Mount Washington Ride Report
By Jud Hand
On February 1, 2006 at about 8 am, the last of 600 spots on the Mt. Washington hillclimb was taken. I got to my computer about 9 am, and all I could get was a spot far down the waiting list. Fortunately for me, the organizers decided to hold second race, which they called Newton’s Revenge, for those who couldn’t get into the regular race.
So on Saturday, July 8, 2006, six weeks before the main race, I once again was riding up the mountain. The 7.6-mile Auto Road is open to cyclists only for races and practice rides. It climbs about 4800 feet and averages 12 percent overall. This climb attracts riders from throughout the country and overseas and is probably one of the two or three best-known uphill bike races in the U.S., along with Mt. Evans in Colorado and one or two others. Counting this July’s race, I’ve now cycled to the top of Mt. Washington six times. Hands down, the weather this time was the best I’ve ever seen.
The 180 or so riders who lined up by the Auto Road toll house could not believe what organizer Mary Power was saying, “Fifty-Seven degrees at the summit, winds at 3 mph.” Just four weeks earlier, on the practice ride, I had encountered sustained 65 mph winds, 38-degree temperatures , 20-degree wind chills, fog, rain and hail near the top. My wife said I had turned into a human popsicle. When someone says the weather is unpredictable, it is an understatement. This time, the weather was as close to perfect as the mountain ever gets. There would be no excuses based on weather.
My strategy was to conserve energy at the bottom. Veteran climbers know that the mountain can be divided into two very different environments. The first four miles is sheltered in trees, steep, but usually protected from the winds. At mile post four, the road takes a sharp left-hand bend around “the Horn,” as the trees disappear and the pavement turns to dirt and gravel. You begin a slow slog up a steady 15 percent stretch in the dirt, a rock wall on the right, a sheer drop of what looks like a couple of thousand feet on the left.
In terms of training, racers concentrate on weight and power. The lower your weight, the higher your power, the better you climb. People look for every way they can to shave pounds off themselves, their clothing and their bikes. They also work on sustaining as much power as they can for the 1-2 hours it takes most to reach the top. I elected to race with my Power Tap powermeter, knowing it adds 600-700 grams and about 30-40 seconds to my time. I did this for two reasons: First, I wanted to have the data from the race to review. Second, I thought the power readings would help me pace myself.
The race is divided into four waves. The first top notch wave, those who have completed the course in an hour and 20 minutes or less, went off first. A small cannon, it’s too loud to be called a toy, goes off for each wave, which leave five minutes apart. I was in the 45 and up wave, which leaves last, 15 minutes after the top notchers. I later learned there were 67 people from my group who finished, out of 174 total finishers. The older group is almost always the largest in the race.
Soon the cannon blasted for my wave and, with a ringing in my right ear, I clipped in and began riding the couple of hundred yards before the climb really begins. The grade hits immediately. It can seem shockingly steep to newcomers. Invariably, many take off too quickly at the beginning, going far beyond any sustainable pace. I saw many of them in the next few miles, either riding at a crawl, walking their bikes, or stopped altogether at the side of the road. I’m smarter than that, or so I thought at the time.
For the first half mile, I stuck to my plan, as many riders glided past. But after a while, I decided to ignore the power readings and go on feel. I was feeling good. We’d see about later. During the four miles to the Horn, I passed about a dozen people in my wave, then began picking up the slower riders from the earlier waves. I had finished this race in 2003 in 1:44:08 and last year in 131:06. My goal was to break 1:30 this year and, until last month, I dreamed of getting in the 1:25 range. Those dreams got shelved pretty much when a project at work slashed into my training time and left me chronically sleep deprived. My June miles ended up as low as my February miles. We’d see after the Horn how much this would affect my ride.
As I rounded the Horn, I became aware of the heavy breathing of another rider right behind me. I later learned this guy was wearing a yellow jersey with red polka dots. As the pavement turned to dirt and we hit a sustained 15 percent stretch, he and I stayed together and slowly gained on several riders ahead, including a guy in blue jersey who I later learned had started in a wave 10 minutes before and a guy in our wave with one of those Serotta jerseys with an “S” on the back. The warm air and lack of wind felt weird, given the polar conditions just four weeks earlier. My low gear of 26-34 came in handy on the dirt section, as I was able to spin more quickly and gain traction that way. But my legs were protesting loudly. I simply was running out of power.
Looking at the power meter data at home, it was plain what happened. I did the first four miles at basically a 1:20 pace, or top notch level. But my pace dropped to about a 1:40 after that. My heart rate stayed in the low to mid 170s, which is 90-95 percent of my 185 max (don’t try this with coronary problems), so I was working just as hard. My legs sold out. Polka dot guy glided past at about mile six and “S” guy fell in behind him. I later learned that the polka dot guy finished about two and a half minutes ahead of me, “S” guy about a minute and a half ahead. I knew if I tried to keep up with them any longer, I’d blow up completely and lose any chance of even breaking 1:30. It was all I could do to stay with the blue jersey guy from the earlier wave.
Somehow I made it to the final 500 feet, where the course tilts to 22 percent and you have to negotiate a hard right, followed by a hard left, before it finally flattens a bit for the last 50 feet or so. Blue guy was right in front. I was determined to stay on the bike this time and I pushed through the turns and actually accelerated to the finish line. I saw my time in the low 1:29 range and I pumped my fist in satisfaction over the line. I later learned that my heart rate had spiked at that moment at 183, the highest I had recorded this year.
Turns out I finished in 1:29:20, nearly a 2 minute improvement from last year. The weather was much better this year, so my times were probably equivalent. On the other hand, my poor pacing and inability to train properly in June probably cost me this year. With better pacing and more time to train, I think could shave off yet another couple of minutes. Maybe. Overall, I was 11 of 37 in the 45-49 male age group and 55 of 174 finishers overall.
Next year is the 750-mile ultra long distance Paris-Brest-Paris ride and I probably won’t ride Mt. Washington. But there’s always 2008. I’ll be in a higher age group then. Maybe I can get a better time. You never know if this year is going to be the best one.
Interested in learning more about this event?
Check out the webpage @ www.newtonsrevenge,com (race results are posted there as well).
The TinMtn.org site is a good resource as well