One of my 20 goals for the next 2 years was to better my 2011 result and finish in the top 50 riders in the 3 Peaks Challenge, a 235km (146 mile) long bicycle race down in beautiful Victorian ski country.
On Sunday, March 10 I achieved that goal by placing a respectable 28th out of 1500+ riders with a total time of 8 hours, 25mins and 5 seconds.
The first feeling after crossing the finish line was definitely one of elation, although I didn’t get emotional like I did back in 2011, probably because I knew that I’d put in the hours on the bike beforehand and this time it wouldn’t be a matter of if I’d finish, but when.
The first thing I did after finishing was go back to Nelse Lodge, where owners Graham and Ros Parker made everyone feel like family, get in the shower, sit down on the ground, put my head on my arms and just stay like that for the next 15-20 minutes, completely exhausted. This was followed by a 1hr nanna nap and a quick bite to eat before heading back down to the finish line to cheer on friends and strangers, who had up to 13 hours to complete the ride. Scenes like this were commonplace after riders crossed the line:
One rider literally collapsed sideways on the bike about 100m from the finish, where he was immediately attended to by paramedics. A kind individual at least took his bicycle over the finish line so he would record a finish time.
I didn’t see many crashes – mainly just a few people going too fast into corners on the first descent of the day and running wide, but I heard a couple of stories of riders taken away by ambulance – with one sliding across a gravel road and losing skin down to the bone! Accidents happen, but you really just need to stay within your limits, especially over such a long distance.
Due to the bushfires in the region, the 2013 course differed from past editions, with Mt Hotham replaced by Mt Buffalo, and a climb up the ‘front’ of Falls Creek instead of the notoriously steep ‘back’ side. The change of course had many riders (myself included) thinking that it would be an ‘easier’ day in the saddle, but extreme heat on the day (with temperatures hitting 40 degrees celsius / 104 fahrenheit) ultimately meant that the physical toll on the body was greater as a result.
If you are thinking of putting the 3 Peaks Challenge on to your bucket list, or just curious about the regime that I followed in the lead up to the race and also on the day, I’ll go in to more detail below:
Riding 235km on a flat course on any given day is a challenge, but when you throw in close to 4,000 vertical metres of climbing and 40 degree temperatures, it becomes very physically demanding, so you need to put in a lot of training in the months leading up to the event if you want to do well.
Bicycle Network Victoria provided a very useful 12-week training plan in 2 different versions – one to finish in under 13 hours, and a second one to finish under 10 hours – I tried to follow the latter one as much as possible - weather, work, and other commitments permitting. My weekly training program was something like this: 30km ride each weekday and an 80-100km ride Saturday and Sunday. In the last month sometimes I would combine my Saturday/Sunday ride and just do 1x 150km or 200km ride for the endurance, but in my experience what matters most is that you are on the bike for at least 30km 6 days per week in the month leading up to the race. It is these base km in your legs that will make the biggest difference.
It really helps being a member of a cycling club (I’m a member of Randwick-Botany) because they run group training rides 6 days a week, with longer rides on the weekend. So if you do all the club training rides, that is pretty much your preparation taken care of.
Increasing your training to the level listed above means that you will be burning about an extra 9,000 calories a week, or the equivalent of 3 days’ worth of calories for a man doing moderate exercise. I didn’t personally find that I started consuming a much greater amount of food, but I did try to eat much more whilst riding and just have an extra snack or two while off the bike, with all other meals staying the same. Over the last 6 months however I have dropped about 6kg (going from 73 to 67kg).
While riding, particularly any ride longer than 2 hours, you will need to eat constantly. On my longer rides I like to take 2 bananas, a muesli bar and a handful of gummy lollies. If I’m riding for more than 5 hours I’ll normally stop somewhere on the ride and have a bacon & egg roll and a chocolate milkshake. If you don’t continue to eat and drink you will ‘hit the wall’ energy wise and basically feel like your bike weighs 100kg.
For the 3 Peaks Challenge, riders can pack their own food bags and these are placed periodically throughout the course (roughly 60km, 120km and 180km in). Take advantage of this service and put in more food than you ever think you’ll need in order to give yourself a good selection when you stop. This is what was in each of my 3 food bags:
I also carried electrolyte tablets and I would use 1 tablet each and every time I filled up a water bottle.
Get into a routine food and drink wise and you may find that instead of whole food you prefer gel bars etc… – but just find what works for you and make sure you have enough of it (roughly 1 gram of carbs per kg of body weight per hour of cycling).
Tactics on the day
The first year I rode the 3 Peaks Challenge I was just happy to finish. This year I wanted to do a lot better and so I was much better organised because I knew what to expect.
The weather in the area is unpredictable so pack as much gear as possible and check the forecast the night before. The first year I rode we had temperatures ranging from 4 degrees through to 30 degrees, with rain and fog a big issue. This year the temp was 15-40 degrees with no rain. Be prepared for all weather conditions.
Put new tires on your bike the week before the race to reduce the risk of a puncture and do not over-inflate on the day. I rode 100-110psi with tubulars and didn’t have a problem.
Spend as little amount of time as possible at each rest stop, particularly the lunch break. Ideally you will have a toilet break, grab food from your food bag, stuff it in your back pockets, get back on the bike and head off again, eating as you go. You should ideally spend no more than 5 minutes at each rest stop if you want to record a good finish time.
Generally you and your friends ride at different speeds, so I would say don’t ride with your friends, find a group that is going a speed you are comfortable with and stay with them for as long as possible and rotate in the group to share the workload and conserve energy.
Don’t go too hard too early. The hardest climb of the day comes after you have already ridden 200km, so you need to have something left in the tank if you want to make it up without walking. If you don’t have anything left, you could lose anywhere from 30mins-1hour alone over other riders on the final climb.
The 3 Peaks Challenge offers some of the best scenery in Australia – so take the time whilst out there slogging away to actually take in the views, chat with your fellow riders and appreciate the environment. It is this feeling, along with the elation that comes from crossing the finish line, and the buzz that surrounds the Falls Creek village, that will have you making the 3 Peaks Challenge an annual pilgrimage.
A big Thank You
A big thanks to Bicycle Victoria and all the volunteers that go into making this event a reality. Everyone I came across on the day – even those out in the 40 degree heat – always had a smile on their face, were super friendly and helped to make a great atmosphere.
My total stats for the ride can be found here.