Saturday, April 11, 2020

Peaks Challenge Falls Creek

Despite my memories of the daily grind of the 2018 Tour de France fading, I've been fascinated that my desire to see my team-mates has not - on the contrary, I regularly find myself pining for their company.

Some six months ago, Bruce posted on Facebook that he'd be going back for a third crack at Peaks Challenge, Falls Creek.  I knew little to nothing about the event, but for one thing - Bruce was in.  A couple of days later, I had flights booked myself...!

I had grand ideas about a training rendezvous to have a second tilt at Raid Ruapehu, but in the end training, both grand and not-so-grand, fell by the wayside.  A week or so out, Bruce and I joked that at least we'd be grovelling together.

Training wasn't the only thing I'd neglected.  My logistics planning hadn't been great either, though at least I had an excellent accommodation option courtesy of the fine folks at Ride Holidays.  Due to work constraints, I wasn't on their full-blown tour, and would be getting myself to and from the venue (close to Melbourne, when you haven't got the map at a sensible scale).

To better feed my Air New Zealand status points addiction, I flew via Auckland, with the side benefit that I scored an upgrade to a business class seat for the leg into Melbourne.  That was nice, but the highlight of the flight was discovering that the loo had a window, not something I recall seeing before. 

Room with a view!
Being early March, the world was still in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The immigration process into Australia had been tweaked only slightly, and I had to declare that I hadn't been in China, Iran or Italy in the last 14 days.  I presumed that had I been, I would have been sent straight back to whence I came.

On the long drive to Falls Creek, I listened to local radio at various times, discovering that there was quite a run on toilet paper in Australia.  As a public health guy said with a bemused tone, half the world doesn't use toilet paper, so people will probably manage without if need be...

The solo drive afforded me a much needed opportunity to de-stress a bit, and while it took the best part of  five hours (including a couple of comfort breaks), it wasn't too arduous.  Once I'd arrived at Falls Creek, I soon found Bruce, and our room-mates for the next couple of nights, Todd and Ian.  After a suitably awesome hug, I got my bike sorted (brake rotors back on the wheels, tyres pumped up, and rear derailleur remounted), and then it was upstairs for dinner and to meet the other Ride Holidayers.  Dinner was freaking awesome, and it was nice to meet the other riders and the crew, ably led by Chris and Dean.

The next morning, we rode as a group over the final 45 kilometres of the race, between Falls Creek to Anglers Rest.  There was a major point of difference though - the next day we'd be doing them in the harder direction, i.e. uphill.

Almost ready to roll out

Falls Creek sits at about 1700m, and in the second half of the ride, we peeled off about 1000 of those.  Initially, the road was relatively flat, and wound around the Rocky Valley Storage lake, which was in particularly fine form with a neat morning mist hanging over the lake and road.

The Rocky Valley Dam sitting in front of the reservoir
It felt like the first time in ages I'd ridden in a bunch, and it was nice to chat with people throughout.  In true kiwi form, in many cases there were only a couple of degrees of separation.  It turned out Anna's son is in one of my classes at university, and James was the brother of Steve, who is a Calder Stewart team-mate of my dear friend (and team-mate from France), Stu.  I'd already made the connection with Ian, who I taught in a statistics course as far back as 1997!!! 

At Anglers Rest, we got changed and piled into the vans to retrace our steps.  Between the downhill ride and the uphill drive, it was hard to work out what the finale of the next day's event would be like.  Despite knowing I'd under-prepared, I was able to avoid becoming overly intimidated by it all.  The shake-down ride has also been useful - in particular, I'd discovered the cleats in my race shoes were completely flogged.  While that was terribly disorganised of me, at least I'd anticipated it, and had packed a second pair of shoes.

After washing up, Bruce, Todd, Ian and I strolled through the alpine village to a cafe, and after 10 minutes of indecision, settled on a proper sit-down lunch (and coffee, of course).  After that, we were able to register, and I stopped for a nice chat to Chris and Dean - it was really interesting to hear first hand about the Ride Holidays philosophy and style.  That done, it was off for a bit of quiet time back in the room, before venturing out again a bit later for the event briefing.

While the pandemic was front of mind elsewhere in the world, the briefing was sobering for another reason.  Falls Creek and the surrounding communities were still reeling from a terrible bush-fire season, which had been prominent in the media throughout the summer.  We'd seen some evidence of it on the way to and from Anglers Rest, and were warned there'd be more on the full route.

Afterwards, I hooked up with my cousin Rion, who I'd met only a few times before, most recently when I was a teenager!  He's been living in Sydney for years now, and had only been cycling in the last few years.  The air was a touch chilly, but we talked for as long as we dared, before wishing each other well for the next day.

That evening, I spent a lot of time stressing about gear.  The event provided a valet service whereby you could send food out to three aid stations.  In addition, you could send clothing to the second of these, and whatever you took off there would be brought back to the finish for you.  In the end, I chose not to send anything, partly because my Monday flight necessitated me to jump in the car not long after the race had finished - I didn't want to have to hang around for my gear, and nor did I want to impose on Bruce to bring a festering pile of riding gear back to NZ with him!

It was an early alarm the next morning, by virtue of the pre-7am start time.  I'd grabbed some rolled oats and pineapple from the superette the previous evening, and was glad to slot into a somewhat regular morning routine (sans espresso...).

For an hour or so post breakfast, I continued fretting about what to wear, and what to take.  We'd been told to expect cold temperatures on the tops, and up to 20-degrees down in the valleys.  In the end, I settled on some warming oil on my legs in lieu of leg warmers, a regular lycra jersey, arm warmers, a gilet, and my invaluable Gore Shakedry jacket.  On my head I decided to go with my buff (exposing my ears seems to do the trick when the air warms up), as well as a Castelli cap (in Gabba fabric) for emergencies.  I chose the lightest of the three pairs of gloves I had.  The final indecision was reserved for my Ground Effect overtrou and larger saddlebag.  In the end, I decided to harden up and go without, largely because it was still dry when we rolled out.  Taking Bruce's lead, I did line my stomach and chest with one of my unused plastic valet bags, which seemed like a sensible precaution (and felt very pro). 

The start area was about a minute away, and the Ride Holidays crew were on hand to retrieve warm clothing from us.  It didn't feel overly cold, which was a relief, since we were standing around for 20 minutes or so, wondering if we'd made any terrible decisions!

0620 - waiting for the start
Eventually it was our turn to leave.  I almost immediately lost touch with Bruce, though at least knew he was ahead of me.   I was feeling pretty nervous about the descent - about the cold on the one hand, but also the crowd.  Bruce and the others had ridden this descent two days earlier, and upon hearing their descriptions, had talked myself into believing I had the skills of a novice.   I was pleased to realise a few minutes into the descent, that I'm actually quite a capable bike rider, only gently rebuking myself that I'd conveniently forgotten about the tens of thousands of relatively incident-free cycling under my belt.

The descent wasn't completely without incident, mind you.  Not a minute from the start line, I genuinely thought I was going to witness some carnage.  I found myself about 15 metres away from a guy whose front wheel was flapping about in a sickening way.  I slowed and kept my eye on him, lest he start pulling people down, and was astonished to see that no sooner had he successfully brought the thing to a near halt, then he was letting off the brakes as if it wouldn't immediately start again.   I shouted at him to stop before he killed himself, then was glad to slip away.

The road was closed to traffic, and it was a lot of fun bombing down towards Mount Beauty, a descent which lasted about 40 minutes!  I caught up with Bruce about half way through the descent, which was awesome.

At Mount Beauty, we'd been invited to "donate" unwanted clothing to a local charity.  Here, people were discarding old riding gear or even casual clothes they'd put on over the riding kit to keep a bit warmer on the descent.  I peeled off my shakedry jacket and stowed it in a pocket, but hadn't planned on discarding anything, so didn't.

It was cool to see many locals lining the road, and encouraging us as we passed.  The event had been going since 2010, and was obviously a welcome boost to the local area, despite the constraining nature of the road closures. 

After climbing gently out of the town, we soon turned left onto the road up to Tawonga Gap, a beautiful 500vm Cat 2 climb.

View from just below the Tawonga Gap summit

Bruce and I nattered away for much of it, nearer the top debating whether or not to stop to put coats on in response to the light rain.

Despite the road being wet, the descent was enjoyable, and during it we connected with another from our group, Shelley from Christchurch.  At the bottom, we turned left towards Harrietville.  For the first half of the 20-or-so-kilometres, I enjoyed sitting on or near the front of a growing bunch.  The pace was nice and smooth, and it was dry and relatively stress-free at the front (and the additional effort was a good warmer...).  Eventually though, the bunch became too big, and various hammer-heads went to the front and started pulling like crazy (despite having just been caught, WTF).

I drifted back to where Bruce and Shelley were, and seriously considered completely extricating myself from the group.  Thankfully, we arrived into Harrietville not long afterwards, and between the rest station (which Bruce and I ignored), and the start of the 30km climb  (with 1300vm) up Mount Hotham, the unpleasant bunch dynamics fell by the wayside.

I'd been quietly celebrating a "new bike day", loosely speaking.  Towards the end of 2019, I scored a lovely Open Cycle U.P. (Unbeaten Path), a brand that Cape Epic sponsor Kashi Leuchs had been bringing in, in addition to Yeti.  I was riding it for pretty much the first time in its "road race bike" guise.  I'd had at least one compliment on it by an eagle-eyed fellow competitor, and not long into the Mt Hotham climb was passed by another.  While I'm yet to experience it in "unstoppable on very tough terrain yet much faster on pavement than you'd expect thanks to the road position" mode (650b with MTB tyres), I can attest to its prowess as "a go-anywhere bike perfect for mixed surface rides and most gravel routes" and now, as "a very fast road bike".  Amazing what versatility a well designed frame and judicious wheel and tyre choice can achieve.  (Also amazing what people on bikes tend to notice...!)

On the left, another Open.  Why I noticed, I'm not sure.

As the Hotham climb went on, I really started to labour, to the point that I got the sense that Bruce had slowed down for me.  Aside from the first 20 minutes or so, the temperature had been in the 8-12 degrees range, but on the climb it dropped to below five.  That affected me, but so too had the frenzy down in the valley - I thought I'd been careful not to overdo it when I'd led the bunch, but it really seemed like I'd expended far too much energy.

We pulled in briefly at an aid station about half way up.  I filled my bottles with water, and Bruce jammed into my pocket some bars and jellies (which I hadn't noticed on a table at the station, despite searching for them).  Then it was back into the climb.

As we got nearer the top, the wind picked up and it all got a tad unpleasant.  While Bruce had donated his gloves down at Mount Beauty, I put mine back on at the summit, and didn't see Bruce again until the next aid station at Dinner Plain.

The descent was quite something, and I was stunned to see how underdressed some people were.  I was pretty bloody cold myself, though between my jacket and cap, was not overly worried about survival!  I couldn't say the same for some of the riders I passed though...  To add insult to injury, in addition to the temperature and wind-chill, we had to ride through a couple of sets of roadworks which resulted in a light coating of (cold) mud.  Luckily the bike didn't get too filthy, though I did later make use of the bottle of lube stowed in my top-tube bag.

At Dinner Plain, we did a loop through a wee roadside complex, and en route to the lunch table, I noted a cafe.  Bruce had arrived a good few minutes ahead of me, but had been helping Todd change into some dry clothes - Todd had been unable to undo his shoes to put some dry socks on, his hands were so cold!

Half in jest, I asked Bruce if he fancied a coffee stop, and to my surprise and delight, he said he'd meet me there!!!  We went in, and both ordered quad-shot coffees.  As we sat and waited for them to be delivered to our table, I made no attempt to control my shivering - my body knew what it was trying to achieve, and I figured I might as well give it a chance to do so...!!!

Hand and belly warmer!
Eventually we'd emptied our cups and pulled as much residual heat out of the empty vessels as we could - there was nothing else for it but to head back outside.  We later agreed that if we missed out on the special sub 10-hour finisher's jersey on account of this 30-odd-minute stop, it would have been completely worth it!!!  Snappier service probably could have halved the time, but neither of us were too fussed about that (one of the many reasons I love riding with Bruce is that we seem to have a similar outlook on such things).

The conditions that awaited us back on the road were initially not much better, but at least we had the coffees on board.  The road demanded a bit more effort too, so between that, the lower altitude, and a general improvement in the weather, things actually become nice for a wee while.  I suspected some would not have been able to enjoy it though, having cooled down way too much dropping off Mt Hotham, though perhaps their saviour would have been the motorcycle marshalls who were carrying long rolls of plastic which presumably would be used like a large garbage bag with armholes.

From time to time, Bruce and I would ride in company for a while, but our coffee break had dropped us back through the field quite a bit, and consequently we were riding faster than the riders around us.  One such rider was Mandy, well visible in her pink and blue Ride Holidays kit for a few minutes as we drew near her.

Mandy and Bruce riding through a bit of burnt out bush

We stopped for some refreshments at Omeo, beyond which was some really lovely riding.  I enjoyed not only the relative warmth, but my legs had recovered from their low on Mt Hotham, and the terrain and surrounding bush was perfect.

As we passed people, we would tend to offer a few words of encouragement and/or solidarity.  One recipient was a woman who not only appeared to be in her 80s, but was also climbing in her big chain-ring.  My cheery greeting didn't seem to be overly welcome, and once she was out of earshot, I joked that she was too disgusted to answer someone pedalling in such a soft gear.

There was a truly glorious bit of road that took us into Anglers Rest - reasonably flat and fast, but sinuous and a treat to ride.  We'd gathered up a bit of a posse, including Anna, aka Captain Quinn, and I enjoyed swapping turns on the front with another dude who appreciated the value of a smooth pull.

We had a momentary stop at Anglers Rest, and after safely negotiating the "Bike Eating Bridge", I found myself riding with just Bruce and Anna through to the base of the final climb.

Bike Eating Bridge at Angler's Rest

As we turned and started climbing, I could hear Bruce hollering at me from behind.  I turned and couldn't see him, but decided not to investigate further.  Much is made of "WTF Corner", which is about 200m into the climb, and is appropriately steep given its name.  The dude dressed as the Grim Reaper was silent as Anna and I passed by.

It wasn't Anna's time - heading for WTF corner

Safely around the corner, I wished Anna well, and then eased away from her, soon after passing another from our group, Jenny.   The climb is a genuine HC beast, ascending 1000vm over 22km, but with the first 8km averaging about 10%.  My Open is set up with a compact crankset, so I had a 1:1 gear handy when I needed it.  It was definitely the sort of road you're better off riding at whatever pace you can manage!

Birthday girl, Jenny - steaming away from WTF corner - with Anna and I down below

My legs seemed to have coped well enough with the 200km already covered, and every 5 to 10 minutes I'd pass another rider.  From the recce the day before, I knew the climb profile in a broad sense, and was looking forward to the aid station at Trapyard Gap which would signal the end of the sustained climbing.  There, I quickly chugged a can of coke, and pressed on, trying (but failing) to remember Mike O'Neill's words of wisdom about the pointy end of this event.

There was a little over 20km back to Falls Creek, and I knew I'd still be gaining altitude for about half of that.  Once I hit the lake, it would flatten, and I'd be done before I knew it.  My energy levels seemed OK, and my legs were still working, but the 10-hour time was really hanging in the balance.

The irony of a conversation I'd had with Shelley in the van back from Anglers Rest wasn't lost on me.  I'd described the time I'd missed - by a measly three minutes - finishing in my target time of 10-hours for the Taupo Enduro, and the arithmetic I'd been trying to do to gauge progress after my GPS had switched into miles.  Here I was, not a day later trying to work out the speed I needed to hold to meet this (also arbitrary) 10-hour target.

It was out of reach long before I acknowledged that fact, and while I never completely switched off, I made two stops which might have been forgone if I'd not mentally pulled the pin on the chase. Between Anglers Rest and the summit, the temperature had dropped from about 14 degrees to 3 degrees, and I wasn't prepared to endure it just for the hell of it.  I stopped to put my jacket on, and then again a minute later to add gloves and cap.  Even then, the damage was done, and I never quite got comfortable. 

I don't recall feeling a sense of elation at getting to the finish, but I was damn happy to stop nonetheless.  My finish time was agonisingly close to the 10-hour mark (10:06, to be precise), but as Bruce and I had agreed after Anglers Rest, the coffee stop was totally worth the delay.  Who knows, without it, the wheels may have fallen off anyway, and we might have haemorrhaged time elsewhere on the course.  In any case, I had absolutely no regrets!

Grinning at the grimness of it all

After receiving a commemorative jersey (of the sub-13 variety), I shot back to base, and made my second bowl of porridge for the day.  I felt a bit stink not staying outside to watch my dear friend finish, but my day wasn't over yet, and I needed to build my strength for a long drive.

Pro (and Hard) as nails, one of the many reasons I love him!

Bruce soon joined Todd and I in the room, and the debrief continued while I packed up (not well, overlooking a drawer full of spare riding gear).  Within an hour of finishing, I was repeating the first descent of the event, though this time in a car, and on the correct side of the road throughout...!

I got as far as Seymour that evening, and had a stress-free conclusion to the drive the next morning, reaching the airport in ample time for my noon flight back to NZ.  The day was one of transition, from escape-mode back to surreality.

As a cycling challenge, Peaks was a cracker.  The distance was solid, so too was the climbing, but the conditions really made it what it was.  I'm always irked when I hear someone refer to themselves "suffering" on a bike - even when it is tough, I try to be conscious that riding is a choice and a privilege, and don't like the implicit comparison the word elicits.  That all said, the conditions on Mt Hotham and into the finish had the word on the tip of my own tongue, to the extent that I still can't quite believe that photo of Bruce finishing without gloves, hat or jacket.  Thanks to Karl, Chris and Dean from Ride Holidays for helping me sneak on board, and I look forward to joining you again.

Of course, life has been bizarre ever since - the trip triggered a couple of days of self-isolation, enacted retrospectively on any overseas travellers.  A few days after that, the whole country was put into lock-down mode.  All of a sudden, reminiscing over a bike ride hasn't seemed that important.

As I sit and write, I can see suburbs out the window that are currently off limits to me.  At another extreme, Sarah and I have already been notified that the flights for our June trip to northern Italy have been cancelled, though we still have valid tickets to Japan for late August - it remains to be seen whether or not that trip will be possible, let alone wise.   I'm not finding it hard to keep things in perspective, and to be honest, am just glad to be in a country that seems to have managed its pandemic response well.   Our sacrifices to stay local are really no sacrifices at all, in the giant scheme of things.

Looking back on this trip, I realise the strengthening of an existing friendship was the highlight, but also the opportunity to make new connections.  And while that happens naturally through a shared experience (particularly when said experience is unusually arduous), riding side by side in a foreign land is not a necessary condition for that.  Nonetheless, I still find myself yearning for the combination, and am hoping that doesn't make me a bad person.


1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a challenging but satisfying ride, and great work by you and Bruce getting over there to give it a go. Great stuff!