Food. Calories. Stretching. Resetting. Mostly though, calories. I need energy.
I rode Mt Hotham a little too hard, and it tore strips off me. The last 10km is hard, no matter what, but hindsight tells me that if I had taken another 10 minutes to do the first 20km, I wouldn’t have gone so deep on the last 10. That’s a big help now. At least the view was killer.
The Peaks Challenge Falls Creek is a well run event. The stop at Dinner Plain was a little more organized than the lunch stop the last time I did this ride, which was already pretty organized. On the menu was a veggie wrap, which was pretty good, and the usual banana and water/electrolyte top-up station. Before the ride all participants were given bags to send supplies forward (and one to send unwanted kit back) for up to three food stops on the course, including lunch. I made quick work of the wrap, then tucked into the sandwich I had prepared earlier, and a Snickers. Probably too much at once to have to digest on the go, but I felt like I needed to smash as many calories as possible to fill the hole I had been digging for the last 1.5 hours.
Hot tip: don’t get to that point. I should have been eating more regularly during the previous few hours, but I felt like I was ok with what I had. Eat by the clock, not by how you feel. I don’t know how many times I will have to learn this lesson.
Tony, who I had started the day with, had caught me again at lunch, so we set off together to tackle the second half of this adventure. The 10 hour pacers left early, and as we wanted to jump on to have a group to work with, we had to hurry. Missing them by a couple of minutes (I had to pee!), we had some work to do to catch up.
I’d like to bring attention at this point to the profile that shows what we were to expect once cresting Mt Hotham.
Pretty down-hill, right? Sure, there are climbs in there. Some fairly significant ones, but mostly, it’s a down-hill run. We were all told over and over again that Hotham isn’t an easy descent. You will have to work, but still, it’s a descent, right?
So wrong. So very wrong. Try as I might, I can recall no significant descent the entire way to the bottom of Falls. Keep that in your back pocket if you give this ride a go in coming years. Obviously there were actual descents, but I’m guessing that it was a combination of the fact that my legs were feeling no better after lunch (perhaps I sat for too long… I definitely sat for too long), and that we were chasing a group traveling at an already pretty solid pace that robbed the descents of all rejuvenatory properties.
So, onwards we pushed, Tony and I, swapping turns in an effort to catch our bunch. We caught 3 other guys, which quickly became 2, and then picked up another two riders a few km’s later. Apparently they were feeling about the same as me, because a few of them didn’t want to contribute to the pace, and the ones who did, did so at a slightly slower pace than Tony or I.
If we were going to catch this bunch, we were going to have to go for it, which was a bit of a gamble – especially in this type of ride. Do we use up precious energy now for a potential savings later? What if we don’t end up catching them?
I pushed a little harder into my pedals up yet another steady incline, and on one of the lengthier and steeper descents (this is the only one I remember), got my aero-tuck on and flung myself down the hill at terminal velocity. “This had better get us within sight again”, I was thinking, “because my legs are about to fall off!”.
As the road opened up at the bottom we hadn’t made any visible contact, so I had resigned myself to riding the rest of the day out at my own pace, which was now slower than ever.
“I’m in trouble”, I said to Tony. “Real trouble.”
I had to sit on for a while and just try to bring my legs back to life, drinking and eating as I could.
50km from the top of Mt Hotham, at the bottom of the “descent”, is Omeo, the location of another rest stop. I was definitely needing to stop there, but Tony wanted to carry on to Anglers Rest, the final rest stop before taking on the back of Falls. A small group containing, once again, Wade from Cycling Tips, caught us and we rode into Omeo together, enjoying actual descents for what felt like the first time since Tawonga Gap. Within sight of the rest stop I made a quick decision to pass it by. I had water and food enough to get me to Anglers Rest, so three of us carried on.
See that little climb on the profile above, just past Omeo? It felt like we might as well be going up Mt Hotham again. I’d have to guess that it was about 5-6km in length, at a fairly steady 6%, maybe, but honestly, it felt like twice as long and twice as steep. From there you get flattish, rolling terrain that never lets you ease off and just cruise.
Now, as I am writing this I am realizing that all of this could have been made easier by simply riding slower, which is true. On the other hand, slower means that this pain will last longer, and at this point all I wanted was for this to be over. That was what I was reduced to. It wasn’t fun anymore. I was not taking in the scenery, which was, as ever, stunning. I was just surviving, thinking about my laboured breathing, trying to pedal as smoothly as possible, conserving as much energy as possible. I also didn’t want to lose the group that had by now swelled to a larger number, yet somehow didn’t offer much shelter.
So there I was, in my own little world of miserable darkness, negative thoughts swirling around my head, just wanting to be done, the road never really giving any encouragement. On we went.
A few km’s out of Anglers Rest a couple of guys put the hammer down a little more and we made use of a few flatter sections to put in a pretty solid push (which I didn’t contribute to at all, thank you very much) to get us to our final stop before being turkey slapped by the back of Falls Creek and the infamous WTF climb, right at the bottom.
Anglers Rest was a collection of broken people, lying on the ground wherever there was space to do so. I had to join them, eat a bit, and stretch. My legs were still somewhere on Mt Hotham, having been torn off and left there long ago, but my upper back and shoulders were now also feeling the day’s effort. Tony wanted to push on. I wasn’t ready yet, so I said to just go, and thought I’d never see him again (well, for a few hours, anyway).
So, a few minutes later, I flung my leg over my bike again, resigning myself to whatever was going to happen as what was going to happen. Whatever. Stupid bikes. Stupid hills.
WTF corner was about an 11km long false flat away so I just rode that out at as much of a comfortable pace as possible, and then, there it was.
You know how that looks like pretty hard work? Like, “why would you want to do that voluntarily?”, kind of hard work? Well, it was.
Notice the speed sitting at 6-9kph for quite some time, at maximum effort. Judging by his cadence, this guy had the benefit of compact gearing. I was sitting at closer to 45-50rpm for the first 10km of this climb.
The monotony of the video above pretty much sums up the final serious climb of Peaks Challenge Falls Creek. It’s hard enough that it sends all extraneous thoughts fleeing from your mind. The road never really levels off at all for the first 10km, sitting at a nice 10% average.
Did I mention that my legs had started cramping? Yeah, somewhere before Anglers Rest my legs started to cramp, which I have never experienced on the bike before. It seemed as though I was making up for lost time, as it became constant and quite severe not long after.
So, with my legs in a permanent state of near-cramp with bouts now and then of total cramp, I rounded the corner to start the assault on the final climb.
It looked bad, but the strange thing was that I was passing everyone (mostly). It was steep, for sure, but it was steady. I didn’t have the option of an easy gear, so I just settled into as much of a rhythm as I could, put my head down, and pedaled.
And it worked. My pace was actually pretty not bad and I ended up finding and passing Tony again.
I made a point of not looking at my computer so as not to have a reminder of how slowly I was traveling, or how much more of this I had to get through. For me, that was a good move. Somewhere about 5km up I had decided that I needed to take a nature break, but I think a big motivator for that, at that precise time, was that I just needed a break, mentally and physically.
I stretched my legs a bit but that didn’t seem to help the cramping any. I just had to stay smooth, as any deviation from the way my muscles had been used for the last 8 hours brought on a more serious threat of total lock-up. I re-passed the riders that I watched go by while I stretched, and continued on my way to the summit.
This climb actually gave me a mental boost. My moral improved almost straight from the bottom as I realized that I could sustain this pace, that I was dealing with it pretty well, that I was riding well technically, and that I was thinking clearly and positively. The funk was clearing, and the end was nearing.
Also, there was a cold Coke waiting for me at the top.
At Trapyard Gap the organizers had set up an extra stop where Subaru (a main sponsor) had supplied a can of Coke and a banana for everyone, and that was a lifeline. Sugar and potassium in, the final push begins.
From Trapyard Gap the road rolls up and down for a few km’s, but the descents here seemed much sweeter. The relief I felt as the speeds rose beyond 30kph without pedaling was very welcome indeed. Not out of the woods yet, there is another big push for the next 10 or so km’s until you reach the top of this climb, but I was feeling a little more positive, knowing that the finish was not far off.
Far enough, though.
With the final serious climb finally behind me you would expect things to get easier, but they didn’t. The road keeps rolling and as you get to the top of Falls Creek, the wind picks up to keep progress to a minimum. The flat sections were still difficult and the descents were robbed of their generosity.
My legs really started to cramp quite badly at this point. If I got out of the saddle my quads felt some relief, but then my calves seized. If I tried to push the pace at all, the entire inside of my quads locked up. I battled past the same group of guys over the last 10-15km’s or so, then having them pass me and then catching them over and over again. I was trying to stay with them to stay out of the wind as much as possible, but I just couldn’t keep that up. The cramping was getting worse, and I ended up having to stop again to stretch them out a couple more times.
With a few km’s to go, who but Tony pops up behind me, and we rode the last two km’s into Falls Creek together, really enjoying the short but sweet descent to the finish line, 9 hours and 41 minutes after leaving it in the dark.
I really didn’t know how I would go in the lead up to the event. I had put in some pretty good km’s in the months leading up to it, but I knew that I wasn’t as strong as I could have been and worried that my standard gearing would make matters worse. I had simply planned on finishing it, hoped for a sub-10 hour time, but expected something in the 11’s, so when I finished comfortably inside of that, I was pretty happy. Still am, in fact.
Tony and I discussed it while we were standing around after, and decided we had no intention of doing it again. With a few days to let things settle a bit, I’m not so sure anymore. It’s a big time commitment, needing to put in long days in the saddle every weekend and early mornings during the week starting in winter, which isn’t always enjoyable. This year, with work, starting The Sticky Bidon, and training, I have had precisely no spare time for anything else. All for one day of riding.
We do it, however, because we love to ride. More than that, we love to ride with our mates. It builds friendships and strengthens character, makes you healthy and fit, and keeps you out of trouble (some kinds, anyway). I would be riding anyway, but if you are going to attempt the Peaks Challenge Falls Creek, you need to get more serious about it.
I’ll see how I feel 6 months from now. I plan on keeping most of the fitness I’ve built up this year, so hopefully I won’t have to start from scratch like I did this time, but maybe I won’t feel like spending all of my spare time riding a bike. We’ll see. What I do know is that I think I could manage a sub-9hr time (I shouldn’t have stopped for as long at the food stops), so whether it is this year or the next, I suspect I’ll be giving it another crack.
It’s a fantastic ride, in a fantastic part of the world. The support and organization from Bicycle Network is amazing, and it is a challenge you will not soon forget. If you love to ride, like to push yourself, enjoy a bit (or a lot) or pain, and you have the opportunity, I would suggest that this makes its way onto your cycling to-do list. If you try it once, chances are you’ll be back for more.