On 13 March 2016 I woke at Falls Creek ready to take on one of Australia’s toughest single day bicycle rides, the Peaks Challenge Falls Creek, also known as the Three Peaks. Entrants are required to cover 235 km of road, climbing three peaks on the journey, in a time limit of 13 hours.
The profile of the ride shows the difficulty of this beast:
I lined up with Andy Turner of Foleys List at the start, together with a couple of other cycling mates Stu, Jarrod and Sean.
I was particularly on edge, having entered the event last year and being forced to pull out out with just 23 km to go because of crippling leg cramps.
Over 1600 riders entered, and it begs the question, “WHY?”. What attracts someone to put themselves through such a ringer? The stats on the entrants are interesting. 95% of riders in this year’s ride were male, and almost exclusively the age of the riders was late 30s through to mid 50s. In other words, a MAMIL rich environment, mid life crisis central. Not unlike the legal profession some might say…. To the organizer’s credit, and I suspect to aid their coffers going forward, they have begun a push to attract more women to the event in future by staging women only training rides.
There was a briefing for riders at 6pm on the Saturday night before the ride. I have never seen a greater collection of expensive carbon cycling machines and high priced fashion lycra gear before.
After a week of forecasts threatening 35 mm of rain and thunderstorms, we were very lucky to get a clear day, with no rain or much wind to speak of, for the start before dawn at 6:45 am. The ride opens with a fast descent from Falls Creek ski resort, to Mt Beauty township.
We were part of a torrent of 1600 riders plummeting into the dark doing speeds of up to 60 km/h, with only bike lights to guide us. I saw at least one rider who had overcooked it and run off the road’s edge into the trees. I think he was OK. We took about 45 minutes to cover the 30 or so kms to the valley floor at an average speed of 44 km/h.
The first proper climb is Tawonga gap, relatively easy at only 476 m ascending but still 8 km long at a 6% gradient. It took me 43 minutes to knock off. Andy was waiting at the top with another two of our crew, Stu and Jarrod.
We rode in a company of 4 through to the next climb, Mt Hotham, 30 km of climbing and a massive 1303 m ascending. This took us each about 2 hours and twenty minutes. Whilst the overall gradient is only 4%, it is split into a first 10km section that averages about 8%, a middle that is virtually flat (about 2%) and then a top 9km which is about 9%. It has some very steep ramps of in excess of 14% in places.
This is a fantastic climb and if anyone is thinking of heading to the alps to ride, I highly recommend it. The views are stupendous: once you reach about the 8km mark you emerge from a twisty forest climb to ride around the rim of a vast natural bowl, which gets high enough that the trees disappear to give way to Alpine scrub. You can see the sun light shine off the Hotham ski village windows 20 kms across the bowl, the peak of Mt Feathertop and spectacular views plunging off the either side of the road in places. It was extra special on this ride because the sun was glinting off helmets and bikes all around 15 km or so of the road as it winds around the rim.
Once we cleared the summit of Hotham it was a fast descent to Dinner Plain for a lunch stop, and then a long descent, giving way to rolling hills at Omeo, to reach the last climb back to Falls Creek. This climb starts about 10 km from a tiny hamlet called Anglers Rest. By the time we got there, we’d covered 200 km and had already ascended more than 3400m in altitude. We were pretty buggered.
This is where the event really starts. You face 23 kms and 980 m vertical of climbing to reach the Alpine plateau at the back of Falls Creek ski resort. Trouble is you have likely spent all your energy just to get here. The first section of the climb starts at WTF corner (pictured). You make a 180 degree turn into a blind corner only to face a wall of bitumen: it is a “f#@$ng” steep start, hence the name – 500 m at about 14% gradient.
The climb then grinds on relentlessly, with almost no corners to provide relief, for 9 km at an average of 9% with sections getting up to 15%. It is brutal.
Its here where my legs gave up last year, and yet again this year I had some cramping half way up which I was able to overcome with some walking and stretches. Among the field, it was absolute carnage. The temperature was 30 degrees and humid, lots of riders got off and walked, I even saw one rider fall off flat to the road in exhaustion. The “SAG” wagon was about to help, bus to ferry you home, picking up those who had thrown in the towel.
I finally reached the top of the climb after an epic 2 hours and 54 minutes of suffering. From the top of that climb its a further 12 km flattish ride to the finish. If you’ve been there in winter, this is where the cross country trails around the dam are located and where the lifts over the back the resort face toward. I finally got a head of steam up toward the top of the climb, and powered across the line in 12:56.09, with 3:51 to spare before the cut off applied. Andy and the crew had pushed on from WTF corner and finished about an hour ahead of me in about 11 hours 56 minutes. Sean finished in the elite “sub 10 hour” bracket. The winner by the way finished in something like 7 and a half hours.
A great event, we came away swearing never again, but I am already thinking I could do better if I just had an other go…
[This post was written for publication in the Foley’s List newsletter]