Bicycle Network’s Peaks Challenge Falls Creek is one of the most highly anticipated events in the Australian cycling calendar. The event itself is distinctively not a race, but a challenge, with the nature of the challenge intrinsic to each rider.
With the challenge set to take place on the 11th of March 2018 in the Victorian high country, there’s still plenty of time to build your base fitness and get in shape to take on one of the country's most prestigious cycling challenges.
Riders will traverse 235km through the Victorian High Country, clocking up an impressive elevation gain of over 4000m. Thousands of determined cyclists will descend off Falls Creek, tackle the likes of Tawonga Gap, Mt Hotham, and return via the backside of Falls Creek, one of the most brutal and revered of the mountainside climbs the High Country has to offer.
For detailed information on the route jump across to the Bicycle Network website.
Whether it is smashing personal records or simply accomplishing a hard, yet satisfying day out on the bike - Peaks Challenge Falls Creek rewards all cyclists with good company and a common objective.
For some, it is a matter of completing the course within the 13 hour time cut to be considered an ‘official’ Peaks Challenge finisher, for others, it is simply to test their legs with the monstrous day of climbing. Finally, for riders with an innate white line fever, going for the fastest time or somewhere within that realm is the ultimate ambition.
We spoke to a Peaks enthusiast, a cycling coach and a past Peaks ride leader to get their take on how riders can best prepare and what to expect out there on the day.
In an ideal world, we would all love to be spending more time riding and recovering and not working. The reality is we have to find a balance and fit in training around our other priorities. Do not stress, it is possible to achieve an increase in fitness with some smart planning.
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With just shy of four months remaining to lay out a plan, you can be sure that come March 2018, if your preparation is executed well, you will get the best out of yourself on the day. We sought the expertise of cycling coach Oscar Stevenson from HPtek to get the lowdown on training and preparation.
A former pro-continental cyclist, a previous winner of Tour of Bright (which sees a race up Hotham and Tawonga, the same roads as Peaks!), Stevenson addresses how specificity of training can be the difference between just ‘riding heaps’ and riding with a goal like Peaks in mind.
“For an event such as Peaks Challenge, being 235km and 4000m+ of climbing, specificity is a serious consideration. For an event such as this a gradual build up over a few months leading into game day is key, aiming to get as much climbing in as possible is a great general aim.”
However, don’t expect that smashing out a couple of big, long rides in the hills means the work is done...
“Consistency is the key here, not necessarily just day to day, but as part of a broader plan, meaning week to week and month to month your aim should be to get out on your bike consistently, rather than 300km one week, followed by 20km the next”, advises Stevenson.
If creating a plan or even sticking to one combined with a busy lifestyle is somewhat of a challenge, considering a cycling coach is a fantastic idea. A coach not only aids in preparation, they keep you accountable and ensure you are recovering when you are supposed to be. Nailing both of these is sure to make Peaks Challenge a team effort, which is easier than toughing it solo!
“A good coach offers a tailored program to the individual athlete, taking into account their previous history, work/family/life constraints and of course the athletes' goals. Once this has all been taken into account then a program can be put in place to allow the greatest improvement in the time available” explains Stevenson.
“By having a coach tailor the program to the individual you are really able to get the most out of your time, not only through specific session and a broader program but also having a close coach-athlete relationship allows the coach to undertake a ‘mentor’ role as well, providing advice and motivation where needed, whilst also holding back some enthusiasm at times.”
Much like other high-demand endurance sports, it should come as no surprise to learn that many athletes cram and overtrain for an event like Peaks. Having a coach checking in, telling them to get off the bike and take some time for the training to take effect is just as effective as putting in the hard sessions;
Stevenson stresses that “recovery is when most of your training adaptation occurs so it is hugely important! Often recovery is overlooked within a program, this doesn't always mean putting your feet up all day after your session but includes factors such as nutrition (pre, during and post-exercise), ensuring adequate sleep and being aware of how your day to day life will affect your recovery and therefore your training.“
Skills to Polish
As well as building up the engine, consider oiling the whole machine with a brush up on bike-handling skills that will come in handy during the event. It’s important to take into account that you’ll be spending a whole day in the mountains with thousands of other fatiguing riders with varying skill levels and are likely to face unpredictable weather shifts.
Below are a few skills we recommend polishing up on in the weeks leading up to the event;
- Bike-Handling Skills:
Endurance training is one thing, but refining your skills on the road bike for an event in the mountains will reduce your risk of crashing and instill confidence. Practice braking correctly into corners, relaxing your hands on the bars when climbing and looking over your shoulder while keeping your bike in a straight line.
Peaks begins with a descent straight off the bat down Falls Creek from the village. You will roll out in the dark, it will likely be cold, and many riders will still be bleary-eyed. If you want to be a great climber, you need to also be a capable descender to make it count! Putting some practice time into smooth confident handling on the descents is paramount. Here are a few descending tips to help you get started.
- Riding in a group:
Riding in a group means you can take a turn riding in the ‘slipstream’ of other riders. This reduces your aerodynamic drag and means you have to do less work to ride the same speed. However, this requires you to ride close to the rider in fronts’ wheel, and perhaps bar to bar with the rider next to you if you are riding two-abreast.
Over a long day, riding in a group will be helpful, not only with conserving energy but having support from fellow riders and someone to talk to (when you are not breathing heavily!).
Riding in a group is a skill that needs practice. The best way to do this if you have not ridden in a group before is to find a local cycling club with organised rides, or recruit a bunch of mates (perhaps even Peaks training buddies) to go out and practice with you.
When it comes to the day, you may naturally find yourself in a group, or you might aim to stick with a certain group at your comfortable speed.
Focus on Equipment
Dan Bonello races at continental level with St George Continental Racing Team and has many years under his belt competing atop of the domestic scene. Additionally, long, gruelling rides with an affinity for hard climbs is how this man likes to spend his weekends, so it’s no wonder six times Peaks finisher has raised his hand to return for the 2018 edition without question.
His insight and prior experience gained through working as a mechanic at Peaks Challenge gave us reasonable grounds to ask him to share some wisdom regarding equipment worth considering when tackling the Peaks Challenge.
Dan Bonello first across the line in 2016.
When asked about his preparation, Bonello advised that the most certain thing you can do to give yourself the best chance for a smooth day is ensure your equipment is a) appropriate and b) maintained.
“I take my race bike, which is by default a lightweight road bike, equipped with Shimano Dura-Ace Di2”, shares Bonello. Pre-Peaks, the main thing is to make sure I have got a new chain and cassette on there, brake pads at a useable level, a good set of tyres and a charged battery”.
You owe it to yourself after the physical preparation you’ll have put in to have the bike meticulously dialled. “People put a lot of time an prep into these events so to have your equipment let you down would be disappointing” admits Bonello.
If you are using Peaks Challenge as an excuse to spruce up the current bike or even consider a new one, Bonello suggests “choosing durability in your components over crazy light weights.” Sure, a lighter bike will mean less to push up the hill, but something that will last the many training kilometres, as well as the long haul on the day, will be more favourable.
If you are getting some new equipment, saddle, wheels, or even a whole new bike, make sure you have given it some hours prior to the day. You want to make sure you have your fit dialled so that you can comfortably rely on that equipment, and feel confident with the handling.
So what other equipment considerations?
If you are spending this long on a bicycle, you are going to be a lot more comfortable in cycling specific clothing. We are talking padded lycra shorts (or ‘knicks’), and a cycling jersey. These items are designed to be breathable, flexible and somewhat aerodynamic.
Choose a kit you know you will be comfortable in, a chamois you trust, shoes that have been worn in and had the cleat position set up properly. If you can, it is worth even getting a ‘bike fit’ in the lead up to Peaks to make sure you have the best position to avoid injury and climb efficiently. Find a good pair of gloves to relieve pressure on your palms as well as wick sweat during the long day on the bike.
Peaks Challenge kicks off with a 32km descent straight down from Falls Creek alpine village, so you will be cold. “The fact that it is one big loop through the mountains means it’s hard to simply check the weather app and expect consistency,” says Bonello, who suggests taking a light spray jacket that can fit in your pocket or be stashed with the incredibly useful Bag Valet organised by Bicycle Network. Plan ahead to have a spare gilet or warmer jacket in a musette at the Bag Valet at Dinner Plain if you think you could be caught in the elements.
Peaks Challenge is supported, with access to mechanical assistance on course.
Bicycle Network advise, “We have 3 mobile mechanics who can replace most parts at a specific cost, although stock is not infinite. In the past wheels have been replaced, and other mechanical issues such as derailleur failure etc. They [the mobile mechanics] sit between the first and last rider.”
However, have your own back covered by taking some basic spares; Bonello advises “keeping it light and lowkey with just the essentials to get you going again. I take a small saddle bag with 1 x tubes, 2 x cannisters, a c02 inflator, a basic multi-tool and a tyre lever, which will leave you with room in your pockets for more food.”
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- Make a List:
As the months lead into days before the event, it helps to make a list. Check off changes and maintenance to perform on your bike, as well as items to bring on the day. That way you are accountable and nothing goes forgotten. Everyone knows someone who forgot to bring shoes to a race, misplaced their Di2 battery or left their front wheel behind!
Over the course of an event like the Peaks Challenge, carrying food is going to be required.
“It is easy enough to plan ahead with some sandwiches or rice cakes, as well as good old-fashioned muesli bars and bananas. Take advantage of the bag valet service for this as well” is Bonello’s tip for staying fueled during Peaks.
The important thing is not to try any new nutrition products or foods on the day. Try your gel or bar of choice at least once in training! Check out our guide to cycling nutrition for a break down of how you can plan ahead and avoid the dreaded hunger bonk.
On The Day - Keeping going when the going gets tough
You have done the work, checked off the list and booked into the accommodation, now all that you have to do is pin on the number and ride, right? Not necessarily - when the going gets tough it can take some extra motivation to keep the legs turning.
2016 Peaks Challenge ride leader and decorated ultra-distance cyclist Sarah Hammond knows all too well the mental challenges that long, physically taxing rides can have on your ability or desire to want to finish. “The key thing is to remind yourself [to] keep moving and minimise breaks.”
When your body is fatigued and mentally you want to give up, the desire to pull over, sit down and have a hearty meal is often overwhelming, this only makes it the little bit harder to get back on the bike and keep pedalling. Hammond recalls extended lunch breaks being the Achilles heel of a few riders who may have otherwise completed the challenge, had they kept the body warm and pushed on.
The psychological momentum is just as important as the physical, and an extended ‘rest stop’ threatens to put a halt to both.
Whatever is nudging you to give Peaks Challenge Falls Creek a go, say yes to it. With the right preparation and a bit of grit, the Challenge can be seen through by cyclists of all abilities - we will see you in the High Country next March!
Promotional imagery courtesy of Bicycle Network