Peaks Challenge 2017

As discussed in my previous blog, I really hadn’t done enough training for the Peak’s Challenge Falls Creek (aka ‘the 3 Peaks’). But was I going to let a woefully inadequate training load stop me from attempting this? Hell no! After all, how bad can 13 hours on a bike be?
Well…I think that when ‘How bad can 13 hours on the bike be?’ is a question you are legitimately asking yourself…then perhaps your state of mind isn’t all that flash to start with, and perhaps it would be a good time to start questioning the decisions you’re making. Of course, I know this in hindsight…because I now know exactly how bad 13 hours on the bike can be. But I also know just how much of a difference the people you meet along the way can make. So without further ado, here is my race report for the Peak’s Challenge 2017

Checking in the day before

A bit of background

Just in case you haven’t read the previous blog, here’s the background:

  • The Peak’s Challenge is a 235km bike ride through the mountains in the Victorian Alps
  • I signed up for this last year as the final part of deal with my coach and friend Craig Percival. He was going to coach me for the ride, but tragically passed away in December of last year
  • I have done a lot of training on an indoor trainer…but not nearly enough out in the real world
  • My ride plan is to avoid getting caught up in groups that are riding too fast for me, working with people when I can so that I don’t exhaust myself riding solo…and then hope like hell that my legs will get me up that final climb.
  • I ultimately just want to finish the ride, but if I can finish inside 13 hours, then I am deemed an ‘official finisher’.

Falls Creek to Harrietville

This was actually pretty cruisey. I ticked off one of my goals by not crashing on either the descent from Falls Creek to Mt. Beauty, or from Tawonga Gap to German Town (nothing says success quite like binning it 20mins into a 13 hour ride!) A small part of this success my have come from me noticing that I had put my front wheel on the wrong way round and having to change it about 2 minutes before the start.

Waiting to start…in about 5 mins I would realise that I had my front wheel on the wrong way around…je suis une genius.

Towards the end of the descent from Towanga I got into a group of 5 who were setting a pretty good pace. As we hit German Town, they wound up the pace a bit and suddenly I was sitting just outside of comfort zone. I sat with them for about 5kms, but knew that this was exactly the mistake I had made so many times before…sticking with a group, but burning more energy that I could afford given there was over 180kms and two mountains to go. I also knew that I had been sitting on the wheels of the other 4 guys for the duration, and that slipping off the back without pulling a turn would be pretty poor form. So I rolled to the front and did about 1.5kms. If sitting in the group was on the limit of what I could sustain, then sitting out the front in whatever wind there was, was definitely beyond what I should have been doing. But up ahead I could see a larger group that were clearly travelling slower. So I decided to hold on with the group I was with, in the hope that we would catch the next group. We did, and thankfully they were sitting at a pace that let me recover all the way into Harrietville.
I pulled into Harrietville, had something to eat and drink, and then headed back out onto the road, all within the time limit I would need to adhere to if I wanted to finish in 13 hours

Harrietville – Dinner Plain

Pretty much straight out of Harrietville we hit Mount Hotham, and the climbing began in earnest. I’ve never climbed Mt Hotham before, and all I’ll say is it’s about 20kms of tolerable climbing…and then about 10kms of ‘when the hell does this finish?!’ Every time I thought the summit would be just around the corner…it wasn’t…and in its place was a snaking line of cyclist disappearing into the distance.

But once I hit the summit I began the rolling descent to Dinner Plain. As I was to find out over the rest of the day, a rolling descent means that there is just enough time spent going downhill to technically be getting closer to sea level, but there still feels like there is a lot of going uphill as well. I pulled into the lunch stop about 7 minutes down on where I needed to be, but I figured if I could just keep my lunch stop to about 10 minutes, then I would still be back on the road in time to achieve the 13 hour mark.

Dinner Plain – Omeo

This was tough. We had a bit of tailwind, which was really nice, but it was hot. I started to get ‘hot spots’ on my left foot, and so loosened my shoe as much as I could. But it was the element of the unknown that was the hardest to deal with. When I was climbing Mt. Hotham, even though I didn’t know the climb, I knew I would be climbing, and so I was resigned to that, with any downhill sections a bonus. But for this part of the I just didn’t know what was coming, and every small hill felt like a slap in the face.
Then as we made the final turn into Omeo there was a literal slap in the face, with the change in direction turning a crosswind/tailwind into a headwind. I pulled into Omeo knowing that I had lost time, but figured if I could just get some food into me and have a quick rest, then I would be able to tackle the 40kms to Angler’s Rest. But no sooner had I filled up my drink bottle, than the guys manning the aid station said ‘You’ve got another 10 mins’ and then we close. On cue the Lanterne-Rouge (the last two riders) arrived, and I suddenly realised how close I was to having to retire from the ride (if you fall behind the Lanterne-Rouge riders then you have to retire).
So I hastily jumped back on the bike, and headed off into the headwind and unknown.

Omeo – Angler’s Rest

Shit got real. The wind was hot and in your face. The road was unrelenting, and my confidence was shot knowing how close I was to the cut-off. I found two other guys who were riding a bit faster than I was and asked if they wanted to roll some turns. They were up for it and so we just rotated turns, with one guy sitting in the wind, while the other two tucked in behind him. I know that I wasn’t really pulling my weight, and so when they started to drop me I just fell back. They looked back at one stage and started to slow down, but I waved them on. I was done. I knew that there was no way I was going to do 13 hours…and in reality, there was no way I was going make it to the climb up Falls Creek. Which actually really pissed me off, because I knew that I could make up some time on that final climb. I’m not a strong rider, but I’m a pretty good climber. Now I wasn’t even going to pit myself against the climb because I wasn’t going to make the cutoff at Angler’s Rest.

It’s a funny thing with these sorts of events. Ultimately I do them because I want to see how I respond to that moment of absolute despondence. When I think I can’t go on because it’s all too hard. In that moment of darkness, how will I respond? But the simple truth is, it’s not a single moment. It’s a series of moments. In this case it was about and hour and a half of moments where I just had to keep pedalling. I knew that I was cooked. But there had been 3 ambulances go past on this section of road alone, so I was still having a better day than some others. I decided that I wasn’t going to retire from the race until I was asked to. So I would ride on for as long as I could. Not exactly a gallant defeat…but perhaps a less ignominious one.
I will admit that I spent a lot time pondering what Craig would have said if I had failed to finish the ride. I concluded that he would have tolerated it, provided I had left nothing in the tank. Even though I was spent, I knew I was still holding a tiny bit in reserve to get me up that final climb. So when the Lanterne-Rouge riders swept past with about 8 riders sitting with them and they said ‘Jump on’, I knew that I had to go. I had been trundling along at about 16km/h and they were sitting on closer to 25km/h, but I knew that if there was a time to burn my matches…this was it. I sat with them for the last 5kms into Angler’s Rest, and arrived with enough time to eat my last sandwich (home made peanut-butter with a lolly-snake inside…adversity is indeed the mother of invention).
One thing that had kept me going for the last couple of hours was the promise of a can of Coke at Angler’s Rest. No less than 4 people had told me how amazing this hit of sugar and caffeine was. Sadly the mythical ‘best can of Coke of my life’ didn’t happen because they had sold out…so I had to settle for the ‘best can of Lift of my life’.
I heard the announcement that we had 5 minutes to leave Angler’s Rest and then 30 mins to ride 10kms to WTF Corner (the start of the climb to Falls Creek). That sounded eminently doable, and so I set off again.

WTF Corner to Trapyard Gap

I made the time cutoff for WTF and started the climb. If you haven’t seen the first part of the climb of the back of Falls Creek, it is insane. It kicks off insanely steep…and then pretty much holds that for about 12kms. I was only about 400m into the climb when I started seeing people walking. After about 2kms the number of people walking far outnumbered the people riding and there were an increasing number of people sitting by the side of the road either swearing at their cramping legs or with their head in their hands. By the time I got 10kms into the climb it was like a scene from a war movie. There were about 6 ambulances that went past, sag wagons full of dejected looking people rolled through, bikes were left by the side of the road, those who were still walking had 100 Mile stares, and the people sitting by the side of road looked shattered.

I knew I was making good time and that I was now a really good chance to make it in before the Lanterne-Rouge…and maybe even within the 13 hour time limit. I had promised myself that I wouldn’t stop until I got to Trapyard Gap. I wasn’t riding much quicker than walking pace…but there was principle at stake! Then a marshall stopped by the side of the road and offered me a can of Coke. There was a moment of hesitation…but I quickly dismounted and drank what was indeed ‘the best can of Coke of my life’. Then rode on to Trapyard Gap.

Trapyard Gap – Falls Creek

In a day of swinging momentum, I felt the momentum swing back my way. We had 23kms to go, 10kms of which were climbing, then the remainder was ‘rolling’ to the finish…and we had an hour and half to get it done to make the 13 hour official finish time. This was actually doable.
The Lanterne-Rouge riders rolled in and I had a quick chat. My mate Bill who was one of the Lanterne-Rouge riders told me to put my vest on as it would get pretty cold from here on in. As someone who had spent the last 6 hours suffering in the heat, I found that hard to believe…but I put it on anyway and then rolled out for the last part of the day.

If I reflect on the day I can see that the best parts of the day were defined by the groups I was with; the group from German Town to Harrietville, the two other guys I rode with for about 15kms out of Omeo, the Lantern-Rouge riders that I held onto for dear life into Angler’s Rest. The ability to have a conversation offers a respite from the relentless drudgery of following a wheel or turning over the pedals. It also serves to remind you that other people are suffering just as badly as you are.
Beginning the climb out of Trapyard Gap was pretty funny. On any other day, we would have been flying up this climb, but everyone had locked into their own rhythm and was pacing themselves up the hill. I could see how slowly I was going (about 10km/h) and each time I looked up I expected to see the other riders disappearing into the distance…but instead we all just travelled at the same pace. Sometimes you would have a burst of energy for 15mins and ride past some people, but then you’d fall back, and some of them would ride past you. But whereas for the first 12 hours the other riders had been either a wheel to jump on, or someone who was passing you, or someone for you to pass…once we got to the rolling section at the top of the climb, everyone banded together. We had taken the worst of it, and now we were desperate to finish as a diaspora of stragglers.
As the sun set it really was an amazing sight. The skies were grey in front of us, save for the burning orange on the horizon, the skies behind us were clear and dissolved from pinks to mauves and purples, and on the ridges you could see the silhouettes of riders. It’s a sign of just how tired I was that the thought of stopping to take a photo was not even entertained. Then the sun set, the sleet started and the landscape started to look like ‘The Upside Down’ from ‘Stranger Things’. Everything was muted greys and shadows, with the bike lights picking up the highlights of the raindrops. As I descended briefly and turned back into the wind, I checked my watch, it was nearly too dark to see, but I made out that I had about 5kms to go, and about 12mins to do it in if I wanted to make the 13 hour cutoff. I did some quick mental arithmetic and realised…that I was in no state for mental arithmetic. In short, I needed to average over 20km/h over the last 5 kms, and I had no idea how many hills were left, and I was riding into a headwind, and within a few minutes it would be too dark for me to see either my watch or bike computer. Deep down I knew this wasn’t possible, so I decided to just go flat out for the last 5kms and at least beat the Lanterne-Rouge riders home.
Having spent the first part of the day conserving energy for the inevitable final climb, and then spent 2 hours between Omeo and WTF Corner riding well out of my comfort zone just to avoid missing the cutoff times, it was strangely liberating to just go flat out and push myself, knowing that no matter what happened, I was going to finish the 3-Peaks.
I don’t want to get too prosaic, but for that last 5kms, even though I was riding into the wind, I felt like I was riding down hill. Everything felt fluid and strong, and I can only assume that a strong Tasmanian was pushing me along, and in the dark I gave a quick word of thanks to Craig Percival.
One more quick climb, and a sketchy descent in the dark and wet, then suddenly I was in the carpark of Falls Creek. Then there were people, and lights and noise, and the finishing chute. Then it was done. It was over. I pressed ‘stop’ on my watch and looked down to see how close I had come to 13 hours, my watch read ’12:58:49′! I’d snuck under the 13-hour time limit by just over a minute! Did this make up for the previous 13 hours of mental suffering and physical exhaustion? Noooooo, No, no, no, no, no!

But I will say that the 10 minutes I spent stumbling around the finish area talking to fellow finishers (including Jean-Pierre who had been my companion from Trapyard Gap, and one of the guys who I had ridden from Omeo with) was among the best feelings I’ve had in my life.
So unlike the Ironman where I walked away swearing ‘I would never do that again’, I reckon I would like to do this again so that I could at least know what to expect with each section of the ride…but next time I’ll train better…next time I’ll train better.
Last but not least, a big thanks to Katie and the kids for giving me a weekend off to see what was apparently some beautiful countryside, thanks to Ailie, Peter, Troy and Aaron for the support along the way, thanks to the Sufferfest for the training videos, thanks to the volunteers who were so awesome over the whole 13 hours, thanks to Bicycle Network for running such a great event, thanks to Bill and Chris the Lanterne-Rouge riders for keeping me in the hunt, and of course thanks to Craig Percival for the inspiration to do the ride…and for the push for the last 5kms, I couldn’t have done it without you.

To the winners go the spoils…and by ‘winners’ I mean people who have been riding for 13 hours…and by ‘spoils’ I mean not having to do that anymore.

4 thoughts on “Peaks Challenge 2017”

  1. Lively and entertaining piece reflecting the tooing and froing of the day.. you forgot to say Chris that your enigmatic smile beamed brightly all day!

  2. Great read Chris!
    Almost 2 months later, I can still feel the pain of the ride, but the pleasure of finishing brings a smile to my dial every time!
    It was great meeting you mate!

  3. It’s incredible how you pushed through the physical and mental barriers, especially considering the limited training you had. The way you describe the landscape, the changing weather conditions, and the camaraderie among the riders really brings the experience to life for the reader. What was the most unexpected lesson you learned from this experience?

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