If you’ve ended up in this corner of the internet, I won’t be alone in saying this: epic two-wheeled adventures are one of the absolute best activities in life. How else can you combine fresh air, spectacular views, random wildlife encounters and endless snacking, all with a healthy hit of endorphins and a doctor’s stamp of unconditional approval?
Last month marked another milestone in my rapidly growing CV of ridiculous bicycling adventures, in the form of Peaks Challenge Falls Creek. For the uninitiated, Peaks Challenge, or ‘Peaks’ as it is (un)affectionately known, is one of Australia’s toughest single-day endurance rides. The Falls Creek edition of the Peaks Challenge Series is set in the spectacular Alpine National Park of Northeastern Victoria, with a route spanning 235 km and 4,500 m of breathtakingly tough climbs.
One of the things that makes the Peaks Challenge so unique is that it is a personal battle against the clock and not a ‘race’ as such. Beat the Lantern Rouge riders home, and your ride goes down in history as a success. Finish outside the 13 hour time limit, and… well… better come back next year and do it again, I guess. This breeds an incredibly supportive atmosphere and camaraderie amongst the ~2,500 riders – with competitors of all ages and backgrounds, male and female, roadie purists or MTB interlopers, fresh legs or experienced campaigners – all challenging their own demons on a common battlefield. It’s truly something else.
This year was to mark my second crack at the event. The first time around I’d only picked up a road bike for the first time seven months prior. I’d doddled around on a MTB for a year or so before that, and my (possibly insane) partner, Dan, confidently assured me that this was “more than enough experience”. Hot tip: it really wasn’t. But in 2016 he diligently towed me around all day, alternately barking orders and shouting glowing words of encouragement, leading me down the descents like a tanker with foghorn engaged, and I was absolutely stunned to come home well inside the ‘magic’ 10 hour mark that so many riders aspire to.
With another 12 months of riding in my legs (1.5 years is basically an extensive cycling career, right?), I felt a little more confident this time around that making it home was a tangible goal. I’d like to say ‘in one piece’, but given the horrible crashes that take place every year on the fast, twisting descents off the back of Falls Creek and Mt Hotham, this was far from a given. I knew I was physically and mentally better situated than last year – I’d done this once before, and had clocked up several 200+ km rides since then, but truth be told I was incredibly nervous. I’d set myself the personal goal of improving on my time of 9h35m from last year, but I recognized just how good a run I’d had with weather, groups, lack of mechanicals, no serious physical issues, and of course my trusty tow truck Dan. As I was soon to learn, fear of failure is one hell of a motivation.
Dan and I set off from our sleepy little island hometown of Tasmania aboard the Spirit of Tasmania car ferry to Melbourne (contrary to popular belief there are in fact flights in and out of Tasmania, but carrying the bikes safely in the boot of the car to an event is just one less stress). From Melbourne, we drove for 4.5 hrs winding our way up into the Victorian high country stopping at every bakery and ice creamery on the way. Hello carb loading, my old friend. I’d been checking the weather forecasts religiously for the week prior, and was becoming increasingly nervous with predictions of heavy rain, thunderstorms, 65 km/h winds on the mountain peaks, possible hail, and generally all the stuff you don’t want to hear as a featherweight cyclists with terrible power output and thermoregulating capacity. I tried to put this anxiety out of my mind, but it was pretty clear from my increasing irritability and rattiness that I was genuinely pretty anxious about this. I knew that no weather would stop me – at 42 °S, Tasmanians are bred pretty tough – but just how much would this slow me down? What if I couldn’t bomb those epically long, fast, technical descents? (My top speed last year was 86 km/h). What if I got caught out on my own punching into a beast of a headwind? What if I messed up my clothing choices and overdressed/underdressed/forgot to get dressed? I grudgingly came to terms with the fact that the weather was beyond my control, and after a couple of sleeps, leg loosening spins, and generally eating my body weight in snacks, race morning was upon us.
A touch after 06:45 am on a drizzly Sunday morning, Dan and I rolled out together from the top of Falls Creek in darkness with the first wave riders and skipped our way down the mountain at a billion km/h dodging bottles, bidons, unsecured clothing/tools/gels and other unidentifiable airborne objects. Before long we’d arrived at the base of Tawonga Gap, the first relatively un intimidating climb of 8km @ 6% with a beautifully smooth road surface peppered with wide, well-formed switchbacks. We booted our way up and over this together, where the ever-chivalrous Dan commanded some unsuspecting cyclists into military formation and off our little group went to Harrietville, the first designated water stop of the day. We were quickly engulfed by what sounded like a freight train, which turned out to be a massive supergroup commanded by the 9 hour ‘pace riders’. At the risk of being scorned by every racer on earth, this kind of fast, relatively flat, surgey group riding is what kills me the most. Give me a hill and I’ll tick up it at my own pace. Give me a wet descent and I’ll put my disc brakes and training on Tassie’s crappy road surfaces to good use and fly fearlessly through technical corners. But we can’t all be blessed with fast twitch fibers, and this 20km stretch at 175 bpm HR barely clinging on is, to me, the true definition of terror. But I managed to hold on by the skin of my teeth and we stormed our way through to the base of Mt Hotham where Dan – more a sprinter than a sustained climber – very quickly sent me on my way alone up the climb. Something along the lines of:
Dan: "if you’re feeling strong Em, you should go for it"
Em: "but Dan…" Dan: "*some expletive* JUST GO ALREADY"
and from that point on, all negotiations ceased. This was it – I was on my own.
Hotham is a brute of a climb – no two ways about it. On paper the stats are 31 km and average gradient 4.2%, but this includes several false flats and a couple of short descents, several pinches at 10%, and in reality you’re pushing up 5-6% for much of the climb. It’s roughly 2 hours of solid stomping. At this stage I was already nursing a hailstorm of cramps which was a bit worrying with 160 km yet to go, and was starting to regret my decision to push all the way through to Dinner Plain @ 116km in before my first water stop. But, having the power and bodyweight of a gnat serves its purpose occasionally, and I managed to dance my way up Hotham at a semi-respectable pace without incurring full lockout cramps. I soaked up the serenity and view of all of about 1.3 seconds (it’s absolutely spectacular btw) before scoping out the available muscle and suckering myself onto the wheel of every big aero-looking rider I could find to bomb down into Dinner Plain. Lunch consisted of a Snickers Bar and a Red Eye (I don't mess with the winning #cleanliving formula) and my first heavenly water stop for the day.
I bolted out of the lunch area just in time to be engulfed by the pace train again and spent the next 40-something km guarding my cramping legs and keeping safe in what was a pretty hectic group of tired and scatty (but very fast) riders. Mistake #1 happened just outside of Omeo at 160 km when a dropped chain on a bad gearshift spat me off the back of my group. While the headwinds weren’t as bad as initially forecast, I was really struggling to make it back to the group against the 45km/h wind funneling through the valleys. Even if my little legs did have that kind of push in them (which realistically they probably didn’t), I made the call that it was too dangerous to burn all my matches chasing back on. The widow-maker climb of the day was yet to come. So it was a tough, hot, lonely and frustrating slog winding up through the hills chasing a tantalizing carrot. At one stage, I almost managed to tailgate a Campervan to bridge those agonizing couple of hundred meters to the pack, but alas the slow twitch fibers won out again. I finally bruted my way across to a few stragglers who'd also sneezed and found themselves abandoned and we formed a nifty little train for the next 10 clicks beside the river, edging ever-closer to the feared and revered “back o’ Falls”.
Mistake #2 happened when I stopped with my group against my better judgement for roadside water at Angler's Rest - an area covered with fine wet gravel (to be honest, I think by this stage I would've done almost anything to avoid being left on my own counting km’s and yelling insults at the wind). As predicted, my Speedplay cleats jammed solid with gravel and I spent the next 5 minutes hopping on and off the bike swearing and wasting my oh-so-precious water trying to clean them out. After what felt like an eternity, I was finally successful in jamming both my feet onto the pedals and made a mental note not to unclip again UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES (wild boar attack, bushfire, earthquake inclusive), and solo'd another lonely 10 clicks against the wind to the back of Falls Creek for the final ‘proper’ climb of the day.
On paper, this 23 km climb at 4.2% sounds relatively gentle. In practice, slogging up the scorching hot white reflective quartz surface with 200 km already in your legs is anything but. The aptly-named “WTF Corner” which commences this pièce de résistance really sets the tone, delivering a sucker-punch of 10-14% gradient for the first relentless 500 m. Thankfully, my trusty little legs resisted the waves of muscle spasms and ground into gear to do their thing, carrying me safely up the brutal climb as riders fell like flies around me (literally... in ditches) with violent cramps, man-sized tears, or having simply given up on life. After deliriously hitting the final godawful peak, I commenced the world's slowest 12 km ITT home, threw in a speccy skid on the final finish corner for the spectators (jokes, your Grandma would've taken it faster) and toddled across the finish line just before 4pm.
Stats: 236 km, over half an Everest, average HR 170 bpm (79% of my max, concerningly), total time 9h03m. A P.B. of more than 30 minutes and second fastest time ever recorded by a female in the Event’s rich 6-year history. To say I’m cooked and stoked is the understatement of the century. Thanks to all the legends I met en route for the delirious chats, snack exchanges, friendly wheels for warp speed descents, and the superstar stranger who commended me on my strong #kitgame halfway up Mt Hotham. Made my day. Not even joking.
As for Dan? Between missing hooking into a supergroup by a matter of meters after being stopped at a traffic control point, soloing the best part of 60 km and Sagan-ing the descents on his own at some truly terrifying speeds, culminating in being ravaged on the boob and butt by an angry (hungry? horny?) wasp not once but ELEVEN times… it’s fair to say he had a pretty solid day out, too.
So… same time again next year, then?
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