Frank Garcia reached the summit of Mt Everest after pedalling a total of 265km across 17 hours and 18 minutes, averaging a seven per cent grade and had to consume over 75,312kJ of food to make it. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he told us.
Of course, riding a bicycle up Mt Everest is impossible.
Frank completed the ride inside his rec room, on a stationary trainer. An online bicycle training simulation called Zwift allowed him to accurately recreate the mountain’s slopes and the whole thing was tracked and verified by Hell’s 500, what’s emerging as the governing body of a new sport known as #vEveresting.
Describing themselves as “Keepers of the cloud, makers of Everesting,” Hells 500 is serious about verifying virtual ascents of the tallest mountain on earth. Its rule book is 1,644 words long and accepts only specific stationary trainers and requires that riders monitor their heart rate, cadence and power, using both a Garmin head unit and the Zwift program, itself.
Frank connected his carbon fibre road bike to a Wahoo Kickr smart trainer, which connects to Zwift to accurately recreate the effort and feel of a real-world ride. “You take the back wheel off and the trainer’s got a cassette [gear cluster] on it,” Frank explains. “You put your bike on that and the computer controls the resistance. You’re not out in the elements, obviously, but when you go up a seven per cent grade, it feels like you’re going up a seven per cent grade.”
To summit a #vEveresting attempt, you need to ride your bike up 8848m of elevation. While the rules permit breaks, they expressly forbid sleeping. So, you need to maximise verticality in the shortest possible distance. A typical, rolling ride through the mountains would take multiple days to accrue that much climb.
In the real world, cyclists have been lapping mountains in pursuit of an Everest-equivalent elevation since 2012, when George Mallory did it on Australia’s 1250m Mt Donna Buang. Until now, no one has attempted it in the virtual world.
“Two or three weeks ago, Zwift added a u-turn feature,” says Frank. “You used to have to go straight, basically in a loop, up and down hills.”
This kicked off a big “what if” among the simulator’s online community. Someone posed the question, “So who will be the first to ‘Everest’ on Watopia?”
Watopia Island is a virtual ride in Zwift that doesn’t match up with any real world terrain. A 396m section of it knows as “Watopia Wall” averages a seven per cent grade, climbing 29m in the process. Repeated over and over, hundreds of times, it could provide the most direct route to a #vEveresting ascent.
And timing was right for Frank. “There was a little discussion about who might be the first person to do that and, as it turned out I was just at the perfect spot in my training cycle. I had done a tremendous amount of work and I wasn’t really tapering, but I was in a lull, and I realised that if I did taper, I’d be in the spot to do this. So I was like OK, I’ll give this thing a whirl.”
Frank is no stranger to bicycle racing, having competed seriously in his youth. Lately though, fitting cycling into his day-to-day schedule has proved difficult. Something Zwift has helped him fix. “It works out for me because I’m a busy guy and I was having a hard time meeting up with rides, so I was not doing my workout. Once Zwift came along, I started hitting all my workouts and really started getting fit again. It’s basically 3D online gaming, with a virtual world and great graphics. The really neat thing is that it controls the resistance on a trainer. When you hit a hill, you get the visual stimulation of it and you also get the physical stimulation of going up the hill. Or down it, which I did a lot.”
To complete his attempt, Frank rode up Watopia Wall 314 times, turned around, pedaled down, and did it again. “There’s a spot where it kicks up to between 11 and 14 per cent,” says Frank. “I stood through that every time.”
He completed the ride in two hour segments, taking a 40-minute break in between, complete with an ice bath. “I’m an old guy and my knees hurt,” he explains. “So, ever two hours I would get off and get in an ice bath for 15 minutes. That kept the inflammation in my knees and butt in check.”
The ride also required a specific nutrition and hydration plan. “I’d drink as much as I could while on the bike. Then I’d get off and eat like chicken and spaghetti and apple pie and that sort of stuff. I’d weigh myself and try to make sure I was holding my weight. I consumed a little over 18,000 calories.”
Frank did this for just under 24 hours, accusing a total ride time of 17:08.54, elapsing 263km and climbing 9051m.
“I’m not sure it was the smartest thing I’ve ever done,” Frank told us a couple of days after the summit. He was just starting to not feel sick again.
How have cyclists who complete ultra-endurance challenges in the real world reacted? “We did a good job not to suffer the wrath of the real,” he says. Virtual trainers like to find routes and compare their times using Strava, a hugely popular app that allows athletes in both the physical and virtual realms to compare times and routes and compete with each other asynchronously. But, claiming a leaderboard space in Strava though virtual training is typically frowned upon.
“I put out over 10,000 kilojoules,” Frank continues. “The effort, in terms of the physicality of it, is as much or more than riders in the real world do. Having said that, I’m in an air-conditioned room, not fighting the wind or the sun or those things.”
“The neat thing about doing this in the virtual world, probably what allowed me to finish, was that I got hundred 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,” describes Frank. “That made me keep going.”
And, this #vEveresting summit has had an impact on the real world too. Through it, Frank raised $US11,000 in aid for Nepal.
Top photo: Carolyn Sullivan