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 far more quickly.
One such rider is Joel Nicholson, who took on all seven climbs in one truly epic 90-hour, 1,250km ride. This is the second and final part of Joel’s story, which we pick up with Joel at the YMCA hostel at Falls Creek after 732km of riding.
The next morning I woke up feeling good (well, as good as can be expected) but I was nervous about the ride ahead; it was to be the longest yet and would be the deciding point on whether or not I would finish within my proposed time limit of 95 hours.
I knew that if I got over the last two peaks and all the way through to Bairnsdale, the ride was pretty much in the bag, but that any stumble or moment of weakness would probably result in failure and falling outside the 95 hour goal.
I left the summit of Falls Creek at about 5:30am heading towards Omeo. Dawn was just breaking and the ride past the lake and along the plateau was beautiful but descending the infamous Back of Falls was far less enjoyable.
With a rough, occasionally gravelly surface, steep grades and plenty of wildlife rustling in the bushes, the descent was exciting but I was certainly glad when it was over and I joined the Omeo Highway.
All the way into Omeo, there were kangaroos and wallabies hopping around everywhere and I had to be really on my toes to avoid any incidents.
Once in Omeo, I stopped for a huge, bacon-filled second breakfast to prepare myself for the longest climb of the ride (42km) and the second-to-last peak: Dinner Plain.
Heading out of Omeo, the first couple of sharp climbs made me realise that I had stopped too long in town and let my legs stiffen up too much. This was the start of the worst section of the whole ride — Dinner Plain is a long slog on dead roads at the best of times, but with heavy legs it was pure spirit-sapping torture.
It took more than two hours for me to finally make it to the resort at the top of the climb and I was starting to worry about falling behind schedule, which was something that I couldn’t afford at this late stage. I still had the Hotham climb and a very long ride into Bairnsdale still ahead of me.
To make matters worse, there were still a few more kilometres of tough climbing to go until I passed the Mt. Hotham Alpine Resort and began the descent down to Harrietville.
At the bottom, I had a decent lunch break and then turned around to tackle Mt. Hotham, the very last peak of the ride.
I was feeling far better than I did on Dinner Plain and I quickly settled into a steady tempo to tap out the first few kilometres of the climb. Before long I had rounded the steep section known as The Meg and was on the false-flat section of the climb.
Here the temperature was increasing and a slight headwind had blown up, but I plodded along to the end of the false-flat where I had arranged for my support crew to meet me for a quick water stop.
Suitably refreshed, I started the last leg of the climb, passing the old tollgate and climbing up on to the ridge, where the wind started to batter me even more.
I have always found that Mt. Hotham is more of a psychological challenge than a physical one and this applies especially to the pinches on the last section of the climb, namely CRB Hill and the Diamantina, both of which are not quite as tough as they look as you approach them.
At the top of the Diamantina, the road curved around and I was able to see the small reservoir up the road to my left, signalling the end of the climb. I rolled down through the tunnel and into the Hotham village to finish the seventh of the 7 Peaks, in 71 hours 21 minutes from the base of the first climb.
There wasn’t much time for celebration, however, because I still had more than 170km to go until I reached my next, and final, sleep stop in Bairnsdale.
I cruised down Dinner Plain then fought my way into the ever increasing headwind down to Omeo and on to Swifts Creek for a quick bite to eat. Night started to fall as I left Swifts Creek following the Great Alpine Road as it winds its way along the river valley.
Fortunately, the wind was slightly behind me at this point and, if it wasn’t exactly helping me, it wasn’t really hindering me either. In the dark, the road just dragged on and on with absolutely no energy left in my legs, but I couldn’t stop because I knew that if I did, I would never make it back to Icy Creek before the 95 hour cut-off.
At one point, an extremely large deer jumped out of the bushes at me and I struggled to tell if it was real or just a product of my delirious state of mind. Eventually though, I passed through the town of Bruthen, which was a bit of a mental milestone, and started the last few kilometres into Bairnsdale where we had booked a cabin in the caravan park for the night.
I arrived at the cabin at about midnight after the longest day of the ride: 365km and around 5,400m of climbing.
The next morning I dragged myself out of bed and got back on the road at 5am for the final 187km back to Icy Creek. The roads were fairly familiar to me as I had done many Audax rides in the area and the all the conditions were reasonably favourable. I made good time to my first stop at the Stratford Bakery for my usual cycling feast of jelly-slice and ginger beer.
My mum caught up with me again at Heyfield for a quick chat before proceeding to Yallourn North for the final rest stop of the ride. Up until this point, the terrain had been pretty flat and I was feeling surprisingly strong but the sharp little climb into Yallourn North completely knocked the stuffing out of me.
After thousands and thousands of metres of climbing up the highest roads in Victoria, a little pinch into a little town had me on the ropes!
The final 50km section back to Icy Creek was tough, steadily climbing but with lots of ups and downs that ruined my rhythm. Willow Grove Road was the final approach to the Mt. Baw Baw Tourist Road and, under normal circumstances, would probably be a very pleasant climb but at this point it was just a rough, torturous winding little road through the forest that just never seemed to end.
Finally, I did reach the end, turned on to the Mt. Baw Baw Tourist Road and started the last few kilometres up into Icy Creek. A few little climbs later, I crested the last hill and descended into Icy Creek, at 1:10pm, having ridden 1,285.2km with 17,514m of climbing, an average speed 25.2km and a total time of 93 hours.
I was completely shattered.
Hands down, this was the most demanding ride of my life – both physically and mentally – and it is hard to accurately compare it to another ride (a Paris-Brest-Paris but with 7,000m more climbing? Several 3 Peaks Challenges back-to-back?).
The mechanical issues of the first night got me off to a terrible start, forcing a huge rethink of the whole ride and nearly made me give up on the second day, while the heat, climbing and relentlessly long days in the saddle really took their toll over the following few days.
But there is no greater feeling than successfully completing a challenge that you have set for yourself.
The ride wouldn’t have been possible without my support crew, Lachlan and Olivia for the first day and night, and my mum, Alison, for the remaining days. A special thanks to my clothing sponsor, Hells 500, for the much-needed new knicks I received before the ride.
The dozens of ‘likes’, comments and messages from the people following my ride on Facebook and the SPOT tracker were also a huge source of support and encouragement.