The lessons …

Peaks Challenge is behind me. After about a week I cut off the wrist band and last night I went to bed without the finishers jersey on. Time now to think about the day and detail a few lessons. Some women give birth to more than one child. Maybe it’s time to conceive another challenge, perhaps consider repeating this challenge next year.

The event was brilliantly well organised but there is still room for improvement. There were almost 1,900 starters so getting us all away was a fairly time consuming exercise. A starting corral was filled and then opened every minute or so meaning that there were waves of riders heading off and not too much fighting and scratching. Those expecting to be the slowest were expected to let the hares go first. There was no penalty in this. Your time didn’t start until the chip on your bike crossed the start line.

The same chip recorded your progress at various points which was updated in real time on the web for your supporters to follow. Photographers were stationed around the place and you could track down your photos among the many based on the times that you passed those points.

The roads were not entirely closed to all other traffic but traffic management was excellent. Cyclists are expected to obey the road rules, infringement notices may be issued. I did exceed the speed limit under the watchful gaze of the police at one point but have yet to receive a ticket.

Mechanical assistance was available at rest stops and from motor cycle patrols. Medical assistance was also easily summoned. I was spared the sight of anyone’s blood but did see a couple of ambulances making their way through the field.

There were rest stops at reasonable intervals where you could fill up water bottles, grab a gel or bar and queue for a toilet. At three stops you could also retrieve a valet bag with your own nutrition. At the half way mark you could get a lunch and you could send a valet bag back to Falls Creek with any clothing you no longer required. Managing the valet bags, nutrition and hydration and time at rest stops are critical to a good performance.

Bicycle Network run the event and they provide sticky labels with the guide times that will enable you to pace the ride depending on what time you hope to achieve. I chose the 12 hour sticker. The Grim Reaper (officially the Lanterne Rouge) rides the 13 hour schedule. Fall behind him and you are asked to board the SAG Wagon. Think of him as the wave goodbye leader. There are also wave leaders that are riding to each of the practical hour targets.

I reached the top of the first climb, Tawonga Gap, ahead of schedule and was surprised to hear that the 12 hour wave leaders were 5 minutes ahead of me. I passed them at Harrietville still well ahead of schedule. They passed me on the Back of Falls whilst I was wrestling with a delinquent chain. I caught them again at Cope Saddle 15 km left to go and at least 20 minutes ahead of schedule. It was never my intention to ride on their tail but there must have been riders that had hoped to do that. Plenty of riders with 12 hour intentions started after me. Some might feel a little let down.

Another minor issue was waiting for us at the finish line. The run home was a single lane with barricades on each side. Absolutely familiar to Tour de France fans but there was no signage to say Bikes this Way! Some people rode on down the road before they realised their mistake. But wait there’s more. About 70 meters from the line there was a right-angle left hand bend. A number of participants fell on that corner. One poor bastard aiming for under 10 hours crashed there with about 30 seconds in hand. By the time he picked himself up he had just sufficient time to run the bike over the line. He just made it to a rousing reception from the crowd.

I had checked out the finish the day before and had already made note of the opportunities to get it wrong. The crowd at the finishing line were extremely generous. Thank you everyone of you. The lovely Gayle gave me a big hug and a nice young man gave me my finisher’s jersey and all was well with the world.

Kudos aplenty to Bicycle Network they got it mostly right but did I?

The bike had been serviced just a few weeks before the event and the bottom bracket given a once over days before the event. I was on tyres that had been replaced about a month prior to the big day. The chain came off during the event and jammed between the chain ring and the frame. It was only the second time in twelve months that I’d shed a chain. It cost me more time than it should. If it ever happens again I will wrench the bloody thing out much faster.

I was spared any punctures. The first one I saw was in the starting corral and there were a few more in the first couple of kilometers. More experienced and knowledgeable cyclists tell me these were likely because the tyres had been changed the night before the event in an effort to avoid any glass fragments that might be hiding in the rubber causing a puncture. Instead the inner tube was pinched when the new tyre was put on and failed soon after a load was applied. I’ve done that and the bang was memorable but it wasn’t during an event.

Eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty is advice you hear over the public address system immediately before the count down at the start. For a training ride of say 100km I typically take a banana and a bottle of water. After it I drink another litre or more if it’s been hot. After the first hundred in the Peaks Challenge you have another 135km to go. You can’t afford to be behind with hydration. I managed to raise my game in this regard. So far as nutrition went I budgeted for an outlay of 460Cals/hour so for 11:40 I expected to expend 5,363 Cals. Strava estimated my actual consumption at 5,554. Close enough for jazz. I’m not good at eating as I ride so I decided to carry gels for on the bike but do most of my eating at the three major rest stops. In each valet bag I put a slice of fruit cake, a Mars bar and a chocolate milk plus another couple of gels. There was a salad roll available to me at the lunch stop. There was 100g of sugar in cordial in one water bottle.

My low-carb diet had gone out the window two days prior to the event replaced with rice and pasta. Breakfast was oats, sultanas and yoghurt.

During the ride I managed to down one Mars, two slices of cake, the sugar water, four gels, three chocolate milks and an energy bar and coke that I picked up en route. I passed on lunch. A total of about 500g of carbohydrate, about 2,500 Cals. The biggest obstacle to consuming more is that solid food seems too dry to swallow. Canned fruit would slide down nicely but it’s a bit inconvenient to manage.

The next major consideration is clothing. I took a range of clothing options with me and made the final choice with the aid of the weather forecast. It was bound to be a cold start what would follow that was largely up to the weather gods. Going up hill is hot work, going down can be frigid. Last year people were withdrawing because of hypothermia at the higher altitudes. The weather forecast was good and the situation wasn’t likely to change suddenly. I opted for shorts and short sleeves, a gilet and fingered gloves. For the initial descent I also wore a second pair of gloves, arm warmers, neck warmer and a cap under my helmet. It sufficed. The items stripped off during the climbs went back in the valet bag from the halfway mark.

A spare tube in the halfway bag could have replaced the one I was carrying in my repair kit had it been used for a puncture but was not needed.

I spent as little time as possible in rest stops. Using the toilets would have been a major time waster, the bushes are better, for boys at least.

My riding strategy can be summed up quite easily. When you’re climbing climb by numbers, when descending make the most of it. In between draft whenever you can. I aimed to climb at about 2.5watts per kilo and I was particularly disciplined about that on the first climb. You can save as much as a third of your power output drafting. I was shamelessly parasitic at every opportunity.

All in all things worked out pretty well.

At the end of the day I rehydrated with a few ginger beer shandies and had a light meal. I had a few minor cramps over night but running marathons in younger days was worse.

If you should stumble on this page while preparing for your first Peaks Challenge good luck and I hope this is useful. My apologies to regular readers for the boring details.

Peaks Challenge …

It’s one way to spend a Sunday. About 1,700 other cyclists thought so too. The weather was fine, the afternoon was pretty warm (especially by this summer’s standard.) And yes, I made it …

Total time between start and finish was 11:40. Not much of that was spent in the rest stops, a chunk of it was spent by the side of the road wrestling with a chain that had run off the rails and was jammed between the chain ring and the frame. Neither subtlety or brute force would shift it. Eventually a fit of temper, loud swearing and extreme force extricated it and I was able to continue.

Early to bed.

In Just Seven Days …

“I can make you a maa.a.a.a.an …” Rocky Horror Show.

Or you can join me in the Peaks Challenge Falls Creek. Cycle 235km with 4,600 meters of climbing. The legs had better be loaded by now. In a week you can do very little to get fitter but you can ramp up the fatigue trying.

My preparation can be summarised thus …

Turning that into weekly averages gives 344km, 2,292m of climbing in 15 hours on the bike.

Volume alone is a poor measure of training. Intensity has a key role. I have endeavoured to keep up the quality by doing some interval training, hill repeats and racing. Finding a group ride has also helped to sharpen the output. The guys and girls have also been great mentors, given me heaps of encouragement and support. All of which has been most appreciated.

Has it made me fitter? Yes it has.

I bought the road bike last May six months after I started riding. I added a power meter in July and was quick to do an FTP test. That involved 20 minutes going full gas, on the rivet, going for the doctor, blood sweat and tears, pain, suffering , you get the picture. The answer was 196 Watts.

I was in no hurry to do further FTP tests but as a Strava subscriber I have access to my critical power curve which gives me another way to estimate FTP. Using the first six weeks of power data Strava estimated my FTP at 190 Watts. The last six weeks provides an estimate of 237 Watts. (A Grand Tour rider would have an FTP of 400 plus.)

Back in the jogging boom when I ran the odd marathon the gold standard of endurance fitness was VO2max. In those days you had to head into the laboratory to find what that was. These days you just have to ask … your watch. My Garmin watch estimates mine to be 51 ml/kg/min – up from the low 40’s seven months ago. (Above average for an adult male but an elite athlete will be in the range 65 to 80).

The bike was serviced just a few weeks ago. It has a new chain and fresh tyres. The cassette has been replaced with an 11 – 32 giving me a slightly lower gear than I had. That will help on the hills. It goes for a final tweak in a couple of days. I will have to put a rear reflector on it before the big day – the organisers insist that bikes be road legal (I ride in the day with two flashing red lights to the rear, one of which is also a radar. There isn’t room for a reflector and safer to boot. Ours not to reason why.)

The week past has been a big one. It included a trip to the Grampians with a couple of rides up Mount William. The last couple of kilometers to the summit have an average gradient of 12%, there are spots where I struggled to keep the front wheel on the ground. This is steeper than the worst sections of the Peaks Challenge. The bonus though is that the climb offers the prettiest views of any ride in the state of Victoria.

It’s now time for the taper. Training too hard will find you fatigued at the starting line. If you don’t train at all you start to lose condition. How best to balance freshness and fitness? The right answer probably varies from person to person and is best sorted out by trial and error. I have no recent experience to draw on so it has to be generic. Having consulted the literature my intention is to maintain the intensity but halve the volume.

And what about some carbohydrate loading? My day to day diet is low carb but come Friday I’ll be enjoying some pasta, Saturday some rice. I’m sure my body will stack away glycogen like there’s no tomorrow.

RGT Cycling …

Unboxing and first impressions.

Since Victoria is back in lock down for what must seem like a miniscule number of Covid cases to an international observer, now was a good time to explore indoor training apps. I had a one month free introduction to the Tacx app and didn’t think it worth paying up to continue it. This was mainly because I found the software rather clunky and that may be due to the adoption of Tacx into the Garmin family which may not be a natural fit. Specifically I didn’t find a way to share data with Strava without duplicating rides that were also recorded on my Garmin watch. That may be because of my weaknesses in dealing with the technology but Garmin sure haven’t made it easy to find the information you need.

Anyway after my permitted outdoor exercise yesterday morning I stopped thinking about RGT and got on to it. It doesn’t come in a box. You need to download two apps. One to your mobile device and one to whichever machine will show you the pictures. My mobile device is a Samsung phone. The screen is a Thunderbolt Display run from an Apple Laptop. The hardest part of getting the apps, pairing them with each other and then pairing up the heart rate monitor and the Tacx trainer was dealing with the Apple App Store which seems to reject my password every time I visit. The mobile app is the one you deal with, the screen app serves up a picture to watch as you ride. Behind the scene one of them controls the resistance offered by the trainer. The fact that one app was on an Apple the other on Samsung mattered not one bit.

Indoor cycling apps give you the opportunity to look at video (Tacx, Fulgaz, Rouvy) or simulate a ride in video game style (Zwift, RGT) or just show the numbers (Trainer Road, Sufferfest). All are subscription based although the Tacx and RGT package give you some service for nothing with RGT being a bit more generous.

RGT gives you the chance to join group rides and races. These happen in virtual reality but real time. You choose an event, book in and turn up at the appropriate time. You get an email reminder about one hour before the ride starts. Unless you pay for the premium version riding on your own or writing your own training session are not available. I found a suitable race and booked in for an 8pm start. By ten minutes to eight I was on the start line warming up – you can do this without riding into the guy in front (ain’t virtual reality wonderful). When the race starts your avatar starts to make progress and eventually you get to the finish line.

That’s me in the blue, I’d recognise me anywhere, surrounded by an international array of other avatars. That is standard issue kit, I think I can make some changes to the avatar but that jersey is pretty much the same colour as the Peaks Challenge jersey I’m hoping to win. I’ll have to change it if I don’t get one!

All the numbers are there. I’m ripping along at 7.3kph (up a 13.8% incline before you scoff) with 40km still to go. I’m putting out 245watts, my legs are going round and my heart is beating. My avatar is looking a good deal more composed than I was. At that stage I was in 129th position but I improved as time passed.

In the set up phase I asked the software to pass the data onto Strava which it did.

RGT incorporates some very smart features like drafting and slowing the avatar at sharp bends. It was easy to set up and enjoyable to use. I enjoyed the race format and responded in a competitive way (of course I did). I could take a two week free trial of the premium version but you have to sign up then opt out before it just starts taking your money. I’m always suspicious of such arrangements. In this part of Australia you can ride all year without too many interruptions from foul weather – I am an outdoor rider at heart – I doubt that the premium version would represent great value for me. If I were intending to do the bulk of my training inside it would certainly appeal.

Circling the Asylum …

Lock down again. That changes the plan.

In preparation for the Peaks Challenge at Falls Creek I’ve been knocking out a 100km ride about once a week. Aside from that I’ve concentrated on intensity rather than volume with hill repeats (outdoors and on the trainer), intervals and some racing. Rest days and the odd light week are vital to the mix and the first week of February was the light week. There are now 25 days to go. My intentions were to ramp up the climbing and get in at least one 200km ride. Now I find myself limited to two hours a day and within 5km of home.

The nearest asphalt to home is a kilometer away. I could ride back and forth on 4km of black top – hill repeats without any significant hill. The alternative is to take to the gravel on my mountain bike. And it’s not such a bad alternative, increased resistance from wider tyres and the gravel plus the less aerodynamic position and greater weight put the legs to the test. The distance limit means going around and round. It could wear thin but I enjoyed it this morning.

I also slipped in an extra weights session. Tomorrow I’ll do some indoor hill work and perhaps take the mountain bike out again. I can’t see myself doing more than a couple of hours at a time on the trainer.

Spice …

The local veterans cycling club for me is the Central Victorian Veterans Cycling Club. Racing resumed three weeks ago after being shut down by the pandemic last year.

Competition ups the intensity; more in some than in others. As a school kid my basketball coach used to talk about killer instinct. I think he intended it to be synonymous with white line fever. It does appear that I have it in spades. Knowing this to be the case I was keen to turn out for the races, not for their own sake of course but as part of my training program for the Peaks Challenge.

The first week was a graded scratch race. The handicappers conspired and put me in C grade. Away we went. I was keen to do my share of the work. I didn’t want to seem parasitic on the hard work of others. What was I thinking? All seemed to be going well, the pace was quick and yes I was breathing heavily but coping.

All too soon however a corner, that I didn’t take particularly elegantly, exposed me to a harsh cross headwind just at the base of an uphill straight. It was all over in an instant. The string broke. I was looking at the backs of a receding bunch. Initially I thought I might catch them. I managed to pile on some extra pace and the gap stayed constant for a while but working as a team they eventually left me to my personal time trial. An education.

Week two was a handicap race. The handicappers were kind to me, I went with the first bunch away. We had a 20 minute start on the scratch riders. The strategy is quite different in a handicap. A group has an advantage over an individual. Each rider in turn gets out front to break a hole in the wind while the remainder tuck in and benefit from the slip stream. There is an advantage in keeping together, a weaker rider can still be of value even if taking short or even infrequent turns at the front. The bunch is in no hurry to drop anyone but they will sacrifice them eventually if they don’t contribute.

I was getting plenty of good advice and encouragement and feeling good.

Eventually the stronger riders will catch up. Their strategy is to pass at a speed that makes it impossible for you to latch on. Your strategy is to latch on at all costs. You will be welcome if you can take your turns. You will be unwelcome if you spend too long hiding down the back. It was the scratch riders that caught us first and they passed at over 40 kph. I made it across but by digging deep into oxygen debt. I wasn’t with them for long.

Now you have to make a choice. The friends you wanted to make have rejected you. The friends you recently abandoned are behind you and may feel a little miffed that you left them. Slide back and rejoin or go it on your own? It would be ignominious to slide back but even more so to go it alone, blow up and be passed by them!

I put my head down and finished between the two bunches in eighth position. Not entirely shabby … it’s great what a 20 minute start can do.

This is not racing for a sheep station but it is for small stakes. $10 goes in the kitty prior to the race and eighth gets a small token of the club’s appreciation. As a newby I was excused from making a contribution so did not pick up my envelope.

It was waiting for me this week!

Under the circumstances I felt obliged to put into the kitty this time even though they were still willing for me to enjoy my free trial period. It was another handicap. 46 km this week so slightly longer. The handicappers did me slightly less of a favour. I was with the second group away (four groups in all). It was two laps of a simple flat circuit. There was a strong headwind out and by that miracle of nature no wind at all on the way back.

We were caught by the third group and virtually everyone made it across. Subsequently we caught the front markers and they mostly coalesced although only a couple of them had enough left to take turns. We had only about 3 or 4 km to go when the scratch riders screamed past. Two of us made it across, neither of us had the legs to stay there. We both finished between the bunches. I improved my position to seventh – just as well I contributed to the kitty.

This time I collected my winnings with a big smile on my face. The scratch puppies that beat me all looked way to young to be in the vets. I think I should call for the production of birth certificates next time.

Indoor Mountains …

The Peaks Challenge at Falls Creek entails more than 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) of climbing. Living in the flat land makes it hard to prepare the legs. One answer is an indoor trainer that can simulate the resistance that would be experienced climbing hills. I settled on the Tacx Neo 2T and with the help of Youtube got it up and running. I’m currently enjoying, if that’s the right word, a one month free trial of the Tacx software.

Here’s a shot of the pain cave …

I’ve repurposed a superseded lap top and thunderbolt screen and added an ANT+ dongle to the computer so that it can read my heart rate monitor. In this shot I’m setting off to climb the Jaufen Pass. The video advances to match the speed that you’re making whilst the software adjusts the resistance to reflect the gradient.

Here’s a screen grab nearing the top of the pass …

On the left of screen you can see speed, power, cadence, heart rate, time elapsed, the gradient and in the tiny letters the most important information is the distance to the top.

The real Jaufen Pass is in the Alps in the far north of Italy. On the Tacx the ride to the top is a little over 15 km and climbs 1,087 meters. Average gradient is 7.2% and it maxes out at 9.4%. You can continue down the other side but I can’t for the life of me see why you would, you reach impossible speeds with no effort and round corners in a fashion that would be lethal in real life and are too dizzying to look at on screen.

How does it compare with the real thing? It certainly feels pretty realistic and I think it will substitute well for the missing mountains.

As well as a library of videos there is a workout section where you can set up an interval session with control over gradient if that’s your thing and there’s a built in ramp test and FTP test.

The trainer will work with other apps such as Zwift and RGT. They have free introductory offers that I will probably make use of before choosing which way to go in the long term.

Meanwhile there are 54 days until the big event which equals four Jaufen Passes plus a whole load of connecting asphalt.

Four Days On …

and one day off.

The week was invented by astronomers not physiologists. It just divides the lunar month into neat quarters. From a fatigue management perspective shorter regular blocks suit me better than a seven day week. The biggest problem is that the calendar and the program don’t stay in sync. If Wednesday is the group ride and Saturday is race day the system runs off the rails.

Within the block I like to ride hard then easy, easy, hard then the fifth day is a day off. There is nothing sacred about that order so that’s where group rides and race days can be accommodated – just change the order when necessary. The day off though is well worth preserving even if it means ending a block early.

Occasionally it runs to plan and last week a block looked like this …


Distance kmClimb mTimeTSS
Wed1013293hr 52m289
Thur57692hr 38m111
Fri551682hr 6m174
Sat1098134hr 18m377

The Training Stress Score (TSS) is one of a number of tools designed for quantifying training load. It uses power, time and intensity. Riding flat out for an hour would give a TSS of 100 and leave you gasping on the side of the road. Riding at lesser intensities for longer periods will enable you to achieve higher scores and still be able to walk!

Strava has a similar tool called Relative Effort and my Garmin Watch comes up with Training Effect. Today’s ride for example had a TSS of 154 or Relative Effort of 147. Training Effect in the Garmin universe is expressed for Aerobic and Anaerobic scores separately 3.6 and 1.1 today.

A TSS of less than 150 is considered Low Intensity, recovery will take less than 24 hours. 150 to 300 is moderate, you should be fit to train the next day, over 300 is high and some residual fatigue may last 2 days. The Peaks Challenge will likely generate a TSS over 400.

A hard day may be a long ride, a big climb, intervals or hill repeats. I’m probably as guilty as anyone of making my easy days too hard and my hard days not hard enough.

My Garmin Fenix6 watch gives me access to a coaching program. It’s an odd situation being coached by your watch. It has no idea of my goals. Tends to suggest workouts that aim to improve functional threshold power and criticises me frequently for a lack of anaerobic effort. For someone preparing for an event that will have me in the saddle all day long rides are essential. The watch often dismisses these as unproductive. Given the money I paid for it I think it should show its owner considerably more respect.

I never was very coachable. At least the watch doesn’t shout at me when I ignore it.