The cycling season ended for me on November 8 with a leisurely 10-mile ride in the morning before I refereed a U16 girls soccer match. Less than 48 hours later I could barely walk 50 feet and then only aided by a nurse. I immediately collapsed to my hospital bed and fell asleep.
My journey in battling prostate cancer is detailed on my Caring Bridge page. Sorry Dickens, it was the best of years and the worst of years.
Keep in mind that I am not a competitive cyclist. I ride because it’s fun and healthy. I believe that my bike crash on Bike to Work Day led to my illness which led to a diagnosis of early cancer which might not have been found until it had spread. Maybe not.
But while very anxious over my prognosis, I re-focused and raced in the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb. To train I found peace riding in the Allegheny Mountains near Altoona. I raised more than $3,000 for cancer support and research while riding in the Livestrong-Challenge, a 100-mile ride outside of Philadelphia. And I averaged 20 mph in the Backroads Century on a hilly course in September.
I had a good season on the bike while facing life-changing and life-saving decisions. Wow. It was the ride of my life. I trained for the surgery even more than for the Hillclimb up Mount Washington. And it paid off. My doctors were generally astonished at the good shape I was in and it saved me from a blood transfusion during surgery. It provided definition to find and spare my nerves. And it has helped me in my recovery.
I look forward to getting back on the bike and doing it again in 2010. My goals: Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb; a week in France riding with and following the Tour de France; and the Livestrong Challenge in Austin and a Ride for the Roses with Lance Armstrong. And no cancer next year.
It was just 48 degrees when I arrived at Clarke Co., H.S. I stayed overnight in Charles Town and didn’t have everything with me that I would have preferred. I knew that I would be cold and I was. My only cold-weather gear was a light riding jacket (windbreaker). The toes, fingers, and legs would have to warm up on their own on this day.
The start time was supposed to be 7:30 a.m. but there wasn’t a mass start. Whenever riders wanted to get on the course they were free to leave. Some, I’m sure, were headed out at 7:00 a.m.
I waited until 7:30 to roll out. There were a number of other riders starting and it was a matter of sorting out who I would ride with. Never in a previous century have I started with one group and stayed with them the entire way. These things have their own dynamics. I just hoped to find one or two riders who rode about the same pace as me and we could work together until the first rest stop. At that point, I might leave in my own and form up with other riders. Or none at all.
I soon found a group of six riders and most of them wore the kits of Evolution Cycling — a racing team I trained with in January and February. They slowed when they realized they dropped a couple of their riders and I slowed with them. It’s better to stay with a group.
We soon formed up and picked up a couple more riders along the way. Despite a missed turn when I was at the front, we organized and averaged 20 mph to our first rest stop at Mile 29. I have never averaged more than 17+ on anything longer than 25 miles. Today I averaged 20 mph for 29 miles.
I was excited. I thought about riding the remaining 71 miles at my pace content with the 20 mph pace which left me drained. But when we rolled out I jumped in with them again. At times I thought I might have to drop out but I matched every acceleration.
I carried a camera with me hoping to capture some nice photos. Shortly after we left the rest area in West Virginia we were treated with a beautiful view of the Blue Ridge Mountains enveloped in the low clouds. It was postcard quality and will remain that way in my mind.
On any other ride I would have pulled over and took some pictures but I knew the pace I was on was special. And I knew that if I pulled over I could never rejoin the group. So no pictures of the ride.
Here in Jefferson County is the only place in West Virginia where the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River come together. Of course those are mentioned in Country Roads, John Denver’s famous 1971 hit, and the theme song of West Virginia University.
With one exception, there were no hairy-legged monsters in our group. All the guys had shaved legs which indicates that they are serious cyclists.* And they are to average 20 mph on a ride. But it also makes one secure in following closely. That is, until one rider lost his attention for one second.
He lost his attention span and saw that he was 1/2 inch from ramming the rider in front of him. He both braked and steered to avoid him which almost caused all of us to go down in a heap. But we didn’t dwell on it. One rider chastised him briefly and soon we were back hanging on each others’ wheels.
We got back to the parking lot at the school which marked our halfway rest stop. It had warmed up to 65 degrees so I could remove my jacket and put it back in the van. Heck, I was soaked with sweat at that point.
I checked my bike computer and we averaged 19.5 for the first 50 miles. I was at my van and thought 50 miles at 19+ was great and worth calling it a day.
The route was designed as a north 50 mile loop into West Virginia to the edge of Charles Town. The southern 50 mile loop went to Boyce, Millwood, and south of US 50, all in Virginia.
We rolled out and I was with them again. Before our next rest stop our group split. And I made the split. I kept wondering why the heck I was with the front five riders while seven others dropped off the pace. We reorganized at the rest stop and a dozen of us rolled out together.
We had some climbs and here I dropped back with three other riders. I can climb and finish the steep hills but when the young racers hit the 3-4% half-mile grades I can’t always keep their 20 mph pace especially after having ridden 70 miles.
But the key is to remain calm and ignore that little guy, Kazoo, who sits on your shoulder and tells you to let them go and finish by yourself. So three of us rode together although we dropped Mike, a rider who started cramping.
We ignored the temptation on the next flat just to hammer it and catch the lead group quickly. We could have caught them but we would have been toast. Instead, we lifted our pace slightly until we were able to integrate with our main group.
We stopped at a rest area at Mile 75. After five minutes Mike arrived. We waited for him to refuel then took off. Our group had grown to 16 as other riders were talking about our group that was smokin’ it. They wanted in for some fun.
The last 25 miles was really a lot of holding on and getting dropped twice but each time catching the back of our group. The last time I was aided by a train. That is to say that everybody got stopped at a railroad crossing. But Mike was dropped for good. In our run-in to the finish we picked up other riders along the way but ultimately shed them. In the home stretch, we were still standing at a dozen riders.
We pulled back into the parking lot five and a quarter hours after we departed. This was riding time only; it does not include the time sitting at picnic tables at rest areas or standing in line at the porta-johns.
I ran into George Muschamp, a co-worker, at the finish line. One hundred and two miles. 5:15 of riding time. The average speed was an incredible (for this ancient rider) 19.3 mph. This was two mph faster than any previous ride at any distance. This was the first time I rode a century with the same group from start to finish.
Hey, I can ride with these guys (as long as I hang on and they do most of the pulling).
This was a bittersweet day and ride. I am incredibly excited about my speed for the day but also realize this is probably my last ride for quite some time. Whether I can regain this level of fitness I don’t know.**
___ *Well, I shave my legs so I don’t know if that alone qualifies me as a serious cyclist. **Impending cancer treatment
My early season riding began with a climb to the top of Blue Knob Ski Resort and included back-to-back weekends in August climbing Horseshoe Curve’s 18% “wall.” It is simply one of my favorite places to ride. But my cancer diagnosis made these mountains even more special. It was here where I could get away from cancer and find peace on my bike.
With Fall approaching and my season hitting the “wall” quicker than when climbing it, I took the opportunity to go to East Freedom, Pa. for one last ride in the mountains as I fully fight this cancer battle.
My ride took me up Pa. Rte 164 to the crossroads at Blue Knob. This was a seven-mile climb with long sections of 8% grade. It is a two-lane road with no shoulder but not heavily traveled either. And every single car gave me a wide berth when passing.
At the summit, I found a taste of New York. Their very own Statue of Liberty. Who knew?
I spotted a sign — “14% grade (next) 7 miles.” It was heaven! Nowhere can I find an equivalent grade to Mount Washington — 7.6 miles at 12% average. But this held promise. At last, a training ground for Mount Washington.
I braced for my descent because 14% can be quite dangerous on a bike. But it wasn’t to be. By my calculation, there may have been a section that was 10% but it didn’t last long. And it soon flattened out. Who makes these road signs anyhow? It was just a tease.
Also by my calculation, and my gut feel on the bike, from Blue Knob to Puzzletown was 4.5 miles at a 5% grade.
From Puzzletown (can anyone figure out what they do there?) I traveled Valley Forge Road and found a sign for a 12% downgrade was close to an actual 12% which led to a 12% climb. Or more. But only for a mile down and a mile back up.
Reaching Old U.S. 22 I had a 5½ mile climb to the summit. For much of the climb, there were two lanes upward, divided, which meant that cars could easily move to the left lane to avoid getting too close to me. I rode on the right side of the white line but for a long stretch, there was very little shoulder. Yet more often than not cars gave me no berth and two idiots honked their horns at me like there was somewhere I could go. Into the woods, perhaps.
For about 30 minutes my mind was playing games trying to analyze why most drivers on a two-lane road would give me wide berth and cross into the oncoming lane and these drivers wouldn’t move over to the empty lane that was going in the same direction. Old US 22 would be used mostly by locals — locals who may believe it was faster and should remain faster than getting on the new US 22. Locals who believe the road belongs just to them. I just don’t know. Maybe people are jerks. A revelation.
Operating from 1834 to 1854 it was built to carry barges from Johnstown to Hollidaysburg which connected river traffic between the Ohio and Susquehanna Rivers. It consisted of 10 inclined planes (think of the Inclined Plane in Johnstown or the Duquesne or Monongahela inclines in Pittsburgh).
At the summit I was looking for a road over to Gallitzin but never found one. I saw a truck with U.S. Government Plates and stopped it and asked for directions to Tunnelhill. When I balked at the park ranger’s first suggestion, riding on U.S. 22, she told me to cut through the Allegheny Portage Railroad Park. Even though it was gated, she assured me that I could and I was surprised at the site and delighted in that it did take me to Tunnelhill Street.
I was glad I did. I would have never seen the Lemon house, other than from the road, or the tracks of Incline Number 6.
In Gallitzin, I met a local who encouraged me to go to the Gallitzin tunnels. He didn’t tell me the road to them was straight down. But it was. One can stand on a bridge and see the trains coming through the mountain. I wonder what’s it’s like to live above the tunnel?
The climb back up to Tunnelhill Street was a neat 14-16% grade. But at 27 miles, that would be the last real climbing of the day.
From Gallitzin, it was a straight shot down Horseshoe Curve Road (Glenwhite Road) past the famous landmark and three reservoirs.
I’m not complaining because every ride up Horseshoe Curve is a good ride but who the heck thought of a process called chip and tar? The descent down to Horseshoe Curve can be screaming, especially when coming down off The Wall but the upper portion of this road had recently been chipped. Or tarred. Maybe just chipped. Without tar.
There were no line markings. Descending was tricky because with the loose gravel, er, I mean “chips,” one could easily slide out. Once I got to the good pavement I could let it roll.
The rest of the ride was simple exploring as was all but the Gallitzin to Horseshoe Curve portion. I wrote down some simple directions and followed those but was unsure when I was in Hollidaysburg where I should travel to next. There was a service station with a store and I needed to replenish my water.
I walked into the convenience store and it reeked of cigarette smoke. All I could see was shelves of cigarettes and chewing tobacco. I turned to the sales clerk and asked “do you sell anything healthy in here?” I’m a jerk.
When she asked what I meant I simply asked for water. Outside was a visibly pregnant mother smoking, waiting with the dog while her husband bought more cigarettes. I wanted to scream at her “GIVE YOUR CHILD A CHANCE!” But would good would have it done? I am reminded that this is still Appalachia and a cyclist with shaved legs wearing Lycra is the stranger here.
I will miss riding in Altoona. Each of my trips involved meeting special people. On the first, I met John Griffin who lives in a house where I lived 50 years ago. He invited me in. On the second and third I met and rode with riders from Spokes and Skis — Joel, Richard, Bryan, and Stacey. Also there was Stephanie from Panera. And today I had a park employee let me cut through the park, a local send me to the tunnels, and two others point me in the right direction when I was unsure. Really unsure.
I’m afraid this is the end for a while. I have hit the wall.
The jersey one wears on a club ride can make all the difference in the world. My favorite jersey is my Amgen Tour of California Breakaway From Cancer jersey. But it brings a different look or reaction from other riders than do some of my other jerseys.
I have a jersey from Newton’s Revenge, the July version of the bicycle race up Mount Washington. But few cyclists know of Newton’s Revenge and only astute riders figure out what that jersey is from. But not so the jersey from the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb (MWARBH). It is emblazoned with the words Mount Washington.
So, I can summarize the difference between the jerseys as to what other riders see. First the Breakaway From Cancer jersey:
“Ooo. I wonder what that jersey means? Oh, I think that rider has cancer. I better keep away from him. I certainly don’t want to ask. That would be rude. Poor guy, he’s already losing the hair on his legs. Heck, I can take him!”
The Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb jersey:
“Hey, that guy has a Mount Washington jersey. He must be strong. And looks, he shaves his leg too. I don’t think I can stay with him.”
And that’s it. Lots of people want to ask me about Mount Washington. No one wants to ask me about cancer.
Today’s ride was a bit strange. A “CC” ride, many of the 50-60 riders were older (you know, my age) or packing on a few extra pounds. From the start, I was out in front, and as usual with these group rides, I had no cue sheet. I sat in and followed a Clydesdale* for a while until it was just the two of us.
I told him I would love to share the work at the front but he’d have to help me with the turns (directions). We stayed together for 2-3 more miles until we came to a short but steep climb. I tore right up the hill and dropped him. I was content to slow at the top and wait but there was a nice descent coming up so I bombed it and missed the turn at the bottom. Oh well.
He told me that climbing wasn’t his specialty. I told him it wasn’t my specialty either but that I enjoy it the most.
Eventually, after another wrong turn and doubling back, 10 of us came together and for those who had cue sheets, all had problems determining which way to go. So we made it up.
I took my turns pulling the group and when I let someone move to the front I stayed on their wheel. At Airmont, the psychological games began even though this was a ride and not a race.
Six of us started together on the rollers of Snickersville Turnpike. After the first climb, there were two of us as there would be for the next 11 miles. At times I thought the hairy-legged monster might get the best of me but the last big climb on Snickersville I blew past him. I did wait at the top in part because I had no clue as to where I was going.
We took turns pulling and there were times that I wanted to say “go ahead, you’re stronger today.” And he was probably thinking “oh my God, I’m trying to stay with a guy who just biked up Mount Washington.”
We had talked and I knew at Middleburg to turn and it would be a straight run-in back to The Plains. I didn’t know how far it was though. We made the turn and my companion just blew up. He was still pedaling but just slowed to a crawl. I kept going. In fact, I lifted the pace.
I think after a few hundred yards he gave up trying to bridge back to me. I was feeling good and at each hill, and there were lots of them, I lifted the pace and hammered it. I only looked back once.
I was a little worried that the other four riders would catch the guy I dropped and they would organize a “chase” — not that this was a race. But one thing about today’s group — they wouldn’t know how to chase. It works if everyone is willing to go to the front and take turns doing the work but with this group, almost everyone wanted to sit in where they could use 30% less energy than by taking pulls. Not today.
I hammered the last eight miles solo, never looked back, and arrived 3-4 minutes ahead of the nearest riders.
If I had worn my Breakaway From Cancer jersey they would have stayed with me.
*A Clydesdale is a heaver rider, generally 190 lbs or more
The climb up Mount Washington is an accomplishment of personal achievement of one story to be told. Riding in the LIVESTRONG Challenge-Philly was a much different accomplishment. Here there are 6,500 stories to be told.
There’s a real sense one can beat anything by reaching the summit on Mount Washington. Likewise, there’s a real sense that one can beat anything by seeing 6,500 people come together and raise $3.2 million for cancer research and education and support.
At check-in, the volunteer, in a long table of volunteers, opened her notebook and saw my fundraising total — then more than $2,800 although it grew to more than $3,000 by the time I had left the table. She yelled out my name and announced how much money I raised for Livestrong. Everyone in the tent cheered.
Because the checks that I carried had not yet been credited to my account, my total went to $3,050. And $3,000 was the threshold for an invitation to the LIVESTRONG recognition dinner to be held at 6:30 p.m. I thought “a dinner’s a dinner” and wasn’t going to attend. Even less so when I was told the dress was business casual. I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt — a LIVESTRONG T-shirt to be sure, but still, shorts and a T-shirt. And that was all I had brought with me.
The volunteers told me that I must attend and so I did. Ninety minutes later I found myself being served H’ors devours by black-tie waiters to me in my shorts and T-shirt. There weren’t many people by themselves — most had family members with them. I was a little lost and found myself standing next to a bald man — about 30. I saw his name tag. It was Ethan Zohn — winner of Survivor-Africa.
Lance Armstrong could not attend as he was racing the Tour of Ireland. He did send a video message and asked Ethan to be the keynote speaker.
Everyone has a story. Lance’s personal friend, John “College” Korioth, kicked off the evening with many stories about Lance. I won’t do any of them justice but will try this one.
After Lance’s surgery, they decided they would fight cancer. It began with fundraising and they set off to raise $25,000.
“Hello. I’m raising money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
“You know, he’s the cyclist that had the surgeries for cancer. He rode in the Olympics.
“No, that would be Scott Hamilton.
“Well, he lost a testicle to cancer.
“No, that would be the Phillies’ first-baseman, John Kruk.”
And here, College smiled and said, ‘Lance hates this next part.’
“No, he’s a cyclist. Like Greg LeMond. Only he’s never won the Tour de France.” And that was the beginning.
Elden Nelson, blogs on FatCyclist.com. I would say there were 30 people or so that raised at least $3,000 for LIVESTRONG-Philly even though there were a couple hundred people in attendance. Many people were part of his team, FatCyclist. He has a national following which helped Team Fatty raise more than $250,000 for the Philly event and for the three Livestrong events so far this year — more than $625,000.
College spoke, then Eldon, then Ethan. The night was running late and I had to get back to the hotel, decorate my shirt, and get up at 5:00 a.m. Regrettably, I had to leave before the event was over.
Morning came much too soon. A quick breakfast and I was off to the event. There was a three-mile backup on Germantown Road to Montgomery County Community College and I was creeping. I was in it at 6:45 and by 7:20 was still 1.5 miles from the event start. So I drove into a residential section, parked, and biked in, getting there just before the 7:30 start. And learned the start was pushed back to 8:00 a.m.
At the start were queues for the various distances. Ten, 20, 45, 70, and 100-mile rides were offered. Many riders wore a LIVESTRONG jersey, at times it seemed that almost half wore the black and yellow. I chose to go with my Amgen Breakaway From Cancer jersey. I received a number of compliments on it and saw no one the entire day with a similar jersey. I love being unique.
As group winners, Fat Cyclist riders were allowed to go first. Imagine starting a century ride with a group of fat riders in front. Actually, while they had some portly riders, many are drawn to this group because of their mission and not because they are overweight.
I don’t know the exact numbers but think nearly 1,000 riders started out with the 100-mile ride and we were the first group to roll out. Still, it took 10-15 minutes from my middle-of-the-pack position to make my way to the start line.
The first 20 miles were spent just sorting things out. Letting the slower riders drop back and getting the faster riders to the front. In my haste to park and get to the start line, I left all my food in my van. Still, I rolled past the first two rest stops to try to get closer to the front group of riders.
As the route rolled through the countryside, signs greeted us alongside the road and people came out of their houses to cheer. And high-five. I probably slapped the hands of 20 people standing along the route including the Devil himself. Maybe he was drawn to my bike number still on the bike from Mount Washington which was 667. Well, in handing out numbers for Mount Washington they were in sequence to 665 then skipped 666 to give me 667. I know I had 666 no matter what was on my bike. And I guess he did too.
I stopped at rest areas 3-6 and even an impromptu water break before rest stop 6. The rest areas were 10-12 miles apart and I drank two bottles of water and/or bad Gatorade between every rest stop. The temperature was in the mid to high 80s. (30º C)
The 100 and 70-mile routes used the same course with the 70-mile route taking a shortcut to the return. A 30-mile shortcut. Although they started behind us, eventually they got in front of us and we began catching them in the last 30 miles.
A number of riders were walking. The course was challenging for many. For some, they had never done a 70-mile ride before. And they had the right cause to do it. And the same with the 100-mile ride. Who cares if they had to walk long stretches of hills? They were challenging themselves like never before for a great cause.
Eventually one begins to see the same riders and I found myself in contact with a few. A couple of riders asked about my jersey and really admired it.
As I rode I talked with some riders including such minutia as the meaning of the race bib numbers. I was shocked when I got my race bib — number 60. I was expecting a number like everyone else seemed to have — 3898. I certainly wasn’t the 60th person to register. Probably more like the 3,898th.
But on the form, one must check the reason why they are riding and the first box is “I have or have had cancer.” We surmised the low bib numbers were for the survivors. And I think we were right.
As I rolled to the finish I found myself next to a young lady named Amy from Providence, Rhode Island. This was her second century and both were here. And she warned me — at the finish survivors enter the barriers to the right while supporters enter to the left. We came riding in together and she went to the left side and I went right. As I came to the finish people cheered and a volunteer held out a yellow rose which I took. Actually, I sort of went flying by and grabbed the outstretched rose so they couldn’t see the tears in my eyes under my glasses.
It’s not a normal ride. There are 6,000 stories, every one different. But at the finish, the rose was a reminder not that I’m a survivor but that I have a longer road ahead.
Just standing on Mount Washington’s slopes in New Hampshire, which may be the toughest climb on earth, generates a sense of excitement and a bit of fear as you anticipate its difficulties. — The Complete Guide to Climbing (by bike), John Summerson
PINKHAM NOTCH, NEW HAMPSHIRE
This is a day that I thought would never come. Ever since I competed in Newton’s Revenge in 2008 I knew that I would be back. In fact, I planned to be back for Newton’s Revenge, the July race, in 2009.
But in May I broke my wrist in a crash and shortly thereafter got sick. I emailed Mary Power, the events director at the Mount Washington Auto Road to tell her I was still coming in July and she graciously offered a place in the August climb. I never envisioned that or I wouldn’t have contacted her. I wasn’t asking for a favor.
The illness continued and ultimately I was diagnosed with cancer. I pulled out of the August race but as the testing and diagnosis continued I made a deal with my doctor that I could ride no matter what. A few weeks would not make a difference in treatment. It would have to be delayed. And so the race was on.
It’s funny how cancer changes things. Last year my goals were simple:
Try not to be last
Don’t walk but that’s OK if I finish
But now I had performance numbers. So three months ago my goals were simple:
Beat last year’s time by 15-20 minutes
But then cancer came. And this year my goals were simple:
Try not to be last
Don’t walk but that’s OK if I finish
Actually, my new goal was even simpler:
Cancer will not win. I will.
What was to be a test to see if I could improve upon last year’s time simply became a new outlook on the race. I’m glad to be alive and glad to be here.
“A few months ago, when I told a friend who once ran to the top of Mount Washington that I planned to enter the cycling race, he offered some advice. You will look for the top of the hill, he said. It is natural. It is human. But it will kill you. Don’t look up, he warned, because the top won’t come.” — Outside.online, Sept 2004
This was much different than my last two years. In 2007 (07/07/07) my daughter, Ashley, and I came to these mountains. We were grounded for two days due to severe weather at the summit and the race was canceled. But we had a great time here. Last year Ashley and her husband, Bryan, were waiting for me at the summit. That gave me special incentive to finish.
This year I came to the mountain alone. There is peace here in the White Mountains. Ashley and I experienced it a couple of years ago just wading in the cold waters of the Ellis River. It was time I needed to get away from visiting doctors and spending hours online researching the best course of treatment for my cancer. I needed peace and I found it riding in the mountains and, yes, wading in the river again.
There aren’t many words harder to hear than “you’ve got cancer.” Your world just stops and one must find a way to get it going and back on track. I knew my fitness level couldn’t be where I wanted it to be. I actually had an e.Coli infection, possibly for months, leading up to the cancer diagnosis.
My time up the mountain no longer mattered. Just being here was a victory.
I came a few days early just to spend time in the mountains. On Wednesday I hoped to ride a 65-mile loop around the circumference of Mount Washington. Imagine that. Using the roads around Mount Washington, including some dirt roads, it still takes 65 miles to drive around its base. Instead, the weather prevented that and I rode Hurricane Mountain Road instead.
On Thursday I rode out to the Auto Road which was going to be part of my planned 65-mile ride. I met Mary Power and her new assistant, Kelly Evans. Kelly is from Beaver, Pa., near Pittsburgh, which is right across the river from where I went to high school.
It is not the longest climb, the steepest climb, nor the climb with the greatest elevation gain. It is simply the climb that is the steepest for the longest distance. Couple this with above timberline scenery that is unworldly and weather that is unpredictable and you begin to understand Mount Washington’s attraction to cyclist climbers. — New York Cycle Club, 2003
When I checked-in yesterday I met two young men from Seattle, Tommy Jerome and Ryan Burke. Tommy came to ride the mountain and Ryan came as his driver. As we talked over our pasta dinner in a tent, we decided to team up. Ryan would drive up the mountain as our driver and Tommy and I would be the cyclists which would get us up the mountain toll-free. Neither of them had been here before and appreciated any advice, even if it was wrong, that I could give them.
There was a race this day. The race announcer made it a point to let everyone know that there was an actual race up the mountain with race tactics. Phil Gaimon, Ned Overend, and Kevin Nicol battled all the way up the mountain before Phil pulled away to win by 16 seconds (54:37). It sounds like Phil pulled away by 50 yards around Mile 5 and Ned could never close it.
Phil finished second to Anthony Colby in the Newton’s Revenge race last summer but came back to win the August MWARBH. Phil rides for Jelly Belly Cycling. Ned is a former mountain bike world champion who at age 53 is, well, just 16 seconds behind one of the best climbers in the country.
For the rest of us, we were competing against the mountain or a personal best. Or in my case, just happy to be here.
With a staggered start time and being in the last group, I wondered how crowded the road might get with 500 riders ahead of me. Not at all since they were all faster. I did worry that I might come upon some slow riders going side to side on the road (paperboying) but never encountered any of that. Just once, in the first mile, did I feel stuck behind riders but simply announced I was coming between two riders. There was no other time that I felt anyone was in the way.
The biggest logistical problem of having 600 riders is parking at the top of the mountain. But there is an incentive to take fewer cars to the top. A car needed a ticket from a rider to gain entrance to the top on Saturday but if they had two tickets the toll was waived. At registration, they have an area set aside for drivers to offer rides down and for riders looking for a ride down. Or, as I did, you can just meet them at the pre-race pasta dinner.
I was worried about coming to the mountain without having a ride down. I shouldn’t have been. I actually connected via the forums with a couple other riders before registration but once I met Tommy and Ryan I decided to connect with them instead. But only after making sure I didn’t mess up the plans for my original group.
At Newton’s Revenge last year I casually milled around and watched each group go before ours then moved in line to the back of our group. At MWARBH we were positioned in our groups five minutes before the Top Notch riders took off. And since my group was 20 minutes behind them, I lost any benefit of a warm up by standing in line at the start line 25 minutes before our race began.
I was in the last group of the five groups to go and was pretty far back but not dead last. There is a dead flat section of 150 yards before the climb begins. We hit the hill and the climb began.
I do not remember the first two miles being so steep last year although last year I was out of the saddle (standing) within the first 1/2 mile or so. This year I was able to remain seated for the first two miles. I spent many hours on a trainer working on form to be able to do this.
More than once during those first two miles I thought of abandoning. Last year my back hurt and I assumed that climbing 12-15% grades out of the saddle hurt the back. But my back hurt even while seated. Tommy told me how much his back hurt on the ride. And how quickly he came out of the saddle.
In anticipation of the pain, I took a couple of Advil’s and also popped in some Tums (cramping). I didn’t have any problems with cramping and the back pain was minimal, at least compared to last year. Well, all pain was minimal compared to last year.
Because I started so far back I was passed by only a few, very few, but did pass many riders. Some of them were riding but many were walking. I tried not to look up the road because it is disheartening to see riders stopped or quitting.
But seeing riders pushing their bikes doesn’t have to be completely deflating. I started to make it a game. I no longer worried that the mountain was punishing and would soon punish me in the same manner. Instead, a walker became a target. Someone to pass. So I started to relish the sight of someone pushing their bike. It wasn’t easy catching a rider up the road but it was easy catching a walker.
Sometime after three miles the thought of abandoning or even walking left my mind. And my mind turned to finishing today and coming back next year.
The dirt section was scary. I tried to get through the entire section seated since I crashed last year when I stood. This year there was a very nasty crash ahead of me. A rider went down hard and was down right on the edge of a steep drop. I immediately called for “MEDIC!” behind me hoping the call would go back down the road to a radio communications operator who was sitting at the beginning of the section. Soon other riders picked up my call and I heard them relay the call for “MEDIC!” The call, which I had started, made it back down to the radioman. A medic soon came down from the summit on an ATV to assist. I never found out what happened to the man.
I was conflicted as to whether to stop or not. Getting restarted going uphill in this 12-16% dirt section was almost impossible. Plus I would have no clue on how to assist an injured rider, other than to keep him from rolling off the road to his death. But as I approached he was swearing at one rider who was trying to assist him so that made my decision easy. The thought of beating last year’s time never entered my mind.
Not far behind me was Aneeka Reed, a 16-year-old from Vermont. They teased the old group (45+) by putting juniors (under 20) with us. I think she started ahead of me and I passed her at some point. But at Mile 4 she came up in between another rider and me. I turned to her and asked, in a sarcastic tone, “What do you think this is, a race?”
She was holding her back. We talked briefly and over the next couple of miles, we were in contact and then not in contact. She would catch me on the lesser grades (12%) and I was more powerful on the steeper grades (16-18%). Her goal was to finish without stopping. I liked this kid.
I mentioned to her the dirt section which is when she told me she had never been on the road before. I was hoping she knew when it began. Heck, I was hoping she was going to tell me there was no dirt section that they finally paved it over.
On the back of this year’s “I Biked Mt Washington” bumper sticker is some information including “35% hard pack dirt and 65% paved.” Well, it’s not 35% dirt – much less, but the 65% paved isn’t far from the truth. Imagine what a Mount Washington winter will do to asphalt. The road is generally in below average to poor shape with cracked and grooved pavement and some places where the asphalt has buckled.
We’re not crazy. The one person who is crazy was the unicyclist. I caught him in the first mile when we had to go over a buckled section in the road while ascending at 14% grade. My bike went over it fine but his single wheel didn’t. He crashed pretty hard. But much of the time I was riding on pavement I was looking for the best pavement which was hard to find at times.
Like many riders, I did not carry any bike tools, extra tubes, or a spare pump with me. Didn’t need the weight. Towards the end of the dirt section, I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere. Damn! A flat. I knew there wasn’t much I could do except to ride it out. So I decided to keep riding until I couldn’t go farther. And then I would run the rest of the way pushing the bike.
One big difference from last year is that I remember talking in the first mile and then just breathing heavily the rest of the way. I had no energy to talk. But this year I had more than enough energy to talk. I instructed a tandem to go “mark the 10-year-old” so he didn’t get away (he did), asked riders if they needed a cue sheet, told a guy who was in real difficulty to drop back to the team car and bring us drinks, asked rhetorically if the road averaged 12% grade why my GPS never went under 12.
That question got one tired rider to respond by steering off the roadway into the ditch. It’s hard to maintain focus when one is so tired and he was tired and I broke his focus. My bad. Thankfully, this was on the inside of the road so he dropped 12″ – 18″ inches into a ditch. Had it been on the outside of the road he would have dropped 50-100 feet. At least.
I wanted to stop and help him. But I couldn’t. This was on a 14% grade and getting restarted was nearly impossible. I saw one rider coming back towards us and thought he took his “paperboying” to an extreme. But then it dawned on me that he stopped and to get going he started down the hill to get clipped in and then turned around to start climbing.
At Milepost 6 a volunteer announced it was Mile 6. I asked her if that meant there were six miles to go. Then smiled. I obviously wasn’t pushing hard enough. But it didn’t matter. I was glad to be on the mountain and was enjoying myself.
The curve at Mile 6 is nasty. I didn’t remember how steep it was, I’m thinking 18%, but it presented no problem. The 22% climb to the finish was still steep but I never thought I might stop and fall over which I believed would happen last year.
I just had to concentrate on the road and appreciated all the people cheering. That’s pretty cool.
Well, maybe it was a little bit hard at the end but was in no danger of falling over or running the photographer over like I almost did last year.
In fact I was smiling at the finish line.
Last year I collapsed at the finish line. I said “never again!” I gave it everything I had. My legs were like Jello for the next couple of days. What I take out of this experience is how close I was to total exhaustion last year. I thought that every rider crossing the finish line was grabbed by four people but I think that was reserved for me for last year. I really gained an appreciation for how much effort I used last year.
I feel now that I could do the race again tomorrow. Clearly, even though I shaved five minutes off last year’s time, I didn’t give it my all. Oh well — I left myself room for improvement for next year.
In cyclists’ terms, I am not a climber. It’s power to weight ratio and I will never be in the top 10-20 or 30% of the elite racers. Maybe not even top 50%. But I like to climb. What an incredible feeling to reach the summit of the toughest hillclimb in the world.
My time over last year did improve by 5 minutes – to 1:46. Last year I was in the 82 percentile or better than 18% of the racers. This year I was at 68% – better than 32%or right at the edge of the two-thirds line. But still way below the line.
My heart rate 158 avg/ 177 max was 2 beats faster this year than last year (156/175). And I didn’t worry about it. I never felt in distress. But I forgot to turn off my Garmin when I reached the finish line so it shows an extra two minutes. Oh well. There’s so much happening at the finish that it’s hard to remember everything. I bet if I had turned it off my heart rate would have been at least another beat higher.
Nothing grows up here. More than 100 days per year they experience hurricane-force winds. And they call it the Rockpile.
I had loaded the bike on the car then saw this finisher, D. P. Thomas, of Weatherford, Texas. I knew he wouldn’t make it. The mountain zaps your strength and you must have something left for the finish. Otherwise the legs can’t turn over the pedals and gravity forces you to the ground faster than one can unclip. And he wasn’t the only one.
After the race, we were one of the first cars to leave the summit. Probably 95% of the riders had finished but they do tell the few stragglers that they are going to open the road to traffic coming down the mountain.
On the descent I tried to encourage those still climbing by letting them know they weren’t far from the summit. One poor guy was “yo-yo-ing” so badly I stopped just so he could use the entire road to weave and cut the grade.
At our post-race turkey dinner, in the tent, I found Phil Gaimon and went to talk with him. In February, Mary knew that I was going to work the Tour of California and asked me to deliver a personal message to Phil to come back this year to the Hillclimb. And I did. I reminded him of that bitterly cold day in Santa Rosa and he remembered it well.
I told Phil I wanted a picture of us to put on my CaringBridge site. I explained that I had cancer and then we talked about cancer. He told me he was interested in my site and that his dad would be too as his dad was battling for his life.
I left with Phil’s last words to me. He told me he wanted to see me again at next year’s Amgen Tour of California and wanted to see me again next year racing up Mount Washington.
I plan to.
Now I must get ready for 100 miles on Sunday in Philadelphia with the Livestrong Challenge.
My Strava time was 1:44:37. This would be a point-to-point measure and not race time which is taken from time of starting gun to crossing the finish line. Because I was in a group, a deep group, and was not at the front, there was more than a one minute delay rolling out after the gun sounded.
There is a steep rise — about 18% — at the end of the dirt section and a spectator was at the transition screaming encouragement — “Hard top, hard top, hard top!!! — C’mon — you can do it. Hard top!” That was pretty funny actually.
I got to the hard top and never thought about the flat tire again. Mainly because it wasn’t flat. Never was. It was just riding up that 16-18% section in the dirt made the bike handle as though I had a flat tire. I didn’t.
Phil Gaimon said, “There are two possibilities in a race – you win or you set a PR, but when I’m getting faster, why would I quit doing this?”
I really wanted to ride this 65-mile loop around the base of Mount Washington but also knew that if I rode it there was a chance that my legs would be too sore going into Saturday. I reluctantly decided the prudent thing to do was to find another ride.
I drove to the beautiful village of Jackson, New Hampshire. Not finding a great place to park, I went into the post office, identified myself as a headquarters employee of U.S.P.S. and threatened to close their office asked if I could park in their employee lot — which basically meant the postmaster’s space. I could.
I got on Highway 16 and headed out through the White Mountains National Forest to the Mount Washington Auto Road. From the base I could see the summit of Mount Washington. Damn, it looks so far away. And high too. What was I thinking?
Mary Power, the events director at the MWAR greeted me. She asked about Ashley — still thinks she’s sweet.
Mary has been absolutely wonderful. I initially intended to ride Newton’s Revenge in July. But when I broke my wrist in May I contacted her to tell her I was still coming even though my cast would be off but a few days. She asked if I could come to the MWARBH instead. So I signed up for this race and then got sick. It looked like I would not ride at all this year and Mary graciously was supposed to roll my registration over to next year.
Except she forgot. And it all worked out because here I am.
I met Mary’s new assistant, Kelly, who comes from Beaver, Pennsylvania so we had a nice time talking. I graduated from New Brighton which is one town over in Beaver Co. We also talked about Hurricane Mountain Road. Both ladies said they hated to even drive that road. It is a nasty little road.
Today’s ride was a 28-mile ride out and back. Most of the ride out was climbing which made for a fun descent on the ride back.
We did talk about the race. I am excited because Phil Gaimon (Jelly Belly) will be here as well as Ned Overend. Ned, 53, is a legend. Maybe some day Phil will be a legend. I wish I could watch those two battle it out up the mountain. Phil’s young legs should win out but with Ned, you never know. Of course, a mechanical will end the race for either racer.
At the end of the ride I drove 60 miles to Portland, Maine. I am playing hotel roulette — I get credit for three stays instead of one — and get to see the coast too.
I had a couple of day’s worth of clothes to wash and found the laundry at the Hilton Garden Inn – Airport, in Portland. I figured being an airport hotel, it truly is, that everyone here was staying for one night and no one would have any laundry.
They had one washer and one dryer. They were empty. I put in my clothes and went for a 20-minute ride. The cycle was 30 minutes and I figured I would return and put my clothes in the dryer.
I returned with about five minutes remaining in the cycle and the dryer was in use. Who would be drying clothes without washing them? It certainly messed up my timing.
I returned to my room to grab my laptop to take with me to the laundry room. When I returned I found my wash tossed on top of the dryer and someone else’s clothes in the washer.
The culprit soon came back in. He was looking for soap. Rather than purchase some soap he took out a pocket knife and sliced off some slivers then added some shampoo. True.
Then a family came in to check on their clothes in the dryer. Bathing suits. I guess they just wanted hot suits.
I dried my clothes and then folded them. I was missing one arm warmer, one glove, and two socks. I had one cycling sock and one normal sock in the wash and knew I had a pair.
I opened the washer and saw my missing glove in the shampoo mix. I took it out.
Later I went back to the laundry room and saw my missing cycling sock was on the dryer.
After running an errand I returned and ran into the shampoo guy. He apologized for taking my clothes. He said he thought he had removed everything from the washer. I should have challenged him for removing them in the first place but I didn’t. It’s not like he has been waiting an hour while the clothes were in there.
I told him I was still missing an arm warmer and another sock. He said he didn’t have them but later I returned to the laundry room and there they were, folded. And smelling like shampoo.
We are usually in a hurry wherever we are. One nice thing about this trip is that I can take my time. No clocks although my body clock still awakens me each morning at 5:30 a.m.
I miss Ashley. My daughter has traveled with me twice on this trip to be my driver; the person who drives to the top of the mountain and waits for the fools on bikes. In 2007 when the race was canceled, twice, and a number of people were hammering the decision not to let us ride in zero visibility, 70 mph winds and 34 degree weather, I wrote to Mary Power and told her what a great time I had with my daughter. This was a special time of father and daughter and I miss her not being with me this year.
Our trip in 2007 was special and I had no expectations that we would ever travel together again. But last year Ashley and her husband, Bryan, joined me and were my inspiration knowing that they were waiting at the top of the mountain for me. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting…
Ashley was ready to go with me in July for Newton’s Revenge but I wasn’t. This week she started orientation for a new teaching job in Shepherdstown, West Virginia and is in daily rehearsal for Sweet Charity.
I arranged with a friend to go with me but a last minute family visit derailed those plans. So I left yesterday by myself.
My plan was on Wednesday to arrive the Mount Washington Valley early and ride the 65-mile circumference of Mount Washington as suggested in the March, 2007 edition of Bicycling. But gray skies and awful planning derailed those plans. Who knew I left myself 4 1/2 hours short of my destination Tuesday night?
There were rain clouds in Connecticut and there was rain in the Mount Washington Valley. I decided to take a relaxing route to the valley. The quickest way was up the coast outside of Boston, but I went up I-87 into Vermont. The Welcome Center/Rest Area is unique. It is a new barn made to look like an old barn.
Welcome Center in Vermont
I spent more than 30 minutes walking around and even found a connection to WiFi. Just the fact that one is on the Interstate probably means we’re in a hurry but this was a day to relax and smell, or at least, photograph, the flowers.
I traveled the two lane roads across New Hampshire. At one point, just outside of Keene, NH, I entered “Dick’s Sporting Goods” into my GPS and was surprised there was one just six miles ahead. I stopped and shopped. I bought three Livestrong shirts which were no longer on the Livestrong website.
I stopped in Meredith, NH, to admire beautiful Lake Winnipesaukee. Apparently, it even doubles as an airport.
I arrived North Conway, two hours later than the Garmin-predicted 4.5 hours. I unpacked and waited until the rains passed.
The 65-mile ride was out but I wanted to try my hand at Hurricane Mountain Road. HMR is a nasty two-mile climb which the sign warns of a 15% grade. That’s the highest percent grade I have ever seen on a road sign.
I have some history with HMR. Disappointed in 2007 when Newton’s Revenge was canceled, Ashley and I went to the Weather Discovery Center in North Conway. We met a wonderful older woman who asked me if I had been up Hurricane Mountain Road. Professing my ignorance, she told me of this ride all the locals do. She said if I can get over that I can get up Mount Washington.
I jumped on the bike and went out to HMR. At the bottom I saw the signs warning of the steep road ahead. No RVs or large trucks allowed. One hundred feet later is an entrance gate closed in the winter.
The road starts steep and gets steeper. Two years ago I got about two-thirds of the way up and had to pull over to catch my breath. After a couple of minutes I was able to get back on the bike and finish the ride to the top. Only then did I realize I had a 25 tooth rear gear and not 27.
Having made the change to 27 last year, I excitedly went on Thursday to HMR to test myself with the new “easier” setup. And I made it to exactly the same place before I had to bail out. This was not good. Friday morning I went back and rode as slow as I could in the easiest gear. This time I made it up.
And so in 2009 I have a new gear setup. Unable to put in the long ride I went for HMR one more time. It was hard. But I never thought about stopping along the way. I did think about how my back hurt. Standing “out of the saddle” on a 6% grade is sort of cool. Standing on a 15% grade hurts the lower back. Now it’s coming back to me.
Normally my reward for reaching the top is descending. There is a plateau of no more than 100 yards. My choice was to return down the 15% two-mile grade with switchbacks or the less technical but even steeper 17% descent on the other side. I guess, that is the steepest grade I have seen on a sign.
These are not roads where you earn a “whew-hoo!” as your descent. This descent is one that without brakes you go from 0-60 in 5 seconds. All your weight is forward and using the back brake on wet roads means sliding out. Both hands were cramping from riding the brakes. It was not a fun descent.
But I made it down safely and rode to Fryburg, Maine before returning to New Hampshire. The legs barely were sore but I’m not sure about an 8-mile climb on Saturday.
The preparations are complete. Miles of riding through the winter are but a memory. Although not nearly as steep as Mount Washington, I rode the Blue Ridger three times this year with the Potomac Pedalers Cycling Club. I rode The Hills of Ellicott City. And a ride called Happy Happy Pain Pain. Using the same naming convention, the ascent up Mount Washington would simply be called Pain Pain Pain Pain. And Pain.
Happiness comes when you cross the finish line. And about five minutes after you cross and you finally get some of the mile high+ air back into your lungs.
In April I rode up and over Blue Knob Ski Resort near Altoona, Pa. And the past two weekends I rode “The Wall” which is a half-mile portion of 17-19% grade as part of a nine-mile climb out of Altoona past (under really since there is a 200-foot tunnel) Horseshoe Curve. While in Altoona, I met some nice riders from Spokes and Skis. Two weeks ago I met “Joel” and last week I met “Richard and Stacey.” I hope I spelled her name right.
Unlike last year, I went ahead and had some gear changes made to my bike. Two years ago I was set to go up with a 30 tooth front sprocket and a 25 tooth rear. I wouldn’t have made it. I thought I had a 27 tooth rear gear until I counted and discovered it was 25. I immediately replaced it with a 27.
Last year I went with 30:27 and suffered all the way up but I made it. I did a lot of soul searching as to whether I needed to change but in the end am glad to say that, at least once, I rode the mountain without making changes to the bike.
But this year I went with the best option I could find without making significant changes. We went with a 24 tooth on the front, shortened the chain, removed the big ring, and put a 28 tooth gear on the rear. Both the 24 and 28 tooth gears are the most extreme that I could find without changing the derailleur.
The real challenge of this day was to remember how to reassemble the Yakima bike rack. No problem at all. However, when I arrived in Windsor the key on my key ring didn’t unlock the bike. Thoughts and me driving to New Hampshire with a bike stuck on the roof of the car ran through my head. But I brought an extra key in the coin/ashtray and it worked. Crisis averted.
Otherwise, the trip was uneventful. I left home at 9:30 a.m., made a couple stops before I hit the road, and got to the George Washington Bridge in New York City just before 3:00 p.m. which is just ahead of rush hour. I guess I could have driven the entire route but by 6:00 p.m. I had gone far enough for the day.