James Thinks

writing is a kind of thinking

As you've probably heard, I made it up Bowden Hill 73 times, becoming the first person to Everest it and raised some £821.79 (at the time of writing) for Wheels for Wellbeing, a charity who make it possible for disabled people to go cycling and enjoy the many benefits it brings.

Many thanks to all who donated, including the sometimes rather generous anonymous donors.

Approaching the mountain

Thinking back only a few years, I don't think I could've done this. I did a fair bit of touring cycling in my  twenties, but all in fairly short hops and at a very relaxed pace. I remember around 2010 riding 50km (30 miles) and feeling really wobbly in the legs the next day. Over the years I extended my rides, tried a few Sportives, but found them a bit commercial, competitive and sometimes not so friendly. Then I got into audax, with distances starting at 50km, working up through 200km (125 mile) events to 300, 400 and 600km.

Bike and Bowden Hill sign. Meadow, grey skies. Starting the fifth climb.

So I don't think what I did was particularly special or heroic. Yes, I put a lot of effort into preparing for it and I'll grant that I probably have a better-than-average natural fitness level and training response to exercise. But I'd guess that with training and motivation a lot of casual cyclists could "Everest" a climb like Bowden Hill. It wasn't exactly easy, but there was always plenty of oxygen, no walls of ice and the temperature was never below 15 C.

To be honest, while I find badges and achievements fun, I'm not particularly comfortable with the grandiose language on the official Everesting website. Everyone should be applauded for their own challenges, which will be at the edge of their ability and the obstacles to them may be physical, mental or just plain lack of time. I'm at least as impressed by the efforts of disabled people to take on challenges that put many supposedly more able people to shame. That's what inspired me about Wheels for Wellbeing, along with the way they promote the positive feedback of confidence and wellbeing that are both causes and effects of cycling.

I've learnt from reading audax ride reports that the most epic and humourous stories often come from those at the back of the field, perhaps lacking fitness, suffering multiple mechanical failures, finishing with a minute to spare or having to give up and discover that the rural trains aren't running for another 6 hours. I'm also well aware that however tough you think you are, there's always someone tougher out there. How about Ray Brown who's done 6 "Everestings" this month in the heat of Georgia, USA and still has another 2 planned before the end of the month. Or Steve Abraham who's attempting to break the year record which has stood since 1939, by riding more than 206 miles a day. Then there's Hector Picard, who, despite having no hands, is a long-distance cyclist and pretty good at changing a bike tyre. I hear a rumour he's also doing Paris-Brest-Paris this year, so I hope to see him and give him a big "Chapeau!".

Just keep the pedals turning

James on his bike riding past some conifers About 40 climbs done. (Thanks Brian Atkins for the photo)

As is often the case before a big ride, I slept intermittently and woke early, so I started at 5.20am, ten minutes ahead of schedule.

As I was climbing I was thinking a few things to pace myself. Things like, "All you need to do this is a low gear and a lot of patience." and "Take your time and the hill will come to you". [I was passed by the occasional delivery van and a group of cyclists out early who I think had no idea what I was doing, but otherwise the roads were quiet and the air was still. I climbed steadily, but easily making my five-climbs-an-hour target. When I got to the steep part, I'd make the most of the lack of traffic and tack back and forth across the smoothest strip of tarmac. This was a bit slower than going straight up, but reduced the effective gradient and the effort required, so should make me quicker overall. My lowest gear was 34F x 29R. If I had a triple chainset this probably wouldn't have been necessary. Every few climbs I'd pick a slightly higher gear and climb the steep part standing up. This used different muscles. They say a change is as good as a rest. Well, almost.]

When I'd done about 15 climbs, I noticed a cyclist in red also repeating the hill. When I eventually caught up, he introduced himself as Tony Hull. Tony is the AUK DIY organiser for the South West and is unfailingly helpful and supportive to those planning a new route. I'd only ever contacted him via email, so it was nice to finally put a face to the name. Before long, some chaps from my local club, the Chippenham Wheelers arrived and chatted as we did a couple of laps together. Later I was cheered on by a few members of Malmesbury Clarion CC although didn't get to chat as they were climbing as I was descending.

I stopped briefly every five or ten climbs to refill on water and have a quick bite of flapjack or banana. Partly to pass the time, I was regularly calculating my rate of climbing and how many I'd have done by lunch at 12:30. As I'm a bit slow with maths, this kept me pretty well occupied. Before I knew it I was passing my previous maximum - the 22-climbs mark and into the unknown. The GPS was counting the total metres climbed, but I was also trying to remember how many actual climbs I'd done. I didn't have a board to check them off on, just a number in my head. One daydream I came up with was trying to remember what I was doing at the age of the climb I was currently on, but apart from getting married at 28 I can't really place my memories in time very well. Anyway, by lunchtime I'd reached 36 climbs - my current age - so that game had to stop!

Just over half way! Just over half way!

When I stopped for lunch I was pleased to be just over halfway through the climb - the GPS read 4441m. I photographed it for the fifth time that day - just in case it failed later. I was a bit surprised that I felt considerably better than after my training rides when I'd only completed 22 climbs. Perhaps the training had paid off or perhaps I was pacing myself better today. I was delighted when my parents and sister turned up, followed by my daughter, carried up the steepest part of the hill on the back of my wife Erica's bike. Bringing her spare clothes, travel potty and newly-acquired kite, meant it was no mean feat!

We were also joined by some friends from Hertfordshire who were visiting family nearby. The staff at the Rising Sun had my lunch ready for me and I enjoyed the nut roast burger and sandwich with chips and a large glass of milk. I sat digesting and chatting for a while as the others ordered and ate. I was still a bit hungry, but knew I needed to start riding again soon, so decided to nibble something small later. Although I was in the pub for an hour and a quarter, longer than I usually stop for on a long ride, I still felt uncomfortably full getting back on the bike and was climbing a bit slower than before the meal. However, I got some great support from family and friends the next few times I passed the pub. They'd even made a banner to wave with a drawing of a mountain. Next I was cheered on by some more audaxing friends - Jo had ridden over from Great Malvern to say hi, and Brian got some of the best photos from the day.

By three o'clock I was on my own again, with only the GPS for company. The good news was that lunch had gone down and I felt I was climbing strongly again. I wasn't going quite as fast as in the morning, but finishing before sunset was still possible - this was almost the longest day of the year!

There was a problem, however. The numbers on the GPS weren't quite adding up to what I had expected. The GPS and the Strava cycling website do have slightly different ways of measuring altitude, but I wasn't willing to risk being under 8848 by even a metre! The 72 climbs I had expected was starting to look like 73... maybe more.

Descending the flatter bottom section, keeping the legs spinning. Descending the flatter bottom section, keeping the legs spinning gently. (thanks Brian Atkins for the photo)

The afternoon was warming up. I now had a slight tailwind on the climbs - very useful on the lower section and an occasional refreshing gust as I passed St Anne's Church near the top. It did slow me down on the descents, but only by seconds and this was definitely my preferred wind direction. In spite of the wind, it was still very warm, especially on the ascent when the wind-chill factor disappeared and effort increased. I was sweating a lot now, so I carried more water, added hydration tablets and sipped a bit more regularly.

By 6pm I'd done 57 climbs. The GPS showed 6987m climbed and 219km distance. I was getting weary and felt I still had a long way to go. It didn't help that I'd been alone now for about four hours and the picturesque village and countryside now seemed dull. All the long rides I've done have had a bit of a low point, so I was expecting this. I had about sixteen more climbs to do. That meant another three hours - if I could keep up my intended pace, which was slipping a bit. At least it had cooled down. I had another small banana and set off again at what felt like a snail's pace. I'd enjoyed much of the morning, but the next two hours were a tedious grind, slowly ticking off each climb, all the time wondering how many I'd need to make the altitude add up.

However, by the time I reached about 67 climbs I felt better. I had been going steadily and the end was now in sight. The owner of The Rising Sun stood outside the pub and yelled, "Go on, you can do it!". Maybe I'd have to do 73 climbs, but even if it was 75, I'd be finished before 10pm. No problem. I think I even sped up a bit, getting out of the saddle for a few more climbs. Before I knew it, I was rolling into the pub car park around half 9, having done 73 and a half climbs, with the GPS showing 8911m. I texted Erica, thanked the pub staff and packed the bike into the car for a short drive home to a wonderful dinner.

I spent the next couple of days eating and sleeping more than usual. My knees ached on the Sunday, but otherwise I suffered no ill effects. I'd had a huge adventure, a challenge and raised more than I had hoped for a great cause.

Thanks again to everyone who supported me.

Things I learned

This bit might be useful if you're thinking about Everesting a hill, although what seemed to work for me may not work for you, and a sample size of one is hardly significant! However, if you do go for it, let me know. If you live nearby, I may even come out and support you.

  • The training (hill repeats and hilly audaxes) really seemed to improve my ability to go further in more comfort. I didn't get any faster, but I felt better and more able to carry on for longer distances. I did maybe 2 or 3 training rides a week in the three months leading up to the event.
  • In the past my lower back has sometimes ached from climbing out of the saddle. I'm not sure if it was the reason it felt OK on the day, but I did a couple of weeks of core strength exercises, specifically the plank and side planks, every night. I found these really hard at first, but they got easier.
  • Practice and audaxing has taught me how much or how little I can get away with eating on a hard ride. Little and often seems to work for me. Too much too quickly and I risk heartburn or indigestion. This is especially true when climbing as there's a greater minimum effort required for the steeper bits, you can't simply cruise along until lunch goes down. My limited intake generally means I'll burn some fat and spend a few days eating well to make up the difference. Some people seem to be able to throw down the food and simply carry on.
  • Having the car in the pub car park worked well. Luckily I didn't need any spares, but I had tubes, tyre and chain plus all the tools I could think of just in case. Stopping on the way up for supplies made sense as I didn't lose momentum and the second part of the climb felt easier after a brief stop.
  • I'd guess that not all hills are equal when it comes to Everesting. Some are so steep that the legs would soon be exhausted, some are so long and shallow that the total distance becomes as much of a challenge as the climbing. A long hill would mean getting really hot on the way up and/or really cold on the way down. A really short hill would mean a lot of time spent turning the bike around and perhaps waiting for a gap in the traffic to do so. Bowden Hill was arguably one of the easier hills to Everest as there's a good chance of a Westerly tailwind on the lower, flatter part of the climb, and it takes me about 8 mins to climb and 2 mins to descend so there's a regular cooldown. The total distance (280km) can realistically be done in a (long) day. Even the steepest part is only 12%, which is manageable for most people with low gears and some practice. It has fairly easy places to turn at the top and bottom and two pubs for refreshments.
  • Compared to audaxing, Everesting was, for me, a bit harder than a hilly 300km ride. No doubt it helps that I'm lightweight and like climbing hills (and trained for it recently), but I was more tired out by a 400km ride with half as much climbing. That may be partly due to getting more sleep after the Everesting.

Category: Cycling
Mugshot of James cycling on a road in the sunshine.

James Bradbury

I write about whatever is on my mind. I do so mostly to help me think more clearly. If other people find it interesting that's good too. :-)