Abandoned tin mines: I'm definitely in Cornwall!

ASSOS LDN to Land’s End: 530km, 5,800m: non-stop

2.30am – the middle of the night, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall: the descent towards the A389 seemed perfectly innocuous, until my light cut out abruptly, leaving me in complete darkness. Blacker than black. Time slowed down. I told myself that this sudden complete lack of visibility didn’t matter: I just needed to remember where the road had been going, hold my line accordingly and stop as quickly as possible. Somehow I managed it, but as adrenaline rushes go, it was a significant spike! I waited, stationary, to let my eyes adjust to the darkness and then rode slowly for a couple of kms, to my next rendezvous with Ross and the support car.

I was now deep into Cornwall – my final county of eight, but the one that seemed to be going on forever. I’d left the ASSOS ‘mono-brand’ store in central London, almost 24 hours earlier, with the aim of riding all the way to Land’s End in a single push. I wasn’t part of an event, nor riding for charity – I just wanted to see if I could do it – and I’d self-imposed just one rule: no sleeping. At 530km and with c.5,800m of ‘up’, this ride was going to require a very significant effort.

Every year, I plan a few rides that genuinely scare me and this was one such ride.

Genuinely scary...

Genuinely scary…

I’d been toying with a ‘500km in one go’ attempt for at least a couple of years, but hadn’t really alighted on a route. The obvious course would be flat. But then, in late 2017, ASSOS of Switzerland asked me to prepare and guide a four day route from Land’s End to their London store for a small group of customers and a spark ignited, somewhere deep down in my subconscious.

With the four day customer ride scheduled for late June, I started to ride parts of the route, notably the section from Land’s End to Exeter, which I perceived as the hardest, both in terms of avoiding main roads and also the cumulative amount of climbing that I was likely to encounter. It made sense to ride that part first and finish in London – the final 100km or so were virtually flat.

By late May, I had a final version of the route, but I couldn’t really get my head around the logistics, notably how to get safely into London, when tired and possibly coinciding with rush hour. The second issue was support: I’d have to ride through the night and that would mean difficulties finding food, water, recharging lights etc. I felt physically ready to go and knew that my time window was limited to the following week, after which other commitments would rule out an attempt, indefinitely.

On Wednesday 30th May, I checked the forecast for the week ahead: fine weather, but a north-easterly wind. No go. But then it suddenly dawned on me: why not reverse the route? Monday 4th June looked like the best day.

There was one huge upside to this approach: if I was prepared to leave London really early, I could completely avoid the traffic issues. The downside of course was that I would then hit the hardest part of the ride – the final 220km through Devon and Cornwall – at the end and at night, which would be really challenging. My head was saying ‘stop’ and my heart was saying ‘go anyway’. As always, committing to try was almost the hardest part.

Without really expecting a positive answer, I fired off a quick email on Thursday to Ross Lovell of Moor Retreats – a luxury bike tours/retreats guiding company, based on the edge of Dartmoor and who I knew only from following him on instagram: “you don’t know me, but would you consider giving up a night’s sleep on Monday and supporting my ride”. Somewhat remarkably, he replied overnight and said yes! I couldn’t quite believe it. I still can’t. What an absolute star!

I sent him a link to my route, asked for his views on my choice of roads and also mailed him a parcel with spare clothing, energy food, spare lights and wet weather gear (the forecast was now saying possible thunder storms, late in the day).

In theory, all I needed to do now was relax over the weekend and head into London, late on Sunday afternoon. Fate however, had different ideas. I headed out for a gentle 60km on my S-Works Roubaix on Saturday morning. It was the perfect bike for a ride like this: fast enough on the first 330 km to Exeter (Zipp 303s), long-distance comfy, great gearing (34×32) for the final 200km and very familiar (my ‘go to’ bike since 2014. Half way round, I noticed my finger felt sticky and a quick glance showed that it was covered in oil. Uh oh. It turned out that the hydraulic cable had sprung a leak and the bike needed a complete new lever. In the time left before departure, this was impossible.

Houston, we have a problem...

Houston, we have a problem…

Every option flashed through my mind: don’t go: not an option. Take the Litespeed: not ideal. Take the OPEN: great gearing for the hilly bits later in the ride, but not fast enough. Rebuild my old S-Works Roubaix: smart idea. But… there was one other choice: take the new Colnago: like the ride itself, my head said no and my heart said yes.

I’d only taken delivery of the Colnago a few weeks earlier and had ridden just 450km on it at that stage. It was a Colnago Concept – an aero bike. It was stiff and the riding position was pretty aggressive, as was the gearing. I’d bought it for short, fast rides and possibly even crit racing. It categorically wasn’t designed to ride all day, let alone for c.24 hours!

My head told me this was probably the wrong bike to take, but my heart won.

My head told me this was probably the wrong bike to take, but my heart won.

My heart won and I put the Campagnolo EPS groupset and the SRM power meter on charge. I made two other small changes: I added a 10mm spacer under the bars to help my back cope with the position and I changed the tyres to Vittoria’s 25mm Control version, which I perceived as fast, but with slightly tougher protection against punctures.

I planned to carry very little with me: a couple of small battery packs, some energy food and electrolyte mix, one set of lights, the usual spare tubes (three) and tools, knee and arm warmers, a cap and a very thin wind jacket. The forecast was good, so I didn’t need anything more.

Ready.

Ready.

I made my way into London late on Sunday, took a couple of pictures outside the ASSOS LDN store and then headed off to bed with all the familiar feelings of apprehension, mixed with anticipation.

3.00am: the familiar, annoying sound of an Apple alarm. I snoozed for a couple of minutes and then dragged myself out of bed. It was a mild night, so I added arm warmers, but left the knee warmers in my pocket. I ate a bowl of cereal, made a cheese bagel for an hour or so down the road and at precisely 3.50am, I rolled past the ASSOS store without stopping, through Piccadilly Circus and pointed my front wheel towards the west.

All adventures have to start somewhere and this was the perfect place.

All adventures have to start somewhere and this was the perfect place.

London was still cloaked in darkness, but there were already cars on the road and even the odd bus! I’d expected it to be quieter and was thankful for my lights.

4.25am: Richmond Park: the Roehampton Gate was locked, which had never occurred to me! I cursed myself for not having thought about this, but then discovered the small wicket gate and entered the park. I had it entirely to myself, along with the deer and a few rabbits. I rolled through and snapped a phew pictures on my phone as I went: Richmond Park all to myself was pretty damn novel! A crescent moon still showed in the sky, but I could now see without lights. Dawn had arrived.

Richmond Park: totally empty. Just me and the deer

Richmond Park: totally empty. Just me and the deer

Without knowing it, while removing my phone from my pocket, I’d dropped my ride notes – a small laminated card which named all the towns along the way, with distances and likely timing between them, along with notes on where I should categorically find food and water. On rides like this, where the ‘whole’ is just overwhelming, I’ve found it best to break things down into manageable chunks. For example, at this point, I still had 515km to ride, but Ascot was only 35km away. So I focused on Ascot, rather than Land’s End. When I discovered the loss, an hour later, I was momentarily thrown.

4.35am: I couldn’t get out of Richmond Park. My intended exit via Ham Gate wasn’t happening: both the main gate and the side gate were locked. What a farce! I was potentially trapped in Richmond Park, half an hour into the ride and with the clock ticking away re’ pressure to escape London before the Monday morning rush-hour started. I turned back up the hill, in the opposite direction to Land’s End and rode to Kingston Gate instead. To a huge sense of relief, the side gate was unlocked and a few minutes later, I was back on route.

5.00am: Hampton Waterworks, bang on schedule. Signs said the road ahead was closed, but I took a chance and got lucky – the huge hole was passable on a bike!

5.30am: Chertsey: traffic was slowly building but I was making good progress, not stopping at all. I passed under the M25 and headed due west towards Ascot.

7.00am: Ascot, still right on schedule. I took my first break, refilled my bottles at a small shop, tweaked my saddle position slightly and ate the bagel I’d made earlier. I was still running blinker lights and decided to keep them on until Hungerford, around the 120km mark, which was where I planned to take my first proper feed stop.

8.15am: the outskirts of Newbury and the surrounding roads were really busy – this was definitely the school and work rush. I managed to filter past the delays and headed back onto quiet roads, still heading due west towards Hungerford, catching crosswinds and the occasional headwind.

9.00am: Hungerford, still on perfect schedule. I missed the cafe I’d planned to use and was out of the town before I realised what had happened. This was a key point in the ride: I’d now turned south-west and could enjoy the full impact of the NE tailwind. I knew I’d find a garage or shop somewhere up the road, so just kept rolling along at c.35kmh, marveling at the scenery, the ease with which my bike was eating up the miles and the noise the deep section enve rims were making! The section that followed was one of the best 150km of riding I’ve ever had.

One of the best 150km sections I've ever ridden.

One of the best 150km sections I’ve ever ridden.

9.45am: Collingbourne Ducis: I stopped at a small shop to fill my bottles and ate a banana, a Veloforte bar and stockpiled a flapjack for later. The man behind the counter asked me where I was going and then looked at me disbelievingly when I told him!

10.30am: Knowing that I really needed some proper food, I stopped at a small cafe in Larkhill, very close to Stonehenge and ordered a bacon sandwich and a double espresso. They both tasted wonderful. Any stoppage time was a chance to recharged one or other Garmin (I was running two, in case one failed), but to my dismay, I discovered that the recharger didn’t work – sweat from my Stwlan Dam Everesting in April probably being the cause. I threw it in the bin and used my spare phone battery pack instead. I knew I could reach Exeter and Ross before I would need any more power than I had with me, so there was no need to panic. I called home and my son Jack photographed the itinerary that I’d lost in Richmond Park and texted it to me. I saved it as the wallpaper on my lock screen and instantly felt back in control of the ‘pieces’, rather than the ‘whole’.

I was genuinely thrown, having lost this 'chimp management aide' in Richmond Park, but my son Jack sent a copy to my phone and I was back on track after that.

I was genuinely thrown, having lost this ‘chimp management aide’ in Richmond Park, but my son Jack sent a copy to my phone and I was back on track after that.

My amazing progress continued – fast easy riding across beautiful landscape.

Longbridge Deverill: I refilled my bottle again and ate a sandwich.

Bruton: my routing took me down a barely ride-able lane and I was lucky to avoid punctures.

1.20pm: Castle Cary – with 212km, at an average speed of 28kmh! I was now deep into Somerset. It was lunchtime, so I stopped for cake and another espresso, but was saving a proper feed-stop for Lang port, which was another 30km up the road.

Castle Cary: 212km and not even half way!

Castle Cary: 212km and not even half way!

3.00pm: Langport: my first choice of cafe had closed, but the second was great and an espresso and sausage sandwich were both wonderful. I refilled my bottles yet again and drank plenty of water, knowing that the next 70km might be devoid of options to refuel: the Blackdown Hills.

This is an amazing hill range – it’s as high as Dartmoor, very remote and barely ever talked about. I’d been looking forward to this part all the way down to Langport – it’s always fun exploring a new area. My tailwind continued to aid my progress, but the day was now hot (at 28.C) and humid.

There were four major climbs/uplands on my route, each one harder than the last. I’d already crossed the Cranbourne Chase/Salisbury Plain, but the Blackdown Hills presented a harder climb and the first point at which I might really question my choice of bike. Up until this point, the bike had actually been perfect – slightly rigid perhaps, but seriously fast and perfect for the open, rolling roads. So, I was pleasantly surprised that my 36×29 was adequate, even though the climb had long sections at 16%. Once on top, I found a long plateau, quiet roads and very little else!

I just kept rolling, watching the sun move across the horizon from left to right. Exeter arrived around 6.30pm and I realised that I was in need of an immediate refuel, so even though I was about to meet Ross, I stopped at a corner shop, refilled my bottles and ate another sandwich!

7.00pm: The next section really surprised me: marked on the map as just a local ‘yellow road’, the reality was a wide, open, fast-looking stretch of tarmac. I tapped away, heading for Tedburn St. Mary and it dawned on me that this used to be the A30, before they built the dual-carriageway that now carries everything but the local traffic. Sure enough, a little later on, I recognised a set of corners that my sister and I had driven, some 35 years earlier!

7.30pm: right on schedule, I pulled into the car park of The Traveller’s Rest in Tedburn and met Ross. He’d arranged a rendezvous at a pub and as we waited for my Garmins to fully recharge, I took my first real food break, devouring a bacon cheeseburger and chips as we chatted about the ride, the night to come and how frequently we should aim to rendezvous.

Heading onto Dartmoor as the sun set.

Heading onto Dartmoor as the sun set.

8.15pm: I rolled away, heading across the northern edge of Dartmoor, as dusk arrived and the sky briefly glowed pink and orange. By the time I reached Okehampton, it was pretty much dark. Behind lay 350km of road, but ahead lay the tough bit: two moors, the most technical roads and darkness. I climbed up onto the traffic-free Granite Way and headed towards Lydford and my next rendezvous with Ross.

It was properly dark now, but my speed remained reasonably high, meaning I had to keep my lights on their brightest setting, burning through my battery…

Somewhere around midnight I crossed into Cornwall and shortly afterwards, spent ten minutes in the passenger seat of Ross’s car, munching on cheese sandwiches and marveling at the fact that he’d agreed to get involved in such nonsense! Top lad.

With Dartmoor firmly behind me, the final big challenge was Bodmin Moor. I climbed steadily up to Minions and then began the long drop to Bodmin, using the deserted A38 to make rapid progress (I’d never dare use such a busy road during daylight, but at 2.30am, I saw just one car).

My next goal was Victoria Services and all seemed to be going fine, until my light cut out. I knew that the filling station would be open and sure enough, Ross had parked up in the best lit spot. As we fiddled to attach my spare light, the attendant walked outside and asked me if my bike was a Colnago Concept! I was stunned – the Concept is pretty rare and little known. At 3.30am, this seemed like a really bizarre question! He asked if he could help, invited us in for (free) coffee, put all my lights and Garmins on charge and generally behaved like the perfect host. Amazing.

I lingered. It was warm inside and every minute lost here brought me closer to the safety of daylight.

In the end, we paused there for almost an hour, drinking coffee and letting things recharge (nothing had really charged much in Ross’s car, so the offer of mains electricity was too good to refuse).

4.00am: I rolled away again, knowing that I should be able to see without lights within half an hour or so.

I used my second ‘big road’ for a short section – the A30 – to make some rapid progress for 15km or so and then headed back onto quieter roads as I approached Cambourne.

Getting close enough to feel confident.

Getting close enough to feel confident.

7.00am: Cambourne. The world was waking up. I rode through Hayle and climbed up onto the peninsular. It was a grey morning, where the sky and the sea merged into one another, off to my right. The road to Land’s End should be downhill all the way, but of course this was Cornwall, so in reality, it was distinctly lumpy! Ross was never far away and snapped some great pictures as I did my best to keep my pace high, right to the finish.

Abandoned tin mines: I'm definitely in Cornwall!

Abandoned tin mines: I’m definitely in Cornwall!

Somewhere around 8.30am and within 30 minutes of my theoretical timeline, I rolled across the finish line at Land’s End itself, so pleased and relieved to be done.

Done and so glad to be able to stop!

Done and so glad to be able to stop!

Ross and I headed slowly down to the ‘Last House’ and then, after a few pictures and short pause to take in what I’d just done, we packed up the bike and headed for Penzance and a rendezvous with a hotel breakfast!

Ross headed off back home to Devon and I bought a train ticket for me and my bike, leaving at 2.30pm. I asked the hotel if they’d let me check in for a few hours and they did: I showered and slept for two hours.

Letting it sink in.

Letting it sink in.

The 2km ride to the station was hard! Then my train was cancelled and I had to sit it out for the afternoon. They laid on a coach for the other passengers, but since I had a bike with me, I just had to wait. And then they asked me to leave the empty Waiting Room, because bikes weren’t allowed in it. I scowled and politely suggested the Station Manager was welcome to come and explain his reasoning. They left me in peace.

Stranded for a while.

Stranded for a while.

Somewhere around 5.30, my train finally left Penance, this time with the massive bonus in that it included the Pullman Buffet Car. I booked in for dinner and enjoyed one of the best meals I can remember.

With hindsight, this ride felt pretty much like an Everesting – fund for the first two thirds and then just hard work. I genuinely enjoyed the first 350km, but the final 180km, much of it in the dark, was ‘Type 2’ enjoyment.

Three weeks later, I savoured every moment of the route, but over four days and in great company.

It was much nicer, three weeks later, with time to savour the route, full support and friends to ride with!

It was much nicer, three weeks later, with time to savour the route, full support and friends to ride with!

Thank you ASSOS for sewing the seed and crucially, huge thanks to Ross Lovell of Moor Retreats for looking after me through the night.

SGL, 2018.

If you ride far enough, in the end, there's nowhere left to go!

If you ride far enough, in the end, there’s nowhere left to go!

Nivolet Summit Team Snapseed 2

Everesting #5: Stwlan Dam, Snowdonia: Beauty and the Beast

Click to view any of the images full screen and then use your back button to return to the story.

I sat in the car, shaking uncontrollably, feeling nauseous and staring failure full in the face. In the last thirty minutes, the sun had set, the temperature had dropped from a lovely 22°C to just 8°C and I’d gone from feeling OK, to terrible. I turned the engine on, dialed the heater up to full and set about the task of eating, despite feeling sick. This was a full scale bonk* and I had no idea whether I could recover from it or not.

[* bonking is a cycling term for running out of energy. It’s the same thing as a marathon runner hitting the wall. It’s symptoms are unexpected sweating, nausea, complete loss of appetite, dizziness, shaking and you may just fall over. It’s not a lot of fun].

Snapseed 2

Some 12 hours earlier, around 9.00am, I’d clipped in, pushed away from the gate at the bottom of the climb, shifted quickly into first gear and settled into the rhythm of an Everesting attempt. As always, all the stresses of preparing for the ride fell away as I got down to the business of simply riding my bike. This was the good bit, the moment that I always savoured. The mountains were silent, the views incredible and my riding partner for the day, Kev and I chatted away. I gave him a running commentary on what to expect around each bend. He’d never ridden Stwlan Dam before and I was like an over-excited tour guide.

Snapseed

The road to Stwlan Dam is a truly remarkable one. Anywhere in the world it would be special, but for the UK, it’s arguably unique. It’s my nomination for ‘Best Road Climb in the UK’.

For a start, it has hairpin bends and not just one or two of them, but nine. Yes, NINE. The first two come around the two km mark, but then, close to the top, seven of them are stacked one on top of another. Descending them would become almost hypnotic as the day went on. It’s a very un-British road: we don’t build hairpins, particularly not series of them. It’s like a little piece of France, somehow transported to the UK and this is ironic, since a French electricity company actually now owns the road to Stwlan Dam!

Lap two and the fog is just burning off.

Lap two and the fog is just burning off.

The next amazing thing is that the road is a dead end i.e. a summit finish. We don’t have many of those. It was constructed back in the 1950s, as an access road for the building of the dam, which created the upper lake of a hydro-electric project.

Even better, it’s a private access road. It doesn’t even appear on Google maps. It’s gated and said gate is securely locked. You’ll find the odd sheep on the road, an occasional dog walker and maybe even a company vehicle checking the dam, but that’s it. In 24 hours on the hill, we saw one vehicle and three other cyclists. If you like peace and quiet, surrounded by beauty, then this road is for you.

 

Basecamp and the start of the climb to Stwlan Dam.

Basecamp and the start of the climb to Stwlan Dam.

 

So, ‘Beauty’ explained. Now to describe the ‘Beast’. The climb is hard. Hard as in 2.7km at 10.1% average (for those local to me, that’s a steeper average than Whiteleaf…). But the reality is worse still because there’s a virtually flat section around 1.5km, which lasts for c.350m, meaning almost all of the climbing is actually between 12 – 14% and the very last ramp to the summit nudges 16%+. You’d better bring your climbing legs to Stwlan Dam.

Snapseed 11

The final hairpin. This can’t really be in Wales can it!!??

I first heard about the road in February 2017, when Simon Warren, the author of ‘100 Greatest Climbs’, released his ‘Wales’ edition in the series spawned from the original book. In it, he declared that he had now found the ‘Holy Trinity’ – his best three climbs. In Scotland, he gave the nod to Bealach na Ba, which I’d not ridden, but had heard lots about. England’s best climb was noted as Great Dun Fell, which seemed fair enough. Wales though, is a place I know really well, so how could he be naming a climb I’d never heard of? Stwlan Dam? The picture of the hairpins was enough to capture my imagination and within a few days, I’d driven the 4.5 hours from London to take a look.

Ride up the very steep road until you get to the dam. Take the right fork and keep going until the road runs out. Simple.

Ride up the very steep road until you get to the dam. Take the right fork and keep going until the road runs out. Simple.

It was a cold, windy February day and the cloud cover barely left the top of the climb clear, but even that was enough to confirm that Simon had lifted the lid on a remarkable ribbon of tarmac – a hard, sinuous climb, in a stunning setting.

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The very top of the climb, or the start of the descent.

 

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Stwlan Dam and the 16% section – which felt much easier going down, than up!

I drove home that evening, already doing the HELLS 500 maths in my head: 270m of ascent per lap, would mean 32.8 laps to reach the cumulative height of Everest. At 10.1% average, this would easily qualify as a ‘steep’ Everesting, finished in just 187km (an Everesting in less than 200km is considered steep). ‘Hard’ kept flashing through my mind, perhaps even too hard, but I tucked it away for a future attempt.

Stwlan Profile Image

This needs little explanation: basically, red is bad.

I also started watching the weather: it rains a lot in north-west Wales. Worse still, the climb faces south-west and is very exposed to the prevailing wind. Getting good conditions would be a real challenge. Then, one weekend in October 2017, the wind swung around to the north-east, but I had other commitments and had to let the opportunity pass. A few days later, I spotted a photo on instagram and knew immediately that it was Stwlan and someone had beaten me to the punch. Not just anyone either, but Rich Seipp and his son Tom, aka ‘MiniPips’, who at 12 years old, became the youngest Everester ever – and on one of the hardest climbs! A staggering achievement and one to watch in the years ahead!

With some climbs, the singular opportunity to be the first to Everest has been key to my motivation, but with Stwlan, it didn’t matter: I remained drawn to it – to both its difficulty and its beauty.

Snapseed 12

I could ride these hairpins all day. Oh, wait, I did…

I penciled it into my diary for April 2018. As the date approached, the weather looked highly unlikely. This was relatively early in the year for an Everesting and when it snowed on 1st April, an attempt seemed like months away.

However, as the middle of April arrived, so did a brief window of stunning weather. My diary was clear on Friday 20th and I started checking the forecast really closely. I even printed a map of the climb and drew the wind direction on it, hour by hour. It looked like a distinct possibility, with the only issue being overnight hill fog and a slight headwind for the first 12 hours or so. I decided it was ‘good enough’ and started packing the car.

Everesting ‘away from home’ isn’t easy: not many hotels or B&Bs are likely to be happy if you try to leave around 2.00am! On previous Everesting attempts, I’d generally started early – around 2.00 or 3.00am – to avoid too much time in darkness at the end of the ride. However, a combination of accommodation logistics, plus research by my son, ‘Coach Tom’ into sleep deprivation and athletic performance, encouraged me to try something completely different.

I decided to have a proper nights sleep, a good breakfast and roll out around 9.00am. In theory, this would mean I would feel good for the first part of the ride, rather than bad, which was invariably how I’d felt before, with really early starts. The flip side was that I would have to ride through most of the following night and I wasn’t entirely sure how that would pan out.

At 8.30am on an overcast Friday morning and bang on schedule, Kev and I arrived at the gate in the small village of Tanygrisiau, that marked the start of the climb. I parked the car and we quickly got ready. As forecast, the cloud base was low, but it was expected to burn off by mid morning and a few early laps in cooler temperatures were welcome.

Kev, descending in the early morning gloom. The sun wasn't far away though and within 30 minutes of the photo, the sky was completely clear.

Kev, descending in the early morning gloom. The sun wasn’t far away though and within 30 minutes of the photo, the sky was completely clear.

The climb starts as it means to go on – at 10%! There aren’t many climbs that have you in first gear almost the entire time, but Stwlan does. If you’re not proficient at clipping in and out of your cleats at 10%, you’re really going to struggle to even get started on Stwlan!

We chatted, enjoying the riding, the views and the release of expectation and stress. We said hello to the odd dog walker and waved to a few rock climbers on the cliffs above us. The first ascent took just under 20 minutes and the descent about three! This gave me an immediate win on my maths, which had allowed 30 minutes per lap. I knew it was optimistic to expect this pace to continue, but it was a nice way to start. Even stopping for a bite to eat and a fresh bottle still had me on target for 17.5 hours all-in.

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Kev early in the day (and sporting the new wunder jacket from ASSOS).

On lap two, I realised that I didn’t have enough gears. Steady 12 – 14% meant my cadence was fixed around 70rpm, when I’d have preferred 80 – 85. I tucked this away in a corner of my mind and firmly shut the door on it.

I gave Kev a running commentary on where various heights gained would put us on a real ascent of Everest and then gently challenged him to reach Everest Base Camp i.e. 5,000m+. He was still recovering from a major accident in early 2017 and a 5,000m ride would be a really positive milestone on his long road back to full fitness.

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Considerably easier than the opposite direction!

We took pictures as we went, reveling in the amazing views that opened up and as we became familiar with the climb and the descent, we both stopped repeatedly to capture particular images. I lost a little time this way, but it was just too beautiful to ignore my camera. On lap seven, I even carried my SLR up to the dam and left it there, for either of us to shoot the hairpin section from high above.

The temperature slowly rose to 24°C , the cloud burned off completely and we just kept tapping away. At lap 14, Kev took a break for some food and getting out of sync allowed us to shoot even better photos of each other.

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When your legs start screaming, the view helps take your mind off them!

A climber was walking back down the road:

How many laps is that then?

13.

How many more to go?

20.

Ooohhhh, still a long way then!

Yes, thank you for pointing that out.

As the afternoon wore on, fatigue finally arrived and the attempt took on a more serious tone. The sun sank behind the dam and the road dropped into the shade. The temperature plummeted.

Snapseed 14

The road has fallen into the shade, the temperature is dropping and I’m on my way to a full scale bonk, even though I don’t know it yet. The ride is about to get serious and hard.

Somewhere around 5.00pm, a local dog walker introduced himself and asked what we were doing. We explained and it turned out that he, Kevin, had been a marshal on the Tour of Britain for a couple of years. He also quickly noted that we seemed to be climbing a little slower than local hero and reigning British Hill Climb Champion Dan Evans, who’s climbed the road in around nine minutes! A few laps later, Kevin walked back up the road and asked whether we’d like some coffee? I could have hugged him. “You have no idea how much I’d like coffee!” was my response. He made a call to a friend whose house was closer than his own and soon, Kev and I were enjoying mugs of steaming black coffee.

I rode another lap while Kev enjoyed his coffee and a natter. I passed three girls walking up the road to look at the dam and caught a waft of perfume. Surreal.

The upper hairpins are still in sunlight, but only just.

The upper hairpins are still in sunlight, but only just.

As the day had progressed, my ascent times barely changed at all: 20 minutes up, three minutes down. I hit 20 reps, the equivalent of Everest Base Camp at 5,335m, around 8.00pm. I fitted my Exposure light – the sun had sunk well behind the mountain, shadows had filled the valley and the temperature had fallen like a stone. By my 21st rep, we were in darkness and I mentioned to Kev that I wasn’t feeling great – perhaps even close to bonking. I was hotter than expected, slightly wobbly and nauseous (after the ride, I discovered that my ascent times had suddenly increased by 25% from laps 19 to 22)!

We ran one more lap and by the time I reached the top, I knew I was in trouble. With the temperature down to 8°C , I shivered my way down to the car, got in, turned the engine on and dialed the heating up to full. I was shaking uncontrollably and feeling sick. Kev got into the passenger seat and we talked through the possible scenarios: was I getting ill? I didn’t think so. It must be a fueling problem then – I’d simply run out of energy. I’m susceptible to GI issues during ultra endurance events and to combat this, I tend to eat pretty lightly during them. Sat in the car however, it was pretty clear that I’d undercooked it and despite the nausea associated with the worst full scale bonk I’d ever had, I managed to force down half a bagel, half a gel and half a Veloforte bar. The possibility of failure was staring me full in the face.

As the minutes passed, I warmed up and the shaking stopped. The problem shifted from physical, back to mental. My chimp was screaming at me to stop. I’d been in the car for 45 mins and I knew that if I didn’t get back on my bike pretty soon, I never would. It was so tempting to just pack up and drive back to the nice, warm B&B.

Get out of the car. No, it’s nice and warm in here.

GET OUT OF THE CAR. No, let’s just go to sleep back at the B&B.

I was fighting my chimp like never before.

GET OUT OF THE DAMN CAR. RIGHT NOW.

I got stiffly out of the car and flinched at the cold air. I quickly put on a long sleeve jersey and a windproof and loaded up an audio book. I rode lap 23 as slowly as I could, giving myself more time to recover. I made it to the top and then back to the car. More coffee arrived from our impromptu local supporters, along with chocolate bars! Someone put their coat around my shoulders. I could have kissed them! Kev called it a day (or night), as planned, with 5,000m under his belt (in just 103km!!!), and headed back to the B&B. I pressed play on my earpiece and pointed my front wheel up the road again.

I felt bad, but then I pondered how a real climber on Everest would feel on a summit push. ‘Awful’ I presumed. So I was in a better place than that, and should be grateful. I resolved to keep going, unless things got really bad. My ascent times were recovering.

Snapseed 13

The lower part of the climb is almost as stunning as the upper! In the dark, this section of the descent became much slower!

I rode another lap. I marveled at the stars and the crescent moon. I concentrated hard on the descent, even though it was now much slower in darkness.

Occasionally, I’d refill a bottle. I finished the gel. But I didn’t get back into the car, which I now viewed as a dangerously seductive place, associated with failure. A tray with a flask of hot coffee and chocolate bars had been left by the gate – how amazing were these people!!??

I rode another lap. And another and another.

Somewhere around midnight I hit 7,000m. I rode another lap. I refused to stop. The audio book kept me company and the stars filled the sky.

Around 3.00am, I reached 8,200m: the South Col on Everest. The so called Death Zone. I knew I was close to success, if I could just hold it all together for another hour and a half.

Snapseed 10

Hairpin #5…

I did two more laps – 31 and 32 – and suddenly, on the steepest ramp at the very top of the climb, 8,848m flashed up on my Garmin.

Job done... or maybe not. I actually needed to ride another lap!

Job done… or maybe not. I actually needed to ride another lap!

But I knew that was wrong: I’d ridden the hairpins a couple of extra times for pictures, much earlier in the day and my maths had always said that I needed to ride 32.8 reps to hit 8,848m. The Everesting Rules clearly state that your height must be gained by riding complete laps, so complete laps it would have to be – at least until I was confident that I’d ridden 8,848m in that way.

I descended and rode one last full lap, carried upward on a wave of euphoria at pulling through a situation that looked really doubtful for a while. I didn’t need to ride a full lap, but it just seemed more complete that way. I stopped at the summit and noted a slight glow behind the mountains to the east. Dawn wasn’t far away.

For the last time I descended through those amazing, hypnotic hairpins. I leant my bike against the gate and hit save on both Garmins. My phone beeped almost immediately to say that the ride was uploaded and I quickly renamed it: Everesting #5: Stwlan Dam.

I climbed stiffly into the car and recorded a live update for ASSOS on Instagram and then wrote a thank you note to the amazing folk of Tanygrisiau – Kevin, Leah and her partner (who, I discovered later, had even insisted on driving Kev and his bike back to the B&B). Such incredible hospitality, never to be forgotten.

I loaded the bike back into the car and drove very slowly through the deserted streets of Blaenau Ffestiniog, back to the B&B (http://craigddubedandbreakfast.co.uk/ – superb)!

I showered, went to bed and closed my eyes. I woke up two hours later, around 7.30am, in the exact same position. Oh, the joys of Everesting :-)

SGL, April 2018

Notes & Thanks:

Thanks to ASSOS LDN and ASSOS of Switzerland, for their ongoing support. Thanks also to Noble Wheels and Cycle Care, High Wycombe, for building and preparing a bike that was up to the task. As ever, I’m also hugely grateful to Kev for being there on the hill with me for so much of the ride. Finally, I’m going to say a very heartfelt thank you and dedicate this ride to the amazing folk of Tanygrisiau, whose hospitality was nothing short of amazing!

My second Everesting on my OPEN U.P. There's a third one in the hopper, back on gravel...

My second Everesting on my OPEN U.P. There’s a third one in the hopper, back on gravel…

The technical stuff:

I rode an OPEN U.P. with a 1X Sram Force set up. I ran a 38T single chaining, with a 10-42 rear cassette. Knowing that the road would be dry and wouldn’t be likely to produce punctures, I used the fastest rolling tyres in the business: Specialized Cotton Turbos (26mm), which were sublime.

I only used one front light, which took me from 8pm to 4.30am: an Exposure Strada 6. Amazing! The battery finally died as I leant my bike against the gate at the very end.

I stayed in the same shorts all day – ASSOS Tiburu’s and only needed to apply chamois cream twice. I also stayed in the same summer base layer too, but used four different jerseys, to help ‘compartmentalise’ the attempt into sections. After lap 22, I added an ASSOS Intermediate jersey and a Blitzfeeder jacket, which saw me through the night. I used Mille GT socks and a pair of S7 Summer Mitts, which also worked perfectly, in spite of so much climbing.

Re’ start time: it was an interesting and broadly successful experiment, but I would have liked to make more use of the available daylight, so a 7.00am start is what I’ll aim for next time.

I think the bonk could have been avoided, even though I was treading a thin line between triggering GI issues and eating enough. All I needed to know was my ascent times for each lap and next time I’ll make sure these are visible. The signs were there, I just didn’t have the data on view.

My plan has always been to complete seven Everestings. #6 is already in the hopper and with a bit of luck, I might even get it done this summer.

Snapseed 6

Kev, giving it some lean angle, early in the day.

This is probably my favourite memory of the entire ride. Scale and drama, by the bucket load, on the summit pyramid. Rich and D.A. riding into thin air.

The Definitive Guide to Everesting | Top Tips & Advice for Everesting | The Ultimate Guide to Everesting

There are a multitude of Everesting blogs and a selection of quotes alone are enough to put you off, or at the very least, think again.

“I got back on the bike and gave it everything I had, but at 10pm, and after 18 hours on the bike totally wrecked, I fell short by only 1,400 vertical metres”. 

“It’s obscene when the first 3,000m of a ride is treated as a warm-up. It’s not often you have four grand in the bank before breakfast”. 

“The last couple of laps were surreal; it was mechanical in my legs but my head was totally disconnected. Fighting off sleep, the lines on the road were blurred. I was crying and talking rubbish out loud.

—————————

‘Everesting’: the concept of riding your bike, up and down the same hill, without sleep, until your cumulative ascent equals the height of Everest”.

8,848m in a single ride.

It’s a very big, very hard bike ride and a defining test of anyone’s physical and mental endurance.

Upon hearing about this, your first thought was probably:

  • how ridiculous, I’m never doing that!

or

  • I wonder if I could do that?

or

  • I’m definitely going to do that!

Whichever of these fits you best, the chances are that you started to quietly ask yourself the single most important question, namely “which climb would I pick”? At that point, you’re taken a significant step towards an attempt.

Sounds familiar? If so, you should read everything below – in detail.

Before we get into detailed advice however, here’s a little background on me and on the origins of Everesting.

If you're going to spend c.24 hours on a single climb, pick something really compelling: The Agnello, Cottian Alps.

If you’re going to spend c.24 hours on a single climb, pick somewhere you really want to spend time: The Agnello, Cottian Alps.

Why did I write this guide and who’s it for?

This guide is intended to be a definitive source of advice and insight for any cyclist contemplating, or preparing for, an Everesting. In recent times, I’ve repeatedly been asked for advice on Everesting and I decided to put all my tips in one place, here.

When I first heard about Everesting, back in 2014, advice was extremely scarce. Today, there are numerous blogs and articles on the topic, but they mostly detail the experience, rather than attempt to help others with their own Everestings.

Now, three years later, there is one key resource that you should also visit – the Everesting.cc website, administered by HELLS 500. As discussed below, you’re going to need to visit this site anyway for various pieces of information, but in recent years, it has added lots of advice and all of it is worth noting. I wrote this guide and then checked Everesting.cc. Reassuringly, we cover much of the same ground: https://everesting.cc/tips-advice/

 

My credentials

I’m certainly not claiming to be anything special in the world of Everesting: there are definitely people who have done more, gone further, done it faster and climbed higher. I have however attempted six Everestings to date (I failed on the first attempt and successfully completed the next five) and in so doing, I’ve thought long and hard about how best to prepare for and then execute the ride, from initial concept, right through to successful completion. In my circle of friends, I’m the planner, the organiser and the detail freak. I’m particularly attentive to ‘what if’? scenarios and prepare accordingly. I try to leave nothing to luck.

My third Everesting and a real battle with my chimp: Mynydd Graean, Cambrian Mountains, Wales, UK.

My third Everesting and a real battle with my chimp: Mynydd Graean, a 10.3km gravel climb in the Cambrian Mountains, Wales, UK.

The disclaimer

It goes without saying that cycling is inherently dangerous, as is any extreme endurance event. Combining the two, usually on public roads, involves genuine risk. I am not trying to encourage you to undertake an Everesting – you do that entirely at your own bidding. I’m simply trying to prepare you better and make you more likely to succeed, safely.

So, just to repeat, you undertake an Everesting entirely at your own risk and I, this website and its contents accept no liability for your actions, your safety, or your sanity. The fact that you’re even reading this means the last point is already in doubt.

 

Setting the scene

First, before you get too sucked into the specifics and given you’re going to attempt what may well be your biggest endurance challenge ever, you should know some of the background around the concept and its history.

– what is Everesting?

‘Everesting’ involves riding consecutive laps on a chosen hill/mountain/col/berg, up and down, 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 and repeatedly 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 physical and mental endurance. To date, the shortest Everesting took around 10 hours and the longest took around two days (an Everesting ride is generally measured in ‘elapsed time’, rather than moving time. The closer the two are, the more impressive the overall feat is i.e. the rider took relatively few breaks and/or climbed fast. However, in truth, I’ve never been asked how long an Everesting took me – people simply know I did it and that’s the key measure – you either succeed or you fail).

Providing you don’t sleep, there is no time limit for an Everesting attempt. Just keep pedalling.

Everesting became a global phenomenon amongst cyclists in 2014 and many of the world’s most famous climbs have since been Everested. For example, Box Hill in Surrey, UK (of 2012 Olympic Road Race fame), has been Everested numerous times, with riders covering 370km and climbing the hill 75 times!

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”. The other beauty of Everesting is that it’s an ‘inclusive challenge’: something anyone can attempt, anywhere in the world, on any climb. As ‘back doorstep challenges’ go, it’s virtually unique.

how did it all start?

Fate is a wonderful thing. What chance that the first known Everesting was completed by a descendant of George Mallory, who disappeared, high on Everest in 1924 and left behind him one of the world’s greatest mysteries: did he and his companion, Sandy Irvine, reach the summit, or not? We had to wait almost 30 years for the first confirmed ascent of Everest, by Sir Edmund Hilary. But what if that was actually the second ascent?

(There’s one useful lesson here: it only counts if you get off the mountain safely i.e. you need to descend safely and get back home to upload your ride to Veloviewer: more on all this later).

So, back to George Mallory II (yes, he has the same name as his famous Granddad). An accomplished rock climber, he was invited on an expedition to climb Everest from the north side – the exact same route on which his Granddad had disappeared, some 70+ years earlier.

In the USA, a small group of now legendary rock climbers, known as the Stonemasters, had their equivalent of Everest – the 3,000 foot face of El Capitan, in California’s Yosemite Valley. When winter made climbing on El Cap’ impossible, the Stonemasters would head to the nearby and much warmer Joshua Tree National park and climb multiple short routes in a single day until they reached the cumulative height of El Cap. It was a serious feat, a huge day and was much talked about in climbing circles.

Determined to be fit enough to have a fair crack at making the summit of Everest and then making it down again, George II started cycling up and down Mount Donna Buang, near his home town of Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, Australia. Each ascent gave him 1,100m of height gain. As George put it “In all earnest, in the Himalaya even too much stamina is not enough, if you want to be safe”.

Before long, it dawned on him, perhaps fuelled by the Stonemasters concept, that if he got really fit, he could cycle enough laps on Donna Buang to accumulate the height of Everest in a single ride. He set himself the goal of riding eight reps – a cumulative height gain of 8,800m (yes, this is 48m short, but this was just a training exercise for George – he wasn’t using Strava, a cycle computer, or anything like that – it was just a personal goal in pursuit of a much bigger target – the real Everest. He has since Everested at least six more times)!

His first try saw him fail on lap two. Numerous attempts followed, each time with a higher cumulative finishing point. He managed six reps before niggly injuries and the onset of winter curtailed his attempts. Finally, in October 1993, he rode eight consecutive laps. Everesting as a concept had been born.

George II made it to Everest and was gratified to find that besides the Sherpas, he was the fittest person on the expedition. He made it to the summit successfully and had the reserves to also make it back down to Base Camp, safe and sound.

For almost twenty years, his Donna Buang feats (he went on to climb it ten times in one ride…) remained largely under the radar. Bear in mind that George Mallory II’s first Everesting feat was pre’ Strava. Turning this into a verifiable challenge for the general cycling public would have been next to impossible back in 1993. For almost two decades, nothing happened. GPS for the masses needed to kick in, overlaid by Strava.

– what is HELLS 500?

In the intervening period, a small group of riders in Australia were doing some really tough endurance rides. People talked about them – ‘those crazy guys doing 500km in a weekend’. They picked up a name: HELLS 500 and their motto was ‘In Search of Up’. Their founder, Melbourne based Andy van Bergen, chanced across an article by the Australian online blog, CyclingTips, detailing George’s feat. He decided to organise a group attempt on Donna Buang, for members of HELLS 500 to replicate George’s ride.

A bunch of them succeeded and suddenly, Everesting was out in the open.

Eyes on the prize. I've only ever seen one other HELLS 500 jersey while out on the road!

Eyes on the prize. I’ve only ever seen one other HELLS 500 jersey while out on the road!

Like most things, it caught on slowly at first and then suddenly went viral. I first heard about it in the summer of 2014, just as the UK weather and daylight headed towards Autumn. Winter Everestings are not unheard of, but I didn’t fancy it personally, so I had a long wait before I could make an attempt.

I hunted around for advice, but found only one person who had even tried it. He’d failed on his first attempt (really tough climb and poor weather), but then switched to a much more workable climb and succeeded. He gave me some really useful tips and in early June 2015, I went for it.

Things went wrong even before I reached the foot of my climb – I forgot my Garmin and the cables to recharge it! I delayed my attempt by 24 hours. Then, arriving at my chosen hill, I opted to put my base camp at the summit, but it was windy and the gazebo had to be tethered to the car. The wind strengthened and the gazebo started to rock the car! The car alarm kept going off. I probably got a couple of hours sleep before starting around 5.00am. It was three degrees centigrade.

In the end, it was the wind that beat me. What I had thought would be a cross wind was in fact funnelling down the valley to become a full-on block headwind. My local knowledge wasn’t good enough. I also realised that I’d picked a really hard climb for Everesting – gradient wise, it was all over the place, but there were several spikes above 20%. It was long too – 8.5km and too much of that distance involved too little height gain. It was also a long way from home, which only made the logistics harder. Finally, the descent was technical: narrow, bumpy, dangerous: anything but relaxing. Oh and I’d put my base camp in completely the wrong place.

With just seven laps completed (of the 23 required), I climbed off the bike. I felt fresh, but my laps were just taking too long because of the headwind and I knew I’d have to ride right through the following night, but that I didn’t have a recharging strategy for my lights, so would have to stop for a prolonged period, at which point I would inevitably fall asleep and therefore fail.

I hadn’t climbed off my bike before. Ever. Sure, I’d wobbled on the odd ride, but I’d never actually stopped and quit. It was a whole new experience and I didn’t like it! On the four hour drive back home, I had plenty of time to work out what I might have done differently. I vowed to get really scientific about it and to leave nothing to chance.

Ten days later, I went for it again, but this time on a different climb, much closer to home. Local knowledge was on my side and some 24 hrs after starting, I’d completed my first Everesting. I’ve since attempted and completed three more, each one harder than the last.

Here’s my formula and advice in 10 simple steps.

 

The Ten Steps to Everesting

Before we get started, there’s one bit of pre-advice. Go to Veloviewer https://veloviewer.com and set up an account. The basic version is free. This is a clever app, powered by your Strava data and it’s only via Veloviewer that you can submit an Everesting for approval to HELLS 500. So you have to have a Veloviwer account and here’s the tip: it takes a while when you first link all your Strava rides into Veloviewer. You don’t want to be hanging around awaiting when you’ve got an Everesting to upload, so do it now!

OK, with that done, it’s time to start planning your Everesting.

 

Step 1: Read the rules (and I mean really know them)

They’re here: https://everesting.cc/the-rules/

The first key step is to really understand what it is that you’re attempting and to understand that there are some simple, but firm ground rules, administered by HELLS 500.

One of the beautiful things about Everesting is how simplistic it is: pick any climb you like, anywhere in the world: short, steep, long, shallow, high, or low. So long as it’s ‘up’, it can be Everested.

There are some key housekeeping points however:

  • you should aim to ride the entire segment/climb
  • your effort must be continuous (you can stop as much or as little as you like, but you can’t sleep)
  • and you must descend the same route that you climb

If it matters to you, check the Everesting Hall of Fame to see whether yours will be the first ascent. For me, this has been a powerful motivator when choosing climbs: being the first person to Everest something iconic is a singular opportunity.

But there is actually quite a long list of rules to follow and you can and should read all about them: https://everesting.cc/the-rules/

Predictably, this road has now been Everested. It must have been a tough one, given the impact of altitude.

Predictably, this road – the Stelvio – has now been Everested. It must have been a tough one to complete, given the impact of altitude.

I’m amazed by the number of people I’ve met who haven’t bothered to read these rules personally, but have relied on hearsay. Given the level of effort involved and how emotional things will get if you realise you’ve broken a key rule, everyone who ever attempts an Everesting should read these themselves, really carefully.

I’ll give you an example: a friend told me he was going to Everest a local hill. I prepared a ‘top tube sticker’ for him (more on that below), with the number of laps he’d need to complete, linked to places on a real ascent of Everest e.g. 63 laps = 5,535m = Everest Base Camp. I was breaking the climb down into manageable pieces for him.

However, when I arrived at his chosen hill, I found that he’d decided to ride part of the climb, having been told that was fine by a mate. This wasn’t however the whole hill – the Rules clearly state that you should aim to ride the entire climb if possible, so I was immediately worried his effort might be in vain and also had to quickly try to rework all the maths on laps and ascent data. Given his emotional state at that point – almost half way through – I tried hard to pretend it was ‘no big deal’, but secretly, I was really worried! Telling him he had to ride more laps wasn’t great!

So, read the Rules yourself and plan your ride within them, to avoid any unnecessary stress. If you’re in any doubt about whether your climb is OK, then contact HELLS 500 and ask.

 

Step 2: Pick your climb

Once you understand The Rules, you can pick your climb. For me, it has to be a climb that I REALLY want to spend 24 hours on! That’s almost certainly a climb that I like, for whatever reason and for most people, who will only ever ride one Everesting, it’s best to make it a climb that they feel suits their climbing style.

I’ve attempted six Everestings and here’s how I picked my hills:

One: the North Side of Bwlch y Groes – a long, beautiful climb in North Wales. Quiet road, stunning scenery and just a wonderful place to spend time. With hindsight, it gained height too erratically, I didn’t have enough local knowledge re’ wind direction, the descent was really technical (i.e. not relaxing), and I put my base camp in the wrong place. Duh. Failed.

Two: Bradenham Wood Lane – my local hill reps climb, just a couple of kms from home. I knew this intimately: easy gradient, consistent climb, which gears to use where, how to pace myself, exactly how long a block of reps would take and it had a perfect descent – no braking required – and a great surface. Succeeded.

Three: Whiteleaf – another local hill. Far too steep for me really (sections above 20%), but it was #23 in Simon Warren’s 100 Greatest Climbs and mine would be the First Ascent. I wanted this hill BADLY. Tough descent, but I used disc brakes. Succeeded and in fact rode on to 10,000m (see HRS section re’ this next level of folly).

Whiteleaf. #23 in Simon Warren's 100 Greatest Climbs book.

Whiteleaf. #23 in Simon Warren’s 100 Greatest Climbs book. There’s a glitch in this infographic – the green section in the middle is actually dark red in reality!

Four: Mynydd Graean (Gravel Mountain) – with plenty of experience under my belt, I started to get more adventurous. Generally, the further a climb is from home, the harder it is to plan for and execute, logistically. Where are you going to sleep? You can’t leave a hotel at 2.30am in the morning! I was however hooked on the concept of Everesting on gravel and the climb I’d found, 300km from home, was amazing. 10.3km long, entirely off road, stunning scenery. No access to services at all, so I had to take everything with me. I also had to think about safety. Hard climb, with gradients all over the place. Succeeded.

Five: Cime de la Bonette – this was the most audacious one yet,  in the southern French Alps. The highest paved road in France and Europe’s highest Everesting to date. Stunning road – my favourite climb in the world in fact, good services, but tough logistics to get there and a huge gamble on the weather. Everesting at altitude was far harder than expected. Succeeded, but would never try an Everesting at altitude again!

Tom Townsend's infographic for the Cime de la Bonette. At just 17 years of age and for his first Everesting, this was quite some ride!

Tom Townsend’s infographic for the Cime de la Bonette. At just 17 years of age and for his first Everesting, this was quite some ride! Europe’s highest Everesting to date.

Six: Stwlan Dam – a beautiful, dead-end road. A hard climb, which was Everested a few months before my attempt, but it was so stunning I remained committed to it. Succeeded, rode well, but had a major bonk, two-thirds of the way through!

Stwlan Dam

Stwlan Dam: #5

So, I think your climb has to really appeal to you, for whatever reason. Be careful if someone else picks the climb – will you really like it enough, when things get tough after 12 hours of riding? Does it suit your riding style, as well as theirs? The perfect Everesting climb is probably:

  • close to home
  • a fairly constant gradient
  • ideally a climb you can do seated, somewhere between ‘Endurance’ and ‘Tempo’
  • not too many laps (less than 50 is ideal)
  • well surfaced
  • safe (i.e. relatively free of traffic, with good turning points at the top and bottom)
  • works with prevailing winds
  • has some shade
  • has a natural site for a base camp at the bottom
  • has a toilet nearby

Perhaps most importantly, it should be a climb that excites you and really fuels your mental resolve. You are going to have to really WANT to succeed and if you end up with doubts about your climb, 12 hours in, you’re much more likely to quit.

You also need to work out how many laps are required. Do this carefully, yourself. Don’t rely on hearsay, in case it’s wrong! The Everesting Calculator is one useful tool to help you check: http://www.everesting.io/

Personally, I’ve always ridden the segment before and checked it that way. I’ve even gone as far as checking contour lines! Leave nothing to chance…

 

Step 3: Think about safety

I’ve already warned you that there’s no such thing as a perfectly safe Everesting, just as there’s no such thing as a completely safe bike ride.

At the very minimum, have a think about the turning points at the top and the bottom, which are usually the trickiest places and often at junctions. Car drivers WILL NOT EXPECT you to be running laps and turning in the way that you will. If your descent has lots of joining points for cars (driveways, or side roads), include that in your assessment. This was particularly the case on my second successful Everesting climb and I decided to use blinker lights all day to help keep me visible.

How remote is your climb? My gravel climb was totally wild, so I asked a friend to join me. He rode some laps, took some photos and generally watched over me.

Does your climb have phone reception?

Everesting #3: Gravel Mountain - very remote, with associated safety concerns. the solution was to have a friend with me on the mountain at all times.

Everesting #3: Gravel Mountain – this was very remote, with associated safety concerns. The solution was to have a friend with me on the mountain at all times.

Then think about how your chosen climb will be when your brain is fried, it’s dark and you’re really tired. Is it still a safe choice? What if it rains? Are you still happy with your choice?

How much traffic does it get at busy times? Have you ever ridden it at busy times? Maybe you should, to check? A weekend might be quieter?

You should also have a think about the descent. What will it be like in the dark, when you’re really tired? Remember George Mallory Snr? It only counts if you get off the mountain safely…

It only counts if you get off the mountain safely... Kev Mellalieu descends the Cime de la Bonette.

It only counts if you get off the mountain safely… Kev Mellalieu descends the Cime de la Bonette.

Finally, you also have to get home safely afterwards! It goes without saying that anything other than a very short journey home should be avoided. On Mynydd Graean for example, I simply slept at Base Camp, as soon as I’d finished and drove home the next day.

 

Step 4: Decide whether to ride solo, or with others

I generally like to be self-reliant and the more moving parts you involve, the more chances there are that something will go wrong. So my first four attempts were solo. However, as Andy van Bergen of HELLS 500 said recently “your legs need to get you to 6,000m and then your head needs to get you the rest of the way”. Having others riding with you may well help you find the mental reserves to keep going. Even just having someone at Base Camp provides some moral support.

Truly solo (the way I rode my second and third attempts – both successful), requires a certain type of mindset – what I call Advanced Chimp Management (more on that below).

If you do attempt an Everesting with a mate, or even as part of a group, you should decide IN ADVANCE what you would do in the event that one of you abandons, or has a major mechanical, or crashes. Making these decisions on the day will be harder, with a fried brain and emotions running high!

These two rode the entire Cime de la Bonette Everesting and HRS combination together. The power of friendship and shared suffering.

D.A. and Rich rode the entire Cime de la Bonette Everesting and HRS combination, together. The power of friendship and shared suffering. When this picture was taken, the shadows were lengthening and by the time they’d descended to the valley floor, it was dark. They still had 3,000m more to climb at this point.

If you go for it solo, you might decide to invite some mates to ride a few laps with you. This offers you some degree of support, plus the distraction of someone to talk to – just be sure to ride at your pace, not their ‘fresh legs’ pace! If you can, spread these people out a little, so you have company for more of the ride. Your lowest points are likely to come around half-way and beyond, particularly if you head into darkness towards the end – if you have a really good mate, who doesn’t mind joining you in the final 2,000m, they could be a God-send.

My mate Kev set his alarm for 2.00am and joined me for my final lap on Mynydd Graean – my third successful Everesting – as moral support went, that was pretty amazing!

Hills with plenty of reps are better suited to riding with other team members: you can all ride at your own paces, but will coincide more often. In contrast, a climb with very few reps could see a team split up very quickly and never come back together, except for the odd wave when passing each other!

One other point – some roads don’t lend themselves to large numbers of cyclists doing unpredictable things. Go back to ‘Step 3: safety’ and reassess whether your chosen hill still feels prudent with multiple cyclists involved?

 

Step 5: When? How to pick a date

For my first four attempts, I picked three or four days, spread across a three week block and kept them as clear as I could in my diary. That way, if the first date had adverse weather – a headwind, or prolonged rain – I could just delay to my second date and so on. It goes without saying that you want the longest daylight hours possible, so May, June and July are the best months (in the UK).

Some of your ride will inevitably be in the dark, but ideally you want this to be as short as possible.

Some of your ride will inevitably be in the dark, but ideally you want this to be as short as possible. Everesting #2, Whiteleaf, July 2016.

Your alternative is to simply pick a single day in advance and hope that the weather’s kind to you. This makes little sense, but is sometimes your only option. My issue with this approach is that it requires luck and this guide is all about reducing the need for luck. An Everesting will be hard enough without having to ride into a headwind, or endure cold rain, so try to give yourself options.

Having said all this, my fifth Everesting attempt broke all my own rules: I took four other riders, to a mountain 1,500km away and I picked a single day, 12 months in advance. In the end, we were lucky – the sun shone, the wind followed us and everyone succeeded. But it was absolutely NOT how to go about weighting the odds in our favour.

When your first assigned date arrives, be honest with yourself: is the wind right? Is it dry? Are you in good shape and healthy?

Be brave enough to postpone to your next date option.

 

Step 6: What to take with you & how to organise your Base Camp: the Everesting Kit List

Where you put your base camp is crucial (usually this is a car, but it might even be a car and a gazebo, or maybe even a tent). Unless your chosen climb is very long, I would always recommend locating it at the bottom: your heart rate and breathing will be lowest at that point, making it easier to eat and drink. It’s also more likely to be warm and sheltered. I take a comfy camping chair, a blanket to wrap myself in when I sit down and I turn the boot of my car into a really organised combination of kitchen, workshop and wardrobe.

Proximity to a toilet should be given serious consideration too!

As an Everesting goes on, your mental capacity decreases. The more organised your Base Camp is, the more stress free you’ll be.  So, you need to be VERY organised and some sort of day bag that allows you to see everything at a glance is extremely helpful. I use a small suitcase, fitted out with a camera lens divider, to compartmentalise all the small bits of cycling kit that I need: chamois cream, lights, cables, spare tubes, lube, tools etc.

On my third Everesting attempt, I’d packed all my spare clothes into one big bag. About two thirds of the way in, with night approaching, I tried to find my arm warmers, but couldn’t. I ended up emptying the bag completely, but still couldn’t find them. A friend looked too – not there.

When I got home the next day, there they were, in the bag all along! Your brain gets fried and hence it pays to be very organised with all of your kit.

My 'bike suitcase'. Being organised will really help you find things when your mind's no longer capable of knowing where they are!

My ‘bike suitcase’. Being organised will really help you find things when your mind’s no longer capable of knowing where they are!

My check list for Everesting runs as follows:

  • are your gears adequate? Be honest with yourself. A 34×32 versus a 36×28 could be the difference between success and failure
  • have your bike fully ready as your first date option draws near. I destroyed a bottom bracket on my first Everesting and switched bikes – fortunately, I had a spare in the car
  • in particular, make sure you have new brake pads. 8,848m of down is a lot
  • fit two cycle computer holders (see ‘Tech’ below)
  • fully charge your battery if using eTap, or Shimano Di2, or Campy EPS
  • fit light bracket/s to bike and check beam alignment is correct
  • fit new tyres if required
  • charge everything: lights, cycle computers, phone, spare chargers and make sure they’re in your bag/on your bike
The Open U.P. that I used on Everesting #3. It was flawless. Thank you Jonny Bell of Noble Wheels and CycleFit.

The Open U.P. that I used on Everesting #3. It was flawless. Thank you Jonny Bell of Noble Wheels and CycleFit.

Spares & Bike related stuff:

electrical tape * ass saver mudguard * mobile chargers & cables for computers, lights and iPhone * wet wipes * first aid kit and ibuprofen * pen * chamois cream * sun lotion and lip balm * spare tyre * spare tubes * chain lube * spare chain * chain tool * track pump * spare brake blocks/pads * toilet roll?

Clothing:

spare jersey * spare base layer * spare socks * spare shorts * knee warmers * leg warmers * arm warmers * gilet * wind shell jacket * rain jacket * cap * full finger gloves * beanie * overshoes * clear lenses/glasses for night riding

 

Step 7: Food & eating

The odd thing about Everesting is that it’s probably the longest ride you’ve ever done, but you’re better fed and hydrated than ever, with so many opportunities to stop and refuel.

However, there’s a big trap here – your body can only absorb c.70g of carbohydrate per hour. Your heart is working very hard to push oxygen to your muscles and will start to ‘ignore’ less important functions, such as digestion i.e. it reduces blood flow to your stomach and your digestive process slows down. If you keep eating i.e. overloading, at this stage, you’ll end up feeling bloated, followed by nauseous and potentially, you’ll either vomit, or suffer from diarrhea. BE WARNED – many of the Everesting accounts I’ve read contain evidence of this problem developing in the later stages of the ride.

That moment when you've been riding your bike for 18 hours and your support team drives a 50km round trip to bring you pizza! Even better, the road is blocked by sheep, so you have time to savour it!!! Two Tyred Tours - undoubtedly the best bespoke cycle guides in the world!

That moment when you’ve been riding your bike for 18 hours and your support team drives a 50km round trip to bring you pizza! Even better, the road is blocked by sheep, so you have time to savour it!!! Two Tyred Tours – undoubtedly the best bespoke cycle guides in the world! Cime de la Bonette, July 2017: Everesting #4.

Also note, anything dry becomes really hard to actually eat. As the day goes on, your body craves certain things and tastes and the moister, or more savoury that food, the more I tend to like it. I have used the following:

  • water * squash to flavour the water * brown rolls * jam * cheese * salted crisps * salted peanuts * cereal/muesli * cold chicken/ham * milk * yoghurts * fruit smoothie * orange juice * bananas

I always take some energy food as well: Bounce Balls, Bloks, Clif Bars and a couple of emergency gels: you may lose your appetite as the ride goes on and these things become useful at that stage.

Likewise, I use electrolyte mix, but very sparingly, since it can mess up your stomach if you drink too much of it over a 24 hour period.

Avoid fizzy drinks too – the gas is likely to leave you feeling bloated and nauseous.

Your kitchen area needs to have:

  • cups * bowls * plates * sharp knife * spoons * kitchen roll * hand gel * wet wipes

Have a think about hot drinks too. Can anyone bring coffee/tea out to you? If not, can you take a flask?

 

Step 8: Tech, Cycle Computers, Lighting and the Recharging Challenge

Recharging: this is very important. One of the biggest challenges of Everesting is recharging things – your Garmin and your lights in particular. You need a strategy and you need to work this out well in advance and then practice it.

Personally, I do the following:

I have a large static recharging block which will do my front and rear lights after the initial early morning session (see below, in Timing), meaning I have fully recharged lights heading into the second night (if necessary)

I have a small battery ‘card’ for recharging my phone on the go in my pocket

And I have a Gomadic charger for my Garmins. These are cheap and work brilliantly, using AA batteries (meaning you always have power, so long as you have a supply of new batteries), plus they’re the perfect shape to tape to your top tube, so you can charge on the go. You need to pad the frame with something and then use electrical tape to secure it. You’ll also need to tape the cables into a safe position. Practice this BEFORE the day of your attempt i.e. know how to do it when your brain is fried, 12 hours in and your cycling computer batteries start to run low! Here’s a link to the Gomadic charger: http://www.gomadic.com/battery-backup-cat.html

Note the Gomadic charger, taped to the top tube, with the wires carefully taped safely away too.

Note the Gomadic charger, taped to the top tube, with the wires carefully taped safely away too.

I read a hilarious Everesting blog recently. The rider had chosen a local hill and I sent him various bits of advice. However, he started later than I suggested and didn’t pay enough attention to his recharging strategy and his lights ran out, half way through the night, in the last quarter of the ride. His parents, who were looking after him at base camp, then drove their car up and down the hill, to light his way. But they ran out of petrol and the whole attempt had to pause for a couple of hours while they waited for daylight. He succeeded, but it was a close run thing.

So, get your recharging plans really sorted!

Lights: it should be obvious that you need really good lights to ride by. I use an Exposure Strada Mk6, which lights up the entire road and comes complete with a remote dimmer switch. As a result, my darkness descent times are almost as fast as my daylight ones and everything just feels safer. I can also see animals in the road before I hit them!

Make sure your lights are up to the job – it’s important for your safety. Do you have a spare in case of a really ill-timed failure? If not, could you borrow one?

Cycle Computers: you really need to record your ride on a cycle computer e.g. a Garmin, rather than your phone. Phone data is not acceptable in my view and HELLS 500 prefer you don’t submit phone data (we all know why…)

To be safe, you really need to ride with two computers, or the equivalent. Computers fail – you categorically do not want to get 7,000m up your hill and then have your device freeze. I ride with two and photograph them every 1,000m or so (if you have a disaster, HELLS 500 might take a view, if you have really good evidence and/or witnesses). Perhaps borrow the second and ideally, make sure it uses the same type of recharging port, for simplicity.

Take regular photos of your cycle computer. And fit a great light for safely descending in darkness.

Take regular photos of your cycle computer. And fit a great light for safely descending in darkness.

While we’re on that point, they may also check your HR data to make sure you didn’t sneak off for a sleep. Wear a HR monitor – it’s important. Personally, I think all Everesters should have to wear a HR monitor for this reason i.e. it should be obligatory.

Practice using your lap counter: I find this very useful for confirming the number of laps completed. I start this at my turning point at the bottom of the climb (NOT necessarily at my base camp).

Everesting #2: my lap counter failed, so I reverted to old-school on the lid of my cool box at Base Camp!

Everesting #2: my lap counter failed, so I reverted to old-school on the lid of my cool box at Base Camp!

Be warned: some Garmins start a power-off sequence when you disconnect a power source. Again, practice recharging on the go and don’t get caught by this. Some even reset when you remove the cable – nightmare! Know which type you have…

DO NOT go by the ascent data showing on your computer. It will never be 100% accurate. At one point on my second attempt, my Garmins were 200m out of sync (more than two laps difference on that particular climb) and then drew back level again! You’ve done the maths on how many laps are required to hit 8,848m – ABSOLUTELY STICK TO THAT NUMBER, EVEN IF YOUR COMPUTER SAYS YOU’VE CLIMBED MORE THAN YOU EXPECTED.

In my experience, computers actually have a habit of under-recording your cumulative ascent, meaning you may have to ride slightly further than you calculated, to get 8,848m of ascent showing on your screens. Just roll with it – you CAN do an extra few hundred meters, no matter how tough it might feel.

I simplify my data screens, turn the backlight down to minimum and do everything I can to prolong battery life and cut down on the need for recharging (recharging on the go works, but it’s all weight added to your bike, or more time needed for stops if you wait for your computers to recharge at Base Camp).

 

Step 9: Timing

There are three key pieces of advice on timing:

What time do you start?

I’ve Everested four different types of climb, varying from short and steep, to long and easy. But my elapsed times have always been in the 20 – 24 hour bracket. Granted, I’m not the fastest climber, but I’m pretty good at keeping my stoppage time down, so I think this is a fair guide to what most people should expect. So, unless your chosen climb is in the Arctic Circle, around the time of the Summer Solstice, you’re going to have to ride in darkness at some stage!

Obviously an Everesting gets both physically and mentally harder as the ride progresses, so I try to avoid having to do too much riding at the end, in darkness. Mentally, heading into the night is really hard and many failures occur at that point.

My solution is to start really, really early. My successful start times have been 2.10am, 2.45am (twice) and 3.00am. That means riding the first hour or two in the dark, but then dawn arrives and you have the entire day ahead of you and the hope (at least), of avoiding the coming night. Mentally, this is a great place to be. Notably, the riders I’ve advised on this have tended to start later and have then really wobbled when they’ve had to ride most of the following night. HELLS 500 recommends a midnight start, with the prospect of avoiding the following night’s darkness, altogether.

An early start on the Bonette meant we arrived at the summit for sunrise at 5.00am.

An early start on the Bonette meant we arrived at the summit for sunrise at 5.00am.

How long might the entire ride take?

I was once told to take my single lap ascent time, double it and then multiply that number by the number of laps required. I thought this sounded ridiculously long. However, let’s test the theory: ascending the Cime de la Bonette took me c.2 hours and I needed to ride almost 6 laps. So, this theory would say 4 hours x 6 laps = 24 hours elapsed time. I tried really hard to keep my stops to a minimum, but my elapsed time still reached 21’19”. My other rides have been c.24 hours (a long/shallow gradient one and a gravel one) and c.22 hours  (a steep one, but to 10,000m). So unless you’re a really gifted climber, you should mentally prepare for a 20 – 24 hour effort.

Everesting always takes longer than the maths suggests. Your final laps will be slower and your stoppage time all adds up. Mentally, you just need to relax into this fact and not fight it. Once behind, you can NEVER catch back up, so don’t even try.

There is no time limit, so if you get behind, it actually doesn’t matter and it DOES NOT mean you are going to fail. Relax and just keeping turning the pedals.

The other key piece of advice is to try to keep your stops reasonably short. Stoppage time really adds up when Everesting and the more stops you take, the longer you’re likely to spend in darkness at the end!

Throw away your watch!

It’s unlikely that anyone will ever ask you how fast you did it. They’ll just know that you succeeded. I’ve never managed to actually stop checking the time, but it would help relieve a degree of stress if I could: time is irrelevant on an Everesting, particularly if you have a good recharging strategy for your lights and cycle computers.

 

  1. The mental bit: advanced chimp management

Andy van Bergen of HELLS 500 is quoted as saying “your legs need to get you to 6,000m and your head needs to get you the rest of the way”.

Personally, I think the mental part is at least as important as the physical part. Time and again, I’ve seen cyclists ride further and higher than they ever thought possible, but largely in organised events, where quitting wasn’t quite so easy. The problem, by contrast, is that an Everesting is self-designed and therefore far easier to walk away from. Coupled to that, many people attempt their Everesting solo and hence quitting feels even easier.

Steve Peters has written a whole book on managing your chimp – the part of your brain that tells you to quit. We all have a chimp. The more big rides you attempt, the better you get to know yours.  Mine even has a name – Pete! A significant part of Everesting concerns chimp management.

Previous comparable rides and milestones really help. In 2013, I rode 350km for the first time. It took me 13 hours. Everesting would only be another six hours or so – it was a useful reference point. George Mallory II’s example was even better – he simply rode more laps on each attempt, so he ‘acclimatised’ to how it felt.

You are really going to have to want to Everest. I mean really, really WANT it. Completing the ride, earning your grey stripe, wearing the HELLS 500 jersey and earning all the associated bragging rights, has to burn inside you. For this reason, it really helps if it’s your idea rather than somebody else’s and if it’s a climb you chose, or feel drawn to.

People are motivated in different ways. Whether it's the HELLS 500 jersey, or the Everesting infographic by Veloviewer, or even just the personal satisfaction of knowing that you did it - it doesn't matter which - but you need to really want to do this, badly!

People are motivated in different ways. Whether it’s the HELLS 500 jersey, or the Everesting infographic by Veloviewer, or even just the personal satisfaction of knowing that you did it – it doesn’t matter which – but you need to really want to do this, badly!

You also need to come up with a detailed strategy to fool your chimp. My personal tactic is to simply break an Everesting down into smaller pieces: 8,848m sounds ridiculous, but 8 x 1,000m sounds more workable. 100 laps sounds awful, but 10 x 10 laps might be OK. Reward yourself between sets with particular food and drink. Arrange to have people around you. Listen to an audio book.

My best example of mind over matter was on my fourth Everesting attempt – a 10.3km gravel climb in the Cambrian Mountains of west Wales, UK. I needed to do exactly 15 laps and I expected the tough bit to start around 10 reps. So when, after just six laps, I felt really wasted, I knew I was in for a major struggle. I was less than half way and my chimp was grinning from ear to ear. I think anyone who couldn’t manage their chimp would have quit just then. I toyed with it and even agreed with Pete that if I failed, I wouldn’t come back, but I also decided to ride just one more lap. And then another. And so on. Somehow, I reached 12 laps in that way and at that stage, I knew I could find the resolve to ride three more, even though I was feeling really rubbish by that point. This approach worked and my gravel Everesting was the first in Wales and only the third in the UK.

I break each climb I attempt into two ‘chimp fooling’ strategies. The first is to compare my chosen climb to real waypoints on Everest. I print this out, laminate it and stick it to the top tube of my bike, just behind my Garmin charging block. I know that if I can reach Everest Base Camp at 5,535m, I can probably reach the summit.

Advanced Chimp Management: fool him into thinking it's not such a big ride by breaking it down into parts, linked to real places on Everest.

Advanced Chimp Management: fool him into thinking it’s not such a big ride by breaking it down into parts, linked to real places on Everest.

The second strategy is simply to divide your total number of laps into blocks, after which, I take a short stop to eat and drink. For example, on my third attempt, a steep climb called Whiteleaf in the UK, I needed to ride 70 laps to Everest and 80 laps to HRS (10,000m). I would stop after every five laps to refill my bidon and eat something. Riding another five laps never seemed too onerous.

Manageable chunks, or just really scary? My top tube sticker on my first Everesting: Bradenham Wood Lane in the Chiltern Hills, UK.

Manageable chunks, or just really scary? My top tube sticker on my first Everesting: Bradenham Wood Lane in the Chiltern Hills, UK.

There’s one more thing – when Everesting solo, I’ve always used a single ear piece and listened to audio books, or music. I never ever do this when riding normally – I think it’s dangerous to remove hearing – one of your key safety senses – from any bike ride, but when Everesting, I make an exception – but just one ear piece. On my first successful ride, I listened to the entire Cormac McCarthy trilogy, narrated by Brad Pitt. Now, whenever I ride that hill, his voice comes to mind!

Maybe the best book I listened to was on my second successful ride: Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into Thin Air’, an account of his 1996 ascent of Everest, during which, a storm engulfed multiple climbers, high on the mountain. It’s a brilliant read, but even better, Jon and I happened to arrive at the South Col at almost exactly the same time. Besides taking my mind off the repetitive monotony of riding laps, it was also a brilliant link to the real mountain. I’d pause the audio for every descent – the wind noise makes it impossible to hear anyway.

George Mallory II sums things up brilliantly, in a quote I spotted recently on the HELLS 500 website:

“There are some things that are not well suited to being described in words. And one of them is the difficulty of finishing an Everest ride. So what can I say? I know some of you have one, or more, Everest rides to your credit. You will appreciate the enormous magnitude of the task and don’t need me to tell you. You have found out the hard way just how difficult life gets when you have ridden 6000m, there’s no gas in the tank and you need to hoist your good self up another 3,000m. For the first timers, can I suggest, respectfully, that you brace for the hardest day of your bike riding lives to date.

Prepare to defend your true self against a barrage of negative inner thoughts that will insist that riding up Mt Everest is meaningless rubbish. In the early stages, maybe at dawn, or around 3000m, you may need to defend against euphoria and slow down. Towards the end, when riding your bike uphill becomes seriously hard, perhaps stop for a short rest if you need to.

For me, the bit I found particularly challenging on Donna was starting laps 6, 7 and 8 because my legs shut down on the long descent. Take care descending. It’s now a bit over 20 years since I first rode Everest on Donna Buang. May THE FORCE be with you, each one of you, from the beginning and all the way through to the finish!”

 

Success: nice job. You deserve a bucket load of kudos!

8,848m!!! What do you do next?

Did you accurately measure, EXACTLY, the number of laps you needed to ride to climb at least 8,848m? Have you ridden that many laps? If yes, I would first, take photos of your computers. It gives you extreme bragging rights and it’s a ‘magic number’.

However, if 8,848m is showing on your computers sooner than your calculations predicted, I would categorically keep riding to the number of laps your previously worked out. My Garmin’s have never yet been over (always under in fact), but it might happen and I would complete the number of laps, regardless of the number.

Then you’re done. Shout, scream, hug someone, or if alone, just smile, return safely to your base camp and take a few moments.

The Magic Numbers

The Magic Numbers

Save your rides on both computers. Pack them away very carefully – they’re very precious until you’ve uploaded the ride!

This is what to do next:

  • The first thing you do is load your ride to Strava, just like normal. DO NOT CORRECT THE ELEVATION DATA – HELLS 500 won’t like you doing that. They want to see unadulterated data.
  • Then open Veloviewer and ‘Get Everything’ to bring the ride across.
  • Then go to the top menu and under ‘Other’, you’ll see a tab to submit an Everesting ride.
  • If you rode onto 10,000m, you can then also submit an HRS ride.
  • Then sit back and wait. Andy van Bergen, who runs HELLS 500 out of his home in Melbourne, will pick up the submissions within a day or two. He’ll check things out and then comment on your ride in Strava and then add you to the Everesting Hall of Fame.
  • You are now Crew. You can wear the Grey Stripe. You are a Keeper of the Cloud. You are officially gnarly. Kudos.

 

Other Stuff that’s worth mentioning at this stage:

HRS: The High Rouleur’s Society

I’ve mentioned this a few times, above. Like an Everesting, an HRS ride is administered and verified by HELLS 500. HRS successes are quite rare. There are two types of HRS ride:

  • The Limit: this is the easier of the two in my view: 10,000m in a single ride. Most people simply tack extra laps onto their Everesting. It’s effectively committing to ride another couple of hours. Hard, but not ridiculous. Chimp management is essential – forcing yourself to ride on past 8,848m is quite difficult!
  • The Journey: this one’s trickier in my view. There are three simple rules: the ride must accumulate 10,000m of climbing, it must be at least 400km long and there’s an elapsed time limit of 36 hours. Personally, I’d add one more rule: no repeats of the same hill.

Just like an Everesting, you submit an HRS ride via Veloviewer – there’s a tab for it, just below the Everesting submission one.

For full details, see http://highrouleur.cc/

 

‘SSSS’

Believe it or not, Everesting can be quite addictive! For many, once is more than enough, but there’s a small group of riders, worldwide, who just keep coming back for more. To add a bit of spice, HELLS 500 dreamed up the four SSSS’s. As you’ve probably guessed by now, there are rules!

The SSSS’s stand for:

  • Steep: you have to Everest in under 200km
  • Soil: off-road. This is a tough one, evidenced by the fact that at the time of writing, the UK has seen just three of these
  • Suburban: not sure I like this idea personally. Everesting and traffic don’t mix well
  • Significant: a climb that everyone (well, cyclists at least), would recognise. Something iconic would be perfect. Everest itself would be wonderful 😉

One of the rides must be to 10,000m, thereby qualifying for HRS The Limit at the same time.

There’s even the option to Everest within Zwift. The Rules are complex: https://everesting.cc/virtual-everesting-rules/

 

My ‘Seven Summits’

I’ve qualified for three of the SSSS’s, but I’m hesitant about the suburban one. I have to admit to keeping my eye on hills though, whenever I pass through a town!

However, I have a different challenge in mind. Before I was a cyclist, I was a climber and in climbing circles, there’s a challenge known as the Seven Summits: climbing the highest mountain on each of the world’s seven continents – Everest being one of these.

My nod towards this will be to (attempt to), complete seven Everestings. Five down, two to go. I have the climbs identified and hope to ride them in 2018 and/or 2019. The final one will be Mont Ventoux from Bedoin: arguably the best climb in the world. It’s already been Everested, but it’s so beautiful, I don’t care.

 

Training for an Everesting

People often ask me how I train for rides like this. I’m not a coach and won’t even attempt to offer a detailed training plan, but my personal plan and milestones go something like this:

Winter: base miles outside and lots of turbo sessions inside. Some of these sessions will be specifically geared towards whatever my next Everesting target is. For example, the Cime de la Bonette was a 24km climb and I knew it would take me just under two hours to climb it once, at around 225 watts. So I replicated that on my trainer: two hours at 225 watts, then repeat.

In March and April, I complete three increasingly bigger rides: 165km/3,000m, then 200km/4,000m and finally 300km/5,000m. I might throw in a 12 – 15hr ride too, maybe something long – 350km or so. If these all go OK, I consider myself ‘Everest-ready’.

I practice riding reps on a hill – ideally your chosen hill, but any hill will do. Get used to how it feels, how to pace yourself, lap after lap, when to eat and drink, how to use the lap counter on your cycle computer, etc.

I start some of my rides early in the morning, or do some night rides: take yourself out of your comfort zone – you’ll be a long way out of it during an Everesting attempt!

I sense check my kit: do I have everything I need and have I tested it on long rides? You wouldn’t run a marathon in brand new shoes and an Everesting should be no different.

Remember, your training rides only need to get you so far: if you can ride a 250km, 5,000m day, then your head can do the rest i.e. for a rider with the right level of physical conditioning, Everesting primarily becomes a mental challenge.

The crew over at HELLS 500 have teamed up with Crank Punk and they can guide you through a specific Everesting training plan, if you need some help. See http://www.crankpunk.com/blogs/everesting/item/882-crankpunk-coaching-systems-4-8-and-12-week-everesting-coaching-plans-available-now.html

 

Need more advice?

I’ll happily help if I can. Just email me: sirguylitespeed@gmail.com

 

Thanks

I have various people to thank, in particular:

  • The author Max Leonard, whose book, Higher Calling, explains all about the history of George Mallory II’s first Everesting.
  • Charlie Sanders, my first source of advice on Everesting, in 2014.
  • Andy van Bergen and HELLS 500, for turning this into a verifiable and recognisable challenge.
  • Kev Mellalieu, who played a legendary supporting role on both Mynydd Graean and the Cime de la Bonette.
  • Jimi & Janine of Two Tyred Tours (bespoke European cycling tours) who provided their vehicle for base camp and helped make the entire Bonette Everesting possible.
  • Simon Winfield and his team at Cycle Care, who prepared my bikes for various Everestings.
  • Jonny Bell at Noble Wheels, who built bespoke hoops for all of these rides and also built my Open U.P. for Mynydd Graean (Welsh for Gravel Mountain).
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Red Bull Time Laps Race: October 2017

A brief meeting with Ross Matheson, Marketing Executive for ASSOS UK & Ireland and before I knew it, I’d signed us up for the inaugural 2017 Red Bull 25hr Time Laps Race in Windsor Great Park.

Think ‘Le Mans 24hr’ and you’ll have a pretty good feel for what was involved: teams of four, one rider on track at any time, most laps wins. Three obvious categories of team: Men, Women and Mixed. We were Mixed: two boys, two girls and no prior experience of anything like this, besides Everesting (the notable similarities being the lack of sleep, the need for shelter, a supply of food and drink, a ‘what if?’ game plan and the need to be able to recharge lights, Garmins, phones, etc).

The unique twist was the 25th hour, since the race was run over the last weekend in October, when the clocks changed, thereby allowing Red Bull to market it as ‘The World’s Longest One day Race’. I never really knew exactly how we gained the extra hour, but now I do: if you watch your clock carefully, at 1.59am, it goes back to 1.00am. Simple. Laps completed in that hour would count double. Lovely.

Things got off to a bad start: with 150 teams of four riders, 150 people were on the track at any one time. An unlikely mix of competitors ranging from Elite category racers to weekend warriors, led to a big pile up on lap three and a race stoppage for an hour and a half! Thankfully, the restarted race passed without further incidence and Team 28, the ASSOS Equipe Team, made decent progress without mishap. In all, we completed 113 laps, a total of 735km and came 50th overall and 11th in our category. Well done to Therese Coen, Lucy Mannall and Tom Townsend – very impressive all round and it was a pleasure sharing the madness with you! A very big thank you also to our sponsors, ASSOS UK and in particular to Ross, who stayed with us throughout the event, bringing us coffee, food and welcome encouragement!

SGL, Oct 2017.

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Ventoux: October 2017

Plan A was to go to Wales in late October and explore the gravel tracks in the mountains west of Rhayader. Then Storm Brian arrived and Plan B looked more attractive. The problem was, Plan B was only loosely formed: ‘find somewhere a lot further south – warmer, drier – and then go climb some big hills’.

We checked forecasts all over Europe: Andermatt: rain. Luz St.Saveur: rain. Bormio: rain. Riva del Garda: rain. Majorca was OK, but didn’t excite us enough. Then we checked Bedoin: dry. We checked the wind: Monday: too strong. Tuesday: ride-able. Wednesday and Thursday: perfectly still. Friday: the Mistral would return with a vengeance!

We took a massive gamble, booked our flights, hire car and hotel, packed bikes and flew into Marseilles on the Monday evening. An airport out of season: no queues, luggage and bikes arrived in minutes, car upgrade and off we went, up the A7.

The wind was moving the car as we drove north in the darkness. Tom and I exchanged nervous glances.

But, thankfully, the meteo was 100% accurate and the following three days were about as perfect as late Autumn riding in Provence can get. We rode all around the mountain, discovering so much more than just Ventoux – the entire area is amazing. We rode up the mountain on each outing – once on the first day, twice on the second day and then, on the third day, we rode all three sides. The roads were deserted, the light magical and the riding perfect.

On Friday, the wind howled and we breathed a sigh of relief at the excuse to stay low and ride the Suzette loop to the north! We packed up, ate pizza and still had an hour free before setting out for the airport, so we headed for the summit in our hire car. At the Col des Tempêtes, I somehow managed to park up and open my door. I half crawled, half walked to the wall and looked over and almost lost my head! I now know what a hurricane force wind feels like and I now understand all the stories about wind and Ventoux.

SGL, Nov 2017.

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August 2017: Welsh Gravel

My cycling guilty secret: I love gravel more than any other surface. Even more than cobbles, although it’s a close run thing.

I’m currently half-way through a project to find the best 100 mile ride in Wales containing as much gravel as possible: more on that as and when I complete it!

That’s not quite what this post is about though, although it’s related. It was late August 2017 and Tom and I had an inkling to try bike-packing. I suggested we ride Lon Las Cymru – Holyhead to Cardiff – in two days, with as many detours as possible to include gravel!

What ensued was an epic 2 x 215km days, starting early and finishing in darkness, with everything from sublime gravel to barely ride-able rocks in between. Four places stood out: the marginal passage across the flanks of Cader Idris, the remarkable 10.3km gravel climb of Myndd Graean, the wilds south of Devil’s Bridge and the Roman Road across the Brecon Beacons.

Enjoy the pictures. SGL, 2017.

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An early start on the Bonette meant we arrived at the summit for sunrise at 5.00am.

Everesting #4: Cime de le Bonette – Into Thin Air – Europe’s Highest Everesting to date

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”.

The summit pyramid (in daylight!), viewed from the easy section just below the Col. The road loops the pyramid, at 10 - 15% gradients.

The summit pyramid (in daylight!), viewed from the easy section just below the Col. The road loops the pyramid, at 10 – 15% gradients.

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.

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The summit of the Cime de la Bonette, 2,802m. It’s 5.00am on the 17th July 2017. The air is thin and it’s cold – just four degrees.

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!

The Cime de la Bonette.

The Cime de la Bonette.

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.

Kev arrives at the summit on lap one. We are privileged to be in a place like this.

Kev arrives at the summit on lap one. We are privileged to be in a place like this.

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.

I have many favourite climbs, but if I had to choose just one, the Bonette would be it.

I have many favourite climbs, but if I had to choose just one, the Bonette would be it.

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!

TTT: locked and loaded for the 500km drive to the foot of the Bonette.

TTT: locked and loaded for the 500km drive to the foot of the Bonette.

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.

Kev on the summit at 5.10am. This made getting up at 2.00am all worthwhile!

Kev on the summit at 5.10am. This made getting up at 2.00am all worthwhile!

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.

Tom at 2.45am, dressed pretty lightly, given he's about to ride 24km uphill!

Tom at 2.45am, dressed pretty lightly, given he’s about to ride 24km uphill!

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.

Heading down on lap three.

Heading down on lap three.

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.

Everesting isn't just about going up. You have to descend 8,848m as well - safely. By the end of the day, I knew every line and corner.

Everesting isn’t just about going up. You have to descend 8,848m as well – safely. By the end of the day, I knew every line and corner.

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.

Rich and D.A. just below the lake on lap two. The roads are still deserted.

Rich and D.A. just below the lake on lap two. The roads are still deserted.

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.

It has to be said, driving an empty road up the Bonette in a 911 was probably a lot of fun!

It has to be said, driving an empty road up the Bonette in a 911 was probably a lot of fun!

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.

Sheep! This happened four times during my 20+ hours on the mountain.

Sheep! This happened four times during my 20+ hours on the mountain.

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.

Tom, working away at it.

Tom, working away at it.

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!

Rich and D.A. high on the mountain.

Rich and D.A. high on the mountain.

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!

This is probably my favourite memory of the entire ride. Scale and drama, by the bucket load, on the summit pyramid. Rich and D.A. riding into thin air.

This is probably my favourite memory of the entire ride. Scale and drama, by the bucket load, on the summit pyramid. Rich and D.A. riding into thin air.

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, just below the abandoned fort.

Tom, just below the abandoned fort.

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.

Tom descending on lap three, near the lake. Big shout out to Assos - this Sturmprinz jacket is simply brilliant.

Tom descending on lap three, near the lake. Big shout out to Assos – this Sturmprinz jacket is simply brilliant.

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”.

Rich and D.A. a few hundred metres from the summit.

Rich and D.A. a few hundred metres from the summit.

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 took regular shots of my Garmins, just in case one failed!

I took regular shots of my Garmins, just in case one failed!

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 length of the shadows tell the story. Rich and D.A. very close to the Col.

The length of the shadows tell the story. Rich and D.A. very close to the Col.

The fort at the Caserne de Restefond, was likewise stunning in the evening light.

The old fort, stunning in the late evening light.

The old fort, stunning in the late 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.

Kev, much earlier in the day.

Kev, much earlier in the day.

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.

Advanced Chimp Management: fool him into thinking it's not such a big ride by breaking it down into parts, linked to real places on Everest.

Advanced Chimp Management: fool him into thinking it’s not such a big ride by breaking it down into parts, linked to real places on Everest.

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.

No words needed!

No words needed!

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.

SGL, on the Col d'Allos the following day.

SGL, on the Col d’Allos the following day.

Notes:

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.

Bikes:

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!

FULL D.A.

FULL D.A.

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.

Base Camp

Everesting #3 – Off-Road: Mynydd Graean (Gravel Mountain)

All photos by Kev Mellalieu. Click to view full screen and then use your back button to return to the story.

I’ve never been good in traffic jams. It’s one of the reasons that I moved out of London.

We’d been stationary, engine switched off, for almost an hour.

I looked across at Kev in the passenger seat and asked “Why do I do this to myself”?

‘This’ was the overwhelming weight of an imminent Everesting attempt, but this time with a twist: my chosen hill was entirely off-road: gravel, stones, rocks, mud, dust, soil, cattle grids and stray sheep. Pretty much everything except tarmac. Logic said this would be the hardest Everesting I’d attempted yet, so I needed everything to run like clockwork.

A police car sped past on the hard shoulder. I tried to stay calm and relaxed, but knew I was failing.

Eventually we started to move again. I recalculated in my head: arrive by 9.30 pm, 15 minutes to drive half way up the climb and make camp, before darkness descended. Deep sigh.

The drive across Wales was thankfully uneventful and we turned off the main road just as the sun began to sink and the mountainside was bathed in orange light. I paused at the bottom of the climb, switched the car suspension to ‘Off Road’ and sent a final text message home: “All good. Going to sleep soon”.

I drove slowly up the climb, checking the condition of the surface and reminding myself where the hazards were: steep corners covered in loose rocks, holes that might be hard to spot in the dark, cattle grids, surface water and livestock. My general impression was that the track looked pretty good, despite really heavy rain in the preceding weeks.

I pulled to a halt exactly half way up the 10.3km climb and reversed the car onto the only piece of flat ground. Exactly three weeks ago, I’d run a couple of laps on the climb, partly to check the exact height gain for each lap and partly to work out the best place to make my ‘Base Camp’. I’d chosen this spot primarily because it was flat (Kev would use a tent and I would sleep in the car), but also because it provided a natural view back down the first part of the climb. It was also in a stunning spot, with the Dovey Estuary, Cader Idris and Cardigan Bay in the background.
Base Camp, with the Dovey Estuary in the background.

Base Camp, with the Dovey Estuary in the background.

I snapped a quick shot of Base Camp as the sun sank below the horizon and prepared my clothing and bike as fast as possible. We’d arrived an hour behind schedule, so I reset my start time to 2.45am and went to sleep around 10.30pm.

I hate the sound of the Apple alarm on my phone. So many times, on so many adventures, it’s dragged me from sleep. I like sleeping.

2.00am. Pitch dark. I turned on a torch and dressed, lying down in the back of the car. With a jolt, I realised that I’d forgotten to pack the milk, but then worked out that I could use yoghurt instead. Disaster averted and after a bowl of muesli, I finished dressing and climbed out of the car. The wind hit me straight away. It was a strong west-south-westerly and cold. The good news was that this would be a tail wind, but the bad news was the temperature. I turned on my Garmins (I was running two, just in case one failed – we all know they sometimes do). Six degrees centigrade. Whoa, properly cold.

I rolled away at 2.45am, bang on schedule and my lights cut a brilliant path through the darkness. I headed down the climb first, scattering sheep that had chosen to sleep on the track and then startling a couple of hares, near the tricky corners at the bottom. Two things had struck me so far: the descent was technical and rough in places, at least for a bike without suspension, but on the plus side, the Clement tyres I was running felt amazingly good and were definitely rolling across the rough parts better than I’d expected.

I stopped briefly at the road, removed my wind jacket, turned and headed back up the climb. I soon got hot, despite the wind. A few weeks ago during a recce, I’d mentally divided the climb into three distinct parts: the bottom section (3km), was steep and the surface was loose on the corners. A couple of descents within the climb, led to even steeper ups. If it was a road climb, it would be Hautacam. This section was hard, but forested and protected from the elements. Then came the middle section (2km), with three cattle grids: open countryside and solid 9 – 12% climbing. At exactly 5km, I passed the car and started the upper section of the climb: smoother gravel, but various rock strewn logging areas and much more exposed in places. Parts of it were beautiful and other parts resembled Mordor! The upper section was where ‘scale’ really made itself felt and the climb just seemed to go on forever, again with a couple of downs within the overall up. This upper part of the climb was however easier than the two preceding sections.

Exhale. Relax. Breathe deeply. Absorb the surroundings. The beauty and the scale. The mad rush was behind me: all the training, the organising, the bike and body prep, the nerves, the worries, the doubts and the packing. Now there was just the crunch of gravel under my tyres, the sound of the wind in the forest and otherwise, nothing. It was beautiful.

Mynydd Graean: a 10.3km gravel climb in the Cambrian Mountains, Wales.

Mynydd Graean: a 10.3km gravel climb in the Cambrian Mountains, Wales.

By the time I reached the true summit of the climb, I was 10.3km from the road. Research on the Hells 500 Hall of Fame had revealed that someone had Everested the Cat & Fiddle Pass in the Peak District, at 11.52km, but it appeared that Mynydd Graean would be the second longest climb, on any surface – if I could complete the task ahead. It would be hands-down the longest off-road climb to be Everested: the previous ones in Scotland and the Lake District weighed in at 1.43km and 1.89km respectively.

Mynydd Graean means Gravel Mountain in Welsh. I’d given it that name in February, when my son Tom and I had come to recce it. Although I’m sure the whole climb had been ridden plenty of times before by local mountain-bikers, a full Strava segment didn’t even exist. I felt like Columbus discovering the Americas!

The lower, sheltered part of the climb.

The lower, sheltered part of the climb.

I was here, in the dark on a Welsh mountainside because back in 2015, shortly after I’d completed my first Everesting, I’d read an article that quoted Andy van Bergen in Melbourne, the man behind the Hells 500 and Everesting concept. He’d said “A word of warning with Everesting. Because it will take you to the edge of your own capabilities, the post-ride high (mixed nicely with DOMS) is curiously addictive. The number of repeat offenders is growing rapidly. With that in mind, we recently launched the cruel and slightly sadistic SSSS. Each ‘S’ represents a style of Everesting that needs to be knocked off to qualify. The ‘Significant’ ride needs to be an iconic climb. ‘Soil’ is to be completed 100% off paved roads. ‘Suburban’ has riders heading through residential areas in search of up, and ‘Short’ needs to be a ride of less than 200km (including the descents. It’s steep!). Each ‘S’ needs to be it’s own ride, and at least one of them needs to be more than 10,000 vertical metres”.

The upper part of the climb, very close to the summit. Much of the climbing on Mynydd Graean is this steep.

The upper part of the climb, very close to the summit. Much of the climbing on Mynydd Graean is this steep.

As someone who grew up mountain biking and who would probably keep their cyclo-cross bike above all others, ‘Soil’ instantly gripped my imagination. I dreamt about it. But unlike roads, climb options appeared scarce. Very scarce.

But then I remembered a Welsh ride from back in the late 1980s, on a first-generation Specialized mountain bike (steel frame, no suspension, weighed a ton…). I simply recalled a very long track, which finished on top of a mountain. It was tenuous, but in February 2017, I went back to take a look. Could it be my ‘Soil’ climb? It rose from sea level on the west coast of Wales and climbed forever, with unbelievable views and complete solitude. It was perfect. I fell in love with it and started planning.

Each ascent would take just under an hour and the descent, about 25 minutes. A lap would give me 600m of ascent, so I would need to complete exactly 15 laps to pass 8,848m, the height of Everest. I also promised myself that I would ride a cyclo-cross or gravel bike. I categorically didn’t want to use a mountain bike.

The Rules for Everesting a climb are pretty simple: you should aim to ride the entire segment/climb; your effort must be continuous (you can stop as much or as little as you like, but you can’t sleep); and you must descend the same route that you climb.

The section of the upper climb that I christened Mordor.

The section of the upper climb that I christened Mordor.

I decided a while ago that there’s no such thing as an easy Everesting. Short and steep, or easy-angled and really long – either way it’s a defining experience. I now have an additional observation: an off-road Everesting is the hardest type, period. Navigating the constantly changing surface was using muscles not normally engaged on a road climb and the descent was anything but relaxing. On previous Everestings, the half-way mark had come pretty easily and it was the final 25% that had really hurt.

High on the climb on lap four. Cold and windy.

High on the climb on lap four. Cold and windy.

So when, at just six laps in and 3,600m up, I started to feel tired, I knew I was in for a struggle. I’d already been on the go for 9.5 hours. The briefest of sunrises on lap two had given way to low cloud cover and the wind was causing me to freeze on every descent. I was riding each ascent in a single push and then stopping at the car on the way down to refill a bidon and grab a piece of food. I planned to stop for a few minutes longer on every third descent and refuel more, but I ended up having to sit in the car each time, with the heater running. This constant hot/cold was making me feel pretty rough.
8,848m and c.24 hours on a bike are overwhelming numbers. In attempt to fool my chimp – the part of my brain that was telling me “stop, this is really stupid” – I always break an Everesting down into bite size chunks and I focus on those, rather than the whole. I had a strategy of five times three laps, with an overlay that also compared my ride to a real ascent of Everest. So, when the doubts started to creep in at the end of lap six, I told myself that I would ride another three laps, thereby reaching the equivalent of Everest base camp at 5,335m.
Heading up into the second half of the climb. Base Camp is just out of shot, to my left.

Heading up into the second half of the climb. Base Camp is just out of shot, to my left.

That however, was a further six hour commitment! Somehow, I arrived at the end of nine laps. Previously, 5,335m had felt like something of a turning point, but the surface was taking it’s toll and I was really suffering. I told myself I would ride another lap. And then another and another. Kev told me I was still climbing well and I think that was true, but it didn’t feel that way.

In the end, 12 laps came and went (almost 17 hours), but my chimp and I had been having long conversations, for c.8 hours by then. My chimp is called Pete – I named him during an adventure about 15 years ago, when he very nearly won the ‘let’s stop this nonsense’ debate. I had however let Pete have one small victory this time around: we’d agreed, as I descended the climb on lap 8, that if I failed, I wouldn’t come back: I’d brought the best I had to Mynydd Graean and if I was found wanting, this was one Everesting that was simply beyond me. Pete was grinning from ear to ear: ‘I’ve almost got him’ sort of thing.

 

Base Camp

But for the time being, there in the Cambrian Mountains, two thirds of the way ‘up Everest’, I could not quit and I would not quit. Too many people had contributed to me being here: Phil at CycleFit, Jonny at Noble Wheels, my colleagues at work who were covering for me, Kev who had given up his time to look after me on the hill and my wife Jenny at home, who I’d consigned to a logistical nightmare for a couple of days as she covered all the family trips that usually filled both our schedules.

Twilight. The constant hot/cold and eating too fast finally got the better of me and I was ill. My confidence at reaching 12 laps was instantly replaced by the fear of getting completely shut down by illness. My chimp, Pete, pounced on the opportunity to persuade me that enough was enough. My appetite had disappeared some time ago, so I was having to force myself to eat. A Bounce Ball, some Bloks, occasionally a biscuit, or a banana. I managed another bowl of yoghurt and muesli around lap 12, but I knew none of it was really sufficient.

One thing was still working well though and that was the bike. Back in February, I’d quickly reached the conclusion that my beautiful Scott Addict CX wasn’t the right tool for the job. It wasn’t comfy enough and the brakes weren’t up to 9,000m of descending. The bottom line was, I didn’t have a suitable bike to ride. Fast forward a couple of weeks and I found myself in the CycleFit lab in London, checking my road bike position and talking about my gravel plans. I’d lusted after an Open U.P. ever since the frame was launched by the Cervelo breakaway duo in Switzerland and now, Phil and Julian at CycleFit provided the missing link – they had my frame size in their Manchester lab and would get it shipped down to Covent Garden for me to take a look. It was a no brainer.

I did most of my descending on the drops - there was too much chance of getting bounced off the hoods on the rougher sections.

I did most of my descending on the drops – there was too much chance of getting bounced off the hoods on the rougher sections.

I sent the frame onto Jonny Bell of Noble Wheels. When it comes to detail and build quality, Jonny is second to none. We agreed on the gearing and the parts and also, crucially, on the wheels: Nox carbon rims, laced to DT Swiss hubs. A month later, like an expectant parent, I arrived outside Jonny’s house. The finished article was stunning – and very orange! I set about testing it at home in the Chiltern Hills and then took it to Wales to see how it performed on Mynydd Graean. I completely destroyed two tubeless tyres, but otherwise, the bike was sublime. I set about hunting down the best tyres for the job and Clement (USA) came up trumps. The tyres arrived just 48 hours ahead of my Everesting attempt.

Flawless. Thank you Jonny Bell of Noble Wheels and CycleFit.

Flawless. Thank you Jonny Bell of Noble Wheels and CycleFit.

At this point in the ride, as darkness engulfed me again, the thought of a mechanical, or a blowout, was terrifying. I think I’d have just sat down in the dirt and cried for a while. Likewise, I started to take more care on the descent – “don’t blow it now Guy”. I turned my lights back on. Heading into the second night is always the worst thing about Everesting.

Laps 13 and 14 seemed to take forever. Time slowed. I passed one of the hares that I’d seen almost 24 hours earlier. I thought I ran over a snake on one of the descents, but checked on the way back up and it was just a branch.

I just wanted to sleep. The thought of lying back down in the back of the car and closing my eyes, was almost too strong.

At the end of lap 13, I sat in the car, heater on, for ten minutes and did nothing. It was the first time all day that I’d done nothing. Except there was a reason – recharging my Garmins on-the-go was proving tricky because of the rough ground and even tape wouldn’t hold the charging pin in place. So I needed to take a quick break, just to get enough power to see me through the final laps.

The upper middle section, heading for Base Camp. I'm definitely not feeling great at this point and I'm barely half way.

The upper middle section, heading for Base Camp. I’m definitely not feeling great at this point and I’m barely half way.

Somehow, around 1.30am on Saturday morning, I found myself back at the very bottom of the climb and turning around for my final ascent. As I emerged from the forest after 3km and looked up, I could see a faint light, high above me. Was that the car?

It was. Kev had set his alarm for 2.00am and as I passed, he rode out and joined me. Legend. Kev is a talented rider and like me, has spent a lot of his cycling life off-road. In any normal circumstances, he’d have been Everesting with me. In January 2017 however, he was hit by a car which failed to give way and sustained serious injuries – eight broken ribs, a broken collar-bone and a punctured lung. He was on the long, slow path back to full fitness, but still managed to ride this last section with me. Amazing.

We cruised through the next few kms, being really careful on the slight descent in the section that I’d nicknamed Mordor and around the roughest parts of the track. On the final ramp to the summit, first one and then the second Garmin registered 8,848m. We carried onto the summit anyway and then descended slowly back to the car: “it only counts if you get off the mountain safely”. 9,000m was showing on both Garmins by the time we pulled back into Base Camp.

9,000m of up and down, on gravel.

I leaned my Open against the car, gave Kev a hug, told him he was a legend and thanked him. He laughed and headed for his tent, as though riding bikes at 3.00am in the morning was the most normal thing in the world.

I stripped by the car, despite the wind chill. The sheep were probably shocked. I cleaned the worst of the dust from my face, hands, arms and legs. I noticed the birds were beginning to sing and there was a faint light in the eastern sky. My second dawn of the ride… ridiculous.

I crawled into the back of the car, took some anti-sickness pills and zipped up my sleeping bag. It was 3.45am.

I closed my eyes. I think I was smiling.

I woke up four hours later. I hadn’t moved a muscle. It was the sleep of exhaustion. It was warm in the car. I opened a door and noticed there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the wind had dropped.  I dressed and stood outside in the sunshine, looking back down the climb and just soaking it all in. The silence was complete and beautiful.

It was a wonderful day to be alive. SGL, June 2017.

You can view the ride here: https://www.strava.com/activities/1040478473

One Bike to Rule Them All
My Open U.P. was built as follows:
– SRAM Force 1, with 160mm Shimano disc rotors and a 10-42 rear cassette
– a trick single Easton chainring and crankset, 40T, with Kogel ceramic bearings in the BB
– Nox Falcor 36D carbon rims, laced to DT Swiss hubs with Sapim X-Ray spokes
– Clement 700 x 40mm MSO gravel tyres
– enve finishing kit
– and an old, comfy, Fiz’ik Arione saddle
Other gear:
– I used an Exposure Strada 6 front light, with a remote switch: 1200 lumens and amazing!
– I also used an Exposure Axis light on my helmet to help with the descent
– I didn’t bother with a rear light, since there was no traffic
– I used a Garmin 820 and a Garmin 520. Both worked perfectly
– I used a Gomadic charger to recharge them on the go. This has worked well on road Everestings, but the connection was too loose for off-road riding and this cost me a little time
The Stats
– ascent and descent: 9,012m
– total distance: 309.3km
– elapsed time: 24:28:19
– moving time: 20:08:58
– average speed: 15.4km/h
– max speed: 46.8km/h
– average heart rate: 116bpm
How it compares:
– 1st off-road Everesting in Wales and 3rd in the UK
– Longest off-road climb to be Everested in the UK (10.3km)
– 2nd Longest climb on any surface to be Everested in the UK (the Cat & Fiddle Pass takes the honours)
Charlie Bwlch

Bala-Rhayader-Bala: 285km, 5,000m – paying homage to Liege-Bastogne-Liege

It all started in April 2013 when I rode the full distance Liege-Bastogne-Liege sportive, a day ahead of the pro-race, as the final day of Phil Deeker’s ‘hArdennes’ training camp. At the time, it was by far the toughest ride I’d done and it opened my eyes to what was possible.

A year later, I was watching L-B-L and wishing I was there. By way of consolation, I decided to plot an equivalent ride in the UK. I chose the Aran Mountains in mid Wales – my favourite place to ride – and set about finding a 280km route with c. 5,000m of up. I knew the area really well and it didn’t take me too long to arrive at a fitting course. Like it’s Belgian inspiration, the route would start at it’s most northern point – Bala (Liege) – and run south to the turning point at Rhayader (km 125 – the equivalent of Bastogne), before turning back north for the remaining 160km back to Bala. It was a daunting prospect, but covered the best roads I knew anywhere in the UK.

In the end, it took me three years to summon up the courage to attempt it and even then, it was a very last minute decision, when, on a Friday evening in April 2017, a time and weather window suddenly presented itself. My son Tom agreed we should go for it and I threw out a couple of other invites: to his great credit, one of these, a fellow Cent Cols rider called Charlie Sanders, said yes! Not many people would accept an invitation to ride 285km with less than 24 hours notice! 

One final thing struck me: we would be riding the route on Sunday 23rd April 2017, the exact same day that the pros would be riding Liege-Bastogne-Liege in Belgium: fate is a funny thing.

Fast forward to 6.00am, Sunday morning, in Bala, Snowdonia…

I woke up with all the familiar nerves that come before a big test. At an early breakfast, very kindly hosted by my favourite local B&B ( http://www.bodiwan.co.uk/ ), Charlie, Tom and I attempted to take in as many calories as possible in a short space of time. We rolled away at 7.15am, in cold, crisp air and followed the shores of Lake Bala southwards.

Charlie Bwlch

Our first climb was a classic: the north side of Bwlch y Groes (8.5km, 4.5% av). It’s not a difficult climb, but it’s long and we rode cautiously, conserving. We settled into the task at hand, making great time on the long transfer southwards, past Machynlleth and on to Tal-y-Bont. This was where the route turned inland and the real work began – the next 50km, first south-east and then back north west to Machynlleth, involved seven proper climbs and 1,500 m of ascent!

Nant Small

A useful tailwind sped us on our way up the 8.3km climb to Nant y Moch and then through the deserted and beautiful Cwm Ystwyth. We continued to make decent progress, although I noticed that by the time we arrived at our turning point in Rhayader, our elapsed average was down to 20kmh. The clock was ticking and we needed to speed up; more accurately, I needed to speed up – Charlie and Tom were clearly soft-pedalling on the climbs.

We’d planned to get food and water from local shops and garages to keep our stoppage time as short as possible, but allowed ourselves a brief cafe break in Rhayader. Bacon rolls, chocolate brownies and coffee helped us on our way.

I apologised to Charlie and Tom as we headed back north. The ‘road’ I was using was so bad that it was no longer shown on major maps, but it avoided the traffic of the A44 and after the cobbles of Roubaix, not many roads put me off! I heard ‘dissent’ behind me however and suspected they’d take the A road if they ever came back!

Back on proper tarmac at Llangurig and with 160km to go, Tom’s gears seemed to be slipping. Closer inspection revealed the stuff of nightmares: his rear dérailleur cable had frayed and was down to just the central strand of wire. If it snapped, we’d have to lock him into one gear.

We asked him to change gears as little and as gently as possible and prayed that we might get to the finish without it snapping. Tom, at 17 and on the biggest ride of his cycling career so far, took this news relatively well: in short, we were asking him to turn bigger gears and make life harder for himself. As if 285km and 5,000m wasn’t already hard enough!

Onwards, up into the peace of Hafren Forest and then up even more, onto Mach Mountain, with it’s amazing tarmac and stunning views across to Cader Idris.

Tom Mach Small

Passing back through Machynlleth was a significant milestone. Yes, we still had 100km to go, but two thirds of the climbing was now behind us. We refuelled again and set off for the wonderfully named Happy Valley and the climb over to Towyn.

We’d been fighting a moderate – and cold – headwind since Rhayader, but at Towyn we turned north-east and finally we started to enjoy a tailwind again. Our pace rose.

The coast road to Barmouth, including the famous old wooden bridge (trains, walkers and bikes only, no cars) was a real highlight, with the mountains of Snowdonia, the Lleyn Peninsular and Cardigan Bay providing a stunning scenic backdrop. It took our minds off how our bodies were feeling.

Towyn Small

We made out last water stop in Barmouth and headed up into the Coed-y-Brenin forest – the final hurdle. This was a tough finish, with several sections nudging 20% and numerous descents within the overall climb, meaning that it took us well over an hour to finally reach the gate that marked the summit of Bwlch Goriwared. It had been an eventful final push – the sun was now so low that it was completely blinding, the temperature had dropped to four degrees centigrade and a farmer on a quad bike had almost run us down – fair enough: why would anyone else be on these roads at this time on a Sunday evening?!

We put back on all the clothes that we’d taken off since setting out this morning, turned on our lights, ate any food that remained in our jersey pockets and headed down the final 10km descent to Lake Bala. Four gates and a herd of cows kept us sharp!

Sir Guy Litespeed: another fun micro adventure!

Sir Guy Litespeed: another fun micro adventure!

Finally, 13 hours after setting out, we arrived back at the southern end of Lake Bala. In ‘team time trial’ formation, we sped back to the town, as the last of the light seeped into the west and darkness took over.

This was one of my longest and certainly my best rides to date on home soil. Outside of Everesting rides, it was the most ascent I’d ever managed in a single ride in the UK. For Tom, just 17 years old, it was simply his longest and hardest ride ever and a massive achievement. As Charlie put it the following day “Congrats to Tom on being Epic.”

The finals stats weighed in at 285.6km and 5,041m of climbing. Moving time was 11:48:51 hrs.

You can view the ride here https://www.relive.cc/view/955344681 and here https://www.strava.com/activities/955344681

And finally, amazingly, Tom’s gear cable didn’t snap!

Photos by SGL and Charlie Sanders.