There are few road cycling challenges more demanding than Rapha’s Cent Cols; 100 cols in ten days, accumulating around 2000km travelled and 40,000 meters of mountain ascent.
The events push riders to their physical and mental limits, and the rides come to explore not only a distinct mountain region, but a rider’s relationship with the world, their bodies, and their inner demons.
Hans Peter Knudsen rode the Southern Alps Cent Cols Challenge through a heatwave in summer 2017. What follows is an exploration of his life-changing, and life-affirming, experience.
Hans Peter takes on one of one hundred cols with Leslie, a new-found friend who came to be a vital source of companionship on the road
Whilst a Cent Cols Challenge is not a race (the challenge is in the completion), you need to be fit and resilient when you take to the start line.
Each stage, at around 200km in distance and 4,000m of total climbing is far more than most would contemplate in one day, let alone ten.
As you’d expect, Hans Peter underwent a focussed training regime in the year prior to the Cent Cols, engaging coaches and dieticians to help improve his cycling power and reduce his body weight in a bid to optimise his power to weight ratio; a golden metric of mountain cycling.
As a result, he entered day one of the event in the best shape he could be, and with an intimate knowledge of how many watts he should climb a mountain at, and how many beats per minute his heart could handle for ten to twelve hours of cycling a day.
The Cent Cols is a challenge for the mind as much for the body.
Entering the event with the constant knowledge that you’re going to climb 100 mountains is something that riders must learn to cope with, and adapt to.
As the days passed, Hans Peter came to realise that those power and heart rate figures he had come to be so familiar with in training ceased to have much relevance.
"Knowing that you could climb at X kph when rested and fresh becomes meaningless when the more pressing matter is the weight of knowledge that you have maybe eight hours of the day left to pedal, and eight days left to ride."
As the days passed, Hans Peter learned to manage this ever-present mental pressure via a retreat into an inner world, a mindset removed from computer screens, and training metrics. He adapted to embrace the world around him in all its wonder – the sounds, smells and sights of the Alps. The more he allowed the world to absorb his senses, the temporal and physical elements of the ride became less painful.
For Hans, cycling came to be about images like this – the celebration of the raw beauty of nature, and not the focus on training metrics and times.
By absolving himself from the inner torture of a study of the numbers on his bike computer and instead learning to appreciate the beauty of the real world around him, Hans Peter found a survival and coping mechanism, a blissful retreat into the wider world. The mountains became less about the gradients and distances that concerned his ride partners, but about experience and enlightenment.
"Shut down your Garmin, listen and observe, look at the leaves, the streams, listen to the real world."
For Hans Peter, this change of focus came completely to the forefront on the fifth day of the challenge, which was not only the most physically intimidating of the ten, but also the most mentally intense.
In a stage centred around a triple ascent of the fearsome Mont Ventoux, Hans Peter was wracked with pain from a saddle sore, suffering with the heat and accumulated fatigue, and was close to abandoning. It was only the support of Leslie, his new found, and to become lifelong, friend on the road, that prevented him from terminating a process that felt, at the time, unachievable.
With the support of Leslie, Hans Peter battled through the day, riding kilometer after kilometer until he found himself alone, the last man on the road, facing the final climb of the day: the ascent of Ventoux from Bedoin – one of the single toughest road climbs in France.
During this climb, he experienced an emotive redemption and cleansing that was to change him forever.
Battling with the emotional demons resulting from the loss of several loved ones in recent years, and with his mind full of the family and foster children that he had left at home in Denmark, Hans hauled his exhausted, lactate-ridden body through the darkness of the late evening to the summit of Ventoux.
On reaching the peak of the climb and conclusion of the stage, he broke down in tears, overwhelmed by the emotions that he had fought all day. However, putting himself through that physical and mental battle changed him forever:
"From that day, a lot of things fell into place in my life, and in the final five days of the event, I redefined myself as a cyclist, and I learnt to enjoy and appreciate the ride rather than worrying about watts and cadence – it’s about enjoying nature, enjoying real life, and appreciating the world around you and your place within it."
Just as Hans Peter came to cleanse his mental approach to cycling through the ten days, he also came to cleanse his body and refine his approach to the fuel that he used for the rides. He came to rely on what he referred to as ‘golden nuggets’; his pre-cut bites of all-natural, unprocessed, ride nutrition that he could snack on through the day.
In the isolation of the high mountains, the bites became more than just an energy source, but a reward mechanism and trusted partner.
The treat and surprise of reaching into a back pocket and randomly drawing one of the three different flavoured chunks became a simple pleasure that Hans anticipated and relished. The nuggets became companions on the road, unfailingly there to renew energy and raise morale.
A ‘golden nugget’ and the empty road became some of Hans Peter’s most reliable companions.
Rapha, the event organisers, provided a plentiful supply of other nutrition to riders of course; however, the synthetic and artificial nature of these products and gels did not sit comfortably with Hans Peter. As the days passed, his fatigued body came to reject their flavours and textures, and in his mind, eating packaged, synthetic products came to feel a type of ‘doping’.
One of the rare occasions when Hans Peter decided to take energy gels from a feed station was on that oh-so pertinent final ascent of Mont Ventoux. For Hans, taking these gels and relying on an unnatural source of energy felt wrong in some way; like he was going against his otherwise pure and real experience.
"I felt purer and more self-sufficient with my nuggets…. A gel felt like I was cheating. I wanted to explore my limits, physically and mentally. I didn’t want to cheat my mind or my body by ‘doping’… to me a gel was like using a lifeline that was not quite legitimate to use."
Those ‘golden nuggets’ that he had been relying on as a mental and physical crutch – bags of Veloforte Mixed Bites – became the natural nutrition that sat so perfectly alongside the new and natural approach to the bike.
Hans Peter rode out the remaining five days of the challenge after that pivotal stage at Mont Ventoux a new rider – his mindset was totally altered, and a natural complement and necessary part of that was the rejection of everything artificial and synthetic.
Just as Hans Peter’s mental approach to cycling became cleansed, so did his attitude to the food he used to fuel himself
Endurance sport of any kind can let you explore far more than the physical. In the case of Hans-Peter Knudsen, his ride through the Cent Cols Challenge unveiled a mental clarity and freedom, and a connection with the real world that can be lost behind over-thought and over-worked processes and product.
This retreat, or indeed, escape back to, the real world, a world before things became overly complicated and technologised, was mirrored in Hans Peters’ real food revolution. Rather than mixing with chemical and preservative laden sports nutrition, Hans Peter fuelled his body on the real foods that it had evolved to thrive on.
Hans Peter and Leslie, bathed in the nature that he chose to immerse in - escaping the physical and emotional pressure of riding 100 cols.
Hans-Peter will be riding the Cent Cols Challenge again in 2018, this time in the West Pyrenees. Although the cols will change, the ‘golden nuggets’ will be there for him, fuelling his ride, enabling him to immerse himself in the real world, and the abundant beauties that it will always provide.
The focus on cadence and watts have passed for Hans Peter, and what remains is one of clarity and mental and physical freedom.
Long may it continue.