• Jason Downes

11/52: Third time's a charm (ride report)

If at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again.

Over the long weekend I drove up to Falls Creek, along with David Heaney & Alex Woolley, to attempt a sub 10-hour finish on one of the hardest non-professional bicycle races in the country - Peaks Challenge Falls Creek, aka the '3 Peaks'. Over the last six years I've been training at varying levels of intensity and in that time I've completed the 3 Peaks ride twice, but I've never been able to break the 10-hour barrier - for the record, I finished with 10h:18m in 2016 and 10h:19m in 2018...so close!


This year I was looking forward to the ride but I really had my doubts about coming even close to my previous times. With 4500m of climbing and 235km distance, every extra kg of weight matters and I wasn’t as trim as I had been in 2016 or 2018! Whilst I've been training a similar amount and I'd made a few adjustments (such as using an indoor trainer), overall I just didn't think I was going in with a better chance than previous years.

For those not familiar, the ride runs on a Sunday departing Falls Creek village down to Mt Beauty, over Tawonga Gap (Peak 1), along to Harrietville and then up Mt Hotham (Peak 2), past Dinner Plain and down into Omeo. Finally, you cycle up to Anglers Rest before the final assault up the back of Falls Creek (Peak 3) and a triumphant return to the Falls Creek Village.


During the rider briefing on Saturday afternoon, it became clear that the weather may not be on our side with a forecast of a 4 degree start with rain and fog on Mt Hotham. Not ideal and clothing choices would be critical. Lee Turner, one of the Bicycle Network pace riders (10 hrs) lightened the mood - "If you're struggling up the hills, just hit your legs and yell 'Bang!' and keep pedalling. If that doesn't work, hit 'em again and yell 'Bang, Bang!' and just keep pedalling!" Sage advice.


Sunday morning arrived and a thick fog had descended on the mountain. The BOM let me know the score: "4 degrees but Feels like 1.1 degrees". In the village bike lights penetrated the mist and created an eerie scene until over 1300 riders were lined up, silent and shivering, waiting for their wave to be called through.




I was with Dave and Alex on the start line and we wished each other a safe ride and the best of luck for a strong finish...and then we were off.


The first 30km is a descent of Falls Creek towards Mt Beauty, and given it was still dark, foggy and really cold, most riders were being very careful in the early stages. Within 5km, by the Falls Creek entrance gate, daylight had broken and the fog had cleared and importantly, the road was dry. Concentration pushed out the cold and made way for an enjoyable but careful descent. In Mt Beauty, the newly created 'clothes drop' ( a trailer) was quickly overflowing with discarded rain jackets, gilets and other clothing paraphernalia. I chose to take off my trusty yellow rain jacket and stuffed it in my pocket for later use. 


I felt relaxed as I turned left onto the Tawonga Gap climb and unlike 2018, I was determined not to get caught up with the passing 10-hour group that would push me beyond my comfort zone. A look at Strava showed it was my slowest 3Peaks Tawonga climb (1 min slower), but my heart rate was the lowest. This was definitely part of my plan – stay in my comfort zone as long as possible.


The ride to Harrietville saw me join a large peloton, and while it was a bit shambolic, it certainly got me there a lot faster than riding solo. A 2 min stop for water and a fistful of chocolate brownie before beginning Mt Hotham. Eating was the second critical part of my plan for the day, after comfort zone, and I made a real effort to keep eating. By this stage I'd already had half a Turkish bread with ham, a Winners bar and a chocolate brownie, plus plenty of electrolytes and water.


Edging towards 'The Meg' I found my zone and concentrated on holding a steady amount of power without fixating on cadence, speed or HR. Whenever I could grab a wheel I would and before I knew it, I was in the final, brutal stage of the Hotham climb.

Drizzle and a heavy fog hung over the mountain and I could see many riders were really struggling with the cold. Mentally, I was focussed on the next section of the ride – it would be cold on any descent so I'd need my rain jacket. Did I have enough food and water to skip the Dinner Plain stop and head on to Omeo?


I took a brief moment to enjoy the completion of the climb and then pulled over just past the tunnel to put my rain jacket on. Now was a good time to go as fast as possible and I didn't want to get cold. More Turkish bread and then speeding towards Dinner Plain. I made the decision to roll on and in doing this I was able to get in front of the 10-hour pace group – a move I hoped would pay off later. Unlike previous years there was a 2km and a 300m stretch of dirt (due to road repairs) that covered us all in mud. Memories of the dirt section in the Giro della Donna came back to me.


A PR on 'Where for art though Omeo?' and before I knew it I was passing the famous Golden Gate Hotel - I don’t think the publican recognised me! Toilet stop, more cake, oranges and energy gels. It was now time to do some maths and figure out if sub 10 was achievable.

Just outside Omeo I was struggling to work out how fast I'd need to average over the next 80kms when the 10-hour pace group rolled past. This was it, time to leave the comfort zone.  Lee and Ali of Bicycle Network were setting a great pace up the hill toward Anglers and I managed to sit on the group right through to the Blue Duck Inn. At times we were sitting on 45km/h as we wound our way along the road with the Mitta Mitta flowing fast to our right. This is always the best part of the ride and never more so than on this occasion.


After a 1 minute stop, I shot off towards WTF once again leaving the 10-hour group at the rest stop. Unfortunately, I witnessed a nasty fall where tyres touched and right in front of me a cyclist hit the road hard on her face. Very quickly she had a group with her and I later learnt that while she had a badly cut up face and broken helmet, motorbike medics arrived within 5   minutes. It was a testament to a very well-organised event that support can be so fast at hand.


As I turned left on the famous WFT corner an aptly dressed grim reaper greeted us and wished us well. Light relief for the struggle ahead. At this point, I had some hope. In previous years I'd cramped, sometimes severely, before getting to WTF. This year, however, I had been cramp-free. I'm guessing this was a result of riding 'in my zone', lower temperatures and a better nutrition plan (check out 'Bloks' by Clif bars – sensational energy chews that are easy to eat).


5km into the climb and I was going steady, not fast, but much faster than previous years with only a few minor cramps. At this point I heard a shout in the distance behind me - "Bang!" then a pause and 10 second later "Bang! Bang!". Lee Turner and the 10 hour group were not far behind me – more cause for inspiration. As Lee passed me I asked him if he thought I could make it. "You have 90 minutes to go 30km – you can do it mate. Try and get to Trapyard Gap by 3:45pm and you'll have a good chance."


I inched up that horrible pinch just before Trapyard Gap and realised I was very close. Should I stop for the cold coke and possibly lose 2 mins? No way! I sped past Trapyard Gap, Lee Turner and the 10 hour bunch at 3:47pm with a real sense of hope.


With each kilometre the mental maths started to play in my favour - 20km to go - Average 28km/h. 15km to go – average 25km/h - All the while the gradient played in my favour. By the time I was 12km from the end nothing was going to stop me...except the very real threat of a mechanical. Strewn by the roadside were poor souls shaking with the cold and desperately trying to fix flat tyres. Please cycling gods, don't let me get a flat!


Over the last 10km I averaged 37km/h and flew across the dam wall and up the last rise like it wasn't there. With a careful guidance down the last hill and onto the finishing stretch I was sure I'd done it – despite the large timer at the finish line stating 10:00:25 (thanks to the fact I'd departed in the second wave).


I FaceTimed my wife Tamsin while waiting to get my official time when Helen, Dave's partner came running up - "Jason, you finished in 9 hours and 52 minutes exactly." She held up the official time from the website on her phone so I could see it for myself.


The pressure of the day released a flood of emotion and I could feel the tears welling up. I can't begin to describe how happy and proud this news made me. After giving up on the prospect of ever reaching my sub-10 hour goal I now had it. Maybe it means very little in the big scheme of things, but at that moment, I felt like I'd just won a gold medal at the Olympics.


Six years of training with a fixation on one simple goal. Third time's a charm.



Whilst this is an account of my own journey, I was absolutely delighted for David Heaney (my buddy who joined Martinis in Bright this year). With only 6 weeks of preparation, David finished in 11:17. Never have I met a Peaks finisher more proud to own that jersey!


backed up his recent good form with a blistering result: 9h 23m. Alex was a great source of information and inspiration for me in the last few weeks. Thanks Alex and congrats again mate on an outstanding ride.

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