Peaks Challenge Falls Creek (formerly 3 Peaks Challenge) is one of Australia’s best known and most difficult annual cycling events.
Many say it’s one of the best 10 gran fondos in the world.
In this article we speak to Chris Grabyn, who has ridden Peaks Challenge Falls Creek four years in a row. He shares insights on what to expect from the event as well as his experiences of riding it.
All photos with kind permission of RaceAtlas We are not connected with the organisers of this event. If you’re in any doubt, please rely on official event information. For more information on cycling in Victoria, read this.
All photos with kind permission of RaceAtlas
We are not connected with the organisers of this event. If you’re in any doubt, please rely on official event information.
For more information on cycling in Victoria, read this.
1. Give us an overview of Peaks Challenge
Peaks Challenge Falls Creek is organised by cycling advocate Bicycle Network and hosted by Falls Creek Resort. It takes place on the Victorian Labour Day long weekend in Australia’s premier cycling destination – the Victorian Alpine region.
The 235km route, with 4,500m of elevation, is notoriously tough. It’s made even harder by the rolling 13 hour time cut off.
The event takes place in March every year and 2022 is the 13th straight edition of the event. It is one of the rare public mass participation events that managed to run through the pandemic without cancellation or a date change.
Here’s the video I made of my experience this year:
2. Tell us about the Peaks Challenge route
Starting in the Alpine village of Falls Creek, the course opens with a 30km descent to Mt Beauty. Shortly after, it’s time for the first main climb: Tawonga Gap (7.5km, 476m elevation, 6% average gradient).
After Tawonga Gap there is a fast descent to Germantown, then riders head to the beautiful village of Harrietville which is where the second main climb and first HC for the day starts, Mt Hotham (29.9km, 1,303m elevation, 4% average gradient).
After summiting Mt Hotham riders then undertake a 50km, mostly downhill ride, to Omeo. However there are a couple of steep pinches thrown in here for good measure.
Following Omeo, riders work their way over the short Bingo Gap climb and head to the tiny village of Anglers Rest, the last opportunity for a refuel before tackling the final climb of the day, the monster that is HC East side of Falls Creek (Back of Falls) (22.6km, 980m elevation, 4% average gradient).
The last 10 or so kilometers are on the plateau, with a short 2km descent to the finish line.
Overall the event is held on roughly 50% closed roads.
3. Why do people enter Peaks Challenge Falls Creek?
Taking on the 235km route (and 4,500m of elevation!) takes commitment and dedication, lots of it. Say goodbye to free weekends with your family and friends for the months beforehand.
However beating this monster, with its looming 13 hour pace rolling time limit, makes it all worth it.
Complete it within the time limit and you are awarded the coveted Peaks Challenge finishers jersey – only ever available to those riders who cross the finishing line (go under 10 hours and you get a different special jersey marking that achievement). Want to get instant cred from your weekend bunch mates and strangers alike?! This is the ultimate cred generator.
Being fully supported and with about half the route on closed roads, it’s the perfect opportunity to take on such a ride alongside thousands of other like-minded individuals along some of the most scenic roads Australia has to offer.
4. What are the highlights?
The course includes summiting Mount Hotham on the highest paved road in Australia (regarded as Australia’s 5th most difficult climb) and the challenge of tackling the absolute beast that is the 24km long HC climb on the eastern side of Falls Creek (regarded as Australia’s 3rd hardest cycling climb, with the opening 9km average gradient hovering around 10%).
With 200kms already in the legs at this point, you’ll round the opening corner of the final climb, up Falls Creek, to be greeted with an 18% ramp. You’ll realise it is labeled “WTF corner” for a very good reason!
One of the unique aspects of Peaks Challenge is the host location – Falls Creek. It’s one of Australia’s premier alpine resorts and the entire village is booked out with participants or supporting family and friends. It provides a real festival atmosphere with the event village a buzz of activity all weekend and ensures there is a crowd at the finishing line to welcome the very last riders home some 13 hours after they set off.
5. What’s the hardest thing about the event?
Aside from taking on the East side of Falls Creek, the hardest part of this event is getting to the start line.
Training for Peaks Challenge Falls Creek really cannot be underestimated. It takes months of training, months of commitment, months of missing social engagements, months of being tired, months of finding new challenging roads to train on, months of refining your strategy and expectations, months of learning how to create a nutrition strategy and testing it.
Is it all worth it – you better believe it?!
There is literally no better feeling than rolling down the final 1.8km to the finishing line into the Falls Creek village knowing you’ve done it, you’ve beaten it. There’s the indescribable feeling when all those months of effort and sacrifice cumulate at that precise moment when you cross the finish line.
As Roosevelt said, nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty. This is literally the definition of Peaks Challenge Falls Creek.
6. What tips do you have for taking part in the event?
Here are my tips for successfully conquering the Peaks Challenge Falls Creek. In no particular order:
6.1 Training and nutrition
6.2 What to wear
6.4 Where to stay
Ideally, the best place to stay is in the Falls Creek village – there are an array of options for varying budgets on the mountain, or you can try Mount Beauty.
If you stay in Mount Beauty make sure you are making your way up to Falls Creek before 5.30am before the road closes.
6.5 Peaks Challenge Falls Creek or Three Peaks Falls Creek?
If you’re wondering about the name of the event and have seen references to both Peaks Challenge Falls Creek and 3 Peaks Falls Creek, the answer is that they’re the same thing. 3 Peaks Challenge Falls Creek is the previous name for the event, before it was renamed in 2015.
7. Tell us your experience of Peaks Challenge Falls Creek?
This year was my 4th Peaks Challenge Falls Creek in a row. That effectively means I have been training for four years straight!
Last year it was all about my wife Carol and supporting her through her first attempt. While last year wasn’t my fastest time, it is still my favorite Peaks experience – doing such a challenge with my significant other was special.
However, this year it was back to my personal challenge: could I break into the sub 9-hour mark? My previous best 2 years ago was 9hrs 45 mins. Was I 46 mins faster, stronger and fitter this year? Well, I was about to find out.
7.2 Training for the event
This year I trained harder than ever before. More kilometers on the bike, more vertical meters in the lead up. I set all new power records from 20min power to 5hr power, worked harder than ever on a nutrition strategy and studied my previous Peaks PB identifying the areas where I needed to pick up time and the areas where I knew I would. I was totally ready for this!However there remained many things outside my control, like work stress. I didn’t have the ideal week leading into that last couple of days before the event and I think it all added to a perfect storm for the big dance on Sunday.
7.3 The day before…
On the Friday night, 36 hours before go time, I rolled down from our accommodation in the village to a restaurant to make a booking for Saturday night dinner – I say rolled as I took the bike as I couldn’t be bothered walking it – who has time for walking down a hill?
When I left the restaurant I changed my front ring, nothing spectacular there. Except it broke a part called the “main lever support”.
The outcome of that was I couldn’t change from little to big chainring. Are you serious?!
So, I was up till midnight researching it, working out what broke and how to fix it.
On Saturday morning I was straight down to the event mechanics in the event village and to cut a long story short, by 1pm Seaton from Pedal Power Garage had fixed it. But it meant that I had been up and down from the accommodation to the event village numerous times – and that involves a 13% road and number of stairs each time.
By the time we walked back up to our accommodation for the last time after dinner, I literally had sore legs – uh oh! Garmin tells me I did 11,000 steps and 65 flights of stairs – not great the day before Peaks! Fingers crossed the carb loading pizza and some good sleep would do the trick!
7.4 Event day
Event Day and I was awake before my 5.30 alarm. I was a little sore but calm.
I went through my typical event day routine, got kitted up and ready to go!
However, jump to the ride and something was amiss – descending Falls Creek down to Mount Beauty on a genuine downhill I had a heart rate in the high 160s. It didn’t really drop to where it should and that didn’t go away all day, by the time I got to Harrietville 70kms in I had an average heart rate of 165 but only an average power of 225. This was not right at all as I would expect it to be around 145 average.
70 Kilometres In
At 70 kilometres in, I was riding well and was 12 mins ahead of where I needed to be for a sub 9 hour time (I had actually caught and passed the sub 9hr pacers).
I have done some brutal training rides getting ready for this day, so while the average heart rate was on my mind I wasn’t overly concerned…until about 10km into Mount Hotham when my body just packed it in – I don’t think it was a bonk (been there done that), it was something I’ve never experienced before. [Note: I later discovered that I likely had Covid during the event, which would explain how I felt.]
The (not) bonk…
I went from over 300 watts to barely able to make 220 in a matter of 20 seconds. My heart rate was probably now around 180, so I had no choice but just to back right off. I was in pain and confused.
At that point I had eaten well, actually the whole nutrition strategy was spot on. The first time I got hungry for the whole day was with only 5km to go!
I grovelled to my first planned stop at Buckland Gate 20 kilometres up Mount Hotham, did what I needed to do and kept going, but it just got worse somehow. I got to the top of Hotham complete with a liquid burp and came to terms that despite still being on track for a sub 9, it was not going to happen. Just finishing was the new goal.
The rest of the ride
The remainder of the ride was spent just trying to keep the heart rate down. It was a very different way to have to ride the bike.
My second planned stop was at Omeo (160km point) and I was thinking that if I can only just make it up 3% hills, how do I get up the final Falls climb. This is a climb that I have ridden up 6 times previous – unfortunately I knew exactly what lay ahead.
Head down and just focusing on the heart rate, buoyed that I had shared some time on the road with another Chris who was battling as much as me, and even bumping into my friends Claire and Aiden, which lifted spirits.
For some reason, I didn’t consider getting medical help, I’m not sure why. I was just so focussed on finishing – perhaps it was stupidity or stubbornness or both? There is plenty of help available on the course; there is first aid available at each rest stop, roaming first aid on motor bikes, police on course and ambulances stationed around the course as well. As mentioned above, it later turned out that I had Covid, which would explain my symptoms.
The final Falls climb
I honestly don’t remember much of it, I just slogged it out.
Making it to Trapyard Gap at 12km into the climb, the worst was behind me, and I knew I would make it home, but there was still 24km to get through…
Friends on the road
Enter Rachel, my pain cave buddy. We met just after I left Trapyard and we were having a similar day for very different reasons – she has a 9-month-old child and is still breastfeeding, so you can imagine the physical challenges she was dealing with.
We just chatted for the last hour and it kind of went by without us noticing and lifted both our spirits.
We got it done somehow in a half decent time of 9hrs 40 mins and a course PB for me, so I was genuinely stoked with that! After we crossed the line Rachel and I hugged it out, she was crying – it was amazing – two complete strangers!
So there you have it, I got through what was easily the most mentally and physically demanding thing I’ve ever endured.
On reflection, missing sub 9 doesn’t even matter, I am just happy that I learnt a lot about myself and learnt how much mental strength I have.
As mentioned, I put how I felt on event day down to the fact that, unbeknownst to me, I was suffering from Covid during the event. However, it goes without saying that in an event like this, if you have any concerns about your health, you should speak to your doctor before the event. Also medical assistance is available on the course and you should always use it if at all concerned.
Will I be back?
You know the answer to that – this is PEAKS!
A big thank you to Chris for sharing his candid insights into this incredible event.
Want more information about Peaks Challenge Falls Creek?
Take a look at the event website which includes event resources, entry information and of course the rules of the event.
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