“Everest is 8848 meters. Ben, how much vert is a lap of Whistler bike park?”
“Well Fitzsimmons chair is 340M. Hey, what about this, it’d be like climbing from Longhorns to Top of the world six and a bit times! Do you think you could do that in one sitting?”
“I dunno man. Holy Toledo, I just looked up and Bike Park Wales is 240M, that’d nearly be 40 odd laps!”
Sometimes I’ll think of things, maybe little challenges or other quirks, and it’ll just sit in the back of my mind. Sometimes I’ll obsess over it, or maybe it lies dormant and is only something I’ll act upon when it’s presented to me. Whether it’s a long term target or just seeing how fast I can get to work, I have always enjoyed that type incremental progress. I enjoy the entire process from conceiving the idea, to working towards it and finally attaining it. My inner monologue has many of these little achievements in a pre compartmentalized list of things that I’m proud of. The million feet
, big days on road bikes, making my family proud, France 2017. The list rolls through. It also has many failures. However, maybe even I, the keenest of heart-on-your-sleeve extraverts, can acknowledge that those shitty briefs may better yet not be aired in public.
I look up to people. I’ll try and tell the people that I think highly of just how much they mean to me. For some reason, this aspect of vulnerability has never been something I have feared. In the town that I live, I’m lucky enough to have many people close to home that I look up to and revere. Maybe passing through, maybe more permanent. Frontwheel, The Otter, Goosemaster and the Stoutman to name but a few. The list could just go on and on but there are few people who have more of my admiration and respect than Hypothermia Hildred.
Ben Hildred, local hard nut and Queenstown’s resident tough guy... It’s funny, I’ll always introduce him like that. No matter what. I will never feel the need to extrapolate from context about whether it’s appropriate, anyone with basic sensory observation will perceive Ben to be exactly what he is - kind, intelligent, motivated, humble and honest. But, he’s always harboured a certain quality that I’ve always known about. I knew it from the moment I met him. F*ck, he’s got guts. Guts, grit, cahones, marbles, minerals. Whatever you call it. He has them. He’s a man that seems to habitually push himself. And I want to be explicit, I don’t mean push himself in some faux-machismo, fast cars, Elon Musk and expensive orange forks way. I mean self effacement, integrity, kindness, progression and hard miles. A shit ton of hard miles.
We’ve had a few adventures, Ben and I, both together and as individuals. We both yearned for something to work towards. My life on the road was stalling and sipping on the last fumes of an empty tank. After a long season of work on the Northern hemisphere summer I had come back to Queenstown in September with a spot of racing on my mind. In December 2017 I had injured my hip and I had waited until coming back to Queenstown for what was a big return for me. I had basically had nine months off the bike completely. I had it all planned it. It was perfect and I won’t hear otherwise. Train, smash the Tour of Southland, qualify for RAM, enjoy a shade of trail riding, and then back onto the roadie for another crack at the End to End record
of NZ. Perfect, I tell you. I was going to grow a sweet handlebar moustache, get a hairy chest, ride in a ripped flannel shirt and try not be distracted as I watched women swoon and fall after just a glimpse of my calves. Basically, what I was doing was organising a watertight hit. After merely a few weeks of training, however, I reinjured myself. The tour of Southland was agony. I also hurt the tendon behind my knee.
The combination of hip and knee problems meant that all riding was off the table. It was incredibly painful and hard to stand. I got pretty down about it. I have a penchant for melodrama. Regardless, it was a hugely frustrating time.
In Mid October Ben and I were having a cup of tea in my living room. We were banding about ideas. What would be worth doing, what’s cool, what's not, what inspires us. I can’t remember who said it first but the idea of trying to Everest Skyline came up. Within about 15 seconds it was all settled. The 21st of December, 8848M of vert and that was that.
To Everest something is to climb the height of the world's highest mountain, from sea level, without the interruption of sleep on one climb or loop. The Skyline access road is steep and gruelling. It’s not just the consistently steep gradient, around 15%, but also the gravel surface and rugged nature of it. I remember when I first got to NZ and doing it once was a challenge.
Personally, different things get my respect than what you might expect. Accomplishment, obviously, but I sometimes feel that it’s not as binary as we make out. I have more reverence for hard work than talent, for instance. I can appreciate both but to say there isn't a certain nuance to it would be untrue. Ben was devouring the vert. Everyday he was out. My strava feed was just a barrage of his incredible and awe inspiring efforts on the Skyline access road. To me, there’s so much respect that resonates from that. Doing it on the big day is exciting but the motivation comes easy then. Being out of the door by 6AM to ride lap after lap after lap before then working a full day deserves something all to itself. Grinding it out day in and day out. I would look at these impressive numbers and be gripped by a mixture of envy, frustration and angst, but also a great deal of pride in my friend. He was doing it, he was f*cking doing it, man.
I was not doing it, man. Or maybe I was, but more in a Big Lebowski sense. I was drinking too much, frustrated I couldn’t ride. I was in the Gym a few times a week undergoing my physio to try and correct the issues that were causing my injuries.
In no particular order, this is a retinue of what would comprise Ben’s normal week for about 2 months; A minimum of 1000M of vert 6 days a week, on a few of those days he would do 2212M (a quarter of an Everest), throw in a few 4000M efforts and a full time job. This speaks to me. Endurance riding is like performance art and this is all the painful editing, rehearsal and banging your head against your bedroom wall in the quest for inspiration that you don’t see. This is BikeShop Ben who only passed his driving test so people would f*ck off. The man’s something else.
I was getting frustrated and my physio, Paul, was downright concerned. I think, in a way, he thinks that I’m some tough guy that just pushes and pushes and I’m really not. He was worried that I’d write my knee off and set me back for months. I don’t know, have I ever said, “nobody’s ever died of a hurty knee?” whilst wrapping layer upon layer of duct tape around my upper calf to relieve tendonitis? Why sure I have, but who can honestly say they haven’t? His care and skill is something I am incredibly grateful for though and without his help there is no way I would have even got to the start of the first lap.
It’s a funny thing that, as I sit here writing this, I take equal amounts of pride in just starting the thing that I do in finishing it. I guess I’m just aware that I’m not as tough mentally as I once was and I just feel I can’t hold my hand in the flames like I used to. I feel like for Ben this was this amazing announcement of what he could do. He projected himself onto the side of that mountain. He left a rut in that road and turned the gravel to brail - “BEN DID THIS”. For me, it was more inward, it was just letting my mind know that I still could do something hard. I worry about that alot - not being what I used to be. I haven’t done anything in so long and I struggle with the concept of being a “nearly man”. I’ve nearly done so many things. The failure within that is like a cheesegrater to my soul. I resent my failures but with each one I try and let them ferment until I learn to cherish them. Maybe coming out of the process as something barely recognisable but now somehow easier to break down and process. I just wanted to complete something.
I got on a bike 9 days before the big day. I did a few hours cruising about before a further two days of training. I then decided, in my infinite wisdom, that I probably would not get that much fitter and to just eat as many crisps as possible. Big shout out to Grain Wavez. Hastag sponsor me.
But then here it was. I met Ben at 4:41 AM to ride. Ben was uncharacteristically late, he’d forgot his GPS. When he told me I couldn’t help but laugh. The best laid plans. We rolled down to the start of the access road. And then it began. We didn’t really know how long it was going to take. I estimated 17 hours. In reality it was closer to 19.
The bottom gate, the 'dick pole' time keeper, anyone coming up for a lap could see when we last passed by.
On our first stop we realised we had been the target of a possum’s ire and it had nabbed Ben’s bananas. If we didn’t have bananas, was it even enduro? It was existential questions such as this that entertained us for the first few hours. We tried to work on 45 minutes a lap, including stops.
On the road I enjoy riding on a rolling boil but this was more like warping saucepans by immersing them in cold water and repeating it 22 times for good measure. We wanted it to be a complete challenge. I personally had reservations that the naysayers would want to pick it apart. We tried to incorporate all aspects of riding and the descent was a mix of singletrack, flow and tech (Squid, Hammies, Thundergoat, Grundy and Original, if you know the hill). The easiest way would have been just to roll through the big jump lines but I just have too much pride for that. I wanted to do something well rounded and bulletproof.
The Trance was in its element. I ran my normal setup; a 30T chainring coupled with an E13 9-46 cassette. I was envious of Ben's tyres until the rain came.
Watching Ben climbing, for the purists anyway, is a sight to see. He’s just a natural. He pushes gears whilst somehow applying apparently no weight to the pedals. His long femurs arcing over the cranks in smooth circles. Sadly for me, by lap four I was resembling a man trapped in a pilates machine. The laps 4 - 8 were so hard for me. My knee ached, my heart rate was jacked and I was in the locker. I tried to make peace with it and just attempted to surrender myself to the acceptance that it was going hurt. I think something I struggle with is truly accepting things. My optimism, or indeed sometimes pessimism, betrays me at just the wrong moment. A bit like putting a needle through your hand as you toss through hay in search of the very thing.
Bens Transition Sentinel, Flat pedals, Tan walls, 40mm rise bars, Shigura MXT5's. Yes, you read that right.
We soldiered on throughout the day, just ticking off each lap. The only stern word we had all day was me telling Ben that his “Only 20 laps left” reminders weren’t helpful. We just made sure to keep working, be careful with not taking too many food stops and just soldering on. 2, 3, 4 thousand meters just kept on going by.
It was all going smoothly. Too smoothly. At around 5 o’clock the heavens opened and some lighting fell out. The road soon turned into a river and we found ourselves island hopping as we tried to stay on the firmest piece of dirt. At the time, your body is just so tired and fighting off the cold was very hard. I just kept telling myself that the longer the odds the greater the glory. We got changed out of our sodden clothes and into our waterproofs. This was a proper job. Just a few thousand meters of climbing left. We categorised a 2000M effort as a “normal ride”. We were just a jaunt away. Just a normal days pedalling ahead. A Sunday morning effort, if you will.
You know, the way our friends rallied round us in those laps was just amazing. It felt like we had the whole of Queenstown at our disposal. Fresh waterproofs, all you could eat, any song you wanted to hear was only a request away. It was actually quite emotional for me, I don’t know, it’s been a rough couple of months for reason or another. On lap 20 I found myself chopping onions. I thought about how much all that this meant to me and how it signified an end to a strange period of “nearly”. Not hell or high water would stop us then. I remember getting to halfway, opening my bag and retrieving a can of baked beans. I cracked the can and saw it down in one and then smirked at my friends. I was ready for the final push.
I will always treat people with respect but that doesn't mean I respect everyone. This sounds harsh, may be even two faced, but it's not that. Everyone gets treated with dignity, even if I'm not particularly fond of them, it's just as twenty six year old boy there is only so much I can give. I'll always be clear and direct, to a fault even, but that respect is really hard earned. It's sacred to me. I'm not a touchy feely person so when I shake somebody's hand that's not something that I take lightly. It's almost holy and I often resent doing it for convention's sake. KC had just rode six laps when I explained this to him (a remarkable feat and he would even come up for another two laps after his day at work). I told him then that he truly had my respect. He rode on the absolute rivet. "Giving your best" is such a cliché but nobody can ever ask more of you than that. Not even yourself. If you go to that place then you get bumped up in my estimation and that's not something that comes off with soap and water; that's for life.
There was something quite emotional at the end just shaking everyone's hand. I think I just wanted to show my gratitude and also deep respect for everyone, nobody more so than Ben. Sharing that day with him will long be etched in my memory. I think, with a degree of distance, I even won a quantum of my own respect back on that day, too. I'm not hard on myself but I set standards. It was just so wonderful to meet them.
So many of the good ones came for a lap. I could not be more grateful, I know I speak for Ben when I say that. It was amazing. The music, the laughs, the moral boosters and the believers. It was truly humbling.
I sit here now recanting this to Ben over a cup of tea, a situation very reminiscent of the way it all began. “One last thing”, I ask him, “would you do anything different?”. He takes his attention away from his gingernut biscuit and looks at me “not a thing”.
Photos by Callum Wood DJ KC Till
- For being the All American Muscle that we know and lovePang
- For the encouragement despite our lack of Hucking, and for not bringing his E-bikeBlair
- For the artworkMike
- For the airdropped HabeebeesAndy (3/4 Pro)
- For being Otterly brilliantTim
- For the tailoring servicesMatty
- For his company and pushing himselfCharlotte
- For her limitless positivityCallum
- For his artistry, his talent and the lift homeMichelle
- For the banana replenishment and kindnessAntoine
- For repeating Mr Poopy Butthole quotesLoic (On Trip Advisor)
- For sobering upCarl/Kyle 'MF' Jones
- For taking time out of his professional obligations to help us mortalsKatie
- For the support during the hard lapsJamie
- For giving us the Tracey Hannah treatmentJimi
- For being just an all out GCDavid and Clara
- For making the effortMyles
- For nearly killing himself on a $150 hardtailSkyline
- For the secret Gondola
Check out my Blog Bicycle Wordplay
for more cycling stories.
More content from the day and from other adventures -
Ben Hildred Instagram
Henry Quinney Instagram