• Canberra's long running Fitz’s Challenge was first held in 1989. (Jarrad Schwark)Source: Jarrad Schwark
On paper at least, Canberra's Fitz's Challenge looks brutal. Just to be considered a finisher you need to complete the 255km course, including 5000 meters of climbing, in under 13.5 hours.
Jarrad Schwark

Cycling Central
2 Nov 2016 - 8:38 AM  UPDATED 2 Nov 2016 - 9:39 AM

Add to that equation the extreme weather variation of our nation's capital and you have yourself an interesting Sunday in October. In fact, in 2006 one participant tragically died descending the iconic Fitz’s Hill - an event that’s respectfully acknowledged before the start of each edition since. This could very well be Australia’s toughest mass-participation cycling event.

I signed up to this event in early June as part of a calendar of endurance challenges I set my self, thinking this would be 'good preparation' for Bicycle Network's flagship Three Peaks Challenge: Falls Creek come March. I shared this plan with a friend from my local cycling club to which he responded; "Mate, Fitz's is tougher than any Three Peaks ride, good luck with that one"

It's at this point a slight panic set in - am I going to be ready for this?

I began training, very hard. You would think it’s not that difficult to replicate the challenge, there are plenty of hills in Sydney I just need to do enough of them, don’t I? I rode everything from Bobbin Head on Sydney’s upper North Shore, to Saddleback Mountain on the NSW south coast. I searched for the hardest, longest climbs to try and prepare myself.

Little did I know that nothing could prepare me for what I was about to take on.

I had the opportunity to talk to the ‘man on the megaphone’ John Armstrong who is the Executive Office at Pedal Power ACT, the organisation who runs the event. Aside from giving me a rather vivid description of the suffer fest that I’ve signed up for, he also had some advice. “Be temperate, know that you’ve got 255km ahead of you, enjoy the hills,” he said.

Well, I heard his advice but I didn’t heed it and boy did I pay for it. I found myself in the front group of riders and with white-line fever, I tried to hang on. With just 30-odd kilometres in the clock I was feeling it already. I had to ease up and I was dropped. One by one, riders past me as we headed up the first serious climb, Fitz’s Hill (2.4km of 10-15 per cent gradient).

At the top of the hill was a sight every cyclist dreams of, food. Fitz’s is extremely well catered. Every checkpoint has water and food. And not the sports drink, gels and energy bars that seem to have become the norm at these rides. They provide lollies, cakes, fruit and chips – food you can’t shove in your jersey pocket.

I’d heard about the weather playing it’s role in previous editions of the Fitz’s Challenge but you’ll never know what each year will toss up. I heard stories of last year when it was four degrees at the start and 40 degrees in the middle of the day. One rider brought an Express Post bag and posted his cold weather kit back to Sydney at one of the towns along the way!

This year there was wind and rain, what a combination! Climbing up the brutal hills, the rain slowly washed away any will you had to continue. There was no time to rest on the descents either, with the rain making the road slippery you needed every ounce of concentration you could muster. I know because I almost collided with a kangaroo coming down one of the hills before lunch.

Something that separates this ride from others, apart from the relentlessly undulating roads, was the sense of community spirit from the volunteers. At every checkpoint you were met with cheerful and helpful people, happy to fill your biddons while you stuffed your face with anything you could grab. These volunteers made the final kilometres bearable.

I was chatting to one fellow at the final checkpoint where he informed me I was about mid-pack. I thought this was quite an achievement until he told me the first rider came through at 2.45pm, a good three and a half hours ahead of me.

Finishing was more a feeling of relief than elation. I pictured myself fist-pumping the air in Le Tour fashion when I crossed the line. However, when I eventually did I had neither the energy nor the inclination to do it.

I had nothing left. I could barely lift my bike on to my bike rack. Looking back now I am extremely happy with my achievement. I set out to finish and that’s what I did. All there is left to do now is to come back and beat my time.

Coming up in December is L’Etape Australia, a ride for the public run by the Tour de France organisers. It has two courses, a 157km race and a 126km ride, making it achievable for most avid cyclists.