Ian O’Riordan: I want to ride my bicycle – to the top of Mount Everest

Breaking records in distance and height of Everest has become an obsession for many

We were back on the tail of the Azores on Thursday morning, single file behind that silk warm wind, somewhere between Kippure and Tonduff and all I could see before me was Everest and the want to ride to the top, maybe a little over, just to be sure.

As in Mount Everest, all 8,848 metres of it, 29,029 feet in old money, more or less a 10km long arrow pointing straight up into the sky. Like any mountain climb it can easily become a dangerous obsession and just because it’s the highest in the world doesn’t mean it’s not out to get you. Why? Because it’s there. Now read on.

Of all the so-called lockdown pursuits – painting sheds, baking sourdough, drinking wine – wanting to ride your bicycle to the top of Mount Everest wasn’t an obvious one for everyone, only it seems to have caught on for some, and suddenly a lot of riders from a lot of different countries are out to conquer it, breaking a series of records in the process.

Not on the icy slopes of Nepal, obviously, but the virtual replica which comes with riding your bicycle uphill for 8,848m, maybe a little over just to be sure, preferably on a very steep mountain side. As long as it’s done in one reasonable effort and properly recorded on Strava it can count as an Everesting, the term now given to any attempt to ride up what Edmund Hillary first climbed up back in May 1953, exactly one year before Roger Bannister ran his 3:59.4, once suitably described as a sort of horizontal Everest on the track.


At my time of writing (and believe me the numbers are racking up fast), 9,336 riders, from 96 countries, including 66 from Ireland, have succeeded in their Everesting attempt. No doubt others have failed. The rules are devilishly simple, and brutally hard: find a single hill, climb, and repeat until you’ve reached your summit of 8,848m in total elevation gain. Short recovery and toilet breaks are allowed, but no sleeping, no doping, and no real cheating either, except on yourself.


Each successful Everesting attempt is now recorded in the Hall of Fame on the Hells 500 website, the official custodians of the concept, although it wasn’t their original idea. Back in 1994, George Mallory rode eight times up the 1,250m climb that is Mount Donna Buang, in the Victorian Alps, to reach his 8,848m, going a little over just to be sure, taking him 22 hours and 45 minutes and marking a sort of 70th anniversary in the process.

That’s because Everest always had a special place in Mallory’s heart: he went on to summit the mountain on foot, 70 years after his grandfather, George Herbert Leigh Mallory, was part of the first three British expeditions to summit the mountain in the early 1920s, the third of which cost him his life. In June of 1924, Mallory disappeared on The North Face, 245m short of his 8,848m, along with his climbing partner Andrew Irvine.

There are a couple of well-founded theories that Mallory and Irvine both reached the summit, 29 years before Hillary did, but either way their dead bodies remained on Everest for another 75 years, before they were discovered in 1999, near-perfectly preserved given the freezing conditions, Mallory still complete with the golf ball-sized puncture wound in his forehead, likely caused by his own climbing axe, and probably killing him during his fall.

It was Mallory, when asked why anyone would want to climb Everest, who answered “because it’s there”, now the three most famous words in mountaineering, and easily applied in the context of an Everesting attempt too. After his grandson’s first successful expedition in 1994, more cyclists took on the challenge simply because it’s there, Mallory completing it again in 2012. When the world went into lockdown the challenge became more appealing again, something for cyclists to aim for once let out, and one quick stroll through the Everesting Hall of Fame provides evidence of that.

July has been very busy on the slopes. Last Friday week, former Spanish professional and seven-time Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador broke the existing Everesting record, reaching his 8,848m on the Navapelegrin climb north of Madrid in seven hours and 27 minutes. The 37-year-old, in part to promote his new bike range, rode up the steepest 6.4km section, 78 times, describing it afterwards in just one word: “madness”.

Last Saturday, Diarmuid Kavanagh broke the existing Irish record, the Wicklow rider completing 36 ascents of the local climb at Slieve Mann, in 10 hours and 42 minutes, only that didn’t last 24 hours. On Sunday, Irish international Ronan McLoughlin rode 62 and a bit times up the famed Mamore Gap in his native Donegal, reaching his 8,848m in a pretty dizzying eight hours and nine minutes – currently the fifth fastest in world Everesting history.


That record may stand for a while, the 33-year-old admitting he’d been eying up the record since the lockdown as a way to stay motivated, and also raise funds for the Community Rescue Service. “I’d been really focused on it the past four weeks, searching for the right climb, waiting for the right day, working out fuelling strategies, stripping down my bike to be as light as possible. I’d a few difficult moments in the final hour or two, but was so close to the finish at that stage the motivation of finishing it gets you through.

“And I’d a great team on the day also, the family out all day to hand out bottles, keep track of the number of laps, boil spuds, find espressos, help with traffic, I couldn’t have even finished it without their help.”

While McLoughlin was setting his record, Meath cyclist Graham Macken was out conquering his 8,848m on the Hill of Tara, not once but twice, and that’s not a misprint. Macken reached 17,698m in all, over 250 climbs, in 51 hours and 42 minutes, leaving him with two metres to spare on the Double Everesting.

I could continue with Everesting feats such as this – former British pro Emma Pooley’s women’s world record of eight hours and 53 minutes, Ben Soja’s unicycle record of 23 hours and three minutes – and when you live in the mountains and think you have no real reason to fear the height, it’s easy to start wondering why you couldn’t reach the top. Because it’s there, that’s why.