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.

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)

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.

Cent Cols Classics – Ronde

Words by Sir Guy Litespeed, photos by Robbrecht Desmet of Too Soon, Too Late

All the photos here are reproduced with the very kind permission of Robbrecht Desmet, film maker and photographer:

https://www.facebook.com/toosoontoolatefilms/

https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/toosoontoolate/

Click on any image to view full screen and then use your back button to return to this post.

Sitting in the town square in Ghent on a Saturday afternoon in May, with the sun beating down, my frustration was palpable: today was beautiful, but tomorrow was forecast to be awful. Sod and law were playing their games again.

A voice laughed at me inside my head: “Hard luck mate”: tomorrow’s date with the cobbles and bergs of the Tour of Flanders, or the Ronde Van Vlaanderen as the locals call it, was set in stone. Deep down in the pit of my stomach, I was nervous. Wet cobbles and bikes don’t mix easily.

Along with Simon, a friend from home, I’d driven over to Belgium that afternoon to dip into an inaugural Rapha Travel event – the Cent Cols Classics. I say ‘dip’ because my diary was tight and I only had time to join the first two days of the seven day event. A Cent Cols is a marginal undertaking at the best of times, but quietly, I was of the view that this might just be the most extreme Cent Cols ever planned. And that was in spite of the fact that it didn’t even include any mountains!

The concept was born of the mind of Phil Deeker, founder of the Cent Cols Challenge and legendary endurance cyclist and mountain man. Even by his standards, it was an audacious plan: to ride the full route of six of the local ‘Classics’ – the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. That would add up to over 1,500km of incredibly taxing riding in just six days. Even with a rest day scheduled in between Paris-Roubaix and Amstel Gold, I thought this itinerary looked highly improbable. To succeed, all the other variables, most notably the weather, would need to be stacked in our favour. What we really didn’t want was wet cobbles.

And so, on a Saturday evening in the basement of a nondescript hotel in Ghent, a handful of riders listened nervously to Phil’s briefing, particularly the talk about rain and the revelation that the last people to attempt this same set of rides had failed, even though they’d taken a rest day in between each one!!!

Cobbles + Rain

Cobbles + Rain

I awoke to the sound of rain and dressed accordingly. Sometime later I would land on the not-so-new-revelation that both Castelli Gabba and Rapha Shadow are wonderful inventions.

I almost crashed within the first fifty meters as my rear wheel went sideways on a set of cobbles. Somehow I saved it.

Leaving Ghent

Leaving Ghent

The 50km run out to Bruges was wet and dirty. Phil had plotted a route that would cover both the full distance of the pro race (or 267km for us) and every climb it’s ever been famous for. There would be no ‘Ronde minus a famous climb or two’ problems for us and no need for circuit laps.

We settled into the task and got to know each other a little, spitting grit from our mouths. I was increasingly impressed by some of the people around me: ex pros, racers, endurance athletes. This was a strong team. So far the rain was only intermittent and I wondered, hopefully, whether it might hold off?

Getting to know each other on the 50km run out to Bruges

Getting to know each other on the 50km run out to Bruges

It was almost 100km before we hit the first set of cobbles and thankfully, they were dry. They seemed OK – alien, but workable. They were nothing like Roubaix cobbles, which could never be described as workable, nor OK.

The first set of wet cobbles: Simon, learning a whole new aspect of cycling

The first set of wet cobbles: Simon, learning a whole new aspect of cycling

And then it started to rain. Not hard, yet, but enough to soak everything. The next long set of gently rising and falling cobbles felt a lot less OK.

What no one tells you about the Tour of Flanders is that there are some long stretches of flat cobbles. Except they’re not quite flat. They rise and then fall. And as they fall, so your speed increases. Normally you’d simply brake if you were uncomfortable with the speed of a descent, but not on wet cobbles. To brake is to invite disaster. But if you don’t brake, you end up doing 40, or 50kmh on a surface that feels as slippery as ice. It was, frankly, terrifying and there was another 150km of it to go. Somewhere behind me, on the stretch known as Haaghoek, Simon crashed. He lost a little skin and broke a bottle cage, but remounted and rode onwards.

To be fair to Simon, I think eight of the eleven riders crashed before the end of the day. Simon is one of those riders who makes me jealous: he’s a very talented cross-county runner, weighs nothing, has long levers and climbs hills in a way I can only dream of. He was made to ride bikes. However, he only came to cycling a few years ago and he’d never attempted a ride of this length, nor had he experienced cobbles before. I’d mentioned the trip just a few weeks before and in a rash moment, he’d agreed to join me. At this moment, he was the very definition of ‘in at the deep end’ and I feared he was probably regretting his decision!

The rain came and went, for the time being. We hit the first of the cobbled climbs, the Molenberg, and everyone cleaned it, because it was dry. Then we hit the damp cobbles of the iconic Geraardsbergen and two riders went down in front of me. I walked the final 100 meters to the summit, unable to maintain traction. I wasn’t alone. Some classy riders walked up that climb.

If you know your Classics, you'll recognise this as one of the most famous places in cycling. Rapha Brand Ambassador Walter Beckers points the way.

If you know your Classics, you’ll recognise this as one of the most famous places in cycling. Local hardman Walter Beckers points the way.

A little while later, the heavens really, really opened. Aquaplaning at the bottom of descents became a possibility. The picture of my wheels says it all. The rain would arrive and then recede. Some climbs were dry and some were wet.

My wheels. This is not a puddle, nor is it a river crossing. It's just the road in one of the downpours.

My wheels. This is not a puddle, nor is it a river crossing. It’s just the road in one of the downpours.

Some eight hours into the day, we arrived at the main event. This was where the professional race would be decided each year. The Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg were dry and I cleaned them both. As we reached the foot of the most iconic climb of them all, the Koppenberg, the rain returned and feasible changed to impossible in the blink of an eye. Just one of our group cleaned that climb. I now understood why even the pros might have to walk up it.

Arriving at the bottom of the Koppenberg. Half way up, the heavens opened and only one of us made it up on two wheels!

Arriving at the bottom of the Koppenberg. Half way up, the heavens opened and only one of us made it to the top on two wheels!

It was at this point that the sky turned from dark grey to inky black. We were about 70km from home and the cobbles weren’t over. The heavens opened once more – and stayed open.

The Koppenberg. Make sure this one's on your bucket list.

The Koppenberg. Make sure this one’s on your bucket list.

Terrifying. That’s how I’d describe the long, gently descending set of cobbles known as Mariaborrestraat. It was no longer just raining, but truly pouring. Simon climbed off his bike with the words “this is the worst experience of my life”. I felt very guilty.

It looks OK, but it felt awful. Simon is definitely cursing me at this point!

It looks OK, but it felt awful. Simon is definitely cursing me at this point!

Eventually the cobbles were behind us and we time-trialled the last 50km, through the mist, the spray and the gloom, back to Ghent. It was hard to discern the road from the canal to our right and later, Phil and I pondered how easy it would have been to ride into the waterway by mistake!

Cobbles finally over. Just another 70km to the finish line.

Cobbles finally over. Just another 70km to the finish line.

Predictably perhaps for a ride of this stature, there was a sting in the tail. The streets of Ghent are cobbled and criss-crossed by numerous tram lines. Bikes and tram lines don’t mix well. I started shouting ‘tram lines’, but too late: I heard riders go down behind me. This seemed like a cruel reward for having navigated our way back to the city. Thankfully, no one did any serious damage and we all made it back to the hotel, arriving in virtual darkness. I handed my bike to Craig, our mechanic and headed upstairs, pondering how to wash and dry my kit ready for Stage Two, which would start in just nine hours time. Oh, the joys of a Cent Cols Challenge.

SGL, May 2016.

Walter Beckers: one of nicest people you could ever wish to ride bikes with. Also one of the strongest!

Walter Beckers: one of nicest people you could ever wish to ride bikes with. Also one of the strongest!

Notes:
* The following day, we rode the route of Gent-Wevelgem (225km). Besides an early shower, the sun shone and our love for riding bikes was renewed. The cobbles of the Kemmelberg were dry and we all cleaned it, from both sides. Simon described it as one of his best ever days on a bike. I felt less guilty.
* Simon and I ducked out after Stage Two, but the rest of the team headed for the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. With Rapha Brand Ambassador and local hard-man Walter Beckers on the front for the entire ride, everyone made it to the velodrome. The event continued onwards and a small group of Phil’s disciples successfully rode every stage and thereby achieved something remarkable and to date, unique.
* I got my tyre choice all wrong. I rode 25mm Continental GP 4000 S II’s at 110 psi. I should have taken 28, 30, or even 32mm tyres and ridden them much softer – say 70 psi. Basically, you should ride the fattest tyres your frame will take.
* I can’t wait to ride the Ronde again, but I’ll be looking for a dry day next time.

 

Dreams – A Short Play About Mountains

All Photos courtesy of Kevin Mellalieu, Jimi Thomson/Two Tyred Tours, Riccardo Green & Sir Guy Litespeed. Click on any of the images to view fullscreen and then use your back button to return to the text.

The Theatre:
The Cottian Alps: a remote, high range of mountains on the border between France and Italy. When the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia wants to throw in something really high, remote and maybe even gravel, this is where it goes. Epic: a word used too often nowadays, but in the case of the Cottian Alps, it’s genuinely warranted.

The Route:
A squiggly line from Torino to Monaco, some 700km long and 18,000m high.

Dates:
Five days only, mid-June 2016.

Cast List:
Kev Mellalieu: 50 something, a seasoned mountain man and RAPID descender; Riccardo Green: 30 something, another seasoned mountain man and loooong day climbing specialist; Allan Greenfield: 50 something, more used to the desert flat-lands of Dubai, but a Kiwi by origin and hence loves the mountains; Tom Townsend: 16, rookie-blade, new to the mountains and multi-stage riding; Emma Wood: 18, another rookie-blade, also new to multi-stage riding and mountains; and Me, Sir Guy Litespeed.

The Story:

Prologue: One week prior to departure…
I knew that there was a problem, as soon as I saw Michael’s name on the incoming call screen: he was buried at work, advising on an imminent multi-billion dollar deal and had no choice but to pull out of our trip. I could hear the regret and anguish in his voice: “Gutted.” Silence.

There was a silver lining though: his employer was picking up his costs, so if I could find someone to step in, there was a free place on offer.

I quickly ran through names in my mind: who might be physically ready for a trip like this, with just one week’s notice AND free to come along? Impossible.

I threw out three or four invites, already knowing the answer. The responses were an echo of each other: “wow, that sounds amazing”, followed by “but I’m really sorry, I can’t come at such short notice.”

Fair enough. I nearly gave up. Then I thought of Emma.

Emma lives nearby and rides for High Wycombe Cycling Club, (HWCC) – I first met her last summer and like my son Tom, she was just getting into cycling. Fast forward a year and Tom and I had ridden with her enough to know that she was strong, fast and a very smiley, ‘can do’ personality. I also knew she was probably free, having just finished exams. I sent her a note. I gave her the briefest of outlines and suggested I pop over and talk to her and her parents, after which, she could either say yes, or no.

She said yes.

Her following five days were a blur of booking flights, arranging insurance, buying and borrowing various bits of kit, bike packing and nail biting!

To say that Emma (and Tom for that matter), were ‘in at the deep end’ would be a massive understatement. Over the years however, I’ve formed a view that people with the right physical conditioning can achieve things far beyond what they and others might imagine possible. But, only if they really commit and ‘put themselves in the path of the challenge’. Our ‘Cottian Alps Espoirs’ were about to test that theory to the max.

I’d realised in the last 12 months with HWCC just how little I knew about so many aspects of cycling: time-trialling, race licences, chain-gangs, crit races. It was all new.

However, the one thing I did know a lot about was multi-stage mountain riding and particularly, after Lucy’s Cent Cols in Autumn 2015, I knew how to prepare and nurture ‘multi-stage mountain newbies’. The decision to take Tom and then Emma, to the Cottian Alps, was therefore an educated judgment call, rather than recklessness (or so I tried to convince myself)! They would be surrounded by four very experienced riders and supported by one of the very best guys in the bespoke bike tours world: Jimi Thomson of Swiss based Two Tyred Tours. Together, I felt we could shepherd our Espoirs* through the mountains and mitigate most of the risks. * Espoirs is a French word, used in cycling to describe young, up and coming riders. The literal translation is something like ‘future hopes’.

Scene 1: The Finestre

Just three kilometers up the very first climb, Emma announced, with a mixed tone of awe and nervousness, that this was already her biggest ever climb. She had 300m vertical showing on her Garmin. I smiled to myself and winked at Rich, beside me. Tom meanwhile was channeling his nerves straight into his legs and marking Rich attentively, keen to make sure that he was on the pace!

SGL, early on in the gravel section of the Finestre

SGL, early on in the gravel section of the Finestre

We were climbing the early slopes of the Finestre. Unknown in cycling circles until it’s inclusion in the 2005 Giro d’Italia, the Finestre was the catalyst for the entire trip. I’d spent the last 11 years dreaming about this 17km, 1,700m climb. What makes the Finestre so special is the last 7km, because the surface becomes gravel. At least, on race day it looks like gravel, because the road is groomed and flattened slightly. In a non-Giro appearance year, it’s just a regular mountain track and gravel would be too kind. It’s stones, mud and rocks, with occasional smooth sections of gravel in between!

The Finestre: smooth it is not!

The Finestre: smooth it is not!

I’d read that it would easily rank in most people’s Top 10 Best European climbs, alongside mythical names like the Galibier, the Tourmalet, the Stelvio and Alpe d’Huez. I’d also read that it was hard, with an average gradient nudging 10%. As a ‘first ever mountain’ for Emma and ‘second ever mountain’ for Tom (Ventoux was his first!), it was the stuff of dreams. Or maybe, nightmares? Either way, it was likely to be memorable…

SGL climbing towards the summit of the Finestre

SGL climbing towards the summit of the Finestre

I spend my winters pouring over maps and dreaming of roads and climbs I’ve yet to visit. Once I have an outline plan, I send it to Jimi and he works on turning it into a proper route, with overnight stops. Together, we then sense check our daily distance and climbing, tweak the route if it looks too easy, or too hard and then I invite likely accomplices, resulting in a totally bespoke trip for five or six riders. This trip, from Torino to Monaco, was effectively five dreams, joined up to create an amazing point-to-point, five day road trip. To say I was excited, heading up the Finestre, was an understatement.

Allan and and Sir Guy on the amazing upper slopes of the Finestre

Allan and and Sir Guy on the amazing upper slopes of the Finestre

The road section of the Finestre was steep – consistently 10 – 15%, for 10km. If it hadn’t been for fresh legs, I think we’d have found this really hard, but as it was, we coped pretty well, all arriving at the gravel section within a minute or two of each other. Running point were Tom and Rich, with Kev and I a few minutes back, distracted by too many photo opportunities and using Emma and Allan as our cycling models. The ‘gravel’ section was consistently 8 – 10% and required complete concentration and plenty of power. Picking the right line was crucial and you had to move all over the track, constantly. We were lucky to have it dry – the weather in the Alps so far this Spring had been awful and it had rained relentlessly for the last six weeks or so.

As 'first ever climb' this will take some beating: Emma turns the final corner before the summit.

As ‘first ever climb’ this will take some beating: Emma turns the final corner before the summit.

But on this day, the sun shone, our tyres threw up nothing worse than dust and we all cleaned the climb, sans punctures. It’s amazing what a road bike can do if you let it. Paris-Roubaix, Flanders, Tro Blo Leon, the Finestre.

Kev & Emma on the very last ramp of the stunning Finestre.

Kev & Emma on the very last ramp of the stunning Finestre.

The next lesson for our Espoirs was descending. It’s virtually impossible to replicate a big Alpine descent in the UK, so this really was back to basics. With some super-fast descenders (Allan, Kev, Rich) to guide them, Emma and Tom started to learn how to do it. Going fast is easy, but going fast, safely, through corners is another thing altogether: sudden breaks in the road surface, gravel, cambers, blind bends, traffic, stray animals, rocks. My biggest fear for our learners was a downhill crash and I kept impressing 100% concentration on them.

Safely down in the valley, it was now properly hot – 30 degrees C and rising. We stopped for our first proper (Italian) espresso of the trip and Kev and Rich decided to break off for one of Jimi’s ‘extras’: an optional out and back climb, or loop, for anyone who wanted to test their legs yet further!

Allan, Tom, Emma and I continued on to Pinerolo and from there to our finish town of Saluzzo, via a couple of short but punchy climbs in temperatures now nudging the mid 30s. Fittingly, our final km to the hotel involved impossibly narrow streets, cobbles and a 30% ramp! Kev and Rich rolled in an hour or so later, looking like they’d been ‘tested’ by the heat! For Emma, this was her longest ever ride. Tomorrow’s stage would be harder still.

Don't try this at home: 175km and 5,000m in 35 degree heat: Riccardo thinks Stage One was a nice opener!

Don’t try this at home: 175km and 5,000m in 35 degree heat: Riccardo thinks Stage One was a nice opener!

Scene 2: The Agnello

My second dream was the Agnello. Every picture I’d ever seen of this climb had snow in it! Three words seemed to sum it up: long, high and beautiful. A 60km climb, to 2,744m. It would be the longest continuous section of uphill that I’d ever ridden. Admittedly, the first 40km were pretty gentle, but the final 20km and in particular the last 10km, really made up for it. With my Garmin consistently showing 10 – 15%, this final section, heading up into the snows, was genuinely challenging.

About 30km into the 60km climb that is the Agnello.

About 30km into the 60km climb that is the Agnello.

Tom had asked me a few months earlier whether you could actually feel the altitude on the highest passes and I’d said “no, not really.” But I had been wrong and with five kilometers still to go, I rode up alongside him to tell him “yes, you can categorically feel it”!

The Agnello: a very big mountain! Spot Allan, a small spec, surrounded by grandeur.

The Agnello: a very big mountain! Spot Allan, a small spec, surrounded by grandeur.

The Agnello, particularly from the Italian side, should be on every cyclists ‘To Do List’. It is simply, epic.

Emma, followed by Tom, heading into thin air.

Emma, followed by Tom, heading into thin air.

Finally, after 60km of up, we reach the summit! From L to R: SGL, Emma, Allan & Tom.

Finally, after 60km of up, we reach the summit! From L to R: SGL, Emma, Allan & Tom.

With stops, it took us over five hours to reach the summit and suddenly the day seemed like being a long one. Kev and Rich had sped off after the first feed stop, aiming to add the out and back climb up the iconic Col d’Izoard and in the process, 5,500m for the day! The rest of us added extra clothes and headed down from the Agnello for about 30km to Guillestre, where we basked in warm sunshine, eating sandwiches and ice cream 🙂

Heading down the Agnello: a Giro d'Italia was lost in one of those snow drifts, just a few days earlier!

Heading down the Agnello: a Giro d’Italia was lost in one of those snow drifts, just a few days earlier!

The French side of the Agnello. The Italian side is probably the better climb, but this side is similarly stunning.

The French side of the Agnello. The Italian side is probably the better climb, but this side is similarly stunning.

HWCC Espoirs, learning the art of going down: quickly.

HWCC Espoirs, learning the art of going down: quickly.

Next up was the Col du Vars, another HC climb: 21km long and very hot, with temperatures back into the mid 30s. Emma, who had started the day feeling a little creaky, discovered that it was possible to recover as the day went on and with about 10km to go, she made a break for the summit. Jimi drove up alongside Tom and I with a raised eyebrow and a “she’s gone” comment. A Coke a few kms below the summit had a similar effect on Tom and I took a stunning shot of him nearing the col in the early evening sunshine.

Tom nears the summit of the Vars.

Tom nears the summit of the Vars.

The following 30 minutes will stay with me forever. In just 24 hours, Tom and Emma had worked out how to descend a mountain fast and I found myself grinning from ear to ear, as we flew down the final 20km to Barcelonette, with the Espoirs cornering like pros. The descent off the southern side of the Vars is worth seeking out – it’s superb! Meanwhile, behind, Kev and Rich caught Allan and the three of them shared the same descent and arrived at the hotel just a few minutes behind us.

Scene 3: The Cayolle – Champs – Allos Link-Up

Dream #3 was something I’d read about in Daniel Friebe’s book, Mountain Higher. He described the natural loop formed by the cols of the Cayolle, Champs and Allos as one of the top three link ups on European roads and I’d been thinking about it for years.

So far, our weather had been near perfect. In truth, it had actually been a touch too warm at times, but as someone who rides through a British winter each year, I’d told myself a long time ago never to complain when the sun shone. However, the temperature was rising by a few degrees each day and we were now into solid mid 30’s (in the shade) and well beyond that in the sun.

Setting out from our start and finish point of Barcelonnette however, all seemed well and we rode together for the first 10km of the Cayolle. It’s a long climb at 30km and it quickly struck me how beautiful it was, rising first through a narrow gorge and then emerging into a beautiful Alpine valley. Tempted by photo opportunities, Kev and I were soon at the rear and leap-frogging each other up the valley as we stopped in turn to capture yet another stunning image. I therefore missed the attack by Tom, with Emma following his wheel for all but the last km or so. It seemed our Espoirs were in good shape.

Riccardo coaxes Emma up the Champs.

Riccardo coaxes Emma up the Champs.

The upper section of the Cayolle was truly stunning and as I neared the top of the climb, surrounded by peaks, meadows, wild flowers and waterfalls, I realised that I had a problem: how to squeeze it into my ‘Top Five Best Ever Climbs’ when I already had twelve contenders!

The summit was cool enough, but by the time we’d descended a thousand meters to the valley below, it was pretty warm again and over lunch, Tom asked me how heat stroke worked and whether you could ever drink too much when riding in temperatures as hot as the ones we were now experiencing. We talked it through and came to the conclusion that he should be drinking at least 750ml of fluids per hour and Riccardo contributed some ‘Salt Stik’ tablets to help.

It was here that I made my only real mistake of the trip, in that I didn’t specifically have the same conversation with Emma and I failed to check exactly how much she was drinking.

An hour and a half later, at the summit of the Champs, the answer became clear: not enough. Thankfully, Rich had shepherded her up the climb and despite feeling sick and pretty wobbly, she’d kept spinning her pedals. She arrived at the summit smiling, but Rich shot me a look which conveyed “she’s not smiling inside” and I immediately had a quick word with Allan. He’s something of an expert on cycling in the heat, living in the Middle East and riding right through their summer in temperatures nudging 50 degrees and beyond. He went straight into action with cold water and iced towels (as ever, Jimi was right on hand with the van) and although we lost some time, when we set out to descend, we were confident that Emma’s core temperature had dropped and impressively, she was still riding her bike, when others might have climbed in alongside Jimi at that point.

The stats on our loop looked relatively innocuous: c.130km and 3,500m, but in the heat, this was not proving to be an easy ride at all. It’s also very remote and without Jimi, we’d really have struggled to acquire enough water to undertake it safely.

The descent off the Champs is ‘technical’: be warned. The road surface was marginal for most of the way and in places, it almost disappeared completely. All credit then to Tom and Emma for navigating it without incident – their learning curve continued to be pretty much vertical!

With Emma clearly in need of recovery and an easy finish, the route offered no such thing! The 30km climb to the summit of the Allos was something of a drag, which she dealt with by riding ahead with Rich – it was a good tactic, as we’d all discover later.

With the sun beginning to dip behind the mountains and the temperature finally falling, Tom and I waited for Allan and Kev to join us at the summit. We had a restaurant booked for 8.00 and nothing between us and that except a 20km descent: life seemed good.

SGL & Tom basking in late afternoon sunshine, atop the Allos.

SGL & Tom basking in late afternoon sunshine, atop the Allos.

However, rounding a bend at speed, I suddenly came across a line of stationary vehicles, stuck behind c.2,000 sheep! I’ve never seen so many sheep. They were being moved down the road for c.4km to new pastures by a combination of dogs and half a dozen shepherds! Jimi caught us up and we all agreed to just sit it out. The restaurant agreed to delay our booking and we alerted Emma and Rich that we were stuck – they’d been allowed to walk through, but we decided against trying to do the same.

Houston, we have a problem! Several thousand problems in fact!

Houston, we have a problem! Several thousand problems in fact!

Eventually the sheep turned off the road and we finished a stunning day, although not before I’d punctured and almost spun out on the very last and very fast, final corner. The margin between ‘all good’ and ‘all bad’ is often very narrow.

Scene 4: The Bonette

Back in 2009, I rode the Route des Grandes Alpes from Geneva to Nice. It’s a brilliant route, full of stunning climbs, but one had really stuck in my mind and ever since, I’d always quoted it as the best climb I’d ever done. However, time dulls the memory and I’d ridden an awful lot of cols since 2009. Perhaps it wouldn’t live up to expectations?

The Cime de la Bonette. It had all the right ingredients: at 24km it was long enough to be meaningful, it was steep enough to be a proper climb and it ended at the highest paved road loop in Europe. Over half of the climbing occurred above 2,000m. It was a proper climb in every sense.

The bigger immediate question though was Emma, who arrived at breakfast looking pale. She’d clearly suffered from mild heat stroke the day before and was debating whether to ride or not. To her credit, she came back a few minutes later in her riding gear and we agreed to see how she felt after the 10km valley road to the bottom of the climb.

Kev and Rich had left early, keen to add an extra loop that Jimi had prepared as an option, while the rest of us cruised to Jausiers, the town at the foot of the climb. The sky was a deep blue, there was very little wind and the temperature was rising. Tom set a wonderfully steady pace and Emma simply held his wheel. I yoyo’d my way up the climb, taking pictures and simply absorbing where I was.

Tom & Emma heading up the Bonette. For a girl who had heat stroke less than 24 hours earlier, this is impressive!

Tom & Emma heading up the Bonette. For a girl who had heat stroke less than 24 hours earlier, this is impressive!

Just half way up, I knew that the Bonette was going to stay at the top of my list. It’s an amazing climb. Once again I was struck by the three distinct pieces of the climb: the hot lower slopes, leading up to and under a rock wall; then the Alpine meadows, opening up beautiful views ahead and finally, the upper mountain, devoid of vegetation. The scale and the altitude make a remarkable finale. We regrouped at the Col and then headed up the 15% ramps of the loop road which take you to the Cime. It’s slightly contrived, but the snow banks made it worthwhile and being on top of the highest paved road pass in Europe with Tom, Emma and Allan was pretty special.

Tom at 2,800m, dwarfed by a snow bank.

Tom at 2,800m, dwarfed by a snow bank.

The rest of the day was good, but inevitably, the Bonette had stolen the show. A steep summit finish woke us back up though and for Kev and Rich, 185km and 5,500m in, it was probably a painful finale!

Riccardo & Kev discovering some amazing roads on another of Jimi's 'optional extensions'!

Riccardo & Kev discovering some amazing roads on another of Jimi’s ‘optional extensions’!

Scene 5: The Madone

There was always a danger, since our previous days had covered climbs like the Finestre, the Agnello and the Bonette, that a trip like this would end too quietly. However, the Madone was yet another dream of mine: a legendary climb, made famous by the ‘Armstrong years’ and Trek naming a bike after it. By the time we rode onto the lower slopes, it was baking hot. But despite this, we clearly all had the same idea: last climb, full gas.

Descending from the hotel on the final day. Our Espoirs now have this nailed and Tom leads us out.

Descending from the hotel on the final day. Our Espoirs now have this nailed and Tom leads us out.

The pace was fast and I had to work hard to catch, only to then get dropped a couple of kms later. Kev seemed to have the jump on everyone, but gradually, Tom reeled him in, with a hilarious shout of “Kev, I’m coming for you” from 50m behind.

Nice job team: from L to R: Kev, Riccardo, Allan, Emma, SGL and Tom.

Nice job team: from L to R: Kev, Riccardo, Allan, Emma, SGL and Tom.

Epilogue:
When you ride a route for the first time, you usually work out what you’d change to make it better next time. But in this instance, besides a different hotel on the fourth night, there was nothing to alter. This was undoubtedly one of the best trips I’ve ever ridden. The photos speak for themselves. I’m planning a return in 2017. It’s as simple as that.

The Agnello: I know, you just want to be there, right now! Me too!

The Agnello: I know, you just want to be there, right now! Me too!

P.S. Inspired by a glimpse into big rides and what’s possible if you set your mind to it, Emma went on to ‘Everest’ a climb in the UK in August. She’s the youngest woman in the world to do this – by six years!

My list of ‘Top Five Best Ever Climbs’ is as follows:
1. Bonette from Jausiers
2. Ventoux from Bedoin
3. Susten from Innertkirchen
4. Finestre from Susa
5. Manghen from Molina
6. Cayolle from Barcelonnette
7. Gavia from Ponte di Legno
8. Agnello from Chianale
9. Stelvio from Prato
10. Puy Mary from Recusset
11. Croix de Bauzon from Jaujac
12. St. Gotthard (Tremola) from Airolo
13. Galibier from Valloire

There’s an obvious problem with this list, I know: five does not equal thirteen! Besides that, the notable point is that five of these climbs were on this route. Quite simply, although this wasn’t the hardest ride I’ve done, it was certainly one of the best. It was a treat from start to finish: the stuff of dreams. Thank you to Tom, Emma, Kev, Allan and Riccardo for sharing it with me and to Jimi Thomson of Two Tyred Tours ( www.twotyredtours.com ), for making rides like this possible.

SGL, Summer 2016.

Everesting #2: Whiteleaf & the High Rouleurs Society

By late June 2016, I’d converted my S-Works to ‘steep Everesting spec’:
– an 11-40 cassette
– an XTR Di2 rear dérailleur to accommodate that cassette!
– front dérailleur removed to provide a clean chain-line
– saddle tilted forward slightly
– chain-stay protector (chain slap on the descent was awful without it)
– Garmin battery charger taped to the top tube
– climbing wheels fitted and new brake pads

To get used to the gearing and also riding steep gradients all the time, I started running laps on a couple of steep local climbs: Kop Hill and Whiteleaf. Both reach 20% or more and sometimes I’d do alternate reps on both (they share the same summit (so would be perfect for a ‘Double Everesting’. Cough)) and other times I’d just pick one and do repeats. After a few weeks, I could ride them seated, keeping my heart rate below 140bpm (within Z3) and my power below 300 watts (330 FTP). So, I felt my body and my bike were ready for the Project H climb in Wales.

However, there were two issues, one minor and one major. The minor one was that Kev (a friend, planning to ride Project H with me) and I didn’t really align on availability. I contemplated going alone and encouraged him to do the same, if the weather suddenly came good. There were about five potential dates, but we only coincided on three of them. The more significant issue was the weather. The UK ‘summer’ in July 2016 was basically governed by a southerly jet stream, leaving the south-east of the country dryish and the north and west, wet and windy. I started to get frustrated and worried the ‘Everesting season’ might slip away.

It was with these thoughts in the back of my mind that I set out one Tuesday evening to run repeats on Whiteleaf. Number 23 in Simon Warren’s original 100 Greatest Climbs book, it’s 1.3km long and weighs in at a fraction under 10% average. It has three notable steep sections – the first at c.16%, the second, ‘the corner’ at c.25% and the third, a long, steepening ramp, nudging 20%. It’s a ‘proper’ climb, generally acknowledged as a contender for ‘hardest climb in the Chiltern Hills’ and it was used for decades as the centre piece of the Archer GP Road Race, as well as for local hill climb races. I ran eight laps that night and realised that I was still fresh at the end. When I got home, I checked the Everesting.cc Hall of Fame. No one had Everested Whiteleaf. I couldn’t quite believe it. In local terms, this hill was iconic and most of the equivalent climbs close to London had already been Everested, some of them multiple times. Being the first to Everest a climb as good as Whiteleaf was a singular opportunity and I was now completely hooked.

Whiteleaf 2D

The following day, I checked the weather forecast again. It was still bad for Wales, but perfect for Whiteleaf. I decided it was karma and asked Kev whether he fancied joining me, but Whiteleaf held less allure for him versus the Project H climb.

I locked in on my target, solo, and prepared a top tube sticker for Whiteleaf, breaking the climb down into sets of reps and correlating them to actual points on an ascent of Everest. I gathered my kit together, packed my car and took a big, deep breath. Everesting Whiteleaf would require me to ride 70 reps.

The very last thing I did was download an audio book – Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into Thin Air’, a compelling account of the 1996 Everest disaster. I wasn’t sure whether I’d need the distraction or not, but I wanted the option.

I posted a picture on Facebook of the packed car, to add a little motivational pressure (but without any details of the target climb) and went to bed at 9.30am on Friday evening, seriously nervous!

My alarm went off at 2.00am. I dressed, ate breakfast and drove the four miles to the bottom of the climb, parking my car on the wide grass verge. I was riding my first rep by 3.00am, bang on schedule. It was dark, but my light cut a perfect beam and I settled into the task.

My plan was to ride five reps at a time and then stop to refill my bottle and eat a little food. Allowing for that stop and a lap time of c12 minutes, each set of five reps would take c. one hour. That would mean a ride time of around 14 hours and I assumed I’d lose at least another three hours in cumulative stoppage time.

You’ve almost certainly heard people talk about ‘the chimp on your shoulder’, particularly in the context of endurance challenges. I’m not sure who coined the phrase first, but British Cycling adviser Dr Stephen Peters has written a whole book on the topic: The Chimp Paradox. In very brief terms, it suggests that the rational part of your brain – the bit that says “I can do this”, is countered by the chimp: the irrational, emotional part that says “this is daft, let’s stop doing this”. Anyone who has ever run a marathon, attempted an Everesting, or a Cent Cols Challenge, or a Haute Route, will have had to overcome their chimp. They may well have spent days, even weeks, battling their chimp. BUT, here’s the good news: you can fool your chimp. He’s really not that smart – he’s all emotion, doubt and fear. For example, 70 reps of Whiteleaf and 14+ hours in the saddle sounded awful – my chimp would have the upper hand. But 14 sets of 5 reps, sounded completely different. Could I do another five reps, after each previous set? Yes, probably. My top-tube sticker was another way of fooling my chimp, by breaking the climb down into sections, rather than just aiming straight for the summit. It even included a message to him, at the very bottom: you only fail if you quit.

In 2005, during a very long MTB ride, I even gave my chimp a name – he’s called Pete. I knew he’d show up at some point during the day.

The other point I’d make here is that the more reference points you have to counter-argue your chimp with, the easier something like an Everesting gets. By reference points, I mean big rides: anything over 250km, or 10+hours in the saddle, or 6,000m+ of climbing. And crucially, any rides where you’ve had to battle your chimp and won. Where things get really interesting is when you go through a real physical problem – a pain, a lack of energy, heat, cold, ‘the wall’ or ‘a bonk’. It sometimes takes hours to ride out of a physical low point and your chimp will pounce on the opportunity, telling you to quit. I was fortunate in that I had a lot of ‘low point milestones’ and every year, I make a point of going looking for new ones in the early part of the season, to give me confidence for the biggest challenges in the months ahead. For anyone who doesn’t have many of these milestones (I call the milestones ‘Chimp Cheaters’), an Everesting will almost certainly, at some point, turn into a really tough experience.

Three odd/funny things happened during the ride. The first was obvious even on the first lap: I couldn’t see them because it was pitch black, but the trees were full of squirrels! It was ‘hazelnut’ season and the squirrels were having a feast. From the steep corner upwards, the air was full of the sound of nut shells hitting the tarmac and three sections of the road were literally carpeted with nut shells!

The first 10 reps went like clockwork and by 5.00am, I was 1,270m up Everest.

Whiteleaf Sq

Then, something really odd happened. As I neared the first steep section on the eleventh rep, it felt harder than it should have done. Looking down, I realised that my chain was on the big ring. But this was impossible, because I didn’t have a front dérailleur! We’d removed it, to keep the chain line clean, so I was effectively locked into my small chain ring.

I climbed off, manually moved the chain back onto the small ring and carried on up the hill, pondering how that could have happened! I was lucky not to have torn the rear derailleur right off!

My general advice for Everesting includes choosing a climb with a good, relaxing descent, where you can eat and drink and get a bit of rest. Whiteleaf is nothing like that: it’s steep, bumpy, technical and the bottom half has numerous driveways which could provide instant danger from cars joining the road. I was literally feathering the brakes almost the entire way down, hovering off the saddle. Even so, by 20 laps or so, I had the descent completely dialed-in and was hitting almost 80km/h. Disc brakes made a huge difference here – they were effortless and far safer. People always think about preparing their bike for going uphill, but I’d purposefully sacrificed a little bit of weight for the benefits of disc brakes because I knew they would help me get down safely – descending c.9,000m of 10 – 20% is not easy.

By 7.00am and 20 reps in and I was still exactly on schedule. An occasional car came past and the sun had come up, but generally the road was quiet and it felt safe. I was ticking off the laps as I went, but had messed up my lap counter, so had to do it manually. I whiled away the climb by doing the maths in my head, checking total distance and height gained against my tally of reps, to make sure I was right. I was using two Garmins – a 1000 and a brand new 820. Amazingly, they never got further than 30m out of sync, which was remarkable given the scale of the overall ascent and even more so when Auto Pause kicked in two or three times on every ascent and descent, as the climb steepened under the trees and GPS struggled to keep a tab on me.

In line with my previous experiences of Everesting, my first and biggest mental goal was Base Camp, or 5,335m. This would require 42 reps of Whiteleaf and I had hoped to reach it around 1.00pm. I’d promised myself that if I reached Base Camp and felt OK, I would ‘go public’ on Facebook, thereby adding a little extra pressure and motivation. Up until this point, I’d told no one of my plans apart from my family, Kev and Ollie Blagden, one of the HWCC Espoirs who completed his own Everesting on a neighbouring climb the previous weekend. I decided that stating my plans publicly prior to my attempt was just setting myself up to look silly if I then failed. It seemed to me that it would be better to try, see how I got on and if I thought it seemed possible, then I would let people know what I was trying to do.

And so, at 1.00pm, I posted the following: “Well, I’m now 42 reps into Whiteleaf – #23 in Simon Warren’s (original) 100 Greatest Climbs. It’s local and nasty: 1.3km long, 127m of ascent, an average gradient of fractionally under 10% and a maximum gradient nudging 25%. It’s a contender for ‘hardest climb in the Chiltern Hills’. So, 42 reps is significant because 1. it’s been hard work and I’m tired and 2. it means I’ve climbed 5,335m and that’s the height of Everest Base Camp. The milestones (hopefully) now come a little faster: Camp 1 at 6,000m/47 reps, Camp 2 at 6,400m/50 reps, Camp 3 at 7,200m/56 reps, the South Col/Camp 4 at 7,906m/61 reps, and the summit (fingers crossed) at 8,848m/70 reps. I’ll be here for at least another seven hours (maybe!?), tapping away – if anyone wants to come out to the hill and say hello, maybe even ride a lap with me, I’d be very grateful for the distraction – I’m running out of audio books!!! Updates to follow. SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT”

28 more reps didn’t seem too daunting (Pete didn’t completely agree), but I stuck to my plan of five rep blocks and just kept slowly climbing the hill. I’d pulled the trigger on the audio book on the eleventh rep and Jon Krakauer and I were nearing the South Col together. I’d read the book when it was first published, but had forgotten most of the detail and it was proving really interesting and apt. I’d pause it at the start of each descent and then start it again when I turned at the bottom.

I posted the following at 45 reps: “I’m now 45 reps into Whiteleaf, or 5,760m up Everest, in my virtual world! A few words about the bike: it’s an S-Works Roubaix (David Alexander). If successful, this will be its second Everesting. It’s comfy enough to ride all day (and night!), but it’s also sharp enough to climb well and handle the descent. I’m running disc brakes, which helps hugely with the downhill: it’s steep, narrow, a little bumpy and I’m on the brakes almost the entire way down. There are also numerous side roads and drive ways on the lower half and the disc brakes will help me stop if someone pulls out unexpectedly. I’m also using lights, all day, in an attempt to help car drivers see me. It’s actually a pretty stressful descent – no rest at all. Thankfully it only takes just over two minutes. The real twist on this bike is the gearing. Simon Winfield @ Cycle Care, together with Shimano’s Technical dept, worked out a way that I could run a higher gear. So, I have an XTR 11×40 rear cassette and an XTR rear dérailleur, which is compatible with road Di2. You might think that makes it easy, but I promise you it’s not – I’m still averaging HR in Z3 and my power is up around 330 watts on the steepest parts and that’s my FTP, so it’s very debatable whether it’s sustainable. As a slightly masochistic experiment however, it’s fascinating, albeit also worrying! Up front, I’m running a normal 34/50 combination, but I can’t shift into the big ring because of the altered chain line, so we’ve removed the front dérailleur! That’s fine because there’s nowhere on Whiteleaf to use the big ring anyway 🙂 More updates to follow. SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT”

In this case, with heavy modifications, a lot of it was All About The Bike!

In this case, with heavy modifications, a lot of it was All About The Bike!

Friends started to turn up from HWCC, stopping by to say hello and wish me well. Unfortunately, they brought with them the news that one of the super-talented Espoirs, Ollie Blagden, had crashed badly on the club run that morning and was now in hospital. I spent many of the remaining laps thinking about Ollie, who had Everested just seven days before – he’d been planning to ride a few reps with me.*

At 47 reps I posted this: 47 reps/6,000m. This wasn’t even supposed to happen! I was just running laps on Whiteleaf over the last few weeks, getting ready for a (much steeper!!) climb in Wales. But that faces south and the wind is from the north = nightmare = I didn’t go to Wales this weekend. But in the course of running laps on Whiteleaf, I realised that I really rather liked it. Or most of it. I don’t really like the 3 x almost 20% sections, nor the 25% corner, nor the technical, on the brakes descent with the constriction half way down, nor the off-camber turn at the bottom, but I like it enough to try! Perhaps. And so I find myself 47 reps in, at the equivalent height of Camp 1 on Everest (6,000m). I started at 3.00am this morning, in an attempt to avoid darkness tonight – fingers crossed. SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT

It was around this time that the third funny thing happened. I was somewhere around lap 50, struggling through the final steep ramp, when a cyclist came past me so fast, I almost felt the air move. It took me a split second to work out who it must be – tall, super lean, white jersey, crazy fast: it could only be Tejvan Pettinger. He’s the reigning KoM on Whiteleaf and was British Hill Climb Champion in 2013. He’d disappeared around the final bend before I’d had time to really compute this, but it was a treat to see his effort and hilarious to feel the difference in our relative speeds: his KoM is 4’12” and I was averaging 9’45” per ascent!**

It's not obvious from this picture but this is the steep corner - 20% ++

It’s not obvious from this picture but this is the steep corner: 20% ++

The next milestone was 57 reps (7,200m and Camp 3 on Everest) and by then, I was starting to have to really work at it. My heart rate had climbed from a max of sub 140bpm, to early 150s, but now it was falling again, a sure sign that my muscles were beginning to lose power. Interestingly, my coach had been testing my muscle glycogen storage in the days leading up to the ride and we’d discovered two things: I could recover to full storage in less than 12 hours after a training session, but just 24 hours before starting the attempt, I inexplicably appeared quite depleted. I largely ignored this – I felt strong and went ahead anyway. It was later explained that I appeared to be storing the glycogen in a thin layer of fat on the surface of my muscles, rather than within my muscles – useful for an Everesting, but less helpful if I’d been riding a 25 mile TT!

I posted the following: “57 reps/7,200m: Camp 3, on Lhotse’s ice wall. Everesting is a fascinating concept: pick any hill you like and run consecutive reps, up and down, until your cumulative ascent equals the height of Everest (in one push, no sleeping allowed). Simple. Compelling. My first Everesting was a long one: 420km, 19+hrs in the saddle and over 24hrs on the road: I was dog tired by the end. This one is completely different, because the hill is so much steeper (10% average), meaning a distance of just 180km. This qualifies it as a ‘Steep’ Everesting and it hurts far, far more than my previous ride. Other categories include Soil (off-road, I love this idea), Suburban (yuk, never) and Significant (something BIG, abroad – I love this idea too). Completing an Everesting admits you to a loose knit, global group of riders known as Hells 500. A Hells 500 rider has undoubtedly spent some time in a dark mental and physical place, but endured and pulled through. In short, it signifies a really big ride, an uber-long day, an awful lot of climbing and significant will power!. 13 more reps to go. SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT”

Having messed up the settings in my Garmin's lap counter, this was the solution - a pen and the lid of my cool box!

Having messed up the settings in my Garmin’s lap counter, this was the solution – a pen and the lid of my cool box!

From around 60 reps onwards, I started to feel slightly sick. I’d been bent over my bike for around 12 hours by then, working reasonably hard and I think it was just an alien feeling, versus the ebbs and flows of normal riding (60 reps equaled a solid 13 hours towards the top end of Z3). I posted the following: “61 reps, or 7,902m: the South Col. If I was actually on Everest, I’d now be in what they call the Death Zone because there’s so little oxygen that your body is slowly dying! Camp 4 is literally at the edge of the earth’s atmosphere! The summit would be just under 1,000m above me – via a famous spot called the Hilary Step, where Sir Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had such an epic struggle on the first ascent in 1953. Nine more reps to go, or in other words, a couple of hours. SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT”

I kept eating and drinking for the next seven laps or so, but limited my intake to try to stave off the slightly nauseous feeling. Finally, with darkness returned and around 10.30pm, I completed my 70th rep and posted the following: “70 reps done, 8,848m. Everesting #2 completed. I started at 3.00am this morning and now darkness draws near again. The problem is, there’s one other type of Hells 500 ride: a High Rouleur. To qualify, you have to do 10,000m in a single ride. Not many people ever do that, but I’m intrigued to try. That’s ten more reps, or two more hours. Onwards. SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT”

So I wasn’t finished, even though mentally, all I wanted to do was pack up and drive home. This was undoubtedly the toughest single moment of the entire ride – Pete (my chimp) was jumping up and down on my shoulder screaming “oh come on, you have to be kidding! Let’s just go home! It’s past 10.00pm and we should stop this nonsense right now”. However, it’s not often anyone gets this close to riding 10,000m in a single ride and I didn’t want to pass up on the opportunity – I knew I’d always regret it if I did. I told Pete to simmer down and also decided to skip further stops and just kept going, riding the final 13 laps in one go! The last two felt really, really difficult and my lap times were nudging 14 minutes by this stage (my ascent times spanned 8’41” to 11’44” on the final one – three minutes slower than at the start)!

I’d always intended to ride another 10 reps if possible i.e. 80 total, but somewhere around lap 62, I’d lost count (I couldn’t decide if I’d done 61 or 62) and no amount of calculations would really reassure me of where I was! But, to my best estimate, I finished rep 80 at 1.01am on Sunday morning and posted the following: “Job done: 80 reps of Whiteleaf and 10,260m of vertical! An Everesting and a High Rouleur, all wrapped together. I am now too wasted to say much, except thank you to those who have helped me, both on this endeavour and over the years, notably Simon Winfield @ Cycle Care for preparing my bike, Andy Colley @ Purus and Jon Roberts @ Matt Roberts Personal Training for preparing my body and all my friends and my family for their support and for enduring my bike habit. Time for a very long sleep 🙂 SGL #Hells500 #HWCC #RCC #everesting #TeamLMT

I’d been in the saddle for just under 16 hours and on the road for about 22. Where I lost 6 hours I have no idea – I ate proper food four times and paused to recharge my Garmins in the car a few times, but even so, I still couldn’t work out the elapsed time (loss)! But it didn’t matter – an Everesting isn’t about time, it’s simply about doing it. Even better, I’d managed to carry on to ‘The Limit’ and complete 10,260m of ascent in a single ride. I headed home feeling wasted, but happy, where I uploaded my ride and was able to confirm that I had definitely ridden 80 laps. I breathed a sigh of relief.

I went to bed at 2.30am and woke up five hours later in exactly the same position – I literally hadn’t moved at all.

The following morning, I jotted down some numbers:

10,131 – meters climbed in total * 8,848 – the height of Everest in meters * 637 – Strava Training Load * 408 – Strava Suffer Score (Epic) * 220 – km ridden to reach 10,000m+ and admission to the High Rouleurs Society * 192 – km ridden to Everest Whiteleaf * 89 – watts: weighted average power * 121 – heart rate average * 80 – reps completed to clear 10,000m in a single ride (and qualify for the High Rouleurs Society) * 76.7 – km/h max speed * 70 – reps completed to clear the height of Everest * 71 – cadence average * 42 – the number of reps needed to get to the height of Everest Base Camp * 40 – the number of teeth on my largest sprocket * 34 – the number of teeth on my chainring * 25 – % maximum gradient of the climb * 21:58:11 – elapsed time * 15:50:49 – moving time * 13.9 – km/h average speed * 13 – British riders in the High Rouleurs Society * 12 – HWCC members who very kindly came and cheered me on * 11.5 – litres of water drunk * 9.4 – % average gradient of the climb * 9 – number of hours my power was above 175 watts * 6 – reps, before a squirrel hit me with a nut shell (the hazelnuts were ripe and the squirrels were very busy) * 5 – hours of sleep afterwards, before I woke up again! * 4.5 – hours of sleep before starting * 4 – cheese rolls * 3 – cups of coffee * 3 – am. The time I started, on Saturday * 3 – bananas * 3 – Bounce Balls * 2 – yoghurts * 2 – chicken/rice/pasta/pesto meals * 2 – gels * 2 – I dropped my chain twice * 1 – am. The time I finished, on Sunday * 1 – Percy Pig * 1 – bowl of muesli * 1 – inexplicable shift into the big ring (without a front derailleur!­) * 1 – number of times I was passed by the Whiteleaf KoM (and ex-British Hill Climb Champion), Tejvan Pettinger (he was sooooo quick)! * 0 – punctures * 0 – repeat passersby who asked me what I was doing

659087710

I was tired after this ride – tired enough to notice the impact even a couple of weeks later – but perhaps less so compared to the aftermath of my first Everesting. My toes weren’t numb this time and when I rode the bike again 24 hours later, I felt OK. It had been a tough ride, but not desperate and almost certainly not my hardest ever. I know from previous experience that it’s possible to suffer a complete, ride-ending physical melt-down, but they’re not common and that risk aside, I think for me and for most cyclists with the appropriate milestones, an Everesting is really a mental challenge, more than a physical one.

Predictably, my mind has turned to ‘what next’ and ‘soil’ and ‘significant’ are likely to be key ingredients. Stay tuned. Sir Guy Litespeed, August 2016.

Notes:
– I’ve compiled my ‘Everesting Tips’ into a separate post: https://www.sirguylitespeed.com/blog/2016/08/02/everesting-tips/
* Ollie’s crash was significant, but two weeks later, he was gently riding his bike again 🙂
** When I got home, I was reminded of Tejvan Pettinger’s quote from his blog www.cyclinguphill.com – in 2014, he said: “I really wouldn’t fancy everesting Whiteleaf because it is too steep. You get the vertical height gain over with in a short distance, but it is too intense on your muscles. To Everest, you are looking at 12 – 16 hours in the saddle. You have to be comfortable.” I think at the pace Tejvan was going, this is a fair comment! My gears helped hugely.

Everesting # 1: Bradenham Wood Lane & An Ongoing Story…

Photos by Daniel Melchior: click on the picture to view full screen and then use your back button to return.

Prologue

The hedgehog scurried around at the side of the road and then disappeared into the bushes. Meanwhile, a man in a full Black Tie dinner suit walked down the hill towards me, looking at his phone, which cast an eerie light on his face and made him appear to be a moving head with no body! It was 2.09am on Saturday 21st June 2015 and a bizarre beginning to a ludicrous episode in my life as a cyclist. I say ludicrous because I was planning to ride up this hill 100 times, before heading home to bed c.24 hours later!

An Introduction to the (Daft?) Concept of Everesting

I first heard about Hells 500 and ‘Everesting’ in the summer of 2014. The rules were very simple:

  • pick a hill. Any hill you like (ideally one that hasn’t been Everested before – you can check that via the ‘Everesting Hall of Fame’)
  • climb it, repeatedly, in entirety, up and down, until you hit the height of Everest i.e. 8,848m
  • you can take breaks to eat and drink etc., but you can’t break the attempt with a sleep: your attempt (and effort) must be continuous
  • a successful Everesting admits you to a global group of similarly minded cyclists known as ‘Hells 500’. There is no easy way to become part of Hells 500.

I think there are probably three reactions when a cyclist first hears about Everesting:

  • what a ridiculous idea, you’d have to be mad; or
  • what a great idea, but it’s not something I could/want to do; or
  • OK, which hill should I go for?

I fitted straight into the final category: in fact I found the whole ideal utterly compelling. I loved the simplicity of the challenge, the idea of an uber-long day and lots of climbing and the logistical demands involved in the planning. At that point, back in 2014, I knew just five people who had attempted an ‘Everesting’. Only two had succeeded and only one of those at the first attempt. All were ‘elite’ cyclists, so this was clearly no easy task and I considered myself duly warned.

I was told quite clearly that the most important choice to be made was ‘which hill?’ A steep one meant a shorter overall distance and therefore less time, but involved using more power, so the chance of physical failure would be higher. A gentler gradient might feel easier on the body, but would dramatically extend the total distance to be covered, meaning a very long day and a harder mental challenge. To put that into perspective, an Everesting involving less than 200km total distance would be considered steep, whereas one taking 400km would mean using a much gentler hill.

Besides the hill itself, I was told to consider prevailing winds, daylight hours, seasonal weather etc. The bottom line was that an ‘Everesting’ was likely to be one of my hardest days ever on a bike, so I set about planning it really well in an attempt to load all the odds in my favour.

Chapter One: the north side of Bwlch y Groes, Snowdonia.

I recced ‘my hill’ in December 2014. It was in Wales and for the UK, it was high and long. Logic told me it was too long really, but it was one of my favourite climbs and I decided to be philosophical about the time I’d spend on it: climbing Everest was an epic endeavour and the cycling equivalent should be properly hard too.

In practice, things went wrong even before I got to the start line. On the first drive up the M40 on 10th June, with a photographer friend, Daniel, in the passenger seat, I realised I’d forgotten my spare Garmin and the charging cables. Some quick mental maths told me that by the time we’d returned home and then driven back up to Wales, it would be c.3.00am – much too late – so we postponed for 24 hours.

But fate was still against me, or rather a lack of local knowledge was. The wind was due to be light and from the east. At worst, I thought that would mean a cross wind on the upper part of the climb. We arrived in the pull-out at the top of the hill around midnight and set up our gazebo, under which I planned to sleep until starting around 5.00am. But we struggled to even erect it – the wind was strong and seemed to have a lot more south in it. In the end we had to tether the gazebo to the car, but then the car started to move, repeatedly setting off the alarm! It wasn’t a relaxing night!

I awoke, bleary eyed, in the cold light of pre-dawn. The moon was still in the sky, but there was a faint glow in the east. I dressed quickly, munching on a Bounce Ball and Daniel took some photos as I headed down into the semi-darkness. It was 4.52am on 12th June.

Time to get going - 4.52 am!

Time to get going – 4.52 am!

It was cold – around four degrees centigrade. But I was still optimistic and the first few laps felt OK. I tried not to think about the overall task ahead – it was just too daunting: at 8.5km long, my climb would give me 450m of ascent. So a lap was 17km and I needed to do 20 of those to hit the height of Everest, which would require a total distance of 340km.

Heading down to the bottom of the climb, 8.5km away, to start the first lap.

Heading down to the bottom of the climb, 8.5km away, to start the first lap.

I’d picked this climb because it was beautiful – it was probably my favourite climb in the whole of the UK for scenic appeal and it had the aesthetic advantage of ending at the top of the highest paved road in England and Wales. It rose in three distinct sections from a small village at the south-east corner of Lake Bala in the Snowdonia National Park: after a short 15% ramp, the valley stage rose gently for the first 4km, then the steep wooded section at 15 – 20% for a kilometre or so and then the open upper mountainside, with numerous sharp 20% ramps. I realised about four laps in that, beauty aside, I’d made various mistakes: the gradient of the climb varied constantly, so I was struggling to find any rhythm, the descent was very technical, so there was no respite, or chance to eat and drink while going down and finally, my summit camp was a poor choice – arriving at the top, hot and breathless, the last thing I wanted to do was stop and eat. The camp should categorically have been at the bottom of the climb.

There was a worse problem though: the wind. It wasn’t quite gale force, but it was certainly strong. There was a little more south in it than I’d expected and it was deflecting off the mountainside and funnelling straight down the valley, meaning I was fighting a headwind, constantly.

It was very cold, but the light was stunning and I had the road all to myself.

It was very cold, but the light was stunning and I had the road all to myself.

I started to do some mental maths. I had worked on the basis of a 45 minute lap. But the wind was adding fifteen minutes to that. Which would mean an extra four hours at least, as the day wore on and that was without trying to guess how much extra energy I was using and how that might further affect my lap times.

Just working away at it - lap four.

Just working away at it – lap four.

After seven laps and with just 3,000m on the Garmin, I climbed off the bike, conceding defeat. Physically, I felt fine, but the extending time frame would mean riding right through the whole of the coming night and I didn’t have enough battery power in my lights for that. Daniel helped me pack up the camp and we drove home, with my mind working overdrive, processing all the lessons learned, notably, that I’d picked a tricky climb, that lack of local knowledge had left me fighting a headwind and that a summit camp was a very bad idea.

Conceding defeat - this was my final lap before climbing off the bike.

Conceding defeat – this was my final lap before climbing off the bike.

 

Chapter Two: Bradenham Wood Lane, Chiltern Hills

I was like a dog with a bone and within a few days of returning from Wales, I decided to try again.

I did however make one significant change to the plan – I chose a different climb: I have a local climb in the Chiltern Hills that I use for running hill repeats: it’s 2km long, rises 90m and the gradient is pretty gentle and constant – around 6 – 7% for most of its length. If I ran 100 laps on it, I’d hit 9,000m (Everest is 8,848m, but I decided to play safe). I knew from my hill sessions that 10 laps took me roughly two hours, so my riding time would be c.20 hours. 100 laps would mean a distance of 420km.

I rolled away from my car (at the bottom of the climb this time), at 2.09am. It was around 10 degrees centigrade and there was barely any wind at all. I climbed up through Bradenham Woods, assuming that the first three or four hours would mean deserted roads, but bizarrely, I found a crowd of people at the top! There’s an RAF base at the end of the climb and their Midsummer Ball was just ending. Women in ball gowns were sitting on the grass, waiting for taxis and coaches and there was a constant stream of traffic. I must have been a bizarre sight, riding up and down this hill, but no one asked me what I was doing – they just stared at me through an alcoholic fog!

Eventually the revellers all faded away to their beds and I was left in the dark wood, with just the hedgehog to keep me company.

It was a little chilly, rain threatened and in truth, I wasn’t feeling all that great, but my legs seemed to settle into it and I tried to lose the butterflies in my stomach. There was no getting away from the fact that success was only likely to come at a price: at 420km, I’d be 70km past my previous longest ride; if I was right about the predicted 20 hours riding time, that was seven hours longer than ever before and at 8,848m, I was going uphill for another 3,000m versus any former personal records. The final ‘big deep breath’ realisation was that Everesting this hill was going to require riding uphill for 210km. The scale of the task ahead was really weighing down on me.

Dawn arrived early and by 4.00am, I no longer needed lights. A flock of Red Kites – some 20 of them in the end – slowly gathered on the cricket pitch beside the bottom of the climb, over the space of five laps or so and then suddenly they all left, to where, I couldn’t fathom.

In an attempt to break the climb down into palatable chunks and also to add a touch of realism to the endeavour, I’d worked out the number of cumulative laps of my climb required to hit the various heights on the way to the real summit of Everest. This was taped to my top tube and was undoubtedly the scariest top-tube sticker that I’d ever put there. The first real milestone was at 2,860m, which was the height of Lukla, where the trek to Everest Base Camp begins. For me, this would be 32 ascents of my hill, which was likely to involve six hours in the saddle! Manageable chunks, or just really scary?

The Camps on the way to the summit...

The Camps on the way to the summit…

Initially I seemed to make good progress, not stopping at all for the first 11 laps, but then I had numerous delays caused by the need to eat, refill my bidons (bottles) and numerous other small tasks that needed attending to, meaning that I was an hour behind my schedule by the time the number 32 flashed up on my lap counter. It was 9.00 am and it had now been raining lightly for a couple of hours. Little did I know that the rain would last for 12 hours in total!

The rain wasn’t my only problem though: I was losing time not on the laps, which were bang on schedule, but in the stops. I was eating every one to two hours, but other small things like adding air to my tyres, recharging Garmins, lubing my chain, preparing food, etc., were all taking time and with each stop, my eventual finishing time just got further and further away.

The really big milestone in my mind was reaching Base Camp at 5,335m – 60 laps of my hill! In theory, this would take me c.12 hours, but with stops, it ended up taking me just over 14 hours. I listened to a couple of audio books with a headphone in one ear, but in reality, I wasn’t bored and I found that I rode better when my mind was focused on the job. Instead, I watched pieces of a cricket match from start to finish on the pitch next to the road as I rode repeatedly by!

Around 8.00pm, my boys arrived on their bikes and rode a couple of laps with me. It was around this time that my bottom bracket died and I had to switch bikes (I had a spare bike in the car). My wife and daughter dropped by with coffee and a bacon roll around 9.00pm, both of which tasted wonderful. Jenny asked me whether I could do it, to which I replied simply “yes”. I also told her that I now realised how high the ‘barriers to entry’ were for an Everesting. This was turning into a ridiculously long day.

One of the difficulties of Everesting is that any time lost simply can’t be regained. So, as evening arrived, I did the maths again and realised that I was looking at a finish time well beyond midnight. I climbed though Camp 1 (6,000m/67 laps), then Camp 2 (6,400m/71 laps) and Camp 3 (7,200m/80 laps) and then finally I reached the South Col, or Camp 4, at 7,906m (88 laps). It was now well past midnight and I had the road to myself again (along with the same hedgehog I’d met the night before)!

At 97 laps I reached the Hilary Step (8,763m), where Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hilary struggled on the first ascent in 1953 and then, on lap 99, halfway up the hill, the magic figures flashed up on my Garmin: 8,848m. It was about 2.30 am, so I’d been on the go for a little over a day.

I did one more lap to be safe (you can’t rely on a Garmin for 100% accuracy) and also because 100 seemed like a much better finishing number than 99!

The Magic Numbers

The Magic Numbers

At 2.45 am, I packed the bike back into my car and drove home to bed. I had been visualising my bed for the last ten hours or so and it was the most welcome place in the world at that moment. I slept for four hours before my body clock woke me up!

My official stats were as follows: 419.9km, 8,888m, 100 laps, 4.4% average gradient, 120bpm average heart rate and an elapsed time of 24 hours, 38 minutes and 42 seconds. My place on the Everesting Hall of Fame: http://veloviewer.com/everesting/329637904

HELLS 500: entry via blood sweat and tears.

HELLS 500: entry via blood sweat and tears.

In the following days, I realised just how hard this ride had been: my toes were slightly numb and I was DEEPLY tired. Crucially however, I was mechanically sound and I’d not had to ride through pain at any point. It took me about four days to start feeling normal and well over a week to find my legs.

Manageable chunks, or just really scary? My top tube sticker.

Manageable chunks, or just really scary? My top tube sticker.

 

It's MY hill now :-)

It’s MY hill now 🙂

Chapter Three: Project H, Wales

Three months later, I was driving home from a day’s riding in the Brecon Beacons when my son Tom sewed a seed, by asking me whether I could Everest a particularly steep climb, which I’ve nicknamed ‘Project H’. “No” was my immediate answer. “What if you used mountain bike gearing?” he asked. My mind raced and the answer changed to “ah… maybe.”

The problem was obvious: with an average gradient of 14%, this new hill would be completely unlike my previous Everesting. 9,000m of ascent would involve riding just 135km! So, 67.5km at 14%…??? Much of the climb hovered around 20% and the maximum gradient was somewhere around 30%. If successful, this would be one of the shortest Everesting’s ever undertaken.

I called Simon Winfield, the owner of my local bike shop, Cycle Care and shared the problem with him. I emailed him a copy of the climb profile too. We talked about various schemes to achieve lower gearing and debated which bike I could modify. Various ideas all led to dead-ends. In the end, Simon had a conversation with the technical guys at Shimano, who came up with a blissfully simple solution: road Di2 is compatible with XTR Di2 (the off road equivalent gearing), so if I replaced the rear derailleur, the chain and the cassette on my S-Works, I’d have a bottom gear of 34 x 40.

The fact that I’m still not certain that’s low enough is testament to how steep the Project H hill is…. only time will tell.

I’m aiming at early May 2016 and have recruited an accomplice – Kev Mellalieu.

More news to follow… SGL, Feb 2016.

Tour de Suisse, 2015

With Lucy’s Cent Cols dominating late summer 2015, the story of July’s Tour de Suisse was never properly told, which was a shame since it was a stunning ride. So here it is, accompanied by Jimi Thomson’s superb pictures (click on any of the pictures to view full screen and then use the back button to return to this page).

It was 6th July 2015 and I felt like I was about to spontaneously combust. A quick glance down at my Garmin confirmed it was 43.5 degrees centigrade. It was even hotter in the sun – probably 50 degrees or more. I’d been thinking about stopping for the last three hours, wondering at what point I’d ride myself into a serious physical problem. We were on the fifth col of the day and like the last two, this one faced south and was full in the sun. I coasted to a halt at the side of the road, climbed off my bike and sat down in a patch of shade. I’d never climbed off my bike before. Ever.

Petra, my friend and three times World Mountain Bike Downhill Champion, was riding beside me: she looked both amazed and concerned. Some ten minutes later, I clipped back in and slowly climbed the final km to the summit of the Col du Corbier. I told Jimi, our guide from Two Tyred Tours, that I was going to join him in the van (aka Mission Control, aka Erika), at the bottom of the descent and Petra and I set off for an exhilarating drop to the valley floor which felt like riding through a hair dryer turned up to full heat!

Morzine-Avoriaz: James and SGL climbing through the afternoon heat. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Morzine-Avoriaz: James and SGL climbing through the afternoon heat. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

It was Stage One (158km, 4,440m), of our 2015 Tour de Suisse and it didn’t bode well. Petra, who lives locally, had only joined us for this final section of the day and very kindly climbed into the van beside me, so I wouldn’t feel like quite such a singular failure. Up the road, we passed my four companions on the remaining 15km drag up to our hotel – everyone was suffering, but they seemed to be coping with the heat better than me.

This was always going to be a big, ambitious ride, but when planning the route some twelve months earlier, it had never occurred to me that we’d coincide with a European heat wave. The Alps were sweltering and the asphalt was melting. So, for that matter, was I.

Melting point.

Melting point.

Overnight recovery is a miracle. I had no real feel for how much damage I’d done the day before, but Stage Two started OK. Yes, it was already 30 degrees at eight o’clock in the morning – in the shade – but the Pas de Morgins felt better than I would have dared hope, 12 hours earlier! At the summit, we crossed into Switzerland, therefore validating our Tour de Suisse title. In reality though, this was more of a straight line through the Swiss Alps, from Geneva in the west, to the summit of the Stelvio (three times – more on that later), in the east. In between lay a bunch of iconic, high cols and stats that looked more worthy of a Cent Cols Challenge, than a self designed ‘holiday’.

A couple of hours later, part way up the Col de la Croix, my Garmin was reading 42 degrees and my pace had dropped again. But this was the ‘easy’ day at 137km and 2,900m and despite the crazy temperatures, we all made it safely to our overnight stop in Aeschi, close to Interlaken. We had our first glimpse of the Eiger. And our only rain of the trip arrived that evening – a ten minute shower that produced a beautiful rainbow, but did little to cool anything down!

Jimi's attention to detail is brilliant: here we have profiles for each of the climbs on Stage One.

Jimi’s attention to detail is brilliant: here we have profiles for each of the climbs on Stage One.

For months I’d been imagining how awesome Stage Three might be. On paper at least, it looked like it might be one of my best ever days on a bike (172km, 5,500m – the Grosse Scheidegg, Grimsel, Nufenen and St. Gotthard). First up, the temperature had dropped by 20 degrees overnight! I’d realised something in the last couple of days: I’d always known that I went well in bad weather, but I also now knew that I wasn’t designed to ride in extreme heat. The others seemed to be coping better, but beyond 35 degrees, I just seemed to wilt. So, the cooler morning was most welcome.

With Kev, Chris and James a little way ahead, Rich and I cruised up the valley to Grindelwald, catching glimpses of the Eiger and it’s equally impressive neighbours, through the clouds. The Grosse Scheidegg is supposed to be one of the hardest climbs there is, but I never found out. The road is so steep and narrow that cars aren’t permitted, so Jimi was taking the long detour through Interlaken, around to the other side of the mountain. Following signs, advice from a few locals and Rich, a few hundred metres ahead, I somehow lost the correct road and headed instead up something altogether much more hideous! By the time I was sure of our mistake, Rich was way ahead and I couldn’t face the idea of losing 1,000m of upward effort, so I just carried on. A 4×4 came past, struggling for traction on a 30% corner. The Zoncolan was easy compared to this and it made the Mortirolo look like a walk in the park! Finally, incredulous at the consistency of the 20 – 30% gradient, I stopped. In fact I stopped three times up this climb and I never, ever, stop on a climb. It was, without doubt, the hardest hill I’ve ever ridden and I sincerely hope I never find anything like it ever again. Eventually, the road flattened, but also turned to gravel for a few kms, before finally descending to the summit of the Grosse Scheidegg, where we found the others sipping hot chocolate in the summit cafe!

The descent was crazy, as in steep, technical and poorly surfaced in places, causing me to fear for Chris’s safety as he disappeared into the distance at a speed that defied possibility. As Jimi put it later that day “Chris descends faster than anyone with responsibilities should!” Next up in this epic day was the 32km climb to the summit of the Grimsel Pass. I snapped the temperature on my Garmin at the top: 12 degrees – some 30 degrees cooler than 24 hours ago, but only because we were in cloud, at 2,165m! I sensed the heat was still out there, just a patch of blue sky away!

Grimselpass - it may be 32km long, but with traffic free sections on cobbles under rock walls, who cares! SGL flying the Rapha flag. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Grimselpass – it may be 32km long, but with traffic free sections on cobbles under rock walls, who cares! SGL flying the Rapha flag. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

We descended 20km to the foot of the Nufenen Pass, reputed to be the hardest climb in Switzerland, although I had a feeling that I’d already ridden that earlier in the day! Three kilometres below the summit and happy to accept that perhaps this was the second hardest pass in Switzerland, I stopped and sat down again. Despite the altitude of 2,000m, my Garmin was reading 43 degrees again. The sun was back and I was being slowly roasted once more. I ‘took a couple of minutes’ and then remounted and joined the others on the summit, before a long, fast drop to the valley floor.

An espresso later, we embarked on one of the world’s most unique climbs: the Tremolastrasse of the St. Gotthard Pass. 12 kilometres of neatly laid cobbles, set our in an everlasting fan pattern. With cloud rolling back in and the temperature dropping by 20 degrees once more, I found myself able to really ride properly and Kev and I soaked up the atmosphere, the incessant hairpins and the wonderful surface. This probably goes down as one of the best days I’ve ever had on a bike, despite the lunacy of the first climb and the ridiculous temperatures on the Nufenen. The Tremolastrasse is something every cyclist should experience in their life, at least once!

Tremolastrasse: every cyclist should climb this at least once in their life: Kev and SGL doing just that. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Tremolastrasse: every cyclist should climb this at least once in their life: Kev and SGL doing just that. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

 

It's hard to explain how amazing this climb is! Photo by Jimi Thomson.

It’s hard to explain how amazing this climb is! Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Stage Four was another treat: the Furka-Grimsel-Susten link-up. In just 100km/3,000m, we would climb three of the highest passes in Switzerland, spending much of the day well above 2,000m. Superlatives became the norm and the temperature remained almost workable, only really heating up on the Sustenpass, at 40 degrees. Despite that, the Susten went down as one of the best five passes I’ve ever ridden.  Another remarkable day on our Swiss odyssey.

Lucy's jersey and the Furkapass. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Lucy’s jersey and the Furkapass. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Jimi asked Kev to stick close to me in the corner for the photo. At 55kmh in the bend, this was impressive! Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Jimi asked Kev to stick close to me in the corner for the photo. At 55kmh in the bend, this was impressive! Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Descending the Furka with the Grimselpass looming rapidly in the background. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Descending the Furka with the Grimselpass looming rapidly in the background. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

When I first gave Jimi my outline route, I asked him what I’d missed and his answer was one word: “Splugen.” An hour into Stage Five (170km, 4,000m), I understood what he meant as I flew downhill through an impossibly tight rock tunnel and emerged onto a sheer rock wall, a thousand meters high, to which it looked as though an optimistic engineer had glued a series of asphalt ramps and hairpin bends. Terrifying and mesmerising, all at once. Somewhere behind us, Jimi was having to do three point turns in dark tunnels, just to negotiate the hairpin bends!

Jimi has said we had to ride the Splugenpass. I imagined this was why, until I saw the other side. James riding, Jimi chasing in Erika.

Jimi had said we had to ride the Splugenpass. I imagined this was why, until I saw the other side. James riding, Jimi chasing in Erika.

 

At 80kmh, this felt pretty interesting. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

At 80kmh, this felt pretty interesting. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

 

The Splugen descent. One of the craziest roads I've ever seen. Kev, chasing SGL at speeds that are best left unsaid. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

The Splugen descent. One of the craziest roads I’ve ever seen. Kev, chasing SGL at speeds that are best left unsaid. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

 

Try making sense of this!? The Splugenpass: madness, or an engineering marvel? Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Try making sense of this!? The Splugenpass: madness, or an engineering marvel? Photo by Jimi Thomson.

The next climb, the 32km Maloja, was frankly another overheated slog, made worse when a bee decided to lodge itself in my helmet and commit suicide by stinging me. The upside was that it took my mind off the series of 12% ramps that led to the summit! We were now firmly above 2,000m and would stay there for the next 100km. The adverse effects of altitude are really hard to actually feel at c.2,000m, but Jimi had felt this would be a tough day and he was almost certainly right. It was compounded by a race to make the hotel before darkness, so we decided to skip our usual cafe lunch and let Jimi do a quick supermarket shop and then catch us on the slopes of the Bernina. By the time we sat down in a meadow beside the road, we were all in need of calories, not to mention a rest!

Maloja Pass: 32km and these bends at the very end. Superb. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Maloja Pass: 32km and these bends at the very end. Superb. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Four more passes in the heat, a bit too much Friday afternoon traffic and a high speed front wheel blow out in a darkened tunnel didn’t make me feel much better about life. The final drop to Bormio was however superb and brought with it the luxury of staying in the same hotel for two nights running!

Ricardo Green: KOM, Tour de Suisse 2015. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Riccardo Green: KOM, Tour de Suisse 2015. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Even on the eve of Stage Six, I had already conceded defeat. I would try to climb the Stelvio twice in one day, rather than the three times that I’d planned. I checked with the others: Kev and Chris would follow suit, but James and Rich would stick to the original plan and attempt all three routes up this mythical pass. Half way up one of the most remarkable roads you’ll ever ride, as my Garmin once again rose above 40 degrees, I was content with my decision. I also vowed never, ever, to return to the Stelvio on a weekend in the summer, as the thousandth motorbike sped past. It was a zoo.

This road needs no introduction. SGL melting slowly. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

This road needs no introduction. SGL melting slowly. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

The Stelvio is a cycling shrine, but not on a weekend. I’ll come back early one year, midweek, when the snows have just been cleared and ride it in peace and quiet, as it should be ridden.

The END. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

The END. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

 

Our Tour de Suisse was an amazing trip, beautifully planned and hosted by Jimi. Andermatt in particular is now cemented in my mind as one of the world’s perfect cycling bases for a two or three day trip: you can ride the Furka-Nufenen-Tremolastrasse one day and then the Furka-Grimsel-Susten the next. As ‘mini-trips’ go, that’s as good as it gets.

I’ve known for a long time how harsh mountains can be and when you plan these trips, you never know quite what you’re going to get, weather wise. I can cope with cold, rain, wind – I even quite enjoy it! But I also now know that when the needle rises past 40 degrees, I’m relegated to survival mode.

Thank you to Jimi & Janine of Two Tyred Tours and to my riding companions: Kev, Chris, James and Rich. SGL, Jan 2016.

Background: I’d wanted to ride the iconic Swiss climbs for a long time, but it was only when I came across Jimi Thomson of Two Tyred Tours in 2014, that the idea really started to take shape. Jimi, although Canadian by origin, has lived and guided in Switzerland and the European Alps for c.25 years (skiing in the winter and cycling in the summer). He knows the terrain intimately. He founded TTT in 2014, with the aim of providing bespoke, fully supported cycling tours. I’ve always had plenty of ideas of where I’d like to go next, but logistical and on-the-road support was a headache. Then I met Jimi, who shares my passion for maps, quiet roads and spectacular mountains. Above all, I love his company and his attention to detail. Suddenly, my theoretical plans became reality and we now try to do at least one bespoke tour together every year.

Initially, I imagined some sort of loop from Geneva to Zurich and back, but then Jimi mentioned Splugen Pass as a ‘must do.’ That pushed the route south and east and a look at a map confirmed that the Passo dello Stelvio was then almost within reach. And so the route morphed into a one-way trip, from Lake Geneva in the west, to the Stelvio in the east. The cols and passes crossed were the stuff of legends: Ramaz (as a replacement for the closed Joux-Plane), Morzine-Avoriaz, Grosse Scheidegg, Nufenen, St.Gotthard, Furka, Grimsel, Susten, Splugen, Bernina, Livignio, and Stelvio.

Besides the names, the figures confirmed the challenges ahead: 6 days, c.1,000km and c.24,000m of cumulative ascent. Difficulty wise, that’s nudging Cent Cols territory. A more detailed look at the daily stats revealed the true nature of the challenge: it certainly wasn’t one of distance – only one stage weighed in around the 200km mark. No, our Swiss odyssey was defined by the cumulative climbing and in particular, the amount of time spent at high altitude: of the 18 major passes crossed, 14 were above 2,000m. To put that into perspective, the Raid Pyrenean only reaches 2,000m twice and even the mighty Route des Grandes Alpes only goes above 2,000m on five occasions.

Splugenpass: glaciers, altitude and grand scale. SGL into thin air. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Splugenpass: glaciers, altitude and grand scale. SGL into thin air. Photo by Jimi Thomson.

Lucy’s Cent Cols (Cevennes): Reflections

(Click on any of the images to view full screen and then use your back button to return)

I was at my desk when it all began, although in truth it had started four weeks earlier, with tragedy on a road in a desert.

It was early morning on the 8th March when I opened the email. It was from Phil Deeker, the man behind the legendary Cent Cols Challenge events. My heart started to beat a little faster – he was suggesting turning the inaugural Cent Cols Challenge in the Cevennes region of France, into a memorial ride for Lucy’s cycling team.

Lucy was my sister. She had died four weeks earlier when she crashed out of a bike race in the UAE and was hit from behind by a motorcycle. Phil’s suggestion brought tears to my eyes, which I hurriedly blinked away, in case colleagues noticed!

This is why we came: Lucy in late 2014.

This is why we came: Lucy in late 2014. Photo by Neville Hopwood.

The enthusiast in me was screaming “yes, let’s do this” and the realist was countering with “there’s no way the team can do this and they won’t sign up.” It would have been so much easier to end the idea there and then: “thanks Phil, but no.”

However, I let my heart rule my head and took the idea to the Dubai based team, saying simply “come on, please let’s do this.”

Ten of them said yes, based largely on recent emotions and blind faith. Suddenly Lucy’s Cent Cols became a reality.

I set about coaching them remotely: how to prepare their bikes, their clothing, their training schedule, their nutrition, their bodies and their minds. I later discovered that my emails were so scary that even some of the strongest riders had skimmed through them, in the hope that if they read them quickly enough, the bad bits couldn’t be true!

Mike Duckworth: "it's really brutal."

Mike Duckworth. Photo by Paul Davy.

Almost nine months later, 150km into Stage One (215km, 4,500m), I realised that I’d probably made a huge mistake. As we toiled up the 18% slopes of Mont Aigoual and my front wheel tried to lift off the ground, I passed one of the Team LMT riders. I passed him because he’d stopped at the side of the road and got off his bike. He remounted a few minutes later, but I made a mental note to apologise to him later and carried on.

Phil Bond, followed by me, on the steepest section of Mont Aigoual. This was a tough afternoon for all.

Phil Bond, followed by SGL, on the steepest section of Mont Aigoual. This was a tough afternoon for all. Photo by Kev Mellalieu.

Three hours, eight more cols and 65km later, Loren Schaeffer, Kev Mellalieu and I made it to the hotel in pitch darkness. Loren and Kev are close friends of mine – strong riders from previous adventures and they were ‘guest members’ of Team LMT for the next ten days – if we were struggling to complete the stage in daylight, how on earth were the rest of Team LMT going to cope? My misgivings began to build, although somehow, everyone made it to the hotel that night.

Lucy's niece, Annie, made loom band bracelets for everyone to wear and added a little silver elephant to each - a nod towards the fact that Lucy was the reigning World Champion in Elephant Polo!

Lucy’s niece, Annie, made loom band bracelets for everyone to wear and added a little silver elephant to each – a nod towards the fact that Lucy was the reigning World Champion in Elephant Polo! Photo by SGL.

Stage Two (208km, 4,100m), was hardly any easier and niggly injuries began to surface. As Mike Duckworth put it “you think you’re a good rider and injury free, but then you try to ride 10+ hour days, climbing all the time and your body reveals unknown weaknesses. It’s really brutal.” Most of us finished in the dark again, notably Allan Greenfield and Thomas Fabe – both were nursing injuries, but simply refused to give up.

Stem caps don't get much more special than this - thank you to Khush Jabble from KAPZ.

Stem caps don’t get much more special than this – thank you to Khush Jabble from KAPZ. Photo by Paul Davy.

Stage Three (167km, 3,700m), started with three really steep climbs, but I was clinging to the fact that it was shorter, at ‘only’ 167km. After five hours of riding, the temperature finally reached double figures and the scenery and autumn light provided one of the best days I’ve ever had on a bike. Nico d’Haemer abandoned at lunchtime, with a badly inflamed ankle, in the hope of recovering quickly enough to start again the following day. He was still trying to complete a full stage without the help of our ‘broom wagon’ support vehicle and yet despite this, he kept smiling and encouraging everyone around him.

Loren Schaeffer nearing the summit of the Puy Mary: complete sensory overload!

Loren Schaeffer nearing the summit of the Puy Mary: complete sensory overload! Photo by SGL.

Then, as I arrived at the hotel along with Phil Bond, Kev and Jim Pusey, I heard that somewhere on the road behind me, Allan had crashed. As Lucy’s partner and therefore arguably the key figure in all of this, my heart sank to a new low. Allan however is a Kiwi and an ex semi-pro rugby player, so he simply picked himself up. Jonny Bell, our uber-mechanic, replaced his destroyed wheels and Livio, our wunder-chef/soigneur, cleaned his wounds. And then Allan simply rode to the finish. In the dark again, of course.

Kev Mellalieu & Loren Schaeffer early on Stage Four: it's about three degrees centigrade!

Kev Mellalieu & Loren Schaeffer early on Stage Four: it’s about three degrees centigrade at this point! Photo by SGL.

Stage Four (203km, 3,900m), was really tough: after another very cold start and recognising the familiar feeling of low energy levels, the final 100km of the day involved 1,500m of climbing, but no cols! To add insult to injury, it began to rain and our final descent, in pitch darkness and on technical roads in an all-enveloping forest, left me feeling deeply guilty for what I had got everyone involved in. Somewhere on the road not far behind me, I knew others like Simon Marshall, Thomas, Mike, Jim and Allan were still trying to reach the finish. They made it, but I still went to bed thinking that I should have said “no”, back in March. Little did we know that the ‘test’ was about to get even harder.

Stage Five (194km, 4,400m), will be remembered by all, forever. The Cevennols is a seasonal monsoon-like rain that blows in off the Mediterranean at this time of year. A ‘super-Cevennols’ was heading our way, having already wreaked destruction on Corsica and the Cote d’Azur. Ironically I felt OK on the bike and the first three hours or so were dry and the autumn colours beautiful. My spirits lifted. It was cold though and I wondered what it would feel like when the rain came? That night, I wrote the following:

“I’ve completely lost track of time, but I think it’s somewhere near 5.00pm. The rain drops are big enough to actually hurt and they’ve been falling for the last seven hours. I have two hours still to go. I’m soaked to the skin and have been all day. The cold has seeped deep into my core and I’m shivering, even when I’m going uphill. For the first time in this event however, I’m 100% happy to be going uphill – it’s the only way of generating some degree of warmth! If I get a puncture and have to stop, I think I’ll be in real trouble – my hands will be far too cold to mend it and hypothermia will set in fast. Over a 20km stretch of road, this misery is being played out amongst the other Team LMT riders, each fighting their own personal battle against the rain, the cold, the wind and the relentless hills and mountains. Darkness is not far away.”

I finished the day sitting in the bottom of a hot shower, moaning quietly with pain as feeling seeped back into my body. To the south, 19 people died in flash flooding.

Soaking wet and only another 150km to ride: Allan Greenfield: the King of Pain.

Soaking wet and only another 150km to ride: Allan Greenfield: the King of Pain. Photo by SGL.

Stage Six (186km, 3,500m), was thankfully less eventful! Remarkably, everyone was back on their bikes and we ducked in and out of a beautiful cloud inversion in the Rhone Valley, as we headed south into the heart of the Ardeche.

Thomas's face says it all. He can barely walk and yet he's still on the start line: chapeau. Brilliant photo by Paul Davy of Cycletogs.

Thomas’s face says it all. He can barely walk and yet he’s still on the start line: chapeau. Brilliant photo by Paul Davy of Cycletogs.

Notably, Thomas was struggling with a very sore achilles and could barely walk when I saw him step off his bike at the first feed stop. Nico was still trying to finish a stage and almost everyone was carrying some sort of niggly injury (Phil Bond was sporting tape on his ankles I noticed and Allan was covered in the stuff)! But with the lure of a rest day to follow, we all had sufficient motivation to reach the finish.

Suffice to say, Team LMT passed Rule 5 with flying colours. Thomas takes a moment...

Suffice to say, Team LMT passed Rule 5 with flying colours. Thomas takes a moment… Photo by Paul Davy.

A rest day is rarely a day of rest and this one was no different to others I’ve had – laundry, stretching, massage, bike cleaning, eating and all sorts of other admin. It was however considerably easier than the previous six days of riding and as such, it was sorely welcome.

Bounce Balls: just brilliant little bundles of slow releasing energy.

Bounce Balls: just brilliant little bundles of slow releasing energy. Photo by SGL.

Stage Seven (186km, 3,500m), took us straight back to the business of suffering. Low cloud gave way to driving rain, which then gave way to a major thunder storm!

Lightning. Thunder. Heavy rain.

Thankfully it was warmer than Stage Five, so bearable and I rode most of the day with Allan, loving our partnership on the road. When the storm cleared and our climbing lifted us above the clouds, the scenery and the colours were simply immense.

When the storm cleared, we were rewarded with this!

When the storm cleared, we were rewarded with this! Photo by SGL.

Thomas crashed, but only lost some skin and a little pride and Nico tried again to make it to the finish, but failed. I destroyed a cleat/pedal, but Phil Bond had a replacement handy and I was on my way again. I have a lasting image of Allan and Phil Deeker cresting the final col of the day, with a stark cross silhouetted against a growing thunder storm. It seemed so apt: having been tested in ways that only we could really understand, we were emerging from the storm.

Allan emerges from the storm at the end of Stage Seven.

Allan emerges from the storm at the end of Stage Seven. Photo by SGL.

Stage Eight (170km, 3,500m), was the turning point for me. First, I finally seemed to be riding well and had ‘the legs’ to attack the climbs; second, the end was in sight, and third and most importantly, I began to realise that my earlier doubts and misgivings had been wrong.

Phil Bond climbing the stunning Croix de Bauzon. Great shot from Paul Davy.

Phil Bond climbing the stunning Croix de Bauzon. Great shot from Paul Davy.

Lucy believed in two things: giving something your all and trying, even when there seemed little hope. I realised, as I climbed the stunning 20km to the summit of the Croix de Bauzon with Michael, that as a team, we were doing exactly the right thing. We were giving something our all and everyone was still trying to ride their bikes, even though pain, fatigue and doubt gnawed at each of us. I suddenly accepted that we were right to be here all along and that if a Cent Cols Challenge was easy, it wouldn’t have been worthy of Lucy’s memory, nor would it have been a fitting way of marking her passing.

This was the moment, riding with Michael, when I realised we were right to be here.

This was the moment, riding with Michael, when I realised we were right to be here. Photo by Paul Davy.

Corny though it sounds, I finished the day genuinely uplifted, chatting to Phil Deeker about all the various strands of the LCC story. Perhaps as the epitome of what we were all doing in the Cevennes, Nico finished the complete stage. It had taken him eight days of trying, but he didn’t give up and in the end, he got there. For him, that one stage was the same scale of achievement as the full event was for others.

Nico. The tape says it all! Nice job.

Nico. The tape says it all! Nice job. Photo by Paul Davy.

Stage Nine (178km, 3,400m), was a reminder that it’s never over until it’s over. Late in the day, while descending the Col de la Begude, a white van suddenly blocked the entire road. I scrubbed off as much speed as I could and at the last moment, flipped the bike sideways to avoid taking the impact head-on. Jonny straightened out my bike and I rode on to the finish, thankful for disc brakes and life in general, albeit with a stiff neck and a sore shoulder!

Jim Pusey climbs through Stage Eight.

Jim Pusey climbs through Stage Eight. Photo by Paul Davy.

Stage Ten (185km, 3,300m), was everything it should have been: hard and painful at times, as we nursed our bodies up the final 14 cols. Allan and I rode side by side and led Team LMT the final 30km to the finish and suddenly there we were, back at our start point in Montpellier, after some 1,892km and almost 38,000m of climbing (and descending). Some spent a little less and some more, but my own stats told me that I’d ridden my bike for 96 hours since leaving this point, ten Stages earlier.

Team LMT - almost 2,000km and 38,000m: 100 cols, 11 riders, 10 days, one team.

Team LMT – almost 2,000km and 38,000m: 100 cols, 11 riders, 10 days, one team. Photo by Paul Davy.

It was the same hotel that we’d set out from, but we weren’t the same people anymore: Team LMT had been to places that few cyclists ever go – not just geographically, but physically and mentally. Lucy would have been so proud of ‘her boys’. For each rider, Lucy’s Cent Cols offered some degree of closure – certainly we did something good and took part in a unique and very special event. We will have lifelong memories of this adventure. Someone told me recently that it doesn’t matter what you do, but rather who you do it with: I’m very, very proud to have done this with Team LMT: Allan Greenfield, Michael Hewitt, Jim Pusey, Thomas Fabe, Phil Bond, Nico d’Haemer, Simon Marshall, Mike Duckworth, Loren Schaeffer and Kev Mellalieu.

Simon: the final day: job done.

Simon: the final day: job almost done. Photo by Paul Davy.

We owe thanks beyond words to the following:

– The Cent Cols support team in the Cevennes: Phil Deeker, Jonny Bell, Louise Miller, Daren ‘Yogi’ Allgood and Livio Nanetti. We couldn’t have done any of this without their continual support and efforts, which were frequently ‘above and beyond’.

– our sponsors and the people who made this possible: Phil Deeker & the Rapha Cent Cols Challenge, Brad Sauber and Rapha Travel, Bounce Energy Foods, Silverback, Stages Cycling, GU, Bonk Breaker, Dubai Physiotherapy & Family Medicine Clinic, Expertise Promotional Gifts (UAE) and Wolfi’s Bike Shop (UAE)

– everyone who donated to LMMT: we’ve raised £15,000 to date and that number’s still rising. Thank you so much.

– The ‘normal’ Cent Cols riders, who all became part of this unique ‘Lucy journey’ and very kindly tolerated our learning curve! Thank you Sean Cody, Tim Smith, Jenny Burtner, Nicky Millar and Jim Bird (who deserves a very special mention for what became a busman’s holiday – we made ample use of his superb physiotherapy skills).

– Paul Davy for his fantastic images.

Another of Paul Davy's brilliant images.

Another of Paul Davy’s brilliant images.

– Sarah Bond for capturing the moments, her roadside support and constant smiles.

– And finally, to Becks the Dog, our team mascot. It was noticeable how everyone was happy around Becks, even when their legs and other pains made smiling unlikely!

Guy, Allan & Team LMT, October 2015

Allan & Guy at the finish. We did a good thing here and will have lifelong memories from the Cevennes. Photo: Paul Davy

Allan & Guy at the finish. We did a good thing here and will have lifelong memories from the Cevennes. Photo: Paul Davy

P.S. A final personal thank you from me to my 2015 support team: Jon Roberts, Barry Walsh, Andy Colley, Simon Winfield, Jonny Bell and Chris Bantock.

SGL on the final day: reflecting on the journey. Photo by Paul Davy.

SGL on the final day: reflecting on the journey. Photo by Paul Davy.

Lucy’s Cent Cols – Mid Way Ride Report

“I’ve completely lost track of time, but I think it’s somewhere near 5.00pm. The rain drops are big enough to actually hurt and they’ve been falling for the last seven hours. I have two hours still to go. I’m soaked to the skin and have been all day. The cold has seeped deep into my core and I’m shivering, even when I’m going uphill. For the first time in this event however, I’m happy to be going uphill – it’s the only way of generating some degree of warmth and keeping hypothermia at bay! If I get a puncture and have to stop, I think I’ll be in real trouble – my hands will be far too cold to mend it and I’ll be stuck. Over a 20km stretch of road, this misery is being played out amongst ten other Team LMT riders, each fighting their own personal battle against the rain, the cold, the wind and the relentless hills and mountains. Darkness is not far away.”

It’s Stage Five of Lucy’s Cent Cols, a memorial ride to Team LMT’s founder, Lucy Monro. When the organiser, Phil Deeker, first suggested bringing the team to a Cent Cols Challenge, I thought it might be too hard: taking a Dubai based team (where the riding is ‘hot and flat’), to a mountain event in the autumn (‘cold and hilly’)? Surely not. But Phil and I talked about it for a while and decided that this Cent Cols was slightly easier than some of the ‘big mountain’ versions and that the team would cope, with the right preparation and equipment. Half-way through Stage One, I realised that the Cent Cols Cevennes was barely any easier at all and that I might have made a very big mistake. I was personally struggling to finish the stage before dark, so how on earth were others going to cope?

I’m not really sure how, but everyone made it to the hotel on that first day. However, the problem with a Cent Cols Challenge is that the following day, you have to wake up and do it all over again. And then again and again, for ten days. An average day will involve 10+ hours in the saddle and 12+ hours on the (always hilly), road. It’s relentless and each hour of each day will bring a myriad of emotions: I can do this, no I can’t, yes I can. There are people around you most of the time and their company helps to varying degrees: sometimes hugely, sometimes little. But in the final analysis, each rider has to fight their own battle.

The physical punishment seems never ending: Nico hated the steep slopes of Mont Aigoual on Stage One; Allan (who had slipped a disc just three weeks before departure and was already in severe pain) crashed on Stage Two, removing a significant amount of skin from his arm, hip and ankle (but remounted to ride to the finish anyway), Jim developed a bruised ankle and strain on Stage Three, Thomas could barely walk with an achilles strain by Stage Six, Mike’s fighting an ongoing knee problem and tendinitis, Phil has foot and shin problems, Loren has a strained achilles and I have problems with swelling in my legs. Kev, Simon and Michael are the only ones not in the ‘walking wounded’ category! Everyone is dead tired – by the time you’ve eaten your evening meal, there’s barely any time for personal admin,without cutting into your most valuable aid: sleep time. We’re getting c. 6 hours a night, maximum and it’s simply not enough.

Overnight recovery is however, remarkable: you climb off your bike at the end of the day feeling there’s no way you can ride again the following morning. But 12 hours later, somehow, things work again – to an extent at least.

So far, we’ve ridden for six days – a journey of 1,100km involving almost 24,000m of climbing. That’s like riding up Everest three times. The scenery has been unbelievably stunning. The roads are deserted and the towns and villages that we pass through are like stepping back in time. It makes the suffering more bearable.

For Team LMT, this is an extraordinary journey. It started with tragedy in February. But out of that, an idea was born and Lucy’s cycling team is now a long way down an extraordinary road. They’ve learnt how to train for and ride a multi-stage event at the extreme range of what’s possible on a road bike. They’ve learnt about what equipment works best – and what doesn’t. And they’re also learning that they can achieve more than they might have imagined possible. It’s a journey that we believe Lucy would have been proud of and despite everything that you read above, we’re quietly happy to be here and proud of what we’re doing.

Our ‘Rest Day’ (aka laundry, bike maintenance and stretching day), ends very soon and then we head out into the mountains again for another four days of team work and personal battles with the road.

The Lucy Monro Memorial Trust has now raised over £10,000 and we are so grateful to everyone for your support and generosity – thank you.

Tomorrow’s forecast is for rain and this time we know what that will mean, so please wish us luck.

Guy & Team LMT, Privas – France, Monday 5th October.