Zwift Virtual vEveresting vs Real Life Everesting: which one’s harder?

I first tried Everesting in early June, 2015. I failed on my first attempt, largely due to poor logistics, rather than weak legs! Two weeks later, with lessons learned, I succeeded and I’ve since Everested six more times. One of these remains Europe’s highest Everesting to date (the Cime de la Bonette) and two more have been on gravel (Mynydd Graean and Strata Florida).

But the strangest one was the most recent: a virtual Everesting on Zwift (from here on referred to as a vEveresting). Yes, that’s a recognised thing! vEveresting’s are overseen by the same lovely folks at Hells 500 who oversee a normal Everesting outside (from here on referred to as IRL – in real life).

This first vEveresting was completed in June 2015. The funny thing is, despite being a very early adopter of Zwift (I started using it in mid-2015 and am currently Level 37), I had no interest at all in completing a vEveresting. I remained that way inclined until late in 2019.

So what changed? Well, to be really honest, my first prompt was actually slight annoyance/disbelief. I have a quick-link on my desktop to the Everesting Hall of Fame and I check it at least once a week to see who’s Everested what, around the world. Increasingly, the list had become dominated by vEverestings in the last year or so and many of them appeared to be ‘fast’ i.e. 10 – 12 hours. To put that into perspective, to Everest outside in that sort of time window, you’d need to be at ‘pro-cyclist’ level and a really good climber to boot. 

Tom Townsend of Vredestein Basso – a nice Zwift set up and a genuine contender for a fast vEveresting

My IRL Everestings have taken between 18 – 24hrs elapsed time. The steepest (and therefore shortest) one, took me 16hrs. Now I weigh 83kg, so I’m not the world’s fastest climber by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m a diesel engine and adept at minimising my stops, so my times are a fair indication of how long an Everesting usually takes a ‘normal’ rider.

So how, I repeatedly asked myself, were people completing vEverestings so quickly? Was it that much easier than IRL? I was intrigued.

Then, over Christmas break 2019, the founder of Hells 500, Andy van Bergen, completed his third vEveresting and posted a short video online. He’d set up his smart trainer outside (he lives in Melbourne), on a hilltop balcony, overlooking a beautiful forest. This looked genuinely appealing and suddenly, I was hooked.

I had a good couple of weeks riding over Christmas and realised that a few weeks later, my form would be better than it was likely to be at any point in the following three months (Jan/Feb/Mar – back at work, short days, less time to ride etc). So I zeroed in on a vEveresting and set a firm date.

The vEveresting Rules

The first thing I did was familiarise myself with The Rules – https://everesting.cc/virtual-everesting-rules/

These are pretty similar to IRL, but I would summarise as:

–  you can only use a smart trainer

– resistance must be turned up to 100% (this can’t be verified, so it’s an honesty thing)

– you can only complete a vEveresting in Zwift. There are a number of hills, the most obvious one being Alpe du Zwift (which simulates the iconic Alpe d’Huez). You can only access the Alpe if you’re Level 12 or higher in Zwift. For those completely new to Zwift, this means you’ll have to pedal around for a few weeks before gaining access to the Alpe.

– you must complete the whole climb each time and descend the same route (until the magic 8,848m is achieved, when you can stop your final repetition (tip – go a bit higher, since the compulsory run into the Alpe climbs a little, so 8,848m wouldn’t be 8,848m on the Alpe alone, if that makes sense)

– no time limit, but no sleep allowed: like IRL, a vEveresting must be completed as a ‘single effort’

Trainer & Bike Set Up

The next thing I did was think really carefully about my set up.

Despite being very familiar with Zwift, I’d never used a smart trainer, instead favouring my beloved Wattbike Pro. So, I borrowed my son’s KickR and set about getting used to it, using my S-Works Tarmac, with a gearing of 50/34 and 11-30.

My vEveresting location: nice view, windows for ventilation and just out of shot, a big TV! Note the bike is set up ‘flat’.

Getting familiar with Alpe du Zwift

Then I needed to get familiar with Alpe du Zwift.

I’d only ever climbed Alpe du Zwift once, in just under an hour. So I needed to familiarise myself with the climb and get used to how the resistance would feel, how to measure my efforts, where and how to turn (using down arrow keys) and how long each lap was likely to take, so that I’d have some idea of my likely overall schedule. After three practice runs, I’d settled into a very conservative climb time of c.1hr 20mins at an average of c.200w, which was ‘all day manageable’ and I’d got used to the feel of Wahoo’s KickR. With resistance turned up to maximum, Alpe du Zwift actually felt harder than the real Alpe d’Huez (which I’d climbed three times in the past). The descent took 12 minutes, so my lap time was c.1’32”. With 8.6 reps required to hit 8,848m, that would mean a 13 – 14 hour vEveresting (plus the time taken to reach the bottom of the Alpe – so sub 15 hours for sure).

For the actual vEveresting, I decided to relocate my bike to a nicer spot in the house: in front of a big TV and next to a window with a view. This gave me ventilation (plus two Wahoo fans) and entertainment. It also happened to house my WiFi router, which I assumed would help with connectivity.

Tech Stuff

Then I started to think about the technical bit: computer, power meter, avoiding drop-outs etc.

I cleansed my computer, getting rid of all unnecessary files and thereby doing my best to avoid drop-outs. Funnily enough, I practiced my plan to run a Garmin as backup to Zwift and that was the only session in which I had dropouts. I decided to run nothing but Zwift and the power data produced by the KickR, but to take a picture of my screen at the top of each ascent, to prove my cumulative ascent tally if I needed to restart the ride half way through.

Practice Run

Then I completed a long practice session: basically a ‘full dress rehearsal’.

With three consecutive repetitions of Alpe du Zwift, this was super valuable: my elapsed time was exactly 5hrs, giving me a fair shot at a sub 15hr vEveresting, from which I could plan my fuelling strategy. I was also encouraged to complete that session without any dropouts.

Despite using ASSOS shorts and chamois cream, I noticed that I had slight saddle soreness afterwards and I put this down to two things: 1. the fact that my shorts didn’t dry out in the way that they would during a descent outside, so my seat was just constantly sweaty and 2. the tilt of the bike: I had the front wheel raised about 3 inches to simulate climbing, but that meant I was imperceptibly slipping backwards all the time and having to correct that. I wasn’t aware of this slippage, but for the actual attempt I decided I would change shorts after the first three laps and then every two laps (i.e. I would use three pairs of shorts over the 15 hours) and that I would also remove the front wheel block and ride the bike ‘flat’ (spoiler alert: these two tips both worked perfectly).

Next, along with three pairs of shorts and base layers, I lined up a bunch of sweat bands for my head and wrists and four small towels with which to mop my brow! 

I also lined up a couple of podcasts, followed by the extended version of all three Hobbit films: boredom would not be a problem!

Start Time

Then I pondered what time to start my ride?

So one of the challenges of IRL Everesting is sleep deprivation. Unless you’re an absolute goat, your elapsed time is likely to be 20 – 24hrs, meaning you’re going to lose sleep at either end and have to endure at least a few hours of darkness.

But a vEveresting is different because your descent time – usually ‘dead time’ where at best you might manage to eat and drink a little – is time OFF the bike. Yes, that’s right – when you summit Alpe du Zwift and press your down arrow, just a few pedal strokes gets the bike freewheeling back down the climb. At that point, you can get off and go and do chores for almost 12 minutes before the bike stops at the bottom of the climb, ready for you to turn back around and head up again. Those 12 minutes are enough to nip to the loo, change shorts, reapply chamois cream, refill your bidon, grab some food, change your DVD and even stretch a little. They’re a complete game changer because spread across the 8.5 ascents of Alpe du Zwift, you get over an hour and a half of useful time, without it adding to your elapsed time. This ultimately means you can start later and finish earlier. Basically, there’s no sleep deprivation.

Descending from my 7th repetition – at this point I’m actually off the bike, changing my shorts and getting some food!

So with that knowledge, I decided to get a good night’s sleep and start my ride at 8.00am. If all went according to plan, I’d be finished by 11.00pm.

vEveresting Day

I logged into Zwift at 7.55am as the sun began to rise, picked ‘Road to Sky’ in Watopia and set off at a really easy warm up pace: 100w, then 150w and by the time I reached the foot of the Alpe, I was at 200w.

The first three ascents went exactly to plan and took precisely five hours. I changed shorts at the end of the third rep, ate some proper food (chicken and rice with a little pesto to add flavour), had a coffee and then settled into ascent number four.

Now five hours is a long time to be on a turbo and it was at this point that my body reacted to the realisation that this was more than a normal session and it was no longer fun! I was a little low on energy, my legs felt ‘turbo trainer stiff’ and I had to dig in. Without films to take my mind off things, this period would have felt really grim.

I learnt a long time ago that when things get grim on a bike, if you just keep spinning, eating and drinking, you can often come out the other side feeling better, after an hour or so. Sure enough, ascents five, six and seven were all considerably easier – they were slightly slower than my first three, but only by a few minutes and they felt no worse. I think the real food and coffee had kicked in and my body had settled into ‘endurance mode’.

Dusk began to fall outside. I started the final film.

A few virtual friends showed up at different times through the day and a little Zwift Companion chat was another welcome distraction.

I changed shorts again before lap six and slowly worked my way through sweat bands and towels! I was drinking about 750ml per ascent, plus coffee on top (every two or three laps).

Repetition number eight was tough – my diaphragm seemed tight from around thirteen hours of breathing reasonably hard and my legs felt the same as they usually do once they’re past the 7,000m mark!

The final half rep was a chore – it was late, I was tired, I’d lost my appetite and I just wanted it to be done. I paused briefly at 8,848m to take a photo of my screen, but then rode onwards to gain another 100m or so, to make sure that I’d covered the ‘extra’ ascent that I’d accumulated at the very start of the ride (as I approached the foot of the Alpe for the first time). This is a very important point: 8,848m on your screen does NOT mean 8,848m entirely on Alpe du Zwift.

Comparison with a real Everesting

So how does a vEveresting compare with the real thing?

Physically, it’s easier, but not much – 13.5 hours of pedalling uphill on a turbo is HARD! The only tangible difference on this front is that it’s easier to regulate your watts inside than out.

But all the other things that make Everesting hard and unpredictable are largely missing indoors:

– you can pick a date and commit to it. That’s much harder outside, where weather could make your chosen day completely unsuitable

– there’s no sleep deprivation and riding through cold, lonely darkness, where your resolve invariably wobbles, or fails altogether

– your descent time is useful ‘off the bike’ time. This effectively gains you at least 1.5 hours over an IRL Everesting – at least!

– there’s no need to use or recharge lights and Garmins (or even worse, pause while these recharge)

– there are no fluctuations in temperature, so you shouldn’t end up too hot, or too cold and there’s no weather to contend with: no sudden storms, wet roads, head-winds etc.

– you have access to hot, real food and fresh coffee when you need it: that’s bliss and so different to a normal Everesting where you end up craving things like this, but may not have access to them

– you have access to a toilet! Bliss. In real life, your chosen climb rarely has convenient access to a toilet. In three of my six IRL Everestings, there was no toilet at all!

– watching films staves off boredom in a way it’s impossible to replicate outside

So is anything HARDER you might ask?

Yes.

I’m not quite sure why, but turbo training is the hardest thing on your seat, so you’re bum’s going to get even more numb than normal! Likewise, the soles of your feet. Worst of all were my hands – with the turbo/bike set up ‘flat’, all my upper body weight felt like it was on my hands and sure enough, my shoulders and wrists ached and my fingers were tingly/slightly numb for a week afterwards. I’ve never had that on a IRL Everesting. I would recommend wearing mitts.

So, experiment over. Am I still dubious about the time in which many vEverestings are completed? Yes, a bit.

But am I happy I’ve done one? Strangely, yes – it was an interesting experience!

But will my next Everesting be outside?

YES!

(When Covid-19 allows it… I have three climbs all lined up, but they’re indefinitely parked for now).

Be safe, be well and embrace this as a perfect time to go vEveresting. You know you want to 😉

SGL, April 2019.