Franco's 3 Peaks
Many years ago I trained for… or I thought I trained for the 3 Peaks or a previous incarnation of that event. Regular riding, extra early morning starts for more km’s before meeting up with my morning training bunch. Work busy, family hectic but fun, I made an effort to train harder than before. But a bushfire cancellation left me wondering how I would have fared, and when would life allow me another chance. Fit, I thought, at 40, maybe that chance and life in some small way was passing me by.
I now know that I would have been woefully underprepared for that event. The bushfire saved me.
Work, three beautiful children to guide, grow and enjoy and all the happy responsibilities that go with that, and your fitness is not what you know it should be.
You still have a 2 short rides a week, and your Sunday bunch 2 hour ride, recovery for your mates still racing, and you have to collapse on the couch afterwards, too tired to even mow the lawn. But it’s great to “keep fit”. Or so you think.
Occasionally you think about the mountains, but those long challenging rides in the hills are but a faint dream.
Then years later, maybe it is that your business becomes self-sustaining, maybe you’ve watched your children grow and mature into wonderful, interesting young adults, perhaps you now have a bit more spare time, maybe it’s that your wife too readily, lovingly accepts your widened girth, even makes you feel comfortable with it. Maybe it’s that you’ve reached your mid-fifties and a question rises up from within.
It might be that you just sniff the breeze of what might just be possible again, because, a family called the Sturt’s have ridden into town.
Down to enjoy the Summer of our little seaside town, it’s not long before cycling brings us together and we’re sharing bunch rides, BBQ’s and a happy friendship.
Coach David, quiet, unassuming but with a talent and skill on the bike matched only by the width of his warm smile. His friendly humility, is not enough to hide a capacity that calls out for some exploration.
After a couple of Summers, and a smouldering call from those distant and steep mountains, I tentatively reach out for help.
Not skilled, gifted or talented, I would understand if Coach Steggles had better ways to spend his time than on someone like me.
Could he help me with a plan for the 3 Peaks cycling challenge?
He didn’t belittle my request, even if my ambition was just to be able to finish under the 13 hour cut off. He quietly, but immediately encouraged me it was possible and I could tell he knew what had to be done. Back then, and even now, given the quality of some of the thoroughbreds in his stable, I know I am perhaps his “charity case”. But I was happily and warmly welcomed to The Hurt Box.
Starting in October 2016, ready to ride in March 2017, I was pleased to finish in under 12 hours. 11:38:55 with for me 5:09 of climbing time. Better than I could have hoped for on less than 6 months of training.
Only those that know such a long day in the saddle know how satisfying it is to cross that finish line. But surprisingly in good shape. But the real surprise for me, and I know by many other standards that was no outstanding time, was how well I coped with the ride’s challenges.
For me my improvement in those months was significant. I enjoyed feeling strong, in fact even felt better, when going uphill. I felt best on the climbs, with a strange confidence provided by the training that I hadn’t experienced before. I knew what fitness I had, I knew how hard I could push to make good time without blowing up, I knew what not to do, and if the going got tough, I knew to trust my training and enjoyed the satisfaction of being able to push through.
Even toward the end, up from the feared WTF corner, which I had never seen, I knew David had my back. I loved that last climb!
That was last year. A friend that also entered, didn’t have such a good day.
This year we made a pact, somewhat dangerously late in the year, to do it side by side, and beat that 13 hour cut-off together. When 8 to 10 hour finishes are celebrated and admired, we were going to be happy with sub - 12. It was going to be great to spend a whole day with a good mate.
Some of my more naturally talented cycling friends wonder why I’m still on a training program. “What are you training for? You don’t race much.”
I see and understand their curiosity. I see them and even myself wonder why. I’m no high achieving athlete. “Enthusiastic but untalented”, I say.
Why stick with the Coach. Or rather, why does he stick with you?
But this is no ordinary coach.
I’m learning from the quiet, capable man. A bit about cycling. But I learn other things too.
I see his love and commitment to family and friends. I see how well he guides and cares for up and coming youngsters in his program. I see his work ethic. I’ve come to know his quiet humility, I have seen first hand, flashes of his gritty, fearless and powerfully precise, competitive spirit that is only let out of the box when needed, then neatly and quietly packed away, ready for another day.
Our Coach is someone who understands who we are, where we come from, and shares and guides us to that place we want to go.
With little talent and 8-9 hours per week to train, (if I set the alarm), with just a couple of 12 hour weeks to squeeze in for something as demanding as the 3 Peaks, the Coach has a job on his hands.
But I’ve learned how to use my time well, and to be patient. At 57, with last year’s training under my belt, I’m understanding the merits of that slow build of accumulated strength and fitness:- now familiar friends to call upon when the road goes up, or the head-wind blows hard.
This year however, my mate was having a bad day in the mountains.
At our age, training can’t start too late, we need some time. Inconsistent training can also be a killer. No proper taper the week before, fatiguing work commitments, poor, untested food and nutrition choices on the day, subsequent stomach upset, all conspired against my friend, to deliver him a bad day in the hills.
Following a plan with our Coach who spends time chatting on the ‘phone and when on the bike beside you, teaches you about understanding your body and your physical and mental capacity. You learn from him when to go hard, when to rest and recover. Best of all, you build a confidence and a trust in your training when the road seems long and hard.
Some of the things I’ve learned were clearer to me when riding with my brave friend. Unfortunately he hadn’t had the luck of meeting Dave.
You need a good foundation.
Time building your “cycling factory”. Aerobic conditioning, development of your general circulatory and specific neuromuscular infrastructure and metabolism. The muscular, aerobic and metabolic capacity to safely absorb the training that lies ahead.You won’t know how important this is until you’re further down the track.
It was going to be a perfect day in the mountains. The pre-dawn light. The expectant and nervous anticipation at the top of Falls Creek, finally released as we descend with 2000 amici. Conditions couldn’t have been better.
Safe, efficient descent, controlled climb over Tawonga Gap, all’s good.
A ride like this you need to know your effort zones and threshold levels. Understand how to use your strengths, but avoid red-lining, especially early in the piece. There’s a long way to go yet.
The Coach’s interval, ergo and hill repeat sessions that are phased in after that initial base conditioning, give you the strength and endurance you need. But also the knowledge, the experience and the feel of how to efficiently push yourself. You don’t know it at the time, but you are learning how to pace yourself on a big, long, challenging ride like the 3 Peaks.
Today the hills don’t scare me. They once did. I strangely welcome them, I almost feel better, fresher, lighter when I’m looking up. A year with The Hurt Box, and I am back to the body weight, of my youth, somewhere I haven’t been for 25 years, and without really trying, it just happened. Now I’m motivated to stay in this good place.
Unfortunately the day wasn’t getting any better for my friend.
“Don’t forget to eat and drink Franco, little and often”, Dave’s advice echoing in my ears. I understand now you have to practice fluid and nutrition intake in your training. You need to understand how your unique system responds to those challenges.
Simple, but my good friend didn’t know this.
We start to fall a little behind schedule.
“Find a steady bunch, stay out of the wind, keep it steady on the changes.”
Easier said than done in our cohort and calibre of rider Coach. No one seems to know or perhaps doesn’t want to, do rolling turns, and when they do, they sprint through breaking the steady shelter you’ve provided them. Let those ones go. Keep it steady and smooth. Build excessive lactate and oxygen debt now, and like all debts, you will have to pay it back with interest later!
My mate is on the front. Because, he’s a good bloke. Right now I know he shouldn’t be there. This bunch is all over the shop.
In the best impersonation of Coach Steggles that I can muster, I bark out some firm but friendly instructions to swap turns more regularly and with some semblance of smooth efficiency. But il mio amico is starting to look just a little more tired. As the bunch attacks every small bump in the road, I try to give my friend some shelter. I try to smooth out the effort as I imagine the quad- sapping metabolites that are accumulating in the legs of our new found friends. A good bunch is not to be found today.
Half way up Hotham, I know from Hurt Box training camps, that it delights in surprising us with a second hour of climbing in this part of our journey. But I now know we are in a spot of bother with our time.
The Hurt Box hill repeats, or flat “hill wattage” efforts, resistance training, have made my journey so far, really comfortable. The longer steady rides, or even the shorter one hour sessions, with “steady pressure on the pedals” as Coach would say, “Let the fatigue do the training for you.”
These sessions have been a small revelation. Invaluable for efficiency and endurance. I realise now that past training in my gruppetto was only really less than 30% efficient. Ride an hour or two with David and his brother Neil, another great guy, and you learn how taxing this easy endurance training can be. But it pays you back. The Sturts know how to build all the different components into your training without wrecking you. They make sure you also learn the importance of how to recover, ready to build and progress again.
If we make it through today, I’m going to introduce my mate to the Coach.
We’ve probably had the same training hours on the bike my friend and I, he’s even had several weekends up at Falls Creek testing out the climbs. We have similarly demanding work commitments, and no doubt share the same humble level of athletic ability. But I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’m having a great day, and that he’s not enjoying things quite so much. Right now, I’m glad I know David.
The Meg, CRB hill? No problems, even almost enjoyable. But I need to stop and wait for my good friend. I use the excuse of a photo opp. as he crests the hill, managing a smile. He’s not giving in.
I talk, joke, and at one point even sing to try and distract him from his demons. I don’t think the singing helped!
Valiant, but after Dinner Plain, he’s dragging an anchor over every small rise. We’ve all been there. You’ve just got nothing in your legs. You can hide it a bit on the descents, camouflage it slightly on the flats, but there’s nowhere to hide in the wind or even the smallest vertical inclination. It’s an empty, soul destroying feeling.
The cut-off time is now shadowing us like the Grim Reaper. We don’t say anything, but we know what’s coming.
It’s easier to be positive when those threshold repeats are familiar friends, that glide you over those hills. It is easy to be positive when the strength and cadence drills can be reliably called upon to eat up the never ending kilometres. When as Coach says, those steady, efficient endurance sessions “Are in the bank Franco.” , it is easy to stay positive. When the nutrition and hydration plan works, you stay positive. When the very last week of tapering prepares you mentally and physically for the tasks ahead, your body feels good and you stay positive.
I’ve learned and I’m still learning.
A consistent, disciplined, realistic, but time efficient plan.
“Trust the training Franco. I’ve seen the numbers, I know you can do it!” Thanks Coach, I think I can.
I love getting up early in the morning, well that’s a lie, but every day I do look forward to what the Coach has in store. I don’t like to skip or miss sessions as I know they compliment and build on each other as the plan unfolds. But equally I have learned how to manage interruptions. Funnily I seem to have less excuses in my time poor life than I used to. Motivation has become the new friend of consistently and efficiency. Improvement is its own reward.
The Hurt Box has become a trusted and welcome friend. An interest and a hobby of great satisfaction and enjoyment. I thank David and all the Sturts for that.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no illusions about my own ability. I’ve learned how to get used to being dropped in club races. But guess what, it’s happening less.
“How you going fella’s?” the 3 Peaks marshal calls out.
“How are we going for time?”, I ask, already knowing the answer.
Disappointingly we are on the bus, the sag wagon.
We’ve shared this day together, beautiful warm to hot conditions, magnificent scenery and we got over Tawonga and Hotham together. But the clock and some bad luck beat us.
Or maybe, just not the right training?
Hot, tired and a bit dejected, the bus seat almost is a welcome relief.
The bus driver does a U-turn and our hearts sink a little more. We are 3/4 around this fabulous but challenging circuit, a course that is worthy of your respect. He’s taking us back the longest possible way. Maybe to torture us with another vision of the road that has beaten us. Now it’s really going to be a long day.
To rub salt into our wounds, the air conditioning fails and then the bus breaks down and stops. Nothing but SOS reception, seems appropriate at this moment. We sit by the hot road, only marginally better than inside the stuffy bus, whilst the poor driver walks uphill seeking even just one bar of ‘phone reception.
The motor cools, and we limp a few more kilometres to Dinner Plain where we have to stop again.
My friend sits with his head in his hands.
“How lucky are we today?!”, I cajole. He now questions our friendship with a sad shake of his head. He can speak no words.
“No, really, check it out. Look, there’s a pub over there and I think it is open!”
“Have you got any money?”, he prays.
“You bet, … it’s my shout!”