Episode 22: The 3 Peaks Challenge
Route: Falls Creek, Dinner Plain, Omeo and Anglers Rest loop
Duration: 10 hours 39 minutes
Five months ago I signed myself up to compete in Bicycle Victoria’s 3 Peaks Challenge for 2011. It was an ambitious move – I hadn’t ridden my bike for months and my last 3 Peaks Challenge experience was far from positive. But sign up I did and on Sunday, a day that had been five long months in the making, I made amends for last year’s disappointing result.
On Saturday morning Sharon and I packed the car and headed to the high country. We’d booked the same accommodation as last year – a cabin in the lovely Bogong Alpine Village – and Brendan was going to join us later in the evening. Having had a month or more of training-less weekends, Brendan had decided not to take part in this year’s event but came up to support my effort nonetheless.
While we waited for Brendan, Sharon and I headed up to Quay West at Falls Creek for a spot of dinner. We had indulged in the hotel’s pasta buffet last year and thought that it would be worth experiencing again but after several plates of watery, meat-poor bolognaise, we called it a night and drove down the mountain, reminiscing over the comparative brilliance of last year’s offerings.
The following morning my alarm went off a little before 5am and it was time to get going. Brendan had arrived at around 9.30pm the night before and despite not riding this year, he volunteered to drive me up the mountain and help me get set up. As we wound our way up the hill in the darkness Brendan switched on a makeshift pump-up playlist that featured such classics as Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’, Blur’s ‘Song 2’ and Audioslave’s ‘Cochise’. It was a nice touch and it helped to get me in the mood for what was going to be a very challenging day.
After getting my bike set up, checked by Bicycle Victoria staff and fitted with a timing transponder it was time to assume my position at the back of the field. Like a handful of other riders I had nominated an average speed of 20-25km/h over the course of the day which meant that I started in the last group to leave. It makes perfect sense – let the faster riders go first so they don’t have to overtake great masses of slow riders like myself – but it meant 20 minutes less in which to finish the ride!
Late last week Bicycle Victoria had sent out an email saying that anyone still out on the course after a certain time would be removed from the event, apparently due to Victoria Police wanting all riders off the road before dark. I’m sure there were valid reasons for imposing this restriction but for riders like myself who were worried about time limits already, it meant an extra bit of stress that we probably didn’t need. Fortunately though, neither these stricter measures nor the late start would prevent me from finishing the ride.
After plenty of waiting around it was time to go. We began the nervous roll-out through the ‘chute’ and onto the upper slopes of Falls Creek. After 5km of descending I checked to see that my gear cables were still in tact and when I found that they were, I had a quiet chuckle to myself and thought ‘better than last year at least’.
As we reached the bottom of the Falls Creek climb and started making our way toward the first climb of the day, the rain started to come down quite noticeably. The road had been dry until that point but before long I was basically soaked through with more than 200km of riding still to go.
I passed through Mt. Beauty with no problems to speak of and launched straight into the first climb. My concerns about not finishing the ride in time were abated slightly when I noticed that I was passing a lot of riders on the way up to the Tawonga Gap. While I was keen to save my energy for the last climb of the day, there didn’t seem much point in sticking with slower riders if I could climb faster without too much difficulty.
Every time I ride from Mt. Beauty to Tawonga Gap I’m amazed by just how good a climb it is – the views are great, the road surface is fine and all in all, it’s just a nice steady addition to any high country ride. As I reached the Gap I mentally ticked one box – ‘one down, two to go’ – and headed straight down the other side. I was pretty keen to make it to the half-way mark, Dinner Plain, without stopping, in order to give myself the most time possible over the last climb.
The descent from Tawonga Gap toward Germantown is quite brilliant and with this part of the road being virtually dry, I was able to enjoy myself on the way down. As I turned onto the Great Alpine Road and headed toward Mt. Hotham I decided I was going to try and find a group to latch onto. I was luckily enough to get swept up as one group of 10 or so guys rolled past and I jumped on the back. I spent the next 20km or so doing some turns, enjoying the company of some New South Welshmen and Queenslanders who had made the trip down for the ride and covering some ground quicker than I would otherwise have.
At Harrietville the group broke apart with some riders heading for the rest stop, but that was fine by me. I didn’t want to stop and I really didn’t want to get sucked into pushing myself up Hotham, just for the sake of some company. I rolled through Harrietville, onto the start of the climb and into two hours of unbelievably thick fog. At some points it was hard to see riders that were 10 metres ahead of me and with visibility being so poor, the two sharp descents that come toward the end of the climb were particularly scary.
Even though I spent 99% of the Hotham climb riding solo, it makes such a difference to have other riders around you. Just being able to look up and focus on someone else’s back wheel, or hop across from group to group, makes the long grind that little bit easier. As usual, The Meg, CRB Hill and the Diamantina proved to be the climb’s toughest sections and as I got closer to the summit I was well and truly ready for a break.
After rolling through Hotham Heights I pushed through an undulating 11km to Dinner Plain where lunch and a much needed break awaited me. Despite having spent over 5 hours on the bike without a break, I wasn’t keen to stick around and let my body get used to not riding. I visited the toilet, wolfed down my lunch, stocked up on water and Powerade and made a move – a stop of no more than 20 minutes.
While the weather to this point had been cold, wet and miserable, the ride’s following section was considerably more pleasant. As I flew toward Omeo the sun was now out, the road was dry and there was hardly a menacing cloud to speak of. In no time at all I was rolling into the Omeo rest stop, filling up drink bottles again and applying sunscreen for the first time that day. As I rolled out of the rest stop and out to the main road, I got talking with a bloke from Sydney who had driven down for the ride. We both said that we felt stronger at Omeo than we did at Dinner Plain and we set off into the ride’s final 70km together.
Prior to yesterday’s ride, I had only travelled between Omeo and Falls Creek once, and that was on a reconnaissance ride before last year’s event. I remembered there to be a longish climb a few kilometres out of Omeo and my memory served me well, my Sydneysider companion and I coming face to face with a solid looking climb not long after the rest stop. After four kilometres of solid climbing the road flattened off somewhat and we found ourselves surrounded by some truly memorable scenery.
For anyone that’s not familiar with the road between Omeo and Anglers Rest, it winds its way beautifully along the Mitta Mitta River with amazing views around every corner. It’s a narrow, windy road and would surely be among the most impressive cycling roads in the state. Thankfully, it’s also quite flat and I found myself sitting in a small group, flying around corners at a comfortable 30km/h.
But as enjoyable as this part of the ride was, there was one massive caveat – I still had the hardest part of the ride to go. I stopped briefly at the Anglers Rest rest stop where I managed to lose my companion and after topping up water and food I was off again. I’d managed to stay well ahead of the cut-off times thus far and I wasn’t about to squander that advantage for the sake of a couple minutes’ extra rest.
As the dreaded Back of Falls climb approached I started to become increasingly nervous. I was still feeling stronger than I could have hoped and I was well ahead of the cut-offs but would I have enough left in the legs? Would I hit the wall on the final climb? Should I have invested in a compact crank-set for the final climb?
Rounding the final bend before the Back of Falls climb I saw a handful of riders looking forlornly at the road in the front of them. The start of the Bogong High Plains Road, where it meets the Omeo Highway, seems to have been nicknamed ‘WTF Corner’, a reference to the awe-inspiring gradient with which the climb starts. I’m not about to argue with this designation and after a brief moment to steel myself, I began the final – and most difficult – of the day’s climbs.
I would be exaggerating if I said that that initial gradient is maintained for 9km but it bloody well felt like it. In reality there are a handful of sections where you can catch your breath but after more than 200km of riding these sections didn’t come nearly often enough. Earlier in the day I had completed my first ascent of Mt. Hotham without a break but on this climb I was not going to be so fortunate. I stopped half a dozen times in that first 9km, just long enough to catch my breath, to stop the dizziness from overwhelming me and to allow my heart to return to something resembling a healthy rhythm.
Make no mistake about it – the Back of Falls climb is tough. But if you are willing to take your time, to stop when your body tells you to, and to keep a positive mindset, it’s completely doable. In the lead up to yesterday’s ride I was concerned about my mental toughness in those final 35km but on the day I had no such qualms. Having got that far I wasn’t about to throw it all in because it was hurting – I’d just take a minute to recompose myself and then aim for that next roadside reflector, that next corner, that next flat section. Breaking the climb into sections like that really seemed to help and after much grinding I was rolling into Trapyard Gap and the final rest stop.
As with my other stops throughout the day, it was a case of spending as little time off the bike as possible. When I got back on the bike I knew that I had around 20km to go, most of which was flat, downhill or of a manageable gradient. At was at this point that I got hunger flat for the first time in the ride. I had been sure to pack enough food to last me throughout the day and with the top-ops available at the various rest stops I had more than enough to feed me until the end. What I didn’t have was the appetite to stomach yet another energy bar.
Don’t get me wrong, energy bars and gels are great for that energy fix when you’re out riding but when you’re chowing down on your ninth or 10th for the day, they aren’t the most appetising prospect. In fact, as I tried to force down something that would tide me over until I rolled back into Falls Creek I had to stop myself from throwing up what little was left in my stomach. I eventually managed to keep one final energy bar down and I continued on my way toward the finish.
With about 15km to go the weather took a turn for the worse. Since Dinner Plain I’d enjoyed terrific weather and not even a sight of rain but as I got nearer the finish, I also got nearer some rather ominous-looking rain clouds. As I crested a small rise I heard thunder off in the distance and before long it was raining steadily once more. I considered stopping to put on my jacket but with around 10km to go my adrenalin levels were up and I really wasn’t too worried about a little bit of rain.
There was a great moment toward the end of the ride when I reached the highest point on the Bogong High Plains Road and saw the Rocky Valley Dam ahead of me. At that point I realised that I was barely kilometres away from completing this epic event. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes spent riding mostly downhill I crossed the dam wall, up the short climb on the other side and bombed down into the Falls Creek Village.
It’s pretty hard to describe the feeling of coming around that last corner, hearing the announcer on the loudspeaker, seeing the ‘Finish’ banner strung across the road and the supporters lining the side of the road. It was such a feeling of relief, of pride in myself for having completing the ride and, I suppose, utter exhaustion. I crossed the line in the pouring rain, dripping wet and starting to shiver from the cold but I didn’t really care. It had been five long months since I first committed myself to riding in this event, and an even longer build-up if you consider last year’s disappointment.
As I sit here on the couch back home, two days after completing the greatest physical challenge I’ve ever attempted, I still feel extremely content. My legs are recovering far better than I could have hoped. My knees are a little sore and walking up stairs tends to be a little bit painful, but I’ve certainly had worse. Ironically, it’s my right wrist that’s giving me the most grief. It was hurting throughout the second half of the ride and it’s a bit of a mystery as to why it’s sore, but sore it most certainly is.
So what’s next? Well, my first challenge will be to get back on the bike in the near future. After last year’s event I didn’t ride for something like four months which didn’t exactly help the fitness levels (or waistline). I figure that, after 3 Peaks, I’m now at the fittest I’ve been in years so I might as well make the most of it. I’m keen to head up to the 1 in 20 to try and beat my best time of 19 minutes 30 seconds and I’m confident that I will be able to do so.
As for bigger challenges, it’s hard to say. Many people have asked if I’ll come back and attempt 3 Peaks again next year. At the moment my answer is ‘probably not’. I set out to achieve something and I achieved it. Now it’s time to try for something else. That something else might be on the bike, it might not. Who knows?
Before I bring this chapter to a close I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everybody that’s been involved in this experience over the last five months. To those of you that left comments on the site, to those that had a bit of a laugh on Facebook and those that sent me tweets, thank you. It’s been a terrific journey and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t draw some strength from the great feedback I’ve had from all of you since my training started. A special thank you to Brendan and Sharon as well for their support and company last weekend and in the last five months in general – it is much appreciated.
So while this part of the story might be coming to a close, The Climbing Cyclist rolls on as a (hopefully useful) resource for Victorian cyclists or cyclists who enjoy the many great climbs this state has to offer. I’ll continue to add new climbs to the site and if you’ve got a climb you’d like to see featured, send me a message and let me know. Don’t forget that you can come and join the fun and frivolity over at Facebook and Twitter and I’m always happy to receive emails.
Until we speak again, thanks once more for your support and interest and be sure to stay safe on the roads.
3 Peaks Challenge complete.
Follow the links below to read up on previous episodes in my 3 Peaks training blog:
- Episode 1: ‘And so it begins’
- Episode 2: ‘Building a base’
- Episode 3: ‘Short and sharp’
- Episode 4: ‘The Chum Creek discovery’
- Episode 5: ‘Visiting old friends’
- Episode 6: ‘Welcome to summer’
- Episode 7: ‘Of mistakes and making amends’
- Episode 8: ‘Ups and downs in the Victorian Alps’
- Epis0de 9: ‘An Ashes century’
- Episode 10: ‘Mixing it up’
- Episode 11: ‘Taking the plunge’
- Episode 12: ‘Across the ditch’
- Episode 13: ‘Adventure capital climbing’
- Episode 14: ‘The mighty Crown Range’
- Episode 15: ‘Back in the saddle’
- Episode 16: ‘Home, heat and a hundred’
- Episode 17: ‘The Donna Buang expansion’
- Episode 18: ‘The high country double-header’
- Episode 19: ‘Return to the Dandenongs’
- Episode 20: ‘A climb into the clouds’
- Episode 21: ‘The finishes touches’