How Everesting grew into a global phenomenon
In this excerpt from his new book, Matt de Neef tells the story of Everesting's rise from grassroots to global.
In this excerpt from his new book, Matt de Neef tells the story of Everesting's rise from grassroots to global.
From a tiny grassroots challenge conceived in early 2014, Everesting – the challenge of riding the height of Everest in one ride, via repeats of the same hill – has grown into a legitimate global phenomenon. By 2021, almost 20,000 people have completed an Everesting, amateurs and Tour de France podium finishers alike.
Although Everesting is now regularly cited in mainstream media, it is inextricably linked with CyclingTips. The phenomenon was founded by CT’s community manager Andy van Bergen, and in 2020-21, CT’s managing editor, Matt de Neef, wrote a book about the challenge.
“Everesting – The Challenge for Cyclists: Conquer Everest Anywhere in the World” is released this week by Hardie Grant Books. This extract, chapter two, tells the story of the rise of the phenomenon.
On the final weekend in February 2014, as 65 riders tackled the seemingly impossible challenge of completing an Everesting, many more of us watched on from afar. We watched as riders posted updates to social media, charting their progress, and we watched as dozens of riders completed the challenge, uploading their ride details to Strava. To those who’d been following along, Everesting was the talk of the town. For many of those observers, a seed had been planted.
George Mallory’s incredible ‘Mt Everest in a Day’ had been a source of wonder and amazement when it hit the web in 2012. But when 33 riders completed an Everesting in one weekend alone, it was clear this challenge was very much possible. It had a sense of the 4-minute mile about it. That feat, once seemingly out of reach, suddenly seemed achievable when British middle-distance runner Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3:59:04 on 6 May 1954 at the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England. With that mark finally broken, it paved the way for others to do the same. So it was with Everesting – once dozens had completed the challenge, others started to wonder whether they could too.
As Andy van Bergen tracked the growth of Everesting from early 2014, he noticed its spread in geographical clusters. When one person did an Everesting in a given area, others would invariably follow. He saw spikes in Australia, the UK, Japan, South Africa and the US, each community growing as more people caught the Everesting bug. But as much as Everesting has grown in local clusters, the spread isn’t constrained by geography.
‘Every time someone completes an Everesting, all their Strava followers see it, comment on it and like it,’ Andy explains. ‘Of course, there’s the Facebook, Instagram and Twitter post and they might write a blog or do a video. So there’s this is incredible network effect – one person does it, and then maybe three people are interested and it just keeps going on and on like that.’
While social media helped spread the word of Everesting among cyclists the world over, more traditional media coverage helped share it more broadly. Cycling media outlets were onto it early.
Australian-based website CyclingTips, where Andy and I have both worked since 2013, covered Everesting in the days after the initial weekend back in 2014, with Andy offering a firsthand perspective on the enormity of the challenge. British website road.cc also offered early coverage, reporting on two cyclists who had Everested the Box Hill climb south of London in August 2014.
The mainstream media started to catch on, helping spread the word beyond enfranchised cyclists. Melbourne’s The Age newspaper was the first to provide dedicated coverage of the challenge with a feature article in May 2014. ‘Every generation needs one,’ wrote reporter Campbell Mattinson. ‘An ultimate, amateur, physical goal. A marathon, an ironman triathlon, a swim across the English Channel. Now comes “everesting”, the test of an amateur cyclist’s endurance.’
Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, picked up the scent in June with coverage of Adrian Ellul’s Everesting north of Mackay, in north-east Queensland. Slowly but surely, international media outlets began to take notice. In the US, NBC provided coverage in June 2015. VICE joined the party in the same month, and in August 2015, British paper The Telegraph entered the fray.
The more people that read about Everesting, the more people decided to take it on themselves. Gradually, Everesting grew around the world. Some 33 people had completed an Everesting in that weekend in February 2014; after a month that number had gone up to 50. Within nine months, 280 rides could be found in the official Everesting Hall of Fame, and by March 2015, that number had surged to more than 400. And then indoor cycling helped take Everesting to another level again.
In September 2014, fledgling tech company Zwift burst onto the cycling scene, attracting coverage from the sport’s biggest media outlets. The company’s multiplayer online cycling app would prove transformative for the indoor cycling market and for cycling as a whole.
For most riders, training indoors on a stationary trainer was a laborious and mindnumbing activity – one reserved for only the wettest and coldest days. Zwift promised to change that. By riding their bikes on an indoor trainer connected to a computer, tablet or mobile, cyclists could ride virtually in the Zwift universe with others from around the world. The rider’s real-world exertions were converted to in-game progress for their virtual avatar.
From the outset, the game’s virtual world, Watopia, offered a range of route options, from pan-flat waterside jaunts to hillier routes with climbing for those who wanted it. A rider’s ‘smart trainer’ would represent ingame gradients with a change of resistance – as their avatar started climbing a hill, it would get harder to pedal in real life.
In early 2015 Zwift introduced a simple feature that would prove crucial in the growth of Everesting – the ability to do an in-game U-turn, sending the rider’s avatar back the way it came. Frank Garcia, an intrepid rider from Arizona, USA, soon contacted Andy about the U-turn function. The ability to turn around, he explained, meant it was now possible to ride a virtual Everesting. An individual could simply ride up a given hill in Watopia, hit the U-turn button at the top, descend, then do another U-turn at the bottom and ride back up. Repeat the process enough times and a rider could reach the virtual height of Everest.
Andy admits he was resistant to the idea to begin with, saying it ‘didn’t feel like it was quite in line’ with the difficulty of a ‘real’, outdoor Everesting. But after giving it some thought, he soon came around to the idea. ‘I thought if I don’t do this, then Zwift is gonna do it or some other group is gonna do this and organise it and it’s going to kind of take away from what Everesting is,’ he tells me. ‘If it was gonna happen, I wanted to make sure we had some ownership over it as well. So if that was the case, I wanted to make sure it was on par with an actual Everesting.’
Andy reached out to cyclist/software engineer/IT consultant/smart trainer guru Shane Miller to help devise a set of rules that would govern virtual Everesting, or vEveresting. To be accepted into the Hall of Fame, a vEveresting would have to be done on an electronically controlled ‘smart trainer’ and on Zwift, the gradient would have to be set to 100 per cent replication of real-world gradient (to make climbs feel as hard as in real life), and the rider’s weight had to be accurate – under-reporting would make their avatar climb faster for a given effort.
With the rules locked in and vEveresting officially supported by Hells 500, Frank Garcia was free to go out and ride the first vEveresting. On 13 June 2015 he rode 314 laps of a climb on Zwift called the Watopia Wall – a segment 400 metres (1312 feet) long, with 25 metres (82 feet) of elevation gain per lap. He rode it in 2-hour segments, taking 40-minute breaks in between, including ice baths of 15 minutes.
In just under 24 hours, Frank spent more than 17 hours on the bike, completing 264 virtual kilometres (164 miles) with 9051 metres (29,700 feet) of virtual climbing. ‘I’m not sure it was the smartest thing I’ve ever done,’ he told the Gizmodo website a couple days later. ‘The neat thing about doing this in the virtual world, probably what allowed me to finish, was that I got [hundreds] of people from all over the world – there were flags I didn’t even recognise – who would come ride with me for portions of it. That made me keep going.’
With his groundbreaking ride, Frank helped kickstart an exciting new chapter for the phenomenon. Thousands have since followed in his virtual tyre tracks.
In the years since Everesting’s launch, the phenomenon has grown steadily, with word spreading like ripples on a pond. Cyclists who had ridden the height of Everest before Everesting existed were retroactively added to the Hall of Fame, such as Norwegian Martin Hoff who, back in September 2012, rode 27 laps of the climb up Tryvannshøyden just north-west of Oslo, notching up more than 10,000 metres (32,800 feet) of climbing. By January 2016, the number of successful Everestings in the Hall of Fame had passed 800. And really, that was just the start.
In 2017, Everesting became further ingrained in the cycling consciousness when former professional racer Jens Voigt threw his helmet in the ring. In snowy conditions, the 17-time Tour de France rider climbed the height of Everest on the Teufelsberg (‘Devil’s Mountain’) in west Berlin in a ride that took more than 27 hours.
While Voigt’s ride won’t be found in the Everesting Hall of Fame – he had a sleep partway through the effort, which is forbidden by Everesting rules – he was the first professional to tackle the challenge. In doing so, he helped accelerate awareness of and interest in the challenge.
By December 2017, the Hall of Fame featured more than 2,200 completed Everestings from riders in more than 70 countries. By August 2018, that number was up to 2,700, with riders from 80 countries. By May 2019, 3,500 Everestings had been completed. A few months later, during the 2019 Tour de France, Everesting was elevated to another level again.
Belgian professional rider Thomas De Gendt is famed and adored by many for his aggressive racing style and formidable strength. Throughout the 2019 Tour de France, De Gendt wrote a column for Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad, providing an inside perspective of the world’s biggest race. In one column, De Gendt mentioned that during the race, he and other pros in the Tour peloton had been discussing Everesting. Among those other riders was Australia’s great hope for overall victory at the Tour, Richie Porte.
Back in Australia, Andy received a Google Alert notifying him that the word ‘Everesting’ had been used in De Gendt’s article. He got a copy of the article and asked his mum – a native Dutch speaker – to translate it for him. ‘Mum read it to me on the phone. Basically Thomas De Gendt was talking about Everesting in such a casual way – he never explained what the concept was; it was assumed the audience knew what Everesting was, which was really cool,’ Andy tells me. ‘And then he was like, “I was at the front of the peloton and I was chatting to Richie [Porte] about his upcoming Everesting because he’s planning on doing one once the Tour is over and that was really interesting to me. So I was trying to get some info from him because I’d been talking about doing it …” It was just so mind-blowing.’
Sure enough, on 3 August 2019, 6 days after finishing 11th in the Tour de France, Richie and fellow Tasmanian pro athlete Cameron Wurf rode an Everesting on the Col de la Madone. Situated just near Richie’s European base of Monaco, the 12-kilometre (7.5-mile) Madone is famous among cyclists as a testing ground. Richie and Cam had done long rides together in the past; on Richie’s 29th birthday in 2014, the pair rode 400 kilometres (250 miles) in a day around north-east Tasmania. Five years later, on Cam’s 36th birthday, the pair rode nearly 11 laps of the Madone, spending roughly 14.5 hours to ride 271 kilometres (168 miles).
Andy sees that ride as an inflection point for Everesting, a point at which the phenomenon’s growth really started to accelerate. ‘Nothing just exists overnight – it needs groundswell,’ he says. ‘Every year I feel that more and more people know about it. It’s probably Richie Porte and Cam Wurf’s Everesting where it felt like, “OK, this is starting to get known now.”’
Sure enough, a look at Google Trends, which maps the volume of Google search traffic for a given term, shows a significant spike for the word ‘Everesting’ around the time of Richie and Cam’s ride. But that was nothing compared to the interest that would follow.
In March 2020 the world went into lockdown as coronavirus swept the globe. Cyclists in some places, including many Europe-based professionals, weren’t able to ride outside at all, and instead relied on indoor riding for training. Professional racing shut down entirely in March, leaving the world’s best racers without any goals for the foreseeable future. As the pandemic intensified, indoor training boomed like never before. Zwift broke its own records for the number of concurrent users, other indoor training platforms experienced similar growth, and smart trainers were sold out wherever you looked.
With the boom in indoor cycling came an explosion in the number of vEverestings. For many people, events they’d been training for had suddenly been cancelled. They needed another challenge closer to home to fill the void. Andy decided to give would-be vEveresters a bit of a nudge.
On 10 April, Hells 500 threw what it called a ‘World Lycra Party’, encouraging riders around the world to complete a vEveresting on Zwift at the same time. For many, it was all the encouragement they needed – more than 210 people successfully completed a vEveresting in the one weekend. It had taken more than six months to get that many Everesting attempts in the Hall of Fame in the early days.
Around the same time, more pros started taking on the challenge. With racing suspended and coaches not worried about how a 10-plus-hour ride would affect training and racing form, tackling an Everesting was a possibility.
On 2 May, Manx professional Mark Cavendish, almost certainly the greatest sprinter the sport has ever seen, completed a vEveresting with fellow Briton Luke Rowe. A little over a week later, retired American pro road racer turned YouTuber Phil Gaimon attempted to set a record for the fastest-known Everesting. He rode 60 laps of the steep Mountaingate Drive in Los Angeles, California, completing his Everesting in 7:52:12, a new world record by roughly 20 minutes.
Phil’s ride attracted international attention and kickstarted an arms race for the world’s fastest Everesting. Just 4 days after Phil’s record, US crosscountry mountain-bike champion Keegan Swenson knocked 12 minutes off the record, spending 7:40:05 riding repeats of Pine Canyon Road in Midway, Utah. ‘The last month or so, I was thinking I should do [an Everesting] because I didn’t have any racing or anything to focus on,’ Keegan told The Pro’s Closet website. ‘I didn’t train specifically for it, but it was something to focus on for a week. In a way, it was like a race.’
A little over a month later, the record fell again. Or at least it seemed to. On 13 June, Australian professional road and ultra-endurance racer Lachlan Morton rode 42 laps of the backside of Rist Canyon near Fort Collins, Colorado. Ridden at an altitude of 2400 metres (7870 feet) above sea level, where the air is noticeably thinner, Lachlan’s time of 7:32:54 – seemingly a new record by around 7 minutes – was undeniably impressive. But then things got messy.
Some sleuthing from Canadian Cycling Magazine suggested Lachlan had ridden less than the requisite 8848 metres (29,029 feet) due to erroneous elevation data on the climb’s Strava segment (which he had used to determine the number of laps). Sure enough, a few days after Lachlan’s ride, after consulting independent topographical data, Hells 500 confirmed that the Australian hadn’t accumulated enough elevation and that Keegan Swenson would hold on to the record.
Lachlan didn’t waste any time in trying again – a week later, on 20 June, he went back to Rist Canyon and attempted a shorter, steeper subsection of the same climb. He reached the height of Everest after 7:29:57, his effort was verified by Hells 500, and he became the new record holder by roughly 11 minutes.
But then, scarcely a week later, Everesting attracted its biggest name yet: Alberto Contador. The winner of seven Grand Tours – two Tours de France, two Giri d’Italia and three Vueltas a España – Alberto retired from pro racing at the end of 2017. He clearly hadn’t lost too much strength in his retirement – on 6 July, on the steep climb of Silla del Rey in the Castile and León region of northwest Spain, he took another 2.5 minutes off Lachlan’s time.
Phil Gaimon’s record in May had been the first new mark in more than three years. But in the space of two months it had fallen four times. And with the new mark set by Alberto Contador, one of greatest climbers the sport has ever seen, it seemed as if the record had been put permanently out of reach. Not so.
Less than a month after Alberto’s record ride, Irish semi-professional racer Ronan Mc Laughlin [ed. And now CyclingTips tech writer] went out and tackled the new mark. He’d previously completed an Everesting in 8 hours and 13 minutes – the fifth-fastest on record at the time. But on 30 July, on a shorter and steeper version of the same climb – Mamore Gap in County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland – he went significantly faster.
Ronan’s time of 7:04:41 took more than 20 minutes off Alberto Contador’s seemingly infallible mark. To get there he’d made some rather significant weight-saving modifications to his bike: he’d removed all but three gears at the back and his big chainring at the front, he’d ridden without a water bottle (his helpers handed him water when required), and he even cut down his handlebars.
‘I in no way consider myself on the same level as Contador,’ Ronan told CyclingTips. ‘I once heard [British track-racing legend] Chris Boardman say that when he was trying to break the Hour Record on Eddy Merckx rules, that everybody can be world class on their day and their discipline. That was sort of my goal here – to prove that no matter if you’ve won two Tours de France or not, if you apply yourself and use all the marginal gains or science or whatever you want to call it, and train right, then anybody can be world class … if only for one day.’
Two months later, Ronan’s short reign was over. On 3 October, Sean Gardner, a 26-year-old American semi-pro racer and coach, became the first to complete an outdoor Everesting in under 7 hours. His time of 6:59:38, set on the punishingly steep grades of Tanners Ridge Road in Virginia, USA, was 5.5 minutes faster than Ronan’s. Sean hadn’t gone to the same lengths to reduce the weight of his bike – the closest he got was removing one of the bottle cages on his bike. Sean’s record lasted a little under six months.
In March 2021, at the end of the Irish winter Ronan returned to Mamore Gap with an even lighter bike and, with a little assistance from a handy tailwind, slashed nearly 20 minutes off Sean’s record. The ride nearly ended in disaster – Ronan had a rear-tyre blowout while descending with 10 laps to go but somehow managed to avoid crashing. After a couple of laps on a spare bike (while a mechanic changed wheels), Ronan was back on his main bike and riding to a staggering time of 6:40:54.
It wasn’t just the world’s fastest men tackling the record from mid-2020 either – the women’s record fell several times in short succession as well. The charge began with American professional Katie Hall who, on 23 May, took a monumental 2.5 hours off the previous record. One of the best climbers in the world, in what was her final season as a professional, Katie posted a time of 10:01:42 on the Bonny Doon climb near Santa Cruz in California. Her record would stand for just over a week.
On 31 May, American domestic racer Lauren De Crescenzo became the first woman to break the 10-hour mark. Her 9:57:29 up Hogpen Gap in Georgia, USA, wasn’t just a record – it was a fundraising platform for the Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado, and Grady Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Lauren had spent five weeks in Craig Hospital in 2016 after crashing at the San Dimas Stage Race, suffering a traumatic brain injury.
Lauren didn’t have long to bask in the glory of her record ride. Less than a week later, on 4 June, Englishwoman Hannah Rhodes Everested Kirkstone Pass in England’s Lake District, obliterating Lauren’s record by nearly 50 minutes with a time of 9:08:31. That mark stood for a little over a month before falling to one of the biggest names to complete an Everesting.
On 8 July, former world time trial champion Emma Pooley set out to ride an Everesting to test her limits. Regarded as one of the best climbers of her generation, the 37-year-old Brit didn’t have specific ambitions of setting the record, having spent less than a week preparing for the ride. On the leg-sappingly steep Haggenegg climb near the town of Schwyz in central Switzerland, Emma suffered in the extreme heat – she’d brought far less water than she ultimately needed. And yet, she was able to battle through to reach the height of Everest in 8:53:36, breaking the record by 15 minutes and become the first woman to go under 9 hours.
[ed. The women’s Everesting record has since fallen to Illi Gardner. In mid August, Gardner rode an 8:33:47 to take almost 20 minutes off Pooley’s record.]
While world-class riders such as Emma Pooley and Alberto Contador were setting new records in 2020, a bunch of other professionals were trying their hand at Everesting as well. In May, Canadian professional James Piccoli spent 17 hours climbing 12,605 metres (41,355 feet) on the Mont Royal climb in Montreal to raise money for healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Later that month, German pro Emanuel Buchmann, who finished fourth at the 2019 Tour de France, climbed his way to the height of Everest near Oetz, Austria, and might have set a new Everesting record had he not ridden two different climbs as part of his effort (Everesting rules dictate that only one climb must be used). US road champion Ruth Winder Everested Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, Colorado. And later in 2020, Australian pro Nathan Earle rode a very swift 7:10:10 on The Lea near Kingston, Tasmania – then the third-fastest Everesting on record.
The combination of interest from professional racers, plus the COVID-inspired surge in vEveresting, saw Everesting boom in 2020. In May 2020 alone, more than 1,100 new Everestings and vEverestings were added to the Hall of Fame. It had taken three years to reach the same number in the early days. By the end of May, the number of total Everestings had roughly doubled in the space of a year – from about 3,500 in May 2019 to more than 7,000 by early June 2020.
There’s no doubt Everesting has grown far beyond even the most optimistic projections and continues to grow steadily. Nearly 20,000 Everestings of different kinds have been completed all around the world. The Hall of Fame on the official Everesting website holds the most up-to-date stats.
As Andy and I chat about the history and growth of the phenomenon, I find myself wondering: did he have any inkling of Everesting’s potential? ‘Yeah, absolutely – I thought, “one day we will hit 100 riders,”’ he laughs. Back then Colin Bell, a friend and mentor of Andy’s, had more of a sense of Everesting’s possibilities – not that Andy believed him. ‘He said, “Andy, I’m telling you, you’ll get 500 people one day,”’ Andy recalls. ‘This is when we were less than 100. I’d known what had gone into this [completing an Everesting]. I wanted people to do it, but I just didn’t expect it to catch on. The idea of 500 people doing it one day was laughable. He may as well have said a million – it was just such a stupid number.’
Since its inception, Everesting has gone from a seemingly impossible challenge attempted by a select few, to a challenge known around the cycling world, and even outside it. A grassroots event has become a global phenomenon, tackled by amateurs and pros alike, building a community that continues to grow at an impressive rate.
“Everesting” is published by Hardie Grant Books, and is released in Australia on September 29, with other markets to follow.
You can order at http://smarturl.it/everesting