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7 Peaks – The Alpine Ascent Challenge is an initiative that encourage riders to conquer the climbs to all seven of Victoria’s alpine resorts in one season. While riders have roughly six months to complete the seven climbs, some riders have tried their hand at riding the climbs in a far shorter space of time. One such rider is Joel Nicholson, who recently took on all seven climbs in one truly epic 90-hour, 1,250km ride. This is the first part of Joel’s story.
The idea for a ‘non-stop’ 7 Peaks ride first sprang into my mind in late 2012, not long after completing my first 1200km Audax ride, the amazing Great Southern Randonnee. About the same time I was taking part in the inaugural Hells 500 7 Peaks Domestique Series which helped riders of all abilities take on the 7 Peaks. As a rider who loves both long-distance riding and climbing hills, the obvious logic would be to combine the two, right?
Many nights were spent in front of the computer, playing with maps and debating the various merits of different routes before I settled on the final course. I planned to start in Icy Creek and climb Mt. Baw Baw — my least favourite of the seven peaks — and then ride clockwise around the course, climbing the rest of the peaks in order: Lake Mountain, Mt. Buller, Mt. Buffalo, Falls Creek, Dinner Plain and, finally, Mt. Hotham, before returning to the starting point in Icy Creek.
In all, I calculated it to be about 1,260km with an unknown, but large, amount of climbing. Because I was familiar with the Audax style of long-distance riding, I decided to stick pretty closely to the rules and regulations that they use to govern their rides, in relation to lighting, the level of support permitted and the total time allowed. Based on the formulas used for Audax rides, I calculated I would have approximately 95 hours total to complete the 1,260km course.
The original plans were to attempt the ride in March or April of 2013, but other cycling projects kept getting in the way, so I set aside a week in late December, about a month after the Audax Sydney-Melbourne Alpine 1200km in November.
I arranged for two of my good friends, Lachlan and Olivia, to provide support for the first afternoon/night and my mother, Alison, to support me for the remainder of the ride. The aim was for the support car to leap-frog me throughout the ride, going ahead to sort out accommodation and only meeting me at set points on the course. So while I would be extremely well supported, there was to be no team car passing me ‘sticky bidons’ up the climbs.
As the day started to approach, I was getting seriously nervous, not so much about the distance because I had done plenty of long rides at this point, including three 1,000km+ rides in the previous year. I wasn’t convinced that I had fully recovered from the Sydney-Melbourne Alpine 1,200km the previous month and the idea of attempting to complete the equivalent of a 3 Peaks Challenge/Alpine Classic every day for several days in a row was seriously intimidating. But I always figure that a ride is not truly challenging unless there is a real chance of failure.
Finally, the day arrived and on Saturday December 14, I left Icy Creek at 4:10pm, following the winding road through Tanjil Bren and on to the slopes of Mt. Baw Baw. The conditions were perfect, cool and slightly overcast, and it turned out to be the most enjoyable ascent of Mt. Baw Baw I had ever had.
At the summit, I found my support crew enjoying an early dinner at the restaurant where I stopped to get my 7 Peaks passport stamped before returning to the support car for my lights and some warmer clothes.
There was still plenty of light on the descent but the sun started to set as I rode through Noojee on my way towards Yarra Junction which was my next rendezvous point with my support crew. I ate a light meal there before heading up the highway towards Warburton while my support crew turned towards Woori Yallock and Marysville, which was to be my stopping place for the night.
It was full dark as I rode through Warburton and started the climb up to the turn-off to the Acheron Way at Cement Creek, about halfway up Mt. Donna Buang.
The Acheron Way is one of my favourite sections of road in the area. It has about 15km of gravel, which is not ideal for road bikes, but I had ridden that section numerous times without a single issue so I wasn’t anticipating any problems. But, of course, disaster strikes when you aren’t expecting it.
Only a couple of kilometres along the Acheron Way, a sharp stick pierced the sidewall of my front tire, wrecking both tire and tube. This was not a huge issue as I always carry a spare tire and several tubes, so I was able to quickly get going again. The only problem was that I wasn’t able to get enough pressure into the tire with the mini-pump I was carrying, so I was very careful of avoiding bumps.
Sure enough, a couple of kilometres down the road, I hit a sharp corrugation and got a pinch flat. I used my last tube to repair this puncture and continued on my way, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised when, a few more kilometres down the road, I got yet another pinch flat.
In the middle of the night, out of tubes and in probably the only mobile phone dead-zone for the whole trip, there wasn’t much I could do but wait for my support crew to notice I was missing and to come looking for me. I huddled under a tree by the road and berated myself for my stupidity.
As I sat there, I realised that I had done a number of things wrong; first and foremost was attempting to descend a gravel road in the dark and then sending my support vehicle along a different route. Secondly, I had actually bought a new mini-pump but had not actually gotten around to swapping it for the one I was carrying; it was sitting on the front seat of my support vehicle in Marysville where it wasn’t much use to me.
Because I had a dedicated support vehicle, I had also lightened the load I normally carry on my bike during long-distance rides, so I was carrying only two spare tubes instead of my usual three.
In the end, I sat on the side of the road for two and a half hours in the cold and had pretty much resigned myself to the prospect of sleeping in a ditch for the night, when the lights of my support car appeared from around the corner. I don’t know who was more pleased to see the other; I was obviously happy that I was about to be rescued, but my support crew were extremely relieved to have finally found me safe and sound.
A quick wheel change and I was off, tentatively negotiating the remaining few kilometres of gravel with my support car following close behind. The excitement wasn’t quite over, however, because a feral deer jumped out of the bushes just in front of me, ran along the road for a for a bit, then swerved off the road only to leap out in front of me for a second time.
Kangaroos, wallabies and even wombats I was expecting but I had never seen a deer in the Yarra Ranges in all my time riding in the area, so nearly getting cleaned up by one was just a surreal ending to an already disastrous night.
A couple of hours shivering in the cold on the side of the road had done my legs no favours, so I really struggled up the couple of sharp little climbs coming into Marysville, finally rolling into the caravan park after 3am. My original plan was to ascend Lake Mountain that night, but my unexpected rest stop killed all my enthusiasm for that plan, so I had a late dinner and went to bed, having covered a measly 182km.
The following morning, after only a couple of hours sleep, I got back on the road ready to tackle Lake Mountain and try to make up some lost time. Unfortunately, the caravan park in Marysville is right at the base of the climb, so I had a solid 70 metres of warm-up before hitting the very tough initial section of the climb.
With dead legs and low motivation it was probably one of my most unenjoyable climbs of Lake Mountain ever and there was no pleasure or sense of achievement when I got to the top. It was just another peak to cross off the list and I was many hours (and kilometres) behind schedule.
On the way though town, I stopped back at the caravan park for a second breakfast and to say goodbye to Lachlan and Olivia, who were going to pass on support duties to my mother, Alison, later in the day.
It was dead roads and headwinds all the way to Mansfield and, rather than making up time, I seemed to be losing it. I was getting increasingly disheartened as I watched the ride slip away from me.
I have found that the second day of any multi-day rides is always the hardest for me; all the strength and fresh enthusiasm has been used up on the first day but it takes a while to come to terms with that fact. By the third day, it just comes down to endurance and I start to realise that I can’t just power up climbs like I expect to or grind a big gear into the headwind. So eventually I start to ride accordingly which, strangely, often makes the third day of big rides the best.
In this particular case, the normal woes of the second day were compounded by a lack of sleep, poor progress and a terrible mental outlook. When I plan a ride, I always have an aim or best-case schedule and a worst-case schedule and, if my progress is somewhere in the middle, I am happy and generally maintain a positive outlook.
In the rare cases that I fall outside my worst-case schedule, I slip into a pretty negative head-space and start to think of excuses to pull out of the ride. It was the middle of the afternoon when my mum caught up with me at the base of Mt. Buller and I was sitting at the little cafe, hot, exhausted and utterly disheartened by the fact that I was hours behind even my worst-case schedule. To be honest, I was really ready to throw in the towel.
I climbed Mt. Buller easily, and rather enjoyed myself, but couldn’t face the fact that I would have over 200km of riding to do that evening if I was to get anywhere near my schedule again. I said as much to Mum and told her that I would descend the mountain then pack up the bike and go home. But she encouraged me to ride back to Mansfield, get some accommodation in town and re-evaluate the situation in the morning.
On the way down Mt. Buller and back into Mansfield, I crunched the numbers in my head and, with a drastic change of plans to use the full 95 hours available to me, I calculated that I could still realistically complete the ride. So, after 250km for the day, I went to bed that night after a good meal feeling a lot more positive and ready to get cracking again the following morning.
I got back on the road at 5am and the 60km from Mansfield to Benalla was a perfect morning to be on a bike; it was cool, still and I was feeling good, both physically and psychologically. A quick bakery stop in Benalla and I was on the road towards Glenrowan, riding parallel to the Hume Freeway.
The day was starting to heat up and a bit of a headwind was starting to wear me down, but I plodded along through Glenrowan and then south through Milawa and Myrtleford before joining up with the Great Alpine Road. I stopped at Porepunkah for a meal and a solid rehydration session before tackling peak #4, Mt. Buffalo.
At this stage, I had about 170 surprisingly flat kilometres in the legs for the day and quite a bit more to go, so I was determined to take it very easy up Mt. Buffalo to conserve my strength for later. The previous two times I had climbed Mt. Buffalo I had been riding right on the rivet and suffered horribly, so it was a pleasant change just to cruise up this time and enjoy the amazing scenery that the mountain has to offer.
At the top, I refilled my bidons at the support car and then descended back down the mountain, through Porepunkah to Bright for another small meal before heading off towards Mt. Beauty and Falls Creek.
Between Bright and Falls Creek, of course, is the infamous Tawonga Gap, one of the few topographical features that inspires pure hatred in me. It is not particularly long or even that steep, it is just a pointless obstacle for cyclists on their way between the real climbs, and on a hot day with nearly 250km in the legs, it was painful.
As I sat rehydrating in Mt. Beauty, I tried not to remember that pure agony Falls Creek had inflicted upon me earlier in the year during the 3 Peaks Challenge and tried to psyche myself up for the last climb of the day.
It was late afternoon when I started the climb and it was a very toasty 34 degrees C at the base, but by the time I arrived at the top, the sun had set and the temperature had dropped considerably to 14 degrees C. I just cruised slowly up the climb, nursing my tired legs into the Falls Creek Village before turning around and descending a few kilometres to the YMCA hostel where we had booked last-minute accommodation for the night.
300km done for the day, two peaks conquered (plus Tawonga Gap) and I was finally starting to feel that the ride was back under control.