That word. That dreaded word. Everesting. This now popular and extreme challenge is one to put on the palmares. But it's not simply a case of putting your cleats on and hitting your chosen slope. The amount of prep' you have to logistically think about is staggering. From choosing the right hill for you, to nutrition, to possible mechanical issues to the fact that you're going to end up riding during the day and night to conquer the mountain challenge of cycling. A good pal, Guy Stapleford who is a nut for quirky endurance challenges, took on an Everesting challenge in the Chilterns and has shared the lowdown of his gruelling day of non-stop hill climbing...
Whiteleaf Hill, otherwise known as Peters Lane is an infamous climb in Buckinghamshire. It features as Number 23 in Simon Warren’s original 100 Greatest Climbs book, a hill that's 1.3km long and an average gradient a touch under 10% . It has three notable sections – the first at c.16%, the second ‘the corner’ at c.25% and the third, a final long, steepening kick to the finish, nudging in around 20%.
It is not a climb to be underestimated and makes you appreciate why there is only one successful Everesting in the Hall of Fame (courtesy of local legend Sir Guy Lightspeed). For me it was the lesser of the local evils, less steep than Kop Hill and fewer reps than Bradenham Wood Lane and Toms Hill.
The Challenge Before The Challenge
This is all part of my month of Everesting challenges, in aid of The Pace Centre and Action4Youth. Two Aylesbury based charities I'll be supported as I work towards my long term goal of racing in the world's toughest bike race, the 3000 mile Race Across America (RAAM).
I'd already completed a virtual Everesting on the cycling app Zwift and the week before had begun my Everesting of Whiteleaf, only for it to end after 18 ascents when the rear mech hanger snapped, breaking the chain and rear derailleur in the process.
My only choice was to return making the bike single speed, effectively shortening the chain so it sat on the lowest gear ratio. This had a number of positive and negative consequences - on the plus, I'd shaved a decent amount of weight with fewer chain links and no derailleurs at all (I'd already removed the front derailleur to make sure the chain line was clean). The challenge with this was that the chain was half a link too long to be tight to the cassette, meaning if I pedalled too forcefully or stood up, the chain would fly off the rear cassette and my legs would go into a loony toons style spin. I was a super lightweight climber stuck to the saddle.
The Journey Up
I packed up the car the night before, loading the bike, and as this was a solo affair I loaded a kitbrix full of clothing for all weather eventualities and enough water and food to get me through the challenge. With a 3am alarm rapidly approaching I got an early night.
3am is never fun, unless you happen to be already awake and involved in some kind of inebriated or debauched activity, but I actually woke up feeling pretty fresh and ready to face what lay ahead. I ate and drove the 5 miles to the base of the climb, parking on the grass verge opposite the sports field - my base camp for the next 20 or so hours. Dressed and ready, I was on the bike by ten past 4, riding up in to a dark cold morning, broken only by the beam of my front light.
Everesting Whiteleaf would require me to ride 70 reps to achieve the required 8848 vertical meters, so I planned to break this down in to sets of 5 repeats, making the task feel and be more physically manageable. Based on my training rides I was anticipating each set of five reps would take around an hour. That would mean a ride time of around 16 hours, allowing for some contingency, plus another 3 to 4 hours in rest breaks between each set.
The first 10 reps went by easily, the dark doing a great job of hiding the horrors of this hill. I was taking each rep conservatively - remember there was no way I could stand on the climbs, so this was actually my only option. The rain of the previous days had washed a lot of debris across the road surface and I was doing a pretty decent job of avoiding the grit and chalk lumps washed off the banks. That was until around rep 15 when banking through the 'the bend' on the descent the front tyre hit a stone and very quickly deflated. I gingerly got back down the hill to change the tube - this is a tip worth noting, when planning the challenge, I'd floated the idea of parking at the top of the hill but my Coach Pav asked 'What happens if you get a mechanical, you'd have to walk back up...at least if you are at the bottom you can roll down easily and safely".
Whiteleaf is not exactly an easy or relaxing descent, it is nothing like that: it’s steep, bumpy, technical and the bottom half is housed with a school at the base. In preparation I'd replaced the pads on my rims brakes, knowing that I'd be literally feathering the brakes almost the entire way down, hovering off the saddle. Having the school there doesn't help the nerves either, I spent an hour around drop off waiting for a stray door to be opened, or someone to walk out in front of me. Thankfully nothing happened but it's definitely a time to avoid!
I was ticking the reps off, hitting the lap button on my Wahoo to keep a track of my progress, for now the focus was getting through to lunch and the 4424 meter halfway point.
I was expecting to be met by a guy called Tony, whom I've got to know over the last few years on Twitter - we'd been due to ride the London-Land's End-London Audax together this year until Covid hit. He and a couple of mates flew past me as I was mid decent, but we stopped and had a welcomed chat for a few minutes before he kindly handed over a chicken sandwich and a gluten free cake bar.
35 reps completed, a big mental milestone - every rep put me closer to finishing than I had been at the start of the day. But time started to begin slowing down. Ultra-cycling is as much about carving a mindset as it is physical muscle. 70 reps seems huge, a literal mountain to overcome, but breaking that down in to 14 sets instantly makes it a less daunting prospect. My sole focus was always to get through a set, "just get 5 done" I kept telling myself, "once you've done that we can decide what's next". This pays off when the hurt starts to creep in...but I was sliding fast in to a negative mindset.
As the day went on the wind built up, increasing the amount of road debris - I had to stop a couple of times to move large branches off the road which had the potential to make my ascents and descents that bit more dangerous. Positives, it wasn't a head wind at least, but sadly a tail wind doesn't really help you on a 10% gradient.
The more tired my legs got the harder 'the corner' became, siting and grinding my way around it time after time it became a bit of a nemesis, a battle to be won each time the road started to bend and ramp up. Nothing knocks the wind out of your sails than the auto pause kept clicking on because your climbing so slowly. As the dark began to settle in, the worry over my ability to carry on began to change to a fear my Wahoo was going to run out of battery - I'd nuked my power bank recharging my front light. 25 to go, around 5 hours more riding.
After a while fatigue starts to affect appetite - the more you go deep, the less you want to eat - and as I entered the last 20 reps the sickness in my stomach was growing. I was treading a fine line between eating and bonking, because my body was struggling to keep the food inside.
To get to the final 5 reps felt amazing, the end was in touching distance. The desire to finish made the descents just that little bit faster as I pushed my skills a little harder.
As I turned for ascent number 70, I heard a shout 'must be Everesting if you're riding at this time of night!'...'I am actually, actually I'm about to bloody do it!'.
Local and VC10 club rider, Martin, was the shouter but we ended up having a decent chat as he walked up the hill home (I assume from the pub, lucky git). It was nice to share the finish with someone and remind myself what I'd done.
I Am Crew
I'd been in the saddle for just under 15 hours and on the road for 19 - it was never about the time, it was about getting it done no matter what it took and in that respect, it was mission accomplished.
Was it harder than the virtual Everesting? Yes in lots of ways it was harder - there was no rest on the descents and you have real world conditions to deal with, but in some ways the real world makes it easier. You have to think and adapt and ride, on Zwift it's very easy to get bored and feel the pain more from the static position you end up in.
Above all else, I suffer so someone else doesn't have to - these challenges are all to raise money and awareness for two amazing Charities here in Aylesbury. I hope to raise at least £2,022 for each organisation on my road to RAAM in 2022;
The Pace Centre is a ground-breaking children's charity that transforms the lives of children and young people with motor disorders, such as cerebral palsy.
Action4Youth is a youth charity providing positive and transformational experiences, activities, programmes and courses which help and inspire young people.