiches and chatting to a few other climbers. Quite a few people took their dogs up and one decided to come over, sniff my beard and then turned away in disgust. This obviously looked a lot funnier from where Sophie, Jon and Jez were sitting because they couldn’t stop laughing. I wasn’t that impressed. I was under the impression that big ginger beards are loved by the canine world. Obviously not.
Coming down Scafell was even slower. Both our knees started to hurt and I had forgotten to bring my walking poles. We arrived back at the car at around 1.30pm only to find Sophie had another puncture. Right! Time to get rid of her front tyre and give her one of my spare Continental GP4000s which hardly ever flat. Great tyres.
Getting back on the bike was tough this time. We still had 120 miles to cycle. Our frustration grew even more when Sophie got yet another puncture about a mile down the road, this time on her back tyre. Time to replace that one too so I gave her another spare Conti GP4000s and we were off again.
By 4pm we’d only managed 75 miles and it soon became clear we were not going to make our 145 mile target. Jez re-evaluated the route and found a few potential places we could camp. Both Sophie and I were quite tired and didn’t want to cycle much past 10pm so that we could get a good night’s sleep. We pushed on through Carlisle and onto the Old Glasgow Road. It was getting colder and colder the further North we went.
At around 9.30pm and 120 miles in we then hit another hurdle. My light stopped working. 18 hours burn time my ass. We were now pretty much going blind. It was fine when the roads were empty and could navigate with her small light and the moon, but every time a car came towards us we were blinded to a complete stop. We also nearly ran over a badger. I’m not sure who got more of a fright, him or us.
We called Jez and he managed to find an old truck stop about 10 miles ahead, and we decided to camp there for the night. It was getting quite cold and although we were both really tired we still stayed up for an hour sitting around a campfire with some port and wine. I could have sat there all night but at 11.30pm we decided we should probably get to bed.
Total mileage cycled: 130 miles
It was freezing last night and we woke up to frost covered everything. Sitting on a frost bitten saddle is not much fun. Our alarm was set for 4.30am but we only managed to get on the bikes by 6am. It was just too cold to do anything. I had to warm my water bottle in my thighs just to get the lid off.
We thought Saturday morning was slow going. Today was a whole new level of slug. Nothing worked and we were tired. I even managed to farm a gaggle of stalactites to my beard. That did help lift my mood a little as only real adventurers get ice on their beards right? Maybe I’ve finally been upgraded.
By 8am we really needed to warm up so made our way into a service station for some coffee and hot chocolate. Sophie made friends with a hand dryer and my new beard melted all over their floor. 20 minutes later we were kind of ready again.
We pushed on through Glasgow, only stopping briefly for a bacon and egg bun before heading on to Loch Lomond. Finally the busy duel carriageway gave way to the scenic loch-side road. It was really beautiful and we were making good progress. Our last obstacle was the long 1200ft climb to Glencoe. Both our legs were starting to feel the effects of the last two days. We stopped one last time about 50 miles before Fort William for a protein shake and some food. The last climb was slow and my right knee was starting to feel fragile. Neither of us were even talking about the notion we still had to climb Ben Nevis. In fact we weren’t talking at all. Finally we reached the top of Glencoe and were greeted with one of the best downhills ever. A much needed boost to our average speed and definitely in my top 10 of all downhills.
The last 20 miles are always the worst. In your mind you’ve ‘made it’ so your body shuts down a bit. It’s a real struggle to keep the pace up but eventually after 150 miles, body broken and mind tired we rolled into Fort William. Total distance cycled: 425 miles. Both Sophie and I pretty much felt like we had done it now. Ben Nevis wasn’t a hard climb and knowing we didn’t have to get back on the bike was such a good feeling. We faffed around for nearly 2 hours having a proper dinner (not just a protein shake) and sorting out what camping gear to take. It was the plan all along to camp at the top. Both Sophie and I wanted to add one more night of adventure rather than come back down to a campsite.
I can’t really remember much of the climb. It was slow, misty and the top was still snow covered. My head torch also stopped working which made it a little sketchy at times (really need to rethink future lighting strategy). It was good to have Jez and Jon with us on all the climbs. They kept us entertained.
We made the top by midnight or so, cold and tired. It felt like we were in some sort of space alien filmset as the mist rolled in through the moonlit landscape. It was A LOT colder, wetter and windier than expected. We couldn’t camp wild so had to squeeze in to the emergency shelter. Even that was too cold but going back down wasn’t an option. I wanted this adventure to last a bit longer and if that meant be cold for one more night then that’s just what needed to be done.
We all squeezed in and opened a bottle of whisky and chatted about the weekend’s adventure. There were many highs, a few lows and a great sense of achievement. By 1.30am and an empty bottle of whisky, we all settled in for a cold night at the highest point in the UK.
We slept in till 8.30am. It felt weird waking up when it was light. We packed up and started heading down. The mist opened up and the views across the Scottish highlands were breathtaking. Coming down during daylight hours was certainly worth the cold night.
This was certainly one of the best challenges I have done. It was tough, but doable, fun and adventurous. Could we have done it quicker? Of course. A lot quicker. But I am glad we didn’t. We managed to equally balance: being adventurous, having fun, and pushing ourselves.
I really think the Three Peaks Cycle Challenge is one of the best long weekend adventure challenges you can do. I really hope more people try it. Below are the figures and some tips if you want to do it.
Total elevation climbed: 3600m
Total distance climbed: 27 miles
Total elevation cycled: 5700m
Total distance cycled: 425 miles
Average cycle speed: 14mph
Average hours slept per night: 4-5
Get the training in. You must have done a few 100 mile Sportives first. You need to keep a steady pace and know what it’s like to cycle 50 miles at a time without stopping.
Try and keep as little time off the bike as possible. All those 10 minute stops all add up and take time away from sleep.
Eat properly. You’ll probably be spending 18 hours a day exercising. Make sure you get the calories in. We were eating around 4-5000kcal and that probably wasn’t enough.
Look at your route. Design a fast route. If you can shave 10 miles off your route then you’ll probably save an hour at the end of the day when you are tired.
Walk in your cycle clothes, it saves time.
Have pre-made shakes and sandwiches so that you don’t waste time when you stop.
Sleep well in the lead up. Getting a few nights of 10 hours or more really helps the short nights on the road. It’s called sleep banking. Look into it.
Use a cycle GPS. Having a pre designed route on your bike saves loads of time trying to work out where to go, especially going through Liverpool and Glasgow.
Start with Snowdon. Heading North means you’ll probably have a tail wind all the way up.
Do it in the summer. It was really cold in Scotland now and the days are short. You’ll feel better cycling with the longer days.
He has just published a book about his round the world exploits, World Cycling Stripped Bare, available now!