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Vam cycling challenge
Photo composite: Getty/Tina Tiller

SocietySeptember 14, 2021

Lockdown made me do it: How one man’s brutal bike challenge went viral

Vam cycling challenge
Photo composite: Getty/Tina Tiller

A tough lockdown fitness craze has spread to eager cyclists around New Zealand – and even across the Tasman. Now, pride and prizes are at stake. 

Carl Wells was in the lounge of his home in Glen Eden, Auckland, when he saw a cyclist zoom up the hill past his window. A few moments later, he saw the exact same cyclist go back down the other way. He repeated the route again, then again. Finally, it dawned on him: that cyclist was competing in a lockdown challenge, one Wells had inspired, which had quickly gone viral. 

It started a week earlier when Wells, a French horn player in the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, went for a bike ride during Auckland’s extended level four lockdown. He’d taken up cycling 10 years ago and discovered punishing mountain climbs were his specialty: the bigger the slope, the better. In summer, he and a group of friends go for extremely sweaty workouts at the end of the day across the steepest peaks they can find. “Once you start, it’s kind of addictive,” he reasons.

Under level four lockdown exercise rules, Wells isn’t allowed to cycle too far from his home. He realised the only way he could get his hill-climbing fix was to go up the same hill, over and over again. He challenged himself to cycle 1,000 metres vertically, an ascent charted through the GPS function on the cycling and running app Strava. It took him more than an hour to traverse Titirangi’s Atkinson Road – a long, steep and relatively straight piece of tarmac – 14 times, a distance of 23 kilometres. 

When he got home, Wells posted his achievement on Facebook. People started talking about it immediately. “It spun off much farther than I thought it would,” he says. Friends took up the challenge, and began sending him their own times. Wells logged them in a Google Doc, and started a dedicated Facebook group. A competition had been born.

Word kept spreading, the challenge quickly going viral through New Zealand’s cycling community. Wells was sent photos and videos of people competing from different parts of the country. During last week’s storms, three people went out and completed his “Vam (vertical ascent in metres) challenge” in the hail, wind and rain. More people sign up every day. He set up a leaderboard, and sponsors started getting touch. Prizes are at stake, including bike services, movie passes and cash, and money is being collected for the City Mission.

The appeal, Wells says, is that it’s a simple challenge that can be completed by anyone. First-time cyclists are doing it, as well as the hardcore. Even kids are giving it a go. “For most people it’s, ‘How do you stack up against your mates?’” he says. “Can you just get out and do something that’s different in lockdown and test yourself a little bit?” 

Yes, it’s going to hurt. One competitor who took up cycling only last year took four hours to complete his run. But Wells says that doesn’t matter. “The sense of accomplishment is priceless,” says Wells. “It was huge for him.” The challenge has helped others get through lockdown. “It’s been a really tough time for Aucklanders. Maybe that’s why it’s felt surprisingly moving to see so many people putting everything on the line then revelling in the sense of shared accomplishment.”

Right now, dozens of people are testing themselves in Wells’ competition. They’re cycling up hills in Wellington. They’re doing it in Whanganui. Someone even found a decent hill in the relatively flat Christchurch. A father-and-son team has taken up his challenge. Someone from Melbourne even gave it a go. Runners have come on board too, trying to beat cyclists’ times.

It is, most definitely, a challenge. The average time is somewhere between one and two hours. Some have bailed out because of broken spokes, crashing on U-turns, and, for one, “chundering” at the halfway point. That, says Wells, is the moment many question what they’re doing. “It’s really hard when you get to halfway and you don’t know if you can make it the whole way,” says Wells. “But you can.”

Emma Porritt is one of those who decided to give it a go. A cyclist at school, the Massey resident says she rarely touches her bike these days, preferring the brute force of Crossfit classes. But she saw her old school friends posting their times on Facebook, and it sparked something. “I spent a day or so mulling it over,” she says. “The insanity of lockdown got me to do it.”

So, Porritt got her old bike out of the garage, fired up a Spotify playlist of bangers, and spent nearly three hours riding up, then down, and back up Waimumu Road. “There were a lot of people giving me strange looks,” says Porritt, who would stop, message her friends and eat snacks in-between circuits. “My aim was to enjoy it and try and not hate it.” Would she do it again? “Absolutely not.”

Vam Cycling challenge
A cyclist does a U-turn at the top of her ascent. (Photo: Supplied)

For Wells, it’s given him something to focus on during lockdown. With no audiences, his orchestra is out of action. So he’s spending his time organising the Vam leaderboard, encouraging riders, liaising with sponsors, and monitoring Facebook. “I’m constantly needing to do things and organise things,” he says. “People who are really into cycling are always training. They like to have goals. Those goals have been cancelled (by Covid restrictions).” 

It’s also keeping him in touch with his friends, something everyone is missing during Auckland’s extended level four lockdown. “It’s a very social sport,” says Wells. “People usually ride with their friends once a week. Because they can’t ride with their friends, it’s a way for cyclists to connect, be part of a community and take advantage of the empty streets.”

Wells is training for another run at the leaderboard, which has, during the time The Spinoff’s been monitoring it, changed its No.1 spot twice. The current record-holder took 43 minutes to do 11 trips up Auckland’s Point View Drive and complete his 1,000-metre ascent. If you think you can beat that record, you’d better get on your bike: the competition closes at 8pm on September 18. Says Wells: “We need to stop the madness.”

Keep going!