Thank you to Tony for sharing his Peaks Challenge story with us. An epic saga, but one that Peaks riders will find all-too familiar, and may just inspire you to give it a go in 2021!
Peaks Challenge Falls Creek is an incredibly demanding beast, to conquer 235km and 4000+ meters of climbing takes significant training, dogged determination, and a mental toughness to push through the pain to the finish line.
Looking back, the journey began when I started riding with some friends of a friend on the now infamous Wednesday night M7 chop ride. The AnT Farm were an enthusiastic group of cyclists, warmly encouraging, and eager to shoot me out the back up Equestrian Hill as my legs said no more please!
This regular weekly ride was a training ride for something referred to as Peaks, a mystical ride of epic proportions. As I slowly improved but still got dropped weekly, the AnT Farm travelled off to Peaks and conquered it. I felt that Peaks Challenge was way beyond my capabilities but pushed myself to keep returning to the M7 chop to keep improving.
After taking advice and purchasing a trainer and power meter to improve my strength, many interval sessions later I started to show some improvement. Astonishingly (to me), I began to finish the M7 chop rides with the leaders without being dropped. This was then followed by a last-minute trip to the 300km Around the Bay event in Melbourne with some of the AnT Farm. After 13 hours in the saddle, I started to convince myself that Peaks Challenge Falls Creek might just be achievable.
I took a leap, signed up for Peaks 2019, and before I knew it, I was committed to giving the training everything I had. A series of training rides in the beautiful South Coast introduced me to such pain inducing climbs as Jamberoo Mountain, Barrengarry and the mother of all, Saddleback Mountain.
These training rides laid down the foundations for climbing the mountains of Peaks Challenge Falls Creek. The captain, An Hyunh, meticulously organised these training rides to cater for newbies like myself, through to experienced campaigners returning for sub 10-hour glory. My fitness improved to where I could mostly stay with the stronger climbers, excepting one bad experience in 40-degree heat where I had to bail out short of the finish. This gave me the confidence that I could complete the ride within the 13-hour time limit.
Onward to Falls Creek for the big dance, and with a massive crew of over 20 riders in the AnT Farm entered, it was sure to be a big year. My plan was to try and stay with the sub-10 hour riders for as long as possible, hopefully until WTF corner, where it’s every man for himself on the brutal back of Falls climb with 200km in your legs.
Event day came, and along with it a massive bundle of nerves and excitement as we started down the descent of Falls. Through the first climb of Tawonga Gap I felt okay, but suddenly realised I had not taken on any food and drink so far. Despite hurriedly getting some down me as we caught a train to Harrietville, this would hurt me soon enough. As the group started climbing Hotham, I was struggling to maintain the power required to keep up, and as we hit ‘The Meg’ about 5km into the climb,
I had to let the sub ten group go and reduce my effort a little. I sat with Franco for a lot of the Hotham climb after that, happy for the company, but slightly shocked I had dropped off the pace so soon. I also started cramping on both inner thighs, which forced me to climb within myself for fear of making the cramps worse.
Catching up with Nico J and Ian at the Dinner Plain stop, we rolled out together towards Omeo and I was grateful for the company and assistance at this point, knowing over half the route was still ahead. We found Franco again after Omeo, but then I lost all three of them on the climb out of Omeo.
This section towards Anglers Rest was a struggle, with cramps coming on, I was holding on to wheels but not contributing, just trying to recover. I took an extended stop at Anglers Rest with sub ten finish no longer possible, bought a coke and sat down, knowing that the climb that had been on my mind constantly for the past six months was just ahead of me, and not knowing how my legs would react.
Rounding WTF Corner and starting the back of Falls, I climbed within myself to avoid cramps, and after a couple of kilometres I thought to myself “I can just keep going at this pace and I don’t need to stop”.
I caught and passed Franco, who was bent over his bike praying for the cramps to stop, and not in a good place. I then caught and passed Nico J, who was also in a world of hurt slowly grinding it out. The stop at Anglers had refreshed the legs, but then the rain and wind started at Trapyard Gap, making the final 25km back into Falls Creek a battle for survival.
Raindrops were hitting my face like needles, and visibility was almost zero, with the temperature down to single figures. I rolled into Falls Creek solo and shivering to collect my finishers jersey and a time of 10:49. All I wanted was a hot shower.
Looking back at this first attempt, I knew inside that I wasn’t quite to the same level as the sub ten train and felt that my inexperience had proved a significant hurdle. Despite all the guidance and assistance from the crew, I couldn’t quite manage sub 10, and felt equal parts delighted to be a ‘Peaker’, and disappointed that I couldn’t share in a sub 10 hour finish. After some analysis and discussion later, I resolved that some fixes could be made to improve the finish time at a second attempt.
After Peaks 2019 was finished, I resolved to do something else. I joined BSCC and started the racing season with some criteriums, which brought a different kind of fitness and were a lot of fun. Then after the team time trial championships in Singleton, I started some track riding at the velodrome, which was also great fun, and continually adding to my fitness.
With L’Etape’s final event in Jindabyne, I did the 170km race to ride Mt Kosciusko to see where my legs were at with a view to Peaks 2020. As it turned out, the legs were great, and Peaks Challenge Falls Creek 2020 was moved into my calendar.
With all the previous year’s sub 10 riders not returning for the Ant Farm, I decided to push ahead with my training plan based on the previous year’s training down south. We would ride down there every second week from December onward, with other locations such as Royal National Park and Gorges to mix up the training and stay fresh. This I would mix with Monday night track sessions, Wednesday night M7W and mid-week hill climbs in RNP.
A month out from Peaks I had the opportunity to dodge a massively wet weekend in Sydney, and travel to Beechworth to ride Mt Hotham and the back of Falls with Mel and Pete. This proved a critical component to my training – up until this point I was wary of Mt Hotham, and my laboured performance on the previous attempt. Could I climb Mt Hotham in a reasonable time, good enough for sub ten hours? It turns out I shot that monkey on my back dead, after climbing as a trio at 3 watts/kg and summiting in 1:50, I was ready.
The next day we rode down the back of Falls and back up again, despite the road being closed and the bushfire damage. Surprisingly, this climb wasn’t so bad without the 200km in your legs, who knew?
With the 3 watts per kilo climbing plan well set, we managed two more training rides where we climbed as a group at this level. This built confidence that we could do this at Peaks, but also cemented the feelings of climbing at tempo whilst not pushing too hard. This would prove critical to finishing under ten hours.
After weeks of training, the event was suddenly upon us. The obligatory shakedown rides were completed, and the forecast was looking wet and cold. The mood in the apartment on the morning of event day was quiet, nervous anticipation was everywhere. We rolled down to the start line for wave two, feeling confident, and we were on!
The first descent was over quickly, and surprisingly not too cold. However, things were about to get worse, as the first raindrops started halfway up Tawonga Gap.
The descent on the other side was very wet, but the group stayed mostly together and reformed in the trains towards Harrietville, which were fast and helped us stay ahead of schedule. The quick stop was followed by the beast that is Mount Hotham, and we quickly caught Franco who had skipped the stop, and then lost him out the back again soon after. The climbing pace was steady, and we shared plenty of laughs, along with the continued calls of ‘ease up’. Mel likened my calls of ‘easy’ as though I was talking to a horse, which was both hilarious and true. The temperature dropped as we climbed through the clouds, and we crested the summit wet and shivering at three degrees.
The one-kilometre mud and gravel unsealed section to Dinner Plain had us covered in mud, which was quickly washed off by the rain. I couldn’t stop shivering at the lunch stop, and after jamming in two bananas and a Nutella wrap, Pete and I decided to push on ahead whilst the others were still eating. Another five minutes at the stop and I would have hypothermia, so I literally couldn’t wait, despite being 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
At this point, with the conditions so miserable, I couldn’t even envisage finishing, but the only solution was to push ahead and pray conditions would improve at Omeo. I felt between Pete and I, we had to give it our best shot at finishing under ten hours, as neither of us would be back next year.
We blasted out of Dinner Plains in the rain, picking up riders along the way and forming a train that continued all the way to Omeo. I was still shaking so badly that my handlebars were moving from side to side, and my teeth were chattering. The only solution was to grit my teeth and keep pedalling.
A quick agreement saw us skip the Omeo stop, as neither of us needed anything. Over the climb out of Omeo and forming another group of eight or so riders for the traverse to Anglers. At one point there was only three of us doing turns, so I politely asked some of the chatterboxers in the back to contribute, which thankfully they did, and this helped Pete and I immensely.
A quick stop at Anglers Rest to fix Pete’s loose saddle (you would think Peter would at least carry a tool by now, this not being the first time!). We rolled through to WTF Corner and had a chance to breath and check the time limit.
Yes! We were 24 minutes ahead of schedule, and resolved to keep concentrating to the end, and climb the back of Falls like we had a month ago. Don’t get complacent!
I started having a twinge in my left thigh up the climb but stretched this out of the saddle to manage it. Pete was a powerhouse up the climb, whilst I powered ahead on any flat or rolling terrain. Reaching Trapyard Gap, I excitedly pointed out to Pete that we had 1.5 hours to reach Falls Creek for sub ten hours, so we rewarded ourselves with a can of coke.
Pushing on over the top through the clouds, we could barely see the Mount Cope sign signalling all the climbing was done. Then the weather cleared, and we drilled it home, with a bright patch over Falls Creek beckoning us to the finish line.
With ten kilometres to the finish, I rolled to the front and took us all the back to the dam and up the climb. Pete asked me if I was ok, but I was having too much fun to roll off the front, we were going to make it in under ten hours!
I shed a tear down the final hill towards the finish line, all the training, sacrificing family time, early starts, planning, and strategising had come to fruition. Pete and I crossed the finish line together hand in hand, our sub ten goal smashed with a finish time of 9:33.
The rest of the AnT Farm crew pushed through the hazardous conditions and finished strongly. Paul powered home to dip under ten hours at his first attempt, while Ken unluckily punctured after Trapyard Gap and just missed a sub 10 finish. Mike and Nico B smashed their previous years’ time and finished together, and first timers David, Mark and Phivanh all pushed through the pain to record excellent finishing times.
Unfortunately, Mel had a touch of wheels and crashed out after Anglers Rest, missing her chance of a second consecutive sub ten-hour finish, but she was okay and will be back. Franco succumbed to the cold and wet at Dinner Plain, no longer able to change gears and retiring to the bus.
So, to anyone thinking of doing Peaks Challenge Falls Creek, the answer is always DO IT! You will have an unbelievable experience, friendships are strengthened, lifelong memories are made, and you will lift to heights you never thought attainable. I feel blessed to ride the with AnT Farm and have made lifelong friends and special memories, with many more to come.
The journey continues!