The Peaks Challenge – formerly Three Peaks Challenge – is often described as Australia’s toughest recreational cycling event. Involving 235km of cycling and over 4000m of climbing through, up and over the alpine region of Victoria, with a time limit of 13 hours, it’s not to be sniffed at.
“In 10 minutes time, the Lantern Rouge will be arriving. Those of you left behind, will be asked to cease riding.”
I had just been ushered off the main road by a couple of cheery Bicycle network volunteers rugged up to the eyeballs, for the day’s lunch stop at Dinner Plain – 100km into the 235km event. Despite the pressure of the looming Lantern Rouge, there were lots of bunches of other cyclists still milling around: scoffing wraps, biscuits, waiting for portaloos, filling water bottles, checking their bikes, glancing nervously at the overcast sky.
My partner, Paul, had been there waiting for me for 25 minutes, after following the 12 hour pace-setters from Bicycle Network (the event organiser) up Mount Hotham – the second of the three climbs of the day. I couldn’t keep up, so had fallen behind. He pressed a felafel wrap into my sweaty hand, grabbed my bike. I raced to the toilet.
I cursed – for not the first or last time – the design of female bib shorts.
Off came my gloves, off with my jacket, off with my gel, bar and lolly-filled vest; unzipped my jersey, unclipped my shorts, pulled them down – careful not to drop anything into the pool of piss swilling across the floor of the portaloo.
On top of managing the bare logistics of going to the toilet as a female cyclist on a maximum-13-hour recreational (hah!) ride, I had my period. Like: first day. I was bleeding. A lot.
But there was no way I was going to get swept up by the Lantern Rouge: my own, or the other one. Not today.
A year-and-a-half of thinking about it. Three months of training – sorta. And I was one of the – according to the pre-event briefing – nearly 10% of female cyclists doing the event. I was doing this for WOMEN (not that they’d asked me to)! I was STRONG! And I’d just climbed 30km to the top of Mount Hotham for crying out loud, including The Meg (who was Meg, and what did she do to deserve having that beast of a 10% average gradient, 250 metres named after her?) and that horror of an endless nightmare, CRB hill: 1.58 very long kilometres at 9% gradient. Yuk.
And I really didn’t want Paul to have to wait for me and not finish because of me. I’d never live it down.
I changed my tampon in record time, shrugged into my bib shorts, my jersey, vest, jacket, wriggled my gloves on. Come on!
I’ve always had some problems with gauging my own abilities – like the time I signed up for a 10 week course in aerial trapeze, only to find the first time I stood with the bar in my hand, ready to jump, that I was scared my arms couldn’t hold my own bodyweight – so, months out from the event, I had been tentatively sniffing. I thought I’d be fine. No worries! Surely you just keep riding, right?
Paul had done it twice before. Once in 11 hours and once in 9.5 (you get a special jersey if you do it in under 10 hours, as this is pretty impressive). He warned me that I shouldn’t take it lightly: that I’d need to train pretty seriously to do it.
So there I was at Dinner Plain, feeling more than just dinner pains.
The felafel wrap had turned to cement in my mouth. After 5 continuous hours of shoveling bars and bananas down my gob, I was getting to the point of food-revulsion. I could barely chew anymore. Would I die with a felafel in my hand?
Not today. Suck it up, or spit it out. I spat the rest of the felafel in the bin.
Paul handed me my bike, water-bottles refilled – what a guy.
We made our last quick checks of our bikes, clipped in, and turned out onto the main road. The road was straight, and not in as bad nick as the earlier part of the – extremely exposed and windy – descent from the top of Hotham, so we fanged it down the relatively gently descending hill, fearing the approach of the far-too-close-for-comfort Lantern Rouge.
With 135km of race to go – including ascending the notoriously steep and terrifying back of Falls Creek for the last 35km – I was faced with the very real possibility that I had once again overestimated my abilities, and Polyanna-ed my Peaks prep. Oh dear.
Fortunately, as well as the serious hills training, the long flat days smashing it down Beach Road had helped. We picked up the pace, and Paul, generously, led for most of the next 40km or so through to Omeo. At Omeo, more food-shovelling. More water-bottle refilling. More tampon-changing. More cyclists milling about doing the same. Well, probs not the tampon-changing.
Seriously. If it wasn’t enough to actually complete this event, but to be doing it while continuously bleeding? I felt like a soldier at war. Can’t stop and worry about the blood streaming from that head wound: just gotta keep on. Til the bitter end.
Hours later, approaching that bitter end, when I was actually on the infamous back of Falls Creek – I could give you some adjectives but they wouldn’t convey the story. There was pain, yes. There was blood – Oh there was blood. There was a 8.77 kilometre stretch of road at a gradient of 8%. There was rain. There was some cycling-related graffiti on the road. There was the rustling of the wind in the trees, the occasional noise of birds in the forest. And the near constant noise of men – mostly men – nearing the end of their tether.
It also gave me a chance to think what I was actually learning from the experience, and what advice I’d be able to give anyone else brave or foolhardy enough to sign up.
So here it is, dear reader: the product of my cycling-induced Peaks Challenge-related enlightenment:
- Don’t underestimate the training you will need for this event. There’s not just a heap of climbing, but lots of flats, descending forever, and it’s just a really tough day out. You need to train for it all.
- Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. It might be tough, but look: what’s worth doing that’s not?
- Don’t rest for long, and skip stops if you can (eat on the bike). They really add up, and can mean the difference between finishing in the time limit, and not. My Garmin moving time for the ride was more than an hour shorter than my official time, and I didn’t feel like we ever stopped for long.
- Get a proper bike service before you do the event. You want to be able to trust your machine, absolutely. After all: it’s all that’s between you and that very long road.
- Definitely do at least one Bicycle Network-organised training ride. We did the Demon’s Double two weeks out from the event, which was our most difficult training ride (176km, nearly 4000m climbing). Bicycle Network list all their upcoming training rides on Strava and they’re free to join.
- You probably won’t eat as much food as you bring, but having said that: make sure you plan your nutrition, and don’t run out of food. We planned to have around 30g-60g carbohydrate an hour, which involved eating a bar or a gel and a 750ml bottle of plain or electrolyte-powdered water every hour. You really don’t wanna bonk. Also: that Coke at Anglers Rest – 190km in, before the ascent of Falls – will be the best thing you taste all day.
All in all, the event was an incredible experience. Very impressive levels of organisational power went into the planning and execution of the day, and for that: Bicycle Network deserve all the praise in the world. I have some inkling – from professional experience – how many moving parts have to work together for an event of the scale of the Peaks Challenge to come off at all, so the seamlessly-run day was project-management perfection. And, of course: the contribution of so many hundreds of volunteers must be celebrated. They were out there in force throughout the day, from the wee hours of the morning right through til stumps, all generously – and cheerfully – giving their valuable time to make the day that little bit easier for the participants.
In the end, with Paul’s support, I fended off that Lantern Rouge and made it across the finishing line with an official finishing time of 12 hours and 11 minutes, earning my first Peaks Challenge jersey. They were only available in men’s sizes (which fit really weirdly on me due to being – well – not a man), but given the rest of the amazing work by Bicycle Network, I’ll overlook it. Also: I’m notoriously fussy about cycling kit, so I probably wouldn’t wear it even if it did fit.
Or maybe I’ll wear it next year – when the memory of the pain of the day has long gone and I’m wondering why I was crazy enough to sign up again – to remind myself that I can do it.