3PEAKS – AUSTRALIAN ALPS – 7 MARCH 2010
This is not technically a tour or trip – but it was one of the hardest rides we’ve ever done. Read on for a little bit of why…
Inaugural 3Peaks Ride – 230 kilometers (actually 240k/149 miles but who’s counting), 15,000 feet of climbing. The ride started and finished at a ski resort in the ‘Australian Alps’ called Falls Creek. A giant loop ride is now possible due the paving of an old logging road up the back side of the Alps.
3Peaks was described at the pre-event rider brief by former Olympic gold medalist and Tour de France rider Scott McGrory as a ride as hard as any stage in the Tour. The flyer listed 3Peaks as the “hardest cycling event in the southern hemisphere”. At the briefing, many folks in the crowd quietly scoffed, including us and our riding friends Jeanette, Ross, Tony and David. How could anything in Australia come close to the “real” Alps and really, what countries south of the equator actually have organized rides anyway? Of course weather could come into play and it did rain hard all day Friday. However, on Saturday, as we lounged in the sun on the deck at Falls Creek, thinking of our previous rides in France, we though ‘how hard can it be…?’ Little did we know…
Saturday night was mostly dry, but the clouds rolled back in around 5AM Sunday. The heavens opened for 30 minutes around 5:30 with thunder, lighting and pouring rain but by 6:30 when we rode to the start line it had stopped raining and was not too cold. At the 7AM start there was no rain. This held for the first 40ks or so, descending from Falls Creek and climbing up to Tawonga Gap. We took the wet downhill slowly but overall it seemed to be warming up and it was almost pleasant. Who could know that these 40ks would be our only rain-free riding of the day? The rain started as we descended from Tawonga Gap and built steadily as we rolled up the Owens Valley towards the 30k climb to the top of Hotham pass. By the time we reached the base of the climb at Harriettville, it was dumping. We started the climb in full rain gear.
The climb to Hotham had some steep sections but the real fun was in the last 10ks of the climb (which felt like hours after we first began the climb). At 1500 meters, the wind started to be a big factor, with temperatures dropping significantly. There were numerous ups and downs as we rode the ridgeline to the summit. At many of the spots where the grade changed the mountainsides dropped away on both sides of the road, creating gaps where we were hit with strong crosswinds and pelted with BB-like rain. Numerous times wind gusts just about knocked us off our bikes – it was a real struggle to keep a straight line on the bike. By the time we reached the final summit on Hotham we were frozen, wet and not looking forward to the 10ks downhill to lunch.
Nancy and I made it about 5ks down before pulling over at a ski hill coffee shop for a warming pot of tea and to use the blow dryers in the bathroom. We stayed long enough to drink a pot of tea each, dry our clothes slightly and leave major puddles on the shop floor. The 5ks to lunch were not pleasant. The rain got heavier and my arms were shaking so bad that I could not stop my front wheel from shimmying. Nancy led us to lunch, riding the brakes, numb everywhere. Somewhere in this stretch we met up with Tony – he was completely frozen and was the last of our riding crew to get over the mountain; the others had gone by while we were warming up with our tea.
The lunch stop was at Dinner Plan, the half way-point for the full ride. We found our friends, Jeannette and Ross, who had just arrived and were looking for a warm spot. Ross had given his jacket to Jeanette for the descent and both were completely frozen. They were calling it a day, looking for a sag. Tony was not far back and soon joined them. We had heavier rain gear than they did and we were frozen so not sure how they made it that far. We did not see David, the last of our six-some.
Nancy and I were frozen but knew stopping would be ugly as it would be a long wait for a sag vehicle, and the sags did not include bicycle transport. We would later learn that close to half of the 1800 riders would pull out here. Counting on the old wives tale that says eating is the fastest way to warm up, we grabbed lunch and ate as much food as we could, as fast as we could. We ate under the pub veranda, not knowing how warm it actually was in the pub. After a chilly feed, we wandered through the pub – it was nice and cozy inside and easy to see why folks were pulling the plug on the day. Nancy pushed me out the door almost as soon as we went in – a move that extended our ride for sure.
We knew it would warm up at lower elevation in Omeo, the next rest stop, but we hoped the 40ks downhill to get there were gradual as wind chill would have been a real issue given how wet we were. We hauled ourselves back on the bikes and started the descent. Just as we started, we had about 10 seconds of shadow, though it did not stop raining and the sun did not come out (it tried hard for those 10 seconds). The rain picked back up to Noah’s Ark levels before the next stop at Omeo. The downhill itself was peppered with enough mini-climbs to keep us warm. And despite the rain, Omeo was a nice stop and it was warmer. We made the stop quick, having covered 160ks by 3PM.
The route profile shows “yellow” after Omeo for 40k, meaning flat. But if you look closely, there is another decent climb. The road here was not in good shape. There was a great deal of standing water, mud and some washouts. Heavy rain continued making visibility difficult. We powered on to Anglers Rest, which was the last stop before the final big climb. By now it was 5PM and ride organizers were offering sags back to Falls Creek with bicycles included. It sounded tempting but we really wanted a finisher’s jersey and figured we could cover the last 50ks in no more than 2 hours. The rain here was crazy hard and sounded even worse when standing under the rest stop awning.
The 10ks after the rest stop were flat, the calm before the real storm. And then it got silly. Immediately at the turn off to Falls Creek the road went to 16%. At least that’s what my computer said. My computer never read over 14% in the French Alps last year, and then it only read 14% for a few seconds. We had 1k of leg busting 16%, followed by 9ks of 7-10%, which after 200k of riding in the cold rain was all a bit much. We pushed on. Nancy really had a hard time, but it was too steep for me to push her – really should have put that 29 on both our rear wheels (as she had asked – heard that several times…). Our easy 2 hours to finish was quickly slipping away. I started to really focus on my watch, as riding at 5-8kph meant we wouldn’t finish in daylight, if at all. I made lots of, “hey, flat spot just ahead” sorts of claims to keep Nancy going. Lots of groans and huffs but she made steady progress. Hard as I tried, I could not remember if there was a ride cut-off time in the event flyer. Certainly darkness was becoming a worry now.
There was one more rest stop about 25ks from the finish. As we slowly made our way towards it, the cut-off time hung in my mind. I suggested that we skip the stop and roll on. Nancy said she needed to stop, at least for a minute. The 2ks just before the stop were only 4% (it seemed flat) and made a big difference. I managed to open our last Cliff Bar and both of us ate half. Eventually, I negotiated Nancy into not stopping and we rolled through. Time was of the essence as it was getting pretty dark. I’m pretty sure that many of the riders we passed at the rest stop got pulled off the course due to the impending darkness and insufficient lighting. So close and no jersey.
It was certainly not flat after the stop, but was now more rolling than the wall-like accents of the previous 15ks. There was one longish climb where I gave Nancy a loving hand on the bum to the top, not because she needed it but rather to keep our speed up. Just on 8PM, we passed the 15ks to go sign – it was getting dark and my rear tire suddenly went flat. Crap. Not what we needed, especially since I’d forgotten Nancy’s frame pump in Sydney (I heard about that a few times as well, usually at the same time I was hearing about the 29 she asked for) and we were counting on my saddle bag mini pump. Another bad call – I had not used the pump for years and now it failed without so much as a breath going into the tube. It looked like curtains for the finisher’s jersey and simply getting back without hypothermia was now going to be the focus.
Not so fast – Nancy managed to “politely stop” two good Samaritans and conscript one of their CO2 cartridges. I use the words “politely stop” loosely, there may have been a little “laying in the road, blocking progress and pleading” at this point. I made a fast change and crossed my fingers that I didn’t pinch the tube or mis-seat the tire. After a few tentative pedal strokes we were rolling again. It was officially dark now, and I knew the next flat, should it come, would be the end. Having been a little faster than Nancy climbing, I was really worried at this point of dropping her. I couldn’t really see her behind me because her headlight battery had just about died. I rode slowly, yelling out “you there?” every 50 meters or so. I’m really not sure how fast I was riding as I couldn’t read the speedo, but there was no dropping Nancy at this point. She found some energy reserves and rode like a champion (might have been the last mouthful of gummi bears…).
Now we just had to ride the last 15ks. It was getting very dark. The rain was just as hard as it had been all day, and the clouds completely blocked any stars or moonlight. The temperature was dropping. To add to the drama, because the road was newly chip sealed there were no lines. The rock used for sealing was white, which was great news for distinguishing the road surface from the edge, but the rocks were small loose shale – a real flat tire risk. Every half-kilometre or so we would see the ghostly silhouette of a rider hovering over whatever light they had, changing a flat. I was praying to the road gods to spare us.
My headlight was a penlight and pretty useless but we had good rear flashers so at least we shouldn’t get run over. At least a half dozen folks with lights worse than ours ended up behind Nancy. There were times when I knew the road turned only because I could see a red blinking taillight of a rider in front of me. I just focused on keeping between the markers on either side, trying to avoid riding off the edge. Car traffic was limited to folks helping out on the ride or sag vehicles heading out to get more riders. Getting in the sag here would have meant a long ride to the tail-enders and back – might as well ride, even slowly. Every passing car was followed by several seconds of blindness. Our eyes were so wide open in the dark watching the road that car headlights blinded us as if we were looking into the sun.
At the top of the pass, there is a large lake that we had to ride around to get back to Falls Creek. The road here had many little ups and down. At times we could see where the road around the lake must go by following the flashing lights of other riders ahead of us. At least we were not alone. The lights played tricks on my eyes however. I was never sure how far ahead things were, or how much of a climb we were on. It was real riding-by-Braille territory. At one junction, Nancy, me and the other countless shadows now following us had to stop and wait for a car to pass as we had no idea which way to turn. Up and down, follow the light in front or the road markers, blinded by another car, repeat, keep rolling. I know this only went on for an hour, but I completely lost track of time while it was happening. Focus, focus, focus, keep rolling, that’s all I could think of.
I knew that there was a small climb from the lake, then descent into Falls Creek. But which climb and descent was anyone’s guess. After countless ups and downs, out of the corner of my eye I spotted the silhouette of a building. It took a second, but it registered that we had made it to Falls Creek. Just like that. I knew that there were no buildings until Falls Creek. Then Nancy spotted the car park and a few cars on the side of the road. Suddenly, we were there. Almost before I could process it, we were in the finishing shoot being cheered by those waiting at the finish line. I had been so locked into seeing the next pair of roadside posts, and not crashing that I couldn’t really believe it was over and that we had actually made it. Where they found people who would stand round in the rain at 9PM to cheer us I’ll never know. We crossed the line stopping to hug just about anyone within reach (including David who had just come in himself).
The volunteers rushed us into the registration room, wrapped us in plastic and warm blankets and plied us with warm drinks. I was delirious. Both of us were shaking badly and couldn’t stop. One hand holding the hot Milo, the other holding our finisher’s jerseys. We sat there with the other ‘survivors’, all laughing a bit hysterically at what had just happened. Eventually, we returned to the land of the semi-warm and with one last bit of luck found a resort shuttle driver willing to take us the 1 mile uphill back to our lodge. I’m not sure we would have made it otherwise.
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how we held it together the last 15k, how we avoided hitting road debris, how we stayed on the road without simply riding off the edge, how we dodged a ride-ending flat tire or how Nancy found the strength to not let me out of her sight. So much for our pre-ride scoffs, 3Peaks was as EPIC as they come.
Hardest ride we’ve ever done, without question. Sure, we are older now and maybe not as fast, but that was hard. Having the right rain gear made a huge difference. We could have done with some equipment “upgrades”, like a working pump, a couple 29s for the 16% and for sure something more than a pen light for the last hour. Would we do it again? Every day, the pain fades – but if there is another 3Peaks in our future, I’d like to see a little more than the 10 feet in front of me. Sunshine would be a prerequisite – or at least not torrential rains for 200k! Who knows, maybe we will watch the long range forecast.
And oh yeah, when I cleaned the grime covered bikes a week later, I found my rear tire had gone flat and there were at least 2 dozen little slivers of shale working their way into our tires. Yes, we were really lucky to evade that second flat tire…