Blue Stratos 3P writeup – a near perfect day

My entry into the 3 peaks ride was not entirely conventional. I was volunteered. Ravi bet me that if I’d do a midwinter swim, he’d ride the 3 peaks. Someone chose to interpret this to mean I was riding it too as part of the bet, and entered me on the ER spreadsheet. That wasn’t part of the deal, but once my name was on the list, it didn’t quite seem right to take it off, and I signed up. The bet fizzled, but I’m happy with the outcome, as I’ve now ridden the 3P.

I’d heard that last year some ER entrants trained so hard and extensively, that they were in deep doo-dah with spouses before they even started the 3P ride, due to their being always away on the bike. My training wasn’t much like that, I just commuted almost every weekday, pushed a bit harder on the tandem days, plus did a couple of fluffers and added a Sunday ride for a few weeks.

A few people had asked me, what bike are you going to use? I’m sure they were expecting that I had some exotic carbon steed squirreled away for such things But no, my 1982 regular steel tourer that I use for commuting is really the only bike remotely suitable from my stable, the other choices being a single speed, tandem or MTB. So my tourer was going to be it, but maybe I could shave some weight off. I checked my wheel bearings – heavily pitted, perfect excuse – so I nicked Pink’s wheels, which are a bit lighter than mine, and much newer. Off with the rack and mudguards, attach a lighter pump, add some Conti 4 season tyres at half the weight of the traditional touring tyres I normally use.

I’ll need food, waterproofs, warm stuff that I might need to take off and stash…..instead of my usual large commute bag that goes on my rack, I’ll use a framed 4 litre saddlebag, that’s not too heavy. Voila – my bike is down to….12.0kg. OK, so it isn’t exactly light, but does have a ridiculously low bottom gear, to help me twiddle my way up hills. The MTB triple chainset has a 22 tooth inside chainring, which looks pretty silly driving a 28 tooth rear, but it does make climbing easier, if slow.

There were a few hiccups in the approach to the event. The Friday in the week before, my rear gear cable snapped. Easy enough to fix, though it takes a few days of fiddling to get all the gears changing OK again. I was glad it failed then, rather than wait a week and happen on the 3P ride. Then on the Tuesday, I was playing canoe polo, and managed to crack a rib in the charge start – got a kayak in the chest which somehow managed to get under my life jacket. Not too bad to ride with though, fortunately, at least with a bit of Nurofen in me.

I was unsure about nutrition, and had left most of the decisions here till late. For the typical 8 hour UK cold caving trips I used to participate in, I’d go for the full cooked English breakfast, the works, plus 2 Mars bars jammed in my caving helmet. It worked great for me in those days, but somehow I didn’t think this would quite work for 3P, with its greater duration and intensity – plus on 3P the Mars bar would melt and mess up my hair. Pink cooked up some homemade cocaine bars, they seemed good, so I’d take 24 of them, at 50g each it should be enough. Someone suggested peanut butter sandwiches, now we’re talking my language. I made up a loaf’s worth. I’d tried a gel once, a freebie from the Highland Fling – it seemed OK, so Pink visited the LBS to get me 6 of those, maybe they’d work some magic towards the end. For drinks, I’d never used powders of any kind, electrolyte sounded more like something a battery would need, plus fiddly, so I’d stick with water.

So there I am, lined up with 1800 cyclists, in the clear cool dawn. Funnily enough,my saddlebag seemed to be bigger than any other bag I saw. I munch a peanut butter sandwich, on top of the 6 weetbix I’d had earlier – never too late for extra carbo loading, it is all going to get burned off soon. I was in the last start, based on expected pace (or rather, lack of it), well behind any other ER rider. Even at the back there were no other bikes like mine in sight – but a dazzling array of carbon of every brand, with the odd titanium bike. I even saw a Cannondale racing tandem, with a blind stoker, brave souls. It was pretty exciting for me, I’d never done anything like it before, it was well outside my previous experience. Unlike many of the things I’ve done in recent years, I really didn’t know if I could finish it. I had the 12 hour and 13 hour schedules taped to my stem. I really wanted to make all the cut-offs, and finish within the 13 hour limit, but was worried about cramps, which I get rather readily, and have stopped me before on much lesser rides.

Our group had to wait a while to get away, I crossed the start line at 7:15am, more than 15 minutes after the leading groups. Descending from Falls Creek was a blast. I’d decided to take it easy, assuming that there would be many doing strange things and taking unexpected lines. But I do rather like descending, and my tourer with its long wheelbase and springy forks soaks up bumps and descends like it is on rails – even holding back I overtook hundreds of riders. I had a jacket on, but even so my teeth were chattering lightly before I reached the warmer valley air. I gather more lightly dressed riders like Finchy were really cold by then, and getting full body shivers making it hard to control the bike.

The first proper ascent, Tawonga Gap, was no problem, but I climbed steadily, its a long way to go yet. There was a regular trail of dropped gear to follow – most people’s pockets are so full, things keep falling out. Over the top, and packs form; I pick one that suited me. There is a light headwind. The group works well, with people taking turns, and gradually grows. Its social too, we chat, the weather and views are stunning, there is no car traffic to worry about. I’m really enjoying the riding.

We run down smaller packs ahead, who join on, and we get faster riders joining too from behind who start leading us out, the group gets faster…. At about 5km from the 75km rest stop, the increasing pace now around 35km/hr starts to feels a bit much for me. I don’t want to overdo it, so pull off to the side for a “light nature break” – far quicker here than waiting in a queue at the official stop. I gather Flash and a few other ER’s passed me, thinking I’ve had a mechanical. I ride solo at a comfy pace for a couple of minutes, drink a fair bit, then join another group going at a steady pace. Remembering Norman’s mantra of “just keep riding”, at the rest stop I grab a bit of free cake, refill water bottles, and get straight back on the bike. I unwrap the cake while riding, and munch away – yummie. I’d never ridden this continuously before, had always stopped for much longer, but it seemed OK – I’d do this for every stop except lunch.

The first part of the Mt Hotham climb was just a delight – the views were stunning, I just seemed to get in a groove and the kms fell away, I was working, but it was fun. I started to pass people, some now were wearing “3 Peaks Finisher” shirts from previous years – this had to be good news for my prospects. I could see from my crib sheet I was ahead of 12 hour pace, and steadily increasing my margin on that pace. It seemed good, I didn’t expect to retain that, with the monster hills at the end likely to hit me harder than others, but the more time in hand the better. I did most of the climb in a group of 4, the others keeping a really steady pace – I mostly listened to the others chatting. There was an extra mid-station rest stop I wasn’t expecting, the others I’d been riding with stopped, but I skipped that one, regretted it a bit later as I ran out of water well before getting to the summit, but it wasn’t too bad. I proceeded solo for most of the rest of the climb. I was eating one of my monster supply of cocaine bars every 30 minutes or so, determined not to run out of fuel. There’s a flatter bit, and it steepens up again to the top – I was going better than fine, it was cool up there as I like it, and the views just got better and better. The photographer near the top said mine was the best smile he’d seen that day. I was surprised I was enjoying the ride so much, based on the stories of previous years, I’d expected it to be strictly retrospective enjoyment. In the ER write ups for last year I didn’t recall anyone having said they’d really enjoyed it at the time, but then they’d had an inferno, whilst our weather was just perfect. I passed Jenna near the top, she gave me a grin that looked a mite forced – we exchanged a few words and I pedalled on. She was going through a low patch there, whilst mine was to come later.

The main lunch stop was well organised, but not all obvious to a newby. I’d arrived pretty dry having had empty bottles for a while, so drank lots, and collected my valet bag. I didn’t bother with the free veggie roll, though I gather it was good – just ate a peanut butter sandwich, stuffed 2 more in my pockets for the road then loaded in another 8 cocaine bars and some gels into my huge saddlebag, and popped an anti-cramp magnesium tablet. I’m not convinced the magnesium tablets are that effective for preventing or reducing cramp in my case, but they don’t do harm, and one can hope. I sorted out the return valet bag (I’d put a spare saddle into the valet bag, in case of comfort issues with my new SMP Stratos saddle, and the unused spare needed to be sent back). After a brief chat to other ER’s, while sat on the grass, I was off after 15 mins or so. The descent was fun, the road was open and I was able to let-er rip. Cruising on, again I was able to hook up with groups going at a suitable pace for me. Sometimes I was with ER riders, but I tried to ride to my own rhythm, so didn’t stay in a group for long. The distance was creeping up, I was feeling a bit tired by now, but going OK. Suddenly, Zap! A really sharp pain on my forehead – I reached up and flicked an insect off – I’d been stung by a bee. Fortunately I’m not allergic, but I’m a bit more awake now. It throbs a bit, then gradually subsides.

I pulled into the Omeo rest stop for more water. Philby was there, apparently “lounging” on the soft green grass in the shade of a tree. He looked mighty comfortable (apparently he was trying to sort out “hot foot”, but I couldn’t tell that). I imagined he was dipping into some luxury wicker food hamper, just out of sight. I was pleased to see him – we’ve often ridden at similar overall speeds in some lead-up rides, so he was my reference rider; I took it as a sign we were both going well. After a few tongue in cheek words along the lines of “get a move on you lazy… “, or something to that effect, I hopped back on the bike.

Out of Omeo, there’s a long steady hill, not too steep, with a bunch of 6 or so ER riders riding in a group ahead. I drop into a low gear and spin. I gradually catch up and pass a few. I know this road, as I’ve done a lot of white water kayaking around here, and have previously camped at Anglers Rest, the next rest stop. The road is quite flat, but it has many tight corners as it traverses the many ridges running down the side of the hills, beautiful views yet again. I’m riding OK, doing around 30km/hr or maybe a bit more, and pass some more riders. After a while I look around, and there are 6 or so riders slip-streaming me including Boycey, many of those I’ve passed are tucked in behind. Apparently they’ve been there a while. I beckon some on, and we start a rolling group. This group was fantastic, a blast, everyone taking turns, with neat transitions. The multiple tight corners making following the wheel really fun, banking right over to a really steep angle to take the corner with no braking, with the dry road adding to confidence. We chat a bit, everyone is really enjoying the ride, the pace rises a bit further, and before we know it we’re at Anglers Rest. There was a gaggle of ER’s there, but I didn’t fancy stopping while I was on a roll. I still had plenty of food left on my bike, and don’t need to access my Valet bag to top up, so fill my bottles, pop another anti cramp tablet, and ride out.

Approaching the final climb, I was feeling more tired. I ate another cocaine bar, getting a bit tired of them now, but I stuff it in. Then WTF corner – well it is steep. I drop into bottom gear and start the crawl up. I get up the first ramp feeling OK, but then it starts, my quads start to twinge – early warning signs of cramps. Then the right calf starts to twinge too – once one muscle starts to go it seems to set the others off. I try various things, changing body position, gears, cadence, all that stuff, but it gets worse. It had to happen some time in this ride, I guess. I need to avoid full spasms in both legs that I know it will readily progress to if I don’t manage it properly – this is incredibly painful, and with the damage it causes to muscles, hard to recover from. Just before the cramps go to full spasm I hop off the bike, and start walking. I dare not stop, the walking helps. A few minutes later and I feel I can jump back on the bike, the legs feel as if there’s still plenty of strength left in them yet, but I only get 30m and the cramp twinges start again.

The next 9km, were the same – on off, on off. Riding I’m doing 9km/hr, but I’m hardly getting any riding done. Walking I’m doing 5 km/hr or just under. Loads of riders pass me, including many ER’s. There are other riders stopped for cramps, several ask if I have any anti-cramp tablets, I have plenty so pass some out. I’m a mobile dispensary. These riders seem to recover and pass me – evidently the tablets work better for them than they do for me. I’m not enjoying this bit like the other parts, but it could be worse, I’m still making progress, and I have heaps of time in hand. Finally I get to the rest stop. I need this one, and stay a while. Philby rides by. I eat another cocaine bar and a gel. I think having to walk so much has cost me 30 or 40 minutes.

Nick, Bullet and Boycey ride by, and my legs feel OK now, so I hop back on. They are about 100m ahead, and the road is still climbing, but the gradient is modest. I catch them,and ride with them, fortunately with no signs of return of cramp. I gulp 2 gels. The road is good, the views improve and I’m heartily enjoying the riding again. Boycey drops back a bit as we approach the top, Nick and Bullet wait, while I ride on. The views across the top are magnificent and dramatic, the light is a photographers delight. There are deep grey rain clouds on one side, and rain in the distance, and clear on the other side, with bright sunlight streaming onto the trees, a mix of burnt grey masts, and new growth. Plains in the foreground, with rock outcrops, mountains in the distance, stunningly clear. I’d love to have had my SLR camera on hand for it – another time. It isn’t far now, there’s a bit of a headwind, but not too strong, my legs feel sound so I push a bit more, and pass some riders. The lake comes in sight, then unexpectedly Nick and Bullet come flying past me, going like the clappers. Nick is working like a demon into the headwind, Bullet is tucked tight in behind. Dammit, how is Nick doing that after all this climbing! They must be doing 40km/hr, into the wind. I sprint to catch them before they get out of reach, manage to do it, and tuck in.

We go round the lake at high speed, thanks to Nick’s efforts, and then we are rolling down the hill to the finish, there’s a very big crowd of riders cheering us all in, and many ER’s cheering at the finish line having been back for hours. I’m really pleased with my time of 11:13, and everyone else is really happy with their performance. I queue up for my jersey and some free lasagne – the food hardly touched the sides, but was great, and we were to have a bigger meal later. There’s a few other ER’s coming in after me, I wait with the others and cheer them in. The atmosphere is fantastic – on to the post ride dinner/party.

I’d only seen 2 other steel bikes in the whole ride. My old bike had done well, and what a ride – near perfect!

Blue Stratos

Stats: 235km, 11 hours 13 minutes, about 4500m vertical, no Garmin/Strava, no heart rate monitor…..

Nutrition: 3 gels, 14 Bidons of water, 11 cocaine bars, 1 piece of cake and half a loaf of peanut butter sandwiches.

Medical: 3 Nurofen and 6 anti cramp tablets.

PS As I rode to the city on the OTP on Friday on the same bike, there was a loud “ping”, and my handlebars came completely loose. I was going very slowly at the time, just coming up to a set of red traffic lights, so I was able to stop without problems. Examination revealed the head of one of the two quite substantial bolts that hold my handlebar onto the stem had sheared off – pretty unusual. The remaining bolt was sort of holding the bars in place albeit with lots of free play, it would have been difficult to keep control if I’d have been at speed. Again, a well timed failure – just as well it didn’t happen on one of the 3P descents.


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