March 15, 2011

Episode 22: The 3 Peaks Challenge

Route: Falls Creek, Dinner Plain, Omeo and Anglers Rest loop
Distance: 237.7km
Duration: 10 hours 39 minutes

Start of the Back of Falls climb

Start of the Back of Falls climb

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.

Walking to the start line

Walking to the start line (Image courtesy of Brendan de Neef)

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.

Wet weather between Germantown and Harrietville

Wet weather between Germantown and Harrietville

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.

Low visibility on the Mt. Hotham climb

Low visibility on the Mt. Hotham climb

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.

The Dinner Plain rest stop

The Dinner Plain rest stop

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.

Descending toward Omeo

Descending toward Omeo

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.

Between Omeo and Anglers Rest

Between Omeo and Anglers Rest

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.

Heading toward Anglers Rest

Heading toward Anglers Rest

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.

More of the gorgeous Omeo Highway

More of the gorgeous Omeo Highway

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.

The aptly-named WTF Corner

The aptly-named WTF Corner

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.

The Back of Falls climb

The Back of Falls climb

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.

Crossing the Rocky Valley Dam

Crossing the Rocky Valley Dam

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.

Previous episodes

Follow the links below to read up on previous episodes in my 3 Peaks training blog:

21 Comments

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  1. Michael / Feb 7 2016

    Just wanted to add my thanks to the list! gonna go do the route with a friend, albeit not on the official falls weekend. Your write ups are great.

  2. Rob D / Aug 2 2015

    Hi Matt,
    Ive just read this with great interest…. I’m signed up for next year – 2016, my first try.
    I live near Mount Dandenong and ride the 1:20 and over the other side to Montrose and then turn and go back again (round trip from home is around 60 – 70 kms….How many times up and down do you think would be ideal training for 3 peaks, or would you just go by K’s ridden?

  3. Bernie / Aug 2 2011

    Hi Matt,

    maybe I missed it, but could please give me an idea of what time it took to complete the ride on the day?

    Cheers,

    Bernie.

    • Matt / Aug 2 2011

      Hi Bernie. 10 hours and 39 minutes spent in the saddle with, say, an hour’s worth of breaks, spread throughout the day? I rode the first five hours without a break, then had about half an hour for lunch, and then quick stops after that …Hope that helps.

  4. David / Jul 28 2011

    Hi Matt
    I’m the guy in your “WTF Corner” photo – I recognised the ‘Mid-Life-Cyclist’ jersey immediately!
    My rear derailleur cable had broken half an hour earlier and I had patched it with a cable tie and a tree branch. I was wedging my branch into first gear when you took the photo.
    3-Peaks is an epic ride and your writing has captured the spirit of it really well. My wife read it through and now understands a bit more about the motivation and excitement that drives a cyclist.
    ta.

    • Matt / Jul 28 2011

      Hi David,

      Haha, that’s great! I hope you made it through the ride OK?! Sounds like quick-thinking to rig up a new derailleur cable – nice work 😛

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you (and your wife!) got some enjoyment out of the blog. :)

      Cheers,

      Matt

  5. Stu / Mar 29 2011

    Well done mate – your profiles have been awesome to read.
    I was certainly inspired by your updates and I took a lot of that on board before the ride. I reckon they may have just got me to the finish line as well…albeit in the dark.
    What an epic ride, and well done on achieving your goal!

    • Matt / Mar 29 2011

      Thanks very much Stu. I’m glad you enjoyed the training blog. :)

      It’s great to know that people get so much out of the site. What time do you finish the ride? Did you have the police asking you to get off the road?

  6. sean Mullins / Mar 22 2011

    Great to see you achieved your goal, and a great report as aways.
    Have you been on the bike since?!

    • Matt / Mar 22 2011

      Thanks Sean. Nope, had a quiet weekend last weekend. Keen to get back out next weekend though. :)

  7. David / Mar 16 2011

    Hi Matt,

    I have been looking forward to reading your account of the ride after seeing your tweet that you had finished the ride. And I wasn’t disappointed, as it gives a great sense of your experiences as a participant. Your average speed was impressive- it is really hard riding needed to keep the average up in such hilly country.

    Your account of your ride, and others I have read, are an inspiration to me to attempt this route. But I have to say I have yet to find a description of the Back of Falls which inspires in me anything other foreboding!

    Thanks for your site which I continue to enjoy reading.

    Oh, and your comments about the power bars resonated with me!

    • Matt / Mar 16 2011

      Hi David. Thanks for this – I’m glad you enjoyed the review. It took quite a while to write up so it’s great that people like yourself are getting something out of it.

      You are right about the Back of Falls climb – it’s nasty, no two ways about it. I guess the only consolation is that it’s only the first 8 or so kilometres that are really tough. After that it undulates a lot more. I found it useful to just break it up into sections – aim for the next pole, the next corner etc. That seemed to help.

      I’ll be sure to add more climbs going forward. Thanks again for reading and getting in touch.

  8. Spencer / Mar 16 2011

    Awesome report Matt and well done!!
    My brother and I couldn’t believe how hard the ride was. Truly a massive effort for anyone.
    I can’t believe you didn’t stop for the first 115km!!! that is epic. thirsty much?? I guess you could have drank the air up hotham.

    Hope to see you out on the bike up the 1/20 or kinglake.

    • Matt / Mar 16 2011

      Thanks Spencer – I’m glad to hear that you thought it was tough too – makes me feel a little better! Surprisingly I wasn’t thirsty at all for some reason! I drank a fair bit after that but I didn’t really feel the need to stop until DP. Maybe you are right though, I should have just opened my water bottle and captured the fog up Hotham.

      See you out on the roads again soon 😉

  9. Steel / Mar 16 2011

    Well done Matt. A well deserved result after all the work you’ve put in. Hope you keep the content on the website rolling even now you’re done.

    I too cannot stand the hyper-sugar involved in energy bars and gels. At about the half way mark of the 130 km alpine classic this year I was opting to not eat anymore of these and instead going for the bananas, sticky rice stuff and fruit rolls on offer. But all I really wanted was a nice sandwich or some chips, anything savoury really. I know it’s probably not nutritionally the best thing to eat, but at least I could digest it.

    • Matt / Mar 16 2011

      I’m hearing you Steel. I was desperate for something savoury as well, anything really. Something other than the chewy, sugary consistency of those energy bars!

      • Ashley / Aug 21 2013

        I know this is an old post, but I thought I might mention the great success I’ve had with a cookbook called “Feedzone Portables” – can’t remember the author but he used to be with Garmin Cervelo and has a whole lot of good recipes

  10. Ant Makin / Mar 16 2011

    Matt
    An awesome effort, well done. Many thanks too for the time you have put into your inspirational website. I’ve referenced it heaps in my own preparations for last Sunday’s epic. Like you I was also there at the back of the pack at the start. It was my first attempt at the 3Peaks, and…well I almost did it. Made it to the last checkpoint at Trapyard Gap just as the coppers decided they wanted their road back, only 2o-odd kms short! A little disappointing having put the hardest work behind me to that point but still very satisfied with my efforts nonetheless. Next challenge is both Etape du Tour events in France in July. theclimbingcyclist will help me get there too!
    Enjoy

    • Matt / Mar 16 2011

      Hi Ant. Thanks very much for getting in touch – I’m glad you’ve got some use out of the site. :)

      That sounds incredibly frustrating about the police taking back the road – did anyone refuse? I know I would have been extremely disappointed. Best of luck with the training for Etape du Tour!

  11. chrisfit2009 / Mar 15 2011

    Congratulations again on your success. No matter what happens from now, you’ll always have this ticked off your bucket list.

    Question: Are energy bars the only thingas you ate? What did they have for you at the rest/drink stops?

    • Matt / Mar 16 2011

      Hey Chris. I was eating a mixture of energy bars, gels, mini fruit loaves etc. They were handing out Winner bars and gels at the stops. Couldn’t face another one of them by the end!

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