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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 x 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.
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.
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.
- The highs and lows of 3 Peaks 2013 — Liz Leorke
- Scody 3 Peaks Challenge — anything but easy — CyclingTips
- 3 Peaks Challenge 2013 — Gareth Pellas
- An interesting spreadsheet of finisher stats, 2012 vs 2013 — Paris Pollock
- An epic day of guts and glory — Bicycle Network Victoria