Photo: Maxim Petrichuk/Shutterstock

Everesting Is the Hardest Cycling Challenge Ever, and It’s Blowing Up

by Noelle Alejandra Salmi Aug 28, 2020

“It needed to pass the pub test,” says Andy Van Bergen of his decision to create one of the toughest cycling challenges ever — one that’s been taking the cycling world by storm. The Melbourne-based cyclist continues, “I needed to be able to quickly explain the concept to any person, and they’d understand what it was.”

The challenge Van Bergen created was asking cyclists to find a hill of their choice and ascend it in laps enough times that they’ll end up climbing an astonishing 29,029 feet, or 8,848 meters — the height of Mount Everest. He chose the famed mountain because it’s the biggest on Earth, something that anyone, even a non-cyclist, can understand is really hard. In fact, it’s not a challenge most cyclists can accomplish, let alone do so in the span of available daylight hours.

While it may well be the hardest thing you could do on a bike, we’ve got some tips below on how to prepare for it and hopefully make it a little less grueling. Either way, it’s guaranteed to be difficult — especially if you’re setting a world record, with one week of planning. That’s just what Lauren De Crescenzo did.

The former pro cyclist chose to go Everesting to raise money for Craig Hospital, where four years before she’d spent five weeks following a cycling crash. She also wanted to break the Everesting world record set by a fellow American just a few days prior.

“I don’t recommend anyone ever do this. It was bad. I’ve never felt that bad on a bike,” said De Crescenzo of the experience. “Probably in the last two hours I cried, because there’s just no hiding. It’s a true test of how strong you are.”

Because she was out to set a record, De Crescenzo took no breaks — save a single 20-second pee stop. “There’s no drafting, there’s no sitting up or anything, just like up and down … I was deep in the pain cave,” said De Crescenzo, adding, “but then I got the record, so I forgot about the pain.”

While Van Bergen may be a bit of a pain-fiend himself, world records and shedding tears weren’t really part of his plan when he designed the Everesting challenge. Rather, it was the result of a process of creating ever more difficult cycling summits, which he had been doing for a few years with a group of fellow die-hard cyclists who call themselves Hells500. They intentionally created challenges that would demand months of training. Yet after one weekend when he biked nearly 200 miles and ascended close to 20,000 vertical feet, a colleague at work didn’t comprehend what an accomplishment that was.

“I could explain that to any cyclist and their eyes would fall out of their head, but this guy heard that and he’s like, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’” said Van Bergen. That’s when Van Bergen decided upon the Everesting challenge, as anyone would grasp that it’s a really big deal.

The perfect moment to introduce the challenge came soon after, as avid cyclists from around the world began to hear about the crazy, thigh-searing rides of Hells500 — and they wanted to participate in the next one. But Van Bergen, who had experience organizing big cycling events in the past, wasn’t ready for that.

“I felt a bit weird and responsible that people from New York and France and the UK wanted to fly to Australia, and they’d come over and realize that we were just a bunch of hill-climbing nuts doing it in our backyard,” says Van Bergen.

Instead, Van Bergen told interested cyclists that they had to prove they were able to ascend 5,000 vertical meters. Then he’d send them super-secret instructions to participate in an event on the last weekend in February of the following year. The key was that they would do it on a hill of their choosing, all on the same weekend.

Thus, in February 2014, Everesting was born. Forty-five people in different locations around the world completed their ascents of 29,029 vertical feet. Back in Melbourne, it was big news, with a page-four spread in the same local paper that usually relegated major cycling events like the Tour de France to the back page.

Over a year later, in December 2015, Van Bergen organized another Everesting first — one that would help it become the sensation that it is now. An online platform called Zwift had just introduced a feature allowing indoor cyclists to do a U-turn, meaning they could start lapping hills instead of just doing loops. Shortly thereafter, Hells500 organized a virtual Everester, and by year-end, over 300 people had completed it.

Photo: TORWAISTUDIO/Shutterstock

When the pandemic hit this year, the ability to try Everesting virtually — or, where permitted, on your own on an empty, sloped road — proved the release the cycling world needed. The growth in Everesting has been exponential. “We went from having maybe 30 or 40 Everesting submissions around the world — that was like a busy week for us — to months where there were 1,200, 1,300 people completing this challenge,” says Van Bergen.

Moreover, notes Van Bergen, professional cyclists whose races were canceled needed a goal to work towards and a way to stay in shape. He says many of them knew about Everesting but weren’t able to do it earlier. “They were never allowed to do it because their coach would just say, ‘Okay, let’s not put this into your training regime. It’s going to ruin your legs for the actual racing,’” explains Van Bergen.

Van Bergen says that some of the biggest names in the cycling world jumped on board the Everesting challenge, and cyclist media outlets, which had no races to cover, had something to write about again.

“It was that combination of being one of the few options combined with our idols doing it that I guess it really just exploded quite quickly,” says Van Bergen. “Of course, pro riders doing it, they wanted to race each other. And of course record-setting became a thing in Everesting.”

Enter De Crescenzo, who saw her own opportunity to shine. She chose the best hill she could find near her current home in Atlanta, the backside of Hog Pen Gap in northern Georgia. It was a 2.1-mile stretch with a 9.8 percent grade. It was also very straight, which meant De Crescenzo wouldn’t have to put on the breaks.

“It was completely, almost completely straight, because you want to be able to get as much speed as you can,” says De Crescenzo. “I hit 63 going downhill.”

De Crescenzo also spoke ahead of time with a sports nutritionist, stocking up on instant sugar providers like Coca-Cola and Red Bull. She hydrated with electrolyte-rich Nuun tablets and made a lunch of several protein-filled RXBARs.

“It’s a science game, it’s all about science, and I want to out-science everyone. Like getting the perfect fuel, so there’s always room for improvement,” says De Crescenzo. “Maybe like towards hour seven — my friends were up there — I was like Redbull me now, Coca Cola me now.”

Although she set the women’s record with a time of nine hours and 57 minutes, De Crescenzo held it for only four days, when it was taken over by a European, and then another. Emma Pooley cracked the nine-hour barrier on a very steep Swiss mountain on July 9.

De Crescenzo says it’s hard to compete with the mountains that European riders can access. “I want a steeper climb,” says De Crescenzo. Speaking of Emma Pooley, she notes: “Her climb was like 13 percent and it was five miles long, so she did way fewer miles. I think she did 80 miles and I did 111 — so there’s the record.”

The fact is, a 13 percent grade is pretty dangerous, and it’s not what the average rider should even consider. Triathlete Sebe Ziesler decided to complete the Everesting challenge at his home in Park City this summer. He wasn’t going for a record; he just wanted to give it a try — and finished it in a little over 11 hours. In the middle, he allowed himself a five-minute break to stretch his legs. He still chose a relatively steep grade, that averaged about eight percent in places, with spots that reached 10 percent.

“I think it’s just whatever you can comfortably ride up, and you don’t want it to be so steep when you’re going downhill that you have to brake. It was great. I mean I’m going like 50 miles an hour downhill, which is not a problem at all because it’s so straight. The most memorable part was I passed a Ferrari going downhill,” says Ziesler.

If just finishing it is your goal, De Crescenzo says, “You could take more breaks, and you don’t have to do it in world record time.” She says Everesting is “huge right now. Everyone’s kind of doing really, really long rides with this whole lockdown, it seems.”

For anyone considering Everesting, De Crescenzo says you should already have experience with long rides. “Before that, the longest I’d ever ridden was maybe eight hours. So as long as you’ve ever ridden at least five. I think if you just eat enough food and if you take breaks and the climb is not too steep.”

What makes a climb too steep? For his part, Everesting’s inventor Van Bergen thinks somewhere between a six and eight percent grade is a sweet spot for most hardcore riders. But it’s all very individual. “[What’s] so exciting about this concept, because there’s flexibility within a framework, is it really allows you to use your own creativity to come up with whatever your own ultimate hill is,” says Van Bergen.

Photo: maxpro/Shutterstock

Van Bergen has completed over a dozen Everesters, on everything from a road bike on his own under the light of the moon, to doing so on a mountain bike up and down a single track course. Just two weeks ago, after Melbourne went back into lockdown, Van Bergen completed another virtual Everester.

A couple of years back, Van Bergen even attempted an Everester on the northern, Tibetan side of Mount Everest itself. The Chinese had recently added a paved road all the way to Base Camp, which is the path Van Bergen and fellow riders chose. Although he trained “like I’d never trained before” in hypoxic conditions in altitude chambers, getting advice from doctors and former mountaineers, Van Bergen eventually succumbed to altitude sickness.

“I had full out-of-body experiences, and I almost crashed a couple of times,” says Van Bergen, adding that his cycling mates also gave in to the sub-zero temperatures and relentless winds before completing the feat. Nonetheless, Van Bergen said that cycling on the mountain, with all its glory spread out ahead of him, was magical. And very carbon-intensive.

“It took three flights to get there and a 400 km bus … And there was a crew of 10 of us because we had handlers and fixers and drivers, and you have to have guides to get there,” says Van Bergen. “You know, it’s no small footprint, that’s for sure.”

He contrasts that to “just swinging your leg over a bike and going for a ride.” Indeed, Everesting events may well be “one of the most sustainable events on the planet. There’s no infrastructure, aside from some websites and things like that,” says Van Bergen.

Besides being sustainable, Everesting is also very personal. “Really it’s like running a marathon. There’s a couple of people at the front who are going to be going for an amazing time, but for the majority of participants it’s about completing this challenge,” says Van Bergen.

When the cycling races start again, Van Bergen is ready for the attention to turn away from setting new Everesting records, which he says are a little “ridiculous.” Judging by the excitement it has generated, that may not happen. Even De Crescenzo, who still holds the North American women’s Everesting record, says she’ll be seeking out steeper mountain roads on a visit to her home state of Colorado.

What may happen is that more people will try to run an Everester, says Van Bergen, adding that the rules would permit them to take another way down, like a car or gondola, to save their knees. Either way, people will get creative and they’ll complete ever more unusual, and grueling, Everesters in the coming months and years. Everesting is here to stay.

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