The story below is an account of events written post Peaks Challenge 2019 from the perspective of the slowest Cammeray Roadies rider to accomplish the Peaks dream.
Written by Paul Ghica.
This is a follow-up to the Peaks preparation story from the Cammeray Roadies.
It was the day of Peaks Challenge Falls Creek 2018 that the dream started. Lucy (aka Ingrid Gypsy Rose) and I had spent a good part of the ride next to each other. She’d drop me on the climbs. I’d pass on the straights and descents. By the end I’d be so delirious I would lose a bet months later as to whether we’d even met after a certain point on course (we had, and we’d even ridden together for several more kilometres, Strava flyby would settle the dispute).
Gypsy Rose would finish in 10:34 that year. It took me 11:17. David aka 'El Capitan', her husband and our fearless club captain, met his personal goal for a cracking sub-9 finish in 2018 in the company of Peaks Challenge legend Ben.
It had been El Capitan’s target for some time, but in 2017, he’d sacrificed it to help a teammate who’d crashed and limped up the last climb. Seeing the photo of the two of them crossing the finish line with their arms up in the air inspired me to take on Peaks Challenge.
“Next year sub 10,” Gypsy Rose joked in 2018. Or so I thought… seven months later, at the Cammeray Roadies Club Party, we would each win a ticket to Peaks, generously donated to our club by Cyclist Australia/NZ Magazine.
I was now committed. And so, too, was El Capitan, her husband. We just didn’t know to what lengths he’d go.
We began training. Two months later, he dropped the bomb. He’d already smashed his Peaks goal, and would ride the 2019 rendition with the aim of helping Gypsy Rose smash her sub-10 hour target.
He asked who else might be interested in that goal. He was expecting a few people to hop on board. He was not expecting 17 people, from both the Cammeray Roadies and Manly Warringah Cycling Club, to put their hands up.
One team, one dream
Over the next few months, we trained as a team. We rode to power, learned to keep the hammer down on the flats and descents, learned to keep a steady pace and conserve our energy on the climbs.
We practiced rolling turns (both clockwise and counterclockwise, based on wind direction), and even drilled sub-1-minute water stops. We practiced changing flat tubes and put a plan in place for who would stay behind with anyone who had a puncture, and who would ride on at an easier pace.
We had King, Queen, Rooks, Knights, and Sprinters in our group, each with a designated role.
“Sprinters” was the generous term given to pawns such as myself who couldn’t climb. We all knew sprinting was useless for a ride like Peaks. Sprinters were the protected riders, not expected to take very long turns on the front, in the hopes we’d save our energy to hang on to the group on the climbs.
“One team, one dream!” a particularly bubbly newcomer to the group exclaimed when she heard of our elaborate plan at our Berry training camp. The tagline stuck.
“An epic saga of friendship, courage, and triumph in the face of adversity. There are no words that can adequately describe this experience - to understand this you have to do it. One team one dream” — James Gawne
In the morning of the 10th March 2019, all in all, twenty one of us lined up at the start line, and there were seventeen in our sub-10 group. Our team mate Bretag was targeting sub-8, Darryl sub-9, and Brendan & Warwick would ride at their own pace.
As the slowest climber (and craziest descender) in the bunch, the plan was for me to ride off the front of our group in the opening descent and let them catch up on Tawonga Gap.
A team mate nicknamed "The Weatherman" joined me, and we quickly overtook the leaders of the 10-hour group and reached the mid-pack of the 9-hour group, even passing sub-9-Darryl at one point. I bided my time and power up Tawonga Gap, however, and the Roadies caught up fairly quickly. Too quickly, I kept the thought to myself.
“One!” El Capitan shouted.
“Two!” Someone else responded.
...“Seventeen!” I shouted from the back.
We’d reached the top of Tawonga Gap as a group. I pulled over for a nature break, thanks to the 2019 fad of beetroot/pickle juice. I was counting on my ability to catch them on the descent. What I didn’t count on though was a queue for the toilets. Needless to say, I didn’t catch the Roadies and I reached the bottom of the mountain with not a familiar soul in sight.
I took a few turns dragging a largely unmotivated rabble of cyclists halfway to Harrietville, until we were passed by a much more organised, but much faster group. I caught their wheels and took a few turns, burning entirely too many matches, and dropped off just before Harrietville.
I reached the water stop before the climb to Hotham weak, out of breath, and alone. And this is where all our team training paid off.
As I pulled in, I saw our familiar splash of teal blue… my Roadies had not yet left Harrietville! But they were on the bikes, ready to get going. They were rather surprised to see that I’d been dropped, and I got the feeling no one had noticed my absence.
I managed a water fill in a few seconds while El Capitan held my bike, and we were off, once again united. “One!” “Two!” “Three!” “Four!”… “Seventeen,” I was happy to report.
“Eighteen!” What in the world? Turns out Darryl hadn’t bothered learning to descend and had gotten dropped down the other side of Tawonga. Since he’d joined the group, every count without me had reached the expected seventeen, which is why no one realised I’d gone missing. He was now part of our sub-10 hour group.
A third of the way up Hotham, however, our count was down to 17 again. Dangerous Dave had gone missing. Darryl and Garth slowed down to tow him back up. A few kilometres later, the duo rejoined without Dangerous Dave; he was not feeling well. Our first casualty. And our last, we hoped.
Halfway up Hotham, more cracks started to show. The Weatherman began cramping. The Ox was suffering. Darryl and Garth were in pain from the effort they’d put in to rejoin the group. I was on my limit and I began losing touch with the group.
“Seventeen!” I yelled from several dozen meters back. I heard a faint cheer of approval from further up the road. My power meter was showing steady power; the Roadies were just too fast!
Up the steep pinches on the last third of Hotham, I lost contact. I reached the top of Hotham on my own once again. According to our scheduled stop length, I knew they’d still be there. I rode directly into the camp, past the bike parking, made a beeline for El Capitan, and stopped, my exasperated face a mere few inches away from his bewildered one.
“We are ahead of schedule. I am maintaining my power numbers. I’m still getting dropped. WHY?” El Capitan’s reaction said it all. He reached down and took my water bottles, then pointed to a nearby table. “I’ll fill these, you get some food.” “ROADIES ROLLING!” El Capitan bellowed some minutes later.
We scrambled. “Who are the Roadies?” “You rolling with the Roadies?” We heard a few other people around us ask each other. “One!” “Two!” … “Seventeen!”
“Absolute marvellous, teamwork at its best. Thank ou for letting me be no. 18 for a bit” — Emma Hudson
The next several dozen kilometres were beautiful. Our rolling turn practice came into its own, and people joined the rotation at the front when they felt strong, or joined the Sprinters at the back when they didn’t. The flat sections suited me, so I took some turns as well. We were grateful when a few other cyclists from outside our club joined our rotation and helped share the load as well.
“Fifteen!” Some time later. I waited for sixteen. None came. “Sixteen!” I then shouted. No seventeen. Someone had dropped without raising the alarm. We quickly figured out it was Choi, a gran fondo aficionado prone to cramps.
Looking over my shoulder along the straight flat course, there was no sign of him. Too much of a gentleman to ask us to compromise our chances and ease up for him. Our second casualty. We rode on.
Omeo was our next stop, and although we were getting quite tired, we did it with the usual haste with which we’d trained. As we were about to roll out… we see Choi cresting a hill. He’d fought through the cramps, the legend. We held his bike while one of us filled his bottles. We rolled out as one unit and stayed that way, careful not to drop anyone else.
Well, I was nearly dropped on the short climb out of Omeo, but I made good on my Sprinter designation once I realised the Roadies were nearly out of earshot. Turns out sprinting IS useful for Peaks.
The next section to Anglers Rest saw us picking up several dozen other riders and packs. I was trying to conserve my energy, so I was generally towards the back of the peloton which was increasing in size.
At one point, along the canyon edge, sitting in last wheel, I could see a long train of cyclists ahead of me, at least 40 by this point. Sprinkled throughout were flashes of our teal kit, our scattered Sprinters nestled in the bunch. At the front was what I can only describe as a locomotive of teal, about 10 strong, taking rolling turns and towing the group.
"Attempting the Peaks Challenge is a daunting thought at best. However, being able to complete this event (sub 10) was largely driven by the support of a great bunch of riders, and incredible leadership. P.S when grinding up Mt Hotham, have a look around. It's beautiful" — Anto Proud
“You guys are bloody awesome.” I didn’t catch who said it, but I heard it. “Sixteen!” I heard from somewhere up the front. “Seventeen!” I bellowed. The Roadies up the front cheered, and so did several others in the peloton.
Then it was there. WTF corner. We reached it right on schedule, to the minute. We’d gained time on Hotham, lost some at Omeo with Choi, and now, 200km into the ride, it was every man for himself.
I took one last look at the Roadies as they disappeared up the hill, chasing each other like madmen, led by the freakishly strong and skinny Gypsy Rose. I gingerly hoisted my 83kgs of pudge up the mountain, one pedal stroke at a time, completely on my own.
The pain set in immediately, and my heart rate spiked. Every pedal stroke threatened a cramp. Any variation in muscle use, any attempt to stand or even shift my weight in the saddle resulted in a muscle or other seizing. I knew I had to stay on the bike.
Last year, I walked, and it had made the cramps worse. If only I had some encouragement. But no, this was my lot in this ride, to stay with the Roadies as long as I could, and inevitably get dropped up WTF.
Then I saw him. El Capitan. Riding slower than slow, waiting for me. “How’re you doing? Keep it steady, we’ll make sub 10 at this pace, plenty of time.” I knew he was lying, but I was grateful for the company and encouragement.
“Yep,” was the only thing I could reply. No use trying to give anything longer than one-word answers. It’s amazing how efficiently an out-of-breath cyclist can communicate.
He got on my front wheel. “I’ll stay with you, you let me know the pace, if you need any slower.” Even at those low speeds, the minuscule draft made a difference. Maybe it was just psychological. “Faster,” I surprised us both by responding. “No need, save your energy, we’ll make it,” El Capitan advised.
And so we continued, with few other words said. Then Choi was there too, on the side of the road, resigned to walking as he’d done every year before. “ON YER BIKE!” El Capitan commanded. “I’ll push!”
Choi, probably more surprised than anything, obeyed. And El Capitan, true to his word, began PUSHING Choi up one of the most feared climbs in Australia, a climb that most people find near impossible simply supporting their own body weight.
Credit where credit is due, Choi did his part too. He’d pedal on his own for as much as he could, and El Capitan would push again when needed. Little by little, Choi found his legs again and El Capitan was relieved of duty… except he decided he wasn’t.
No, El Capitan was not done. He’d yell at every single other cyclist he saw walking, order them back on their bikes, and push. They weren’t even from our club. Some refused. Some gratefully accepted his help. One, a girl named Emma, got back on, let him push her for a bit, then she dropped us when she found her legs again! Incidentally, she now rides with us regularly. Meanwhile, I just kept putting one pedal in front of the other. The awe-inspiring display was an effective distraction from the pain.
We found our team mate Miles at the Coke stop. He’d been one of the madmen to race up WTF corner, and he was cooked, the entire lower half of his body having been taken over by cramps. He planned on staying at the Coke stop for a long while to recover, but of course El Capitan would have none of it. You guessed it, he pushed.
Now we were four, the SAG wagon of the sub-10 Roadies hopefuls. Two other cyclists joined us and helped take turns. Miles was in a bad way. Not two minutes ever went by without a curse and a bloodcurling scream from him. Yet he soldiered on, putting whatever power he could to his own pedals.
El Capitan was fading. I could see it in his body language and hear it in his breathless voice. Couldn’t see it in his eyes though. There, he was as fresh and determined as he was when we’d started. “How you doing man?” I asked of him, for the first time. “Awesome,” he lied.
“You tired of pushing?” I asked. “Nope,” he lied again. So I pushed too. I didn’t last long. Pushing someone else was bloody hard work! When I got tired, I alternated between that and giving a draft at the front. It wasn’t much but the team effort kept me inspired and I hoped it would keep Miles going.
When we reached the top of the climb, I looked at the remaining time we had to 10 hours, and for the first time, believed we might have a chance. I let Choi and Miles ride ahead as I coasted as much as I could. El Capitan, true to the last, stayed with me, even as it began raining and I slowed right down.
In no time at all, I couldn’t feel my fingers operating the brakes, my carbon rim brakes decided cold/wet meant they got to go on vacation, and I wasn’t about to risk a crash after so much work. I was met at the finish line by 17 other Roadies cheering. My time, 9:49.
"My second Peaks Challenge done and dusted. 235km, 4,400m+ elevation. Those who know my goal will know what this jersey means to me. Literally couldn't have gotten through the day without my amazing crew, both on and off the bike” — Paul Ghica
Dangerous Dave, we’d later find out, recovered soon after getting dropped and rode the entirety of the remainder of the ride completely solo. He finished in 10:30. We call him Dangerous Dave for a reason.
Brendon and Warwick finished alone, but they finished. They’d join us for drinks later. Also, I lied about being the last Roadie to cross the finish line in sub-10 hours. El Capitan was actually the last one to do so, less than one second behind me.
My wife has asked me for a year off from the training for Peaks 2020. But I hear there’s another Roadies contingent planning on making an appearance.
“I think it was the best event I have ever done and probably best ever ride as well. It had everything, hard work, laughs, banter, team spirit, pain, camaraderie, danger, singing, selflessness, joy, and even some tears at the end after having achieved such a hard event together. It demonstrated the best that humans can do when they work and (lets be honest) play together” — Philippe Penel
Sign up now for Peaks Challenge 2020 and join Paul and the Roadies.FIND YOUR LIMIT