Adelaide's Stephen Cunningham crossed the line first in the 2013 3 Peaks Challenge and returned in last month to do it again. The former European based pro, now training coach and European tour guide, who divides his time between the Adelaide Hills and France, wrote this exclusive post about what it takes to successfully ride arguably one of the toughest sportifs in the world and, despite his critics, do it back to back.
Well it's been a few weeks since participating in the Scody 3 Peaks for the second year in a row, and I thought I'd share with you my experience leading up to and during the ride itself.
After last year's event, which saw the course forced to change due to fires at Mt Hotham, high temperatures and indeed a grueling course, I was motivated more than ever to return and ride the traditional course that I had heard so much about. Coming first over the line in 2013 was a great feeling, not because I consider this event a race in any respect whatsoever, I simply enjoyed the self challenge of preparing for a huge ride and finishing it as strongly as I could.
Interestingly there were quite a few people who talked the 2013 circuit down. Those that rode it knew how tough it really was, but there were those critics who regarded my achievement, and indeed all of those who completed the course last year, as 'not the real 3 Peaks' so it meant very little. 'You didn't ride the back of Falls Creek', 'how would you have gone on the real course' it went on and on. Ultimately I don't care what the critics think, I only care what my closest friends and family have to say. 2013 was brutally hard, but granted 2014 did feel harder!
So on our return from our European Tour season, and with friends and clients asking me whether I would return to the event and test myself against the traditional course, well what could I say—'bring it on!'
Through summer I was coaching dozens of clients who were all targeting the 3 Peaks, writing programs in preparation and generally providing as much advice and support to people who wanted to ride this increasingly iconic event. So it felt only right to return to not only support those doing it, but to see if I could back up my performance in 2013.
Without going into detail, my training was a little hit and miss—much of my time on the bike was spent coaching Adelaide cyclists; come February it was time to get more specific, and indeed a little more selfish, with how I trained. Having prepared for countless races in the past, I knew what had to be done—the hard work is always in the preparation and training, the ride itself is simply a by-product of how hard you have been able to train. I certainly don't see myself as a more talented rider than the person next to me, I think what I do know is how to train effectively, perhaps how to suffer more than most and how to listen to my body. If only I knew these things in my 20's!
The morning of the Scody 3 Peaks had finally arrived. I felt ready and knew I had prepared well, no illness and the last six weeks training had essentially gone to plan. My body and mind were ready to enjoy a great day on the bike with like minded cyclists who had all prepared themselves to the best of their ability with the time available.
I set myself the target of completing the course in eight hours. To the disbelief of many, I didn't care what that meant in terms of where I finished. You can't control the performance of others, only yourself, so that personal target was what counted to me. That's the beauty of the 3 Peaks, it's not a race by any means, nor is it ridden like a race—everyone goes into it wanting to achieve something great, whether that be a sub eight hour ride, or beating the Lanterne Rouge at 13 hours. It feels like you're riding with your mates; people you've never met before but all have a common goal and the camaraderie is what makes this ride pretty darn special.
All that said, if you do want to achieve a sub eight hour ride, you have to be in the front group after descending off Falls Creek! I always knew that and as I rolled across the start line and peered down the hills in the dawn light to a sea of riders meandering down the hill ahead, I thought to myself 'not again! I'm going to have to chase to get back to the front just like last year. That's something I didn't want to have to repeat. Fortunately I don't mind going down a hill, with half of my time riding through the French Alps, Italian Dolomites or Pyrenees—descending comes with the territory of operating tours through the Alps. So by the time we were half way down Falls creek, I was at the front of the ride, catching up with a few old riding mates like Cam Hughes, Pat Marcucci and others—having a few laughs and just enjoying the moment.
Then we arrived at Tawonga Gap, the first of the three major climbs and I was one of about 30 riders in this front group. The tempo was just nice, pretty cruisy, until one rider decided to get on the front and 'line out' the group. This is when I knew we were up for a good time today. To ride sub eight hours is not achievable on your own; you need strong riders with you and by the looks of this group we had the fire power! By the top of Tawonga Gap, the group had reduced to about 20 riders, a few of whom were riding close to their limit, not the ideal scenario to be in with 200km to go!
As we rolled through to the base of Mt Hotham, my focus was purely on riding as efficiently as possible, keeping the heart rate as low as I could and the legs as fresh as possible. You don't train like this. You train to build power, lift heart rate and even slightly starve yourself of food and drink—but come the main event it's time to do everything right. High cadence, constant changing of gears, eating and drinking right, riding as smoothly as possible, the list goes on and on... It needs to feel like an easy ride for most of today, the hard rides have been done.
As we started climbing Mt Hotham, the pace lifted again and it wasn't long until the group had whittled down to ten… then eight… then five. I knew I had good legs today and felt like I was tapping along on the higher slopes of Hotham, turning around and seeing that the others were drifting back. Now 3 Peaks isn't an event you want to ride off the front for the next 130 km, I needed some support and the best way to muster up support is support them yourself.
After a quick water top up at Dinner Plain, five of us continued on through to Ovens. Riding single file, a nice tempo on the climbs but importantly getting to know each other and enjoying each other's company. I could see that these fellas were also here to achieve a great result, but also have a great time. There were certainly no enemies here, but more so new found friends.
As we were riding along, Alex Davey who was second over the line in 2013 was looking super fit and strong, a really great bloke who had clearly a lot of talent, told me that he just missed out on going to the Olympics for the 1500m. I knew it would be Alex and I who were going to ride the back of Falls creek together. The others were starting to waiver on the little rises through to Anglers Rest.
So there it was, the back of Falls Creek and having slammed down a few gels at Anglers Rest it was time to finish this thing off and get to Falls Creek for a coldie or three. Alex and I rode side by side, essentially pacing each other all the while wondering who might crack. Looking down at my gears, with only a 39/25 to assist, there wasn't a lot of time spent in the saddle that's for sure. Alex opting for a 39/27 and the extra gear was a wise choice indeed, something to remember for 2015. We were both on the limit, managing the effort, never going truly into the red and being sure maintain a consistent rhythm. A lot has been said about the back of Falls Creek and it's all true! It seems to never ease up, with a constant gradient of 10 per cent and sections up to 20 per cent, it hurt. As we approached the end of the toughest section, we started talking about how epic the ride has been, encouraging each other to keep on going, the feelings and sense of achievement of being at the front of this great ride, all sorts of things really. Alex then explained this was going to be his last ride like this before spending more time with the family. Remembering what happened last year, I felt it only right to suggest that we enjoy the moment of crossing the line first together—after all it's not a race and we were both deserving of enjoying the moment after both of us had prepared so well for it. With that agreed without hesitation, the last 15 km across the top of Falls Creek could arguably be the most enjoyable moments I have spent on a bike—I can't speak on behalf of Alex, but I'm sure he was feeling the same way.
I thought sharing the moment helped represent what this ride is all about—riding to your best ability, achieving your personal objectives and enjoying the moment with others. This should never become a race, it's far, far bigger than that Seeing everyone cross over the line as the hours passed by, the looks of exhaustion, then elation on everyone's faces was priceless. So our time? 7 hours and 35 minutes with an average of 31 kph. I have no doubt it could be ridden quicker by the National Road Series riders—probably in the vicinity of seven hours in a fast paced group, those days are certainly behind me!
Will I be back, you better believe it. Will I try to be first over the line? To me that's not the objective and it was merely a by-product of achieving my personal goal. Like I said you can't control the performance of others, you can only admire them. I look forward to the journey in preparing for the 2015 Scody 3 Peaks Challenge with friends and clients and having a great ride. Perhaps I've inspired and motivated others to test themselves against this most challenging course in the most picturesque location in Australia, For me that's motivation enough to return.
Stephen Cunningham owns and operates procyclingtours.com, offering premium cycling tours through Europe and Australia, and procyclingskills.com which focuses on perfecting training techniques from beginners to elite athletes.
Procyclingtours.com tours are taking booking for their 2015 European tours to the Giro d'Italia, Tour De France and more. Check their website for details or look them up on Facebook to be inspired.
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