Note: realizing how long this is ending up, I’m going to break this up into two posts to keep it a reasonable length…
Now, the day that really mattered – Peaks Challenge Falls Creek 2015. This is one of the best one-day rides in the world, and by my calculation, a more difficult day in the saddle than many of the rides it shares the top ten with.
The is the day that was the impetus for 6 months of focused training. Sounds strange that one ride should demand so much preparation, but there are a few contributing factors to that one: winter made me unfit (made me, I tell you!), I’m a dummy when it comes to training properly, and it’s a bleeding hard ride – the more so if you want to do it within a personal time-frame.
Falls Creek is just under 1000km’s from Adelaide, so the toll on your body and mind starts with the drive, departing on Friday at the inhuman time of 5:00am, no less (leaving – I was up much, much earlier!). Fortunately, it was completed in good company, so at least is was fun, mostly…
9 of us made the trip to Falls Creek, Victoria, in a mini-bus full of excitement and apprehension. For some this came as a result of not having ridden 3 Peaks before, and for the rest, precisely because we had.
Saturday is all about getting prepared, checking your bike in and getting final gear and food and clothing preparations ready. A short-ish ride is a must to get the legs ticking over, getting good food in you, and then a good nights sleep, before heading out Sunday morning in the dark and cold.
1800 keeners assemble, shivering in the dark for about 30 minutes while we are given final instructions and waiting for our turn to cross the starting line. If you want to give yourself the best chance to get a good time, if that’s your goal (rather than simply finishing, which 90% of entrants did this year), you should really get as far up as is reasonable to make sure that you can be in a good bunch for the flat(er) sections of the ride. We are let off in waves, based on estimated finishing times, with the fastest riders departing first. If you are further up than your ability allows, then you will be caught up with riders with more skill than you speeding past in close quarters down the wonderfully amazing 30km of descent that awaits you to start the day.
For me, as I’m sure for others, that decent was one of the highlights, but the temperature didn’t really help. It gets cold up at Falls Creek overnight, so without any sunlight and temperatures hovering around 7℃, you don’t have much opportunity to get the blood flowing until the bottom. I started shivering a few minutes before we set off, so the descent was a mix of trying to negotiate other riders at speed, going as fast as was safe around all the corners, and trying to stop my muscles from locking up from shivering so intensely. That took some of the enjoyment out of it, it must be said. If you get a chance to descend the front of Falls during the day with more comfortable conditions, it has to be one of the more spectacular descents around, anywhere.
The First Climb
Only a couple of km’s from the bottom, we reached the first climb of the day – Tawonga Gap. Of the three (designated) climbs, this one is easy. Just under 8km in length, it averages a little over 6%, so it’s steady, but still gets the heart pumping and the legs warmed up. I enjoyed this one the most, precisely because you are free to enjoy it – it’s not ridiculously difficult at any point, and it’s early enough in the day so you still feel pretty good. Great views of the surrounding mountains and another stunning decent on the way down, especially with the sun rising over the horizon. If you are in trouble here, I would imagine that you have a very, very long day ahead of you… at least, more than the rest of us. The road at the bottom is a steady but mostly insignificant climb (read: false flat) to the start of the next climb, Mt Hotham. What an absolute bitch.
The Second Climb
No kidding, this is the hill you have to watch out for. For the first 20km, or maybe even a little more, its’ not all that bad. There is even a flat section with a few short, mild descents in the middle to break things up. I was flying up this part. Now, I’ll just mention at this point that I brought a 53/39 tooth crankset with me, not because I thought I was strong enough, but because I had no choice. My speed up some of these climbs was faster than many only because I didn’t have a smaller gear to spin. In order to stay upright and keep my cadence over the knee-and-back-destroying level of about 50rpm for the next 1.5 hours, I was making alright time, and my legs somehow felt pretty good. I’m not nearly as strong as I was the last time I did this two years ago, that much I am certain of, so I was, and still am, quite surprised at this.
At the bast of the climb I left the bunch I was with pretty much straight away and caught my new partner for most of the way up Mt Hotham: Lucy, from Brisbane, who races at the national level, and rode like 10 men. At two points up the climb she dropped me, the first time being the first reminder that I needed to take it a little easier if I wanted to have any legs left for the remaining 150km, and especially the climb back up to Falls Creek.
I had a quick chat with Wade from Cycling Tips on the way up, settled into a nice rhythm, made some good time, and on the flatter section I chucked it into the big ring and caught Lucy again, having picked up a few passengers. On a climb like this, very long and very difficult, having someone to ride with can be a blessing or a curse. If that person is a bit faster than you it can be your undoing. If you are on the same pace then you can pace each other up. Last time at 3 Peaks while riding up Mt Buffalo, I jumped on the wheel of a guy from Perth who was riding at the speed of sound, got most of the way up, and then that was my day done. Absolutely cooked. At the half way point. I was conscious of this not happening again this year.
I was a bit smarter this time around, but not quite smart enough. I’m going to put part of the blame on the lack of easy enough gears, part on my lack of power (ie. lack of training), and part on my Pavlovian reaction to someone riding faster than me on a hill. Any hill. Any time.
We rode side by side for a bit, sometimes taking turns on the front, then I sat on her wheel for a bit, and then I had to let her go again. I was already starting to feel a little gassed. Not good.
Not good considering that the worst part of Hotham was yet to come.
Just inside of the final 10km Mt Hotham gets nasty. Just plain rude. Sections of up to 18% await you. Sustained sections of 10%. There are a few little descents, which are great, but then you just have to make up that lost elevation again, which is not. Go here for a pretty thorough view of the climb.
20km of climbing is hard enough as it is. Harder with 75km and a pretty solid climb already in the legs. Throw 10km of pitchy, steep, and deceiving near-summits on top of that, and you’ve got a bit of a challenge on your hands.
I was still passing people as my gearing left me no other choice, but I was descending into a world of pain. I had to retreat into myself and just focus on my technique, rhythm, and breathing in order to keep going. It takes quite a lot for a climb to mess with my head, but this one was doing a pretty good job of it. The physical battle spills over into the mental; the build-up of lactic acid breaking down my resolve; the barren landscape as I approach the summit foreshadowing my impending doom. Even the trees have given up, stooped from the constant winds and lack of shelter.
Around each corner you catch a glimpse of what looks like the final corner but ends up being just like the last one: steep, relentless, and generous in its provision of yet another one.
With a couple of km’s to go, I was battling to get the pedals ’round each time, wishing that I had pushed a little less on the first 20km. A rider with much more generous gearing slowly passed me, spinning the pedals with more ease than I, and looking more relaxed for it. Nearly there.
During all of this, you have to make absolutely sure that you leave at least a few brain cells free to record the stunning environment that you are in. Or on. This is the highest paved road in Australia. The Victorian Alps ripple away on both sides of you as far as the eye can see, and it is worth the effort to get up here. Just.
I reach the top, spent. There is no feeling of relief that washes over me. I zip up my gilet for the descent, trying to catch the two guys in front of me to save all the precious energy I can for the rest of the day, but I make no headway, and they remain dangling in front of me for a few km’s until I give up and soft-pedal until I reach the lunch stop at the appropriately named Dinner Plain.
Sorry, did I say descent? That’s over-selling it a touch. It’s constantly rolling, but feels more uphill than down. The elevation chart we’ve all been intently studying over the last few days seems like a joke. No rest on this descent, but at least I had lunch to look forward to…
Go here for part 2… Peaks Challenge Falls Creek – the real deal.