I never figured I would do a Virtual Everesting. I never thought I would buy a smart trainer. I love riding outdoors. The thought of riding on a stationary trainer was immediately dismissed anytime I thought of it. When it was announced that South Africa would go into lockdown over the Coronavirus, people started panic buying of toilet paper and tinned food. I headed out and bought a smart trainer. Always looking for new challenges, I decided that I would do a vEveresting on it before I had even set it up.
I will write a separate account of my first vEveresting attempt (successful attempt), but I am planning the second one, less than a week after the first. Some people have asked for some input into how to prepare. I had found it difficult to find clear information, so I am setting out the basics here in the hope that it will help others.
Advance Preparation – Trainer Selection
Minimum requirement for a trainer is that it must be controllable (a smart trainer). Zwift must be able to set the gradient. Ideally it should be a direct drive trainer (one where you remove the back wheel of your bike), otherwise you are restricted to climbs that don’t include steep sections. I had purchased the Kickr Core and was happy with it.
Advance Preparation – Zwift
Set the trainer difficulty to Max. By default it is set to 50%. This does not change the amount of power required to climb, but it does change the resistance and requires you to use easier gears. Don’t change this for the first time before the start of your attempt – you need to ride the hill you are Everesting a few times to ensure that you are happy with your gearing.
Check that you know how to do a trainer calibration during a ride.
Get the fastest climbing bike and wheels you can, given your level and the “drops” you have available.
Ride the climb and find the best turn points at the top and the bottom. Research the best place to start your ride to get to the bottom of the climb as easily as possible. Do a few repeats – preferably around 25% of the full distance. This is also a good opportunity to test your nutrition strategy – consume the food and drinks you will use when you do the full distance. Remember not to consume too much carbohydrate, as you will be mainly burning fat at low intensities.
Practice using the U-Turn function, as you don’t want to do extra distance if you turn late.
Advance Preparation – Bike
Make sure that you have cleaned and lubricated your drive chain. Have lube nearby, so that you can add more during the ride where necessary.
Also make sure that you have good ventilation and a fan to keep you cool during the ride.
Before the ride
Weigh yourself and take a photo of the scale, in case you need to prove your weight. Enter the weight into Zwift. Take a screen shot of the Zwift screen showing your weight.
Take a photo of your bike setup, including the trainer.
Ride to the bottom of the hill. This will warm up your trainer. Do a trainer calibration, and take a screen shot of that. (If you don’t move the trainer overnight, you can do this the day before.) At the same time, take a screenshot of the trainer difficulty setting set to Max.
Make a note of the climbing that you have done to get to the bottom of the hill. You need to do 8848m of climbing on the hill. Accordingly if you have done 40m when you get to the bottom, you will need to climb until Zwift indicates that you have done 8888m.
The photos and screen dumps are important as you may need to show these as part of the verification process.
On the ride
Ride slowly – well within yourself. I ride at the bottom of my zone 2. Watch your power and heart rate. Don’t ride too fast when you are fresh – you will pay for it later.
Keep going and minimise stops. You need to ride at a pace where you don’t need to stop. When you do stop, make the most of the time.
If you are feeling really bad, remember that you can stop as long as you like, providing that you don’t sleep. There is nothing preventing you from taking a rest for an hour or two and carrying on afterwards (providing you don’t sleep). Avoid stopping often. If you are struggling take a small number of longer stops.
Be prepared for things to slowly get more difficult. At the start things feel very easy, but slowly it gets more and more difficult.
Have food and drink close by, so that you can eat and drink on the bike.
Specific Advice for Alpe du Zwift
This is a very long climb. Over 1000m per repeat. You only need 8.5 repeats to get onto the Hall of Fame.
Use Road to Sky route to get to the start. Normally you need to be level 12 to get onto Alpe du Zwift, however this has been relaxed to level 6 during the Coronavirus outbreak. If you are not at the required level, get a friend to wait at the base of the climb and join them.
It is a continuous climb and is relentless. Make sure that you have good gearing for it. I did mine with a 36 on the front and a 32 on the back and I felt many gears short. I would have wanted 34 front, 34 back.
The turn is at the top of the climb. As you complete the climb, you get a spinning wheel and you can win some great prizes. Most useful is the wheels you can win. (They are the fastest climbing wheels in the game. If you win them, stop at the bottom of the hill and change over to them.)
As soon as you have got your prize, make a U-Turn and ride until you start going down.
There are no uphill sections on the descent, so you can climb off your bike and let it descend by itself. It takes about 12 minute, which you use as your rest. Don’t let it go all the way until it stops, as you then have to ride back to the base of the climb. Get back on your bike near the bottom and do a U-Turn as soon as you get past the final corner.
Specific Advice – Reverse Epic KOM
I use the Mountain 8 route to get to the start. There are other options, but that gives some warmup time for me and the trainer.
Ride up to the top. The crest is at the sign for the turn to the radio tower. Don’t ride all the way to the KOM banner, as it is slightly downhill and adds extra distance for no climbing. As soon as it flattens make your U-Turn.
The route down is not as convenient as Alpe du Zwift. There are a few places where you need to peddle uphills. Make sure that you are peddling before you get to the bottom and change gears early.
Watch as you get to the bottom. As you turn the last corner and pass the marker for the bottom of the climb on your left make a U-Turn.
You will need around 20.5 laps to get yourself onto the Hall of Fame.
From time to time I had been looking at other hills to do an Everest on. I knew I would do another one sometime, but had no fixed plans. It is not that easy to find good options. Safety is the biggest concern. You are going to be riding during the day and the night. You don’t want to be hijacked and the route must be safe – particularly the turns at the top and the bottom. That eliminates many climbs.
I had been looking at Bantam road. It is very close – just across Delta Park from my home. It is a cul-de-sac at the bottom and is fairly straight with two slight turns. It topped my list of climbs close to home.
The decision to ride
Louise was on her road trip through the family farms and down to Grahamstown with her sister Jane, who was visiting from Australia. I had planned a two day bike trip to Witbank with Colleen and Graham for Sunday and Monday. On Thursday I got the news that, due to the rain and the load shedding, Graham needed to catch up on work and they would not be able to make the trip. We cancelled the accommodation booking.
On Friday, I was wondering what I could do alone. It is not really safe to go off and do long rides solo, so I thought what about an Everesting.
I got out the Eversting calculator, put in the Strava segment and found out that I would need 138 laps to get to 8848m – the height of Mt Everest.
On Friday evening, I made the decision – I was going to start at midnight on Sunday morning.
I started with the normal ICG Cradle ride on Saturday – probably not the best preparation, but I really love that ride. After the ride we stopped for coffee and I rode home with Marek, coincidently up Bantam road. On the way up Marek asked me what I thought of Bantam as an option for an Everest. I told him I thought it was excellent and that I was riding it in the morning and he was welcome to join me. He replied that he wanted to do his first Everesting with his son Ollie who was away on camp. I also sent a message to Reinhard, who had helped so much with my Northcliff Everesting. He had said afterwards that he regretted not doing the full Everest with us. I invited him to join me, but he had a family lunch function on.
Reinhard was very keen to post a message on the ICG group and get a crew of people to come and support me. For some reason, I wanted to do this without all the support. The Northcliff Everest with Jarrod had been packed with supporters. I wanted to experience an Everest like most people do – with little support.
I also told Colleen, Graham, Louise and Kerry. In total I told 6 people and told them all that I didn’t want lots of support.
I went and bought supplies – coke, sweets, nougat, chicken pieces, nuts, nut butter, chips, still water and sparkling water. I oiled my chain, packed some spares, changed some settings on my GPS, made a spreadsheet of laps and climbing at the end of each lap. I was ready.
I set the alarm for 11:30 and climbed into bed at 7pm.
The first half
I woke at 11:30 and made sure that I emptied my bowels, as I had no toilet arrangements on the route! I drove and parked Louise’s car in the middle of the segment, where I could keep an eye out on it twice a lap. I free wheeled down to the bottom and started my GPS, the workout app on my Apple Watch and Polar Beats on my phone and I set off.
The plan was simple. Ride at a steady pace, stop every 1000m of climbing and keep the stops short. Each lap is 66 metres of climbing and around 2km in length (1km up and 1km down). I was keeping my mind busy by calculating how many metres I should have climbed at the end of each lap and comparing it to my GPS. The 66 metres per lap was proving quite accurate and most of the time I was just a few meters off either way.
My first stops were very short – unlock the car while still riding, down a coke, fill up my water bottle and get going again – less than 3 minutes. 1000m was taking under 2 hours.
On my third stop the sun was up so I had a longer stop to eat some nougat and apply suntan lotion. I use the very thick, greasy Island Tribe. This proved a bad move as the miggies came out in clouds and I would get to the bottom of each descent with miggies covering my face, arms and legs. I had to pull them off on the way back up.
During the morning Reinhard cycled over, after his 21km run, and joined me for a while before heading out to his family lunch.
Stops 4 and 5 were also sub 3 minute affairs. I was more than half way, doing well and feeling great.
Other than the miggies, the only real problem I had in the first half was getting stung by a wasp on my arm.
The second half
That is where the wheels started coming off. I suddenly felt weak and was slowing down. At 6000m, I had a longer stop. I ate half a packet of sweets and headed on again, initially feeling better.
I soon started to feel nauseous and the Everest became much more difficult. Kerry walked over from our house. She brought iced water, nut butter and chocolate. We had a chat, I had some water and gave her my Apple Watch to charge, as I had run it out of battery, but my Discovery points were sorted.
I had given up on the mental arithmetic of calculating the distance at the end of each lap. Near the top, I would take out my phone move once cell down on the spreadsheet and check the corresponding climb distance. I was no longer up to adding 66 to larger numbers!
My friend Marek and his wife Sue drove past. We had a quick chat and Marek said he would come back on his bike. He rode many laps with me, matching my pace which had slowed considerably.
My bike started making a strange clicking sound near the top of a lap. It sped up considerably on the freewheel down the hill, so I knew it was something related to the wheel. Near the bottom the noise stopped. At the bottom, we stopped and checked the bike, but could find nothing wrong. Near the top of the following lap, I noticed my back tyre was getting flat. We had to stop and change the tube.
Although I was freewheeling downhill, they are very fast. With only the two slight turns I was getting to 60km/h. After his first, Marek referred to it as a thrilling (by which I think he meant terrifying) descent. By then I knew every bump and the best line down. I had a marker near the bottom where I applied the brakes hard for the turn. On the lap after changing the tube, I pulled the brakes at the marker and the back brake made the most awful sound. I managed to stop using mainly the front brake and we checked everything, but could find nothing wrong. For a few laps, I was far more cautious on the downhill, applying very little rear brake, which gradually improved. In retrospect, I think I must have got suntan lotion on the braking surface while changing the tube, which took a few laps to wear off.
It had got very hot. I need to stop more frequently to fill up my water bottle. Each time, I would look at all the provisions in my boot and feel that I couldn’t eat any of them. I had a few toffees and some crisps, but they made me feel worse, not better. I could not face the cokes either. I was on water. The choice was between still and sparkling – until the still water ran out!
Marek was doing a long ride out to Suikerbosrand the next morning. I kept telling him that he needed to stop riding hills with me. Eventually he relented and went home.
Kerry came back a little later on one of our e-bikes. She rode a lap with me, saw that I looked ok and headed back home, leaving me with a charged watch.
A little later Marek returned with Sue, this time in the car. They parked in the middle of the lap and encouraged me each time I passed, taking photos and videos.
I took a last stop with about 400m to go. I thanked Marek and Sue very much and told them that I was good to get to the end. Once they could see that I was going to be ok, they left.
Only 6 laps to go. I watched the metres climbed on my GPS move up towards the magical 8848m. It got there just as I passed the car. You always want to get a few extra metres – just in case – so I carried on to the top, freewheeled down and collapsed in the front seat of the car for a few minutes, before packing up and heading home.
I first heard about Everesting a few years ago. I saw some messages about people who were going to Everest up to the Sentech (Brixton) tower. Everesting is a simple concept: you find any hill, anywhere and ride up and down the hill until your total ascent is the height of Everest 8 848m. Sounds simple enough. I occasionally do hill repeats on Northcliff and had wondered what it would be like to keep going.
When I rode The Beast earlier in the year with Wimpie van der Merwe, he was chatting about the Everests he had done. The Beast was the toughest thing I had done on a bicycle and Wimpie was telling me that an Everest is far tougher. At the time it made no sense.
Jarrod McGorian’s Cancer and Everest Dream
I barely knew Jarrod from riding at ICG. Occasionally we rode together, but more often we rode in different groups. When Laurent shared a message from Jarrod saying that he wanted to do an Everest, I had to go and look at his photo make sure I had the correct person.
It was a long message, but I have extracted some key parts:
“Over the last 10 years I have learnt to overcome many “cancer mountains”. The surgery I am about to undergo will be my biggest mountain yet and that is the reason I have decided to attempt an Everesting. In all reality, I have only cycled for just under a year so I know my capability is somewhat limited, but that will not deter me from attempting it.“
“I want to shift my Everesting challenge from me alone to a fundraising exercise for cancer research or even fundraising for a children’s home. People could pledge an amount for every metre climbed? All proceeds passed on – I don’t want anything.“
“I wanted to see if you (ICG) would like to get involved somehow, maybe some guys would want to ride along, others may want to pledge some money.“
I was very moved and without a moments thought I replied to the ICG Core Group: “I have to do an Everest sometime. I am happy to ride with them.“
And so it began…
Things moved fast. ICG agreed to become involved, but requested that Qhubeka be added as a 3rd charity. Jarrod posted on the main group that he was going to attempt an Everest of 60 laps on Northcliff and I immediately committed to riding 60 laps with him and his friend Dan, also an ICG rider.
This was on 27 September and we were going to Everest on 12 October. That did not leave much time. I was confident that I could do it, but how on earth was Jarrod going to manage? This was a challenge far beyond his experience.
In retrospect, had I know how strong his mind was, I wouldn’t have worried, but I immediately set out to help him with whatever I could.
Step 1 Equipment
Step 1 was to ensure that Jarrod’s bike would be ok. A few quick questions and it was immediately evident that his gearing was never going to make it. A few messages and chats with my friend Mills – the most helpful person I know – and he had offered to swap out Jarrod’s crank with a compact crank. I collected the bike from Jarrod one evening, took it to Mills who replaced the crank with one from his magical “kitty”. Jarrod was amazed when I returned a little later with the bike. It was still not enough so a bit later in the week, Mills then also swapped his cassette from an 11-28 to 11-32. Jarrod now had gears suitable for climbing the route.
(A few days before the Everest, Jarrod decided to rather use his MTB, so ultimately the bike went back to Mills to swap back without even being ridden with its new gearing!)
Step 2 Optimising the route
Step 2 was to make sure that we had the course correct. Jarrod, Dan and I met on Northcliff and we marked out the start and end of the climb, choosing turning points for ease of identification in the dark, safety and maximum climbing per lap. it was on this recce that Dan and Jarrod decided to use their mountain bikes for the additional gearing they offered. I decided to use my road bike and have my MTB ready in case I decided to swap later in the ride.
Once you know the distance per lap, you can calculate the number of laps required. Our lap was 164m, Everest is 8 848m, so we needed 53.95 laps. You need some buffer, so we worked on 55 laps.
You need to have a GPS with a barometer. That is the primary measure of your height ascended, but there can be errors, so you also need to count laps. When you GPS reads over 8 848m and you have done at least 54 laps, you are done.
Step 3 Food, drink and stop strategy
Jarrod put together a ride schedule and set it to Dan and me. It had three significant issues:
There was a 10 minute stop every 3 laps. One of the main Everesting rules is that you may not sleep. Many people stop due to lack of sleep. Long and/or frequent stops can ruin an Everest attempt
It contained a fluid consumption of 200ml per lap. On the schedule we had, that had Jarrod drinking 7 litres during the night. At best we would be having a lot of pee stops. At worst, excessive water intake can have serious health risks.
It had a lot of carbs in the form of sports drinks and foods. In ultra endurance, much of your energy comes from fats, and you can’t afford to allow spikes in blood sugar levels.
After some discussion, we agreed to stop every 5 laps, agreed to drink based on thirst, rather than to a schedule and calculated that Jarrod should consume about 50g of carbs per hour.
Step 4 Support
Jarrod had inspired so many people with his incredible story. People really wanted to be involved. ICG organised a large group to ride with Jarrod on Sunday morning and to have a breakfast with us at Olivia’s Coffee shop (conveniently at the bottom of our climb) at 8am.
I could see how important this support was going to be for Jarrod, but was concerned. It seemed that we would have crowds of people at some of the best times and no-one at all in the difficult night time hours and the hours at the end when we were tired.
I thought it would be a good idea to set up a WhatsApp supporters group and let the people who wanted to help organise themselves so that we could spread the support out over the whole period.
I sent Jarrod a message: “Can I start a supporters WhatsApp group?”. I got back a somewhat hesitant: “Ye, if you like?”. I went ahead anyway.
I created the group at around 10:30am, by 1:30pm we had 60 people, by 4pm, 75 people. By the time we started there were over 100 and the numbers grew while we were riding. It was unbelievable. Groups of people organised to ride with us right through the night.
That was the full extent of preparations for this massive undertaking, which as you can see included almost no cycling at all. Having read this section again, it may come across that without my involvement Jarrod would have had little chance. However, while I think my input made a difference, Jarrod would likely have managed without my help, as he was so determined.
After getting good sleep on Thursday and Friday nights and a rest on Saturday afternoon, I drove to the booms. Jarrod and Dan arrived a short while later. Quite a number of supporters also arrived. We did some final bike checks, posed for some photos and freewheeled down the hill.
At the bottom, I was about to turn around to start the first climb. Jarrod reminded me that we needed to turn into the parking. There were a lot more supporters there. Some in cars and some on bikes. Jarrod thanked everyone, Dan read a very inspiring quote and then we started.
It was soon dark, but there was a magnificent full moon. It was a clear, warm evening. Jarrod set the pace. It was significantly slower than on our recce and it was soon apparent that we would run well behind our original schedule. But it was steady and we slowly ticked the laps off. We got into a rhythm – I would lead Jarrod down to call the intersections. I would then ride the first steep part at my own pace and wait for Jarrod at the first circle. We would ride together to the steepest parts – the Hearns corner climb and the final climb to the booms. I would ride those at my own speed, tick off the lap on the tick sheet on Jarrod’s car. Then Jarrod and I would do the rest of the lap together.
We had so many people riding with us. Some rode separately at their own pace, some quietly with us, some were asking Jarrod questions – ranging from shrewd to wholly inappropriate, some brought loud music with them. Occasionally Jarrod would excuse himself, put in his earphones and ride in peace for a few laps.
As we went into the night, the numbers thinned, but we had people joining us on their way home from parties to ride a few laps. Then the people who understood that midnight to sunrise was a tough time joined us. At no time on the whole ride did we have less that 3 other riders with us.
Morning came and we had a fantastic breakfast with loads of supporters at Olivia’s. But there was no time to linger – soon we were back on our relentless up and down. Tick off 5 laps, have a break and carry on.
The laps were getting slower, the breaks longer. It was getting hotter. Jarrod and Dan began stopping most laps on the way up and again on the way down – not for long, but it was starting to add a lot of extra time. 55 laps x 2 x a short amount of time = finishing many hours later. I was calculating that we would finish after midnight. Could we keep riding that long? I called Jarrod and Dan together and said that we could not keep stopping twice a lap. I wasn’t sure it was going to be successful, but it was and our pace picked up again.
At one stage, when we had done about 180km of cycling and were closing in on 6000m of climbing, I asked Jarrod what his longest ride was. He replied “155km”. Everyone was stunned. I replied “not anymore”. We all laughed and just carried on.
It was getting hot. Louise went and bought ice for Jarrod to stuff into under his bib shorts above the thighs and into his sleeves. It helped him a lot. I was feeling fine, so I didn’t take any ice. The pace was relatively easy for me, and heat seems to bother me less than it does most people.
Each time we went through the booms at our “base camp” there were literally crowds of people cheering. There was a big banner supporting Jarrod that we rode under each lap. It was all very moving.
During one of the breaks, I left my bike in the sun. My Wahoo GPS got very hot. This affected the barometer and suddenly I had done about 150m less climbing than I should have, based on the laps done. I started going further down each lap to get some extra climbing, but eventually it was apparent that I was going to have to do an extra lap. Dan had also forgotten to turn off the auto pause on his GPS initially. When riding slowly up some of the steep sections, his GPS thought he had stopped! Dan’s GPS was also behind on climbing.
It got cooler and dark again. I was working on finishing between 10pm and midnight now. Our cycling friends kept coming and going. Once again, those who had done ultra endurance events, knew this was a very difficult time. We had been riding for over 24 hours with no sleep. One of the big challenges of these short laps, is that it is so easy to quit. You just pull over at the end of a lap – your car is there, your family is there, you can be home and in bed in 30 minutes.
We got to 50 laps – our last rest. I told Jarrod, that I was going to skip the rest and get my extra lap in. I was feeling good and had been riding slowly all day. I went fairly hard. We had been doing the climb in 19 to 22 minutes. I did this one under 13 minutes. I finished my extra lap and still had to wait a few minutes for Jarrod.
Jarrod had put his earphones back in. I am not sure if he had found music with a faster beat, but he was speeding up. We were at the point where we were all sure that we would make it. Dan was now also doing a catchup lap. Around 10:30 we got to the end of our final lap. We went right to the top to make sure of it. It was very quiet at the top. We congratulated each other. Dan was still a few metres short, so he was going to have to go down short way and come up to finish. Jarrod and I freewheeled down.
Jarrod’s family were there. After amazing everyone (again) by doing 21 laps herself, Louise had gone home. Dan completed his short lap and we had photos and interviews before packing up and heading home.
Reflecting back on the day, I doubt anyone else has experienced an Everest anything like that. They are generally lonely, riding for hours by yourself. This was like the celebrity version with cheering crowds and a continual stream of supporters.
An Everest is a serious undertaking. There are less than 4000 successful cycling Everestings worldwide. Generally they are attempted by people in top physical condition, and with many months of training and preparation. How did Jarrod, with less than 1 year of cycling, no specific training, only a few weeks of preparation and a body that had endured all those operations manage to do it?
There is only one answer. With pure determination and willpower. Nothing was going to stop Jarrod from finishing this. There are people who watched us finish and now know that it is possible. I hope we have inspired some to do an Everest. Others I suspect will find it far more difficult than they expect.
As I said to Jarrod and Dan a few days afterwards: “an Everest is achieved in the mind, not in the legs”
PBP has a complex pre-qualification system. You needed to have completed a 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km in the year ended November 2018 to pre-register. Thereafter, only those who have pre-registered are able to enter, but you need to have done all the qualifying events again by early July.
By November 2018, the longest Audax Louise had done was 200km, but we did the full set in the first half of 2019. I didn’t want to do the PBP without Louise, so I had not pre-registered. Then on 23 June, I received an email with the following “Due to a considerable number of abandoned pre-registrations (1500), opening of registrations to everybody (with qualifying BRM) until July, 3rd”. It took a few days to convince Louise, but on 2 July we entered.
I chatted to my Cycle Lab friends that had also qualified and was delighted when Graham van Niekerk – Mr G – said he was in and also entered. Less than a year ago, Mr G could not get through a 200km without severe cramping – more than a bit of a worry, but he had got through the 300, 400 and 600km qualifiers, so I was hoping for the best!
We had 6 weeks to go. Not a lot of time for training, but we were in pretty reasonable shape.
Last minute training
We then started trying to get some long cycles in. Some unloaded and some with the full load we would need to carry – we had decided to do PBP self supported with no drop bags. Every item was weighed and we agonised over whether we could leave each item behind. Our friends were amazed as we chalked up rides between 200km and 300km. However, we were thinking to ourselves that 300km is short compared to 1220km. Very, very short…
Bike admin again
After riding my Cannondale on The Beast with the temporary repairs, I needed a new frame. Mills very kindly lent me a Sintesi and we moved all my components over to the Sintesi. I have lost count now of the number of times Mills has built my bike up for me. The Sintesi was an aluminium frame and did me very well for training. It was a little heavier than I would have liked, but the ride was very hard – not ideal for a 1200km ride. So we were scouring the Hub for a more modern aluminium or titanium frame. Eventually we found an early Lance Armstrong era Trek frame – aluminium with carbon fork – and I drove over to pick it up. How do you buy a frame in amazing condition, that was once top of the range for R1200? Mills very kindly spent most of his Friday building the bike so that I could get a weekend of training in.
On the ride to Harties, I tried to bunny hop a pothole with my fully loaded bike. It didn’t work too well and I came down on the lip of the pothole. My back wheel was toast and I was flying in a few days.
I tried to order a new rim, but it would take too long. Mills again came to my rescue and lent me a wheel. We changed the cassette and tyre over and I had one short spin prior to packing up my bike for the flight.
Arriving in France
We took a direct flight to Paris and arrived at the airport early on the Thursday morning. (PBP starts on Sunday). We had booked accommodation at a town called Trappes – a few stations up the line from the start in Rambouillet. We bought our train tickets at the airport. The lady helping us had no idea where Trappes was and had to look it up first! We had to change train twice, dragging our large bike bags and hand luggage with us.
The middle section was through the metro. We had to drag the bikes up and down stairs and get them through turnstiles – a lot more than we had bargained for. Eventually we got to Trappes.
Our accommodation was 1km from the station. We had arrived on a public holiday and the busses were not running, so we then had to drag our bikes 1km to the Airbnb I had booked. It had no reviews – we were the first guests!
The place was tiny, but comfortable enough with a tiny bathroom, a very small stove, microwave oven and a coffee maker. The couch folded out into a surprisingly comfortable bed at night.
Getting ready for the start
We immediately set our bikes up. Louise has a much larger bag, so the bike goes in with everything on (except the wheels). Mine needs the handlebars and pedals removed. We went for a short ride on Thursday, and on Friday took our bikes on the train to Rambouillet and road the first section of the route. In a beautiful, forested area. The excitement was really starting to build.
On Saturday we needed to take our bikes for the bike check. Their main concern seemed to be that we had lights, firmly attached to the frame, that worked in steady mode. (Flashing lights are not allowed in France.) Louise and I always attach our back lights to our bags, so had an extra light attached to the frame which made the trip to Brest and back without being even turned on once – other than at the Saturday check in.
The day was miserable and we seem to have chosen the busiest time, as we queued with our bikes for hours before being checked. We did have lots of time to chat to a number of the riders from England that we met in the queue. We had 12 riders from South Africa and were finding out the Brits and Americans were arriving with 30 or 40 people from their local club.
Eventually we got through the check in – without being sent to the mechanics for rectification. We then went and queued for our packs containing “frame numbers”, a visibility vest that conformed to some EU specification and that we had to wear, as well as the cycling shirts we had ordered.
Then back to the Airbnb for the final bike preparations and trying to build up a food and sleep surplus.
Rolling out – day 1
Mr G had arrived in France on Saturday and we only got to meet up with him at the start. After queuing through a few holding areas, we got the first stamp on our Brevet cards and rolled from the start, exactly on time at 8:45pm in fantastic conditions. It is a difficult time to start, as it is still too hot to wear warm clothes. You don’t want to overheat, can’t afford to get cold, and don’t want to lose a good bunch if you happen to be in one.
We found a great bunch driven by a club from Wales. They were riding like Cycle Lab – easy on the hills and looking after all the team mates. We were making good time without expending much energy. The terrain was pretty flat and when we stopped to dress warmly, we were averaging over 27km/h.
After that stop, we were in smaller groups, or just the three of us. Our average speed was dropping off, but we were conserving energy and riding sensibly through the night.
The distance to the first control was 217km, which allows the field to spread out. There is a feeding station at 118km, but we had planned to miss this. It was cool riding at night and we did not need to fill up. We arrived at the control – VILLAINES-LA-JUHEL – just before 6am. There was not much to eat there so we had a soup bowl of coffee, a couple of cokes, filled up our bottles and headed on.
Just after 9:30 we arrived at the 2nd control – FOUGERES – at 306km. We checked in first and then had to ride a short distance to the restaurant. It was well organised, the queues were not too bad and we ate well. I had an omelette, a few cheeses, cold meats, another bowl of coffee, a few cokes, and some sparking water and we were off again.
Then on to TINTENIAC at 360km and to LOUDEAC at 445km. We were now having a meal at each control and doing serious damage to our eating allowance. The terrain was hillier, there was a headwind and we were running slightly behind schedule, but I really wanted to get to the control before Brest before sleeping, so we pushed on and arrived at CARHAIX-PLOUGUER at 521km, a little before 11pm. We did not eat then, but queued for a camp bed in a large hall at a cost of 8 euros. The queue took a while and we were given a very thin, disposable cotton sleeping bag. I woke up later, very cold and had to put warmer clothes on.
Day 2 – to Brest and heading back
We were woken up at the pre-set time of 6am and then needed to eat. This was the least organised of the controls and we had a long queue for breakfast. By now fatigue was showing on many of the participants, who were sleeping in corridors, at the tables, just about anywhere.
After breakfast we had a fantastic section down to Brest, with a number of long gentle downhills. I was in front pedalling the downhills and we past a lot of people.
It was on the uphills on this section that Louise’s right knee began troubling her and we needed to take the hills much slower.
We arrived at Brest at 11am and checked in. We had been travelling with Anders from Sweden for quite a way. He indicated that the restaurant in Brest was not great and took us to a supermarket on the way out where we bought food and ate on the pavement. Louise’s knee was now getting bad and we were paying for all those downhills that we now needed to get back up. We told Anders to go on and managed the pace carefully from then on. Mr G had a supply of anti inflammatories and pain killer and Louise was taking every 6 hours. They helped a lot, but wore off long before the 6 hour were up.
My original plan was to do 500km, 400km, 300km and finish in 3 days. It was clear that this was no longer possible, but it had given us a large buffer. We were pushing to get to TINTENIAC at 869km. This would leave us with 351km to the end.
We went back through CARHAIX-PLOUGUER at 693km and LOUDEAC at 783km, stopping for massages to Louise’s knees – both of which were now in pain – and meals at each. We arrived at LOUDEAC at 10pm and I was walking back to my bike, putting my warm clothes back on after eating when I must have dropped my glasses. I went back to look for them, checked the lost property in the information tent, but then had to go on without them to the end.
We finally made TINTENIAC just before 4am and went straight to book beds. They could not fit us all in a room, so Louise and I had one room and Mr G another. We asked to be woken at 8am and were given real beds with nice mattresses and a blanket. I slept well.
Day 3 – On with fatigue and buggered knees
We woke, had breakfast and left after 9am. 351km to the end. We had the whole day and the next day up to 2:45pm to do it in. We just had to ride sensibly and not stop too long. 351km was going to be too far to do without another sleep, given Louis’s knees. I figured that if we rode to the second last control MORTAGNE-AU-PERCHE at 1097km that would leave us 123km for the last day to finish before cut off at 2:45pm.
That meant we needed to do 228km on Day 3. Sections that seemed flat on the way to Brest, now seemed littered with rolling hills. The 228km took us through the controls at FOUGERES – for a lunch – and VILLAINES-LA-JUHEL where again there was no real food available, so we stopped at a shop further in the town and bought junk food to eat.
The day was hot and at one stage Louise said she needed to lay down for a few minutes. Her logic was that if Churchill could make it through the war on power naps, it would get her through PBP
We finally arrived at MORTAGNE-AU-PERCHE – the first food stop on the way out was a full control on the way back – at around 11:30pm. We immediately booked beds – a closed cell mattress on the floor with a blanket. It felt like such luxury! We asked to be woken at 3:30 and were asleep almost instantly.
Day 4 – To Rambouillet
We woke and had another good meal before heading out again. I was living on omelettes (where they had), lots of cheese, cold meats, hot chicken and hot ham dishes, large amounts of coffee, coke (during the day). Eating gets expensive there, particularly if you don’t eat bread.
Only 228km to go! My trusty Wahoo was counting down 200km, 199.9km and we had a little celebration. Unfortunately, that’s where the Wahoo fell apart. It reset, tried to recover the ride twice, before starting a new ride. Don’t they test these things on long rides??!!!
Normally this would have made me angry, but I was just delighted to be making good progress here. The roads were flat and it was clear that it would take a major problem to prevent us finishing.
We arrived at the final control DREUX at around 8am. Time for another breakfast and then the final 46km to Rambouillet. I felt like it was the final stage of the Tour de France and we were riding in to Paris. We even did toasts with imaginary champagne.
I had spent much of the time at the front, but on this section I was at the back most of the way. I had battery power to spare now, so was taking videos and posting during the ride. We rode through a beautiful forested area and finished strongly, so pleased with our achievement.
Support and social media
I was prepared for some support from family and very close friends, but I was absolutely amazed at the extent of that support and the number of people who followed our trip so closely, with stories of people not getting much work done as they waited for us to cross timing mats and posted updates and messages of support on WhatsApp. Some posted on groups and some privately. We had barely crossed the mat at the control of some town that we could not pronounce, when my phone started beeping madly with updates to everyone else and messages of support.
We rode this for ourselves, but it seems to have had a much wider impact on our family and friends. We were all absolutely amazed by the support and interest. You have little time on an event like this. We also had to watch our batteries, as we had no means of charging other than with the powerbanks we were carrying. Lights were essential, then GPS. Communications only for short periods at controls.
At each control, you queue to get your brevet card stamped, queue again to get food, sit down to eat, apply suntan lotion, apply lube to areas that are chafing, plan the strategy for the remainder of the day, check that your companions are doing ok, etc. Just a quick glance at some of the messages, maybe post a picture and get back on your bike.
It was only afterwards, that I went through all the groups in details and saw the full extent of the support we received. It was incredible and very humbling to read it all.
Some thoughts from afterwards
Louise and I are doing a little touring in France afterwards. We gave up on the trains and hired a car. We have been staying at small B&Bs, without doing too much distance. It takes the body quite a while to recover from something like the PBP.
One of my ICG friends, a doctor, contacted me immediately once he heard how Louise had ridden on anti inflammatories and pain killers. He has had a few patients who have had kidney failure after doing the same. Louise had swollen up a lot and this was quite a worry for a few days.
Our preparation and strategy was, I think, really good. We had everything we needed, had tested all our equipment well and had a ride strategy that gave us a lot of flexibility for trouble on the ride. We do, however need to understand what happened to Louise’s knees, as she has never had a problem before.
Louise had bought new shoes and tried them for a while, but they gave her some pain and she changed back to the old shoes just before PBP. We had marked the cleat positions, and she does use cleats with 4 degrees of float, but maybe this was the problem?
It was not in my plans for the year, but two weeks before the event, I decided to take on “The Beast”, a notoriously difficult 1000km Audax. I was in good shape and was very confident.
The Beast started on Friday 17th May at 9pm from Vrede wines near Stellenbosch. I planned to fly down on Friday morning, book into a B&B for a few hours sleep and drive over to the start.
Lots went wrong before I could even get to the start.
On Tuesday, my friend and master bike mechanic Mills, instructed me to bring my bike over for a checkup prior to the event. I went around after work on Tuesday. All was going well until Mills turned the bike over and found some damage to the frame. Once he had fully exposed the damage, it did not look good.
I was not really keen to borrow a bike that I had not ridden before and 1000km on my MTB was not that appealing. Mills said he knew a carbon repair specialist and would take the bike over the following morning and see if it could be repaired. The following morning he called me with the news that a proper repair was not feasible, but Mills could get it strong enough to do The Beast with epoxy glue, duct tape and cable ties. He started work on Wednesday evening and finished it on Thursday. I went over on Thursday evening to collect the bike.
We packed it up in the bike bag, I went home to sleep and left on Friday morning with my bike, now know as Frankenstein, untested after being partially stripped down and put together again.
The morning did not go well either. I left all my charging cables behind. I managed to replace some at the airport, but then used up valuable sleeping time driving to the Tygervalley shopping centre to buy the others, before driving to the B&B near the start, unpacking my bike and packing my drop bag.
After a few hours rest, I headed to the start, signed in, vaguely listened to the briefing and got ready to get on the bike for the first time since the repairs. It was also much cooler than I expected, so I put on a second thermal top and headed out with the others.
There were 7 of us. Myself, Leonard and Ernest from Gauteng and the locals Wimpie, Derek, Nico and Theunis. I had obtained the route, meticulously set up exactly where the stops were and downloaded them to my Wahoo Bolt GPS. I knew exactly where to go. We had not gone far, when Wimpie, at the front, took a left turn when the route was straight. Seems in the Cape the route is only a recommended one. Local knowledge was important and I only vaguely knew where I was.
We rode around the back of Paarl and through to Wellington for a quick stop to get cards signed, before heading up Bainskloof pass at a nice, easy pace. Going over the top in the dark, Wimpie, Leonard, Ernest and Nico took off around tight bends in the dark. Taking it more cautiously, I fell back, but pushed and caught up again as it flattened out. Nico dropped back to ride with Theunis and Derek, while Wimpie, Leonard, Ernest and I rode on together at a good pace and opening a gap to the others.
A lot of this was also off the advised route.
After a quick stop in Rawsonville to sign cards, it was on to Robertson where we had a coffee stop, before finally continuing on the route.
Then on again through Ashton, Montegue, up the back of Op De Tradouw pass and down to Barrydale for breakfast after 250km. I was feeling good and going at an easy pace with Leonard and Ernest, while Wimpie went ahead up the pass and arrived at Barrydale ahead of us.
I often have music going around and around in my head on long rides. Today was mainly Foreigner’a Juke Box Hero. With the concern about the cold front due to hit on Sunday night, I think it may have been the line “Standing in the rain…” that brought it to mind.
After a great breakfast at the Diesel & Creme coffee shop, we headed on to Ladismith. We learnt that Theunis had pulled out at Bainskloof and that Nico and Derek were some way behind us. The road was undulating on this section and not nearly as easy as it had looked on the map. The temperature was also picking up. When we got close to Ladismith, Wimpie went ahead to order us all lunch at Steers.
After Ladismith, the next control is Oudtshoorn, a long haul of 97km. I was trying to stay with Leonard and Ernest, but our riding strengths are quite different and it was not working well. Wimpie had gone on ahead and I decided to rather catch Wimpie, who I could see in the distance. Shortly after this, my front light came loose and I had to stop, get out my multi-tool from the bottom of my bag, and fix it, before taking off after Wimpie again.
I drink less than the others and was comfortable to get to Oudtshoorn. Wimpie stopped in Calitzburg, where I passed him without seeing him and continued “chasing” him. When I got to Oudtshoorn, Maria who was driving the support vehicle told me I was 5km ahead. After a quick coffee, coke and water, I headed on to the planned sleep stop at Hartenbos.
I knew there was a steep pass down into Hartenbos, but had not realised how much I had to climb from the Oudtshoorn side, I was getting tired after all the chasing. As the sun went down, I stopped to put on warm clothes and resumed at a slower, steady pace. I was cautious down the other side of the pass and arrived at the B&B at about 8:15. I had showered and had supper by the time Wimpie arrived, with Leonard and Ernest not too far behind. We agreed to leave at 4am. I set my alarm for 3:30 and got a decent night’s sleep.
I woke up feeling good and got ready to leave, when I met David who had a very strange story to tell. He had somehow found out about The Beast, but rather than make contact and enter, had taken a sequence of photos of the route and left about 6 hours before us, on his own, sleeping in storm water ditches on the route!
Wimpie and I left with David in tow and headed up the Robinson Pass. A massive out of category climb starting at sea level and topping out at 860m. We reached the top after about 2 ½ hours later at daybreak and stopped for a quick photo
Then a nice, mostly downhill run into the Wimpy at Oudtshoorn for breakfast: 4 eggs, double bacon, 2 Mega Coffees and pouring cream. I was eating more and more as the ride went on!
After agreeing that we were all ready to go, Wimpie and I got our clothes sorted out, helmets on and bikes to the door. David, who was doing something on his phone, then started eating again, so Wimpie and I left David and went on.
We knew bad weather was coming. A major front was expected to hit Cape Town on Sunday evening, and we wanted to get as much distance covered in good conditions as possible. We headed on to Calitzburg, where Wimpie filled up his bottles again before heading up the House River Pass towards Ladismith. Lots of fun to ride down the previous day, it is a hard climb back up. The conditions were good, but getting hot. Wimpie did not have his summer cycling jersey with him and half way up resorted to removing his jersey entirely.
We requested Maria to meet us with Wimpie’s drop bag in Ladismith and continued up the pass. At Ladismith, we went back to the Steers, where I wolfed down two double burgers, 2 large coffees and a coke. The wind had started to pick up and was now getting strong. Wimpie and I agreed that we were not going to sleep in Barrydale (the planned stop), but would carry on while the weather was still (relatively) good.
I found the section from Ladismith to Barrydale very hard with the wind from the front and the side. Wimpie was in the front for most of this section. He is fantastic in the wind and I learnt a lot from him. We cycled though two sandstorms, before a stop at Ronnie’s Sex shop for a coke and to refill the water bottles. A pub, more than a shop, with signed bras hanging everywhere – very different!
More music was going around in my head. Other than a brief interlude of “bobbejaan klim die berg”, after seeing a baboon next to the road, this section was dominated by “They call the wind Maria”. Presumably inspired by the weather and our support driver Maria, I am not sure how this obscure song came into my head. I somehow knew the tune quite well, but not too many of the words!
At Barrydale, we stopped, had ribs for dinner, put on some warmer clothes and headed off, up Op De Tradouw pass. Now I was feeling much stronger and Wimpie was feeling nauseous, so I was doing more of the work. Wimpie also forgot to pack his second battery, and could not use his light on the bright settings. Despite this, we made good time to Montegu and on to Ashton, where we stopped for a coffee, although it was not a control. We stopped again at Robertson. More coffee for me, and a couple of trips to the toilet for Wimpie, before heading on towards Worcester.
About 30km from Worcester, we felt the first drops of rain and stopped to put our rain gear on. Wimpie was still nauseous, but was now also starting to feel drowsy. He suggested that we go into Worcester and seek shelter at the police station. At that stage, it was raining harder and there was wind, but the conditions were manageable.
Wimpie managed to negotiate that we could shelter for a few hours and we wheeled our bikes into the victim support room, with a couch and two chairs. I had a thin, dry base layer in my bag which I put on and tried to get some sleep on a chair. Wimpie had nothing to change into and tried to get some sleep on the couch in his wet clothes. After 1 ½ hours of trying to sleep, Wimpie said he was too cold, and I agreed to go on.
Thereafter was a terrifying hour of cycling to Rawsonville. It was very quickly evident that the conditions had deteriorated horribly while we were in the police station. We were in the dark, in pouring rain, with a very strong side wind and were getting passed by trucks that covered us with spray. Our bikes were leaning hard into the wind, so much that I was worried whether my tyres would hold on the wet road. As the trucks passed, they blocked the wind, pulling you in towards the truck before getting hit by the wind again as the truck past.
When we got to the garage in Rawsonville, I told Wimpie that it was not safe for me to ride in those conditions and that I was going to withdraw.
I called for our support vehicle to come and pick me up. Then my phone rang. It was Mills telling me that he had checked up on the weather with Rob Kennedy, who has access to pilot weather systems and that it was going to improve. He had found a B&B around the corner and that Rob was going to pay for me to spend a few hours there to recover and wait out the storm.
After much persuasion, I agreed and put my wet clothes back on for a very short trip to the B&B. I arrived there shivering – the only time I was at all cold.
Elsie welcomed me to her B&B. She did mention that she normally refuses people who want to stay for a few hours only as “they are not that kind of establishment”! She was incredibly kind. I had a hot shower, put on the pyjamas she lent me and relaxed waiting out the weather.
During this time, Mills called to check up on me and arranged for Rob to call me to offer advice about riding down Bainskloof in bad weather. Ernest’s wife Marieta, brought my bag over and I changed into what dry clothes I had, with the driest of my wet kit on top. After another cup of coffee, I left at around 11am with only 95km to go.
Routeissues on the wayhome
I followed the track provided on my GPS and was making good time, although there were patches of heavy rain initially, the wind had weakened considerably. However, after around 20km, I came to a low-level bridge over the Breede River.
It looked marginal to me. I wondered whether I could carry my bike over it, but my years of canoeing had given me a lot of respect for flooding rivers and I decided to turn around and go back.
A mere 2 hours and 10 minutes later, I was looking back from the other side!
Once I was on the route again, it was a beautiful ride up Bainskloof Pass, with the rivers in flood and water flowing across the road in places. I was past the rain and there was only a mild wind. I reached the control in Wellington, had a coffee and a chat with the pump jockeys before heading on. The route now took me stop, start through Paarl. I found out later that this is the recommended route at night to avoid squatters on the road we used to come in, but I just waisted time fighting Paarl’s rush hour traffic in clear daylight conditions. I was feeling good, so I just kept on to the finish, arriving just before dark, where Maria was kindly waiting for me.
Rest and recovery
My original plan was to finish as early as possible on Monday morning, jump on the next available flight and head back to work. That proved a little optimistic!
I booked back into the B&B near the start, tendered to my first ever saddle sores, booked a midday flight and had a very good sleep. It was over a week later before I could ride properly again.
Somethings I learned
Always find out about the route and have alternatives planned for adverse conditions where allowed.
Consider carefully before chasing people I can’t see.
Make sure I understand where all the significant climbs are.
Don’t follow someone out into really adverse conditions. In retrospect, I should have stayed in the police station at least until first light.
Riding the distances I do and on Jo’burg’s potholed roads is asking a lot of carbon frames. I must consider Aluminium or Titanium frames in future.
People keep asking me why I do it and would I do The Beast again. The short answer is because I really enjoy these long rides and absolutely I will do this again.
I am very thankful to my wife and family for their support and my many friends at ICG and Cycle Lab, who make my training so enjoyable.