Peaks Challenge 2021 – Beating 10 hours

March 21, 2021

“Nah mate, I’m done” – 2021 Peaks Challenge

When the tears came, I was completely spent, both emotionally and physically. This is probably a cautionary tale of ‘how not to ride Peaks’ as much as it is a blow-by-blow description of maybe the hardest day I’ve ever had on the bike.

On the start line with Pete, Harry, Alys, Trenton and Mel the smiles are always a thin veil for the nerves, or the fear that all the training you’ve done might not be enough. That’s certainly the feeling for your first time. But this was number 4 for me, and I was confident I’d done enough training to go for another sub-10-hour ride. And to do that, you want to ride with the 10-hour bunch with the Bicycle Network ride leaders. You don’t want to be riding by yourself, especially after lunch at Dinner Plain. This was sound advice I had constantly given anyone who asked, and even those who hadn’t. But my legs had been feeling poorly since Saturday morning, so I was somewhat apprehensive. No amount of stretching or foam rollering seemed to make a difference. Too late now.

We lined up in ‘wave 2’ in a cool but not freezing 7 degrees. Each wave was then also broken into a few groups to space the riders out on the 30km descent to Mt Beauty. This was new. And as the wave 2 groups rolled away, it looked like we’d be the last group of wave 2 to start. All of a sudden; panic. What if the 10-hour ride leaders were in the very first wave 2 group? How would we catch them with a head start? You don’t want to be chasing all day. Struth!

Finally, we’re rolling away. I looked down at my Garmin: when I later tried to recall, I was pretty sure it said 7:00am. Ok, here we go. With all the spacing the descent this year was better. It didn’t take long to push through the loose wheels and get some clean air so you could get your flow on. It is a lovely descent; left, right, feather the brakes, left, right… nice. About two-thirds of the way down I came up on the 10-hour ride leaders in their blue Bicycle Network kits. Relief! Ok, I’ll pass them and bank some time. Pete joined me one or two kilometres later and we made good time into Mt Beauty. I pulled over and handed my Vinnies jumper to the clothing drop, and then, as we rolled away I noticed the ride leaders in blue regrouping just up ahead. Happy days.

It’s a short stretch to Tawonga Gap and soon we’re climbing. Ok, just sit under 200 watts and don’t go nuts. I unzip my jersey (I won’t zip it up again until I’m 100m from the finish). I didn’t feel great on the climb, legs were just not feeling it. But I kept my rhythm and just as I was 200m from the summit I noticed the 10-hour ride leaders coming up behind. Super. I’ll descend and be right with the bunch. The Tawonga descent was uneventful and I turned onto the Great Alpine Road, 55km down at 8:42am. But things were about to get messy.

A bunch began to form, but it was not organised. In the absence of the ride leaders the cats refused to be herded. No one seemed willing to roll up the second line to get things moving. One bloke yelled out: “start rolling and form a paceline!”. Another one responded: “well go on then mate!”. Eventually someone did and we began to form. But it was not pretty. We’d be on the gas at 35km/h and then on the brakes at 25km/h. 270 watts, down to 120 watts. Just nasty. The lack of coherence and surging seemed to never end. Pete joined me and we sat at the back. On the gas. Off the gas. Now in hindsight it would have been better to drop off and wait for the main 10-hour bunch. But I was so happy to be ahead of time all I could think of was having a few extra minutes at Harrietville to stretch and walk about. And so we endured an absolutely rotten ride and arrived more stressed that we should have been. 73km done.

It was here I made the first of a few tactical errors. I remember hearing the 10-hour bunch arrive, but I lost track of when they left. Ok, let’s go, I’ll meet you at Dinner Plain for lunch. Soon I was climbing alone. On the lower slopes I saw a bloke riding what must have been the dirtiest road bike in the entire world. It was coated in dust. All over the lower frame, all through his wheels, and his drivetrain. It looked like he’d ridden gravel the day before and decided to do Peaks on a whim. That’s weird I thought as I rode on. At the top of the Meg I passed Steve K. “How you going?” “Good, you?” “Yep ok. Alright, ride on.”

I tried to tap away and keep the legs spinning, but they weren’t feeling good. My right inner thigh was beginning to feel too tight for comfort. It cramped the last Peaks I did, and I was determined not to let that happen again. At the end of the false flat there’s a water cart and small rest stop. Ok, I’ll stop there and give it a stretch. Tactical error number 2. I did stop and stretch it out, and it did feel slightly better, but I lost time. Then tactical error number 3 (they come in threes): For some reason at this point I decided subconsciously that the 10-hour ride leaders and bunch were behind me. Your brain does strange things on this ride. Especially when you begin worrying about your body. And so I carried on in error. The rest of Hotham was tough. You never quite appreciate how steep the last 3 kilometres are until you’re on them. Shit that’s right, this part is really hard. Soon I’m on the descent, through Hotham village on onwards to Dinner Plain and the lunch stop. Then, lo and behold: old mate with his dusty bike. We don’t talk but start instinctively swapping turns, just the two of us. Dinner Plain lunch stop. 116km travelled, and at the halfway point.

Here’s where things really started to fall apart. Just as I was putting my bike on one of the racks: “10-hour bunch we are leaving!” My heart sank. Bloody Hell! I’m in real trouble now. How did that happen?! There was no way I could grab my lunch, fill my bottles, go to the bathroom and be on the back of that bunch. I’d lost too much time. Damn that stop on Hotham! Ok, plan B. Just get things done and roll out as soon as you can: surely there’s a bunch you can jump on. The stretch between Dinner Plain and Omeo can be hot, windy and difficult. Last Peaks we’d absolutely flown through that 40km stretch on the 10-hour bunch; I even set my all-time fastest speed of 90km/h down one of the creek crossings thanks to 100 strong group. I half ran to get my valet bag. I ripped it open, stuffed one peanut butter roll in my jersey and started chowing down the other. Head all over the place. I grabbed the lunch wrap (completely pointless as I ended up leaving it unopened on the grass), plugged my Garmin into my battery pack to charge up a little and filled my water bottles. A quick bathroom stop. Then, what’s this? As I was returning to my bike I see a Bicycle Network ride leader – maybe I haven’t missed the bunch after all! As he walked past I turn to look at the white patch over his rear pockets and I read “11 hr”. Another shudder of dread. Faaaaark. I restocked myself and my bike, and as I was rolling out of the rest stop: “11hr bunch fifteen minutes!” Looking back at my ride file, I spent just 13 minutes at Dinner Plain: it felt like half an hour.

Things were looking quite grim. The prospect of riding a sub 10-hour when you’re not part of the bunch after lunch is not one I had envisaged. I returned to the course and I could see only two riders within cooee. One looked bedraggled: inappropriate sock height, mis-matched kit, cadence that was too low and seemingly unable to ride in a straight line. The other rider was a bit of a unit: lime green jersey, solid build and calves like rock melons. I catch up and sit-in behind Mr Unit. We roll some turns and then came to a rise. Uh oh. My leg starts to twitch. We’ve only done 13km since lunch! I have to pull over and stretch out my inner thigh and hamstring. This is not good. I’ve still got over 100km to go and my legs just aren’t playing the game. I remount and push off. There’s no time to think, I just keep riding. A loose bunch slowly forms over the next few kilometres. There are about 7 of us. We try riding turns in single file. It’s a bit messy. The sun is warm now, but it feels like the wind is slightly behind us. On the climbs, it’s hot. We pass a bike turned upside down by the side of the road. The rider is nowhere in sight. Maybe they’re lying down in the shade of those trees. The shade looks very appealing right now. We struggle our way to the high point above Omeo and I aero tuck to maximise the big descent into town. Rolling into Omeo, oh look, it’s old mate and his dusty bike. We swap a turn or two and then we’re at the rest stop. 159km done.

I spent as little time as possible here; refilled my bottles, stretch the legs, bathroom break, food and leave. I’ve now got less than 4 hours to complete the ride and a tough 76km remaining. As I ride out of town, there’s a large ambulance helicopter spinning up about to take off from the oval, and an ambulance parked under some trees. Someone’s having a very bad day. Again, no big bunches, just riders in one’s and two’s, and wait… there it is: the dreaded Omeo headwind. It blows straight down the valley and presents as a warm wall of air. I need a bunch. A few of us coalesce and that gets us to the 4km climb out of the valley. I try to ride tempo. 600 metres into the climb, and I’m stopped by the side of the road, stretching out my legs again; pretty much the exact same spot as I was in 2019 with the same issue. Faaaaark. This is not good. I remount and ride on. Another rider sits on my wheel as we climb, we chat, we suffer, we are alone. I tell her we’ll be right as long as we find a bunch to ride with on the rocky plateau that leads to Anglers Rest.

Through the miserable farmland. A farmer is moving his many bales of hay about with his tractor. C’mon, keep going. We’re now on the plateau. And who should we find: old mate and his dusty bike. “Let’s roll turns.” “Ok mate.” I jump on the front. I’m now acutely conscious of time. I know I’m behind the 10-hour bunch. I’m unsure of how far behind. But I also know that they get you to the bottom of Falls with a lot of time up your sleeve. I start doing the mental arithmetic: If I can get to the bottom of WTF corner by 3pm, I’ll have 2 hours and I might just make it. I’m finally in a rhythm now. We get the bunch of 6 or so pulling turns single file. We’re holding 31-35km/h. Whenever there’s a pause, I go to the front to keep the momentum. We shell half our group, but there’s no time to lose. We keep the pace up and three of us roll down the hill into Anglers Rest.

“How long ago did the 10-hour bunch roll through,” I ask one of the volunteers. He’s looks at his watch, “about 20 minutes ago”. Bloody Hell. I am really starting to cut it fine. 187km down, and it’s now 2:30pm, and I’ve got 2 and a half hours left. Can I even still make it? I can’t be at the back of Falls with any less than two hours up my sleeve. Hurry the fuck up! Bottles filled, legs stretched, gel inhaled. I roll out and find two other riders, one is wearing a finishers jersey from 2014. That’s a good sign. Then he says, “oh no, I’ve got mud in my cleats and I can’t clip in!” That water station at Anglers Rest can be tricky, my cleats were glued-in after stop that in 2017. They both pull over, I ride on solo. The 13km to the back of Falls was a demoralising exercise in extrapolation. I kept thinking ‘the bunch will have been flying down here, and here I am riding alone’. There was no one to ride with. Tumbleweeds. Wait, there’s someone. I ride up next to him; “you still on for 10 hours?”. “Nah mate, I double flatted and now I’m just riding to finish”. Faaaaark. I chat briefly, and then pull away. At this point I start to think of that Matthew Hayman quote from his famous Paris Roubaix victory: “always keep riding”. No matter what happens; always keep riding. I’m conscious now that I can’t expend too much energy before the final climb, but I can’t slack off either, so I try to keep my watts to 170. I’m alone. Then I’m at the back of Falls.

I pass three riders as we turn onto WTF corner. It’s 3 o’clock – I have two hours to climb the wall and make it home. It’s going to be tight. As I get out of the saddle to get through the 15% section, the sun is beating down. It’s quiet. I start to go about settling into a climbing tempo. Are my legs even able to do this? Always keep riding. Last time I rode this climb, there were riders everywhere. Not today. Just alone with my breathing. Onto the climb proper: there are walkers everywhere. People are weaving all over the road. Some have stopped altogether. I push on. Having done the climb three times before, I have a vague idea of where I am, and what’s still ahead. My legs hold up. As I near the end of the 9km steepest section, I spot Mel. “Mel! How are you going?” She says she’s been so close to the 10-hour bunch all day. What a champion! She is doing so well. “We can still make 10 hours,” I pant. “Really?” she asked. “Sure, I’m going to push on.” (Not 100% sure I believed myself here). For the ‘Raspberry Hill’ segment on Strava (8.7km @ 7.7%), I average 200 watts for 47 minutes.

I roll into Trapyard Gap. It’s 3:56pm. I have a little over one hour to cover 24km, and I’m still a fair way from reaching the summit. Can I average 24km/h over the top? I’m there for less than 2 minutes, I fill one bottle and stretch the legs. I push on. Is there enough time? Always keep riding. I catch a rider: “Are you still on for 10 hours?” “Nah mate, I’m done.”  I desperately need to find some allies. I hit the first climb amongst the trees. I’ve ridden 4kms since Trapyard and my leg starts to twitch. I have to stop and stretch it out. Faaaark, there’s still 20km to go and only 52 minutes left. I get back on. I can’t keep stopping like this. I decide that the remaining climbing has to be done out of the saddle. It’s the only way I think I can get my legs to the finish without cramping. I get out of the saddle and go. There are riders scattered over the hill. Are they from the 10-hour bunch? They’re strung out, riding in their own individual pain cave. I ask one: “Are you still on for 10 hours?” “Nah mate, I’m done.” This lack of allies was getting serious. It seems like no one had anything left in the tank, or if they did, they didn’t think they’d make the finish in time. Always keep riding.

I start what I know to be the final long climb. I’m out of the saddle. Cadence is 50. Time is running out. I turn to the rider I’m passing: “mate we are so fucking close”. He stares across at me and replies; “I’m gone”. There’s now 30 minutes left with 14km to ride. Maybe he’s right. Am I mad? Always keep riding. We’re in the open grassy slopes now. I’m getting close to topping out. Wait. Who’s that? Sandy! “Mate are you still on for 10 hours?”. “Nah mate, I’m cooked.” I tell him I’m still on (although I’m not sure if I believe it), and then attack the final hill. I’m out of the saddle: just get to the descent. There it is! I crest the last major climb – it’s 4:39pm, 21 minutes left and 10km to go. Oh my God, is that enough?! I can’t do the math in my brain, the little man in my head has knocked off for the day; exhausted. Everything is shutting down.

There’s nothing left to do now but hope there’s still enough petrol in the tank. The last 10km has some helpful descents. I have to keep riding. I get into an aero tuck anytime the road drops. 60km/h, 50km/h. A slight rise; 300 watts – don’t lose momentum! There’s the dam! Descend fast. Flat section, keep pedalling. Around the corner, you’re right at the back of the dam. Careful, leg tightens up. I stop pedalling and stretch it on the bike. 5km to go, 4:51pm – 9 minutes left. I’m on the flat section at the back of the dam. I reach a rider; “Oh Vikings. Is that Tuggeranong?” “What?” “Is that Vikings Tuggeranong”. “Yes it is.” My brain was in no fit state to be making conversation. I sat in behind him briefly thinking: ‘he’s doing ok pace’. But a moment later I thought – this is too slow, and I pulled out and around and took it up once more. There’s only a few more corners until the dam. 4:54pm – 6 minutes. Keep going! I rounded a bend and there was the dam. I looked down at my Garmin – 4:56pm, 4 minutes left, one climb, 2km to ride.

As I crossed the dam I knew I’d have to really punch over the climb. I hit the slope, out of the saddle, 300 watts, keep pedalling! When I crested the rise, I looked down 4:58pm. Shit! I put the hammer down. 350 watts. I channelled some Lleyton Hewitt and let out a huge:  “C’moooooooooon!” Round a tightening left hander, fast (photo evidence). I’m flying and starting to pass the first buildings on the main road. I look down; 4:59pm! There’s the final turn into the finishing chute. I was doing 58km/h and had to brake hard to make the 90-degree left hander, I almost put myself into the barrier. And there was the clock above the finishing gantry: it said 10 hours 7 minutes. I was sure my Garmin was still on the money. I reached for my jersey zip: there was no way I was crossing the line if I’d pulled this off without ‘Vikings’ plastered across my chest! I zipped up and sprinted. Now I was pretty sure I’d made my 10 hours, so I celebrated as I crossed the line with equal halves of relief and nerves. I saw the clubbies who had finished already, and Mick Ryan, who all put up a great cheer. That was pretty amazing.

As I lurched off the bike and stumbled over to the tent, I grabbed the water that was put in my hand and drank it in one go. Panting, I turned to the bloke behind his event computer: “Did I make 10 hours?” I half expected him to say: “nah mate, your done.” He looked down at his little terminal, pressed a button, and out came a little receipt. “9 hours 57 minutes and 6 seconds, you made it.” Oh boy. I collected my jersey in a daze and staggered up to the food. And that’s when the tears started coming out. All the emotional and mental tension from the last two-and-a-half hours came out. I was in tears as I collected a hot wrap and a coke, and then went looking for somewhere to lie down as my body started to shake and wobble.

Looking back, I was surprised at how the day turned out. Certainly not what I had planned. Aside from a stack of PRs over the last 15km, I hit my max heartrate for the entire day in the final 2km. And that’s why: That. Hurt. So. Much.

A (slow) walk back to our digs with Harry, a quick shower and then it was off to the finish line with a beer to watch the rest of the Vikings come home. They all did so well. From the sub-9 hour beasts to the first timers. It was fitting that the final Vikings over the line was Club President Matt Dyne, who for the first time, experienced the benefits of training!

If you’ve never done Peaks, give it serious consideration. It’s an epic day on the bike, and the sense of achievement at the end is one you’ll never forget, especially the first time. I’ve been fortunate and privileged to do it with simply the best club mates year after year. Will I be back again? Maybe ask me after the Tour of Bright.