Three women, three peaks, one world record
Three women, three peaks, one world record
If you’d told Saoirse Pottie, Emily Cowper-Coles and Cass Stuttard a few years ago that they would one day hold a Guinness World Record in cycling, they might have laughed. “We are absolutely delighted – we’re just three women with full-time jobs that share a love for cycling. We never thought that we would break a record,” Saoirse admits.
Their adventure was a twist on the traditional Three Peaks challenge, where hikers climb the three highest peaks of the UK in under 24 hours. Instead of driving from Snowdon (1,085m) in Wales to England’s Scafell Pike (978m) and finishing on top of Scotland’s Ben Nevis (1,345m), it involved cycling the 720km in between.
They ended up completing the challenge in 67.5 hours, beating the previous women’s team record by almost 20 hours. On top of that, they raised more than £9,000 for Mountain Rescue and The Trussel Trust to help people affected by the pandemic.
Despite being outdoorsy all their lives, the trio all found cycling later, roughly around the same time. Having become a tight-knit group of friends during a stint of working together in the environmental sector, they then all found jobs that scattered them across the country. For the former co-workers, cycling is a way to stay connected and their ambitions keep growing.
Cycling is the perfect speed. You can cover distances you couldn’t do walking, but it’s slow enough to take everything in
Saoirse Pottie, Guinness World Record holder
They decided to try bikepacking together as a fun way to meet up once or twice a year. Soon they found they had become even closer through it.
According to Saoirse “it spiralled very quickly” from tackling the Whitehaven to Sunderland Coast to Coast in 2019, followed by the North Coast 500 in 2020. Then in 2021 they decided to combine cycling with Cass and Emily’s love of mountains, which to Saoirse was a slightly more intimidating prospect.
Three women, three peaks, three days
When researching the adventure, Saoirse, Cass and Emily discovered they could break the current world record if they completed the challenge in under 72 hours.
It seemed too much of an opportunity to pass on; three women tackling the three peaks in three days. The potential to break the world record was just the cherry on top.
Finding the time to train between work, studying, family and friends was a juggling act. Their aim was to keep active in different ways throughout the winter to maintain a good base level of fitness for when they amped up the cycling training in the run-up to the challenge.
Cass took charge of route planning, splitting the ride into four-hour segments like round-the-world cycling record holder and Cycling UK member Mark Beaumont. Taking a leaf from his book, she created a detailed spreadsheet with timings and delegated different jobs to their support crew.
But even after getting all the kit together, along with food, first aid and what was needed off the bike, things still felt a bit rushed.
“I got a new Wahoo fitness tracker watch last minute, and some features I could have utilised better. It could have predicted the times that we take, which would have been useful to look at pacing-wise, but I didn’t use it as I didn’t know,” Cass explains. “You think you know where everything is, but when you’re sleep deprived and your brain is not functioning, it’s so hard to know where everything is.”
Saoirse agrees: “Ha! I don’t think you can ever feel fully prepared for something you haven’t done before.”
The ride had a shaky start. The night before the first climb, after putting their tents up at the bottom of Snowdon in a storm, they were all woken up after the flysheet from Emily’s tent blew away in the wind.
Although the sheet was salvaged and they eventually managed to go back to sleep, two of their phones were lost to the Welsh rain. This meant that in the morning, Cass had trouble loading the route onto her cycling computer, slightly delaying the 4am start.
But more bad weather was to come.
After climbing Snowdon, they set off to ride 287km to Ambleside – the furthest any of them had ever cycled in one day. Headwinds and torrential rain battered them constantly for the first 200km, and it wasn’t until crossing the border to England that the sky began to clear up.
In the past, Emily had been fine keeping up with the other two on her trusty old Raleigh, ‘Matilda’, but on the way to the Lake District the gears decided to stop cooperating.
That signified a low point for her: “I had no lowest gear as it got hillier and hillier, the challenge seemed to be slipping away and I was sobbing for the last hour to the hostel.”
Support from friends
The next day, a group of friends showed up to join the hike up Scafell Pike. According to Saoirse: “There were around 20 people, asking if we wanted cookies or brownies… You feel a bit guilty because you want to spend time with them but you’ve got to go.”
Throughout the journey, a variety of friends cheered them on and provided a lifeline, for which the riders are incredibly grateful. They were accompanied on the hikes, and a small support crew followed in a van with back-up supplies, gear, food and assistance.
This also changed everything for Emily; a friend lent her a lighter bike, giving her a new lease of life and making riding easier for the remaining two days.
You never regret going for a bike ride. You never come back and think, ‘oh, I wish I hadn’t done that’
Cass Stuttard, Guinness World Record holder
Leaving Glasgow on the final day, it was Saoirse’s turn to experience a low. She was fine while on the move, but as soon as they stopped her kneecaps were in pain. However, just as the ibuprofen was kicking in, the sun came also came out, revealing how glorious the landscape was as they turned around Glencoe.
At that point they all felt like they were flying and were reminded of all they love about being on their bikes.
“Cycling is the perfect speed. You can cover distances you couldn’t do walking, but it’s slow enough to take everything in”, says Saoirse, who also values the independence it gives you.
All three agreed the sense of freedom and the headspace you get is a huge part of it, more so than with any other activity, because it demands a presence, simply focusing on where you’re going.
Cass loves the deep conversations you get into during a long-distance ride, which you wouldn’t have down the pub. She adds: “You see the seasons change, the weather change. You’re a bit more connected to nature.”
Overcoming the obstacles
The hardest thing was managing the pain and getting over the mental barrier when you get off your bike; when everything hurts, you’re hungry and exhausted, but you know that after two hours of sleep you’ve got to get up and do the same thing again.
“The scale of it becomes apparent,” says Cass. “Everything before halfway feels like uphill, and you need the mental resilience to carry on going when everything is hurting. It’s hard to down liquids and food, and you’re getting back on the bike in the dark and cold.”
What got them through that feeling of hitting a wall was each other; the sense of camaraderie and all doing it as a team.
“We face adversity well together. Often when one was crashing, the other two would still be smiling, joking, and chatting away,” says Emily.
Saoirse echoes this: “Because we’ve done trips together, we know each other’s signals. It’s a lot easier to project on other people than to reflect on yourself. I thought, ‘you guys are incredible’.
“When the weather was bad, it would have been very easy to be miserable, but when you saw someone else was down it made you more upbeat because you wanted to lift them.”
Particularly for Emily, who has overcome chronic fatigue and ill health in the past, it’s important not to take your body for granted, but to look after yourself during long-distance endurance rides. You need to “take your health seriously, appreciate your energy, measure yourself throughout the day”.
Saoirse is upbeat about having to resort to creativity during a long-distance ride. “It’s unlikely that things will go entirely to plan and it would make for a boring story if it did!”
The pragmatic mindset of the other two helped: “It’s great going on adventures with Cass and Emily, because within minutes of something going wrong, we’ve accepted it and already made a plan B, C or D…”
Finishing line and beyond
Arriving at the top of Ben Nevis at around 10pm on the third day, they popped a bottle of Prosecco with five friends who had showed up for the final hike, and immediately passed out in their tents.
“When we tell people about the challenge, they often reply by saying they could never do that, but I think it’s easy to forget we all start somewhere,” Saoirse explains. While everyone’s definition of adventure is different, for her it’s about simply doing something new that pushes you out of your comfort zone.
If you feel getting on your bike and going is the hardest bit, they recommend not biting off more than you can chew. “Just go for it, don’t set your sights too high so you come back buzzing and hungry for more,” Emily says.
Cass adds: “You never regret going for a bike ride. You never come back and think, ‘oh, I wish I hadn’t done that’. You regret not doing it.”
With cycling and the adventure industry dominated by stories about men, Cass, Emily and Saoirse are glad to have played their part in skewing that narrative.
While they’re not suggesting everyone needs to take on something so extreme, Saoirse believes that the more stories we can share of people of different ethnicities, backgrounds, abilities, shapes and sizes, the more diverse it will become, and by extension, the world will become a better place.
And although they’re not sure they can take full credit, a friend is now planning to take on the same three peaks, but tackling the climbs on her mountain bike.
Saoirse isn’t precious about the record either: “There are lots of women out there who are faster, stronger and more experienced cyclists than us. The men’s team record is currently 43 hours, so we know there’s room for improvement. We would love to see the next female team absolutely smash our time and show that women can be equally as competitive.”
Inspired by Saoirse, Cass and Emily’s tale and wondering where to start your bikepacking journey? Check out our #12nightsoutin1year challenge for tips, advice and guidance on how to make the most of exploring the places closest to home.