It’s well over a month since I completed my Everesting of the Devil’s Elbow. It was a strangely satisfying experience, and one that has lead to further plotting, reading, research and general calculations. The Devil’s Elbow was just the start; of how many, who knows, but the lure of the first Everesting ascent is strong.
But first, and in case missed the last instalment, I’ve got to convince my chimp.
A parcel arrived in the post, and I open it eagerly. It’s small book that sits comfortably in the hand. I make a cup of tea and take my new book to a quiet corner. It’s not long before my Chimp comes over.
“What have you got there?”, asked my Chimp.
“It’s just a book”, I say.
“What sort of book?”
“It’s, er, it’s about, um, climbs”
“Climbs?” asks my Chimp quizzically
“Yes, climbs that you can do on a bike. Kind of like the best ones in the country. There’s a hundred in all”, I say enthusiastically.
“After what you put me through the other month, I’m not liking the sound of this…”
“Would you like a banana?” I ask
After about a week of careful research, on and off, I have a shortlist of possible candidates. It’s an interesting exercise, as not all climbs lend themselves to Everesting. Not only that, some of the ones that appealed had already been done. But, at last I had a shortlist.
I sit down with my Chimp and we study the list. Two of the three are OK. The last of the three is difficult to break down. Long, steep, unrelenting. Twice the height gain of Devil’s Elbow in less than double the distance. We refer back to the book.
“What do the numbers 10/10 mean in that little triangle where it says rating?” asked my Chimp
“That? Er, that’s the diffic…. that’s how nice the view is from the top”
“Oo, nice. Can I have a banana?”
Bwlch y Groes
A climb that strikes fear into many a cyclist, including this one. The first half is steeper and more sustained as the Devil’s Elbow. There is a brief respite at halfway, which if it wasn’t for the severity of gradient both before or after, probably wouldn’t seem like a rest spot at all, but on this hill, it’s all you’re going to get.
After the “rest spot”, the tarmac rears up fiercely and that’s pretty much it to the top. One mile of solid grind into tarmac >20% gradient, relenting only very slightly for the last 50 metres or so. The 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs describes it thus:
“…the ever steepening, increasingly lumpy surface heads into arguably the the hardest section of relentlessly steep tarmac in Britain. The sheer length of this steep section is what sets this climb apart, there’s just nowhere to recover”
For all the shenanigans and mental trickery I tried to play on the chimp part of my brain, my logical and rational human side was saying, this could be my undoing.
I made a trip out to the climb earlier in the month to test out my gearing, and it was actually the first time I’d ridden it from that side. The first half went OK, using the same ratios as I had done for the Devil’s Elbow, but as you round the gentle left hander where the crash barrier starts, the full severity of the upper section opens out before you. I rode it twice that day, back to back. I left with a sense of trepidation and an acute awareness that I’m going to need lower gears.
I was more than a little apprehensive as I stood astride my bike at 04:15 AM on Sunday morning. It was cold, the summit was clear, but the mist filled the valley bottom. I turned my lights on, and set off up the hill. Grinding into that steep upper part of the climb with no reference for how much of it was left ahead of you was a tough start. There was then the added difficulty of the descent through the mist, where visibility was vastly reduced.
By the sixth ascent, the sun was just coming over the horizon, but having to fight through the mist that had risen from below. I was treated to some spectacular views and the sun provided much needed warmth for my soul, though much less for my body.
The first quarter of the ride had gone quite quickly, all things considered; 3 hours 32 minutes. Not too shabby, but possibly too much on the quick side. The next six repeats gradually saw the mist recede completely and at last the whole valley was revealed. This was good and bad; good because I could get some quick descents in and bad, because you could see how far away the top was when you were at the bottom (and vice versa).
The strategy I used on the Devil’s Elbow to break the climb down into tiny chunks didn’t work so well here. There was so much of it, it was difficult to recall each bit and how they fitted together. Maybe it didn’t really matter on the lower section, which while still a stiff gradient was really foreplay before the real action higher up. The trick appeared to lie in getting to the part where the crash barrier starts (above) and not feeling particularly tired. At this point, you’ve done about 210 metres of climbing, but still have 160 metres to go, but in less distance and hence a steeper gradient. For the first 12 ascents, I managed to make each ascent in one clean run. No stopping to rest (other than a couple of photos). I’d resolved to keeping my 42t rear sprocket as a reserve gear for the tough upper part, and this appeared to work.
The last twelve ascents were a different story. I struggled to keep the 34:36 gear going on the lower section and so changed into that lighter gear long before I got to the steep part. This left me entering the toughest section of the climb with no reserve gear, and feeling somewhat fatigued by this point, resorted to giving in to a rest for a moment to get my heart rate back down. In the whole battle between human and chimp, this appeared to work. I get to ride the climb to the top as quickly as I can, and the chimp has a little breather at a predesignated point and for a duration with specific parameters that we’re both happy with.
With the third quarter dispatched, it was evident I would be heading through the fading light and into the darkness. I managed to get three further ascents in before having to fit my lights. With the rapidly cooling air, the cloud had also descended and I’m reminded that the forecast for that evening is rain. I pull on my arm warmers, switched to some warmer socks and swapped my gillet for a full windproof. It was difficult to moderate body temperature, as I would boil on the way up and freeze on the way down.
The last three ascents saw my world reduce once again to a tiny pool of light amidst swirling cloud and rain. The notion of rounding this ride up to a full 10,000 metres of ascent were gone; my head could not really comprehend another three ascents beyond these, and the rain was the final reassurance that 24 was a enough and it was a job well done.
A proper hard day on the side of a Welsh mountain. The first Everesting ascent of one of the hardest and highest climbs in Wales successfully completed, and one that pushed my limits just that little bit further. I guess that’s why I do it.
Link to Strava activity: strava.com/activities/717490444