Interview: John van Seters after his 430km, 9,100m ride

If you’ve ever signed up for a climbing-related Strava challenge there’s every chance you would have seen the name “John van Seters” somewhere near the top of the leaderboard. The Hells 500 hardman, who lives at the base of the 1 in 20 climb in the Dandenongs, loves a climb and loves pushing himself beyond what most of us are even capable of.

A few weeks ago John kicked off the Vuelta Skelta Strava challenge in style, racking up 24 laps of the 1 in 20 in one ride: a 16-hour, 350km effort with 7,200m, all on a 7km stretch of road. And just last weekend John upped the ante, completing an unfathomable 30 laps of the 6.8km climb over 20 hours.

He started his ride at 1:45am on the Saturday and finished a little before 1am the following morning with 430km and 9,100m under his belt. The goal of the ride had been to climb the equivalent of sea level to Mt. Everest (8,848 metres) in one ride. Mission accomplished.

John was good enough to spare some time and talk me through his epic ride.

So how are you feeling now, a couple days after the ride?

Good as gold. I seem to have suffered more from the mental tiredness of it than the physical side. I suppose that’s down to a lack of sleep and the fact my head’s been spinning the whole time [since].

So what was the thinking behind starting at 1:45am?

I wanted to start as early as possible in the morning. I really didn’t feel like riding after 12 o’clock at night – there’s just this feeling that you’re supposed to be in bed by 12 o’clock at night.

I think I went to bed about 10 o’clock [on Friday night] and woke up at about 1:30 in the morning. I slept in for half an hour – I meant to get up at 1 o’clock!

Say if I’d started at 5 o’clock in the morning I would have finished at 3 or 4 o’clock on Sunday morning which I think would have been more of a challenge.

I can cope quite well with having lack of sleep to start off [but not so much at the end of a ride].

Where did the idea of this ride come from?

The inspiration for the ride came from George Mallory. To me, he’s the guy that actually thought of doing an Everest in a Day [ed. If you haven’t read George’s story, make sure you do!] and the one that inspired me to do this ride.

I suppose everyone’s ultimate goal is to ‘climb’ the biggest mountains in the world and what bigger mountain is there in the world than Everest itself? I was just so inspired with what George Mallory did and that’s why I did it on the 1 in 2o.

George Mallory did his Everest on Mt. Donna Buang. Which do think would have been harder: your Everest or his?

Time would have been the biggest thing. I was doing 1.5 laps of the 1 in 20 every hour which meant I was only gaining 900 metres every two hours. I’d allow two hours for every lap of Mt. Donna Buang. I think Donna Buang’s about 1,100 metres so you’d gain 200m extra, every two hours on Donna.

George Mallory mentioned that when he did Everest on Donna he only did about 278km whereas I did 438km. So we’re talking another 150km.

The other thing with Donna is that because the gradient is so much higher [ed. an average of 6.4% vs 4.2%] you can roll all the way down. On the 1 in 20 you’re virtually pedalling half the way down so you’re still consuming energy.

photo (3)
Image courtesy of Andy van Bergen.

What did you do to prepare for this ride other than your 24-lap ride a few weekends ago?

Probably my best preparation for this ride was spending two weeks in France riding the Alps and Pyrenees. I think that was probably the best preparation anyone could have had – riding some enormous climbs in France.

I did a heck of a lot of preparation prior to going to France and in terms of my longevity I’ve probably been building my fitness ever since I started riding eight years ago.

What was the hardest part on the ride?

Probably the hardest part was the initial six to ten laps. [I was struggling] through lack of sleep. I was just trying to clear my head. I was just about falling asleep on my bike while going down the hill so that was a challenge in itself.

It also seemed to take a long time for my legs to loosen up. I can go and do a 200km ride and probably at 150km is where I’m at my strongest. It just seems to take a long time for my legs to loosen up and feel comfortable and for my head to clear and then I feel good. I can just keep spinning away forever.

A ride like this strikes me as being just as hard mentally (if not more so) than physically. Did you ever feel like you were going crazy riding the same stretch of road back and forth?

Not really. I’m self-employed and being a brick cleaner I work by myself all day long. I’m used to being by myself for a long time so I don’t find that mental stress challenging [on a ride]. Once my head clears I’m fine.

When did you feel the best?

Probably about the 15th lap I really just felt awesome. So that was at the 220km mark. It’s weird.

I believe you had some people join you throughout the day for a couple of laps?

That was just really, really special. To have Andy van Bergen, my nephew, come out at 4 o’clock in the morning was just a real surprise. People just keep finding any way to help this old coot to achieve what he wanted to achieve.

Probably what was really special was having my daughter — who really doesn’t ride at all, and who did her first lap up the 1 in 20 with me a month ago —  turn up at 5 in the afternoon and just do one lap. That was really really special.

And to have people I don’t even know give me a wave or a nod or yell out “good on ya mate – keep going!” was special. I had people turn around halfway down the descent and ride with me back to the top – it’s just awesome. Just having those people you don’t know support you.

Image courtesy of Andy van Bergen.
Image courtesy of Andy van Bergen.

What was the feeling like finishing the ride? Did you have a bit of a celebration?

It was probably more of a relief actually because on the last three or four laps the legs were starting to say “well we’ve done a bit now. Come on, give us a break – come home.” So it was probably more of a relief in the end to finish it.

When I looked at my Garmin on the 29th lap [I saw] that I’d racked up enough metres to “do” the Everest. I had it in the back of my mind “oh, this is enough” but then I know I committed to doing the 30 laps.

What is it that motivates you to do a ride this long?

I suppose the biggest thing is to know that you’ve broken so many personal achievements in doing so, to be able to do the longest ride you’ve ever done, for example.

A previous Strava challenge was to see who could do the longest ride in the world and I think the winner did 468km and that was virtually Melbourne to Portsea twice [ed. as in, dead flat]. To do 9,000m in that distance, and to be able to do the Everest in a day; to be able to achieve a couple of those goals in one ride is just awesome.

What’s next for you?

First and foremost I really enjoy being part of the Hells 500 group and being able to do our crazy once-a-year challenges. They’re one thing I was always look forward to — being part of a group of like-minded, crazy cyclists kicking those goals.

I suppose one of my next goals would be to actually see what is the longest distance I could do in a 20-hour period. I mean 24 hours is probably achievable but I’d rather, realistically, say “what’s the longest I could do in 20 hours?”

I also saw somewhere that Audax are running a four-day 1,200km ride and it’s called the Tour de Tasmanie. I do know that they have qualifying criteria for those rides and I wonder if they looked at my ride data whether I would qualify.

That’s something that would be an awesome achievement I think: to cover 1,200km in four days. I think it’s about 13,000m of climbing so that’s only 4,000m more than I did in one ride and I’d have three extra days!

Thanks very much to John van Seters for taking the time to tell his story. If you’ve got a climbing-related story you’d like to share, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

18 Replies to “Interview: John van Seters after his 430km, 9,100m ride”

  1. Well done John, mammoth effort. You said in the interview that it takes a long time for your legs to feel good, 150k into a 200k ride, any ideas why that may be?

    1. Thanks Neale , I wish I knew ! Maybe I just need to push a bit harder from the word go to force them to loosen up , but then again when your out there for such a long time its all about conserving energy to survive !

  2. Truly amazing effort, and was thankful that was able to bump into you on your epic journey on the day. Tremendous work and congratulations on being one of the top climbers in the world finishing 17/9326 riders in the Vuelta Challenge.

  3. I just rechecked that longest ride strava challenge and the winner only rode 425 kms with 2069 mts of climbing in 16 hours and elapsed time of 20 hours ! Interesting !

    1. As for previous comment re food! I tried to keep breaks to a minimum and only when drink bottles needed refilling and then ate as much as I could !

  4. Amazing. Awe-inspiring. Colossal.

    I wish.

    Congratulations to John. Gives me insisting and motivation to harden up and keep going.

    My only two questions…what did the wife say, and what exactly did he eat over the 24hrs?

    1. I think that Matt better interview her! Then again I don’t think that would be a good idea!
      Lots of healthy food like Pies, custard tarts, vanilla slices,a banana, muslie slices , a gel,fruit cake,up and go,s and mostly important a 4:1 protein powder sports drink!

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