I don’t get to write much about activities other than biking but this one deserves mention. Friday night before leaving for New York, I received an email from Danny Chew, race creator of the Dirty Dozen. He had just finished his summary of this year’s Dozen. He made a mention to me as a 53-year old rookie (he liked calling people rookies) from Virginia who broke his shift cable on the fourth hill. A little embarrassing I would say. I would have preferred to remain anonymous. Oh well, proof that I was there!
What used to be a YFU tradition later became a family tradition — a weekend trip to New York City at Christmas. My sister, Betsy, and her two daughters, Hannah and Emily, joined our family. We left the house shortly before 7:00 a.m. for a trip to Union Station where everyone believed they would be transferring to Metro to ride on Bolt Bus. Instead, I pulled out train tickets as a real surprise.
It was snowing as we approached the city and I was glad I wasn’t driving my 15-passenger van. Amtrak took us directly into the city to Penn Station. We dropped our luggage at the hotel and then made our way to Times Square. We saw Shrek (The Musical) on the TKTS board for half price and Ashley and I made our way to the front for tickets. Ashley was really excited to see Shrek and I wanted to as well. It was not everyone’s first choice, some wanted to see Phantom of the Opera, but that choice was made for us. Shrek was sold out so we got Phantom tickets instead.
Phantom is a Broadway classic. Now in it’s 21st year on Broadway (they hoped for three), Ashley and I agreed that it’s a show to be seen at least once. While we hoped for the laugh out loud funny Shrek, we weren’t disappointed to see Phantom.
Cheri was excited because a woman she had taught in childbirth class was in the show. She got up before the show to try to pass a note to Rayanne Gonzales, one of the singers in the show. We would want to say hello to her afterwards. In the meantime, Bryan announced “after the show we are going backstage.” Bryan’s boss’ brother works in New York City and he has a good friend, Craig Jacobs, who is the stage manager for Phantom. It wasn’t quite six degrees of separation but almost.
After the show we were able to go on stage. We learned some “secrets” (can’t share or they wouldn’t be secrets) and then Ashley took to the stage to sing. She sang “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop of Horrors. It was great. Craig said she has a beautiful voice. My nieces, Hannah and Emily, both dance and they took the opportunity to dance on stage as well. Ashley, Hannah, and Emily all can say they were on Broadway.
In the evening we headed to the Hilton Theatre for Young Frankenstein. What a great show. But it opened in November 2007 and will be ending next month — only a 14-month run. Don’t know why — tickets were mostly hard to come by and the theater seemed to be full. But maybe it wasn’t. And according to the New York Times, it priced itself out of the market.
But we had a great weekend. No time on the bike but something a little different for a change.
EDIT/EPILOGUE – Danny Chew was paralyzed in an accident in 2016. He continues to ride now (2020) using a hand-cycle.
Some days you have it, some days you don’t. Today I didn’t.
It was cold but I wanted to ride. It’s easier if you commit to meeting people so I called Adam Lewandowski at The Bike Lane last night to see if they would be riding in the morning. He said they would. It seems silly to drive 45 minutes to join a group ride but that’s what I did. I pulled in just as they were departing and asked if they would wait for me. They did. There were eight of them.
It was 28º (-3º C) and I quickly put on my shoes, grabbed my bike, and rolled up with them. I caught them outside the mini-skating rink at the Reston Town Center where two teams of 8-9-year-olds were playing ice hockey. Cute.
We rolled out and kept a good pace. Think about the guys that want to go riding when it’s below freezing. There aren’t too many recreational types here. Well, I was. I overheard one guy talking about his personal cycling coach. I didn’t quite understand that.
Still, we kept together for most of the ride but on one fairly long climb the pack pulled ahead of me by 50-100 meters and I couldn’t close the gap. I could catch them at the traffic lights but there were two places on the course of 30 miles (48 km) where my legs just weren’t keeping up. Disheartening.
It dawned on me that the night before around 9:00 p.m. that I did 40 minutes on the stepper machine. I mentioned that to Adam and he opined that would kill my legs for sure. I simply had no recovery at 9:00 a.m. in the cold. Whatever it was, I was the slowpoke today.
It doesn’t usually happen but we’ve all had those days — at least all of us who aren’t doping have had those days. It was cold. It was still fun, but a little disheartening.
In Beechview, they encountered the steepest street in Pittsburgh. Canton Avenue has a 37-percent graded incline, and it taunted the cyclists as they gasped for breath and their legs slowly pumped the pedals, knowing that they could now walk their bikes faster than they could ride them. Some did. Others fell. — Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 27, 2006
I’m not sure when or how I first found out about the Dirty Dozen but decided this was one of the “must-do” rides for me — perhaps another in my “Bucket List.” If the weather was good, I would go ride. It was 17° when I left Somerset, Pa. — good enough!
Danny Chew is a two time champion of the Race Across America and has dubbed himself the “Million Mile Man” in trying to ride one million miles in his life. In 1983, Dan, his brother Tom (a 1980 Olympian cyclist himself), and Bob Gottlieb “wanted to showcase Pittsburgh’s steepest and toughest hills in one ride.” They created a hill climb race that takes one more than 50 miles through Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods but never getting more than 10 kilometers away from the center of the city.
This is not a sanctioned race. It’s more like an illegal drag race — people know where and when and they show up. Since there has been newspaper coverage the public knows as well. As late as 2003 it went off with only eight racers. But the past two years’ participation exceeded 100 riders.
The race takes place the Saturday after Thanksgiving. There is no online registration. Just show up between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and pay $5.00. No release or liability forms. No race jerseys or T-shirts commemorating the event. And there are no race bibs or bike numbers. Danny knows the challengers versus we mere mortals who are just attempting to finish.
I left Somerset at 7:20 a.m. and it was cold. I expected that it would warm up, which it did — some. I arrived at the cycling track next to the police station in Highland Park in Pittsburgh at 8:50 a.m. and immediately registered. It was 28° although it was calm and sunny and seemed warmer.
I went to register and met Danny Chew. He looked at me and said “You look like you’re over 50.” Nice. When I told him I was he responded that they had 12 riders last year over 50 as though 50 was the age of death.
But this clearly is a young man’s race. Or young women as they added a women’s race category as well. And there was a purse — $150 to the winner, $100 for second and $50 for third, at least for the women. I’m not sure if the men had a purse or if it was simply for pride.
At 10:00 a.m. or ten after 10, Danny came out and made announcements. There was no sense of urgency. He introduced some race marshals (riders with orange vests) and gave instructions for crossing the busiest of the highways. Basically, stay together and we can cross against the traffic lights — unless a cop is sitting there. Then we better stop.
Danny would record the top finishers at each hill. If he didn’t call out your name, shout it out for him. They wait for everyone to finish each climb before moving on to the next hill. A no-drop ride. Maybe most important, if you don’t belong at the front don’t go there.
Danny went on and explained how important it was to stay together and how the race was neutralized between the hills. He did say if someone couldn’t keep up maybe this wasn’t the race for them. He left us with this final thought: We can’t wait for anyone who has a flat tire (uh, make that any mechanical) unless they are in the Top Ten. However, if it’s one of the top ten challengers then the race should stop and wait for them.
So they had two sets of rules, one for challengers and one for mortals. Oh, well, it’s Danny’s race and it is for fun. He just lets the rest of us hang on the rear.
Danny had announced a record turnout, more than 140 riders, and I was near the back of them. I wasn’t going to go to the front and challenge for the hill climbs. At each hill the course marshal was to blow a whistle to signify the start of the race up the hill.
We rode neutral across the Allegheny River to Aspinwall and headed up the first hill. I heard the whistle but even then I was in the pack a good three blocks behind the leaders. Even if I wanted to challenge I was so far back that I didn’t have a chance.
We started the climb. I checked the grade and it was 10%, 12%, 15%, then 18%. It kept going and going. It would be a one-mile climb. A few people were out of their homes to cheer us. I imagine they all appreciate the effort to get up that hill. I passed some cyclists dismounting and one who had already turned around and was apparently done for the day.
Already my mind was telling me I hadn’t ridden as much as I should have in the Fall and maybe I should stop. But one forum writer perhaps stated it best by writing that you keep pedaling because everyone else is. In some ways, it is easier in a group because you do feed off each other. I hung in there, kept my pace, and made it to the top. I was probably ahead of 20% of the riders.
We waited at the top until the last riders made it up and then took off to the next climb in Sharpsburg. I never heard a start whistle for the second hill. I was just in a pack which was probably too spread out. This hill too was very long and about as steep. It ended between two cemeteries at the top. Sweet. Again, I was near the back on the climb and I thought at one point that I was the last rider — anyone still behind me had dismounted at this point and was walking.
But it was another 5-10 minutes before we were ready to move on so there may have been some real stragglers. It must be nice for Danny to have started this race 25 years ago and watch it grow but watching it grow also presented some organizing dilemmas including whether they want to include everyone or just elite hill climbers.
We took off again and rode perhaps three miles before a nice descent. Here I let it out and was passing a number of people on the descent. It was a technical descent with a few curves and many were uncomfortable letting it roll that fast. I looked down and saw that I was going 41 mph and then I looked up. Oh crap! In about 25 meters we were crossing Sharpsburg road, blowing through a stop sign (road protected by riders/marshals), and immediately climbing a steep hill.
I can downshift the rear derailleur while climbing but it’s not so easy on the front derailleur because that requires letting up a bit on the pedals. I immediately downshifted the front ring to start climbing but don’t know what happened next. I hit the hill about the same time a guy in front of me was bailing out and falling. I went about 25 meters and had no power. My rear gears hadn’t changed. I hoped to be able to unclip before I fell and I was successful. I dismounted.
I looked at the rear derailleur and it looked like it was bent backwards. I wasn’t sure what happened but lifted the bike and tried to change the gears manually. I even grabbed the chain and moved it to a bigger sprocket. It went back to the low gear — my 12 tooth small gear (hardest to pedal — damn hard to pedal).
The hill was steep but not that long and I decided I would walk the bike to the top. I reached the top and hoped that someone would see me messing with the gears, and perhaps they did, but no one offered to help and I didn’t ask for any. Whatever was wrong, I couldn’t fix. I was stuck in the 12 tooth gear.
As we rolled out I started last as we moved to Hill #4. Even on the slightest grades and I had to stand to pedal, not having any of my easier gears to pedal. Still, I caught some poor schmoe who appeared to be the only person in the race with more than 10% body fat. He was struggling.
At an intersection protected by an unofficial marshal I explained to him my derailleur was stuck. He said “we” (which I hoped meant “he”) could look at it before the next hill and then encouraged us to pick up the pace. He took off and I followed, leaving behind the solo rider.
We (meaning the marshal and me but not the other rider) caught the peloton in Etna in time for Hill #4. I went one block then turned around to remind the marshal of his promise. A photographer was there and he looked and said simply the cable had slipped. But when he went to pull slack from the cable to tighten it up, the entire cable came through the housing. The cable was sheered off. There was no way to switch gears. I was toast.
As the group was already climbing on the hill I had a matter of a few seconds I had to decide to continue or abandon. Keeping with the group in the neutral sections would be no problem but clearly I couldn’t do the hill climbs, which was, after all, the purpose of the Dirty Dozen. I even thought about walking the climbs just to complete the course.
But I realized my day was done. If I was a professional this type of “mechanical” (failure) would be no problem. The team car would be behind me and simply hand me a new bike and I would keep riding. But at the recreational level, a mechanical will end your day and it ended mine.
I was probably no more than three miles from the start although we had ridden 15 at that point. I found the 62nd Street Bridge and crossed the Allegheny River and followed signs back to the cycling track where I was parked.
I arrived and rode on the cycling track just to let out some frustration. It was a nice day, high 30s and sunny so I thought I would ride something different.
As I was leaving I saw two other riders coming back in. They explained that the one rider had flatted (a blowout which we all thought was a gun shot) and by the time it was fixed they couldn’t catch the group. And they didn’t know the route. But they were trying to catch their bearings and go backwards and catch the group later.
I had no such option. Forward or backward, I couldn’t ride the course. My Dirty Dozen turned into a Disappointing Dozen. Of three (hills).
I was disappointed but I can ride the course anytime I want, as long as I am willing to drive to Pittsburgh. It was fun, I hope to do it again and make it without any mechanical problems.
The starting location 1401 Washington Blvd., Pittsburgh PA
Washington Blvd is also known as the Blue Belt and is also Pa. Rte 8
The Washington Blvd Cycling Track is a former Pennsylvania State Police Driver’s License course
My disappointment with not being able to finish because of a broken derailleur cable became real only when I went to Chris Popovic’s Picasa site and viewed more than 500 photos of the event. I really wanted to complete what I started and will have to do it solo or make plans for 2009. The picture of me walking and the photo of Canton Ave. are from his photos.
For most of the early Fall, I could not join a group ride on the weekends. Every Saturday I had refereeing, either mentoring/observing or attending clinics. I refereed travel games more this Fall than in the past so my Sundays were shot too.
Yesterday was a teaching day but today was wide open. Next weekend is the NVSC Fall Classic tournament and my referee assignments are from 8 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. on each day. If I could get a group ride in it would have to be today.
I left the house at 8:30 to gas up, intending to head out to Middleburg for a ride in Loudoun County. The wind was shaking the van and I hadn’t confirmed with the ride leader. I was unsure whether once I got to Middleburg there would even be a ride. I filled up the tank ($1.779 per gallon) and then went home knowing there was another ride a little later and a little closer.
After getting home I got the information for the Mason Neck Meander. It was described as a leisurely ride through the Mason Neck area and surrounding neighborhoods, with only a few climbs. It was rated a “C” which is slower than I normally ride but you can’t always find the perfect group.
We met at 11:00 a.m. at Gunston Elementary School. Temperatures were in the low to mid 40s and winds were gusting to 30 mph. The trip leader looked at me and said “you look like you ride faster than us so if you want to go ahead you can.” I’d rather not.
Some people enjoy following cue sheets while I would prefer not to. I don’t mind pulling (being the leader) if someone is behind me navigating.
There were six of us. I slipped in behind the leader and followed at second wheel for about eight miles. He then pulled over and three of us went ahead using our cue sheets. The route was a nice ride. It is mostly flat and in heavy woods. A lot of the road were covered in leaves. For much of the route we were next to the Potomac River, or next to homes that were next to the Potomac.
We followed a route that took us through the neighborhoods before taking us into Mason Neck Park. The three of us were ready to leave the park after a short restroom break when the trailing three joined us. We left together with eight miles back to the start of a 21-mile ride.
As I was leading I looked behind me to see who was on my wheel. To my surprise, no one was. I was riding a bit too fast for them to hang on and this was in the flat in the park. I was by myself in the “lead.” I would have to solo home to “victory.”
The last seven miles had some climbs and was all wind. The wind was strong and in my face. I had no help. I just kept working, into the wind. The wind was so strong that I could not hear cars approaching from the rear. Sometimes I thought there was a car behind me and it was just the wind. Other times the wind was so strong I never heard a car coming.
Once I had soloed for about four miles I took a peek. I couldn’t see anyone. I kept going, even as I was picking up the pace. I arrived back but forgot to celebrate as I was first across the line.
I probably then violated the unwritten rule of group rides. It’s OK to solo ahead, even to victory, but one should wait and say goodbye at the end. Be nice and say thanks to the leader for organizing the ride. But I looked back, there was no one anywhere in sight, and football was starting in 22 minutes.
For a day, a cold and windy day, my breakaway worked.
The 1979 movie, Breaking Away, won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Almost all avid cyclists know the movie. It is set in Bloomington, Indiana, the home of Indiana University. I’m not going to give a lengthy review here. Check it out at Wikipedia.
At least in the movie, the locals were called “cutters” by the more well-do-to-out-of-town students because many of their fathers worked in the limestone quarries. Each year I.U. is home to a “500” race, similar to the one in Indianapolis — the Indianapolis 500. This is a bike race, the “Little 500.”
When on travel I try to find a local bike shop and rent a bike. I didn’t see that with this trip I had time. Normally I would be writing about my ride in Bloomington. But there would be no ride.
I was with a management recruiting team visiting I.U. for a career fair. We didn’t arrive in Indianapolis until after 6:00 p.m. and had to drive to Bloomington. It was well after dark on Wednesday when we got to our hotel. Thursday was spent on the campus of I.U. — a gorgeous campus I might add.
I am a family historian and in January I had “met” a fifth cousin (twice removed at that), who lived in Bloomington. I contacted him and we agreed to meet that evening for dinner. There would be no time to ride. I was to fly out the next morning.
During lunch Thursday I sat with some staffers at I.U. We talked about a lot of things but they perked up when they realized that I knew “Cutters.” I soon discovered that the race locally is called the “Little 5” and the movie is somewhat akin to what Groundhog Day is to Punxsutawney, Pa. There was a lot more interest in the Little 5 ever since the movie.
Not able to ride, I simply wanted to leave with a Cutters shirt. I had no clue where to look and tried the college. They didn’t sell them. But one person said to try “Greetings.” I didn’t know Greetings but remembered that.
Then a second person mentioned Greetings and then a third. So that was it.
Peter Jenkins in his book, “A Walk Across America” mentioned that if three separate people all recommended the same place then he must find it. So it was with Greetings.
I put Greetings in the GPS Unit and found the store on Kirkwood Street. I walked in and found my Cutters shirt. $7.95. There still are bargains in America.
When I met Lee Lawmaster, my 5th cousin, that night the first thing I showed him was my Cutters shirt. I think he was pleased I liked the town.
I didn’t ride but I got the next best thing. A Cutters shirt.
EPILOGUE — When I returned home I wore the Cutters shirt. Some people asked me what it meant, some wouldn’t ask, but some knew — “Hey, Cutters, from Breaking Away. That is really cool!”
I’ve been off the bike for a while. During the Blue Ridge Extreme I thought I had a problem with my rear wheel as it was rubbing on the brake. I had been riding for 50 miles of climbing (and descending) with the brakes on. I concluded the wheel was out of true.
I took it to my local bike shop and discovered the wheel wasn’t out of true but that the rim was cracked. Yikes!. Trek has a five-year warranty so it was covered but I was without the bike for a week and missed the Potomac Pedalers Century which I hoped would be my last long ride of the summer.
I picked up my bike on Monday and was able to ride Tuesday which felt great. I then left for San Francisco on Wednesday hoping to make the highlight of my trip a bike ride. (Don’t tell my bosses.)
Needing to rent a bike, I settled on Bike and Roll at Columbus and Lombard Streets. I was fitted, well not really fitted, for a Trek 1500 road bike. Not fitted because the seat was too high. Three times I asked that it be lowered one inch and three times it was lowered about 1/8″. Finally, I accepted it and rode away.
I was at the corner of Lombard Street, the famous crookedest street in the world. I looked up and could see the street calling me. I didn’t have my Garmin Edge with me so I can only guess at percent grade. It was about a half-block climb up to and across Taylor Street. I would guess that was about a 10% grade. The second block was an honest long city block up to Jones Street. I would guess it kicked up to 15-18%. After Jones Street, it is still steeper up to Leavenworth. I read it was 27% but have no way of confirming that. It sure felt like it though.
I didn’t know the bike and just put it in the lowest gear possible. I struggled to keep going and thought I would have to abandon before reaching the top. I didn’t look up but kept the eyes focused on the front wheel. Breathing heavy and loud was my sign to the tourists standing at the base of the crooked part of the street to move out of my way when I got to Leavenworth. I don’t remember ever breathing so hard. It was a short climb but very steep. I made it then stopped to survey the view.
Beautiful. To my right, an extension of Leavenworth Street, one could see the San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz Island and prison. It was a warm fall day, about 75°.
I made my way over to the Presidio. While leaving the Presidio, I passed a pet cemetery which was so neat I had to go back and take a picture.
Leaving the Presidio I descended to the water level of the bay but then had to climb a hill up to the Golden Gate Bridge. I was surprised at first by the number of people walking their bikes but then it made sense. Most bikers were tourists who probably seldom ride and couldn’t resist the temptation to “Bike the Bridge.” I easily passed lots of riders here.
The bridge was crowded with walkers, many walking two and three abreast oblivious to people trying to pass on bikes. Even the families that were biking were trying to ride two abreast at a very slow speed. One just needed patience and to pick your spots to get through.
On the bridge, I noticed cyclists coming from Marin Co. were dressed in cold weather gear complete with long finger gloves, jackets, and leg warmers. I began to regret leaving my jacket and arm warmers in the car.
It was cool, if not cold, on the bridge. I would guess the temperature was in the mid 50s. But in a matter of 200 meters or so, from the end of the bridge into Marin Co., I would guess the temperature jumped 20 degrees. It went from 55° to 75°.
At the end of the bridge is the entrance to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area which climbs a steep hill and provides a wonderful view of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, as well as the Pacific Ocean.
I began climbing on my bike with its too-high seat. I didn’t see any other riders here. I was right that almost all riders were interested in biking across the bridge but climbing a one or two-mile hill was not for them.
I was near the top, pedaling my own rhythm when out of nowhere a young lady passed me. I hate that. Everyone is better than someone and everyone can find others who are better than they are. And I was on a rental bike with a hideous saddle bag on the front and uncomfortable at that. Plus I had climbed up Lombard Street.
Who knows where she came from but she certainly looked comfortable. We exchanged pleasantries and I settled in about 10 meters behind her. That was about where she was when I realized she had passed me. She was out of the saddle and I was in. I maintained that distance for a while and then decided to match her tempo out of the saddle. Once I did she began to pull away. I was actually riding better in the saddle than out although being out of the saddle was a little easier on the legs.
When I reached the top I wanted to keep going but I had to stop. The view back to San Francisco was just too great to pass up. I only had my cell phone but still wanted to snap a couple of pictures.
Here began a dangerous one-lane road down towards the Pacific. I took it. It was one of the scariest roads I have ridden. One lane, steep in sections, and only a guard rail preventing me from going over a cliff down to the rocky ocean coast, maybe 100 meters below. On my Trek Pilot, I would have sat back and bombed the descent but I was not comfortable on this bike. I felt my butt was too high which is scary while descending on a steep oceanfront road with many sharp curves.
I came to the bottom and stood over the ocean. It was absolutely beautiful!
I wondered how I would get back and what climb I would have to get back up to the top of the hill I just descended. I took Bunker Road back and had a 3-4% climb but nothing big. Then I came to a tunnel. That was a surprise. A very pleasant surprise.
The tunnel was one lane and I waited at a traffic signal (five-minute delay) until it was time to enter. There is a bike lane on either side and cyclists are to stop, press a button, which illuminates a flashing light “Bicyclist in Tunnel.”
At the end, I found my way to Sausalito up to Mill Valley then turned around. I went back to Sausalito, waited for the ferry, then headed back to San Francisco. A highlight of a bike trip in San Francisco is a ferry ride across the bay. It was back to the Embarcadero and another mile ride back to Bike and Roll.
I had enough. I probably rode 25 miles but my back and shoulders were aching from a bike that wasn’t fit very well. But it was a great day! I hope to get back and do it again. Soon.
What a weird group ride today. I must say it couldn’t have come at a better time. It was advertised as a 48-mile “follow the leader” ride. Instead of everyone having a cue sheet and eventually riding their own pace, this one forced everyone to follow the leader.
I showed up at the school near Culpeper and looked at the riders. I thought I was much too strong. To be fair, the ride was classified as a “CC” ride (12-14 mph) which is slower than my normal pace. But it was the only one I could find on this Labor Day weekend. I figured I would work on keeping my speed slow and my cadence high.
There was one guy pretty overweight (kudos for riding and trying to shed pounds) and another who smoked before, after, and during breaks. I did not see him smoke on the ride though.
The trip leader announced that he had forgotten his riding shoes. No one had a wrench to remove his pedals so he couldn’t go with us. The designated leader had been only been on parts of the ride before. The “sweep” made it be known we would have to wait for him.
There were no hills of note on the route but there were plenty of “rollers” here in the Piedmont. We crossed numerous streams and had an excellent view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Throughout the day when we came to any of the hills, I found myself going off the front and banging up the hills. I would sometimes sit up on the descent to let others catch me and sometimes just got in my tuck and enjoyed the speed. Top speed: 40 mph.
Often the best conversation starter on a group ride is a great jersey. And none is better than my Newton’s Revenge jersey. Maybe not surprisingly, no one, and there were 11 of us, ever mentioned it. But when I wear the jersey I hope it gives me wings to fly up the hills. I owe that much to the jersey.
In the early part of the ride, the group stayed together. But as they got tired, or as we got tired going at a slow pace and picked it up at the front, huge gaps began to develop. So that no one got lost, at every turn someone would have to wait at each intersection for the end of the group. Usually, I would stop and wait, sometimes up to five minutes.
Once everyone safely made the turn I would bridge back to the front, often with the leaders more than a mile ahead at that point. That made taking what was a slow-paced ride very enjoyable by giving me my own challenge of bridging through the group.
Our first rest stop was at a country store. One man was cooking BBQ — the ribs and chicken looked and smelled delicious. If I hadn’t been on a bike I would have loved to have bought something to eat then or take home. As we finished our break, we were warned of a very bad hill ahead. “It is a mile long.”
Whoa. A mile hill. I almost pointed to my jersey and said, “Now this is a hill!” But I didn’t. I just let my climbing do the talking. And if climbing Mount Washington doesn’t give one inspiration for any climb, last week our first major climb at the Blue Ridge Extreme was 18 miles. I had no problem zipping to the top. It was 0.7 mile.
For one day, one ride, everyone was looking at this old guy as the leader. Every hill, and every flat, remember, I bridged the group throughout the day, I was the one who went through the group to the front. I will claim only second fastest on the descent though as one rider was on a recumbent and he had the aero advantage, and probably 50 pounds too. We rode together a few weeks earlier on a ride out of Nokesville and he and I finished “first” on the day, out of about 30 riders. We would finish 1-2 again today, with me being the first back to the school.
I am reminded to something Phil Gaimon wrote a few weeks earlier. When he won a local crit in New York, he angered a number of folks when he wrote that he didn’t beat anyone, meaning the top pros weren’t in the race. When he won the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb two weeks ago he more carefully wrote that the big boys were in Utah and the guys he beat all had families, 9-5 jobs, rode tandems, and were in age from 9-75. He was being humble for winning but recognized that his best competition wasn’t there.
There are just too many events that I registered for where my competition is the big boys. The people I rode with today don’t compete in the hill climb up Mount Washington or the Blue Ridge Extreme Century. One young lady was looking forward to her first metric century (63 miles). On a hybrid bike.
Too many times I am comparing my finishes to the Phil Gaimon’s and the college boys who smoke these events. I am both relieved and excited at finishing while being disappointed that my times often are in the bottom 25% or even 10%.
Every once in awhile a ride with a lesser group, CC in this case, is good for the ego. I do get dropped occasionally if the boys at Hains Point put the hammer down. They ride an A pace and I can barely keep up but do manage most of the time. But if they want to drop me, they can.
I am reminded what was published in Bicycling about magazine in Jan/Feb 2008 (page 48) about getting discouraged. “When you feel like your fitness has a long way to go, stop comparing yourself with other cyclists. Go to the mall and compare yourself with other Americans. You feel better now, right?“
I spend way too much time being disappointed I am near the last of the finishers up Mount Washington or across the Blue Ridge. But today’s ride also reminds me that compared to most Americans, and even most other cyclists, I sometimes can be the Alpha Male. At least for a day.
I had to come back. It was that simple. Wintergreen was the location of perhaps my worst ride ever, last year, when I severely bonked riding the 100 mile course which included 11,000 vertical feet of climbing. I cramped going up Vesuvius and again at Reed’s Gap. When it came to taking on the right nutrition for an event like this, I sucked.
It was so bad that when I attempted to ride up Reed’s Gap the EMTs pulled me off my bike and made me rest. They offered to give me a ride in the SAG wagon but I refused.
It’s not so much that I like to suffer but it’s a rewarding feeling to overcome suffering. Still, a 100-mile ride might be more fun without it. Those guys that go 100 miles in four or five hours miss out on half the fun.
And if climbing 11,000 vertical feet (more than two miles in height) wasn’t enough, the organizers decided to make it harder. They added another 2,000′. But I knew I had to come try it again. This time I would taper the week before instead of doing a hard ride the day before.
I was smart on Friday when I rode with DC Velo at Hains Point. After the second lap when the big boys put down the hammer I decided not to chase. I knew I would be riding Blue Ridge and it would be foolish to try to keep up. I was glad to see some other riders also not to go, including a triathlete. We kept a reasonable pace and rode another lap together. But I did have my referee physical test Friday night and ran my best distance ever for the 12-minute run. Still, I was hoping my hard workout Friday night would have no effect. I may have been wrong.
This year was different from last year’s Blue Ridge Extreme. Rather than one start/finish location at the Afton Inn, this featured a start down in the valley near Beech Grove, about a mile above the Ski Barn. The finish was at Wintergreen Resort. Depending on where you parked, you might have to pedal by your vehicle on the way to the mountain top finish line.
We started with a mass start at a couple minutes past 8:00 a.m. It was a nice 2-3% downhill for a mile to the Ski Barn before turning and heading out towards Crabtree Falls and the climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I didn’t think I had the legs today and wondered about that stupid referee fitness exam I ran Friday night.
On the climb to Crabtree Falls and Montebello I saw a woman wearing shorts that stated “I climbed the Rock Pile.” That made for instant conversation. She didn’t have a name on her bib and I never asked her. But we talked about Mount Washington. She and her riding partner climbed it last week. She climbed it in two hours. I would say that was Diana Horvat, based on published results at Mount Washington.
We were soon joined by Michael Taylor and a friend of his, Jonathan Levine. Michael occasionally plays Ultimate with me on the Mall. While they stayed together 100% of the time, I would join them off and on throughout the ride.
The ride up to the Parkway was work but fun. It was about an 18-mile climb. I never faltered and pedaled right up, passing many people who had pulled over to rest.
I was conscious to drink a lot to combat cramping. On the day I went through 10 bottles of water and five of Elixir or Heed, depending on whether I mixed it or took what was at the water stops. Still, I don’t think it was enough. Add in two Power Bars, 13 Clif Bars (mini), three bananas and one would think I would be plenty fueled.
I rode solo most of the day. It seems my pace was in between those people I wanted to ride with or I was a third wheel. I didn’t appear to have any problems and enjoyed the ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway which went north from Crabtree Falls (or whatever the gap there is called). We turned off and headed down towards Sherando.
I bombed the descent, hitting 46 mph in one stretch and passing a group of strong riders. But I pulled over for a mechanical. My back wheel never felt right. It seemed to be rubbing on the brake and I eventually just opened up the calipers. Who needs brakes when you’re climbing so much?
Although my brake may have been rubbing and that made it a bit harder for 60 miles, I thought I was ready to tackle the climb at Vesuvius.
At first, I felt good on the climb. And just like the other side of the mountain, four hours earlier, I motored on up the climb. For a while. I passed a number of people walking and I kept going. But it was getting harder. As I stood and got out of the saddle, I was really dragging. Or the bike was really dragging. My front tire was flat.
As long as I was in the saddle and my weight was back, it was OK, or so it seemed. I’m sure even then it wasn’t. But out of the saddle, forget it. It probably took me 40-50% more energy to move the bike with a flat. It wasn’t completely flat, but very low. When I stood I could feel and hear the tire pressing against the rim.
Maybe it was the extra energy caused by the flat or maybe it’s because I suck, but I was about a mile from the summit when I felt the first twinge in the hamstring. Then the second hamstring. Then the quadriceps. I was cramping. Damn! I dismounted. I walked for a little bit before getting back on and finishing the ride to the summit.
At the top I made a very stupid decision. I was running a hard case tire to prevent flats, and they give me fits when I try to change them out. I didn’t want to take too much time changing the tire because I had a time cutoff to make back to the Ski Barn. I simply asked for the tire to be pumped up. I hoped that just by pumping it up it would hold enough to get me to the next rest stop. And the next.
I should have taken the time to do a complete tube change. You don’t think well when you are tired.
It worked for a few minutes but I soon felt I was riding low on the front tire. Stupidly, it did not prevent me from absolutely bombing the curved descents down past Crabtree Falls. I passed Jonathan and bridged up to Michael.
Michael and I rode together for a while and I even did my share of pulling when I finally told him I wasn’t going to make it. The tire was flat again. I limped to the next rest stop. The riders trailing by 2-3 minutes went flying by as a volunteer put more air in the tire. He was not equipped to make a quick change and neither was I.
With a full tire, I headed off to the Ski Barn with one last climb and descent before reaching the Ski Barn. The tire was failing again and this time I just hoped the SAG vehicle would come by and I would call it a day. I had ridden on a flat tire for more than 25 miles and it took its effect on me. I was beat.
The SAG vehicle, which seemingly had been circling like a shark ready to attack the past 45 minutes, was now nowhere to be found. I gutted it out and made it to the Ski Barn. At this point, I knew not many people were left behind me. I was surprised when I turned the corner and saw a lot of riders still hanging at the rest stop, waiting for the climb to the finish. I limped in on a flat tire and a rider said he could fix it in five minutes. And he did. I regret not finding out his name.
I mentioned to him that I flew down the mountain, trying to keep my weight on my back wheel. He told me that my biggest risk was not in a blow out due to an overheated tire but that the tire itself would roll under itself in one of the turns and come off the rim. Oops. I guess I was lucky because I hit speeds of 40 mph.
I was near exhaustion having ridden so long on a flat and had already decided to call it a day. Completing what you start is one thing; doing it while hurting your body is another. Rather than finish at the mountaintop, I decided long ago that I would simply bail out at the car when I passed the field where we parked at the start.
But the new inflated tire gave me new life and I rode with Michael and Jonathan for a while even passing the field where I was parked. Jonathan suggested I could go two miles past the car then turn back rather than ride the final four miles to the finish. That way, I would still get in my century ride.
That sounded good to me. I thought about going farther with them as well but really was spent. I don’t know how much extra energy I used riding on that flat but knew I already worked harder than anyone on the day. So I rode with them until I reached the two-mile point and then turned around and went back to the car. I told them to report to the organizers that Bib 321 went home. Check me off course, no need to send out the search crews looking for me.
The climb up to Wintergreen was steep, but not as steep as Reed’s Gap last year. I was happy they replaced Reed’s Gap with the Wintergreen climb. At the parking lot before the start, I heard one rider state she was going to return only to the parking lot. She was riding the half-metric (30 miles). One guy told her she needed to climb to Wintergreen and she said “Oh, no, I drove up there.” He said, “going in a car will make you sick — on a bike it’s OK.”
But I didn’t need one final climb. I knew it would be a decision I would have to live with. I really didn’t mind having a DNF by my name. It’s not a race and I really didn’t need to finish off punishing my body just to say that I did. Plus I did it before. And one hour, one day, and one year later I would have to be OK with. And I was.
There are a number of factors that would have gotten me to the top.
Had I parked at Wintergreen and took the shuttle to the start — my car would have been at the top waiting for me
Had I wanted to experience a mountaintop finish. But having made it to Mt. Washington this year, nothing else compares.
Had one of my riding partners been struggling and needed support from this rider, I would have stayed with them. But they were fine. In fact, on my descent to the parking lot I eyed up the last of the riders still climbing to see if I should ride with them. But they were fine and didn’t need the support of this old rider to help them.
I wanted to better last year’s time despite the organizers adding 2,000 more vertical feet of climbing. I wasn’t going to do it. As we started the climb I was already on last year’s time so there was no way I could lower my time. If I still had a chance I would have gone for it but those 25 miles riding flat killed my chances.
Had this been a stage race where one must finish to ride again
Last year’s gift was a shot glass or beer mug imprinted with Blue Ridge Challenge. I was offered one and told them to keep it. This year they offered them for sale too so I assume that was the finishing line prize. No thanks. On the other hand, if, like, Newton’s Revenge they had a ribbon/medal and an embroidered blanket for the finishers, well nothing would have stopped me.
So, it was fun but I don’t see myself wanting to do this ride a third time. I would like to use Reed’s Gap and Vesuvius as training rides in preparation for another try at Mt. Washington but don’t need to spend $70 for another supported ride.
I have a time listed on the official site behind Michael and Jonathan at 9:23. I have no clue as to my real time. At 4:15 p.m. (8:15 running clock) I was at the Ski Barn with five miles to the summit. Did it take us an hour to the summit? More confusing was one rider who was with us at the Ski Barn and is listed as having finished under seven hours. At the 7:00 mark she was climbing Vesuvius. Oh well. It’s not a race but a ride and one few people are willing to undertake.
Did I finish what I started? Well, yes and no. Fighting Father Time is one thing. Few of us improve physically after 30. Yes, if you’ve never done anything athletic one can certainly be better later in life. But I was always reasonably fit. Still, I do see remarkable fitness in those guys, in their mid to late 50s, who have retired, and all they do is ride. Most of them signed up for the Mount Washington Hill Climb. I didn’t see many people older than me on this ride. Fighting gravity is another. Having climbed Mount Washington and having run the best referee fitness test, I am thinking I am about at peak fitness. I can’t believe sometimes the muscular form in my legs. So I hoped that even by adding 2,000′ more vertical climb that I could better last year’s time.
Yes, the flat slowed me down and took a lot out of me. But even before I noticed, I wasn’t on record pace. Perhaps if I rode with a group I would have done better. It takes 30% more energy to ride solo than to ride behind someone. But I’m not sure how much that matters when one is climbing or descending and a lot of the course is just that.
So I’m pleased with where I am. I’m not going to win any races but I want to maintain a healthy lifestyle and remain fit. Even if I am near the end of the pack, I still get out and do it, and that’s what’s important. At least that’s what I am going to tell myself.
EPILOGUE: A few weeks after the Blue Ridge Extreme Challenge I took my bike to The Bike Lane to get the rear wheel trued. To my amazement, they told me that the wheel wasn’t out of true but the rim was cracked. I am both lucky to have hit speeds of 40 mph on those technical descents without having the wheel break a spoke and also satisfied that I really had to overcome pedaling on a flat front tire for 20 miles with a cracked back wheel.
EDIT – The Blue Ridge Extreme Century was canceled for 2009 and never returned.
“Italy has its Mortirolo, mountain of death; 124 persons to date have died on Mount Washington. Overall steeper than the Angliru, windier than Mont Ventoux, deadlier than the mountain of death; this is why for cyclists, Mount Washington stands above all other climbs. It is not hard just because it is steep. It is also windy and cold enough to be dangerous.” — New York Cycle Club
PINKHAM NOTCH, NEW HAMPSHIRE
I was up before 6:00 a.m. in part because I didn’t sleep well. It was OK, but not great. The thought of riding up the Mount Washington Auto Road certainly weighed heavily on my mind during the night. This is known simply as the toughest climb in the world. Almost 8 miles 1 in length, an average of 12% grade, and 22% at the top. If that’s not bad enough, high winds and cold weather almost always greet riders above the tree line.
Why I was even here was being replayed in my mind. Unlike many real climbers, I don’t weigh 140 or 150 pounds 2 but yet there is something rewarding being a climber. And even if I don’t have 20 or 30-year-old legs, mine are 50+, there is a reward of accomplishment every time one crests a hill, especially a large hill.
If I were to accomplish this it would be a physical triumph. For more than 10 years I had a pronounced limp after any exercise and often even without exercising. Getting out of bed in the morning to the shower usually involved crawling or bracing myself along the wall. I had foot surgeries in 2003 and 2004 which included taking a wedge out of my right heel, rotating it upward, then securing it with a three-inch titanium screw. Then two years ago I had knee surgery too.
I finally felt better and I had wanted to go to Europe, France especially, and ride some of their great mountains. But the more I read about Alpe d’Huez and other climbs the more I discovered there seemed to be a consensus that there is a better climb here in the U.S.: Mount Washington. And I could drive there as well.
With the biological climbing clock ticking, I made arrangements to climb Mt. Washington last year. Never mind that I never entered a race or hill climb race before. I would go to New Hampshire and climb the toughest mountain of all. But last year’s races were canceled so I found myself back in New Hampshire. It was scary to think that it was now just two hours away.
We loaded both bicycles (my daughter, Ashley, had hers with her although she wasn’t riding the mountain) and were almost out the door. In the breakfast area of the hotel, I saw two bikes, one was geared very low and the other was geared normal, like mine.
For weeks I debated, mostly with myself, as to whether or not I could make this climb with the gearing I had. On the Mt. Washington biking forums, the predominant opinion seemed to be one must have a 1:1 gear ratio. That is if you had a 30 tooth ring in the front you needed 30 in the rear. I didn’t have that. I had 30 in the front but only 27 in the rear.
It’s not a simple change. The derailleurs and chain may have to be changed, if there is clearance, to accommodate a smaller front ring or larger rear cassette. Add to that, you ask 10 different riders and gearheads and you get 10 different answers on how to do it, why one can’t do it, and whether you need to do it at all. The simple answer always was “it depends on the rider.” The pros, of course, don’t need these low gears but as one gets older they may be necessary to help lesser riders up a mountain.
As the time got closer, I hadn’t made any changing to the gearing, and the closer to race day the less sense it made. One should ride quite a bit in a new setup to make sure everything is working properly. I ran out of time. Plus it was more than that. I looked at the bikes with the 22 tooth front sprockets as somehow cheating. If they weren’t going to ride their normal geared bike it didn’t seem quite right they could make it super easy to pedal. Well, easier to pedal.
I looked at the rider who had changed his gearing. I didn’t say a word to him, just looked. Sized him up a little. He was about my age and I thought, “ah hah, you can’t make it with your normal gearing.” Then I wondered if I could.
But then I spotted the normal geared bike. The rider had a rider jersey on with pajama bottoms, an obvious sign of a 20-year-old. I told him I was glad to see that he didn’t mess with his gearing and he responded that he races mountain bikes. Well, that didn’t help my confidence at all.
We drove out to Mt. Washington. Last year Ashley and I made this trip three times. Once to register on Friday, once to race on Saturday (canceled), and once to race on Sunday (canceled again). At race start time in 2007, the winds on the summit were 70 mph 3 with a temperature in the high 30s 4. The wind chill was below freezing. Zero visibility. It is with pride that Mount Washington claims the title as the world’s worst weather.
While we had fun last year coming to Newton’s Revenge, Ashley’s big desire was to see a moose. And though I didn’t get to ride Mt. Washington Saturday or on the Sunday rain date, we did see our moose. Our trip was a partial success.
This year it may not have been a goal but Ashley’s husband, Bryan, was with us and had never seen a moose. Yesterday we went out to Mt. Washington to register and saw our moose. Maybe it was a good sign.
We arrived at the site amid excitement. We parked and unloaded my bike. One rider borrowed my pump (he was unprepared) and another asked if we had an extra wheel (not a tube — but a wheel).
I still had one nagging thought. On Tuesday I played Ultimate (Frisbee) with the normal gang of lunchtime idiots on the Mall in Washington, D.C. On what should have been a normal play, Rich Preston, an overly large person (big bone – not fat) who is built more like Big Bird than an Ultimate player, somehow got his knee up into my quadriceps. I instantly went down. Months of training and years of dreams flashed before my eyes as I felt a sharp pain and could not walk.
I tried to stretch and massage it for a while before returning and finishing the game. But the key test would be getting on the bike and riding the bike to work. I couldn’t. Every pedal stroke hurt and I knew that’s where I would get my power to climb the mountain.
Tuesday evening I just tried to “spin” it out, riding very lightly in the neighborhood. There wasn’t power there. I tried the same Wednesday morning and still felt it. Thursday in Connecticut it began to feel better and I only hoped that while it didn’t seem to hurt anymore, there would be power reserves in my leg when I needed them.
We spent a few minutes chatting and checking the bike. Ashley gave me a hug and she and Bryan got in line to drive to the top before the road was closed at 8:00 a.m. I rode a little in the grass, circling them, then finally headed up and across the road and joined about 50 others riding loops in the parking lot at the Glen House across the highway.
I did that for about 25 minutes to warm up my legs and get my heart rate up a little. It was chilly at the start. I was in my jersey and another rider asked me if that was all I was wearing. I told him I was unsure and he had lots of warm gear on. The more I thought about it I decided to wear a long sleeve Under Armour under my jersey. I had thought about wearing arm warmers but decided it was better to wear something on my core as well. The Under Armour would wick away moisture but keep me warm when I reached the cold summit. That was the last Ashley and Bryan saw me — decked out in my warm riding gear.
By starting time at 8:30 we were told that it would be 50º (10º C) with 25 mph 7 winds at the summit and that our body temperature would be about 115º 8 when we arrived. I decided to remove the Under Armour.
(Actually, the core temperature may rise to about 100º – I suspect the race announcer was just being a little bit dramatic.)
Four groups lined up at the start. The first was the Top Notch group included defending champions and pro riders. One was Anthony Colby, a rider with Colavita/Sutter Home racing team. The announcer told everyone that Anthony would win the race. Talk about incentives for the challengers.
The remaining groups were lined up by age. The second was the 20 and 30-year-olds. The third was the 40-44-year-old group. The last group was 45+ — the old group. I took my place at the end of this largest group. I was literally the last person to start.
My goals were simple.
Finish ahead of the Sag (Broom) Wagon. Even finishing last (Lanterne Rouge) would be sort of cool as long as I finished.
Don’t stop. Although I reluctantly made a deal with myself that stopping and resting was better than not finishing, so if I had to, I would. But don’t.
Don’t walk. Again, walking was better than not finishing but try to stay on the bike.
Under two hours? I had no time goal but thought I would be in the 1:40-1:50 range.
On Thursday I had ridden Hurricane Mountain Road and failed to get up that two-mile 16-18% climb without a brief stop. (See Blog Doubt Sets In) I did another test ride Friday and went slower seeing if riding slow and steady would conserve the energy I had. It did and that would be my strategy for climbing the “Rockpile.”
Each group lined up when called. The official timing was done by satellite clock so that the finishing clock at the summit and the starting gun would both be at 0:00 (time elapsed) at 8:40 a.m. (time of day). At 8:39:50 the countdown began. Ten, nine, eight until it reached zero and a cannon fired the official start at 8:40:00. The remaining groups went at five-minute intervals, each receiving a cannon send-off.
At 8:55:00 the cannon fired to start our group. Some riders took off trying to be the first to climb the hill. I went slowly to test my legs and conserve energy. I was content to finish last as long as I finished.
Almost immediately I passed some of the bikes that were geared very low. They were spinning. I was mashing. I figured I would envy their low gearing later. We started climbing the first mile which I read was pretty difficult and scares a lot of riders.
I wanted to stay seated as long as possible knowing that standing uses more energy than sitting. But in a half-mile, my body was already begging me to get out of the saddle but it seemed no one around me was. Then I looked and saw a couple of riders standing and I did too. I alternated sitting and standing as we climbed never concerned about anyone else. I just rode at my own pace.
Near the end of the first mile, one rider stopped and started walking. He was a “Clydesdale,” a designation for a rider who weighed at least 190 pounds 9. Although I gave him encouraging words, he told me his heart rate was in the red zone. He was wise to take a break. He may have abandoned the climb but that is better than harming oneself.
As we climbed higher, I seemingly was stuck in with a group of about 10 riders all, more or less, my pace. At every mile, there was a volunteer who told us where we were. They seemed to always be at a mile marker so it was a nice touch but since I could read I could usually figure it out.
My decision to jettison clothing was a wise one. I was glad to get rid of the Under Armour before the start. But with every turn of the pedals, I was second-guessing my training. Was it enough? Sure, I rode in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and the Laurel Mountains in Pennsylvania but was that enough preparation?
I even shaved my legs to give myself one more mental edge that might help me complete the climb. I admired how the sweat was dripping on my smooth legs and liked the look. Almost everyone on the Top Notch group that went first had shaved legs. There weren’t so many in our fourth group.
But the sweat also meant my gloves were soon soaked. I didn’t need the protection of gloves on an eight-mile ride and I struggled to remove those as well. There are many things you can do on a bike on a flat or downhill section but those become much harder while climbing. Drinking can be one of them. Removing gloves is another but I was able to alternate between slipping a finger out, grabbing the handlebar, pulling a little more until I got both off and back in my jersey pocket.
We were still occasionally talking with other riders but that would not last all the way to the top. One person asked why the 45+ group was the largest and another rider opined “mid-life crisis.” I suggested we were much closer to the end of the timeline than the 20-somethings and we still have that list of 50 things to do before you die. Bike up Mt. Washington. One rider referred to a movie, The Bucket List, which I hadn’t seen but now will have to watch.
The last bit of friendly conversation came from Catherine Reed. She remarked that if we could take a second we could enjoy the beauty of the climb in a way we never see by car. The lower section was tree-lined and was beautiful, the higher sections one could see for miles.
But it was to turn serious and the talking would cease. This was not due to competition between the riders. It was simply the air was getting thinner and the effort was wearing on the riders. There simply wasn’t energy left for meaningless conversation.
Only once did I really look out over the valley. I was at the 4,000 foot level and could turn, briefly, and see the huge tent next to the gatehouse where we had started. It truly was like flying and looking out an airplane window. And if my skinny front wheel ventured too close to the edge, I could be flying too. I turned back to watch the road.
While still in the trees on the lower part of the course it was still hot. And I didn’t have enough water. One needs to balance how much to carry as opposed to how much extra weight is on the bike. This is a race where riders have been known to remove both brakes from their bike to remove weight (although not permitted). There are no downhill sections, none, and one cannot ride back down the mountain. Brakes? Who needs them
I had searched the rider forums and had decided on taking one water bottle. But I had already drunk half during my warm-up. I had started the race with half a bottle of water.
There were a few locations still in the lower section where there was a turnout for cars and stream water for radiators. It was not potable but at each location, it called out for me to pull over and grab a bucket and pour it on my back. If that hadn’t meant stopping (one of my goals was not to stop) and starting again (very difficult to restart on these upward slopes) I would have pulled over and given myself a mountain stream shower.
Sometime after the Mile 5 marker, the paved road becomes dirt. It was this section that forced the cancellation last year on Sunday morning. Although the weather was considered safe, it had rained overnight making that section impassable to road bikes. No rain this time but it was not a biker-friendly passage.
Almost immediately when I got to the dirt section I saw riders pushing their bikes.
As long as everyone was riding the mind says “you can do it — look at them.” Since the entire race was in front of me, I had started dead last, I tried not to look up the road. The mere presence of cyclists ahead really added definition to the steepness of the grades.
But what was very difficult was the presence of a cyclist quitting. There’s nothing that sends the signal to another rider that the mountain won than a rider dismounting to walk. It also says that it’s OK for me because everyone else is doing it. I really tried not to see but occasionally I did pass one of these riders. I always gave them encouragement, probably mostly meant for me — I thought “I’m not walking, you are” — and kept the pace.
The pace hurt. But I kept it going. At times, and the higher I got the more I resorted to it, I started crisscrossing the road in a paperboy fashion. Many riders were. It’s a way to cut the grade just a little but my GPS kept solid at 14-16% even while paperboying.
More were walking on this dirt section, which lasts one mile, than any other. And there’s a good reason. It was hard to pedal while seated and more difficult to get traction if you stand. In the upper sections, I alternated in and out of the saddle. I even tried a little paperboy technique here but found my front wheel at the edge of the road and a precarious drop. And it was gravel. I turned it back but almost lost it. I then decided I really couldn’t crisscross on this section and best concentrate on finding the energy to continue straight up the road.
I was 100 meters from the end of the section when I stood to get more traction. I knew to be careful because standing on a 16% grade meant that most of my weight was on my front wheel and little was on my rear wheel. The dirt and loose gravel also meant my wheel was prone to slipping at times.
I stood and gave the pedals a turn. The rear wheel spun but went nowhere. I was standing still for a second then the next thing I knew I was laying on the road. I had crashed. It was a hard fall but on a somewhat forgiving surface — Mt. Washington dirt. It must have been a sight for the riders behind me to witness although most riders weren’t looking ahead.
Two riders went by and asked if I was OK. I told them I was. My right knee was scraped a little but the brunt of my fall was on my upper right arm and back. I was dirty but not defeated. I had to pick up my bike, make sure everything worked, and get back on and ride.
As long as I was climbing I could not manage to open a gel packet or my Sport Beans by Jelly Belly. As I picked up my bike and tried to knock the dirt off it and me, I was able to open up a packet of my Jelly Beans and eat them, all in one blob it seems. Maybe it helped.
When I saw the Mile Five marker I had a great sensation. A number of publications, books, riders, experts, etc. rate different climbs and the book I had been reading, The Complete Guide to Climbing, rated the toughest five-mile climb as Mount Washington, miles 1-5. I had just made it up the toughest climb in the world without stopping.
By this time I was back on pavement. It was then a matter of finding a rhythm which was very hard to do. With each pedal stroke, the brain said to quit. I kept thinking that I would never be back and that I had one chance to do this. And one chance to do it right. I kept going.
The last mile, well above the tree line, was a mental challenge to keep going. At this point, every rider was in their place. No one was passing anyone. We were all just pacing off each other.
I finally heard the cowbell which helped me. I tried to pedal a little harder to get to the bell, the symbolic top of the climb. I passed the woman ringing the bell and managed enough energy to thank her. Then I heard a whistle. This was a steam whistle. I thought this was really cool. They have a steam whistle sound when you get close. It was foggy, in the clouds really, and visibility was only about 50 meters. Although I couldn’t see where the whistle was located I then realized it was the Cog Railway train. So, OK, it wasn’t for me, but it helped.
One final steep climb and then I reached the summit. I thought. I looked up and could see parked cars and was looking for Ashley and Bryan but they were nowhere to be found. I didn’t see any people, just parked cars. But I knew I was close.
Many have warned about looking up to find the summit because it will defeat you. I never wanted to know how far I had left. I tried not to look up and I purposely played with the settings on my computers so I did not know time elapsed, distance elapsed, or time of day — anything that might tell me that I had too far remaining I wanted out of my mind. Only the Mile markers and the elevation markers, every thousand foot level, told me my progress.
I remember reading about the last 200 meters, a 22% grade up to the observatory. I thought I had read somewhere that it was optional and I already decided I would not do that. In fact, I could not do that. Reaching the summit would have to be enough.
Now voices in the fog were yelling out encouragement and I was told I had just one more climb. Oh no! They made the 200-yard climb the finish line. I saw the steepness and felt my legs and thought there was no way I could make it up this climb.
This would be a right turn, steep climb, right turn, steeper climb, then a left turn switchback, an even steeper climb up to the finish line.
I found the energy to get to the top of this section and a photographer was standing in my line. This wasn’t quite a 180º turn, maybe 170º, but it was a switchback. And most switchbacks have a steep inside line or a more gradual outside line. In this case, the outside line probably was 22%. Who knows what the inside line was? I could not take the inside path.
I simply didn’t have the energy to turn quickly and climb the inside line. I asked him to move. Maybe I yelled at him to move although I don’t think so. I was too tired to yell. He snapped the photo (above) then he jumped back. I turned in the switchback and thought my legs would stop and I would fall over as I looked at one final climb to the top.
I reached for everything I had left which wasn’t much. I turned over the pedals with the last remaining energy I had and made it to the top. I saw Ashley and Bryan at the finish line cheering me on and taking pictures.
There were two carpeted mats to ride over. The first was probably the timer and the second was a stopping area. I came to a stop and was grabbed by four or five people. They helped steady the bike and me. Someone clipped the timer chip off my fork. Another had me lower my head and placed a medal over my head. Still, another wrapped a blanket around me.
I went only a few more feet and a young man offered me water. I took it. I started to dismount and went to one knee. Ashley gave me a hug. I tried to talk but couldn’t. Part was hyperventilating and part was emotion. I was very upset that I had crashed, which in my mind, meant I didn’t pedal the entire route. But I did. No words would come out. Tears started to well in my eyes. I made it. The toughest climb in America, and maybe the world, and I made it.
JULY 13, 2008 — WOODBRIDGE, VA
Home. Still can’t believe I made it. Although the soreness in my legs is a reminder. If not completing my training ride up Hurricane Mountain Road on Thursday without stopping raised some doubt in my mind, then completing it on Friday bolstered me. I had decided that I went out too hard and fast on Thursday and should try it again on Friday.
Although it was only a day away from the race, I thought it would not hurt me physically to climb it again. It was just two miles in length. I risked quite a bit because if I failed again I would go to the big ride with no confidence. Instead, I got up at 6:00 a.m. and left at 7:00 to ride it again. This time I went slow in a low gear and when I needed the energy to get over that last 26% grade, I had it. I made it to the top. This gave me the confidence I needed for Saturday’s race.
Hurricane Mountain Road starts near North Conway, NH and rises 17% for two miles. Cross over the mountain and it descends to Maine.
After returning from my ride Friday morning, Ashley joined me and we went for a very relaxing 10-mile ride in the North Conway area.
I have a Garmin Edge 705 which I am still learning to use. It didn’t work perfectly but was good enough. Most of my stats and route were recorded. I turned it on at the Glen House which is across the highway from the toll road. Many riders were in the parking lot of the hotel warming up. I joined them. I turned it on to make sure it was working and it appeared to be although I see it did not capture cadence. It then goes “dead” for about 45 minutes (Timing) before starting it for the race. When I turned it or the timer off, it must have lost the elevation but appears to have got it correct when I started it to race. The elevation at the toll road is 1,563 feet.
For two hours my heart rate averaged 156. It peaked at 176 at the top section.
I still don’t know whether my gearing decision was right. And I could switch to something lower but it’s very difficult to test it other than find an eight-mile 12% grade. With high winds. And cold temperatures.
Both Garmin and my Trek wireless computer indicate that I added at least another half mile to my route by paperboying. Don’t know that I had the energy to ride without crisscrossing some of the steeper upper sections.
Approximately 700 cyclists will make it to the summit this year in the two races, Newton’s Revenge and the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb. Only 700. I didn’t have a great time but was faster than the first speed record in a car (2 hours, 10 min.). The current record in a car is 6 min. and 41.99 seconds.
The best map of the course I can find is on the Mt. Washington Bike Hillclimb Site.
The Mount Washington Observatory has a map that shows temperatures at different locations along the route.
A great blog by another rider who rode this in August 2004, was at Outdoor Online. Love his description that “every finisher is received like a survivor from some misbegotten Arctic expedition.” I would add that every finisher is received like an Olympic champion.
The day he road, many riders were blown off their bikes at the summit. The winds were relatively calm for my ride. No one that I know of was blown off their bike by the wind although the second-place finisher claims there were gusts to 50 mph.
The true racers did well. Professional Anthony Colby won in 55:05. Wow! Phillip Gaimonof Tucker, Georgia, finished second in 56:01. But third was Austin Orth from North Conway. I think he was the rider that Ashley and I met last year and were going to give a ride back down the mountain. He finished in 1:02:39. The first place woman was Marti Shea. She finished in 1:14:22. She didn’t ride all the way either. Her chain broke 70 yards from the finish so she ran and pushed her bike that last grueling uphill section.
Anthony weighs 142 pounds. Can one have negative body fat?
Phil (Phil the Thrill) Gaimon is 6’1: and weighs 148 pounds. He lists his body fat as 4.2%. He also rode in the Tour of Pennsylvania last month, a race in which I worked as a volunteer for two stages. He is an amateur rider, trying to get a contract with a pro team, and is a funny writer.
There was an age group record set this day. Kenneth Cestone, 71 years old from Bennington, Vermont, shattered the Age 70-74 record by 15 minutes, lowering it to 1:29:59. Love that he beat 1:30 by one second. A rider like Ken gives all of us hope.
The last place finisher came in at 3:09. But he finished.
No activity I have ever tried pushed me like this one. There were no breaks. There were no resting places. Even a 100-mile ride features flats and downhills. On this one, you pedal or you crash. You pedal hard or you crash. And sometimes even if you pedal hard, you still crash. You gasp for breath in the upper elevations.
I have done many rides and it’s always nice to finish. But it is special to have people with you at the finish. My daughter, Ashley, came with me two years in a row to support me and this year brought her husband, Bryan. Part of my inspiration for keeping going came from knowing they were waiting for me at the summit. I looked for them when I crested the summit and didn’t find them until I made my last turn. They were at the finish line.
While at the summit, Bryan and I briefly tossed a frisbee (Discraft 175g Ultrastar to be exact) adding to the list of strange locations I have thrown the disc. Strangest and best: Across the Arctic Circle north of Rovaniemi, Finland. This is the home of Santa Claus.
I can’t say for sure that if you believe you can climb it that you can but I can say with certainty that if you don’t believe you can do it then you can’t. And that is the mental struggle to keep positive through the pain and never allow yourself for even one second believe that you won’t make it.
In a matter of minutes after reaching the top I went from “never again” to “if I do it again.”
Mary Power, the events coordinator at the Auto Road says that it gets in your blood and you want to come back every year. I think she’s right. Besides, once you know you can climb it you can then work on strategies to improve your time.
If I do it again, I still would contemplate changing my gearing although I’m not sure what to. Even after the race people still contribute different ideas on what I should ride at the Mt. Washington Hillclimb Fourm. I definitely would find the biggest mountains in Virginia and Pennsylvania to ride 2-3 months before, every weekend. And I would do core training. My back hurt on the climb and that was simply because I spend a lot of time riding (it’s fun) and no time with core training (boring). Arriving two days early helped and I think I would even do three days next time.
If you go — registration for the August Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb typically opens February 1. Check to be sure. If it sells out, and the past few years it has sold out in less than an hour, then the second race, Newton’s Revenge, is added in July. Next year’s date will be July 11, 2009. The August race is very hard to get into and takes 600 riders. I can’t imagine how crowded the mountain is then. For this year’s Newton’s race they had over 200 riders registered but 165 actually raced. Unless you think you can set a course record and want to pace against Tyler Hamilton or Tom Danielson, my suggestion is wait until February 2 and register for Newton’s Revenge. Everything’s the same except for the crowds. Registration information will be posted in September.
What I wore: At the bottom, I had Under Armour under my Louis Garneau gray/white jersey, hence the long sleeve look. But I raced in just the jersey — thus short sleeves. On the summit, I pulled on the Under Armour over my jersey, hence the all-black look. But since it had been in my back pocket on the ride up, it was pretty wet, “butt sweat” Ashley called it, so I took it off and pulled on my red Garneau jersey. By the bottom, I had switched to my Newton’s Revenge 2007 jersey. I purchased it last year but we never raced. I always felt I wasn’t worthy of wearing it until I finished the race. Now I can wear it.
In addition to the race jersey (for purchase) participants earned a “bumper” sticker – This Bike Climbed Mt. Washington – a long sleeve Newton’s Revenge t-shirt, medal and ribbon, event poster, and a real neat Polartec fleece blanket embroidered for the 2008 race. In addition, riders also got a typical rider’s goodie bag of cycling merchandise and coupons. We were treated to a Friday night pre-race pasta dinner and a Saturday noon Hart’s turkey dinner.
Everyone I met was great, even the winners (see picture). And I was surprised when I read the following post on the Newton’s Forum: On the dirt section, just before the 5-mile marker, someone crashed right in front of me, and fell into the ditch. Looked like a nasty crash – but most of my attention was taken in trying to avoid them. Hopefully the rider is okay – anyone know more details?
How nice was that? I responded that only my dignity was hurt but was restored by finishing. From a physical accomplishment, this was the greatest achievement in my life.
___Conversions — for my European and South American friends
1 Actual distance is 7.6 miles or 12.2 kilometers 2 140 or 150 pounds is 63.5 or 68 Kilos 3 70 mph is 113 kph 4 38 degrees is 3 Celsius 5 Lower elevation is 1,563′ or 476 meters. Elevation at the summit is 6,288′ or 1,917 meters 6 50 degrees is 10 Celsius 7 25 mph is 40 kph 8 115 degrees is 46 Celsius 9 190 pounds is 86.2 Kilos 10 4,000 feet is 1,219 meters 11 142 pounds is 64.4 Kilos
The trip from Virginia had been nice as we approached the White Mountains on NH 16. We were still 40 miles away when we crested a hill and then, we could see them. Our first view of the White Mountains. My stomach started churning. I knew I would be riding up the biggest of those in 36 hours.
We checked into the hotel in North Conway and I immediately wanted to go riding. My destination was simple: Hurricane Mountain Road. It features a nasty two-mile climb from North Conway up and over the mountain and down to Fryeburg, Maine. It was suggested to me by a local last year.
I ran a 30 tooth front sprocket and a 25 tooth rear cassette last year and made it about 2/3 of the way up before I had to pull over and rest. Since that time I changed the rear cassette to a 27 tooth gear. Unlike last year, I had ridden in the Laurel Mountains of western Pa. and up and over Skyline Drive in Va. three times it the past week. My fitness was even better even if my age was one year older.
I wanted to ride up Hurricane Mountain Road in my 25 tooth gear at least up to the point where I could go no farther then switch to the 27 tooth gear. Well, I made it most of the way up to that point but switched to the 27 tooth gear. Even when my mind told me not to, my finger was on the shifter and pushed it into the easiest gear. Except it wasn’t easy. I got to the exact same spot as last year and my body stopped.
I pulled over for about a minute but it might have been two or three. Then I got back on and rode the rest of the way to the top. I had done no better than last year, even using the 27 tooth gear.
While this was a severe climb, it did nothing to help me prepare mentally for the challenges of the race on Saturday. Add to that my fancy new Garmin computer wasn’t working properly and failed to register the numbers on the climb.
Later, full of doubt, I took my daughter, Ashley, and son-in-law, Bryan, for a drive up Hurricane Mountain Road. They told me they had driven it but turned around in some housing development and didn’t see me. I told them if they saw houses they weren’t on Hurricane Mountain Road. This road is about 12 feet wide, very steep, and forested on both sides.
We got the Garmin working and took it with us. The climb in places registered 15%, then 16% then 18%. Then we saw 21%. And on the final switchback where I could go no farther, it registered a whopping 26% in the inside corner.
Twenty-six percent may not be right but it’s more than zero and was the steepest climb of the day. That left me feeling a little better but not much. Climbing on a bike is a mental challenge as well as physical and it was a little comfort to see how high the percent grade was on this climb. After all, Mt. Washington is “only” 12% — average.
As we drove up Hurricane Mountain Road it seemed with each corner and switchback it went higher. And Bryan exclaimed “Oh shit!” Each curve got steeper and each exclamation got louder.
Last weather check on Mount Washington: 44° F (7° C), 30 mph (50 kph) winds, Wind Chill 34° (1° C).
Hurricane Mountain Road out of Intervale/North Conway NH is a must ride if you’re in the White Mountains. It has a mention, but not a description, in The Complete Guide to Climbing.
I was confused by a photo of Hurricane Mountain Road which appears in the book but couldn’t find a description. But the author explains “there are thousands of climbs in the U.S. so obviously they all cannot be included in these pages.” “…Hurricane Mountain Road in New Hampshire… …and many others had to be left out.”
The book lists the steepest climb (minimum two miles) as Burke Mountain, Vermont at 13.4%. Either direction on Hurricane Mountain is greater than what is listed for Burke Mountain. Probably. The author measured all the grades which were sometimes different than the stated grades. But at the top of Hurricane Mountain on the flat 50 yard stretch one can look in either direction and see the steep grade signs. One is marked 15% while the other is marked 17%.