This year’s Rapha Rising challenge towers at an eye-watering 9,366m. Taking its height from the total elevation of two Pyrenean stages of the Tour, those taking part must push themselves over the same altitude as faced by the pros, within nine days or less.
On Sunday 19th July, just the second day of the challenge, four Rapha Cycling Club London members – Russell Ashford, Walter Beckers, Leon Cerrone and Justin Haigh – set out for Firle Beacon in East Sussex, where they would attempt to amass the full elevation of the challenge in one ride, over countless ascents of the same hill.
Rapha spoke to the four riders after their attempt to find out how they fared.
RAPHA: Did you make it? What was your final elevation?
Walter: I’m happy to say that I made it. My final elevation was 10,063m. It took me 13 hours and 26 minutes.
Justin: I reached 9,114m. Enough to qualify for a successful Everesting attempt [8,848m] but sadly not the total needed for Rapha Rising. Had I known I was so close, I’d like to think I could have managed it.
Russell: Sadly not, but 7,600m is a figure I’m proud to have achieved. I was in the saddle for 11 hours.
Leon: I didn’t make it either, my final elevation was 7,017m.
RAPHA: How are the legs?
Leon: My legs weirdly feel OK; it’s the knees that are bearing the brunt of the effort.
Justin: Fatigued, but nothing worse than any other hard ride. I think having the right gear ratio saved my knees.
RAPHA: What was the most difficult aspect of the challenge?
Russell: I struggled with strategy. It’s difficult to get the right balance between how long you stop for and how long you climb for, and at what pace. Without question I overcooked it early on, which I paid for in the latter stages of the day.
Justin: It’s a long day in the saddle and nothing quite prepares you for having to force feed yourself to keep the tank topped up, dealing with fluctuating weather (chafing from wet bibs and overcooking in the sun) and keeping motivated from dawn to dusk as your body keeps telling you to stop.
Leon: Trying not to think about the big numbers when it really started hurting. It was also pretty difficult persuading myself not to give up earlier.
RAPHA: Did you feel like giving up at any point?
Walter: I had a dark moment around 4,500m, but kept going instead of giving in. You know at some point you’ll have to fight the pain, but having attempted Everesting before, my experience has taught me how to deal with these difficult moments.
Russell: I was feeling strong and optimistic up until around 6,000m, at which point it dawned on me just how much there was still to do. It’s as much a psychological effort as it is athletic, and you need to be prepared for some pretty dark moments. By 7,000m I was in pure survival mode, but seeing Leon already in the van with a big smile on his face made me realise I could end the suffering at any point and still hold my head up high, safe in the knowledge that I’d left it all on Firle Beacon.
RAPHA: What helped you carry on?
Walter: The strong camaraderie on and off the bike. The laughter and stories make you forget about the effort you’re putting in. I also knew that my wife and kids were coming, so I was really looking forward to seeing them. They arrived right on time to see me finish the 9,366m. The kids even gave Justin and me a few gently encouraging pushes to the top.
Leon: I know I didn’t finish, but I just tried to keep setting myself tiny goals. I’m gutted I didn’t reach the Everesting total, but I’m happy with my efforts.
RAPHA: Was there a point when you knew you would make it?
Walter: I knew right from the start I’d make it. When I put myself into a challenge I finish it no matter what.
Justin: At 15 reps to go before we reached the Everesting milestone, I knew I could make it. Having everyone cheering me on over those last reps really made the difference, and gave me the encouragement I needed. Also, the ever-present ‘Master Walter’ pedaling with me was a huge help.
RAPHA: How did it feel once you’d done it?
Russell: Once I’d called it a day, the relief was palpable. It felt like a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders and I could continue enjoying the day and supporting the guys who were still riding.
Justin: A little dazed. I had to dig deep for the last couple of reps, but cresting that last climb to proud applause from Russell and Leon was a very special moment.
RAPHA: What advice would you give to someone attempting Rapha Rising?
Russell: I’d say take your time, choose some great company, and get a 32 cog on the back for good measure.
Leon: Don’t be an idiot and try it in one day…
Justin: Don’t push it, and listen to what your body is telling you. There’s no shame in having a short breather to pull yourself together. If you can, work as a team, you’ll be amazed at the effect others can have on you.
RAPHA: Will this experience change how you feel about the professionals as they pass through the Pyrenees this week?
Justin: I’ve always been amazed at what these guys put themselves through. This challenge offered a little taste of their suffering, but it’s a long way from the grueling pace and constant attacks they deal with day after day.
Russell: It will make me more empathetic to the efforts of the guys who aren’t natural grimpeurs, and the depths they will have to plunder to make it to Paris. When you consider what a sprinter has to do simply to get their bodies to the Champs-Élysées it is nothing short of incredible. I doff my cap to those guys.
Images courtesy of Harry Engels .