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A 26-year-old amateur cyclist, Sean Gardner of Richmond, Virginia, broke the world record for “Everesting” on Saturday, October 3 by climbing 8,848m (29,028ft) in 6 hours, 59 minutes, and 38 seconds.
Here is an analysis of just how he did it, and some tips he learned along the way, should you want to give Everesting a go.
Where and how he set a world record
Gardner completed this epic record on a small, but very steep section of a long climb called Tanners Ridge, near Luray, Virginia. Gardner put a lot of research into finding a steep climb that also had a straight and smooth downhill, so he could maximize both his elevation gain and minimize his descent time.
Gardner heard about this climb from pro mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop.
“The climb for me was pretty much perfect and averaged 15 percent for the section that I did,” Gardner said. “A steeper climb would probably give smaller returns, and a 7-minute climb with a 1-minute descent was just right for recovery for me.”
Gardner had previously set the North American record just three weeks earlier on a different climb that was not as steep, nor had as simple a descent. He cut 17 miles of total distance off with his new course, not to mention time.
Gardner went out and rode the climb two times in anticipation of his attempt, once during a 100-mile ride with a buddy in order to just have a look at it, and then again three days later to go and ride multiple laps of it at different power outputs.
He needed to see if it was even possible to break the record and what it might take from a lap time and power output perspective. He rode up it at 270, 290, 300, and 320 watts in order to see his corresponding lap times, and also to assess what could be a sustainable pace.
“After that second recon ride up it, I went home, downloaded my power data, made several segments in Strava to see my time and elevation gain per lap, and that was critical in determining exactly my turn-around point on the climb,” he said. “I only rode the steepest section and turned-around right before there was a little plateau on the climb.”
Gearing choice was also a critical factor in his success. He rode the entire climb in the same 36×30 gear, then quickly flipped around for the fast downhill, where he hit a maximum speed of nearly 61mph on each descent!
By limiting himself to just that 30-tooth cog, he would be forced to just ride in that cog and push the gear, no matter whether he felt tired or mentally was ready to quit.
“The second half of the effort was a mental strain and having only that 30-tooth cog just took all the thinking out of it. I had to either push that cog or stop and fall over,” he said.
A lot of saddle time? No, actually a lot of standing time
Gardner knew that he was going to have to spend most of the climb standing because of the gear size. “I decided it was easier to just do a ton of core work and planks in the weeks leading up to the attempt than buy a bigger cogset,” he said.
Each of Gardner’s climbs were between 6 minutes 47 seconds and 7 minutes and 20 seconds with his last climb up (a bonus climb) at 7:52. Of that time, he spent an average of 6 minutes climbing out of the saddle, for a total of 5 hours and 20 minutes climbing out of the saddle.
“You know my legs aren’t that sore, but my shoulders are really sore. I am a pretty light guy and I like standing during a climb anyhow, so I knew that a steep climb would favor me and also just make it simpler.”
Standing and pushing a bigger gear than most riders might like to, was more of an advantage than he realized as it forced him to produce a very steady power output each lap and highly consistent. His consistency would have made metronomes envious and his 52 laps average wattage on only ranged a narrow 26-watt window from 295 watts to 321 watts, with a total average of 308 watts per climb. His weight of 143 pounds gives him a 4.73 w/kg power output for the climbs.
His power did decrease over the 7 hours, but only by 15 percent. This is a testimony to his pacing ability and incredible stamina. Stamina is the ability to maintain a high percentage of your Functional Threshold Power for a long period of time, and Gardner maintained 83.33 percent of his FTP for 7 hours, which puts him in the world-class range.
For Everesting, one critical factor is the pattern of force and cadence used to create the watts. Quadrant Analysis is a key tool used to better understand this relationship and I have written about this in my co-authored book, Training and Racing with a Power Meter. Gardner’s power output was spent almost entirely in Quadrant II (94.5 percent), which is “high force, low cadence” and this means that he pedaled hard and slowly for the entire climbs. This is important to note, because if a rider attempting an “Everest” is not ready for this force application pattern, it could lead to failure. Training to the demands of the event is always critical to success and Gardner clearly can press hard and slow on the pedals for a long period of time.
Clearly, Gardner is an incredibly talented climber and why he is not on a WorldTour team already is anyone’s guess. Gardner’s world record is an incredible feat of human endurance and ability that will not be repeated by many riders in the future.
Lessons learned from Gardner if you want to do an “Everest”
Granted, only the elite of the elite will even be able to attempt this kind of a record, but more riders may want to attempt the challenge of simply completing an Everest. That itself is quite a feat, and one that requires a high level of planning and organization. Here are some things Gardner learned.
Find something steep. Pick out the steepest climb to can do without breaking your knees. You have to just face it and do the steepest climb you can climb safely in order to maximize your elevation gain and minimize the time spent on the descent. “When I was out there doing it, there were other riders climbing up the entire climb and many of them were pushing their bike up the section I was riding,” Gardner said.
Use disc brakes. This is a real advantage when it comes to the downhill. “I basically just slammed on the brakes from max speed each lap at the last second and slowed hard and quick each time to minimize my downhill times. I don’t know if rim brakes would have been up to the task.”
Nutrition is critical. “In my first effort, I didn’t really eat enough, nor have a nutrition plan. I love eating real food like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pop-tarts, but just did not eat enough the first time. This time I started out with those same old stand-by’s, but then transitioned to gels and I used 6 bottles of the super high carb Skratch Labs drink mix and drank 12 bottles total alternating water with the high carb Skratch.“
Support is key. “My Parents absolutely rocked the house. They fed me each time up the climb and gave me food and bottle right before my turn-around so I didn’t have to carry anything during the climb. I would just eat and drink on the minute descent.”
Lighten up. The less you and your bike weigh, the less work you have to do. “I just pretty much rode my stock road bike and it would have been great to have some lighter wheels, or frame and then adapt it with fewer cogs as well. I think my bike weighs around 17lbs, so getting it a couple of pounds lighter would have been nice. ”
Cool weather makes a difference. “While I do well in the middle of the summer, I do think that I would not have broken the record had it been in the 80s [degrees Fahrenheit]. The high on the day was 60 and most of the day was in the 50s. That kept my core cool and also reduced my need for liquids.”
Backcountry roads are important. “This climb is on a quiet country road in the middle of nowhere and only once did I have a car on the descent slow me down, but it was like I lost 20 seconds or something. Nobody hassled me and it was a quiet day, so very little traffic.”
Pacing makes the difference. “For my first time, while I did well, I started too hard and faded big time near the end, so this time, I really paced myself and that was a combination of gearing and steepness. The steepness of the climb and my gearing (or lack of gearing) forced me to produce right around 300 watts and I knew that I could do that for a really long time. I am a diesel guy.”
Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former professional cyclist. He is the co-author of “Training and Racing with a Power Meter,” co-developer of TrainingPeaks WKO+ Software, and CEO and founder of the Peaks Coaching Group. He specializes in coaching cyclists with power meters. Learn more at www.PeaksCoachingGroup.com.