Who’s faster – a runner or a cyclist?

I’m always up for a spot of silliness and the Harriers v Cyclists race is definitely one of the sillier races out there. Runners and cyclists battle over the same course which goes from Bingley up and around Baildon Moor before following the same route back down. It’s five miles of mud and mayhem which puts a smile on a lot of faces. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a smilier fell race. If you haven’t don’t it yet then you need to. Twice.

It’s not a proper mountain bike ride if you stay on your bike the whole time

Who’s faster, a runner or a cyclist?

It’s a simple enough question but the answer is very much one of “it depends”. If we’re talking about racing along a smooth, flat, hard surface then the cyclist will win unless they have some disastrous mechanical problem. But, if the race is through thick bogs and over rocky mountain tops, then the runner is the favourite.

Somewhere between these extremes it should be possible to devise a route which gives an even chance to both competitors. That’s the aim of the Harriers v Cyclists race organised each year by Bingley Harriers. Positions of the top ten cyclists and the top ten runners are totted up at the end of the race to find a winner and the result is usually pretty close.

Weeks of rainfall beforehand made sure it was an exciting course

I’ve always kind of fancied giving it a go but without ever getting my act together. So, when my mate Tim said he was going to cycle it, I thought I should go along for a laugh. And if he was going to cycle it then I’d have to run it. Tim hadn’t done any off-road races on his bike before and was hoping to learn from this before putting his name down for the Three Peaks Cyclocross next year.

Get your excuses in early

The day of the race was after several weeks of wet weather which left large swathes of the country flooded. The course was as saturated as it could be so it felt like the runners should definitely have the advantage. Well, that’s what all the cyclists were saying…

The start of the race is at the bottom of a steep grassy bank and after the hooter goes for the start, everyone legs it up the slope as fast as they can. No-one even tried to ride their bike at this point – they were all being pushed or carried.

Lots of the uphills mean cyclists have to push or carry – and runners have to walk

There were about 150 runners and about 50 cyclists and the cyclists were split roughly half and half between mountain and cyclocross bikes. There are advantages to each. The fat tyres and suspension of a mountain bike helps going downhill and over boggy ground but, being a lot lighter, a cyclocross bike is easier to put over your shoulder and carry up the hill in the first place. And, when the course is as waterlogged as it was this year, there’s a lot of carrying involved.

For a runner bikes present a novel challenge in a fell race. When a bike is slung over the shoulders of someone in front of you it can block the entire width of a path. By my calculations that slowed me up by 22 minutes or so, but I wasn’t going to make a fuss about it. As long as I finished ahead of Tim I was going to be happy.

The steepest part of the race is at the start but there aren’t many places going uphill on a boggy day where cyclists can really get any speed up even when they do get onto their bikes. So the first half of the race consists of runners trying to dodge past cyclists struggling uphill and the second half consists of them listening out for cries of “coming through” as the cyclists whizz past them on their way downhill.

On the downhill sections cyclists finally have an advantage

I spent the entire downhill anticipating that one of these overtaking cyclists would be Tim but that never happened. I hadn’t seen him at the start of the race and he wasn’t there at the finish either – was he OK?

The winning formula

In each race I enter I have a list of ambitions that looks something like this:

  • get to the start
  • get to the finish
  • don’t come last
  • finish ahead of someone I know
  • finish in the top half

So with a success rate of four out of five I was reasonably happy. Tim was less successful, covering himself in mud rather than glory and finishing about 10 minutes after me. On the plus side he did fall off his bike four times, so he can’t pretend that he didn’t enjoy himself.

Possibly the smiliest fell race?

Enjoyment was the order of the day and there were a lot of broad grins at the finish. Looking at the faces of those who finished the race it seemed to me that the cyclists had enjoyed it the most. They certainly managed to collect more mud. A lot more mud.

Next year Tim is going to take part for the runners and I’m going to have a go on my bike. I’m looking forward to it already. Tim’s plans for the Three Peaks Cyclocross race however. Well, what can one say?

And the winner is?

At the prize giving later on it was announced that this year the runners had won the challenge but that does depend on how you view the results. The scoring to decide if runners are better than cyclists is done by adding up the positions of the first ten finishers in each discipline and I’m not sure that that’s mathematically fair. Out of 50 cyclists the top ten represents the fastest 20% of those available; whereas out of 150 runners the top ten represents the fastest 6.7% of those available – a much more elite selection. So in the existing calculation we’re not really comparing like with like.

If we compare the entire field then the average cyclist finished in roughly 96th place whereas the average runner finished in 102nd place. Or, if we take the median timings we find it took the median cyclist about 49:55 minutes to complete the race, while the median runner took about 51:28 minutes.

Good conditions for a fat bike

With either of these methods the cyclists edged it. Despite my being a runner I’m happier with one of these calculations because they both require considering everyone who took part and, after all, we all matter don’t we?

But don’t let my quibbling about how the scoring is calculated put you off this race. It’s one of the most enjoyable ones out there and I’d recommend it to anyone, cyclist or runner.

You can find a comprehensive set of results here.


One thing you may notice about this article is the quality of the photographs – they’re a cut above my usual efforts and the reason for that is because I didn’t take any of them. They were all provided by Dave and Eileen Woodhead of WoodenTops fame. For years they have organised a number of fell races and they now travel round events taking photos of participants which are available to view on their website.

Photos for this event can be found here:

One of the things I love about fell running is the number of people who put in a lot of unpaid time and effort into making it all work. Thanks to all of you.



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