Pictures by SGL, Jimi Thomson of TTT and Kev Mellalieu. Words by SGL. Click on any image to view fullscreen and then use your back button to return to the story.
It was pitch dark. A few hundred metres ahead, I could see two rear lights blinking away and to my right, a kilometre away across an unfathomable black void, I could just make out the silhouette of the summit pyramid, on which another rear light was visible for a few seconds. That one belonged to my son Tom, who at 17, was undoubtedly having the biggest adventure of his life.
I rode on, my focus limited once more to the beam of my front light and I mused on the fact that Everest also has a summit pyramid and the link made me smile – it was so apt. Ten minutes later, at 5.00am, I arrived at the summit. It was four degrees centigrade and the air was distinctly crisp. It was also thinner, but that was less tangible, for the time being. To the east, the mountains were rimmed with a faint fire. Above me, the sky was the deepest blue. Stars twinkled and a waning moon still shone dimly. Everywhere else was simply silence and darkness. Below, was the vaguest shape of valleys, filled with clouds and mist. Scale, drama and beauty were all around me and I was genuinely humbled.
For seven months of the year, this place is cut off from the world by snow and ice – just being there is therefore a privilege. As the author Max Leonard put it in his book, Higher Calling, “[road cycling climbs like the Cime de la Bonette] exist on the very margins of reality”.
I recently worked out that I’ve climbed about 1,000 cols (mountain passes) in continental Europe. Of all of those, the Cime de la Bonette, climbed by its northern approach from the village of Jausiers, is my favourite. The Bonette has it all – at 24km long, with a summit at 2,802m, the statistics say ‘big’. It’s a real mountain – summit pyramid included. In that respect (and unlike most of the roads that cyclists climb), it’s like Mont Ventoux, in that you actually climb to a peak. It fulfills your notion of what climbing a mountain should be and where that effort should end: on top of something. Nothing around the Bonette is higher. It’s ‘Hors Categorie’ in every sense. It has forests, cliffs, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, meadows, marmots, ibex, golden eagles and bearded vultures, an abandoned military fort, snow, wolves (yes, seriously), shepherds and their sheep (thousands of them) and dark, barren wilderness. It’s France’s highest paved road and the highest point ever reached by the Tour de France. There’s 28% less oxygen at the summit and the author Simon Warren gave it 10 out of 10 for difficulty and declared it genuinely EPIC (in capitals)! As a target for the highest Everesting in Europe, it was completely appropriate… but it was also hugely, laughably, ambitious.
I dragged myself back to the reality of where I was. Logic was telling me to put some warm clothes on and follow Tom, Rich and D.A. down, off the mountain to somewhere warmer.
But what I really wanted to do was just sit down and watch the sunrise.
It had taken me two hours to ride to the summit, a trip we were each hoping to repeat five more times, non-stop, in an attempt to ‘Everest’ this particular mountain. ‘Everesting’ involves riding consecutive laps on a chosen hill/mountain, up and down the same climb (‘running laps’, I call it), until the rider’s cumulative ascent reaches 8,848m – the height of Mount Everest. The ride has to be done in a continuous push i.e. you can stop briefly to eat, drink, etc, but you can’t go to sleep. No matter which climb you choose to attempt, it’s likely to be a 20 – 24 hour effort and a defining test of endurance. Any Everesting is firmly in the ‘very difficult’ camp, but the Bonette added in a multitude of extra problems – we’d travelled a thousand miles just to get to the foot of the climb, we were gambling with the weather and we weren’t acclimatised to the altitude at all.
Everesting became a global phenomena amongst elite endurance cyclists in 2014 and many of the world’s most famous climbs have since been Everested. For example, Box Hill in Surrey (of 2012 Olympic Road Race fame), has been Everested a number of times, with riders covering 370km and climbing the hill 75 times – in a single ride!
A successful Everesting admits the rider to a unique club known as Hells 500 and it’s been dubbed ‘one of the most exclusive clubs in the world’. According to Andy van Bergen, the founder of Hells 500 “Mount Everest is unlike any other numerical target. It’s a symbol for anything big and momentous in our lives. The reason the concept of Everesting has become so popular amongst elite riders is that it’s an icon that resonates with cyclists and non-cyclists alike”.
I dragged my eyes away from the horizon and concentrated on the task in hand: getting down off the mountain. I quickly put on winter gloves, a hat, toe warmers and my Assos jacket.
I looked back the way that I’d come, back down the 15% ramp that led to the summit and saw Kev’s light inching its way up those final few meters. I snapped a few photos, my camera struggling to focus in the pre-dawn gloom and then, with a last glance at the wonder around me, headed into the darkness below, shivering as I went.
My previous Everestings had always been solo. Some selfish but logical instinct had told me that coordinating others, juggling multiple diaries and being reliant in any way on someone else would only make success less likely. Hence I’d always kept things simple and ridden solo.
Not this time, however. For a start, this hadn’t even been my idea. Back in the summer of 2016, my 16 year old son Tom had declared “we should Everest the Bonette”! We’d just climbed the mountain from the north as part of a longer trip. It was a ludicrous idea, but I let my heart rule my head.
We started training and planning for our attempt and a team emerged: five riders, two support crew and a fully equipped ‘base camp’ vehicle positioned 9km up the climb, courtesy of our friends at Swiss based bespoke cycle guiding company, Two Tyred Tours (TTT). Tom and I would be joined by David Alexander (a.k.a. FULL D.A.), Rich Green and Kev Mellalieu and together, we’d be hosted by Jimi and Janine of TTT. The scene was set and a date was chosen: Monday 17th July 2017 – a single day, picked randomly, almost 12 months away. I was breaking all my own ‘how to plan a successful Everesting’ rules!
The climb, starting in the village of Jausiers, was 24km long and averaged 6.7%, with a maximum gradient of 15%. What would really define this climb however was not it’s length, nor how steep it was, but the altitude – Jausiers was at 1,250m (well above the height of Snowdon) and the summit was at 2,802m, meaning we would have to cope with 10 – 28% less oxygen than at sea level. Each lap would give c.1,589m of ascent, meaning we would have to complete almost six laps to reach 8,848m. My previous Everestings had involved 100, 80 and 15 laps respectively, so this was blissfully simple: no lap counter necessary! We’d allowed three to three and a half hours per lap. The maths was easy – if all went to plan, we’d be on the mountain for between 20 to 24 hours.
On the flight to Geneva, a couple of days earlier, it had struck me that we were taking a massive gamble. We’d effectively committed the last 12 months of riding and planning to one specific day, with no option to reschedule and no idea of whether the conditions would be ride-able on that particular date. Sitting on the flight, I realised that we could be hugely disappointed. There were so many unpredictable elements. With previous Everestings in the UK, I would pick a few dates and then watch the weather until one of those dates was favourable. In contrast, here we were, locked into one, 24 hour period: like it or not, take it or leave it. A strong headwind, rain, snow, excessive heat, or electrical storms – any one of these could end our attempt and given the scale of the Bonette, any one of these was quite possible.
The forecast was for very strong winds by early afternoon and that was in the vallley! If true, we might not be able to ride the upper reaches of the climb.
We were also, it would turn out, completely underestimating the impact of altitude.
If I was prone to listening to reason, I wouldn’t have achieved much at all on two wheels. All the rides that I’m proudest of were improbable at the concept stage, particularly since they invariably involved lots of climbing and if you’ve met me, you’ll know that I don’t look much like a climber…
What I lack in natural climbing ability, I try to offset with diligent training, really detailed planning and advanced chimp management! My chimp is called Pete and he’s the negatively emotional part of my brain. He shows up both before and during really big rides and tries hard to convince me to stop. Stop planning, or stop riding, he doesn’t really care. Over 30 years of adventures, I’ve learned how to manage Pete and perhaps this, more than anything else, is why I came to be on top of the the Cime de la Bonette at 5.00am on a Monday morning in July.
2.00am, Monday morning: the familiar, horrible sound of an Apple alarm, drags me from sleep. I woke Tom and we both dressed, half asleep. We ate cereal sitting on our hotel beds and then headed quietly outside. D.A., Kev and Rich also emerged and we whispered nervous greetings to each other. Gamin’s beeped in the darkness and our light beams lit up the hotel car park.
2.45am: we rolled quietly away. I reminded myself of the drill: Relax. Breathe. Just settle into the experience. All the rush, preparation, packing, planning, training and doubts were now irrelevant. It was time to simply ride.
3.05am: just a few kms up the climb and Tom drew ahead. I stopped to take a few pictures and Rich and D.A. gained a little distance too. I closed the gap, but then attempted more pictures and they drew away again. My camera struggled to focus in the dark.
I could see Kev’s light a little way below. Usually he’d have been right on the pace, if not ahead, but this was not a normal year: in January, he’d been hit by a car which failed to give way and suffered eight broken ribs, a broken collar bone and a punctured lung. It was a miracle that he was riding at all and his goal was simply to do a single ascent. Even that had appeared wildly ambitious in the dark days of January and as Kev was already discovering, a punctured lung and altitude don’t mix well.
3.30am: I passed the van, just visible beside the road, in the dark. It was 9km up the climb, meaning we would pass it twice on each lap, which helped with hydration, food and general access to kit.
I wasn’t gasping for air – lack of oxygen is more of a silent assassin – but my muscles seemed stiffer and tighter than normal. Tom and I had both thought this climb quite easy last year, but now, in the cold air, it seemed much harder.
4.45am: I emerged onto the flatter section at 22km and spotted Tom’s rear light, off to the right, on the steep 15% ramps that led to the summit, a km ahead. It was an amazing sight and the Everest-like summit pyramid was just discernible.
5.00am: I reached the summit. I spotted the familiar stone that marks the top of France’s highest paved road. Rich and DA were just preparing to leave and Kev was soon to arrive. I snapped some pictures, marvelling at the beauty emerging from the darkness, while dressing in warm clothes as quickly as possible. It was four degrees centigrade.
I noticed that my Garmins had only registered 1,540m of ascent – almost 50m less than the actual 1,589m of height gain per lap. This was no doubt due to fluctuations in barometric pressure, but it would consign us to riding further up the climb than expected on the final lap.
6.00am: back at the very foot of the climb. Freezing cold. I stripped back down to lighter clothing and started all over again. The heat generated by climbing was so, so welcome.
6.45am: I stopped for the first time at the Two Tyred Tours van, filled my bottles, ate a Bounce Ball and then rode on again.
8.05am: I was close to the Col (1km below the Cime), when Tom passed me, going down. I checked my watch and worked out a little later that he was now 20 minutes ahead.
8.20am: back at the summit. Dawn had arrived and the views were stunning. It was deserted apart from two guys parked by the summit stone in a 911. Engine off, cooling exhausts pinging. They must have got up seriously early to be there for the sunrise. It was like a Porsche advert. I dressed in warm clothes again and then dropped 24km and 1,540 vertical meters back to the start.
8.45am: the local shepherd was moving his sheep and hundreds of them were all over the road, the first car of the day, trapped in their midst! I waited for five minutes – which seemed like an eternity – and then rolled slowly through.
10.00am: back at base camp on lap three. The ride had now begun to feel like hard work, which was worrying, with almost four laps still to go. Yoghurts, lemon drizzle muffins and another Bounce Ball. I took slightly fewer clothes to the summit this time.
12.00 noon: my third visit to the summit. Tom had already completed his third lap and was at least 30 minutes ahead.
The Bonette was now feeling really, really hard: the altitude was taking it’s toll and I was losing my appetite. My right knee was hurting a bit and the thought that I was only half way was weighing on my mind. Pete – my chimp – had been loitering in the background for the last couple of hours and was now grinning from ear to ear and doing cartwheels.
1.00pm: I descended to the van, where I found Kev. Amazingly, he’d made it to the summit twice, but in the upper reaches of the climb, he’d been struggling to breathe and had decided to call it a day: a punctured lung and altitude definitely weren’t mixing well. I collected our lights and took them back to the hotel at the foot of the climb, to recharge them. Rich and D.A. had done the same. I changed into clean shorts and a new jersey, just to freshen up a bit and to try to convince Pete that I was feeling good!
I stopped for a coffee in the small cafe in Jausiers, before starting lap four. Some Australian cyclists, sipping espressos of their own, asked why I had a battery charger and two Garmins on my bike. I tried to explain, but in a pristine white jersey, their faces registered slight disbelief. I partly shared their doubts and rode quietly away.
2.25pm: as I neared base camp on lap four, a black BMW passed me. It was Phil Bond of Team LMT and his wife Sarah. Phil had ridden the Etape du Tour the previous day and was staying nearby. He joined me for the last 15km of the climb to the summit and was a truly wonderful distraction!
We shot photos of each other as we went and of D.A. and Rich too, just behind us. I was ashamed to admit that stopping to take photos, even for just a few seconds, had become a very welcome respite!
Tom had finally taken a proper break at the van with Jimi and Janine for company, who helped feed and rehydrate him. We shared comments on the climb and agreed, it was proving harder than we’d expected. He looked tired, but as we talked, I realised that he was actually feeling reasonably strong and he was definitely confident of finishing.
My heart rate was c. 20bpm higher than normal for the given power output – spread out over the entire ride, this was an awful lot of extra work and physical stress: the affect of 28% less oxygen!
4.00pm: I took Phil’s picture at the summit stone. I’d climbed 6,100m. We headed back down – I noted that it was now warm enough to descend in just a jacket! It was 12 degrees at the summit and 30 degrees in the valley.
Tom was over an hour ahead. Jimi rode part of lap five with him, to the lake at 18km. I meanwhile headed down to the hotel again and picked up our recharged lights. I changed my jersey once more and got another espresso on the way out of town. I was well past the equivalent of the real Everest Base Camp and usually this felt like a real milestone, but the thought of another 3.000m was weighing heavily upon me.
8.00pm: lap five was hard. So hard. I was feeling tired and even had twinges of cramp – I never get cramp. My stomach was also churning – the same problem that I’d had a month earlier, on Mynydd Graean. Janine (a doctor and a cyclist herself), explained it to me the following day: “your body had directed blood supply to the muscles and organs most in need of oxygen and therefore away from your stomach. The net result is that you’re just not able to digest the food you’re taking in and will just feel increasingly bloated and uncomfortable. At the extreme end of this problem, your stomach will simply void itself. The solution is to eat sparingly, but often and apply the same rule to drinking and electrolytes too”.
I passed Tom near the fort and we stopped and chatted for a minute, sitting on the wall of a small bridge over a stream. All he had to do was descend and then ride back to this point: success was within his grasp. I urged him to be really careful on the descent.
I remounted and headed to the summit, back up the 15% ramps, for the last time. 7,600m. It was 8.05pm and I’d been riding for 14 hours. The shadows were getting very long. I passed D.A. and Rich just below the Col, on my way down and snapped some amazing pictures of them.
The fort at the Caserne de Restefond, was likewise stunning in the evening light.
8.30pm: I rounded a corner just below the fort and saw Jimi, Janine and the van: base camp had turned mobile! Even better, it had pizza! I tried to eat a slice, but couldn’t digest it.
Meanwhile, the shepherd and his sheep were back. I waited a few more minutes, before restarting my descent.
Some 20km away in Jausiers, Kev had rolled back out again to accompany Tom on his final ascent. It was dark now and I was so relieved that Tom had company. Kev, once again, was being the perfect friend.
9.30pm: I stopped at the bottom of the climb and stripped off my descending layers. It was late. The sun had set and the temperature had plummeted. I was using full lights again.
Just below the lake, about 1,000 vertical metres up the climb, I encountered more sheep, plus five huge white dogs. They eyed me warily as I rode slowly through their flock and some instinct made me nervous. Weeks later, I discovered that these were Pyrenean Mountain Dogs and they were there to protect the sheep from wolves. They’re naturally nocturnal and aggressive and being in the middle of their flock in the dark was, with hindsight, a big mistake. Having now done my research, I should have stayed well clear until they’d left the road.
But thankfully, the ‘patous’ did nothing more than watch me carefully and I rode onwards, up into the darkness.
Wolves have returned to these mountains. Having been hunted almost to extinction, they crossed back into the southern French Alps from the wilder parts of Italy sometime in the 1990’s and packs have now spread as far as the Pyrenees and the Jura!
This has been largely kept quiet from the wider public, by the various local authorities, due to our atavistic fears, but the shepherds know full well what they’re up against and their dogs are purposefully kept in a reasonably ‘wild’ state to maintain their aggression. These are truly ‘working dogs’.
I passed Kev and Tom heading down, somewhere around the lake. We shared a few words – I asked them how far they’d had to ride for Tom to hit the height of Everest (to the fort), warned them about the dogs and urged caution on their final descent.
It was cold again – just eight degrees. Somewhere just below the fort, first one and then the second Garmin showed 8,848m. I carried on a little, to 8,910m, just to be safe. If it was daylight I think I’d have ridden to the Col again, but it was pitch dark and really cold. I just wanted to be done. I was visualising a hot shower and I wanted to talk to Tom and congratulate him.
11.45pm: I climbed off my bike and sat down in the middle of the road and slowly put on my warm descending gear. Rich and D.A. arrived and headed on a little further, just to make sure their Garmins were all above the magic number.
Midnight: I headed down, carefully, for the very last time. “Don’t get it wrong now Guy”. The roads were deserted. Even the shepherd and his sheep had gone.
Shivering again. A full cycle on one road: night, dawn, day, dusk, twilight, night again.
I cruised back to the hotel and hit ‘Save’ on the Garmins. I put my bike away in the garage, noting that Tom’s and Kev’s were already safely there.
12.15am, Tuesday morning: I paused outside the hotel door as a wave of nausea hit me, but it passed. I could see Jimi in the window above: I smiled up at him, but wasn’t capable of conversation.
I made it slowly up three flights of stairs and opened the door. Tom was sitting on the bed, showered, clean and grinning from ear to ear. I grinned back.
Imagine doing this aged 17. I’m not sure that I can, actually. He’d ridden the entire thing pretty much solo. Almost six HC climbs in a row, in a single push. 276km. 16’40” moving time and 20’25” elapsed time. It defied belief and even now, some weeks later, it still does.
3.00am, Tuesday morning: Rich and DA, having reached the height of Everest, descended to the lower part of the climb and ran additional mini-laps at a lower (warmer), altitude, to reach a cumulative 10,000m of height gain. Staggering.
Welcome to both Hells 500 and also the ’10,000m in a singe ride club’: The High Rouleurs Society. Extraordinary effort lads.
Two days later: Ultimately, the Gods were benign that day. So many things could have gone wrong, but none of them did. The weather stayed dry. We even got a tail-wind in the afternoon! No one crashed (one of my biggest fears had been that someone would have a big ‘off’ on the descent and we’d all have to abandon). On the long journey back to the UK, I had plenty of time to think about how lucky we’d been and how significant our achievement was – the highest Everesting in Europe to date. I think my gravel Everesting a month earlier was pretty much as hard, but far more esoteric. The Bonette by contrast was recognisably significant. For the time being, it’s my single hardest ‘one-day’ effort.
The Cime de la Bonette is a truly magnificent place.
When a Grand Tour next races up it, I’ve decided that I’m going to be there.
As usual, I was mechanically sound and able to ride the next day, but deeply weary. I slept a lot more than usual in the following two weeks! I’ve noticed over the years that the anticipation involved in an event like this is a much longer-lived sensation than the post-completion euphoria. For a week or so, I felt really relaxed and content, but that soon faded, as it always does. So predictably, I started planning again.
As always, updates to follow in due course.
SGL, August 2017.
The col itself – the Col de la Bonette is at 2,715m and is the second highest road pass in France. However, not wanting to be second, the local ‘Department’ built an ‘out and back’ loop (2km total), above the Col. This is a loop around the mountain top and takes you to 2,802m, making the Cime de la Bonette the highest road in France and the fourth highest (paved) road in Europe. The Cime loop is steep, usually has big snow banks and the surface is generally good, but dirty, with lots of gravel. From the highest point of the road, it’s possible to walk to a viewing point on the very tip of the summit – 2,860m.
From Cyclist magazine:
The Cime de la Bonette is home to Europe’s highest paved road, and is… what’s that you say? It’s not Europe’s highest paved road? Then why does it have a sign at the top saying it is? It’s one of life’s little mysteries. Officially the Pico del Veleta in Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountains is the highest ‘proper’ road, reaching just over 3,300m. Still, the Cime de la Bonette is at least France’s highest paved road, which isn’t to be sniffed at. However, if you’re talking about Europe’s highest cols things get even more confusing, because the Cime de la Bonette is not quite the same as the Col de la Bonette. A ‘col’ is a pass – a road that passes over the top of a climb en route to a descent down the other side – whereas the road around the Cime de la Bonette (‘the peak of the Bonette’) is just an extra loop for sightseeing, which bumps the altitude up to 2,802m, versus the 2,715m of the Col de la Bonette. Three other European cols beat that: the Col d’Agnel, which straddles the French/Italian border, at 2,744m; the Stelvio Pass at 2,758m in the Italian Alps; and, beating them all, the Col de l’Iseran at 2,764m in the French Alps.
I rode my S-Works Roubaix, running a 50/34 and 11-32 set up. Tom’s Tarmac ran the exact same gearing. We both spent a lot of the day in the 32 sprocket ☺
Notably, D.A. ran a Venge Vias, with a 36/25 bottom gear. He’s a strong lad!
Higher Calling by Max Leonard:
By some strange twist of fate, while I was plotting to Everest the Bonette, author Max Leonard was writing a book all about cycling’s love affair with mountains. He chose the Bonette as the centre-piece for the book and each chapter and avenue of exploration links back to the Bonette. He even discussed Everesting at some length! He provided fascinating insights into so many questions that crossed my mind during the 24 hours that I spent on the climb: who clears the snow and when, where does the shepherd sleep, who drives to the summit each day to sweep the road of rock fall, what’s the history to the abandoned fort, are there really wolves, why am I doing this, etc? It’s an amazing read – thank you Max.