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Mt Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb - Cycle

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Gorham, New Hampshire
United States
Tin Mountain Conservation Center
50F / 10C
Total Time = 1h 19m 20s
Overall Rank = 113/504
Age Group = M45-49
Age Group Rank = 22/86
Pre-race routine:

Leg two of the summer racing/vacationing adventure. After Du Worlds last weekend in Ottawa, and a fabulous week with the family in Vermont, Maine, and then New Hampshire, I find myself at the base of the Mt Washington Auto Road, not sure whether to be excited or terrified. I hadn't done a hill climb race before, but had wanted to try one, since climbing seems to be the only part of biking that I'm any good at, because it requires no skill. And this was one of those events that has bucket-list appeal, but is a bit too far away from home to justify, unless we're in the area for something else. It starts at 1565' and ends at 6288', highest peak in the northeastern US. And it climbs 4700' in just 7.6 miles, for an average grade of 12%, including sustained stretches at 15% on packed dirt, and a short final pitch at 22%. And then there's the winds to contend with. Yes, it's the mama of hill climbs. Lining up at the start, I met people who do this year after year, it seems to be a New England institution. At dinner I met a guy who has ridden it 25 times, and his wife who holds the record for 65+. And at the start there was an 11-year old girl getting ready to head up the mountain. Humbling.

As I waited for the start, I eyed up the gearing on the bikes around me. I saw the lowest gears that I've ever seen on road bikes, doubtless the result of a great deal of skilled tinkering. No stock gruppos these. I climb fairly well for a triathlete, so when I entered for the race I didn't really worry about gearing. But when I learned that even the pro level riders often go for 1:1 gearing, I had second thoughts. A guy next to me who was racing this event for the 12th time had somehow arranged a 24x34 lowest gear, and I saw some mighty looking cogs on rear cassettes. When I first asked my regular LBS about improving on my 34x28 they basically looked at me as if I was a wimp and said that was as low as I could go. I tried another LBS and was lucky to find a mechanic from New England who knew about the race and thought it would be a cool project to work on. But the best that he could come up with -- without breaking the bank -- was a 34x32. I had got the bike just before leaving on our trip, and had not yet ridden it. No idea how that would perform. (Nothing new on race day, I know ...) I could have prepared better for the race, by biking more or by losing more weight, but those plans had fallen by the wayside. Recent biking was all on the TT bike preparing for Du Worlds, and there hadn't been enough of that. And let's just say that the food and the beer throughout the vacation had been quite wonderful, thank you.
Event warmup:

I bundled up the family into the van in the dawn fog, and drive the 40 minutes to the base of the mountain. Andrea and Zoe dropped me off in the field at the start, and joined the long line of cars crawling up to the summit. Riding down is strictly forbidden (and would be utterly suicidal), so all riders must be driven down. I put my bike together, and attached the bike computer that I had taken from my TT bike from last week's race. Spun the wheel to check that it was working. Nothing. Doh, I forgot to switch out the wheel magnet. Ok, so the new plan was to take a minimalist approach to this one. No speed readings, no distance, except for the mile markers on the road, and no timing until the last mile or so. I just used my Garmin to track elevation, as that was the better way of telling how far up I was, and heart rate, to manage my effort. I rode around for a few minutes to loosen the legs and check the new gearing, but figured I'd have plenty of time to warm up once the race began.

I didn't have a clear time target for the ride, but I had told Andrea and Zoe that they should look out for me 1:20 - 1:30 after my start. And I quietly hoped that I might get in under 1:20, making me a qualifier for the "top notch" division if I chose to ride this again.

  • 1h 19m 20s
  • 7.6 miles
  • 5.75 mile/hr

I started in the 5th and final wave, 20 minutes after the first wave. The first wave was elites who had ridden sub 1:20 in previous years, then waves ordered by age, with 45+ going last. I started well back in my wave and when the cannon went off I made no effort to follow the line of riders racing across the initial flat 200 yards before the climb began. There's no gentle lead-in to the climb. It just goes straight up. As soon as we started climbing I began to pick off riders, and that continued all the way up the mountain. At first I was just passing green-bibbed riders from my own wave, but soon I was passing purple bibs that started 5 minutes earlier, and later on I was catching yellow bibs (10 mins head start) and finally blue bibs (15 mins). I apparently caught a few red bibs from the initial elite wave, but I certainly wasn't aware of that. But it really did help that I had people to chase down the entire way up. Kind of like when I get on the bike in a tri following my abysmal swim.

On the initial pitches I quickly learned to my great relief, that my 34x32 was good for seated climbing. I don't like to stand up to climb, except in desperate circumstances. I wouldn't say that I was able to spin up the mountain, but it wasn't (yet) what I would call grinding. At first we climbed through the trees. There was no wind, and it felt warm. With my wool baselayer I was feeling overdressed. At the base I had been worried about sunburn. My altimeter showed that I was rapidly gaining altitude. But when 500' is barely 10% of the climb, it still felt quite daunting. I got the HR up to the high 160s, and didn't let it go above the low 170s, except at the very end. This is roughly my HM target rate, so I figured that could keep me going to the top, as long as things didn't get a lot harder at higher altitudes.

Through the first half of the climb we got just occasional views through the trees -- and they were spectacular already -- but I was mostly focusing on the next riders ahead, and occasionally looking up to see the long line of riders ahead. The gradient was somewhat varied, which I liked. This meant that there were extended portions of 15% or so, but that was balanced with some 'false flats' of barely 10%. There were some cool things to see along the way, such as mountain spring water reserved for overheating car radiators, or places for cars to stop to cool their brakes. I was making an effort to ration the water in my two bottles, but in retrospect I would probably have been fine carrying less weight with me.

Around the halfway mark we passed an old guy who was calling out the time of day as an approximate time check. Based on that, I got the first indication that I was making good time, possibly on track for well under 1:20. Nice! But this was a very approximate time check -- the guy really was just calling out the time of day from his wrist watch -- and I knew that the second half of the climb was supposed to be harder. As we passed the 4 mile mark and the 4000' feet elevation marker we exited above the tree line and the character of the ride changed sharply. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped, the asphalt turned into hard-packed dirt, and the grade got steeper. This was now serious climbing. I was still able to climb without standing up, mostly, and I was afraid that my rear wheel would slip if I stood, but I had to work quite hard to maintain a reasonable cadence, and from here on I felt like on each pedal stroke I was pushing with one leg and pulling strongly with the other. Hard work, but it actually meant that I was passing folks faster, though I was probably going a bit slower. Now the road also felt rather exposed. The views were amazing, but there wasn't a whole lot of chance to stop and admire. I noticed that drinking became less easy - I felt much less stable than usual when holding a bottle in one hand, and I did not want to be blown off the road. At around mile 5 I had to stop for a few seconds, as that was the only way to safely switch my bottles.

Entering the last third of the climb, I was thinking less about getting up intact, and more about my finishing time. I now was confident that I could make it up without crumbling, but I really wanted to beat the 1:20 threshold. At 5 miles my Garmin beeped a split at me. I thought that was amusing: in regular races it gives me these 5-mile splits every 13-15 minutes, but my 5-mile split on this occasion was 52-something. A little mental math told me that if this was accurate, then 7.6 miles in 1:20 was going to be rather tight. I tried to maintain pace over the next mile, but that was hard as it was mostly into a headwind. I was doing a bad job of tracking distance, and wasn't sure how accurate my altimeter readings were (... it turns out they were pretty good, unusually for a 910xt), but when my timer reached 69:xx I calculated that I had another 600 feet to climb. That was going to be tight. I reached the 7-mile post in just under 73 minutes, so all I had to do was to ride 1 km in 7 minutes. Normally trivial, but not so sure today. I pushed on harder, and was buoyed by seeing the big visitor center building at the summit emerge from the cloud that had enveloped it. We hit a 'flatter' section shortly before the summit, and I pushed on into bigger gears. But then shortly before the top the road turned sharply upwards, into the steepest section of the entire climb, reported to be 22%. Here I had no choice but to stand and put everything into just keeping the pedals turning and the front wheel on the ground. By this point the road was lined with cheering spectators, armed with cowbells, and it felt like the finish of a mountain stage in the Tour de France (or perhaps the Giro d'Italia, given the icy conditions at the top). Fist pump for the finish - I was there in 1:19:20. 5.7 mph average - I never thought that would feel so fast.
What would you do differently?:

Very little, given my limited preparation. I think I could have gone a little harder without blowing up, but not much, and it would have been foolish to empty the tank on the lower slopes only to find a 50mph wind at the top.
Post race
Warm down:

I was happy to be done. It was a hard climb for sure, but I was a little surprised that I had felt in control for pretty much all the way, never felt that I was in danger of crumbling. But when I came to a stop my legs were a little unstable, though they recovered quickly. It was freezing cold at the top -- ~40 degrees, with ~20 mph winds -- unusually good conditions for that spot, so I'm told. For weary racers this presents an immediate danger of cold-related problems. I was so impressed to see that all racers were immediately wrapped in a thick Polartek blanket, a special Mt Washington Hill Climb edition no less. It felt like a luxury when I finished, but within a couple of minutes it felt like a necessity. I couldn't find Andrea and Zoe right away, so I started walking through the crowds below the summit in search of them. To no avail. I quickly learned that I had mighty sore hamstrings and a painful back, both from the unusual strain of keeping the pedals turning. A little while later I was able to call Andrea (remarkably good cellphone reception at the top of the mountain), and after some more searching we were able to find our car in the tightly packed mass of cars in the summit parking lots. It was strange to see all the cars like this -- tightly packed like on ferry boats, but surrounded by clouds and steep drops. Back in the car it took a long while to get warmed up again. We had to wait around for until about 1h45 after I finished before we could start driving down the mountain again. This time I was able to admire the views more -- amazing vistas -- and it was also very clear indeed why we were not allowed to ride down the mountain. There's just no way any sane person should attempt that. And even less reason for the world's worst bike descender (= me) to do it.

When the results came out later in the day, I was surprised that I was as low as 22nd of 86 in my AG. But although I did pass most of the field on the way up, and was among the fastest handful from my wave, there were a lot of faster folks from my AG in the initial "top notch" wave. Anyway, no big deal, and I was happy with the time. I was entirely satisfied with my first hill climb race experience.

What limited your ability to perform faster:

Training and weight loss could have been better. I was right on the edge with my 34x32, and 1:1 gearing would have helped.

Event comments:

It's a wonderful event, and I'm so glad that I did it. Like other events that I like the most, the race is more against the course than against the other competitors. The setting is stunning, and the organization appeared to be flawless. Also the best race swag ever -- can't beat that thick fleecy blanket, plus a decal "This bike climbed Mt Washington", a variant on a commonly seen car decal in New England. The only downer is that the entry fee is as steep as the climb itself. At $350 for an event that lasts about as long as a half marathon, WTC race fees seem quite generous. But the fees support the charity sponsor, and since the ride always sells out in 1-2 days, I guess they charge what they can get away with. I'm not sure that I would do it every year at that price, even if I was living close by, but I'm definitely glad to have done it the once.

Profile Album

Last updated: 2013-03-17 12:00 AM
01:19:20 | 07.6 miles | 5.75 mile/hr
Age Group: 22/86
Overall: 113/504
Performance: Good
Wind: Strong
Course: Up, up, up!
Road: Rough Dry Cadence:
Turns: Cornering:
Gear changes: Hills:
Race pace: Drinks:
Post race
Weight change: %
Overall: Good
Mental exertion [1-5] 4
Physical exertion [1-5] 4
Good race? Yes
Course challenge Just right
Organized? Yes
Events on-time? Yes
Lots of volunteers? Yes
Plenty of drinks?
Post race activities: Good
Race evaluation [1-5] 5

2013-08-19 6:55 AM

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University Park, MD
Subject: Mt Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb

2013-08-21 11:39 AM
in reply to: #4832610

Northern IL
Subject: RE: Mt Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb
Great job Colin! Glad the conditions worked out for you.
2013-08-21 1:16 PM
in reply to: brigby1

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Austin, Texas
Subject: RE: Mt Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb

WOW - great race (and great RR - almost makes me want to head up there)!

This has been on my radar for a while, and I appreciate the great report.

Sounds like you metered out the effort almost perfectly and will be "top notch" in years to come.


2013-08-21 1:16 PM
in reply to: brigby1

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Subject: RE: Mt Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb
Badazz, man. This makes ME want to puke. Smile
2013-08-21 2:00 PM
in reply to: #4832610

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Subject: RE: Mt Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb
Wow...nice job Colin.  I can't imagine 12% for that long.
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