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Last Sunday approximately 1,500 Australian cyclists ventured into the Victorian Alps to conquer what’s known as “The 3 Peaks”. Bicycle Victoria did an outstanding job at organising the event and making sure everything ran smoothly.
When spending +10hrs on a bike there are a lot of things that run through your head. Food and warmth were in the forefront of my mind, however there was one other thing that I was thinking about: How would this course compare to a stage in the Tour de France?
Well, obviously I’ve never raced a stage in the TdF, but I was fortunate enough to ride L’Etape last summer. For those of you unfamiliar, L’Etape is a sportif organised by the ASO every year where 10,000 keen cyclists get to ride a stage of the Tour de France on closed roads a couple days before the real TdF comes through. The 2010 edition of L’Etape was the same route as stage 17 when Contador and Schleck battled it up the Tourmalet.
After thinking about it, there were a lot of similarities between these two routes. Both had three mountain passes and both were approximately the same distance if you included the descent from the Tourmalet (which would have equated to the descent from Falls Creek, but in a different order). The 3 Peaks Challenge had nearly 3600m of climbing (I’m not sure how BV arrived at 5334m), and the 2010 L’Etape had about 4400m of climbing.
So how would the 3 Peaks compare?
Climbing Categories Explained
It’s probably relevant to explain the basics of how the UCI categorises the climbs used in races. It is a subjective rating that takes into account the elevation gain, gradient, and distance of the climb.
- 4th Category – the lowest category, climbs of 70-150m. Length usually less that 3km
- 3rd Category – climbs of 150-500m. Between 3km and 4.5km in length.
- 2nd Category – climbs of 500-800m. Between 4.5km and 10km in length.
- 1st Category – climbs of 800-1500m. Between 10km and 20km in length
- Hors Category – the hardest, climbs of 1500m+. Usually more than 20km in length
3 Peaks – Tawonga Gap – Mt Hotham – Falls Creek
I have to admit, this was probably the toughest day I’d ever spent on a bike. By the time we descended to Mt Beauty and it was pouring cats and dogs, I knew we were in for a long day.
Tawonga Gap was the first climb of the day and the legs barely had a chance to warm up by the time we hit the base of it. Tawonga is just a little speed hump compared to a Grand Tour climb. It would be classified as a category 2 climb. It wouldn’t even register on Phil Liggett’s radar. He’d still be talking about 15th century castles and Gabriel Gaté would be showing us how to make double-chocolate butter pastries. That said, I managed to use every single cog in my 26T cassette to get over Tawonga Gap comfortably.
The next climb was Mt Hotham. I suspect Hotham would be considered a HC climb. I had many ups and downs and was contemplating pulling out half way up Hotham (yes, the easy part!). It was pouring raid out, the fog was so thick that you couldn’t see the rider in front of you, and the air was cold and damp. Things weren’t going well for me physically and I was looking at my distance of 80km thinking it would be much shorter to turn around and ride back home to Falls Creek. Fortunately there was a dry set of clothes and some real food waiting at Dinner Plain so I decided to go for the more immediate gratification. I’m glad I got talked into pushing on until the end.
I’ve ridden Mt Hotham many times and can confidently say that it’s just as challenging as most of the legendary climbs in Europe that I’ve experienced. Mt Hotham can be demoralising. As familiar as I am with this mountain, it seems that I always get tricked into thinking it’s almost over until I turn the next corner. It’s a tricky climb because there are so many places you can put yourself into the red and forget that a thougher pitch is waiting for you around the bend.
The final climb in the 3 Peaks is Falls Creek. It hits you like a sucker punch in the face. The first 10km has nearly a 10% gradient and I swear people were walking past me quicker that I was riding. The climb deceives you into thinking that the ride is almost over, but it’s still a hell of a long way to the finish. Because of the distance and steepness, this climb would probably be considered a HC climb even though the elevation gain is only ~1000m. Damn, it’s tough…
The climb up Tawonga Gap – Image by www.bicyclephotos.com.au
The climb up Mt Hotham
The climb up Falls Creek
Nick Mitchell crushed the 230km course in less than 8hrs! Image by www.bicyclephotos.com.au
2010 L’Etape – Col de Marie-Blanque – Col du Soulor – Col du Tourmalet
This was the route used in Stage 17 of last year’s Tour de France. A few days before there were 10,000 cyclists who got to ride these closed roads. From what I remember, the rider who completed this route in the fastest time was only 15 minutes slower than Contador and Schleck in Stage 17. Out of everyone who started this ride, 3,000 did not finish. It was and extremely tough day in very hot temperatures.
I won’t go through my whole experience with this ride (you can read that here and my friend Tim’s write-up here). The only thing I’ll say about it is that it was one of the best days I’ve ever experienced on a bike. It’s tough to directly compare it to the 3 Peaks course simply because of the way I was feeling, however there are many similarities in the features of the terrain (considering that the first 30km of the 3 Peaks course was descending).
The Col de Marie-Blanque is a category 1 climb. Your legs are still fresh but it can get quite steep in sections. The Col du Soulor is rated HC and climbs for ~25kms. I didn’t find it to be a difficult climb as there weren’t many changes in gradient and you could maintain a steady rhythm. The Col du Tourmalet is categorised as HC and is the highest road in the central Pyrenees. It’s absolutely spectacular – but extremely tough. Just like this past weekend on the Falls Creek climb, many people were walking their bikes on the Tourmalet. It completely broke some people. However, there’s not much of a choice but to get up and over, because no one is driving you home.
Col du Soulor
Col du Tourmalet about 5km from the top
Col du Tourmalet almost at the top
There’s no doubt that I found the 3 Peaks course more difficult that the 2010 L’Etape. However, it’s not necessarily an apples to apples comparison. Everyone at the 3 Peaks had to contend with horrible weather for the first half which made things difficult. I think one of the other major things that make the 3 Peaks so mentally challenging is the sheer vastness and isolation of the terrain. There aren’t all the little towns and visual stimulation that you would get in Europe to break things up to make more manageable.
The one thing that you can’t forget is that the TdF hit these massive mountain stages near the end of 3 weeks of racing. There are often 2 or 3 mountain stages on back-to-back days and the pros aren’t stopping for pasta salad at the half-way mark. They are absolutely smashing every one of those climbs and most riders have already had 2-3 crashes from the previous weeks. It’s unbelievable how well conditioned these professional riders are and what they put their bodies through.
The great thing about a ride like the 3 Peaks is that it will completely drain every single rider who completes it. Some riders like Nick Mitchell may do it in less than 8 hours, but he was just as shattered as the guys who did it in 13hrs. Everyone will have the same types of stories to tell and the same ups and downs. The astounding thing about the pros riding the Grand Tours is that they’ll wake up and do it all again the next day. I couldn’t possibly imagine…