Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Attempting an Everest - why I think I was successful

It was a few years ago that "Everesting" started to creep into the awareness of the cycling community. My first impression was that it was a ridiculous concept - the notion of riding up and down a single road until 8,848 vertical metres, the height of Mount Everest, were accumulated, seemed to me a perfect way to ruin an otherwise interesting outing. It may have come from this piece, which didn't exactly make it sound fun. 

But, as it turned out, it was a very difficult challenge to ignore.

I was drawn to two fundamental aspects of it.  Curiousity about whether my body would be able to cope with the physical demands, and whether or not my mind would be able to cope with the repetitive nature of it all.

Since the initial publicity, I was aware of various local attempts, including those of Craig Tregurtha, Martyn Williams, Charlotte Ireland, Bryce Lorcet, and Jeff Graham, ensured that an Everest attempt stayed near the top of my mental register of "things to try one day, maybe".

The 2015/16 cycling "season" (which started immediately upon finishing the 2014/15 season) has been one of three phases.  The first was the highly successful North Island Series, where I managed to pull off some of my finest road racing to date.

Once that was done, my attention turned to my time trial bike, culminating in the New Zealand Road Club Nationals held in late April in Alexandra.  That too was successful, and is something I hope to find the energy to describe in more detail soon.

I'm now mid-way through Phase Three, Project Honeymoon.  A rough plan was put together on the back of an envelope (literally), consisting of a series of weekend rides which would attempt to add to the best race-fitness I've ever had in my life, a healthy smattering of climbing endurance.  "Everest Aro" was the last thing on the list, but a lousy weather forecast for the preceding weekend meant a bit of switcheroo, and five days out, I made the call to attempt to Everest Raroa Road in Aro Valley.

The ride went almost perfectly, and, for the first time in ages, I've been excited at the thought of writing.  I want to share why I think it went so well.

Route choice

One of the curiosities of an Everest is its deterministic nature.  Divide 8848m by the vertical gain of the road you're contemplating using, and that will tell you the number of reps.  Multiply that number by two, and that by the length of the ascent, and you'll know how far you'll have to ride.  This distance is basically a function of the average gradient of the hill, one of the two key parameters of the whole endeavour.

The second is the number of repeats, interconnected, but independent of gradient, and a simple function of the vertical gain of the road you'll ride.

In choosing Raroa Road, I focused primarily on the first issue, and little on the second, though in hindsight, the length of the hill was at least as important, if not more so.

I knew Raroa Road in Aro Valley pretty well.  According to Strava, in the 12 months prior to the attempt, I'd logged 20 ascents of it.  Many of these were done after a hot lap of the Bays, and I'd often noted how I was able to climb fairly well even with a one hour race effort in my legs.  In addition to the gradient being pretty much perfect for me (an average of just over 7%) the road surface is very smooth indeed.

Smooth as.  Photo:  Oli Brooke-White

The vertical gain is 94m from the Holloway Road intersection to Plunket Street, so I'd need to go up 95 times (unless the gain was actually 93m, in which case I'd need another lap...!).  The distance per lap is about 2.6km, so I'd be looking at a ride around the 250km mark.

Looking down from about the three-quarter mark.  Photo: Oli Brooke-White

The length of the hill turned out to be critically important, not because of how long it would take to ride each climb, but because of the duration of the descent.  Perhaps this would be less of an issue on a warm day, but the average temperature on the last Sunday of a typical Wellington autumn, was about 9 degrees, dropping as low as 5 at the end of the day, and never being above 14.  So, in choosing the length of the road, the actually important question is "how cold am I prepared to get on the descent?"

Obviously both variables (gradient and length) feed into the number of reps, and while I'm sure every rider will have different preferences on gradient, so too will the tolerance of large number of reps differ across individuals.  The Everest with the largest number is on a 13m climb done over 800 times.  In the context of that, mid-90s didn't seem like a bad compromise.

To my mind, traffic was a lesser concern.  Nonetheless, what happens at the top and bottom of the climb is important.  In the case of Raroa Road, the small roundabout at the intersection with Plunket Street makes an ideal turn at the top of the climb, while the Aro Valley bus terminus at the bottom would be a decent base at the base.  There are a few squeeze points, but I was prepared to take the risk on this relatively busy suburban road on account of it ticking all the other boxes.

Choose wisely.  It will make a huge difference.


There are quite a few things here to think about.

Food:  as Charlotte pointed out to me in a generously though-out email received a few days prior, I eat well on the bike.  But, I figured it was good to have some variety, and to rely on proper food.  In the end, during the ride I consumed two small cans of creamed rice, three Apricot and Chocolate Cookie Time cookies, half a loaf of buttered Brumbie's date loaf, a few handfuls of honey roasted peanuts, a couple of bananas, a plate of scrambled eggs (five!!!), a couple of trim flat whites and a large mocha, a cup of tea, and three bottles of sports drink.  Towards the end, I craved water, and went through two small bottles (the only things I carried up the hill).

Clothing:  I started at 6:45am or thereabouts, at which point it was 7 degrees.  I was wearing a buff under my helmet, base layer, Castelli arm and leg warmers, winter gloves, a gabba jersey, a gilet, bib shorts and booties.  It wasn't raining but the road was initially wet.  As the day warmed up (to a maximum of 14 degrees), I ditched the booties and arm warmers, and swapped out the buff for a cotton cap. When things started to cool down again, initially a pair of arm-warmers and the buff took the edge off, but eventually I decided on a complete change of clothes.  

Leaving only my socks on, I swapped into a Castelli thermosuit (basically a onesie with a pair of winter tights laced to a long-sleeved gabba) with a dry merino base layer.  Back on went the buff, booties and gilet.  With two hours to go, it started raining, and I put on a raincoat, eventually adding 3/4 length overtrou and a woollen Belgian hat.

Off the bike for the last time.  Photo:  Ross Findlay

The short lap had a role to play here too - once adjustments were deemed necessary, I was only ever a few minutes' ride away from the car.  Ten minutes after finishing, I was a shivering wreck, but during the ride I was warm and dry, and my legs never got cold.  I wore my $400 racing shoes - Shimano 421s, super, super stiff, and they fit like a glove.

Equipment:  I own a bling carbon bike, which weighs bugger all, and a slightly heavier B bike, also carbon, but I chose to ride my trusty 10-year-old Giant CRX, recently converted from the flat-bar format it came in, to a traditional road setup.  I ran a compact crankset (50/34), and a wide-range (11-32) 11-speed cassette. Aside from this generous gearing, the other reason to choose this bike was the ample tyre clearance, allowing me to run a very nice pair of 28mm Continental GP-4000s, and the relatively upright position.  I took the mudguards off, as well as one of the two bottle cages, saving me a few grams, and ditched the pump usually mounted to the frame.  Again, the car was never far away.

Cheap and cheerful; simple yet effective.  Photo: Oli Brooke-White

I stressed a little bit about the data recording.  The Strava app on my phone was my insurance policy, but I hoped that my Garmin Edge 810 would go the distance.  To eke out as much battery life as possible, I switched off as many features as I could (Bluetooth in particular), and put the back-light and its time-out to the minimum settings. I set up a screen with four variables showing:  altitude gained, distance ridden, lap number, and time of day.

In the car, I had, but didn't need, a track pump, a few spare tubes and tyres, Allen keys and a few other tools, lube, and a spare GPS, in case the 810 faltered early (or I went long!).  I was glad not to have to adjust my brake pads, having read that its not uncommon to burn through them pretty quickly in a ride of this nature.  (A non-technical descent paid dividends on this front too, I think.)

I started off with a helmet mounted Exposure Joystick light, but took that off once the sun had come up.  I regretted using the lanyard, since it cost me all of 15 seconds or so removing the light (which I've never lost from its mount).  I had a rear Blackburn light mounted by a rubber strap on the right seat stay.  It was easy to get on and off, but kept cutting out at the end of the ride - not sure what was the cause of that, rain and/or flat batteries, perhaps.  I wasn't sure how long I'd be going for, so had a handlebar mount for Sarah's Cateye Volt 800, which went on after dark.  I was unfamiliar with it, and it too played up, and I reverted to the trusty Joystick.  The road was well lit, so I was really just using it for safety's sake (route choice is important, yes).  One of the few things I'd do differently in hindsight, was have better rear-light backups.


One could argue that I'd been training for this since I started commuting on a bike in my late teens. So, there's about 25 years of pedalling in my legs.  Things went up a level about 10 years ago, and in various steps since.  I've got some very long days under my belt, and a few long sequences of long days.  Recently, I've also notched up some insanely tough interval sessions on an indoor trainer which simulates nicely the sensation of riding in treacle. 

When lining up for a 250km ride, obviously its useful to have ridden that distance before.  But, I also think the experience of working through a set of increasingly hard repeats, plays an important role in your mental preparation. My hunch is the ability to "go again" is something that benefits from practice.

Since Club Nationals, there have been no intervals sessions, but I've averaged about 400km a week riding.  This included a "project ride" in the Western Hutt Hills, which I think played a key role in both the physical and mental dimensions.

The project was to ride every street on the Western Hutt Hills, between Korokoro Stream in the south, and the Haywards Road in the north, just like Dave and I had done in Karori a few years ago (well, apart from the location).  I first tried it on Mother's Day, and despite leaving home early, ran out of time about 90km in, and had to head home with Kelson unridden.  The following weekend, I went out again, this time on the CRX rather than my less generously geared Colnago.  The first 90km consisted of re-riding what I'd done the weekend before, complete with all the fiddle-faddle of the multitude of cul-de-sacs.  Eventually, I got to Kelson, cleared that, and finished with the gem that is Liverton Road.  I'd left the car in Wainui, so had to ride up that nasty hill.  My legs were so toasted by the end, that I was convinced I had a puncture in my rear tyre (I hadn't).

The full set:  120km in the Western Hills, with 4300m of climbing
The difference between the two efforts was striking.  I was a complete wreck after the first attempt, and while the change of bike no doubt helped, so too had the training benefit.  What's more, the process is incredibly frustrating, due to the dead-ends, and forcing myself to redo it, was an excellent exercise in tolerance.  Much like is needed when scaling the same hill 96 times.


Charlotte had described the effect her supporters had had on her Everest ride, and in particular Jude Young who'd ridden the final laps.  I decided to publicise my ride only to a few people - just enough to put me on the hook, so that if I found myself in a position of wanting to stop, I had a short list people I'd have to account myself to.

In some ways, I think I ride better alone, and I wasn't nervous about the solitude.  I left home just before 6:30am, and was on the road by about 6:45.  Sarah had got up to make me porridge, and we'd had a coffee together before I'd left.

I was surprised to see her so soon after I was underway.  She had her bike with her, but her first generous act of many was to walk virtually the whole length of the climb with a yard-broom.  She then rode with me for ten laps or so before heading off to the fruit and vege market.  Having dropped that home, she returned with a flat white, before knocking out another 14 laps.  We were out of sync for that lot, but that was cool, since I could wave to her as we crossed paths.

During that time, Leonard Smith had passed by, having met Sarah at the coffee shop.  She'd told him what I was up to, and I was delighted to have his company for half a dozen laps.  He warned me that he was knocking out 300W to stay on my wheel at the start of the climb, and also noted the top half was 60-70W less.  We chatted a little, and I really appreciated his gesture.

Brendan swung by, and did a couple of laps with me (some of my fastest), but by that stage my wonderful parents were hanging out at the bottom, and he took a lap or two off to catch up with them.

Oli arrived, and it was touching to note how had he found it to tear himself away.  My bro Ed had also dropped by with his partner Jean and their newborn daughter, Evelyn, and while I stopped briefly to check in, any pressure to hang out with them came from me, not them.  They seemed quite content acknowledging me in one way or another every eight or so minutes when I swung through the bottom of the lap.

With not so much as a "how do you do?"

Sarah brought some scrambled eggs, and my parents sourced another coffee.  Deirdre Johnson, Matt Sharland, Russel Garlick, Ali Quinn, and Ant Bradshaw all gave me a supportive holler as they drove up or down Raroa Road.  I think Russel had seen me on the way to a ride at Makara Peak, and perhaps had joined the dots with Oli's Facebook updates.

Oli had said goodbye a couple of times, but made his way slowly up Raroa Road, snapping photos, and always calling out encouragement.   Tom Bradshaw was there too, and yelled encouragement of his own.  I think had it not been for Kester's football game, Oli would have been there to the death.

Simon swung by and busted out a lap with me on his MTB.  Jonny Waghorn walked from home to the Plunket Street intersection and spurred me on.

Kaitlyn had joined Sarah, and soon after Khulie arrived too.  Then nightfall, then the rain.  Yet, my dear family stood, in the dark and damp.

My nearest and dearest (including the one behind the camera).  Sarah, Pop, Kaitlyn, Ma.  Photo: Khulan Tumen

Brendan came back, this time with Fletcher, and said goodbye a couple of times before actually leaving.  Jo(s) Goudie and Boyle parked at the big switchback, and gave me one of the biggest cheers of the day, bringing a huge smile to my face.

The end was getting near, and my folks did the mocha-run, and when my rear light started crapping out, Simon drove from Northland to hook me up.

At least I was doing something.  Yes, it was repetitive, and challenging, but at least it was doing something.  These wonderful people were taking time out of their own days just to make sure I was OK.  I was, in no small part thanks to them.

I also took a shine to this little guy, who lay on the road about half way up, and appeared to be cheering me on each lap.  I retrieved him the following evening on a (very slow) pass after work...



One of the neat things about this particular ride is the rich dataset that emerges. 

Each time I pulled into Holloway Road at the end of the lap, I hit the lap button on my Garmin, forgetting momentarily a only couple of times.  I'd done a single test climb to establish the vertical gain, but spent much of the first ten laps doing mental arithmetic to ensure I got the number of laps right.  It turned out 96 was a nice number, divisible by all sorts of things!  The fractions initially ticked over quickly, no sooner was I 1/12th of the way through, than 1/11th, etc.  The gap between one-third and one-half was significantly longer, and by that time I'd lost interest in the associated toll on my brain power that 3/8ths and friends took.

The lap data distinguished between elapsed and moving time.  As the roads dried from the overnight rain, and as the temperature went up, I got faster, and towards the end of the day, the laps got longer.  Strava segment times confirm I slowed down on both the climb and the descent.  My fastest lap (moving time) was 7:21, and my slowest 9:45.  Counting breaks, the longest lap was 17:24.

My original plan was to stop for some food every ten laps or so.  But, coffee deliveries, and clothing alteration inevitably lead to deviation from the plan.  According to the GPS data, I had 14 breaks longer than a minute.  Three in the 1-2 minute range, one 3-minute, four of 4-minutes, two of each of 5 and 6-minutes, and two whoppers of 9-minutes each (the eggs, and the onesie were worth it!

They say a decent picture's worth a thousand words, so here we go...

I think by keeping the breaks to a minimum, my legs were constantly warm, and I was able to prevent the either of the breaks or lap times from blowing out.   I ate quickly but well, and the relatively short laps ensured clothing adjustments were done in a timely fashion.

I had one unscheduled stop.  There was a dead tree lying on the road batter near the top of the road, and despite riding past it successfully 80 or so times, when Brendan and Fletcher drove by to say their final farewell, I snagged my handlebar on the tree and ended up on the deck!  Dick!  Luckily, I didn't damage myself or the bike, and was back underway without much fuss.  Brendan had seen my light vanish in his rear view mirror, so, like the tree falling in the forest when everyone's watching, I felt pretty damn silly.  It was nice of him to come back and make sure I was OK though!

I don't remember thinking about very much during the ride.  I did have three or four songs rolling around my head for a few laps apiece, but mostly I entertained myself by simply focussing on my pedalling.

As mentioned, the first 10 laps or so were filled with mental arithmetic, and I enjoyed watching the numbers tick over without dwelling on their rate of change too much.  The last ones were no harder than any of the others, and I never experienced any lows.  I got a little stressed when the elevation pretty much stopped accumulating on my GPS at around the 8150 mark.  But, I noted the distance kept going up, so put faith in my early calculations, and the fact that at least my position was being recorded.  (Apparently the barometric sensor can get inundated with water, and this can be prevented with a silicon cover for the unit, which comes in a range of fetching colours...)

The laps were all much of a muchness, as demonstrated by the times above.  I was invariably out of the saddle climbing away from Holloway Road.  At a visually imperceptible easing of the gradient soon after the first corner, I always sat.  After the next switch back I could chuck it down a sprocket, and there were a couple short sections I generally rode out of the saddle for further up - half a dozen pedal strokes and no more.  Every descent started badly - I can confirm there is NO smooth line through the pedestrian crossing by the Norna Crescent turn off.  Occasionally I'd have to pull the pin on the turn into Holloway, but only had to overshoot on a couple of occasions. 

The traffic got the attention it commanded, and I only had one major fright.  I was about to turn right into Holloway Road, so was positioned in the right of the lane to let the car behind me through as I slowed to take the turn.  There was a Tar Babies bunch making their way up the hill, and I guess I was scanning their faces for anyone I knew, and didn't see the car forcing its way between us until it had.  There wasn't a lot of spare room, and either I was incredibly lucky, or the driver was paying complete attention. 

It was a relatively simple day, and for the most part, I just enjoyed concentrating on the task at hand.  Pedal left, pedal right.  Repeat.

Just as my own dataset is rich, so too is the database of completed rides maintained by the good folk at Hells 500.  It's fascinating to slice and dice the results.  The list isn't particularly long, with 42 of the 1096 successful efforts being ridden in New Zealand (as at time of posting). As if completing wasn't enough, I'm really chuffed at how my time stacks up. 

I'm wont to lose track of the scale of things, and have a tendency to feel less accomplishment than an achievement might deserve.  But, in this case, I'm very proud of my ride, and in particular, how controlled it was.  I was not expecting to feel so solid, and while I struggled to ride to town from Karori the next day (despite the ride being almost entirely downhill), I'm recovering quickly.

The bicycle is such an incredible thing, and I reminded myself a few times during the ride what a privilege it was to be able to spend that time on one.  It was a good day out.


  1. It was a real privilege being there for a few laps of this extraordinary achievement of yours; as you surmise, if it hadn't been for Kester's game (and forgetting my lights!) I would have been there until the end. Very cool to hear you acknowledge the strength of this feat. Congratulations, bro.

  2. P.S. I thought it was a stick insect but it's just a stick wtf!? Lastly, I hope you noticed that you're in both those aerial shots of the lower hairpin!

    1. He was lying in the road as oriented in the picture. At some point during the day, I noticed it looked like a cheering stickman, and enjoyed his encouragement thereafter!

  3. Great to read your account of it. Brilliant time too.
    I agree with you regards route choice - so many aspects to consider. One thing I hadn't thought of until after I'd started my attempt was the time it takes to descend. If I do it again, that's a pretty big 'if', I'll try to find a straighter route. I rode Korokoro and all the corners took their toll on the bike, my concentration and the extra time it took to get back down to the bottom.
    Congratulations again.

    Jeff Graham

  4. Hello Sifter. I wanted to thank you for this great ride report. I particularly benefited from reading your debrief and details of your bike choice. I sent out my Moots Ybb, Rock Shock fork (pumped up to be rigid) 26er, and equipped it with a set of sweet Compass 26 x 2.3" (Rat Trap Pass) tires filled to 32psi. With this I climbed Mauna Kea. My time, too was a little under 6 hours. I did a water drop at the saddle, and a cold weather gear drop at the visitor's center. MTB gearing (22 x 32) plus fat and supple tires meant that I did not have to walk the gravel section, (although I don't know if my speed was any better than walking) and the bike was not unduly slow for the haul from Hilo. All in all it was a bit colder in January, with a Peak High of 5 Celsius, and I had rain for the first twenty miles from Hilo. (I should note that the Saddle road has a "realignment" going one which spells 2 miles of dirt and mud hardpack.) Thanks again for the valuable information.