For a number of years, I’d quietly set myself a goal of completing the infamous ‘3 Peaks’ Challenge – or what is now known as “Peaks Challenge – Falls Creek”. It was definitely a bucket list kinda thing. Each year around November, there’d be guys I rode with or knew that would be training for it and each year I’d excuse myself for one reason or another. I knew I couldn’t hide forever and it was going to get harder every year I waited so last year, 2016, I entered.
I started out pretty vigilant with my training coming out of winter 2016, getting ready for Amy’s Gran Fondo as I did most years. Dropped a little weight, did some work on the trainer, some long rides down to Arthur’s Seat and back and so on but you wouldn’t call it particularly strategic training. With plenty of work and family pressures, I really didn’t need the stress of trying to train on set days to strict plans. I’ve overtrained before and it was bitterly disappointing to find that all that work and sacrifice has actually made you slower.
Amy’s Gran Fondo in September went well and I felt like I was in reasonable shape. 3 Peaks was still five months away and I put it out of my mind, as best I could anyway. I had a summer holiday coming up and after a hard year of work, I needed a break from everything, including the bike.
January absolutely tore past and I started to put in some much longer rides than normal. The 3 Peaks course is 235km so I knew I’d at least have to ride over 200km a few times before the big day, if only to get my arse accustomed to the treatment. I kept my usual Saturday morning bunch rides going and used Sundays for more epic rides. I plotted a course that went down to Arthur’s Seat, across to Cape Shanck, along Westernport Bay to Hastings, up to Belgrave in the Dandenongs and then back home. A total of 222km. As a chronic cramper, I was expecting my legs to start playing up somewhere after 150kms or so but strangely, they didn’t and I felt quite strong riding up the hills and on the last 30kms towards home. The course gave me about 2,600m of vertical gain, which wasn’t even close to the 4,600m of 3 Peaks, but I was pretty pleased with myself. I averaged just under 30km/hr for the whole ride.
The following Sunday, a buddy asked if he could do the course with me which I was more than happy to do. We decided to reverse the direction as a southerly was forecast and I fancied a tail wind home from the Mornington Peninsula. It was a stunning morning in the Dandenongs and so we did some extra climbing before we headed for Belgrave and on down towards Westernport Bay. One thing I began to notice was that even though I had a partner this time and we were taking turns resting, I was starting to feel more tired than I did the week before. The steep hills around Flinders bit particularly hard and by the time we were heading back through Frankston, I was feeling very ordinary. The cramps arrived just after Mordialloc, about 15kms from home and the inner sides of both quads were putting on a great old show. I could only ride out of the saddle and even then at about half normal pace due to the fact that I was bouncing around from side to side like a clown on a crazy bike. As I’ve found with cramps, if you can just keep pedalling and tell them to f&*% off, they actually go away. For a bit. Made it home OK and had a similar average speed to the previous Sunday but felt a lot worse and doubt began to creep into my mind. Not that I wouldn’t make it round the course, but that I would limp across the finish line, well outside my target time, a broken man.
The weekend of the event arrived, as these things are want to do, and I headed up to Falls Creek on the Saturday morning. Checked into my room which was looking over the event village and start/finish line. A great spot. At 6pm the organisers, Bicycle Network Victoria, gave us all the ride briefing and a fair whack of encouragement for the morning. The weather forecast was looking pretty grim with showers and then storms at Dinner plain. This was gong to be epic on every level by the looks of it. For those not in the know, 3 Peaks is a 235km course around the Victorian Alps, starting and finishing at the top of Falls Creek resort. It includes the climbs of: Towonga Gap (entree) 7.5km @ 6%; Mt Hotham (main course) 30km @ 4% and the back side of Falls Creek (dessert, coffee, cheese platter, cigars and Gaviscon) 23km @ 4%. The average of 4% for the back of Falls is extremely misleading. The first few hundred meters are 17% followed by a sustained 10% for the next 8 or so kms. With 200km already in the legs, it’s nothing short of absolute torture.
The whole valet and food bag drop thing had my brain tied in knots, especially given the weather forecast. I did come to grips with it after a while but was still umming and ahhhing right up to the last minute as a mistake here could prove disastrous!
You had to be on the start line at 6:30am so I woke at 5:40. I looked out at the start area and I could see the flashing lights of quite a few riders already at the start line. WTF were they doing? I still don’t know.
The descent to Mt Beauty was pretty uneventful, for me that is. I saw three guys get flats in the first 10ks. Bad luck or bad tyres… ? There were a few spots of rain but that was it. Glad we didn’t have wet roads!
By the time we got to Harrietville, the sun was poking through and it stayed out for the rest of the day. So their forecast was completely wrong thankfully. Well, apart from the wind, which was in full effect from about 10:30am.
The climb to Mt Hotham was very pleasant apart from a few steep bits and the last 4 kms. I did see a guy walking along the roadside with an ambo and his arm in a sling. The Bicycle Vic announcer from the night before had offered to buy every rider a beer if nobody did their collarbone. I almost said something to him like “thanks a lot mate” but thought better of it, poor bugger. On the other hand, who breaks their collarbone on a climb? I did see the immediate aftermath of two other bingles, one which sadly included someone I knew. He was ok but his bike was damaged and he had to retire.
It actually ended up being a pretty warm day, about 28. With that hot wind blowing, I felt as dry as a chip no matter how much I drank.
That final corner on the Omeo Rd presented my small bunch with the thing we had been dreading most – WTF corner. The fact that we were now only 35km from the finish was just a cruel joke. It would take me, and many others, almost 2 hours of pure suffering to get to the finish line.
It was damn hot climbing back of Falls. There were many people who had the strength to arrive at the climb in good time but who got off and started walking. I had started getting cramps way back near the top of Hotham and I’d been able to manage them and still be on target for 10 hours, until I got to the back of Falls. In order to keep the cramps at bay, I had to do some snaking across the road. Embarrassing, but necessary, I didn’t want to be walker.
Someone had said that they would have cans of coke at Trapyard Gap, about 25km from the finish. I just kept seeing that bright red can in my mind and I wanted about 5 of them really badly. Until then, I had to pull over and stop a few times just to drink, I was worried I’d fall off I was going so slow.
The horrible section was over and at Trapyard Gap they did indeed have coke. I almost knocked a few guys over as I rode right up to the counter. I grabbed a can, opened it and took a big gulp. So cold! So good! But my stomach immediately complained and blew up like a balloon. It must have set off some sort of explosive reaction. I couldn’t even take another sip. I ate half a banana which kind of bounced off my stomach lining and I set off to try to reach my goal.
While the final 25ks were easier in terms of gradient, my legs were shot and the cramps returned quickly. The wind near the top of Falls Creek was ripping across the road slowing you to about half the speed you would normally expect to be doing. I saw the 10 hour time pass on my Garmin and knew I hadn’t made it. I would be just have to be content with finishing.
10 hours 3 minutes. Not disappointed really, it was a very tough day and I finished pretty much right on the time I was hoping to do.
After the finish I buzzed around trying to drink everything I could lay my hands on. Beer, no! Lemonade, no! Water, no! Could this unholy thirst be not slaked? Then I saw it, the Milkshake and Doughnut stand. I ordered a large banana milkshake. I’d never been more certain of anything in my life as I waited patiently for my salvation. And so it was, it was perfect. Food on the other hand wasn’t possible, at least not at this time. Even doughnuts.
The bottom of the milkshake cup came up quickly and my thoughts then turned to my next mission. I had a spa on my balcony. I grabbed my bike, strode into the building and up the lift. I can’t describe how good it felt to get in it.
As I lay in the spa, I could hear the announcer calling out finisher’s names and the cheers from the crowds along the finish barriers. They really were doing an excellent job of welcoming all the riders back. It was quite a blast to ride through all that noise at the finish.
Darkness gradually descended on Falls Creek and the lights of the event village took over. I felt for those that were just finishing or were still out there in the dark. And I thought my day was tough. There was a beautiful sunset over the mountains and the wind died down. It was the end of a very, very big day.