March 13, 2013

3 Peaks Challenge 2013

A lot can happen in 10+ hours on the bike. You might start the day feeling fresh and excited, but there are bound to be times when the freshness gives way to fatigue, and the excitement makes way for exasperation. Sunday’s 3 Peaks Challenge was a perfect example. I reckon I went through every possible emotion in my quest to finish the 3 Peaks Challenge for a third time, and to do so in less than 10 hours.

Shortly after crossing the start/finish gantry and beginning the descent of Falls Creek, it became clear that the riders in wave 1 weren’t going to be taking it easy. There were riders using every centimetre of the road (despite being told to stay on the left), riders overtaking dangerously on either side, riders cutting each other off … you name it. I was keen to get off to a good start too, but I didn’t particularly want my day to be over inside the first 5km so I backed things off a bit.

My brother Brendan pushed on ahead but I wasn’t particularly worried — I assumed I’d be able to out-climb him on peak #1, Tawonga Gap, and we’d continue on from there together. But I underestimated him. I rode a comfortable tempo up Tawonga and didn’t see Brendan until the rest stop at the top — and he’d been waiting for a few minutes.

Early morning views from the lower slopes of Tawonga Gap.

Early morning views from the lower slopes of Tawonga Gap.

I started descending towards Bright while Brendan finished his snack, assuming he’d out-descend me. But when I got to Germantown and started heading towards Bright, Brendan was nowhere in sight. I soft-pedalled for a bit, letting a few big groups fly past me (including one that featured my eQuipo tranQuilo teammate Fletch), but after a while I decided to push on, figuring I’d see Brendan somewhere on peak #2 of the revised route: Mt. Buffalo.

I was swept up by two riders who kindly towed me to Bright at around 45km/h and from there I worked with a couple of other riders as we pushed through the rollers to the base of Mt. Buffalo. The day was only young but already I was starting to keep an eye on the time to make sure I was ahead of schedule.

Approaching Mt. Buffalo.

Approaching Mt. Buffalo.

I’ve often said that Mt. Buffalo is my favourite climb and I’m not inclined to change that after Sunday. After our little group disintegrated at the start of the climb, I found a comfortable rhythm and relished the opportunity to ride such a great mountain in the early morning sun, before the heat of the day, with so many others around.

A few kilometres in I caught up to Fletch and our Canberran teammate Carl Jenkins and the three of us rode together as we made our way to the top of the second challenge of the day. I never felt like we were pushing particularly hard which meant we had time to look around and appreciate the views. But even still, we reached the top in good time — roughly 30 minutes ahead of where we needed to be.

It was great to see so many ET-ers out on the road.

It was great to see so many ET-ers out on the road.

The top section of the Mt. Buffalo descent was very sketchy and at least one rider had come off. He was lying on the roadside as we rode past (cautiously) and we would see an ambulance winding its way slowly up the mountain later in the descent. And what a descent it is.

Not only is Mt. Buffalo my favourite mountain to climb, it’s also my favourite to ride down. It’s fast and flowing, it offers spectacular views and has great lines of sight so you can see if cars are coming up the mountain towards you. Sure, we had to go a little slower as we descended Mt. Buffalo on Sunday, what with the hundreds of cyclists heading up and down, but it was still an absolute pleasure.

After reaching the bottom of the climb, our little group rolled through to Porepunkah for a brief lunch stop. My dad had been good enough to make the drive all the way up to the high country to see Brendan and I ride and he was there at the lunch stop, offering encouragement. It was great to see him there.

With my 10-hour goal firmly in mind, I was keen to get moving and so as Brendan rolled into the lunch stop, myself and a few others were getting ready to make our way out. I asked Brendan if he minded me pushing on and he said it was fine. At the time it seemed like a reasonable move but when I heard later how Brendan’s ride panned out, I felt terrible. More on that in a moment.

Climbing Mt. Buffalo was probably the highlight of the day.

Climbing Mt. Buffalo was the highlight of the day.

Our small group rolled out of Porepunkah and headed up the Great Alpine Road to Ovens — the flattest section of the day. With a few of us in the bunch, and a few more joining as we went, it made sense to roll some turns. To be honest, it was a bit of a shambolic effort from the bunch, with gaps opening up all over the place, frequent speed changes and a concertina effect that had me scrambling for my brakes on more than a few occasions. But it did the job — we were able to move along at a decent pace (~40km/h), saving energy as we went, putting Fletch and I well on track to break 10 hours.

By the time we reached Ovens and took the right turn towards Rosewhite things were starting to heat up (somewhat appropriately given the name of the town). The temperature had pushed above 30ºC for the first time and with absolutely no tree cover, we all started to bake.

Over the next few kilometres the rough roads, rolling hills and building heat all started to take their toll and our shabby but effective group started to splinter. A few of us — including Fletch, myself and the Donvale Demon — worked hard to stay with a small group that was pushing towards Rosewhite at a painful pace but after a while the pace was too high and I, at least, had to sit up and conserve my energy.

The high temperatures and a lack of shade made the Ovens to Mt. Beauty section very tough.

The high temperatures and a lack of shade made the Ovens to Mt. Beauty section very tough.

Those rolling hills around Rosewhite are actually quite scenic but on Sunday, the inescapable heat, the building fatigue, the ever-present dehydration, and the knowledge that we still had 70km to go all started to take their toll. I’d been feeling good until that point but when the Rosewhite Gap climb rolled around, the fun was well and truly over.

On paper the Rosewhite Gap climb isn’t that tough — 4.4km at about 4% — but in the roasting heat and after 160km, it felt very challenging. The biggest problem I had was that my feet had started to hurt. A lot. The outside of both feet and my smallest toe on each foot felt like they were being stabbed and every pedal stroke was agony. I’m not sure if my feet were just swollen from the heat, or if it was something else entirely, but either way, it was excruciating.

Fletch and I crested Rosewhite (the Demon was looking strong and left us in his wake) and barely pedalled as we flew down the other side towards Running Creek. Fletch said to me at the time ‘I really feel like we deserve this descent’ and I couldn’t have agreed more. Everything was starting to feel very difficult and the prospect of climbing up Falls Creek to finish the day was unappealing to say the least.

Fletch and I were suffering too much to enjoy the views from the Rosewhite climb.

Fletch and I were suffering too much to enjoy the views from the Rosewhite climb.

After a quick drink stop at Running Creek — which included pouring some iced water over our heads; heaven — it was back on the road for the 26km stretch to Mt. Beauty. Like the Happy Valley Road from Ovens, the Kiewa Valley Highway from Running Creek to Mt. Beauty was very exposed. The temperature was getting close to 35ºC and the final climb of the day couldn’t come soon enough.

In the ride guide that Josh Goodall helped me put together for the revised 3 Peaks course, he spoke about the Ovens to Mt. Beauty section being “energy sapping”. He couldn’t have been more accurate. Every little hill felt like a mountain, and the flat, dead, valley roads felt as rough as gravel. It didn’t help that the “group” we were riding with had no interest in helping Fletch or I at the front.

We’d sit out front for what felt like an eternity, pulling the group along, and then when we sat up and looked around for others to help out, they’d all slow down and stay on our wheels. It was pretty disappointing. I get that they were suffering, but we were all suffering, and it would have been easier if we’d all worked together.

At the Running Creek rest stop we’d been about 20 minutes ahead of schedule for the sub-10-hour finish and for the rest of the ride that seemed to be all I thought about. I’d given Fletch and I an hour to ride to Mt. Beauty and in the end we were only a few minutes off that. After filling out bottles, washing our faces, having something to eat and psyching ourselves up, we got back on our bikes and made our way to the start of the final climb.

You ain't foolin' me, mate.

Thumbs up? You ain’t foolin’ me, mate.

I’m not sure I’ve ever started a mountain climb feeling as fatigued and as drained as I did on Sunday. Sure, the Back of Falls in the regular 3 Peaks loop is hellish after 200km, but both times I’ve done it, I haven’t felt like I was utterly shattered. On Sunday, I was. Completely spent. My legs felt empty, I was feeling nauseous, and psychologically, I didn’t know how I was going to drag myself up the 30km to the finish line at Falls Creek. But we still had to give it a try.

We started the final climb with 2 hours and 17 minutes before the 10-hour cut off. It should have been enough time — I’ve climbed it in about 1 hour and 30 minutes when fresh, and in 2 hours when fatigued — but I was worried the 200km of energy-sapping riding we’d done already would see our climb time balloon out.

Fletch and I rode with 7 Peaks Domestique Series rider Andrew Moodie for the first 15km or so, the three of us saying a few words here, a few words there. Every short descent was more welcome than you would ever believe, and every ramp after those short downhills was brutal. We reached the bridge at the base of the final section of sustained climbing with a little over an hour in reserve. Again, it should have been enough, but that didn’t stop me checking my speedo constantly.

In fact, in those final 13km of the ride I think I spent most of my time looking at how fast we were going and calculating the speed we’d need to average from then on if we were to make it in under 10 hours. But in my fatigued, almost delirious state, arithmetic that would otherwise have be simple became as challenging as second order differential calculus. My brain became a jumble of times, distances and speeds and I couldn’t work out if we needed to average 10km/h or 10h/km.

There's no time to enjoy the scenery when you deep in the pain cave.

There’s no time to enjoy the scenery when you’re deep in the pain cave.

Still, having that mathematical mess in my head was far preferable to the alternative. The excruciating pain in my feet had returned and at times I let out an involuntary whimper. At other times I belted out a scream of pain and frustration. But it wasn’t just my feet; my everything was hurting. My legs, arms, head, stomach … And psychologically, well, I was in a bad place.

It had stopped being fun long ago, but by this point I was starting to question why I was even doing this ride, why I even ride a bike at all. I resolved to stop riding for at least a month after 3 Peaks, lest I feel the urge to get myself into a situation like this again.

But I still had to finish the ride. I mustered all the energy I could and focused on maintaining a speed of 10km/h+, to try and give myself a buffer should I fall apart on the slightly steeper section after the tollbooth.

At some point Fletch moved gradually up the road and I just couldn’t stay with him. But it really didn’t seem to matter. Even with him beside me I was in my own little world of pain. A place that even the most supporting teammate couldn’t have dragged me out of. I’d have to push through it on my own. And if I wanted to go under 10 hours, I’d need to keep the pace up.

It was a huge relief to finally see the Falls Creek resort ahead of us.

It was a huge relief to finally see the Falls Creek resort ahead of us.

It seemed to take an eternity for every kilometre to tick over but tick over they did. And with every kilometre I put behind me, my required average speed dropped a little bit more. At least that’s what I assumed was happening — my mental arithmetic had lost all accuracy and was on the verge of breaking down completely. But from somewhere (a gel perhaps?) I found the energy to keep my pace above 11km/h, reeling in then passing Fletch in the process.

When I passed the tollbooth I knew I only had 4km to go and that I’d soon be able to see the Falls Creek resort ahead of me. And when I finally did see the resort, it gave me something concrete to focus on. The finish wasn’t just km away, it was right there, so close I could almost touch it.

Fletch had asked me earlier in the climb to let him know when I knew, without doubt, that we’d make it in under 10 hours. I’d refrained from saying anything thus far — largely because I didn’t trust my mental arithmetic in the state I was in — but when I could hear the finish-line announcer’s voice I knew I was home in under 10 hours. I looked around for Fletch but couldn’t see him. I hoped he was close enough behind so as to make the time limit as well, before mustering all my strength in a final push for the line.

A lot of the time I climb mountains for the view. On Sunday, I was climbing so the ride would be over.

A lot of the time I climb mountains for the view. On Sunday, I just wanted the ride to be over.

As I got to within 50m of the finish I saw that the organisers had set things up so you had to climb for another 100m past the finish, before ending doing a U-turn and finishing with a short descent. It was a bit of a kick in the guts — and it meant that my sprint for the line was wasted — but it still felt fantastic to cross the finish line.

It wasn’t the same feeling of unadulterated joy and elation I felt the previous two years with the plateau-and-downhill finish of the regular 3 Peaks route. Instead it was a pure feeling of relief. The pain was over. I could get off the bike. Finally.

In the end I crossed the line in 9 hours 51 minutes and 21 seconds, an effort I’m very proud of. Fletch came in a few minutes after me with a time of just under 9 hours 50 minutes (he started the ride a few minutes after me). He too was extremely relieved to finish and was so spent that he was taken to the first aid tent for a quick jab to, presumably, replace some lost fluids and nutrients.

Brendan battled away solo for much of the day, but finished in a little under 11.5 hours.

Brendan battled away solo for much of the day and finished in a little under 11.5 hours.

Chasing a time goal on a ride like 3 Peaks really changes the experience. It goes from being a simple case of survival to something a lot more stressful and, almost certainly, a lot tougher. On one hand it was great having a focused way of getting through the ride (and ensuring we didn’t stop for too long at the various rest stops) but on the other hand it made the ride a lot less fun than it could have been.

I’m glad we achieved our goal of sub 10 hours, but I feel bad for pushing Fletch to shorten his rest stops, and I feel bad for leaving Brendan behind at lunch. As mentioned, Brendan’s day didn’t pan out as well as he would have liked. He spent that hellish section from Ovens to Mt. Beauty riding completely on his own and it took its toll. He got to Mt. Beauty in a bad way and it took him around 2 hours 30 minutes to get to the top of the final climb. He got there in the end, but it was a lot harder than it might have been.

So, if I do 3 Peaks again next year, I suspect I’ll take it a little less seriously. I’ll make a point of waiting for Brendan and I won’t push myself to finish in 10 hours just for the sake of a jersey.

And so, to the question that many people have asked me: was this year’s 3 Peaks Challenge harder than in previous years? It’s a tough question to answer, particularly given one ride is so fresh in my mind while the other feels like a lifetime ago. But I will say this: a lot of people said that the revised route would be “easy” or that it was a “soft route”. Sure, on paper, it looks easier than the regular route, but the reality on Sunday was that the revised route felt every bit as hard as the original route.

The hot conditions and the fact I was pushing for sub 10 hours might have contributed to that feeling, but I also believe that this year’s mountain-top finish — as opposed to the regular route which has 14km of mostly downhill to end with — made the ride very difficult, physically and mentally. If the weather had been milder and I hadn’t been pushing for time? Well, who knows. But it certainly wasn’t the easy course many people predicted. In fact, it was utterly brutal.

In closing, I’d like to say a big thank you to Bicycle Network Victoria for putting on a cracking weekend after a tense and uncertain lead-up period. Thanks especially to Emma Bolger for inviting Brendan and I up to Falls Creek once again and for making us feel so welcome.

Thanks very much for reading.

Did you ride in the 2013 3 Peaks Challenge? How did your day unfold? If you’ve done the regular route, how did this year’s ride compare? Please leave your comments below.

Further reading


leave a comment
  1. Bill McFARLANE / Apr 11 2013

    Matt, thank you for a great report, which, like many others accurately represents theirs and my ride experience. I had heard from a riding buddy (Phil Morton the Great) that the ride was epic and despite what my head was telling me I put my hand up to do the ride in 2013. That began the process of training, including the Dirty Dozen here in Adelaide, and regular maximum meters rise for minimum kilometres efforts. I am sure that the camaraderie of training with a group of equally crazy riding mates and my potential shame for not actually turning up for the ride, gave me an incentive that over came my growing doubt that I would ever finish the ride if I started. Plans were made and accommodation at an undisclosed location at Falls were made. We soon worked out that the precious bikes needed special care and it was not enough to use a bike carrier and one car, the bikes would need to be dismantled and carefully placed into the back seat area of a large enough car, hence the need for our four person sub-group to use two sizable cars for the 12-hour drive to and from Falls Creek. What would I take to eat before the and after the ride, did I have all the correct gear, what would I eat during the ride, how often would I hydrate, did I need to take my own Hydrolyte or similar, would I take a spare tyre as well as two spare tubes, wouldn’t that just weigh me down? Your site and the many others I reviewed about the 3Peaks and one day riding events we very helpful. I drunk often, took my own Hydrolyte (but could have used what was made available- but did not know that would be the case) and even then there were not enough drink stations especially Ovens to Beauty, ate regularly, took two spare tubes and had two new tyres on the bike. As it turned out the organised accommodation for 10 people was the very best we could have hoped for (thanks Paul Rolfe of the BMW riding group) and a great bunch of pre- and post-ride buddies we were. We all arrived on the Friday evening after the long drive and ate early that evening, slept well and planned a short ride for Saturday back of Falls. Some of us woke early to get an idea of how cold it would be in the morning, good to know how many layers to have on, especially as we started the real ride with 30 kilometres downhill at 7 in the morning. On Saturday morning we did not go as far as WTF as we only wanted to turn the legs over after the long drive the previous day. Bike checking and registration was then on the agenda and all we appreciated the organisational thought by Bike Victoria that made that process very smooth. We were all tense the evening before and enjoyed the carbo-loading that some of us took to new heights not only that evening but had done so for the preceding few days. Hey, when you have a licence to eat after all that training, you make the most of it. We all agreed that a 5:00 am start on race day was reasonable and early to sleep we all went. I took half a sleeping tablet since I did not want to be wake for any part of the night thinking of the challenge ahead, hope I did not snore too loudly. Seems that was not an issue as we were all up at about the appointed hour and surprisingly for all that were there, showers and preparation went very smoothly. Once on our bikes and making our way down to the starting area, it was my great pleasure to wish all my buddies all the best of their rides, as I know that I would be taking up the rear, but how far to the rear that would be, was yet to be determined. Some of them went to the front zones and I made my way to Zone 4, the rearmost zone, knowing that I was not going to break any speed records down hill at the start and wanting to be safely to the bottom and able to get on with the next 200 kms in one piece. I will not bore you with my particular ride details, suffice to say that just as Matt and so many of those that rode had their demons and thrills doing the 2013 – 3 Peaks, I lived them as well. I do however vividly remember doing the maths as I pushed my self up the last 10 kilometres towards Falls Creek. I worked out that at 10 kilometres an hour it should only take one hour to do, but by the time I had done one kilometre there was nine kilometres to go but I had slowed to 9 kph and there was still an hour to go. Gee, the maths became confused thereafter and I have a degree in theoretical physics. Just shows you that the ride is a very personal thing. Anyway I finished — in just over 12 hours.with10 and half hours in the saddle and a happy rider, knowing that all my doubts was unfounded and I could be happy that an apparently very ambitious goal had been achieved. I soon found my mates hovering about the finishing area and I am told I looked fresh but I know that it was the emotional satisfaction that made the body stand proud. That was been my 3 Peaks, but it is always great sharing the experience with your mates and revealing in yours and their efforts. We all finished but it would not have mattered if one or more had not, as we all strove for the line together.

  2. David / Mar 18 2013

    Hi Matt, Agree that was a good write up, and like many others I can’t decide whether this 3 Peaks was harder or just different to the previous two that I have done (I missed 2012).
    One thing that was certianly harder this year was that after finishing 2011 in 9:01 I entered the event with a very clear goal to ride sub 9hrs. This goal, of course, changed when they changed the course, I figured that the course would be at least half an hour faster, so I thought that 8:30 would be a good goal to aim for. With this goal in mind I made sure that I started near the front of the group, and so when Nick Mitchell went I was able to jump onto the group that formed around him. The first part of the descent of Falls was pretty hairy as it was still a bit dark, but I gave it pretty much everything I had to stay with the bunch.
    Putting in the effort proved a good decision as I was able to stick with the bunch all the way through to just before Mt Beauty when a few surges started happening in the bunch and my fatigue really started catching up with me – as a result of which I rolled into the drink stop just as the bunch was leaving. I then had to wait to get water as the pump had stopped working (in the end we just dumped our bottles into the tank); before starting the climb. This just about got me, my foot was burning with every pedal stroke, and my legs had been totaly drained. So it was just a long slow slog up the climb, including stopping at that bloody red light!! With 6kms to go I was just about of water, but fortunately was able to get some from one of the road side pipes – and the nice cold water was wonderful, after that I felt the best I had all climb. So on and upwards to that first sight of Falls Creek, and for the first time on the climb I managed to catch a couple of guys who had started with the front bunch before rolling over in 8:03 – so in front of my goal, but definitely one of the hardest days I have done in the saddle.

  3. Darren Taylor / Mar 18 2013

    Great summary.
    Your ride was a mirror image of mine including painful feet. I finished in 10.30. It was my third 3 Peaks and I found it the hardest yet. We named Happy Valley as Death Valley and I nearly mistook the soaring eagles for vultures. The back of Falls would have been carnage had we faced it this year.
    At 4kms from the finish line I was out of water and I was parched. To my amazement I spotted a vending machine on the corner.
    One smug guy was sipping a cold can of Coke. I had a $20 bill on me but the machine took “exact change only”! I christen this the WTF corner of the alternative 3 Peaks course. If we climb the front of Falls again the ride guide should include $3.50 of coins as essential equipment.

    The most harrowing sight for me this year was seeing one poor guy fall off his bike with exhaustion only 250 mtrs from the finish. It took the marshals a few minutes to revive him and he didn’t make it over the line after all he’d been through.

  4. Tony Cooper / Mar 16 2013

    Matt great info I was one of a team of 7 “Full Montes ” who completed the Challenge for the first time and identify with almost of your comments about the ride in particular the hard slog through Ovens to Mt Beauty. We all finished between 11 hours 50 and 12 hours 20. Most of us thought that your suggested training ride including Reefton Spur , Lake Mountain and finishing with Donna Buang prepared us pretty well particulary for Falls Creek at the end . Thanks for your efforts.

  5. James / Mar 15 2013

    Matt, great resource thanks, it was invaluable in the lead up.
    I went over there as one of the ‘BMW’ guys, we all had a great time, but its amazing how similar everyones stories are! Our ‘pro’ rider Gus was sub 8hrs, I was just over 8.5hrs, all the other guys came in at less than 10hrs. But we all shared the same experiences, good to the lunch stop, suffering through the heat, and then crawling up Falls with feet in agony in our own little pain cave..
    I think I saw no more than 10-12 different riders from the bottom of Buffalo through to the end, it was pretty lonely out there especially though the heat, the dead roads and the what seemed like never ending rollers. I kept expecting (hoping) for a large group to come past and ‘hoover’ me up, it didn’t happen and the slog continued!
    But in the end it was a fantastic experience and I learnt a lot about myself, roll on next year..

  6. Barry / Mar 15 2013

    Hi Matt,
    I started riding about 10 months ago and, like many others, find your site an invaluable source of information. When riding climbs for the first time, it’s been great to have read your profiles and to have a detailed idea of what lies ahead. I can only imagine the hours of effort that have gone in to establishing and maintaining the site. Very well done!
    I was a 3 Peaks first timer on Sunday, having caught the cycling event bug after completing the ATB 250 last year. At that time I looked at what other events were on offer and when I read about the 3 Peaks, thought, “yep, that’s for me”. Although I’m a relative newcomer to the sport, I’m fortunate when it comes to climbing, as I was able to get down to about 62 kg for the event, so have a bit of a natural advantage for the main element of this type of circuit. Unfortunately, for me, I haven’t developed great speed/power on the flat but hoped that I’d cruise along with bunches, still doing my turns at the front, to make up for this weakness. I had, ambitiously, set myself a 10 hour completion target and finished up with 10.43 and, like many others, suffered badly in the heat. Our ride experiences were pretty much mirrored, except that I basically rode solo from Ovens to Mt Beauty. If there is a next time, I hope that I’ve learned my lesson and will slow pedal until I can find a bunch to join to help get t