The VAM Challenge: How fast can you ride 1,000 m of vertical gain?

A new riding challenge born of lockdowns.

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When COVID returned to New Zealand – ending the country’s long streak of ‘normal’ existence – the country was plunged back into lockdowns, prompting riders to get creative in keeping things interesting.

Just like how Everesting has had a big moment over the past 18 months, a group of Auckland riders conceived an altitude-based challenge to tackle – pushing themselves and raising money for those most affected in the depths of lockdown.

Lockdowns suck! New Zealand had been relatively insulated from such COVID disruptions thanks to closed borders and an effective elimination strategy. But that all ended in August with a sudden and severe lockdown for Aucklanders, introducing travel restrictions on the one hand, and tantalisingly empty roads on the other. 

The VAM Challenge is born

With lockdown eliminating all social riding for the foreseeable future, my cycling chat group came alive. That’s where the challenge was born: the deceptively simple idea of riding up and down a local hill as fast as possible until reaching 1,000 vertical meters of climbing.

In a way it’s a “sprint” version of Everesting – with similar rules on segment type – but with the added variable that the hill needed to be within 5 km of home due to government travel mandates. 

After a few Vo2-max-tickling assaults from myself and others in our chat group, we realised this was too fun not to share.  We formalised the rules and posted it to the Auckland Hill Climb Series Facebook page, and just like that, the Vertical Ascent in Metres (VAM) Challenge was born.

The rules

  • Climb 1,000 m vertical with repeats of one climb
  • Upload your ride to Strava and share
  • Can’t be a loop (descent must be the same as the climb)
  • No downhill sections in the climb (no free metres for you!)
  • Elapsed time is your ‘official time’ (including breaks)
  • Can’t travel further than 5 km from your residence (thanks COVID!)
  • If you want it to be a community activity, create and upload your ride to a shared spreadsheet.
  • Create your own random categories, and be sure to include lucky-dip spot-prizes.
  • Challenge your friends!
You just go up and down … and then keep going.

Community spread 

With bike races being cancelled and desperation to escape home increasing, perhaps it was no surprise the VAM Challenge gained steam. We built a shared Google spreadsheet to which anyone could add their successful VAM statistics. 

With the fastest time quickly out of reach for most, there grew a near daily demand for new categories: most reps, singlespeed, shortest and longest distance, and of course weight, age, and gender categories. 

But what’s a category without a prize, right?  We first approached a local bike shop, Cyco, who generously sponsored a number of categories.  But the cycling community is broad and generous, with new spot prizes added near-daily for new categories from new sponsors: movie passes from Madman, gift cards from the Crafty Baker, bars from Roam, and numerous other bike shops – big and small – generously pitching in swag.

The Greater Good

While the VAM Challenge brought joy (and pain) to the cycling community, it was impossible not to acknowledge the suffering the lockdown brought, unequally, to our community. 

The sport of cycling does take time and means that is sadly not universal – so why not use the VAM Challenge as a force for good and raise money for the local Auckland City Mission? We set the brash goal of raising NZD$5,000. 

This brought the attention of an anonymous local donor who loved what the VAM Challenge was doing for the cycling and broader community: they donated a $500 cash spot prize for the VAMers, and a matching donation for the first $500 donated to our charity.  This caught people’s attention! 

VAMs were soon pouring into the spreadsheet so fast it became nearly a full time job to maintain.  Thankfully (as much as it was something to be thankful for) the lockdown temporarily put me out of work, so I had plenty of time to dedicate. It was a thrill to check out all the VAMs I was tagged in daily.  I began writing a daily recap on the Facebook page of each days’ attempts, and this is how I noticed something special happening…

The power of self-belief

At the outset of the VAM Challenge, I admit I was fixated on going fast: finding the steepest straightest hill with a tailwind, maximising descent speeds and turnarounds, and going deep into the pain-cave all to get the quickest time possible.  This mindset, of course, motivates plenty of competitive cyclists.  But I was not expecting the VAM Challenge to have a much broader appeal. 

I soon noticed many entries were telling stories not of speed, but of perseverance and self-belief.  For many the challenge was achievement itself.  These were the VAMs I found most inspiring: folks who’d been re-inspired by cycling later in life, or were recovering from injury, or for whom 1,000 m on a local empty road was a welcome and necessary escape from a time of real uncertainty.  And many of these greatest VAMs weren’t necessarily even completed! 

Thus grew the most honourable sidebar: the Failboard.

The Failboard

This became a place to honour the many many ways a VAM Challenge attempt can go wrong. Highlights include:

  • The Comeback: Jack was recently back into cycling with a new bike and trying to shed some kilograms.  He made two attempts – the second of which he bonked hard at 900m, and was completely gutted not to finish.
  • The Spew: Learn from Benedict’s experience – don’t go out soon after having a burger and chips for lunch. At least he made it 60% of the way through.
  • 999 m Man: Mark did an extra lap of the segment he’d chosen, just to be sure, giving him a 60 m climbing buffer. But his ride came in at 990 m. Strava elevation correction gave it 920 m. Garmin Connect elevation correction gave it 999 m. Topographic map estimation came in at 999 m. Close but not close enough. Fail!
  • Halfpipe Hero: How quick can you go if you find two hills you can half-pipe between? The answer is very fast, Tad got the fastest time of all at 42 minutes and 2 seconds (on a single speed).  That’s a minute and a half faster than our fastest legal time!
  • Family affair: Sergio brought his daughter on the back.  Twenty minutes in she wanted an icecream.  
  • Triple Mechanical: Is that even possible on a singlespeed?  Apparently so, because Nick managed it.
  • Mental Breakdown: A popular experience for many, but all made a successful second attempt!

Prizes and quiz-night

After nearly three weeks of lockdown and VAMs, we needed a grand finale. I advertised a virtual prize-giving to award all the many category winners and dole out over $1,000 worth of spot-prizes.  But what’s a Zoom call without a quiz on local and not-so-local cycling knowledge?

Nearly 100 cyclists joined the call to recognise our achievements and have some fun.  The winner of the $500 cash prize promptly donated it back to our charity campaign, thus putting us over the top of what we’d thought was an ambitious target of $5k!

VAM Challenge rides made for some interesting Strava logs.

Noteworthy VAMS

  • Mike rode 208km over 373 repeats of his street, taking 9 hours and 3 minutes.
  • Matt rode the fastest (legal) time in 43:52
  • Andrius ran the VAM on a very steep track in 59:53 
  • Winston VAMed the most: 10 times
  • The youngest VAMster was 12 years old
  • The average time was 1:29:42

‘The VAM Challenge’ Challenge

For some it was about speed, for others about completion, and for others about trying something new in a time when every day feels much like the next. It’s an individual challenge, and also a competition between friends. Even scouting the ‘perfect’ hill can easily get obsessive!  

What’s that…? You want to organize your own VAM Challenge?!  I’m so glad you asked!  It’s really not hard if you have a bit of time: just start a Facebook page, build a spreadsheet, gather a few sponsors, then tag your mates (flick me a message and I’ll happily give my support, tips and templates). 

I can just imagine VAM Challenges taking off across the world, smashing hills and smashing fundraisers!

Author’s note: A big thank you to all the VAMers and sponsors, and especially to James Blaze for helping with the spreadsheet, Matt Lloyd for helping with the quiz, Logan Griffin and FMWC for the support, and Tim Webber for helping with this write-up. 

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