The coronavirus pandemic has had many social, political and economic ramifications. One interesting side effect in the cycling world has been the demolition of the world record for everesting. The latest time of six hours and 59 minutes was set by Sean Gardner two weeks ago in the US state of Virginia.
Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of everesting, most cyclists hadn’t until recently. Primarily an individual event, it is ideally suited to a time when social distancing and restrictions on travel mean that many local and international sporting events have been canceled, since it can be undertaken on any hill in any country, “or even on a bridge or the driveway of your home,” states the Web site of the Hells 500, custodian of the Everesting Hall of Fame (everesting.cc/hall-of-fame/#/).
The concept is fiendishly simple, but achieving it is brutally difficult. All you need to do is cycle the height of Mount Everest, 8,848m, on a single hill in a single activity. “No time limit. No sleep.”
The challenge can be traced back to 1994, when George Mallory, grandson of the mountaineer of the same name, was preparing to climb the real Everest in commemoration of his British grandfather’s disappearance there in 1924. As part of his training, he cycled up Australia’s 1,250m Mount Donna Buang eight times in 22 hours and 45 minutes.
There have been 6,538 successful everesting attempts in 97 countries to date, with more added almost every week. This year, having been taken up by elite riders, the record has been broken six times since May 11, when American Phil Gaimon did the first sub-eight-hour ride.
The most high-profile cyclist to hold the record was Spain’s seven-time Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador who posted seven hours and 27 minutes on July 6.
To beat this, on July 30 former Ireland pro Ronan McLaughlin chose a hill averaging 14.2 percent without any turns so he could maximize his descents as well as his ascents. He also removed as much weight from his bike as possible, including slicing off part of his handlebars, and removing his water bottles and cages. He advanced the record to seven hours and five minutes, only to see it beaten on Oct. 3 by Gardner, whose segment averaged 15.5 percent.
The women’s record has been broken four times over the same period and is now held by former UK professional cyclist Emma Pooley.
According to Hells 500, only five people, all men, have successfully everested in Taiwan. The first was Frenchman Bryce Benat in 2014.
For suggestions on how to approach such an attempt, Cycling Shorts joined Benat for a ride and a chat on Taipei’s riverside bike paths.
Benat studied mechanical engineering and biomechanics in France before moving to England to work for bike company Pashley, famous for making Post Office delivery bikes, and then Halfords, for whom he still works as Asia-area quality manager.
“For endurance, preparation is more important than training,” he says, though he admits to doing a little gym work to strengthen his neck and upper body.
Presumably Benat is permanently fit, however, since he rides around 15,000km to 20,000km per year, mostly up hills. Other recent achievements include riding solo 1,060km around Taiwan in 47 hours (most people take around 10 days); riding from the country’s northern tip to southern tip in 14 hours and 58 minutes (most people cannot do this, but those that try, aim for 24 hours); and completing the 4,000km European transcontinental in 12 days.
With wife Karen, he celebrated getting married by riding around the world on a tandem, and this year they took their two sons on a tour around Taiwan.
Nevertheless, Benat plans and prepares carefully, riding the route in advance so he can minimize external elements to avoid surprises.
“Choosing the segment is key,” he says.
His preference is for a constant gradient of around 7 percent to 8 percent, though the descent is also important; too many turns, and you won’t be able to relax sufficiently.
“You’ll also need one hand free to eat going down,” he says. “Choosing a segment with a local 24-hour shop nearby is ideal.”
With regard to nutrition, Benat prefers normal food to the energy gels and bars used by many athletes. He’s also been vegetarian for the last three years, saying he has noticed reduced inflammation and speedier recovery.
If convenience stores are not available, he recommends parking a car with supplies along the route. For his second everesting challenge in November 2017 he rode two-and-a-half times up the road from sea level in Hualien to 3,275m at Wuling (武嶺), Taiwan’s highest road. Since there are no convenience stores, and the few shops and restaurants close after sunset, he bought water and food on his first ascent, and hid them in bushes for later.
Although that route took him longer and has some seriously precipitous sections, in some ways it was easier, he says, and definitely more enjoyable with its views across the Central Mountain Range.
For his 2014 attempt, he had chosen a 3.6km, 6.7 percent segment in Dadu (大肚), Taichung, which meant he had to repeat it 37.5 times.
“Fighting boredom is the hardest thing, since it’s so easy to abandon at any time,” he says.
Longer segments feel more like a normal ride.
So, just how tough is it to everest?
“It’s the hardest,” he says.
Will he ever do another one?
“Oh, I kind of did already, on my birthday in June.”
It turns out there’s a related activity where you don’t have to ride the same hill over and over. But, you have to climb 10,000m. For this, Benat found 23 different ascents in Yangmingshan National Park (陽明山國家公園), the highest being Datunshan (大屯山) at 1,067m.
And, if you happen to be near Wuling next week, you might see him three times. He’s planning to ride up all its approaches: from Puli, Hualien and Yilan, for another total of 10,000m.
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