Yesterday, I returned to the Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb after a 13 year absence. I’ve been ailing since May with a stress fracture and bone spur in my left foot; and hadn’t done any kind of race in 10 weeks. That’s a long stretch for me, especially in the heart of the summer. I average 40 races a year, so there has been some adjusting to do. My heel still hurts with every step and I’m going to have to deal with it (rest) after cyclocross season, but for now, I’m plugging ahead, though with no running. My triathlon season was a bust and my trail running season ended early, so I was looking for something “low impact” and fun to focus on. Late last month, I put my name on the wait list for the hill climb, and it wasn’t long before I got the invitation to register.
Sadly, my 1:17:33 was the slowest time of the five times that I’ve done the race, but that was to be expected. A 1:12:00 would have been preferred, but it just wasn’t in the cards. I haven’t had the time to train and I don’t climb like I used to. Work and family responsibilities are greater than ever and with my injury limiting me, I was forced to just gut this one out. I was really hoping to pit my 41-year-old body vs. my 28-year-old body. My best time was in 2000 when I was 27. The 1:08:04 I rode that day might stand as my best ever, though I’ve got the itch to return in 2015 and give it another shot. 2001 was 1:11:04, 1999 was 1:10:37, and 1997 was 1:14:54. I’m happy with all five of these races. I’m pumped to be able to do what I do.
The 7.6 mile climb from the base to the top of the road, just shy of the 6,322 summit, gains 4,618 feet at an average grade of 12%. The final pitch is notorious for its 22% grade. The race is paved for most of the way, though there is a long section of dirt in the final third. The scenery is amazing. This is the most beautiful hill around, and one of the most amazing bicycle courses in the world. It’s a short race, but a painful one. My GPS data is worth checking out.
I rode my Seven Axiom SL, which is my everyday bike. It’s the same bike that I commute to work on. I got some great compliments, even in the middle of the climb. One guy couldn’t get over my fenders, and the fact that I was hauling useless weight to the top. He was yelling over the howling wind at his buddy, who was one switch back up, to check them out as I passed. It is my favorite bike because it can do it all. I’ve ridden it on paved roads, dirt roads, in criteriums, to work, and now on Mt. Washington. I didn’t have any special gearing. I rode the 39 x 27 “stock gears.” The only modifications were that I removed my headlight, my rear rack, and my tail light. That saved me a few pounds, but it was largely irrelevant. The big change in weight was my own. I’m lean, but in 2000, I was really lean. I had a different kind of body that was built for riding. I was 15 pounds lighter. Over the past 13 years, I’ve ridden less, run more, and aged a bit.
I don’t know why it took me so long to return to one of my favorite all time races. Like I said, I haven’t done as much pure road riding in recent years. The $350 entry fee has been a mild deterrent, but really shouldn’t have been because the proceeds are for a good organization, the Tin Mountain Conservation Center. Horst Engineering and the Livingston Family have a strong interest in conservation/environmental philanthropy, so it is nice to support Tin Mountain’s good work. I think the first four times, it was only $100 for the entry fee, and that was steep back then. This race is an amazing fund-raiser. There were 517 finishers and probably nearly 600 registrants.
I’ve climbed Mt. Washington many different ways over the years. In addition to the bicycle hill climb, I’ve done the running race once, and hiked the mountain many times. However, the 2006 Sea-to-Summit remains my second toughest one day race (after the 2010 Ironman Brasil) and it was my hardest ever day on Mt. Washington. The race consisted of a 12 mile kayak up the Piscataquis River to Berwick, Maine. Then, after a transition, we rode 90 miles to Jackson, New Hampshire. From there, we ran four miles uphill on Rt. 16 to Pinkham Notch. Then, we ran/hiked the five and a half miles up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to the summit in gale force winds blowing cold rain and sleet at 6,322 feet, the highest point in New England.
The auto road is an amazing feature and has a rich history. The summit of Mt. Washington isn’t my favorite. I much prefer remote mountains, but you can’t ride your bicycle up remote mountains, so I make an exception for this race. I’ve been up a few of the other hills in the BUMPS Northeast Hill Climb Series, and New England has some other fine climbs. Mt. Washington is considered Hors Categorie by European standards, and is likely the hardest road bike climb in the world. It’s tougher than Alpe d’ Huez, Angliru, Mortirolo, Mt. Ventoux, and many of the other famous mountain top finishes. In the past, I started in the Top Notch first wave, but yesterday, I was in the third wave with my age group. That was OK. We started 10 minutes behind the first wave and five minutes behind the second wave. I had many riders to pass, but it wasn’t an issue. Seeing people gave me someone to chase. My Horst Engineering Cycling Team mate, Gerry Clapper, is one of the best climbers in New England and he is an amazing masters rider. He rode 1:05:09, good for 14th overall and first in the 50-54 age group.
Yesterday, we had decent weather. It was mild in the valley at the start with a temperature in the low-60’s Fahrenheit. The temperature was cool above tree line. It was about 37 degrees Fahrenheit at the summit with a wind-chill in the high 20’s. The wind was blowing at a steady 20-25 miles per hour, with higher gusts. There are multiple switch backs, so sometimes the wind was at your back, and some times it was in your face. The headwind did slow me, but the temperature was perfect. Naturally, I was chilled when I finished. Debbie and the kids were fantastic. They drove up ahead of me to meet me at the top and were waiting for me when I finished.
The four of us scrambled the final feet to the summit for a photo opportunity, though the kids were frozen solid, as was the camera. Thankfully my iPhone worked. Then we descended to the summit building and checked out the recently renovated Mt. Washington Observatory museum. After the kids drove the virtual snow cat, and after we checked out the anemometer that recorded the record-setting 231 mph wind gust in 1934, we found our car and waited for the race to end. The fog and clouds cleared a bit, giving us some momentarily spectacular views. Everyone has to cross the line before they let the cars back down the mountain because the road is closed for the riders. You are only permitted to ride the auto road four days a year. Once for each race (Newton’s Revenge is held in July) and once as a pre-ride for each race.
One of the last finishers was a unicyclist, which was an amazing sight to see. It took him three tries to negotiate the final 22% grade, which has two wicked switchbacks. The crowd roared in approval as he made his way to the finish line. The summit was a zoo, which I can deal with for special circumstances like this race. We drove down to the base in about 30 minutes, grabbed a plate of food from the tent, and returned to Dolly Copp Campground, where we spent Friday night. We visited briefly with some friends at the 19 Mile Brook Trailhead, before hiking four miles up to Carter Notch Hut on the other side of Pinkham Notch, where we spent Saturday night. This morning, we hiked back down and made our way back to Connecticut after stops in Conway, NH and Putney, VT. It was another action packed weekend for the Livingston Family, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’m already planning my return to Mt. Washington for 2015 or beyond.