My much-delayed writeup of my first encounter with the 2008 Mt Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb a couple of weekends ago.
First, a brief description of this race: it’s a mere 7.6 miles from the base of Mt. Washington to the top. However, it’s steep. The course record stands at just under 50 minutes (or not quite 10 mph), and that was set by a guy who has been teammate to the likes of Lance Armstrong. Winning times usually come in the neighborhood of 55 minutes. A sub-60-minute finish puts you in some very elite company. Finish in under 80 minutes and your reward is a red number plate and a place in the first wave of riders (known as the Top Notch) the next year. Also, Mt W has the worlds worst weather. Last year’s race was canceled – twice – due to summit conditions that included freezing rain and 70 mph wind gusts. In August.
So back on February 1st, I felt a little knot in my stomach after I clicked submit on the registration form. Just what was I trying to prove? Unfortunately, that’s not a rhetorical question. Through other venues, I had already proved that I’m a below-average road racer, a poor crit racer, and that I suck out loud at cyclocross. I felt a need to demonstrate that I do, in fact, have some skills on the bike. Well, maybe I have just one skill: I can go uphill fairly well. After playing with a few online calculators, I figured that a Top Notch finish might be within reach.
At this point you might be saying to yourself, “that’s silly!” And I’d agree with you. It doesn’t mean much to anybody but me. But setting goals does keep me motivated on those lonely, early-morning training rides.
I didn’t really set any other racing goals for myself this year. Since February I’ve had Washington on the brain. I spent hours obsessing over equipment. Weight normally doesn’t matter all that much, but in this race, I figured every pound lighter would get me up the mountain about 30 seconds faster. I managed to keep my body weight as low as it’s been since I was 17. I found some relatively cheap ways to shave some weight from the bike. It’s all uphill, right? So who needs a rear brake? And it’s really steep…who needs a front derailleur or big chainring? There’s nothing cheaper than taking stuff off the bike. We mere mortals also need much-lower-than-normal gearing to get up the Rockpile. In my case, I went from a 34×23 low gear (~1.48 ratio) to a 22×25 (0.88).
Of course, I also trained. Following some good advice, I did a lot of structured interval work this year: 1 minute, 2.5-minute, and 5-minute blocks formed the majority of my training time. Some of those workouts weren’t fun. But I managed to find more fitness with less training time than in previous years. I did a few races along the way, and wrangled a family trip up to the Mt W practice race last month. The auto road isn’t normally open to cyclists, but racers can do a practice ride on a designated day in July. My practice ride validated my model. If I kept training and didn’t gain weight, I just might make it.
August 16th was the big day. This time I made the 4-hour drive by myself, meeting a couple of friends at the mountain. We stayed near the mountain Friday night, then set up early on Saturday morning. Light rain fell as we warmed up at the base, but by the time we staged for the race, the rain gave way to broken clouds. A weather report from the summit gave us light winds and 50 degrees F. I lined up near the front of my wave, and 5 minutes after the canon’s boom sent the Top Notch starters up the mountain, we were off.
The auto road features about 200 meters of flat before the climb starts, and my legs spun the tiny gear crazily as I made my way towards the slope. As soon as we hit, I downshifted and hunted for my pace, while what felt like the entire wave surged around me. I could tell I was going pretty hard as it was, so I didn’t try to keep pace. I settled into something like a rhythm and tried to enjoy the scenery a bit. By the second mile marker, I had worked my way past most of my wave and had some clear road.
A bit after the fourth mile marker, I hit a pair of steep switchbacks known as “The Horn” and started to doubt myself. My time looked OK so far, but my legs, back and lungs ached, and I had almost half the race left. I had crossed the treeline and the sun beat down. Contrary to my worst fears, we had no wind at all. Sweat dripped off my nose and chin, and I regretted wearing an undershirt beneath my jersey. I tried to hold my pace but resisted pushing any harder. I feared the mile-long dirt section that would start soon.
I feared it not because of the road surface (it’s well-packed) but because the grade is one of the steepest sustained sections on the course, it’s inevitably slower than riding on pavement…and I couldn’t quite remember where it ended. I went around one hairpin, then another, hoping that I’d finally reached the end, only to be disappointed. My left calf tightened up with what felt like a cramp but turned out to be a strained muscle. Finally, I reached more pavement. The six-mile marker came up with just under an hour on the clock. My pace remained on target, but I felt dangerously close to collapse.
Just after the seven-mile marker the grade eases a bit as we pass the Cow Pasture. Sitting here in the comfort of my house I can ponder what possible advantage a dairy farmer might find in grazing his herd at that altitude, but as I cranked past the pasture, my entire world consisted of keeping my legs turning over. My head drooped and my bike handling went to hell. I had trouble holding a straight line, and hoped that my unpredictable zags wouldn’t take out any passing riders. The spectator density increased as I approached the summit. The last hundred meters were packed with people, and it’s just as well. That is the steepest part of the course, at 22% grade. I didn’t even notice the flash when a photographer snapped this picture of me.
I didn’t have energy to sprint, just enough to throw my bike over the line, unclip, and rest my head on my handlebars. I have suffered on the bike before, but I have never suffered like I suffered on Mt. Washington. A volunteer threw a blanket over my shoulders, helped me off the bike and sat me down on a rock. I needed 15 minutes or so before I had the energy to get up and find my friends.
I also failed to notice my finishing time as I crossed the line. Based on what I saw on my bike computer I figured it was “good enough,” but I didn’t learn my official time until much later in the day: 1:16:45. That, and $3.50 gets me a cappucino…and a place in the Top Notch next year.
Though I’m happy I made my goal, I am not entirely convinced that I will put myself and the family through this again. I’m bitten by the hillclimb bug, though. New England offers several similar races, and I will definitely try to put more of them on my calendar.