A couple of times during the 3 Peaks Challenge in March I told myself I’d never do a ride as long or as challenging as 3 Peaks again. They’re just too hard, I reasoned, too painful, and the reward at the end doesn’t outweigh the despair along the way. And yet, less than a month after 3 Peaks, I found myself deep inside the pain cave, dragging myself through another epic ride. Voluntarily.
Every year the Hells 500 mob do a crazy ride that tests the limits of their endurance, physically and mentally, and this year’s instalment was dubbed Crux. The route was a simple one: three laps of The Crucifix, a popular but challenging route in the Dandenongs.
Each lap takes in four climbs — The 1 in 20, The Devils Elbows, The Wall (to Sky High) and Inverness Road (to Sky High as well) — and is about 70km from start to finish with around 1,850m of climbing. Multiply that by three and you’re looking at 210km with 5,500m of climbing — a long, hard and painful day on the bike.
Our 13-strong group met at The Basin a little before 6am and after a couple of pre-ride photos courtesy of Nigel Welch and John Gogis we were off, tackling the first climb — the 1 in 20 — as the sun rose.
Any delusions I might have had about the whole group riding together were smashed within the first few kilometres. Andy and a couple of other guys flew up the 1 in 20 while the rest of held back slightly. But only slightly.
I looked down at one point and saw that my heartrate was at 185bpm (about 94% of my maximum) — not the gentle start to the day I was expecting. But I wasn’t about to take it easy and risk losing the group, condemning myself to 200km on my own. When we hit the second climb of the day — the Devil’s Elbows — things started to thin out quite a bit. I found myself riding alone for probably a kilometre or so before Joel and Brendan passed me, doing it easy.
If memory serves it was on this climb that Evan and I started riding together and apart from a handful of kilometres many hours later, we would spend the rest of the day together. We were also joined by Matt Wearne who stayed with us for a full lap.
In many ways the first lap was just a warm-up, which sounds ridiculous given how hard the course is. But it really did feel like that: I was just focused on getting to the second lap with as much energy left as possible. We took it pretty easy on The Wall, chatting away as we got through the steep ramps, then headed through Olinda and up to Sky High for the first of six visits for the day.
When we got to Inverness Road we were so absorbed in conversation — about wheels or nutrition or something like that — that we got through the steep stuff (~20%) and finished the climb without even really realising it. It was a good sign — that road is pretty steep towards the top and if you’re able to hold a conversation and barely notice the gradient, you must be in decent shape.
But on lap two things started to fall apart.
In hindsight, this was probably to be expected. On lap one we were running on adrenaline, enjoying the quiet roads and each other’s company and on lap three we were in sight of the finish (even it was 4 hours away). But on lap two we were in no-man’s-land with the climbs getting harder and the fatigue building gradually, but perceptibly.
I got through the 1 in 20 and the Devil’s Elbows for the second time reasonably fine — slowly, but fine — but the steep pinches of The Wall really started to take their toll. Matt had disappeared to get an early lunch and so it was Evan and I riding together, he looking eternally fresh and forever smiling, me with my head down, grinding away, trying to find some sort of comfortable rhythm.
While increasingly painful, it was actually quite easy to find a rhythm, largely because my bottom bracket had started clicking and cracking on the second climb of the day. Barring a brief period somewhere around the 3-4 hour mark, it crunched all day long, every time I extended my left leg. Click-crunch, click-crunch, click-crunch. It started off being very annoying (for Evan too no doubt — sorry!), became a way for me to focus on finding a rhythm, and ended up being just another noise that I ignored as I dragged myself up hill after hill.
When we got to Olinda after climbing The Wall for a second time, we stopped for probably the longest break we had all day. Andy’s wife Tammy and his parents Tony and Judy had set themselves up in the main street of Olinda and so every time we passed by there was an opportunity to grab some real food (peanut butter sandwiches never tasted so good, thanks Tam!) and say hi to other riders that were at various stages of the ride.
That was one of the cool things about doing repeats of a loop that featured 4 out-and-back climbs: you got the opportunity to see everyone else as you rode. As you were climbing someone might descend, shouting out encouragement. And as we descended, we’d do the same. It was a strange kind of camaraderie that, while being rather disjointed, was still very helpful.
I think the period between finishing The Wall for the second time and starting the 1 in 20 for the third time was the toughest section of the day for me. The couple of times I rolled into the Olinda rest stop I was utterly ruined and unsure of how I was going to get through the next section. The second climb of Inverness Road was horrendous and while Evan danced away on his pedals — still riding with me despite being considerably stronger and fresher — I was in my own little world of pain.
I had no idea how I was going get through a whole ‘nother lap and even the grind up Ridge Road to Sky High seemed like an impossible task. Whenever a car would approach us from behind I’d do my best to yell “car back!” for Evan’s benefit, but on more than a few occasions the best I could do was a slurred “aaaaaaah accck”.
Earlier in the day I’d decided to create a page on my Garmin that didn’t list my speed, distance covered or elevation gained. I didn’t want to be looking down at the thing every 2 minutes to see how far I’d gone — I simply wanted to approach the day as 12 climbs and not worry about anything else. So with my Garmin fixed on a page that just had my heartrate, the time of day and the time elapsed I pushed on, just aiming for the end of each climb.
I got to Sky High for the fourth time a little behind Evan and as soon as I arrived we pushed on. And I’m glad we did. As tempting as it was to sit and enjoy the view (and maybe a coke and a doughnut or five) I just wanted to get stuck into the final lap. If for no other reason than I could tell myself “this is the last lap”.
My third climb of the 1 in 20 was the slowest I’ve been up there since my first time — on a mountain bike when I had to stop 2km from the start to catch my breath. But being able to say to myself “this is the last time I have to do this climb” was a great boost and one that I’d use on each of the remaining climbs.
By the time we hit the Devil’s Elbows for the third time I wasn’t having fun anymore. My legs felt rubbish, I had no energy, the crunching from my bottom bracket was starting to annoy me again and the traffic at that end of the Tourist Road was making it all worse.
There’s always a few cars parked near the 1000 Steps but it was ridiculous on Sunday — the cars were parked nearly all the way to the hairpin, 1km up the road. But parked cars I can deal with; it’s the idiots who insist on driving within 50cm of you that I struggle with.
Taking the left-hander onto Churchill Drive for the last time was a bit of a relief: the traffic was gone and we could ride in peace and quiet. Apart from my freaking bottom bracket, of course.
Evan dangled off the front providing a bit of a carrot but even if I’d wanted to speed up to catch him, my legs wouldn’t let me. I was sitting in the 34×28, searching for another few teeth at the back, pedalling in survival mode.
The end of the climb eventually came and the descent from One Tree Hill back to the Tourist Road was a welcome but short-lived reprieve. We pushed our way through the frustrating, hilly transition to Olinda and grabbed something to eat from the support crew.
While Evan slammed down a cold, caffeinated beverage I asked if he minded me setting off for The Wall a few minutes before him. I felt bad for asking — particularly given he’d been waiting for me for so many hours — but I was worried if I waited any longer I’d get cramps in every single leg muscle and besides, Evan would catch me the moment we started climbing anyway.
I took it pretty easy on the descent towards Monbulk, telling myself to be extra vigilant lest the fatigue cause me to lose concentration. No sooner had I turned around at the bottom and started climbing The Wall for the final time than Evan passed me heading down, turned around and then joined me. And then a strange thing happened: I started to feel alright.
I don’t know if it was the snack I’d had at the Olinda feed station or a simple case of second wind but suddenly — and it was suddenly — I felt as if everything was actually pretty manageable.
I certainly wasn’t feeling any faster but the legs were responding well and I was able to keep turning the pedals over — click-crunch, click-crunch, click-crunch – quite comfortably. Evan reached the Olinda rest-stop a minute or so ahead of me and when I got there I didn’t bother stopping. “Let’s get this done”, I think I said. Or at least that’s what I was thinking.
By the time we reached the bottom of Inverness Road for the final time, I knew I was going to complete the ride. Whether that helped or not, I’m not sure, but the third time up Inverness Road felt easier than the second. I’d gone into the third lap telling myself “if I have to stop on Inverness Road, that’s fine” but when it came time to climb it, I managed to get through it one piece.
We climbed the annoying few kilometres on the Tourist Road to Five Ways before turning right and heading up the steep pinch of Ridge Road for the final time. Evan was a little way ahead of me before too long, and I didn’t blame him — I was climbing about as slowly as I could without falling off. And as the road flattened out, I saw a most welcome site — my brother Brendan by the side of the road.
Brendan had missed out on an invite to the ride but was still keen to come along to see me finish — a tremendous effort given he lives on the other side of the city near Williamstown. Seeing him there, clapping and encouraging me from the side of the road was a tremendous boost and I’m very grateful he made the long trip out. Thanks bro!
As Brendan drove off to meet me at Olinda I turned right and headed up to Sky High for the final time. When I got there it was to see an amazing combination of sunset and rain over the northern suburbs. Evan had waited for me and as we rolled down Ridge Road for the final time we started to congratulate each other on a job well done.
There’s one little bit of climbing between Sky High and Olinda on the particular Crucifix route we were following — Monash Avenue . It’s probably above 10% for most of its 500m and it should have been a grindfest to finish the day. But with the end of the climbing in sight, I found a little bit of energy and managed to hold a reasonable tempo up there with Evan. It was the fastest of my three climbs of that short road.
We crested the climb, took a left turn and rolled into the Olinda reststop to congratulations from Tammy, Tony, Judy and Brendan, who’d just joined them. Evan and I didn’t hang around long — we still had to get back to The Basin to complete the third lap and the light was fading fast.
Finishing the ride with a descent was a fitting end to the day, particularly because the sun was setting to the west as we rolled down the hill. Some 12 hours earlier we’d started the first climb of the day as the sun was rising and here we were, descending the same piece of road as the sun set.
Only then did I get a real sense of how much time had passed. Sure, I could see the hours ticking away as we rode but the passage of time feels very different on a long ride than it does in everyday life.
I got back to the car feeling tremendously relieved and proud of myself for having completed such a brutal ride. There were a few riders still on course when Evan and I finished but I later learnt that everyone that started the ride finished — a tremendous effort by all concerned. Particular kudos should go to Nicole van Bergen (Andy’s sister for those of you playing along at home) who, despite much self-doubt and nervousness in the lead-up to the ride, got through it in one piece. Well done Nic!
I’ve now had a couple days to reflect on the ride and to let the pain in my legs subside and I feel like I learned a lot from the experience. In particular I’ve learnt that when I’m feeling ordinary on the bike, it really is worth pushing through because there’s always the chance of a second wind that will make things considerably easier.
And so, finally, to some thank-yous. First up: to Nigel and John for filming and taking photos of us on the day — some of which you see in this post. It’s worth pointing out that I arrived at The Basin at 5.30am and Nigel and John were already there, setting up — a massive effort. Thanks guys!
Thanks to Brendan for his brief appearances near the end of the ride. It really did give me a great boost for the final section of the ride.
A huge thank you to Evan for sticking with me for so long when he really could have ridden off at any time. Having that company was a godsend and I really appreciated having someone to talk to and to listen to, knowing I wasn’t battling this brutal thing on my own. Thanks mate!
Thanks, once again, to the incredible van Bergen support crew. I feel a bit silly thanking them over and over again but I think it really needs to be said. It’s a special kind of person that gives up their day (from 5.30am to after 6pm), sitting and waiting for a bunch of cyclists to roll past every now and then. Particularly when said cyclists are suffering and not feeling particularly friendly or sociable. That support is something that really sets the Hells 500 mob apart and one of things that makes it a privilege to ride with them.
And, of course, a big thank-you to Andy for inviting me along in the first place. When I first heard about the route for this year’s invitational epic I knew it was going to be a very hard day on the bike and so it proved to be. But it was a honour to be invited on one of their famous epics and I’m very glad I was able to complete it.
Until next time, thanks very much for reading, and be sure to check out the photos and video below.
- Joel Nicholson
- Chris Mason
- Simon Atkinson
- Jem Richards
- Brendan Canty
- Andy van Bergen
- Shane van Seters
- Evan Henley
- Matt de Neef
- John van Seters
- Josh Goodall
- Matt Wearne
- Nicole van Bergen