The 3 Peaks Challenge is one of the toughest rides on offer for the amateur cyclist in Australia, it takes riders through picturesque Alpine region of Victoria and over some of the hardest climbs in the country. Whether you are aiming for a <10hr finish or just hoping to beat the Lantern Rouge and the 13hr cut-off time limit, the 3 Peaks Challenge offers a serious challenge to riders of all abilities.
The day before 2013 3 Peaks I was both excited and nervous; 3 Peaks is one of the premier events in my cycling calendar, to which I had devoted months of training and preparation. I was eager to start but worried about the numerous things that can ruin a ride; mechanicals, crashes, poor nutrition or bad sleep.
I was very happy with how my training/weight-loss regime had worked out and I felt that I had learned from last years mistakes; this year I booked accommodation in Mt. Beauty rather than Bright and I had experimented extensively with nutrition options throughout the year before settling on Hammer Nutrition carbohydrate/electrolyte supplements to go in my drinks and a combination of Torq gels and high-sugar lollies to eat on the ride.
The major issue that affected all the riders in the lead-up to the event was the bushfires in the high country and how they would effect the course. After much deliberation by the organisers, the course was changed from the traditional route (Falls Creek, Tawonga Gap, Hotham, Omeo, Back-of-Falls) to an alternate course (Falls Creek, Tawonga Gap, Bright, Mt. Buffalo, Ovens, Rosewhite Gap, Mt Beauty, Falls Creek). On paper, this alternate course appeared to be ‘easier’ than the traditional course, being both shorter in distance and containing less elevation gain but I tried not to allow myself to get lulled into a false sense of security, because it was going to be a tough ride regardless.
My goal for the traditional course was originally a 9hr ride but I felt that the alternate course was better suited to my riding style and I thought I could do slightly better, so I revised my goal to about 8.5hrs. My goal underwent further revision the night before the start when I came across the updated ride schedule (put together by The Climbing Cyclist) and I realised that an 8hr ride may just have been within my grasp, so I wrote out all the relevant information on a piece of paper and stuck it to my top tube. I was hoping this time would allow me to break into the top 20 fastest riders, bettering last year’s top 50 finish. I also had a secondary – and probably conflicting – goal; to set the fastest time for the day on one of the climbs, preferably Mt Buffalo, because in 2012 I had set the 2nd fastest time on Mt. Hotham and it had been eating at me ever since.
I woke the morning of the 2013 3 Peaks Challenge in my motel room in Mt. Beauty, feeling a little less rested that I would have liked and wolfed down a double-serve of porridge, a banana and a cup of truly terrible coffee before driving up the mountain. Once in the Falls Creek village, I unpacked my bike, stuffed my pockets full of food and headed to the start line. As in the previous year, I chose to start way back in the 3rd wave of riders because I feel that having about a thousand carrots to chase over the course is worth putting up with the hustle-and-bustle of a crowded descent.
At about 6:30am, the first riders were setting off and by 6:50am I started my descent of Falls Creek. The morning was reasonably mild, so the wind-chill wasnt a huge factor, and, other than a couple of nasty corners, the descent is fairly non-technical. I rode cautiously but comfortably down into Mt. Beauty before attacking Tawonga Gap. And I really did attack Tawonga Gap; I saw hundreds of riders stretched out up the road in front of me and I just lost my head for a while, smashing myself all the way to the top of the climb, arriving about 10min ahead of schedule.
On the descent of Tawonga Gap, I calmed down and was lucky enough to settle into a good, fast group on the flat roads through Bright to Porepunkah. The road gets hillier as it approaches Mt. Buffalo and I jumped off the front of the group, eager to get started on the main climb of the day. I had only ridden Mt. Buffalo once before, and didn’t enjoy it, I just found the gradient to be a little too steep to grind but a little too shallow to spin and found it really hard to settle into a comfortable rhythm (it probably didn’t help that I was getting thoroughly whipped by a cycling buddy at the time). This time was little better, in the saddle, out of the saddle, up gears, down gears all the time, but I got to the summit feeling strong and still 10-15min ahead of schedule. At the turn-around point, I stopped very briefly to refill a bidon before beginning the descent which turned out to be a bit sketchy in places with loose gravel on the hairpins and some of the ascending riders using slightly more road than was strictly legal…
It was on the bottom half of the descent that I was also reminded of the vast gulf between amateur and professional cyclists; I was cruising down one of the straighter sections, comfortably doing about 55km/hr when I heard a faint whirring noise coming up behind me; it was Peter English, one of the 3 Peaks Pro Team riders, in full aero-tuck position tearing down the mountain like a madman. He passed me like an express train and was out of sight in seconds, humbling me with his bike handling skills.
At the base of the mountain, I joined up with a small group that had just caught me on the descent and we worked together until the lunch stop at Porepunkah. Most of the group pulled in but myself and one other guy kept going, pulling fast turns all the way to Ovens, picking up a couple of other riders along the way. After Ovens, the little group fell apart and I pushed on alone along the windy roads towards the Rosewhite Gap as the heat really started to make itself felt. As long as I am not getting sunburned, I normally cope well in hot conditions but even I was starting to suffer as the temperature rose along this stretch of road and I know it made life difficult for all the riders in the event.
I pulled into the food stop at Running Creek with about a mouthful of water left in my bidons, quickly refilled and pushed on towards Mt. Beauty where I was planning to jettison a bidon and any left-over food to be as light-weight as possible for the final climb. Instead, having drank nearly 2L of water in the 26km between Running Creek and Mt Beauty, I refilled both bidons because I knew I would need the water for climb up Falls Creek.
Although I was still ahead of schedule, at this point, I was really suffering and I will freely admit that I had underestimated the difficulty of the Falls Creek climb. Because it is not as tough as the reverse side, I had seemingly dismissed Falls Creek in my planning and this left me in a very tough position; I had about 30km of climbing ahead of me and very little left in the tank. So there was nothing left to do except put my head down and slip into survival mode. The red haze descended on my vision and I don’t really remember too much of this climb. What I do remember is crawling past 3 Peak Pro Team rider Nick Mitchell just before Bogong Village, almost crying in relief every time there was a slight descent or false flat and having a much-needed ‘nature break’ when stopped at the roadworks. I hate to admit it but I cracked a little and had to stop at one point to slump over the handlebars for a second before being chivvied along by a passing rider.
The last few kilometres of Falls Creek are still steep but the end was literally within sight and I found this section to be the best out of the whole climb. I was relieved and starting to congratulate myself as I approached the finish line until I noticed the officials waving their hands and directing me past the banner. I couldn’t fathom what was going on until I realised, with horror, that I had to ride another 200m up the hill, past the line and turn around some witches hats before riding back down to the finish line. This was the toughest few hundred metres of my life but I eventually negotiated the turn-around and finally crossed the finish line, literally sobbing with relief.
I completed the course right on schedule with a time of 7:55:27, finishing in 11th position overall out of 1300 starters and about 24min behind the fastest rider, Stephen Cunningham. I also fulfilled my secondary goal by setting the fastest time on one of the climbs, however it was on Tawonga Gap rather than Mt. Buffalo (where I was the 3rd fastest rider on the day).
I was incredibly happy with this result and feel that this was my best performance ever on the bike; my preparation was good, I felt strong and even the hot conditions suited me. I know that, on the day, I couldn’t have ridden a single second faster, I left every ounce of energy out on the road and spent less then 5min off the bike. It had been a lot of hard work but it all paid off and I got the results I was after.
Anyone who rode the so-called ‘easy’ course this year will know that it was anything but; the heat, tough roads and long climbs made this ride extremely difficult and this is reflected in the 17% attrition rate, compared to just 7% the previous year. My congratulations to all those who took part in the 2013 3 Peaks Challenge and I encourage all cyclists to ride this event at least once in their life.
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Start: Falls Creek 6:50am
Finish: Falls Creek 2:46pm
Total Time: 7:56:00
Ride Time: 7:51:55 (99.1% of total time)
Time Off Bike: 0:04:05
Average Speed: 29.3km/hr