Episode 19: 3 Peaks Challenge 2012

Route: 3 Peaks Challenge
Distance: 235km

Yours truly doing battle with the Back of Falls climb. (Image: Andy van Bergen)

There was a brief moment on the lower slopes of Mt Hotham when I thought to myself: ‘Finishing 3 Peaks isn’t going to be satisfying this year. I’ve already done it once, what’s to be gained by doing it a second time?’

How wrong I was.

Crossing the finish line on Sunday was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. It was a day of so many little victories and the culmination of so much hard work … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Brendan and I drove up to Falls Creek late on Saturday morning. We stopped at Bogong village for a brief chat to my partner Sharon and her parents who had come up to cheer us on and to enjoy a relaxing long weekend.

Up at Falls Creek Brendan and I checked in to our accommodation, got our bikes checked (lights and brakes), registered for the ride, and caught up with the rest of the crew at the rider briefing.

It wasn’t just Brendan and I up for the ride — the Donvale Demon was there, as was Matt ‘Fletch’ Fletcher. Andy van Bergen and Evan Henley were also there, representing Hells 500. (If you haven’t already read Andy’s terrific account of the 300km Three Long Five High ride he put together, you should. It’s a cracking read.)

After the rider briefing and a carbohydrate-rich dinner, Brendan and I headed off to bed to get as much sleep as we could before the 5.30am alarm sounded.  We happened to be sharing a room with 3 Peaks Pro rider Peter English and the Lantern Rouge (Ben Douglas). They’re a couple of great dudes and it was a lot of fun chatting with them about 3 Peaks and cycling in general. I reckon it’s the closest I’ll ever get to feeling like I’m part of a pro cycling team

The 3 Peaks Pro team being introduced at the rider briefing.

On Sunday morning we rose early and staggered to breakfast in the pre-dawn cold. By 6.30, and with bellies full to bursting, we made our way to the start line to join a seething mass of nervous riders, red and white lights blinking as the sun slowly rose.

Even at the start line I knew it was going to be a better ride than last year’s. For a start, there wasn’t even a hint of rain on the horizon or the Bureau of Meteorology forecast. More importantly, I was starting the ride with two of the crew beside me: Brendan and the Donvale Demon. Last year I started alone, rode alone and finished the ride alone.

As it was I lost both Brendan and the Demon in the first 2km, Brendan down the hill in front of me, the Demon somewhere behind, wary of a repeat of his Baw Baw antics.

It took most of the descent for my pre-ride nerves to disappear but by the time I reached Bogong (and waved to Sharon and family as I rode past) I was ready to go. There was still no sign of Brendan so I kicked things up a gear and burned a few matches trying to bridge the gap. I eventually caught him about halfway to Mt. Beauty and together we tapped out the remaining kilometres to the base of the first peak: Tawonga Gap.

We hadn’t agreed on whether we would all stick together throughout the day but when I found myself opening a bit of a gap on Brendan on the climb, I decided I would wait for him at the top and together we would continue.

Once I’d found a nice rhythm, the climb itself was quite pleasant. I found myself on the wheel of some guy in dhb knicks (thanks!) and together we streamed past plenty of riders. The last time I climbed Tawonga it was 40 degrees, the road was melting and it felt as if I was riding in a furnace.  This time around it was far more pleasant and the kays flew by. I crested the climb in around 29 minutes and waited a few minutes for Brendan to arrive.

When Brendan arrived at the summit we discussed whether we should wait for the Demon to catch us or not. We decided to push on, knowing the Demon’s formidable skills on the flatlands would see him rejoin us before too long.

Climbing Mt. Hotham in perfect conditions.

We flew down the mountain toward Germantown, Brendan putting on a show with some wonderful descending skills. At Germantown we took a left and started the 20km transition to the start of the Mt. Hotham climb.

Before too long Brendan and I found ourselves in a “group” as we worked toward Harrietville. I say “group” because while there was a collection of riders in close proximity to one another, any kind of collaborative effort was noticeably absent. Moving at only 25km/h I was starting to get twitchy but, with riders taking up the whole lane, I couldn’t find room to get past.

No sooner had the group arranged itself two abreast than the Donvale Demon came speeding up on my right. Brendan and I jumped on and together the three of us sped toward Harrietville. That half an hour was one of the best parts of the day — the weather was fantastic, my legs were feeling fresh, I had riders around me and I was feeling good.

We stopped momentarily in Harrietville for water and then got to work on Mt. Hotham. Brendan, the Demon I got separated quite quickly and it was back to climbing alone. As I worked through the opening kilometres I was feeling strong and I managed to pass plenty of riders as I went.

And then I got hungry.

I’d spent the past few days carbo-loading like nobody’s business and yet, as I approached the final kilometres of the Hotham false-flat, I noticed myself getting weaker and my energy levels dropping right off. This was a frustrating feeling, especially as I’d been eating throughout the ride. I arrived at the conclusion I was in need of some real food and that energy bars just weren’t going to cut it.

As I stopped at Buckland Gate just long enough to stretch my ITBs (not just the one that’s been giving me trouble for weeks) and slam down a banana, a voice behind me said “stretch those ITBs!” It was Andy, who was looking strong and fresh and before long I was joining he and Evan as they neared the final third of the Hotham climb.

The two of them took it pretty easy for the remainder of the climb and I pushed on toward the summit, with the aim of meeting them at the Dinner Plain lunch stop. As I rolled under the bridge and into the Mt. Hotham village I hit ‘lap’ on my Garmin 500 and noticed that, despite the rest stop, I’d managed to climb Hotham in less than 1 hour 50 minutes — a PB of roughly five minutes, and about 20 minutes faster than last year’s 3 Peaks.

Descending toward Omeo.

Despite that small victory my ITBs were both hurting and I was desperate for some real food. I pushed through the 11km to Dinner Plain and lined up for lunch feeling tired but satisfied — two peaks down, one to go.

The lunch stop was great for a number of reasons. Not only did I get a chance to eat a solid lunch and stretch my legs, but the whole crew got to catch up before launching into the second half of the day.

Fletch was already at Dinner Plain when I arrived — a phenomenal effort given he’d been battling a virus all week and was still feeling ordinary. Andy and Evan rolled in a few minutes after me, and within the next 20 minutes or so Brendan and the Demon joined us as well.

In the weeks leading up to 3 Peaks my goal had gone from just finishing the event, to finishing in under 10 hours riding time. Last year I had completed the course in 10 hours 36 minutes and with all the extra training I’d done this year, I thought I was a realistic change of shaving 37 minutes off that time.

When we stopped at Dinner Plain I pulled out a piece of paper on which I’d written the timechecks I’d need to make in order to go under 10 hours. After 115km I was 10 minutes ahead of schedule — so far so good.

Fletch rolled out first, followed by Andy and Evan a short time later and then Brendan, the Donvale Demon and I. Launching into the descent, Brendan jumped to the front once more and was gone. With some deft cornering and a fearless attitude he gained a few minutes on us and we didn’t see him for the next 40km.

The Demon and I stuck together most of the way to Omeo, enjoying the scenery and the fact the weather had remained fine. There was still a long way to go but I think we were both starting to realise we would each finish the day with a 3 Peaks finisher’s jersey in our possession.

Brendan at the front, and not for the first time.

After 35km of great descents, amazing scenery and the occasional painful climb, the Demon and I bombed down the most enjoyable descent of the day and into Omeo. Brendan was waiting for us at the rest stop and after we all filled up water bottles and food reserves we saddled up and got ready to tackle the last 75km of the ride.

As we rolled out of the rest stop I took a quick peek at my timesheet. Somehow I’d dropped four minutes on the way down from Dinner Plain and I was only six minutes under the split that would get me back to Falls Creek in under 10 hours riding time.

The quiet country roads between Omeo and Anglers Rest are one of the highlights of 3 Peaks in my opinion. As we made our way along the Omeo Highway and climbed the 4km rise just out of Omeo, we drank in the surrounds. ‘Best to enjoy the scenery while we can’, I thought, ‘because there’s not much enjoyment to be had once the final climb starts’.

With Brendan driving hard at the front, we managed to average around 30km/h on the wonderful rollers to Anglers Rest. I found myself working pretty hard just to keep up and by the time I got to the Anglers Rest stop Brendan had already been waiting for a minute or so.

We met up with Andy and Evan at Anglers and together the five of us set off toward WTF Corner and the start of the last (and most difficult) climb of the day. A quick check of my timesheet showed I was roughly 10 minutes ahead of schedule again– back on track.

We chewed through those 11km after Anglers Rest without too much trouble and before we knew it we were staring up at the monstrosity that is the Bogong High Plains Road.

Last time I climbed the Back of Falls I described it as a surprisingly easy ride that I somehow managed to enjoy. Sunday was no such picnic.

Even with a 34×28, there were times where just turning over the pedals was a real strain. I spent a lot of time with my speed touching 7km/h and on more than one occasion I thought I’d have to stop (as I’d done plenty of times last year with a 39×26).

The weather looks nice but the Back of Falls climb was anything but pleasant.

For those first 9km, any thoughts of finishing the ride in under 10 hours were swept aside. Instead it simply became a matter of survival — keep turning the cranks; keep moving toward the finish.

And somehow I managed to do just that. Every time I thought I needed a breather, the road would flatten slightly and I’d get a brief reprieve. And then the road would go up again and I’d be back in the hurt box.

I reckon it’s easy to look back on moments like that and think ‘Oh well, I got through it. It mustn’ve been that hard!’ But let me tell you, I was suffering in ways that I haven’t experienced on the bike in a long time, if at all.

I was tired and sore, I was feeling hungry and I couldn’t seem to get enough air in my lungs just to power the next pedal stroke. Having Andy and Evan about 100m up the road throughout the climb was a great carrot and one that really helped me through an hour of real suffering.

It seemed to take forever to get to Trapyard Gap but when I finally did it was a huge psychological boost — the worst was behind me and it was only 8km to the summit of the climb. After one final break, Brendan, Andy, Evan, Fletch and I set off on the ride’s final section. Leaving Trapyard Gap I checked my Garmin — to go under 10 hours I would need to cover the ride’s final 20km in around 90 minutes.

Sure, it sounds easy now, but with 215km in the legs and with a bunch of climbing still to go it was no certainty. I resolved just to get through the remainder of the climbing and go hard in the last 14km if I still had the energy.

The group broke apart almost immediately after Trapyard Gap with Brendan, Fletch and Andy setting the pace up ahead. Evan and I rode side-by-side, chatting about his extraordinary effort in Three Long Five High just two weeks prior and about how 3 Peaks compared to that ride and the Audax Alpine Classic.

I’d like to say the day’s last section of climbing was easy, but even those easier final kilometres were a real challenge. It was a real bonus having Evan there to distract me from my tired, aching legs and the desire to pull over and have a rest.

The summit of the Back of Falls climb.

Eventually we emerged from the trees and found ourselves on the Falls Creek plateau. As we summited the climb the game instantly changed. With a burst of adrenaline we kicked it into the big dog and started to pick up the pace.

As the kilometres ticked by I had calculations running through my head. The average speed I needed to go under 10 hours kept dropping — first it was 15km/h, then it was 12km/h and then, when it dropped below 10km/h while I was sitting on 35km/h I knew I was home.  I was going to finish 3 Peaks and I was going to go under 10 hours.

At the same time I was racing against the clock, Brendan was in a battle of his own up the road. He’d taken roughly 20 minutes longer than me to climb Tawonga and Hotham combined, and after he decided (at Trapyard Gap) he would also try for under 10 hours, his equation became a lot more challenging than mine.

He flew off the front with Andy and put in a huge effort, driving hard to the top of the climb and giving it everything he had down into Falls Creek.

In the end he crossed the line with a ride time of just under 9 hours 50 minutes — a truly fantastic effort given how late he started training seriously for this event. When I crossed the line three minutes later I stopped my Garmin and had a look at my ride time: 9 hours 23 minutes.

It’s hard to put into words just how good a moment like that feels. In fact, it was probably a couple of moments.

It started at the summit of the final climb, knowing that all of the hard work was done. When the Rocky Valley Storage Dam was visible around a corner for the first time, the feeling intensified — only a few kilometres to go.

And then, when we reached the top of the short rise just after the dam wall, well, if there’s a better buzz you can have as a recreational cyclist I want to know about it. From there it was just a short roll down the hill, past plenty of cheering onlookers and across the line.

Mission complete.

Seeing the Rocky Valley Storage Dam for the first time is like some kind of heaven.

All things considered, we really couldn’t have asked for a better day. The weather was sublime, the event was superbly run by Bicycle Network Victoria and the whole crew crossed the line without so much as a single puncture between us. A terrific effort all round, particularly from the Donvale Demon who well and truly silenced his critics with yet another stunning ride. I’m very much looking forward to reading his perspective on the ride early next week.

In the weeks leading up to the event I was unsure of how to balance my desire to ride with the rest of the guys while still improving on last year’s performance. In the end, I think we managed the perfect balance.

I got to ride with everyone for at least part of the day and I also managed to smash the goal I’d set for myself. The trade-off was roughly two-hours-worth of breaks spread across the day, meaning it took roughly 11 hours 30 minutes elapsed to finish the ride. Sure, I could have done it faster, but the joy of riding and completing an event such as the 3 Peaks Challenge with a bunch of great blokes far outweighed any desire I had to finish any earlier than I did.

As mentioned, there are a lot of differences between this year’s 3 Peaks and last year’s event — the weather being an obvious example. But perhaps the biggest difference is that I’ve come away from this year’s 3 Peaks with a real desire to get back on the bike ASAP.

I didn’t ride for a couple of months after last year’s event but this time around, I certainly won’t let it go so long. For a start, I’ve got the Ride Hard 2 Breathe Easy challenge on Strava to think about (if you haven’t already signed up, get on it!). I just need to do something about these stupid ITBs.

Brendan and I after crossing the line. (Image: Betty Ridgway)

Before I bring this (long!) post to a close, I’d like to say a couple of ‘thank-you’s to the people who helped me achieve my goal of completing a second 3 Peaks Challenge.

Thanks to the Donvale Demon for joining me on many training rides and for providing a real source of inspiration over the past five months. Thanks to Brendan for your company on many a training ride as well and for allowing me to partially make amends for causing you to be a ‘DNF’ two years ago.

Thanks to Fletch and Dougie for making the effort to come up to Falls Creek back in January and for the rides since then. Thanks to Andy van Bergen for organising our trip to Falls Creek back in January, for inviting the Demon, Brendan and I to spin classes a few months back, and for providing all kinds of ridiculous inspiration.

Thanks to Sam and Sarah at the Spin Room for the often-brutal spin classes that helped me reach a level of fitness I’d never previously enjoyed. The sessions weren’t always fun, but they were always valuable. Thanks too to everyone that came up on Sunday and said ‘hi’ and asked how my ITBs were. It was very heartening to have that support from people I’d never met.

Thanks to the wonderful crew at Bicycle Network Victoria for having Brendan and I along as their guests for the weekend and for putting on a truly wonderful cycling event. Everyone I spoke to across the weekend remarked at how well organised the whole thing was and how smoothly everything seemed to go. I couldn’t agree more — a job well done folks!

Thanks to my family for their constant support throughout this whole crazy endeavour, with particular mention to my partner Sharon. She’s been unbelievably supportive throughout and has put up with many lonely evenings over the past few months while I’ve been sitting here blogging.

And finally, thanks to all of you for reading not just this post, but all of the posts I’ve put together over the past five months. It often feels weird to sit here typing about, well, myself, but the amount of positive feedback I’ve had over the journey — and particularly in the past few weeks — makes it all worthwhile.

I hope you’ve got something out of these blogs, whether that’s a desire to attempt the 3 Peaks Challenge at some point,  to try one of the many terrific climbs around this great state of ours, or even just to get back on your bike.

Thanks for reading.

3 Peaks Challenge complete.

More 3 Peaks experiences:

I you’d like to add your 3 Peaks write-up to this list, send me an email with the details. Hover your mouse over the images below to see a description.

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36 Replies to “Episode 19: 3 Peaks Challenge 2012”

  1. Hi Matt,
    Really enjoy your website & have been a particularly keen reader of your write ups about your 3 Peaks rides. I’m taking on the 3 Peaks in 2013, so the insights in to the event & climbs have been invaluable. Unfortunately, I don’t have any climbs of this length nearby, I live in Geelong, so have to do lots of repeats on 1 to 2 klm hills in the area. Looking to get up to Mt Macedon on one or two weekends, to get some practice in on the extended climbs & have read your profiles on these. Would like to do Skenes Creek but not keen on riding the Great Ocean Road. Keep up the good work & thanks again for the website, which really is a great effort.

  2. Ive just signed up for this and having read your blog, Im now thinking this is going to be one tough day! Living in Perth, we dont have the mountains to practice on but I will give it my best shot.
    Looking forward to it!

    1. Nice one Mark! You should try to get over here and practice on some of the climbs. Training on the actual hills in the ride will give you a real sense of where you’re at. 🙂

  3. Well done Matt. Great write up of the ride. Thanks for the website, which certainly helped motivate me to complete my first 3 Peaks. Can’t wait till next year!

  4. Finally found the time to read this last blog!

    Congratulations to Matt,Brendan and the Demon(And all other finishers). Thanks for the motivation for me to ready myself and give it a shot in 2014!!! (I may not be in Aus next year when it’s on ;( )

    Inspirational effort…

  5. Well done Matt. Great reward for all the effort. Thanks also for keeping the site going over the last 12 months.

  6. Great post and great ride. Congrats on a job well done. I can agree with you on Sam and Sara. They know how to make you hurt!

  7. Top effort and a great time to boot. A just reward for all the training.

    Well done also to the Donvale Demon, who managed finished the ride. Zero to hero in about 6 or so months.

    The photo at the top of the article is also pretty slick.

  8. Some random observations about the route:

    The best descent of the day is definitely the one just before Omeo. Wide, not too technical, steep enough to get up some speed, and smooth.

    Most unpleasant surprise – the little climb just before Omeo. Back of Falls is far worse, of course, but everybody knows about it (and CRB Hill and the Dimantina).

    Most overhyped section – The Meg. OK, it’s steep, but it’s short and the legs are presumably still fresh.

    Best mountain view: tough to call because there’s so many, but the view from the Tawonga Gap, though perhaps the most familiar and easily accessible high point on the route, is pretty hard to beat.

    What’s missing: given VicRoads have official signs for CRB Hill and the Diamantina, how about some signs for WTF Corner and Pain Lane (the toughest stretch of Back of Falls, about 3km up IIRC).

    See you on the road.

    1. Great observations Goonie: spot on on just about all counts I reckon! Maybe we should start lobbying VicRoads to get some signs for those two sections on Back of Falls. I’m happy to sign a petition for that 😛

      I guess that road is fairly new, having only been sealed as recently as 2009 IIRC. It doesn’t carry nearly as much traffic as the Great Alpine Road over Hotham but we could certainly try. 🙂

      You’ve got me thinking now …

  9. Great write up – thanks. What a great day- I ran into a bit of trouble back of falls but dug deep and finished pretty strongly although stuffed. Really appreciated your reviews of all the climbs – first time climbing any of those mountains for me.

  10. Congratulations on your 3 Peaks success. Thanks for your fantastic work with your blog, it has been a great inspiration and most entertaining, and needless to say a great motivational tool. If you’re like me, you’ll need to ‘fatten’ up again to fill out that new 3 Peaks jersey! Looks a little big!Chapeau to the Donvale Demon, what an effort. I too had my demons to excise, the back of falls never got to kiss my cleats as they firmly remained in my pedals this year!

    1. Congrats John! You’re right abotu the jersey. I got a large and it’s fairly swimming on me at the moment. (not right at the moment, but you get the idea :P)

  11. Thanks for the great blog, Matt, it has been a huge help and inspiration in my own prep for 3 Peaks. It was a horrendous, amazing experience, and I’m already thinking about next years.

    1. Thanks Adam. Cycling’s funny like that isn’t it? It smacks us around like nobody’s business and yet we bounce right back for more. Crazy. 😛

  12. Well done Matt, great effort. As I was wearing DHB shorts and had someone jump on my back wheel going up Tawonga it may have been me you were following. I also did it in around 29 min. Have been reading all your training blogs with envy. Having four kids and only Sunday mornings to train on the road, the only Mountain I can get to is Mt Macedon, and my spin classes are on the back deck. Have to agree that the satisfaction of completing 3Peaks did not change from this year to last, and I also can’t wait to hit the road this Sunday. Great effort again. Love the website.

    1. Thanks for your comment Simon. And if that was you on Tawonga: thanks! 😛 Congrats and enjoy getting back on the bike this weekend. 🙂

  13. I finished the ride for the first time on the sunday, a great feeling indeed and a fun ride. Thanks for all the post, I was training by myself most of the time and it was great to have a virtual ‘training partner’ in yourself to keep pace with. Good to see the donvale demon got it done.
    Thanks for the hill descriptions too, if i hadn’t known how long those last ramps are on Hotham it would have been a traumatic experience.

  14. Another fantasitc write-up, and great to relive an incredible event through your eyes.

    Crew, weather, participants, organisation – it all came together for one perfect day in the hills.

    ..given your current high, now might be the time to sign you on to our next adventure…!

  15. Great write-up and ride – well done on both counts.

    I have been following the blog the last few months as I trained myself for the ‘peaks’ having started riding 6 months ago. Managed to get round, slowly, although received some shocks on the way that no amount of reading your excellent website seemed to help – back of Falls – WTF!


  16. Hey Matt, you mentioned to me when you flew past me up Hotham that you wanted to get under 10hrs ride time – good to see you hit the target. Also your summary of the day is a great finale to your training tales for 3 peaks. You are right about the Spin Room too – I would never have completed 3 Peaks without the Elite Hills training. Wear that finishers jersey with pride. Cheers.

  17. What a great writeup of what can only be described as one amazing day. I relived it all through your writing, thanks for the memories! 🙂

  18. Well done Matt and what a fantastic day! I reckon we must have passed each other numerous times along the way as my ride time of 9 hrs 31 mins plus breaks of 2 hours and ascent times are all very similar. I was riding with 6 guys in City Realty kits. Must have had my head down too much grinding it out to notice you though. It was my first time so felt pretty emotional crossing the line after so much hard work and the fact that as a group of mates we all finished together. It’s been great reading your blog and certainly helped subdue some of my fear associated with completing the 3 Peaks. Cheers.

    1. Thanks hungrystix. The City Realty kit certainly sounds familiar. Congrats on finishing – it was an awesome (and very challenging!) day.

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