The Bicycle Network’s ‘Peaks Challenge Falls Creek’ is on again next year (10 March 2024). Entries are now open for an event that brings cyclists together in a glorious location for a 235km ride you’ll never forget.
– Story by Rob Arnold
Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve done it. Maybe you’re a ‘Peaker’ or, at least, you’re considering the concept. Either way, the Peaks Challenge Falls Creek is a ride that has grown in popularity since its inception and, after a year off because of landslips on the road to and from Falls Creek, it’s back on the calendar in 2024.
If you rise to the challenge “there’s just no better feeling than conquering it,” at least that’s what Lee ‘Hollywood’ Turner concluded during his pre-ride motivational speech at the rider briefing late on the Saturday afternoon before ‘Peaks’ in 2022 as the sun was setting behind the stunning mountain backdrop.
‘Hollywood’ doesn’t mind a bike ride. Actually, he thrives on the buzz that comes from something he loves and he had a few sage words for those who stood before him in anticipation of what was to come on that Sunday in March 2022. “Remember,” he said, “your mind is your greatest weapon.
“It doesn’t matter how much training you’ve done, or you haven’t done, you’ve got to push through. And when you’re really struggling around that 205-kilometre mark – you’re wobbling, you’re going ‘I don’t want to do this, stuff Bicycle Network…’ just look down at your legs and go: ‘Bang!’ And then kick in another gear and get out of the saddle… if things don’t go well look down again and go ‘Bang! Bang!’”
By that point in the speech a ripple of giggles sweeps through the crowd that had been quietly listening to the formalities before The Big Ride. There is a great atmosphere on the mountain and what makes it feel even more special is the reality that the ski station at Falls Creek comes alive for this weekend in March largely to accommodate the thousands of cyclists who flock to Victoria’s High Country to take on the challenge.
Before Hollywood came onto the stage the police were on hand to remind riders of the need for diligence and overview their requirements for a day when thousands of cyclists take over the roads of a spectacular part of Victoria.
It’s a well-managed event that includes sections of closed road. There are also portions where traffic is allowed onto the route and there’s a requirement for riders to remain on the left of the road, so be mindful of this should you sign on for the challenge.
– Discover Victoria’s High Country: join the ride, or click here for more –
Click the link above to watch part 1 of a review of the 2022 Peaks Challenge Falls Creek.
Getting things started in the dark
Before the ride in 2022 there was a sense of nervous anticipation in the cool evening air and there were bike riders everywhere. Most are visitors to the region, and plenty come from far away specifically for the Peaks Challenge. On the eve of the ride most had already checked into their accommodation and then spent the Saturday going up and down the mountain, fine-tuning their bikes and their form, and getting ready for the challenge that lay ahead.
Everyone at Falls Creek that weekend was there for one reason: to ride. There were plenty of people and the few who weren’t there with their bikes were either on hand to cheer on a family member or mate, or as part of the considerable organising committee, or making up numbers in the enormous army of volunteers who help the event run so smoothly.
The atmosphere steadily builds and by the time the sun appears on the Sunday morning there’s a long peloton of riders with their lights on who weave down the long descent from Falls Creek to Mount Beauty that gets things started.
The first official clothing drop is early in the day, allowing riders to jettison any kit they applied for what is usually a cool beginning to the ride, as was the case in 2022. With the descent behind the riders and the sun quickly making its presence felt, it’s relatively quiet during the dark downhill stretch at the beginning, especially given that this is when riders are bunched together the most.
Caution is advised for the start as it’s tempting to burst into action on the stunning, sweeping road leading to Mount Beauty but low light added to a touch of nervousness has caused mishaps in the past. So, ride to your ability and maybe even back it off a little more than you’d like. This is something that was repeated often in the pre-ride briefing; it’s clear that accidents have happened, and lessons have been learned.
It’s after Mount Beauty that respective pacelines form and this includes designated ride leaders, each assigned to the various listed time targets. Want to finish inside 10 hours? There’s someone there to guide you and ensure you maintain the pace to get to the finish on time.
It’s little details like this that make it much more than just another mass-participation ride – and it often serves as encouragement to improve on past performances. Of course, there’s no obligation to join one pace-group or another, and everyone is free to manage their own scheduling… but the option exists to follow a leader and not get caught off-guard by the frequent temptations to slow (or stop) to take in the scenery.
Get ready to climb
The route for this 235km ride is challenging and while there’s plenty of climbing it’s also worth noting the obvious: what goes up, must come down.
Peaks Challenge Falls Creek has “over 4,000 metres of climbing and a 13-hour deadline”. The terrain is terrific for cycling and, in 2022 at least, the road surface had been manicured to perfection in some places. Still, when there is a pothole or dangerous seam in the road, organisers mark the bitumen with paint.
Once you’ve settled into a rhythm on the Kiewa Valley Road it’s time to start prepping for the first notable uphill section. This comes abruptly when you turn left onto Tawonga Gap Road and while it’s steep at times, it’s not a terribly long climb. It’s also worth noting that the first feed station is at the top, relatively early in the ride.
Tick off the first ‘peak’ then enjoy the fast downhill leading to Germantown, although it’s recommended you temper your enthusiasm and always hold some energy in reserve.
You might think you’re doing well early in the day but Mount Hotham awaits and then, of course, there’s the prospect of the final steep and challenging rise up ‘The Back Of Falls’.
It’s the final test that can really break you. There’s a reason why the left turn from Omeo Highway to Bogong High Plains Road is called ‘WTF Corner’.
As this moment of truth comes after 200km in the saddle it can seem as though you’ve steered your bike into a wall. WTF!? Indeed.
Don’t fret, you’ve got gears
‘Peaks’ can feel daunting. It is a long ride. There is plenty of climbing. But there is also a lot of downhill to enjoy. You’ll be able to find a wheel to follow and a paceline to cling onto when you need a little shelter from the wind. And should you be suffering along the way, don’t panic: there’ll be a feed station soon and the Bicycle Network – and the collective of nutrition sponsors – ensure there’s plenty of food and drink on offer, as well as hordes of volunteers helping to ease the pain and give you the motivation to push on.
The Back Of Falls is tough. It comes late in the ride and tests your legs and mind alike. This is when cramp can kick in and you start looking for more gears high on your cassette… it is at this point in the ride that doubt can overwhelm and tears have even been known to fall while riders weave up the steep gradient of the final major challenge.
It was on this last climb a couple of years ago that I saw riders slumped over the handlebars of their bikes, idle on the side of the road, heads shaking and legs wobbling as they convinced themselves to push on. It was also on this patch of road that I enjoyed some of the best interactions I’ve had with fellow riders in years.
Hollywood’s words did echo in my mind as I battled my way up the Back Of Falls. I did look down at my legs. I did wonder: WTF!? And although I don’t recall shouting “bang!” – in the hope that it would give me the extra power I needed to lift myself up that hill – it felt good knowing that I wasn’t alone in my suffering.
Doubt did creep in. There was a moment when I started to question myself.
Why am I doing this? What is the point? Will I get to the top? Etc.
Then I looked around and saw other riders in a similar state. It had been a long day already with plenty of distance covered and sights to behold but that last climb was testing my limits. And this is precisely the point of the exercise. It’s called a ‘Challenge’ for a reason.
There was cramp, pain and suffering but there was also a wonderful sense of community. It is often during challenging times – when we can be in our most vulnerable state of mind – that the generosity of others can surprise and raise our spirits. That’s what happened for me on the Back Of Falls on 13 March 2022.
Yeah, it was steep but it was also extremely satisfying to make it to the top.
Ultimately, I’d reach the finish and realise that satisfaction comes in many forms when you’re riding a bike.
When I think back to that ride – done in the company of thousands of others – the memory of the suffering on the road leading back to Falls Creek creeps in but it makes me smile rather than wince. It was difficult, sure. But it was also a very rewarding experience. And as soon as that final climb was behind me, I was already thinking of the next Peaks.
It took around an hour for me to climb the Back Of Falls on 13 March 2022 and tough as it was, what I remember most is the 25 minutes that followed.
Once you get to Bogong High Plains Road the pain abates, the sneaking ping of cramp fades, and the mood lifts. It’s not exactly all downhill from there. A few little rises still lie ahead, but Falls Creek is on the horizon and your legs respond accordingly. You’ve done the tough stuff, now enjoy the finish of a what is a satisfying ride!
* * * * *
There are plenty of highlights on the route that takes in three major climbs: Tawonga Gap, Mount Hotham, and the Back Of Falls. It’s challenging terrain for cycling but that’s what gears are for. If you manage your effort, it’s possible to complete the course inside the 13-hour time limit. And if you are ever in doubt about your ability there will be someone nearby to offer a spark of inspiration and provide the motivation to continue.
It is a day when cyclists come together for the (largely) closed-road experience and when there’s a collective as large as the one that gathers for Peaks Challenge Falls Creek, inevitably the camaraderie that is so much a part of riding a bike in the company of others kicks in.
When I did the Peaks Challenge, I had no ambitions for how quickly I wanted to complete the course. For me it was about the experience, not my finishing time, but that might change now I understand the event a little better.
My Strava file for that day in 2022 reminds me that it’s the longest ride I’ve done in years. My ‘moving time’ was nine hours 42 minutes and 54 seconds but, of course, that doesn’t take into account the numerous stops along the way to top up with nutrition, stretch my legs, film the fantastic scenery (and fellow riders), or even catch up with a mate around the 100km mark, near the top of Mount Hotham.
In the official results my finishing time is 10:19:40, 732nd out of the 1,591 riders who made it all the way around the loop that starts and ends at Falls Creek, a stunning location at an altitude of 1,600m nestled in the Alpine National Park in Victoria’s northeast.
Before that weekend in March 2022 this ride was something of a mystery to me. I had heard about the Peaks Challenge but never really considered doing it. Then, after a summer of riding and working up a bit of fitness, came an offer that was too good to refuse.
The Bicycle Network called in the week leading up to their blue-ribband event. “Would you like to ride Peaks Challenge Falls Creek?”
That call came on a Tuesday. The ride would be on the following Sunday. “Can you make it to Victoria this weekend?”
I’d heard of it. I wasn’t sure if I was up for it. But from what I’d been told by those who have done Peaks, if you get the chance to ride it – and if you have the time (and inclination) – it’s an opportunity that you should not pass up. There was a little hesitation when asked if I wanted to ride in 2022 but then I started to think, ‘Why not?’
It was a spur-of-the-moment response, but I’m glad that I ultimately agreed to take on the challenge. “Yep, count me in! I don’t know if I’ll finish, but I’m keen to try.”
My first Peaks Challenge Falls Creek came from a last-minute, hastily arranged rendezvous but the event remains a highlight of my time on the bike in the last few years. It was everything I could have imagined it might be, and more.
By the end of the weekend, I felt like a local in a place I’d never visited before. I’d challenged myself, met people who have become friends rather than passing acquaintances, and I’d discovered a part of Australia that is absolutely fantastic for cycling.
Plenty of time has passed since that 10-hour ride in Victoria’s ‘High Country’ but the satisfaction of finishing stays with me and gives me motivation to do it all again when the ride returns next March.
– By Rob Arnold
Click the link below to watch part 2 of a review of the 2022 Peaks Challenge Falls Creek.