One of my “resolutions” for 2010 was to join a cycling team and start racing. I have fallen a little short on that task: although I trained all winter and even took a bike racing class, my summer schedule filled up so quickly that joining a team started to seem like a waste of money. But months ago, when snow was still falling and everything seemed possible, I seized upon a moment of mid-winter hubris and signed myself up for one epic race: The Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb.
For some background, let’s turn to a description of the course from a September 2004 article in Outside magazine:
The Rockpile, as Mount Washington is unromantically nicknamed, towers 6,288 feet above sea level. We’ll be climbing the uppermost 4,727 feet, over a mere 7.6 miles. (For perspective, one of the toughest races in the Rockies, the Mount Evans hill climb, near Denver, rises 7,000 feet over 28 miles.) With an average grade of 12 percent and sustained stretches of 18 percent (highway grades rarely exceed 7 percent), Mount Washington is steeper than L’Alpe d’Huez or any other climb in the Tour de France, Spain’s Vuelta, or the Giro d’Italia. Mile for mile, it is arguably the toughest one-day bike race on the planet.
There are a whopping 72 turns on the Auto Road course, and the longest straightaway is only a few hundred yards—on dirt. Most hill climbs ease off at the top, allowing riders to drop into a more muscular gear and enjoy a burst of acceleration. Not on Washington. In the final 100 yards—a section alternately called the Corkscrew, the Ladder, and the Wall—the grade steepens to a horrifying 22 percent.
So there it is. Why did I sign myself up for this again? It’s true that I enjoy riding on hills. And I do score reasonably well on that golden metric of hillclimbers, watts per kilogram of body weight. But this is starting to sound a little intimidating. There’s no coasting: if you stop pedaling on this hill, you’ll fall off the bike. And at a “race pace” of 5–6 MPH, drafting isn’t much use either. Will I even be able to eat or drink? Will my custom hillclimb gearing provide the right ratios for efficient riding?
The Mt. Washington Auto Road is not normally open to bicycles, but to help answer some of these questions, the organizers allow for one unsupported practice ride a month before the race. And with the actual race coming up on August 21, that practice ride is happening this Sunday. More to come!