I'd like to say that the day dawned bright and sunny for the 2011 Bicycle Victoria 3 Peaks Challenge. Instead, it emerged slowly like a grumpy teenager with a bad hangover and continued to shout obscenities at us for half the day. I had a bad nights sleep, awake on and off since 2am and I finally gave up on pretending to be asleep around 530am. Outside, the Falls Creek ski village was cloaked in heavy cloud, visibility around 50m or less. Nervously we ate breakfast in the flat (the breakfast we had paid for via our entry was about a 15 minute walk away in a soggy field so we decided to self cater), put on all our winter cycling clothes (incl. Arm warmers, leg warmers, shoe covers, full finger gloves) , filled pockets with food (and in my case camera gear) and headed down to the start line at around ten to 7.
It was pretty spectacular riding down the hill to the start line in the heavy cloud with hundreds of red rear lights flashing away in front of us. The start line was pretty chaotic. In theory riders were meant to start in waves from an assembly area further up the road. In reality the assembly area seemed to have been ditched and riders were just jumping into the starting chute wherever they could. Mike and I started around the middle of field of over 1100 riders. The cloud base was beginning to lift so visibility was improving and at 7:15 we were off – facing 235km and over 4000m of climbing and a big unknown weatherwise.
It was an amazing sight riding down the descent of Falls with a constant line of riders in front, all with red flashing lights, just like a giant christmas light chain. The road was slick with a light layer of moisture so looked like an ice rink and most people were riding to the conditions, taking it nice and easy. We were soon well and truly out of the cloud and rolling down the hill passing people all the way. The descent off Falls Creek is normally really great, but in the wet we were all taking it easy and concentrating hard. Despite the wet roads the descent still is a ripper, a constant series of sweeping left and right bends through lush green tall eucalypt forest. A big bushfire a few years back had burnt most of this part of the Victorian Alps to the ground so the hillsides are dominated by the dead trunks of giant gumtrees...a sad reminder of the damage that bushfires can cause to this delicate landscape. I passed a couple of CVSA riders on the way down and said g'day. The descent off Falls is broken into two sections – the first is all downhill to a bridge over a river and then rolling uphill and mostly downhill past Bogong Village to Mt Beauty at the bottom of the valley. Just after the first section it started raining, so we pulled over to don waterproof jackets and also take off our arm warmers and leg warmers. It wasn't cold and I wanted to keep them dry in case I needed them up on Hotham. The rain really set in along this section and we arrived in Mt Beauty pretty much soaked. My waterproof overshoes were pretty much useless with this amount of rain and it felt like I had a few litres of water trapped in each shoe. Not a good start! I think everyone who knew anything about last years ride was starting to have nightmares that this ride was going to turn out the same. Perhaps the only silver lining to the terrible weather was that it was warm (or at least not cold) so although it was uncomfortable being wet, at least we weren't cold and wet. Only a few kms later we were on the climb of Peak 1 – Tawonga Gap. On the ride profile Tawonga Gap doesn't even look like much of a “peak” but its a solid 7-8km climb with a decent gradient the whole way. I was feeling good and cruised up, passing loads of riders all lost in their own damp and soggy world.
We didn't stop at the top of Tawonga but started on the descent straight away. The sign at the top warned “Steep descent. Test your brakes. This is serious”.
Starting the descent off Tawonga Gap
Tawonga is another great descent in the dry but sadly the heavens opened up again and so it was hard on the brakes all the way to the bottom. From the bottom of the descent there is a few km's of flat(ish) road to Germantown and then a left turn for the ride up the valley to Harrietville.
The rain continued for most of the way, and its a bit of a false flat, but we managed to collect a group of riders on our wheel before being passed by a much bigger group. We jumped on with them, although the benefits of being sucked along in a bunch may have been outweighed by the face full of wheel wash we were getting from the rider in front.
Rolled into Harrietville around 2 ½ hrs after leaving Falls Creek. There was a “Rider Valet” service here – basically a chance to pick up a bag of your own food sent ahead. The problem was that everyone's bags were identical (except for your rider number and name written on the outside) and they were all in big sacks of around 50-100 individual bags, but in no numerical order. So it was a real bunfight of people wallowing around in the muddy conditions trying to find their bag amongst the mass of identical looking others. I wasted a lot of time here trying to find my bag, then had to fill bidons and about 20 minutes later we were off.
Straight away we hit the climb of Mt Hotham and thankfully the rain had stopped. The climb up Mt Hotham has been written and spoken about by many people – mostly focusing on the distance (around 30km) and the terrible gradients at the Meg, CRB hill and the last pinch to the top. I found the climb a really magical and mystical ride and really didn't notice the gradients in the steeper pitches. At first we were below the cloud base and again in lovely lush eucalypt forest.
Around the first steep pitch (the Meg) we hit the cloud line and for the next 25km we rode in a thick pea-souper. At times I could barely see the road and riders ahead of me (even with rear lights on) would suddenly appear out of the whiteness as I passed them. The world was totally silent, and almost everyone was riding along in absolute silence.
I stopped at Buckland Gate where BV had set up a food and drink stop. They were handing out Winners Bars and Gels but had neglected to tell anyone in advance that they were rationing the bars and gels to one each per rider. My nutrition plan had (in part) hinged on picking up 4 bars here. Needless to say I had a bit of a dummy spit, grabbed my one bar and one gel and continued on.
Half way up CRB hill (another of the short, sharp pinches) it started to rain again, and I stopped to don my waterproof jacket. It was then that I noticed small hailstones falling with the rain...great, what next? Near the top of the climb there are actually a few short descents and these proved to be the most dangerous. In the white-out conditions and with almost no braking power a 90 degree bend on a downhill section would suddenly appear and it was all I could do to stay on the road. Less than 2hrs after leaving Harrietville I topped the climb (but missed the transponder mat, so didnt record an official climb time). Having driven up to the top of Harrietville I can honestly say that I think the thick cloud actually helped on the ride. Not being able to see more than 20m up the road meant I had no idea how long each section was nor where the top was, simply because I couldn't see anything! Down through the short tunnel and through the Hotham Heights village and the start of the descent to Dinner Plain. I was not looking forward to this as the visibility was still poor and the roads awash with water. But all of a sudden I was out of the clouds and a few minutes later I could see for miles over the surrounding hills and peaks.
The cloud started to show breaks and the road even had some dry patches. So it turned into a nice descent for about 10 minutes through alpine woodland and meadows until the lunch stop at Dinner Plain. Half way there and 2 peaks conquered!
PART TWO OF THE RIDE - DINNER PLAIN TO FALLS CREEK COMING SOON