Fitz’s Challenge: 105km first timer

I finally entered Fitz’s Challenge after first hearing about it in 2013.  Strictly speaking I only entered (and completed) the 105km Tharwa Challenge, which doesn’t include Fitz’s Hill.

Before for start of Fitz's 105km in 2015
Before the start of Fitz’s 105km – 2015

How hard?

Website testimonials tend to be upbeat, optimistic and slightly rose-coloured… and written by the staff.  Pedal Power didn’t get that memo.  The testimonials for Fitz’s include one “great ride, something for everyone” with the rest summarised as, ‘I was reduced to a babbling, drooling idiot in a foetal position.  Will definitely be back next year.’

Numbers can be deceiving

The 105km course is described as 1660m of climbing with grades up to 12%.  How does this compare to the Bobbin Head Cycle Classic 104km?  Same distance, but the Bobbo seems to have the edge for total ascent (the website does not show an ascent number, but most GPS report about 1,950m).

Fitz’s Bobbo
Distance 105km 104km
Total Ascent 1660m c.1950m (measured)
Max Altitude 704m 207m
Climbs 11 3
Climbs, really about 50 about 20
Categorised climbs Five Cat 4 Cat 3, 4 and 5
Longest climb 2.82km “Cotter Rd Climb (Full)” 10.72km  Not on Strava as a segment: Start ‘Akuna Bridge’, finish “McCarrs Ck to Thai @ Terry hills”Carrs Ck to Thai @ Terry hills”
Average gradient of
longest climb
4.4% 1.6% (sections average 4%)
Highest average gradient 9.7% 2.7% (sections average 6%)
Maximum Gradient Over 12% 9% (measured)
Time cut-off 7 hours

Drill down and the numbers paint a different story.  Of the 11 climbs on the Fitz’s profile, 7 have an average of over 5%.  My Garmin 500 measured short sections over 12% on most of those.

I admit that even the Bobbo will bite; any gran fondo can.  Ride either course and you’ll find that numbers and elevation profiles are rough guides at best.  Most of the Fitz’s climbs are too short to get a CAT number, but they are very steep and long enough that momentum won’t carry you over.  The Fitz’s roads are coarse unlike most of the Bobbo, which coincidently is situated in the electorate of our cycling ex-PM.

Remember, the 105km is the second-shortest distance on offer at Fitz’s.

Numbers don’t lie

Seriously, my heart doesn’t seem to care how fast it beats.  I peaked at 196bpm at the bottom of the “Uriarra Climb”, but I managed it down to the 170’s by the top.  (I later discovered that I had reduced my time from 12:16 to 8:54 this year, so I shouldn’t feel too bad.)

How’s that first third feel?

13km in and it wasn’t looking good. On “The long and grinding road” along Uriarra Rd I wasn’t great and felt in danger of being isolated as I couldn’t afford to push hard to join an echelon.

Fortunately, isolation meant that I could descend “Ragazzo Grasso Possibilità” from Mt McDonald very quickly, setting a PR on the curves.

So I felt somewhat better at the base of “Pierce’s Creek” and “Break my spirit” and got over them fairly comfortably (with PRs) by just sitting back and grinding them out.  I’d only ridden them once before, but they were familiar.  Watching other riders grinding along at more or less the same pace can be strangely comforting.

To help with climbing I have a Garmin screen with Altitude, Gradient, Cadence, HR and Speed.  But I noticed that my HR was not dropping on descents or flats as much as I’d expect.  I had barely ridden in the weeks before let alone trained, so I focussed on at least trying to keep below the 190’s for the rest of the ride.  I also realised that I was calling “car BACK!” and “moto UP!” at top voice; so my lungs were in fine form even if my heart wasn’t.

Burn carbs today

High HR means burning carbs.  My big, low-GI breakfast was gone by 33km at the Gravel Pit check point.  I sacrificed a very fast descent I was leading to turn off and refuel in fear of not making it to Tharwa.  The profile of the 26km from Gravel Pit to Tharwa to goes from 507m to 704m and down to 580m, and there is probably 500m of climbing.  My speed varied from 7 to 70km/h.  The first of the 105km riders were returning, including all of my mates, before I reached Tharwa.

(According to Strava, I spent 3 hours at threshold and nearly 1 hour at anaerobic.  No wonder I was hungry.)

At Tharwa (60km) I ate, drank and rested for about 30 minutes.  But I felt confident and I was having fun.  Being over halfway helps.

As more riders from the 165 and 210 started to ride through Tharwa I decided to leave to try to get aboard their trains.  After the very steep climb out of Tharwa, I managed 2km of drafting behind two 165km riders at 35km/h. That was all I dared until the end.  As riders overtook me I couldn’t risk blowing up trying to hook on.  Instead, I rode alongside a familiar half-dozen of so riders, losing them on the climbs and blasting past them on descents.

The climbs too much for some, reduced to walking or even stopping under any shade they could find.  One recurring character was Ian, with whom I spoke at Tharwa.  His distinctive red kit was easy to spot.  We must have caught up, passed, stopped and caught up again half a dozen times between Tharwa and the Gravel Pit.

Second time at the Gravel Pit I took all of the cake, snakes and liquorice I could stomach.  There was an immediate 2.77km climb, plenty of bumps and the Cotter climbs to go in only 16km.  I’d already had twinges of cramp that had go no worse during the climbs, so I was confident.

What goes up, must come down

“Pierce’s Creek” climb is character-building.  “Pierces Creek Descent” is the reward.  I didn’t hit the top of the descent as fast as I would have liked, but I don’t think that I used the brakes after that.  Clocked 83.6km/h (according to Garmin) @ 49s and was the fastest of the day.

Nice.  Now to climb the Cotter.

Last climb (but one)

The “Cotter Climb to Stromlo KOM” segment is 7km long with two sections joined by 1km of slight downhill.  I sighted Ian near the beginning, in the shade, coping with cramps.  You can really have quite a conversation at 9km/h.

My cramps were not getting worse and my HR was orange, not red so I kept on.  I was surprised to reach over 40km/h on the false flat and carried some of that up the last 1.5km and over to blast past down Cotter Rd to the finish.

Ah… before the finish the new 400m climb up Opperman St was not on my course, but by then it was just a roll across the finish line.


My elapsed time was about 6:15 with a saddle time of about 5:08.  However, according to the first results published on Wednesday 28 October, I came first with a time of 3:19 (average speed 31.6 km/h).  Pedal Power have since fixed the error, which was down to my transponder being detected twice at Tharwa.

What I learned

  1. Indoor trainers teach continuous pedalling.  You can’t underestimate the efforts that your legs, feet, bum and gentleman’s area go through on a long ride without traffic lights and intersections.
  2. Strava arm warmers will also keep you cool in hot weather and free from sunburn.  I have slivers of burn on the tiny gaps between my gloves and sleeves.
  3. I need something under my helmet to prevent “horns” from being burnt into my forehead.
  4. And something to stop sweat pouring into my eyes on descents.
  5. Load the course into your Garmin.  Knowing what you are about the face and how long you need to face it is very good for pacing and confidence.
  6. If the course is not downloadable from the ride website, try or similar.
  7. Prepare your bike.  My tyres were new, I degreased the drive-train before full tuning, brakes were tightened for fast response.  My KMC chain doesn’t like my Ultegra top jockey wheel, but at least I never missed a shift.
  8. Keep it steady for the first third.  If you feel good, then push it.
  9. Ride at your pace.  Jump on a train if you can, but don’t burn up trying to stay on.
  10. Eat and drink regularly.
  11. Some drivers have no idea about overtaking.
  12. Motorcyclists have more respect for cyclists than drivers do.
  13. Have fun.

See you on the 165km in 2016.

Preparing for Fitz’s Challenge

At 105km Fitz’s Tharwa Challenge is the second shortest distance on offer.

Note: This is by no means a comprehensive guide to preparation for a challenging ride.  However, as I did make it back alive, in one piece and under the cut-off then I can say that these tips helped.

Know the route

There is something exciting about riding in a new place and experiencing it for the first time.  But unless you are experienced at similar distance and gradient, riding Fitz’s Challenge without reconnaissance is insane.  Riding Fitz’s with reconnaissance is merely foolhardy.  I drove the 165km route, which proved that my recollection of relationship between Fitz’s Hill and the turnaround at Rendezvous Hill missed almost 20km of route.

I knew that I could climb everything this side of Fitz’s Hill, so I stuck with the 105km Tharwa Challenge.  The 165km and beyond is for another year.

Preparing the bike

My mate Stuart Pedro had a flat 20km into the Great Ocean Road Ride because of badly-worn tyres and it only went downhill from there, which was unfortunate because there was a great big hill up ahead.  Stuart climbs hills very well, but now he was sad.

To avoid sad, here’s the list of things I changed:

  1. New tyres (Continental Grand Prix 4000 II)
  2. Had my bike fit checked (10mm more saddle height)
  3. Adjusted brakes for quicker response and cleaned the pads
  4. Degreased chain, adjusted derailleurs for 11-32T 10-speed Deore cassette
  5. Repacked headset
  6. Cleaned bike
  7. Packed saddlebag: two new tubes, full-size 2-6mm Allen keys plus mini tool

Did you know that Randonee rules in Europe used to stipulate mudguards?

Preparation of body

My physical preparation was nearly non-existent; a combination of illness, hay fever and a packed schedule saw to that.  I even had my right knee in a Thermoskin supporter for the week before, which came good on the day!  But I did a few things:

  1. Aussie Butt Cream – for comfort down under.  I covered my gentleman’s area with it before and used a little afterwards.  Top Tip: Apply butt cream before you attempt to apply Dencorub.
  2. 3/4 knicks – I was prepared to wear the Thermoskin, but the 3/4 knicks offer just enough support and added sun protection.
  3. Arm warmers in Strava orange – the start was cool, but as I found in the Bobbo the arm warmers feel cool when the temperature increases.  And they are UV-proof.
  4. Arrogant Bastard Ale jersey – to stand out from the crowd and as a conversation-starter.
  5. Netti UV tube thing – I wore it to protect my neck, but it has 21 other uses, apparently.

Preparation of mind

You’ve got to enjoy it.  There’s is little point going hard without taking in the sights, sounds and sensations of the ride.  My mate Christopher saw an Antechinus on the Amy’s Ride in March. Don’t keep your head down and miss something like that.

If like me you are slightly unprepared physically, you must make it up with brain.  Don’t let the steep climbs grind you down.

Nurse the first third

The experienced riders watch the guns take off, safe in the knowledge that they will overtake the exhausted shells of the fallen.  No matter how fit you are, take it easy for the first third.  At that point you will have an idea of how the rest of the day will fare.

So… how did I fare?