January 2, 2014

Domestique 7 Peaks Series 2013/14: Falls Creek

2013 Falls Creek Bunch

This is the first of four blog posts about a recent trip to the Victorian Alps for the Domestique 7 Peaks Series. Stay posted for the remaining instalments. You can click on any of the images below to see larger versions.

Before I caught the cycling bug I would spend the period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve watching the Boxing Day test match. If I wasn’t at the MCG catching the game live, I’d be sitting on the couch at home, my feet up. But in recent years, that tradition has made way for something slightly more strenuous — an annual cycling trip to the Victorian Alps.

From December 27 to December 30 myself and several hundred other cyclists headed to the high country for the Domestique 7 Peaks Series – a collaboration between this website and Hells 500 that runs alongside Tourism North East’s 7 Peaks Alpine Ascent Challenge.

This season’s three-day trip started with a climb up Falls Creek on the Saturday afternoon before tackling three more mountains in two days. But I had to get through the Falls climb before I could think about the rest of the weekend.

2013 Falls Creek Bunch

After driving up to Falls Creek on Friday, Hells 500 founder Andy van Bergen and I had headed out with a small group on Saturday morning to ride around the dam at the top of Falls Creek and get our first taste of the high country for this season. It was a glorious morning, spoiled only by a slight twinge in my left knee which, I’ve been told by a physio, is the result of patellar tendinitis.

That afternoon, those of us who were staying at Falls Creek descended to Mt. Beauty, set ourselves up in the park and waited for everyone to arrive. Many riders had opted to beat the heat by riding the climb earlier in the day, the last of those making their way up the hill as we descended.

If their open jerseys and dropped heads were anything to go by, the climb was going to be challenging. And with the temperature nudging 40°C at Mt. Beauty more than a few riders were apprehensive about the role the heat would play.

Delivering the pre-ride briefing.

Delivering the pre-ride briefing.

After a pre-ride briefing in the shade at 2pm we sent the slower riders off first. I hung around to the end, happy to put my hand up for lanterne rouge duties — that is, being the last rider on the road. Andy, too, waited for the last riders to leave and in a small group we made our way slowly through the opening kilometres.

With little shade to speak of, those first 4km of consistent climbing were tough and I focused on trying to stay comfortable in the heat. Even though I wasn’t pushing hard at all, my heartrate suggested otherwise, thanks to the heat.

The undulating middle section of the climb features several brief downhill sections, and these were most welcome. So too were the brief shaded sections which provided some respite from the baking sun. I knew it was about 15-20ºC cooler at the summit but it wasn’t until the closing kilometres that we really noticed the temperature start to drop and a cool breeze pick up.

2013 Falls Creek Bunch

It was in that middle section of the climb that I started coming across the slower riders at the back of the field. I’d join these riders for a couple of kilometres before they’d overtake a slower rider, at which point I’d wish the faster riders luck and join the slower rider who was now last on the road. And then they’d catch someone as well, and I’d have a new companion for the next section of the climb.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that riding lanterne rouge is a bit of a drag — after all, you’re riding considerably slower than you normally would, you’re taking lots of breaks, and you’re generally riding with people that are so exhausted that they can’t really muster much of a conversation. But I love it.

2013 Falls Creek Bunch

There’s something so refreshing about the enforced change of pace — it gives you the chance to really appreciate the climb you’re on and drink it all in. When I rode Falls Creek during last year’s Domestique 7 Peaks Series I did so with now-NRS rider Brendan Canty who pushed me to my absolute limit the whole way up.

As enjoyable as that was — setting a new PB and challenging myself — I really didn’t get a chance to appreciate my surrounds and take in the scenery. And the scenery at Falls Creek really is excellent.

2013 Falls Creek Bunch

I spent the last half of the climb riding with Mick Beasley whom I’d ridden with at Mt. Buller during last year’s series. I knew he would be able to make the top — and I suspect he did too — but it was slow going and we stopped a number of times. But I really didn’t mind.

As we entered the final 13km we caught sight of a rider — Marco Luthe — a couple hundred metres ahead of us and it wasn’t until about 5km later that we caught him. When we did Marco had his head down over his handlebars, standing in the shade by the side of the road. He’d hit the wall and was convinced he wasn’t going to make it.

For the next 5km or so Mick and Marco made their way slowly and painfully towards the summit. Sometimes Mick would be at the back, sometimes Marco, sometimes they’d ride together.

2013 Falls Creek Bunch

When the famous hairpin came Marco was dismayed to learn that he still had 6km to go. And when we reached the tollbooth at 4km to go Marco dismounted and spent some time in the shade, trying to find a way to convince his body to go on. The heat had taken its toll and Marco was at his limit.

As lanterne rouge it’s easy to forget how much someone must be hurting when you’re doing it easy, but I only needed to think back to last year’s 3 Peaks Challenge to get a sense of what Marco was going through.

And then his mate Adam “Painface” Gruer rolled down the hill and joined up with us. Having come this far I reckon Marco would have made it anyway but having his mate there really seemed to help with his motivation.

The memorable Falls Creek hairpin with 6km to go.

The memorable Falls Creek hairpin with 6km to go.

With just a few kilometres to go we turned a corner and saw the Falls Creek village ahead of us — an instant motivation boost. Marco seemed to have found a bit of energy as he surged ahead as Adam and I scrambled to keep up. And then, a few minutes later, we made it.

Seeing Marco make it through a climb he was convinced he couldn’t was nothing short of inspirational. And being there to see him go from utter despair with 8km to go, to tearful relief at the top was as satisfying as anything I’ve done on the bike. Mick too had made it to the summit — a similarly inspiring effort.

2013 Falls Creek Bunch

The satisfaction of seeing those two guys finish was heightened by the fact my knee hadn’t hurt on the way up. I’m not sure if it was the Nurofen, the knee brace our ride doctor Dr Carl Le had given me, the slow pace or a combination of these, but I wasn’t complaining. I just hoped it would hold out for the rest of the rides.

That night we enjoyed dinner at Last Hoot near the Falls Creek village green before Andy and I took a bunch of the crew up to nearby Mt. Mackay to watch a stunning sunset. It had been a long, hot day and the following day was going to be even bigger.

To be continued …

A big thank you to all of the amazing volunteers who helped us out on this ride: Sharon, Tammy, Linda, Nigel and Dr Carl. Thanks too to our sponsors: Croydon Cycleworks, Winners Nutrition, CycleCover, Nemisis, Hammer Nutrition and CyclingExpress.com.

Congratulations to Marco Luthe who wins the CyclingExpress.com voucher for the most inspiring effort on the Falls Creek ride.

All photos in this post appear courtesy of Kirsten Simpson. To download low-resolution versions of any of the photos Kirsten took at Falls Creek, head here and use the password “FallsCreekBunch”. You can support Kirsten’s great work by buying a high-res version of any image for just $7.95.

You can see my Strava file from the ride here (minus the final 4km which I lost due to a flat Garmin battery). Check out another report from the ride here, by Michael at BRB Cycling.

A full list of finishers can be found here. If you completed the climb but forgot to write your name down, send an email to Matt with a link to a Strava file or equivalent and I’ll add you to the list.


7 Comments

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  1. Marco Luthe / Jan 3 2014

    Thanks for your kind words, Heidi.

    Matt helped me to remember an important lesson about cycling:

    NEVER. GIVE. UP!

    :-D

  2. Heidi / Jan 3 2014

    Matt, every ride through your fingers become so enjoyable and memorable, even the brutal one. I am so glad that I am part of these rides with your amazing gruop.It is not hard to find the inspiration in your articles. Some times, the winner is not the one who crosses the line first, it is the one who struggled, fought the body and mind all the way to the finish line. Marco, reading the way you got to the top, and your comment, have me in tears, you are the winner in my eyes.

  3. Steven Long / Jan 2 2014

    About 1/3 of the way up to Falls Creek, I encountered some mechanical dramas. The hanger for my rear derailleur snapped in half, which also left my chain in a broken/twisted mess.

    I just wanted to say thanks to all those who either inquired if I was ok, offered to help, or in fact stopped to assist. In truth, this covered almost every rider that passed by.

    In the end I got a lift back down to my car thanks to a Mt Beauty local (MTB racer), who also recommended a place to get the bike repaired.

    After my bike was back up and running late Sunday afternoon, I was rapt to join the Domestique crew again on Monday to complete my Dinner Plain debut. Thanks again to all.

    Cheers,

    Long.1

  4. Andy / Jan 2 2014

    The Lantern Rougue is easily the toughest and most rewarding job on the day.. Thanks again!

  5. David 'Powderhound' Turner / Jan 2 2014

    Thanks so much for the weekend Matt, and to you and Andy for organising the whole series. I had an awesome 4 days of cycling with 5,500+ vertical metres of climbing :-)

    I don’t have facebook account, so I can’t comment over on those walls. Just want to say you do such an excellent job running the series, and to all the people behind the scenes who help out without recognition and without even going on the rides – a huge thank you!

    Falls was definitely the hardest ride on the weekend. Under normal conditions, it should probably be the easiest summit of the weekend, but the extreme temperatures made for some energy sapping riding. After starting at the top of Falls a bit late (1.45pm!), we rode down to Mt Beauty, ate an ice-cream, did a U-Turn and started 30 minutes behind the rest of the field. We caught the tail end at Bogong Village, and after a refill of the bottles, took off up the climb.

    I don’t remember too much until the Falls Creek entry gate when a friend handed me a bottle of icy cold stream water they just filled up. Pourred it down the back of my top, had a gel, and made it the rest of the way relatively unscathed. The head was spinning a little at the top, but a lot better after pizza at the Last Hoot. Apprehensive about Hotham the next morning though!

    Last time I rode Falls was in the snow, this time was in 40 degree heat. I think I prefer the snow!

  6. Marco Luthe / Jan 2 2014

    Matt, I’ve said if so many times, but I can only repeat myself: without your motivation and seeing that I wasn’t the only one struggling, I would have stopped and resigned right there in the shades, with 8 km to go. Thanks for sticking by my side for this long time. I will never forget this ride – my first real mountain climb. And, seriously: Never before had I cried out of exhaustion… and relief. Best day of my cycling career so far.

    I also have to thank my mate Adam “Painface” Gruer for bringing up the idea of doing the 7 Peaks. Yes, when he came back down to meet us at the toll booth, I got motivated a lot, since I didn’t want to disappoint him (I think I am not wrong in calling him my “cycling mentor”). He’s a machine – he did the same for a friend at Baw Baw.

    Congrats to Mick, for making all 4 peaks on the weekend! No idea how he made it. Fantastic!

    And, of course, thanks to the whole team for organising. This is definitely something I would have never attempted on my own.

    See you at Mt. Buller. ;-)

    Happy New Year, and happy riding!
    Marco

    • Matt de Neef / Jan 2 2014

      My pleasure Marco. I really enjoyed the ride and it was so great to see you make it to the top. Inspiring stuff!

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