Everesting on a fixie with a hormone headwind
To complete an “Everesting”, a rider must overcome the height of the world’s highest peak. It is, quite obviously, a feat in and of itself. Yet some ask for more.
Charli Mandel did. She did it on a fixed gear, no brake. In the middle of hormone replacement therapy. Or, as she puts it below, “Puberty 2: Feminine Boogaloo”.
When this video, by Tory Powers and FULFRAME, landed in our inbox, we knew we had to share. Click play above and, for more background on the ride, read Charli’s essay below.
On the morning of September 26th, 2018, I pulled into the parking lot at the base of Lookout Mountain, a climb that weaves up and out of Golden, Colorado, and unloaded my bike. It was my main work bike at the time, a six-years-thrashed, Unknown PS-1 with 48-17 gearing, no brakes, a geometry-relaxing cyclocross fork, and a bottle cage medical-taped to the sticker-encrusted downtube. I started on the first of 12 laps of the iconic climb.
My aim was to complete a half-Everesting, roughly 14,500 vertical feet (4,420 m) of climbing, a proof of concept for the full thing. I wanted to Everest, climb 29,029 feet (8,841m) on a fixed gear.
The first climb dragged by, all the more so given my grinding cadence of 50 rpm. A few turns from the top, I was taunted by the words “BIG RING!” spray-painted across the road’s width, a remnant from the USA Pro Challenge. Oh, to have anything but a big ring.
The descent, familiar though it was, would not provide the relief I had become accustomed to in my road bike Everestings. The closest I would get to coasting would be spinning my legs neutrally at a not-exactly-comfortable 120 rpm, and I would have to expend yet more energy (and knee cartilage) to slow down for the two sets of several tight switchbacks.
As the day wore on and the laps ticked by, I found myself dreading the descent more than the climb. But after eight hours, many bananas and baby food pouches, much primal screaming, and periodic massaging of life back into my legs, I had done the damn thing: 104 miles (167 km), sufficiently over 14,500 vertical feet, and just shy of seven hours on the bike. My legs weren’t exactly happy, but they weren’t quite dead either. A full track bike Everesting was now terrifyingly within the realm of possibility.
May 27th of 2019 would be my 23rd birthday, and coincidentally, an Everesting of Lookout would be 23 laps. Well hey, neat, a scrap of meaning to ascribe to this otherwise-Sisyphean task. So it was set. Come hell or high water, I would be spending my birthday spelunking into the deepest depths of the pain cave.
For the full context, we need to step back a bit.
On November 14th 2018, I gleefully bunny-hopped and manualed my dirt jump bike home from the pharmacy, my first box of estrogen patches in my back pocket. Finally, I was one small step closer to freedom from a body and self in which I had grown unbearably uncomfortable. This decision (to medically transition) came after no small amount of self-questioning, denial, dysphoria, talks with therapists, and depression, which, without the stabilizing force of bikes and the lovely people who ride them, would likely have derailed my college career.
It had been nearly two years since, drunk in our motel at Hartford Cyclocross Nationals, I came out to my friends Sammy and Matt; and a little bit longer since, at a University of Vermont cycling team Halloween party, I had first experimented with presenting femme. As much as I leaned on this sport throughout my coming out, it was also the main reason for my reluctance to transition. Bike racing had been an important part of my life ever since I started racing BMX the summer after fifth grade. In subsequent years, I delved into dirt jumping, MTB, road, cyclocross, tracklocross, and countless alleycats. Bikes are part of me.
Transitioning would signal the end of my ability to “just race.” Either I could continue racing in men’s categories (i.e. not as my true self, but in the same thin disguise I’ve been trying my hardest to strip off these past few years), and resign myself to worse and worse finishes as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) worked its magic, or I could enter the women’s field, and have any half-decent result tainted by the assumption that I retained some unfair advantage. Neither of these options particularly appealed to me.
The alleycats and tracklocross races that appealed most to me had more nuanced gender categories than USAC’s (“open” and “WTFNB” instead of the strict men/women binary), and Everesting is only a competition against my own ideas of what was possible. My track bike Everesting intentions still stood, but my initial mixture of eagerness and dread was now joined by a nagging fear: “how much will HRT affect my strength? Will I have what it takes to finish this thing come May?”
Not one month later, this fear was compounded by injury. I had already separated the AC joint of my right shoulder twice doing mountain bike things the year prior, so a collarbone break (shamefully enough, the result of a dumb little fixie skid) meant it was well and truly surgery time.
Being a courier, this meant going from being outside on my bike with friends every day (and making money) to being inside, off the bike, neither seeing friends nor making money save for the office and dispatch shifts I picked up. This would have been easier to deal with had I not also been in the midst of the absolute mood rollercoaster that is Puberty 2: Feminine Boogaloo. As it stood though, I was kinda sorta losing it.
Three days after the surgery, I picked up a smart trainer off Craigslist and set about trying to remedy my cycling withdrawal. In the weeks leading up to the injury, I had been feeling strangely weak on the bike, getting winded way quicker than I was used to. Of course, this was likely the result of too many busy and over-scheduled work weeks hauling a heavily-laden backpack up hills in the snow, but at the time I ascribed it to HRT.
When I first hopped on the trainer and subjected myself to the Sufferfest Full Frontal fitness test, my power numbers were abysmally low. Considering the ordeal I had planned for May, this was a tad concerning.
Whether or not this concern was legitimate, it did end up motivating me to train harder than I had for any of my previous Everestings. App Gap in Vermont, my first Everesting, was planned three days before the fact, on a half-joking suggestion from my friend Simone.
With a lot of dread about getting slow, and entirely too much spare time on my hands, I immediately jumped into a four-week Sufferfest training program. The general trajectory of my day during that month was: wake up, gradually sink into depression and suicidal ideation, make myself get on the bike, hammer the prescribed intervals, savor the endorphins and catharsis of controlled suffering, feel a bit better, drink a protein shake, shower, rip deeply of the bong [ripping deeply of the bong is totally legal in Colorado – ed.], maybe cry about nothing and everything, and try to sleep. Ultimately, training was my anchor.
At the end of that first four-week program, I retook the dreaded multi-stage power test, with much-improved results. I was getting somewhere! At the end of February, I was off the trainer. My shoulder had recovered enough for me to resume working on the road; and after a confusing couple weeks of trying to balance work riding and trainer workouts, I eschewed the Sufferfest Mountainous Gran Fondo Prep plan in favor of just riding up hills a whole bunch.
My first big day out on the newly-built Engine 11 consisted of a quick five laps of Lookout (taking the KOM for the lesser-known “Lookout x5” segment), followed immediately by a busy courier shift, for a total of 103 miles (166 km) and 8,700 vertical feet (2,650 m). This would be the theme of that spring: weekly 80-110 mile, 8-12,000 vertical foot death marches into the mountains, packed in around work riding, tracklocross races, with a healthy mixture of pump track and mountain biking.
An aborted road bike Everesting attempt in early May once more planted seeds of doubt, but the momentum was already there. By late May, my sleep was plagued by Everesting-related stress dreams, and I wanted nothing more than to go out and do the damn thing. The impatience behind the hasty planning and execution of my past Everestings, frustrated by months of anticipation, had begun to sink its claws in.
When the day finally came, and I clipped into my pedals and started up the mountain for that first pre-dawn lap, I breathed an immense sigh of relief. This was it, the culmination, the moment of truth. I’ll let the video do the talking here, but what ensued was a physical and mental ordeal of hideous proportions. The feeling of completing the thing was absolutely incomparable, and I am immensely happy both to have done it and to never have to do it again.
Much of the editing of this video was done some months after the fact. The time spent in the studio with Tory was a rather strange experience, as it involved a lot of watching and listening to my six-months-HRT self. As dysphoria-inducing as some of that was, it’s also encouraging to be able to compare where I was then with where I am now (or even the differences in my voice between the meat of the video and the intro, which we recorded in that later editing phase).
Almost a year after the fact, I feel much more comfortable in my body and self, both of which continue to metamorphose. Ultimately, I have no idea what net impact HRT has had on my fitness, but I do know it’s made me a considerably happier person.
- My parents, not only for their unconditional love and support over the years, but also for the use of their car and the birthday breakfast (most importantly, coffee) my mom left for me on the morning of the attempt.
- Tory Powers, filmmaker, for the ridiculous amount of work he put into this pro bono project.
- Parker Brown, friend since fifth grade, for driving and keeping Tory company, providing moral support, requisitioning me a rear light from his friend who lived nearby, buying me a McGriddles meal, and just being his lovely self.
- The UVM Cycling Team, for all the good times, great friends, cheap racing and come-as-you-are attitude.
- Confluence Courier Collective (and the greater Denver courier community — sup Antonio) for pretty much the same things as UVM Cycling.
- Nick Moss, for the shitty tattoo.
- Joseph Kendrick, for completing the world’s first fixed Everesting, and thus inspiring this awful thing.
- Pumpkin pie, for existing.