A week has passed since completing my first 3 Peaks so I figure I better get something down while the memories are fresh. This was the main goal of my training over the last 4 months, and I have to say that training has included some wonderful weekends of riding and some truly epic rides, pushing my riding to new levels in terms of speed, endurance, and the amount of climbing involved. Some of these included the Audax Alpine Classic (with extras totalled 244km), the Domestique Series alpine rides and the Demon’s Double. At 236km, 3 Peaks wasn’t going to be the longest but unlike Audax the focus for most of the riders is to get through the course quickly. So preparation had been good, not textbook, but solid. And to top it off we had the advantage of having almost two full days on the mountain before the ride started. Time to relax and enjoy ourselves. After the rider briefing on Saturday night our lodge put on a hearty meal while we put the finishing touches on our preparation. Before bed even more jersey pockets had been packed. I was ready to ride my first 3 Peaks. I would be doing it with my old school mate James who was celebrating his 40th on this weekend, along with Alex and Simon. Only Alex had ridden it before, twice I believe. This time his main adversary would be the last dregs of a virus that saw him just outrun the lanterne rouge.
This was the fourth year of the event and saw it return to its usual route. We started at 7am with a fast 30km descent down from the Falls Creek alpine village before starting the first and smallest of the three main climbs up and over Tawonga Gap. I thought I might be cold after the descent but I was fine and started Tawonga feeling fresh. This was my third time up Tawonga and with each attempt I enjoy it more. Apart from a couple of steeper corners, it’s very consistent at between 6 and 7% so you can get into a good steady pace. All the way up I found myself passing other riders and this buoyed my confidence even more. I bypassed the water stop at the top, opting instead to ride through another 38km or so to the base of Mount Hotham to fill my bottles.
My strategy on this ride was to reserve most of my efforts for the climbs and just keep a moderate pace on the flatter sections, of which there are very few. This meant that I was feeling good for the start of Hotham. I’ve written about this climb before. It’s become one of my favourite big climbs. For the first 10km you ride up through the cover of forest before you hit a long false flat where you recover for the final hard 10km. These top sections grace you with amazing views of the mountain itself which becomes increasingly dry and thinly covered, almost how I imagine it would be like on Mont Vontoux though not quite so extreme. Knowing this one well I know exactly where the hard parts are and roughly how long they will take. These details help to keep the more challenging sections in perspective. Once again I found that I was making my way through the field of riders pretty steadily. In and of itself this didn’t mean anything, as the start was basically unstructured, but all the same it’s more fun passing than being passed.
Well into the final section of Hotham it was becoming clear that I was making good time, very good actually and as I rolled up and over into the resort I knew I had a new PB of about 2hrs. Better still, now about 4.5hrs into the ride and half way through the course, I was also roughly on schedule. I put in an extra effort to get to the lunch stop at Dinner Plain as fast as possible. Getting there though I found it hard to orient myself and focus. I had only planned on spending 10-15 minutes but at least 20 had gone by the time I was ready to leave, not a huge amount but I knew I would be on a very tight schedule anyway. At the break I took advantage of the valet service to pick up some clean socks and gloves which I had sent ahead while I sent a few things back which I no longer needed. This was much faster than I thought it would be. I think I must have lost a few minutes waiting for suncream though which never turned up.
The next 85km, to the bottom of the back of Falls Creek was the big unknown for me on this ride. I had ridden every other part at least once, including the Back of Falls itself only a couple of days earlier. I had heard that there would be plenty of climbing on the way down to Omeo, and that there was a good fast section after Angler’s Rest before starting the last and hardest climb. This was all true, but it’s also kind of useless until you’ve ridden it. Despite some very fast sections this felt like the hardest part of the day for me, not just because of all the climbs which I had no idea about but because I could see that a sub-10hr finish was becoming very unlikely if not impossible. In my mind I played with the idea of just taking it easy for a few moments. Instead I decided I would give it my best shot. So I continued to pace myself through the climbs and just push a bit harder through the easier sections while charging up my reserves for the finale.
Last year the riders had the heat to contend with. Not so this year. While there was a hot patch to ride through along the bottom of the valley after Omeo we were blessed with perfect conditions. Just as well too. By the time I started the climb back up to Falls Creek, turning up the ‘WTF’ corner for a good 10km of suffering, my feet were in quite a bit of pain, just from the heat I think. But I was faring much better than many. Two days earlier I had done this climb with fresh legs and it had taken just over 2hrs to get up the full 36km to the village. Now we were starting it with exactly 200km in the legs and over 3000 vertical. I had figured this would take me much longer today.
Not long into the climb and the 15% ramps started to take their toll, not on me luckily, but on many others. All the way up riders were trying to walk out cramps, or they were sitting just trying to recover. One poor guy about 20m in front on me collapsed straight into a deep ditch in agony. I and a few others jumped off to offer assistance. Fortunately he hadn’t hurt himself on the fall so I got back on and continued up. Clicking in was quite a challenge on such a steep and narrow road. To my surprise though I was riding at the same pace that I had done on my earlier attempt and this meant that I had a good idea how long the really hard part would last. I knew I couldn’t make the 10hr mark but I wasn’t losing more time.
It’s often the case that I find an extra reserve of energy for the end of one of these big rides and this was no different. Approaching the final 15km even on some of the climbs I felt strong. From here I knew the ride was as good as done. I was also maintaining good form and technique. I put this down to a combination of training over the previous months (over 3000km and nearly 60,000m since Christmas) and my steady pace throughout the day, as well as being careful to hydrate enough – poor hydration alone can break a ride like this, and seeing the carnage up the back of Falls just made me more mindful of this.
Once atop the climb, it was just a matter of getting across a rolling alpine plain where the road passes several lakes and a dam before a short descent back into the village where it all started. I gave the finish one last sprint for the line to be greeted by the cheers and clapping of a friendly crowd, mostly the families and friends of other riders – my own family was a long way away enjoying a weekend at the beach.
It was a terrific feeling to finish. Rolling through we were each handed a drink and a tiny portion of pasta and our finishers jersey. I couldn’t see anyone I knew nearby so after a short sit down I rode back up to the lodge where I knew I would find friendly and familiar faces. All evening stories were shared, mostly about…. you guessed it, the Back of Falls.
On tough rides I do find myself wondering what the hell I’m doing, and on finishing this I had similar thoughts, but within hours or even less my thoughts turn back to doing it again. Doing it better, faster.
It was definitely a great experience and one I’ll make a regular feature in my calendar along with Audax. It was important for me to do and it also serves as great training for the bigger Audax Alpine Classic, the 250km which covers the same course, just starting from Bright. I had completed the 236km in 10:23, with a moving time of 9:38. I had lost about 20 minutes more than I wanted on the stops. But I had more than made up for this by smashing my best times up and down the mountains, taking a good 4 minutes off Tawonga to get up in just under 30mins, and taking 15mins off Hotham, doing it in 1:54, and even on the Back of Falls I had somehow managed to take a minute off my PB. These achievements more than compensated for not getting a sub 10hrs time. That can wait for next year. You can check out my Strava file on this ride here.
The question now is what’s next. Riding this week, rather than being exhausted I’ve put in some of my fastest times yet on my regular rides. Heading into the cooler months, I’ll be on the lookout for some Winter challenges. I’m good at setting them for myself and I have found a great fraternity of fellow cyclists who love a tough ride in the hills, both in my regular riding mates and in the Hells500 crew who are known for setting stupidly difficult challenges. For the moment though I’m happy to have a little break from epics. Instead I can shift my focus on to some shorter, more intense efforts, the kind that I’m more naturally suited to. In the mean time, I’m open to suggestions if you have some.