“You can say that climbers suffer the same as other riders, but they suffer in a different way. You feel the pain, but you’re glad to be there.” Richard Virenque
Think brutal. Thirteen hours to cycle 235kms with 4,600m climbing. All for a jersey. If not, you don’t get one. Both harsh and fair, you have to earn it.
Hello Three Peaks Challenge.
Gifted with unrelenting nausea, I taste fear. Constantly pushing self-doubt away, saying out loud you’ve got this G. Not helped by my arrival at the lodge to many pro-riders talking tactics for a sub 8-hour finish.
Did I say I want to throw up?
At the start, I meet a woman, her first time too. The whole ride we pass each other, offering words of encouragement. She later writes on my Strava feed, how about the Alpine 320kms next? My kind of person. Brave. And damn it, now she’s planted a seed.
Jumping on bunches where I can, I make good time. I climb Mt Hotham, comforted by seeing people I know. A stop is enough time for the toilet, water and to shove a sandwich down.
No table manners required.
The scenery is spectacular. Majestic. How small I feel. Being out here does something for my soul in ways the city life never does. Give me the challenge of endurance, it’s why I ride and hike.
Slow on climbing, I just keep spinning. My descending is constantly improving, it’s where I make up time. Somewhat taken on downhill I go at great speed. I love the rush and skill it takes.
Some of those moments made me cry, sob even.
Suddenly, two riders from my cycling club appear. Married and a power couple with pedaling. I stay on their wheels for as long as I could, others jump on. On a big climb, they disappeared from sight. Damn. Although well prepared for this because of the long hours I’ve trained alone.
I see them again at a stop, just about to pull out. Dipped back into a low point, my friend gives me a pep talk in 10 seconds whilst clipping in, “G, it’s a climb out of here but then it’s the most beautiful section of the ride. Find your rhythm and keep pedaling.” I watch them ride off, if only I was 10 minutes quicker.
Jumping on two different bunches between Omeo and the back of Falls Creek. Welcomed in, rolling turns they gracefully allowed me to roll through. Dog tired. The humbling aspect of cycling, some days you are formidable, some not. This day was mine to receive knowing I would pay it forward on another ride.
Knowing I had a ruthless climb ahead of me I sucked down a caffeine gel and braced myself for the worst. In hindsight, I’d say I fell into hopelessness.
A left turn, instantly smacked with 400m of a 12% gradient, known as WTF. Climbing up 13kms, ranging from 7-10% with sharp sections well above 10%. All of it agony with the distance and elevation already cycled.
I gingerly spin past riders, just keep pedaling like you said you would G, don’t get off.
Suddenly, at 205kms feeling physically exhausted, on the edge of having pushed myself too far, I become disorientated. Who attempts Peaks after being cyclist for 14 months?
The gels taste awful, the water slimy, I feel broken. Bitterly cold and raining. Drenched through. People are walking, heads low, no words, only groaning. Eerie. The usual banter gone.
I understand what it takes, everything plus more, when you don’t have more.
My time sticker had washed away in the rain. My Garmin, my truth can’t sync with my clouded mind. I’m facing exhaustion, irrational thought and loss of belief in anything.
Without warning, I cannot pedal anymore. My feet unclip to walk. WTF? With only the sound my cleats hitting the road I feel humiliated. Alone in the silence.
Believing the sag wagon would be along soon, I berated myself. Who did I think I was? With each step, I thought of the people who backed me, my coach, my friends. I bombed big time. Now I had to find the guts to tell them.
Head down for 200m, I faced those swirling dark moments of mental torment. Then just as suddenly as I unclipped, inexplicably, I found myself accepting my fate. This was courageous. Impressive to be right here. I raised my head to a slight easing off on the climb, whether this is true or not remains a question. My next thought said, I could pedal until the sag wagon comes along.
What’s that about grit and grace in my Instagram posts?
I climbed past walkers, no longer arrogant about never getting off the bike. I cycled by with deep compassion. With my body hurting, sopping wet, my mind full of white noise, I pedaled. This is the very heart of endurance, to persist.
At 213kms I hit the final stop, nearly falling off dismounting. Fragmented. Defeated. Silent. I accepted a can of Coke. I never drink Coke. A guy comes over, smiling and says, “you made it, so good to see you.” Thinking he’s lost the plot, I said “we’re not going make it.” He laughed telling me there was good time for all of us. WTF? Turns out that other cyclist had the wrong information!
I woke up.
A kindhearted volunteer helped me undress, wrapping a garbage bag around my torso for the remaining damp and frosty 12kms.
Not knowing how I could even find what was needed to finish, I drew on a friend’s words, “this is not a thinking event, it’s a doing event.” My job was to pedal and trust.
By 2kms I had reached the remote open plain at the back of Falls. My kind of terrain. With 10 kms to go on flat, slight downhill road I found something in me I knew well.
My mind became still. My legs kicked in. With strong cross and head winds belting me, I pedaled daring to finish with strength. Laughing and crying through low fog and the late afternoon mountain light, I might have looked like a woman on the edge of cracking. Maybe I was already there.
You know, it’s a good place. Cracking. Rumi, the poet, says it’s where the light gets in.
Crossing the finishing line, I sobbed again. My good mate waiting to help me dismount, allowing me to fall into a blanket as I unashamedly wept in his embrace. The gift of friendship.
And that jersey, well I offered it to my 14-year old to wear at track that week, she could tell them she did Peaks on the weekend! First, she eyerolled me, then she said that wasn’t even funny. Teenagers!
Well actually, what’s not funny is I’ve registered for Three Peaks again next year!