Paul was there in the capacity of support crew for his dad (Chris), who has raced the event plenty of times (a role reversal - Chris is normally Paul's pit man in the National Trophy races). When I asked Paul in 2009 why he wasn't riding, his answer was pleasantly understandable and frank: "Because I absolutely hate this race", he said. Far from being taken aback, I knew what he meant. Paul had soared as high as fourth at his best in the 'peaks and is a quality rider, but it's so specialist and off-the-beaten track, in cyclocross terms, that his 'inside the top ten' placings that would make most of us very happy, probably weren't doing it for Paul.
I spoke to Paul about this year's race; why he was back, and what his plans were. I started asking him the obvious question: Why was he back?
"I want to do the jersey proud" was his first reaction, "I think I'll be the first national [senior male] champion to start the 3 peaks in a very long time". That's an understatement - the last one to enter was either John Atkins (in the 1970s) or Nick Craig (When he was twice champion in the 1990s) - still - John was the last one to win the 3 peaks as national champion - in 1970. So is Paul going to Helwith Bridge to win?
"It's certainly a possibility. I think I'm capable of winning it if it goes well. 4th was my best in the past but I was a different rider then."
"It's a race that comes back to the bike rider" says Paul - speaking of the vicious start up Simon Fell onto the Ingleborough ridge. "Ingleborough's a runner's hill - and so is Whernside to an extent, but not so much. When you get to Penyghent, it definitely favours the rider".
Paul refers more directly to the opposition, by saying "Rob [Jebb] is bound to be at the front on Ingleborough but a gap on the road is going to be harder to keep this year [with a stronger field at the top end]. Craigy [Nick Craig] has had to chase on his own most years, but if Rob gets a gap on his own, people will eat into it if they ride hard".
So we chatted for a bit about the various scenarios - 3 minute gap at Ribblehead, 2 minutes etc... it starts to become a serious prospect that Paul - with his excellent mountain bike AND road experience could win the event this year.
"It's be nice but I'm not doing much special training" says Paul, playing it down in much the same way that everyone does, before adding, "you need to be doing loads of specialist training and I do what I can, but I have to gear my training towards the rest of the season - wearing the jersey is important this year so I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket".
It's a familiar but understandable explanation (but unfamiliar to me, who is happy to put eggs, bacon, fried bread, tomatoes etc all in the 3 peaks basket!). So what is Paul doing then, with this race on the horizon? "I'm doing a bit in the gym - there's a Jacobs Ladder thing that I go on for about 15 minutes [simulating a stiff walking climb], and a bit of hill work when I can fit it in".
It's refreshing that he's putting in a bit of specialist effort. But what about the bike?
"We've been expecting a delivery of bikes ready for disc brakes" says Paul - who rides and works for Hope, "We've made some reservoir adapters so we can get decent [hydraulic] brakes on, but the frames are late so it's looking like I'll be riding one of last year's Scott Addicts. They're dead light so will be great when you're carrying. Other than that the only special difference is the wheels and gears".
We chat for a bit about the gearing issue / choices... "it's hard, cause when you're going really well you don't have to think about low gears. The year I was 4th I rode 39-25 up Penyghent and overtook all the way up". Legend has it that he was indeed in 14th place at the start of the climb that year. "But you need a bail out if you're having a hard time".
And what about tyres, I ask. I know it's an obsession for us all...! "I'll probably ride [Schwalbe] Landcruisers, 'tubelessed up'. " - I was slightly taken aback - whilst tubeless is really an accepted norm in many MTB races, it's certainly not mainstream in cyclocross. "I never ride owt else off road - I love it" adds Paul... "and you can always put a tube in then just as quick as a tube if you get stuck". An interesting prospect - dying to see how he gets on with this on a 'cross bike (and slightly tempted myself now...!).
Finally, one big issue on my mind was this year's team prize (for the three highest placed riders in a team). "I think we're in with a good chance and it'll be close" says Paul, before I explain to him that Stuard Reid, of team favourites Wheelbase.co.uk / Cannondale will not be riding this season. "Oh - I think we could do it then if it all goes well - it'll be really close - we need Keith [Murray] to pull his finger out though!". It's a good point and meant in good spirits. Keith is a massively experienced rider in all disciplines and has had an amazing season time trialling this year, but has never quite fulfilled his potential in the 3 peaks - his time will come. If it comes this year, then Hope could be very hard to beat in the team competition.
"It'd be great for Hope" adds Paul. Hope have generously and consistently supported the prize list of the 3 peaks, so indeed it would. But not without a fight, eh?
Whatever happens in September, it's great to see the bike rider come back to 'the race that comes back to the bike rider' anyway - welcome back, Paul.