Rapha Travel: The Numbers Game

There is an ongoing argument in the hiking community. It is one of those petty squabbles that has both sides with feet planted, unwilling to budge. On one side of the divide walk the peak-baggers; the number obsessives who try to never hike the same hill twice. On the other side are the purists; those who believe in the romance of the moment, of taking one’s time whilst climbing.

Participants of the numbers game love the totality of its challenge, a step-by-step list of peaks to climb up and tick off. From the 282 Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet high) to bag in Scotland, to Colorado’s 55 Fourteeners and New Hampshire’s 48 four thousand footers, the peak-bagging catalogue is endless. And for those desiring a shorter, tougher test, there are always the English Lake District’s 24 Marilyns (over 150m high) to climb in 24 hours.

For these collectors, the route to the top tends to matter less than it does for those on the other side of the argument, who prefer to take the more scenic option. They criticize peak-baggers for being obsessive and for missing the point of hiking. Neither do they understand the enjoyment in walking up hills which offer no real scenery or wilderness, before “inserting their business cards into specifically designed canisters (at the top),” as climber Steve Roper once said. Peak-baggers reply that they do enjoy the walk, but they just enjoy having a challenging list to motivate them, and that such lists enable them to discover places they would never have dreamed of going otherwise. It’s a back and forth argument, and one which is now crossing over into cycling with the recent trend of col-bagging.

At first glance, Rapha Travel’s Cent Cols Challenge (CCC) might seem part of such a collector’s club. The CCC takes 30-odd amateur riders on ten 200km-long days of non-stop climbing and descending; resulting in 100 different mountain passes (cols) cycled over by the end. The creator of the event, Briton Phil Deeker, says that having a numbered target is entirely necessary, and not at all to do with checklists. “The goal has to be distant but easily seen from afar. Look at Strava: there is an endless race to achieve more, but this seems to be simply for the sake of topping the Strava ladder. We always want to go further and many want to get there first. But during a CCC everyone discovers that it is the journey, not the destination, that offers the real reward,” he says.

The CCC is such an intense trip and brutal effort, with up to 11 hours cycling a day, before massage, food and then bed, that you are forced to live entirely in the moment. The cyclists may tick off each col as they go, but are able to enjoy – or rather, appreciate at least – the ride, according to Deeker. “During a CCC, the present moment becomes incredibly rich and strong,” he says. “People leave these events with an immense personal library of moments from the road, on their bike.”

As goal-oriented humans, peak-baggers will often become addicted to their hobby. With each summit reached, a sense of satisfaction is achieved, but it is all too brief, as the next mountain to scale appears tauntingly on the horizon. The CCC, for which it is recommended that only riders with considerable fitness and endurance attempt, often sees cyclists come back again to climb another of the five CCC routes and get a taste of that torture in their legs once more. “Many say that it is addictive,” says Deeker. “For as long as their body can take the hammering – and I’m the number one ‘user’, completely hooked! – there are several reasons for this: an immense sense of feel-good from having gone further than you thought you could; the rich camaraderie between riders throughout; the in-depth sense of exploration of a region; and finally, the unique, slightly crazy spirit that seeps through the whole thing which, were this an event with a competitive flavour, would not occur.”

Deeker also notes that an international CCC fraternity is beginning to thrive, with riders comparing war stories from the climbs and sharing their achievements. It is not at all dissimilar from the peak-bagging community, but at the same time it absolutely is. A collector’s club, but one for those tough enough to chase the peaks and live the ride too.

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