UPDATE: In case you missed the announcement, the route for the 2013 3 Peaks Challenge has been changed. Click here to read about what you can expect from the updated route.
On the weekend of March 10 2013, thousands of cyclists will converge on the Falls Creek Alpine Resort to take part in one of the hardest single-day rides in Australia: Bicycle Network’s 3 Peaks Challenge.
It’s a tough ride regardless of your fitness level, and if it’s your first time tackling the event, the 235km course with 4,300m of climbing will be daunting to say the least.
So what’s the best way of approaching the 3 Peaks Challenge? And what can you expect from the various sections of the ride?
Before you tackle the 3 Peaks Challenge it’s worth completing at least one ride that’s close to 200km long and that has plenty of climbing. Take this ride for example — it’s a very tough 175km course that includes 4,000m of climbing and three lengthy climbs: Reefton Spur (20km of climbing), Lake Mountain (21km of climbing) and Mt. Donna Buang (17km of climbing).
The fatigue you will feel on that final slog up Mt. Donna Buang is similar to what you’ll feel on the Back of Falls climb during 3 Peaks. In my opinion, if you can get through this ride in training, you can get through 3 Peaks.
In addition to that final long ride, it’s important to give yourself enough time to taper before getting to Falls Creek. There’s basically no value in doing long, hard training rides in the week before 3 Peaks so do your hardest training ride two weeks before the event.
It’s also worth carbo-loading for two or three days before 3 Peaks to ensure you hit the start line with your glycogen stores topped right up. Make sure you’re also drinking lots of water in the days before the ride.
What to bring
Check out the Bicycle Network Victoria website for a list of recommended and required items.
In addition, I’d recommend investing in a compact crankset (34-tooth small chainring) and/or a rear cluster that has a 28-tooth gear, or bigger. These extra gears will allow you to spin up the many steep ramps you’ll come across during the day. Spinning will mean you fatigue slower than you would if you were grinding away in a big gear.
At the start
As you line up at the start line on March 10, there’s every chance you’ll be nervous. You’ve got a long, hard day ahead of you and the climbs only get harder as the day goes on. But there’s a way you can make the task ahead seem more manageable.
Rather than approaching the day as one, 235km effort, break it down into more approachable, bite-sized chunks. When you’re at the start line, don’t aim for the end of the course, aim for the bottom of Tawonga Gap. When you get there, give yourself a pat on the back, refocus, then aim for the top of the first climb.
Approaching the ride as a series of smaller efforts can really help to turn the epic into something a little more manageable. See below for the ride’s sections, as I see them.
Section 1: Falls Creek to Tawonga South
The day starts with the long descent from Falls Creek to Mt. Beauty. With nervous energy and adrenaline pumping through your body, you might be inclined to push hard on the descent. Don’t. You’re better off just turning your legs over gently, getting warmed up and making sure you get through the descent safely.
After 13km of descending you’ll cross the Kiewa River and for the next 13km or so the road is quite undulating. Take it easy on the descents and just spin comfortably up the short climbs. After roughly 25km you’ll reach a left-hand bend after which it’s another 4km downhill into Mt. Beauty. Enjoy it!
From Mt. Beauty to Tawonga South — and the start of the first proper climb — is largely uphill. Again, use these early kilometres to get your legs warmed up and to find a comfortable rhythm. No use burning yourself out before you’ve even ticked the first peak off the list.
Section 2: Tawonga Gap climb (peak #1)
After 34km you’ll turn left onto the Tawonga Gap Road and from there it’s 7.6km to the top of the first of the 3 Peaks. At an average gradient of around 6% it’s a tough little climb and with virtually no flatter sections to speak of, it’s important to find a comfortable rhythm early.
While the gradient is quite consistent throughout, there are a number of hairpin bends where the gradient increases quite noticeably. Two such corners can be found in the first 3km of the climb.
It can be fun tackling this climb in a small group but make sure you’re climbing at a pace that’s comfortable for you. There’s no point putting yourself in the red just to keep up with other riders if it means you’ll hit the wall within the first 50km of the ride. Remember, this is the first (and easiest!) of the 3 Peaks so make sure you’re saving plenty of energy!
There’s a small rest stop at the Tawonga Gap so once you summit the climb you can take the opportunity to refill your bottles and/or grab something to eat. Of course, if you’re feeling good you can push into the next section of the course without stopping. Either way, make sure you give yourself a little pat on the back as you start to roll toward Germantown.
One down, two to go.
For more information about the Tawonga Gap climb, visit this page.
Section 3: Tawonga Gap to Harrietville
The descent from the Tawonga Gap to the Great Alpine Road is one of the most enjoyable in the Victorian Alps. Unlike most roads in the Alps, corners on this particular descent are nicely cambered, giving you a nice, fast and flowing descent.
Enjoy yourself as you bomb towards Germantown but remember to stay safe, and look out for other riders around you. The descent flattens off somewhat after about 6km of descending (roughly 47km into the ride) but you’ll still be able to maintain a high speed in the next 8km.
After 55km you’ll reach the small community of Germantown and the Great Alpine Road. From here you’ll take a left turn and then it’s roughly 20km to Harrietville and the foot of Mt. Hotham along one of the very few sections of flat road on the ride.
The Tawonga Gap climb is likely to have split any groups that formed in the first section of the ride, and chances are you’ll arrive at Germantown with only a handful of riders around you. If there’s a group nearby, it’s well worth joining in to save as much energy as you can before the Mt. Hotham climb.
It’s probably even worth waiting a few minutes in Germantown or soft-pedalling towards Harrietville in order to get swept up by a group. You’ll save a lot of energy sitting in the bunch — energy that you’ll need when you start climbing Mt. Hotham. But don’t be a wheelsucker — get out into the wind and do your turn — the whole group benefits if everyone’s helping out.
As you get close to Harrietville you’ll see Mt. Hotham looming large ahead of you. Before you go and tackle the beast, it could be worth filling your bottles and having something to eat at the Harrietville rest stop.
Section 4: Mt. Hotham climb (peak #2)
With your bottles filled, your pockets full of food and after you’ve psyched yourself up, it’s time to take on the epic Mt. Hotham. By this point you will have ridden 74km and it’s another 30km until you reach the top of the climb.
It’s a long, challenging climb with some very steep ramps but just as you can break down the 3 Peaks Challenge into sections, the Mt. Hotham climb can be broken up. The first 11km out of Harrietville are very consistent with an average gradient of around 6% and only two steeper sections to contend with: the very first corner of the climb and The Meg — a 300m-long ramp that nudges 10%.
Be sure not to go too hard too early on Mt. Hotham — it’s a very long climb and one that will make you pay if you go too deep.
After 11km of climbing (and 85km into the ride) you’ll hit the second part of the Mt. Hotham climb — a 9km false-flat. While this section is gradually uphill, it’s considerably easier than the first (and last!) section of the climb. Use these 9km to catch your breath and to prepare yourself for the final part of the climb.
There’s a rest stop just as the false-flat ends so feel free to grab a drink and/or some food as you pass by. From this point, roughly 94km into the ride, you’re into the final third of the climb — the toughest section.
While there are two very fast descents in this 10km section (be careful!) you’ll also come across the two hardest ramps of the entire climb: CRB Hill (1.1km @ 10%) and the Diamantina (1.4km @ 9%). These sections are painful even on fresh legs so give yourself a pat on the back as you crest each of them.
As mentioned, Mt. Hotham is a very tough climb but it also happens to be one of the most picturesque pieces of road in Victoria. Be sure to enjoy yourself while you’re climbing — the views in the final third of the climb are simply sensational.
Oh, and make sure you celebrate just a little bit as you reach the top of the climb.
Two down, one to go.
For more information about the Mt. Hotham climb, visit this page.
Section 5: Mt. Hotham to Dinner Plain
As you roll into Hotham Heights you will have completed 104km — nearly halfway there. Your reward for conquering Mt. Hotham is the lunch that’s awaiting you 11km down the road in Dinner Plain. It’s mostly downhill from Hotham Heights to the lunch stop but it’s worth expecting a few short rises as well.
Once you’re at Dinner Plain, 115km in, it can be tempting to sit down and relax for an hour or more but your best bet is to eat and get moving quite quickly. There’s still a long way to go and if you rest for too long your legs will assume it’s time to start the recovery process, making it harder to get going.
Section 6: Dinner Plain to Omeo
While the ride from Dinner Plain to Omeo is mostly downhill, don’t be fooled into thinking you can freewheel all the way down. Sure, there are several sections of sustained descending, but there are also quite a few flat kilometres and more than a couple climbs. Also bear in mind that the road surface is quite rough so you won’t get as much value for your pedal strokes here as you will elsewhere on the ride.
After 136km of riding, and after one of the day’s fastest descents, you’ll cross the Victoria River and pass the community of Cobrunga. The next 10km are quite undulating but after 146km you’ll hit a nasty 3km stretch which is mostly uphill with a couple of steep ramps. Get through this section though and you can enjoy the terrific ~9km descent into Omeo.
There’s another rest stop here in Omeo, 158km into the ride, and it’s worth stocking up on food and water before pushing on.
Section 7: Omeo to WTF Corner
When you leave Omeo you’ll ‘only’ have 75km to go in the 3 Peaks Challenge. And even though you’ve still got the Back of Falls climb to go, it’s best to concentrate on the next 40km and worry about the climb when you get there.
As it turns out, the 40km after Omeo are among the most picturesque of the entire day. After 166km of riding you’ll start climbing from farmland up to a truly stunning section of road that runs alongside Big River. The climb is more than 4km long and it can knock you around if you’re not expecting it.
As with climbs earlier in the day, there’s no real point pushing it up this rise as you’ve still got 65km and the Back of Falls climb to go. Instead, spin your way up at a nice high cadence (80-90RPM) and save as much energy as you can.
When you reach the top of the climb, 170km into the ride, it’s just 30km until the start of the final climb of the day. This section of the road is largely flat with only a couple of short rises and descents, and you can maintain a decent speed as you tick off the kilometres. Even if you’re starting to feel anxious about the final climb, try to take in your surroundings as much as possible — it’s a stunning part of the world and a real privilege to ride through there.
After 186km you’ll reach the Anglers Rest feed zone. Stop briefly to fill up on food and/or drink if you like, but get moving pretty quickly — you’ll want to push on before your legs realise they’ve got an opportunity to rest.
After another 13km of very scenic riding you’ll reach an intersection known unofficially as WTF Corner — an extremely steep ramp that starts the final climb of the day.
Section 8: Back of Falls climb
Let’s be totally honest — this climb is going to hurt. It’s a tough climb even on fresh legs but with 200km of riding already behind you, it’s going to be a real challenge. But, as with 3 Peaks overall — and as with Mt. Hotham — the Back of Falls climb can be broken down into manageable chunks.
The first few hundred metres of the climb average close to 10% making the start of this climb the hardest part by far. And sadly, there’s very little respite for the first 9km of the climb which rises at an average gradient of close to 9%. The rough surface makes this section even harder than it might otherwise be and regardless of your gearing, you’ll be wishing for an extra couple of gears.
But after those 9km — after roughly 207km of riding — things start to ease off a bit. That’s not to say it’s easy, but it’s certainly a lot easier than those first 9km from WTF Corner. Even better, it’s only another 3km to Trapyard Gap — the final rest stop of the ride.
Quite simply, if you’ve made it this far, you can make it to the end. Sure, there’s still a bit of climbing to go — 12km or so — but the worst is well and truly behind you and besides, you’re so close to the end.
After roughly 222km of riding — and about 23km of climbing from WTF Corner — you’ll reach a crest in the road. For all intents and purposes, this is the top of the final climb.
It’s time to party.
For more information about the Back of Falls climb, visit this page.
Section 9: Falls Creek Plateau to Falls Creek (peak #3)
Once you’ve crested the Back of Falls climb there are still a couple of short rises left to conquer but the sustained climbing is behind you. Better than that, you’re about to catch a glimpse of the Rocky Valley Storage Dam and the Falls Creek village — the end is near and damn does it feel good.
The remaining 13km to Falls Creek are largely downhill and any pain you were feeling on the Back of Falls will quickly be forgotten as you push towards the finish.
As you descend those twisting final kilometres, take a moment to soak it all in — the cool mountain air, the fatigue in your legs, the feeling of relief and satisfaction. Congratulations, you’ve just conquered one of the toughest one-day challenge rides in Australia!
Bonus: pushing for time
If just finishing the 3 Peaks Challenge isn’t enough for you and/or you’ve done it before, you can always set yourself an additional challenge: finishing the ride in a certain amount of time.
The folks at Bicycle Network Victoria have made this challenge a little easier for you by having members of the 3 Peaks Pro Team set the pace for various time cut-offs. Please note that the times below are total cumulative time — i.e. breaks are included.
- Nick Mitchell: 8 hours
- Peter English: 9 hours
- Mark Guirguis: 9.5 hours
- Alison McCormack: 10 hours
- Kevin Russell: 10.5 hours
Regardless of the target you set yourself, you can cut your total time by reducing the number of breaks you take. In addition, ensure that the breaks you take don’t last any longer than they need to. For a bit of context, 3 Peaks Pro Team member Peter English apparently spent less than 10 minutes off the bike during last year’s ride.
Of course, shortening your breaks and reducing the number of times you stop might seem easy now but on the day you might well feel like you need a longer break.
Regardless of how you decide to approach it, remember that even just completing the 3 Peaks Challenge is a fantastic effort and one that you should be proud of!
Have you completed 3 Peaks before? If so, what other tips would you offer first-time riders? And if you’re a first time rider, what else would you like to know about the day? Leave your questions below and I (or someone else) will answer them for you.
Thanks to Emma Bolger and the Bicycle Network Victoria team for inviting me up to Falls Creek to attempt the 3 Peaks Challenge once more. I’m very much looking forward to the ride and grateful for their support.