The Driver of This Car Cycled Mt. Washington|
This weekend I had the opportunity to experience a beautiful summer afternoon and some of the worst weather I have ever been exposed to, and all in the span of under 2 hours.
The day started out early, as most races do. Arriving at the base of Mt. Washington, there was the usual wait to get into the parking lot, lines for the port-a-johns, and participants warming up. In a race like this, you see every type of bike. Standard road, dual suspension mountain, tandem, and I even saw one fixed gear. After hearing a few horror stories about the climb, I decided to borrow a road bike (thank you Rachel S.) with a triple chain ring, since my road bike only has a double. The bike had a 30 as a granny gear in the front, and I put a 12/27 cassette in the rear. I thought that this would give me enough spin and a few bail out gears to get me up. But once I saw the modifications that some riders had made to their bikes, I wasn’t sure if I underestimated what I was up against.
Standard front small chain rings were replaced with 22 tooth rings. Mountain bike rear derailleurs and cassettes were put on road bikes to get up to a 34 tooth ring in the rear. Brakes were removed to save weight. As I took my warm up ride up Rt. 16, and saw more and more of these modified bikes, my anxiety level began to rise. I had never driven up the Mt. Washington auto road, so all I had to go on was the topographical representations and the information I had seen on-line: 4,727 feet of climbing over 7.6 miles, an overall average grade of 12%, prolonged sections of unpaved road, an extended average grade of 15% through mile 5, and a grade of 22% at the finish. Although I have done other races with steep climbs, like "The Beast" in St. Croix, and long climbs, like riding up past Whiteface during Ironman Lake Placid, and had been pretty consistent with my riding so far this year, I was getting the feeling that none of this really prepared me for this climb.
But luckily, I didn’t have too much time to think about all this since only minutes after I finished my warm up, we were corralled to the start. And 4 minutes after a cannon blast sent the pros off, my wave, 20 to 34 year olds, started up. Unlike the torrid starts of most triathlons and road races I have been in, he riders came out in a very controlled fashion. No need to rush when you know you will be climbing for at least the next 1 to 2 hours or more. Although there were a few relative "rabbits", most climbers in my group looked to get into a rhythm rather than try to put a big gap on the rest of the competitors. But from the first slope, you could hear people going into oxygen debt. Heavy breathing was all around you, and the pace was so slow you constantly heard the creaks and strains being put on the bikes due to the steepness of the climb.
My race plan was to take it easy for the first 3 miles, watching my heart rate closely and trying to not let it get too much above my anaerobic threshold for the first half of the ride. From there I would re-evaluate, and hopefully have something in the tank to pick up the pace in the second half. Since it was my first time doing this race, I set what I thought was a conservative goal of finishing under 1:30. I carried one bottle of GPush 2, and a Gu Shot, as there is no water provided on the climb. I figured that if I could take regular drinks from my bottle, which is no easy feat when you are peddling up a 14% grade, I should have the energy to finish. I wore a short sleeve bike shirt, bike shorts, and arm warmers, initially pushed down around my wrists, and I carried a space blanket from a previous Boston Marathon finish (advice I received from the race website) just incase the weather turned. I knew that the weather on the top can be unpredictable, but even that didn’t prepare me for what was to come.
The temperature at the start at the base was in the high 70s under partly cloudy skies. I spent the majority of the early part of the climb seated, standing every 4 to 5 minutes for intervals of 30 seconds to vary the leg muscles I was using. When the road would flatten, which happened only about 4 times for stretches of about 10 to 20 yards, I would try to stretch my back. The initial part of the climb was over paved road, with one short section of dirt covered pavement. The quality of the road was average at best, with many frost heaves. As we rose, I started to feel overheated and I began to get concerned that I wouldn’t have enough liquid to get me to the top. But as we rode through mile 4 and the tree line began to diminish, I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about over heating.
I could hear the wind before I actually felt it. The initial gusts were strong but not much different than what I have experienced before. I guessed around 20 mph. But, at that slow pace, it made keeping the line on your bike difficult. On the steeper sections of the climb, my front wheel would lift off the ground, which is dangerous in any situation. The wind only added to this, as it pushed the bike sideways once the front tire lifted up. But within a half mile of breaking the tree line, the wind really began to pick up.
As I made my way to the next switchback, the strong wind actually came in handy. With it to my back, the steep grade of the switchback went by without too much effort as I stood up and tried to use my body as a sail. But this mountain always seems to have something else to throw at you. And as I started on my way across this long traverse, I caught a glimpse of our next obstacle. From mile 4.5 to almost 6, the road turns from pavement to packed dirt. The beginning of this section has the steepest sustained grade of the ride, averaging 15% over 1000 meters. At this point I switched into my 27 toothed ring and I didn’t leave it for the rest of the day; so much for a bailout gear.
This section seemed to go on for ever. Throughout it, I was working with some other riders, taking turns setting a pace over the bumpy, dirt road. This is a draft legal event, but the most you could hope for was to have someone to keep pace with as you slowly made your way up. And although the wind was not a direct head wind during this stretch, it never acted as a tailwind either. Most of the time it would just swirl around us, pushing our bikes sideways, kicking up dust, and providing "dirt flavored Gu" as you breathed through your mouth, trying to bring in as much oxygen as possible.
Once we made it to the next switch back, the ground leveled for about 30 yards, and gave our legs a quick respite. I took 2 big gulps from my bottle, since I knew with this next turn we would be heading back into the wind. And I made a quick adjustment to my arm warmers, pulling them up as far as I could, given the riding conditions. The air temp had fallen since we began and a cloud now hung over our heads. But as we turned into the wind, I quickly realized how fast weather on Mt. Washington can go from bad to worse. As we made it past mile 5, the cloud that was once over us, surrounded us. We went from 5 mile visibility to about 10 feet visibility. And instantly we knew that those nasty 30 mph winds had picked up substantially. Later, we would learn that they were sustained at 50 mph, gusting to 60. The wind chill made the air temperature feel 30 degrees. This is when the "Shit hit the Fan."
I quickly forgot about the pain in my legs since I was fighting every minute to keep my bike upright. I saw 3 people get blown off their bike. To protect from this, I crouched as low as I could get, with my chin almost touching my handlebars. The wind was so loud you could hardly hear the few spectators cheering on the side of the road. It blew pebbles into our legs that stung when they hit, and blew dust and rain into your eyes, which brought our already limited visibility virtually down to zero.
Finally, we got back onto the pavement, but the wind continued to beat us. It would gust, pushing you violently to the shoulder of the road. Trying to pass people in it was treacherous, since they could easily be blown into you. At times it seemed like I was leaning at almost 45 degrees into it. As we went through mile 7, we began to see more spectators cheering us on. At this point my toes were starting to get really cold, so I decided to push as hard as I could to the finish. Even with all my effort, the most I could manage was about 6 mph. And with all this raging around us, I knew that the steepest section of the climb was still to come.
I began to hear the announcer at the finish line, although I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. As the noise grew louder, the road suddenly flattened and then, for about 50 yards it descended. But even before I could shift into a lower gear, I hit the final climb. It seemed to come out of the clouds at me, like a wave, rather than me actually riding toward it. Hearing someone’s last minute advice to stay to the left, I darted that way around another climber, put my head down, and pedaled as hard as I could. I could hear people right next to me, cheering me on, but couldn’t see them due to the clouds. It was a very surreal experience.
As I crested the hill, the road took a 90 degree turn left. And with the poor visibility I took the turn very wide and almost ended up into the crowd. But as I righted myself, I pedaled the final few yards to the finish in a time of 1:28:17. I was greeted by a warm fleece blanket, a bottle of water, and a big hug from Rachel. The conditions made it necessary to quickly head to one of the mountain top buildings, which could only be found by following white arrows painted on the ground.
When we finally got back down to the base, the weather was about the same as we had left it, 80 degrees and sunny. The ski hat and gloves I wore up top were replaced by shorts and a t-shirt. We sat in the grass and ate one of the best post race meals I have ever had (a full turkey dinner), and had some ice cream. The whole experience lasted less than 2 hours, but it is something that I will never forget for the rest of my life. And hopefully, the weather will be better next year.