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My youngest brother, Jason, and his family live in New Hampshire and, for years now, he’s been telling me about this big hill climb bike race they do over there every summer.  Well, not every summer come to find out.  Three times in its 38 year history it’s been cancelled due to inclement weather.  The Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb (MWARBH) is a 7.6 mile all-uphill road race to the summit of the highest peak (6,288 ft) in the northeastern United States.  This event proudly makes the claim of being the “toughest hill climb in the world.”  Why so?  In terms of steepness, by comparing it to the famous ascents of the Tour de France, MWARBH organizers make their argument for Mt. Washington’s chain-breakin’ reputation.   The average climbing grade up Mt. Washington is 12% (the Col du Tourmalet’s is 7.5%), with extended sections of 18% (Mont Ventoux has a 10.5% section) and the last 50 yards reach 22% (the Col du Galibier tops out at 12%).  Adding to its “beyond category” status, racers taking on Mt. Washington typically face winds of 30-40 mph and a temperature drop of around 25 degrees at the top when compared to the bottom.  Though considered a road race, there’s a dirt (often mud) section to contend with as well.

Back in February, I was one of 600 “lucky” enough to get registered on-line for the MWARBH.  Slots fill up almost immediately.  With my ticket to ride secured, plans were made for my family to join Jason’s family in the White Mountains of New Hampshire this summer for a relaxing vacation…with a “short” bike race mixed in there for good measure. 

On Saturday this past weekend, I arrived at the bottom of the Mt. Washington Auto Road and found myself looking straight up a road that went up, up, up & then disappeared into the trees.  I’d presumed I’d never seen a 12.5% gradient on a road before today.  After taking a look at the start of this beast, I was positive I’d never seen anything like this before!  To take on this climb, with the help of the BSC shop, I had earlier shipped my reliable Rocky Mountain Solo AC30 road bike out east.  To compliment my training efforts, I’d also spent the off season equipping my bike with a new wheelset (Mavic Ksyriums) and a gearing ratio that I figured would be the envy of any granny grinder (50/34 – 12×27) out there.  I was wrong about the gears, however…most racers had mutated their road bikes in ways I’d never seen before.  We’re talking mountain bike triple gearing, with ONLY the small ring there on the front as the general norm.  Bikes with the brakes entirely removed.  Anything to shed weight up this monster climb. 

I was anticipating I’d finish this race under a goal of one hour and 30 minutes, and perhaps even under the magic 1:20 “top-notch” time if things broke right for me.  Mainly, however, I didn’t want to get knocked off my bike by the hill or its elements…stay on the bike all the way up was the primary goal.   At the top on the mountain, waiting some 4,725 feet above me was Jason and my wife, Chris.  At the blast of a canon there at the Toll House (1,563’) my trip up the “Rockpile” began.

Um, about that presumed granny gearing I had at the ready, just in case I pooped out and needed to “spin” up the mountain.  Well, officially, one minute into the climb, already out of gears, it quickly dawned on me that I was in for a “grind” the likes I’d never experienced before.  And here’s how it went…

Mile 1 was mentally jolting for me.  Even with all the training & preparation I’d done ahead of time, and the fact that I was able to actually see what I was in for at the starting line, I was really shocked about the sustained steepness involved here.  It’s relentless.  Doubt was quickly seeping into my psyche.  The 1 mile marker is right after the 2,000’ marker.

Mile 2 is actually worse than the first.  The grade goes up here in several sustained sections to around 17%.  Adding to this misery, the body hasn’t yet adapted to the fact that, from here on out, the 10% to 12% gradient sections are where there’s gonna be recovery opportunities!?!   You’re still below tree line, so you don’t get to see what’s too far ahead.  Regardless, you soon realize that every twist or turn along the way just presents another hill.  The dang thing never crests or even flattens! 

Mile 3 maintains a pretty steady 12% grade and, while the trees start getting shorter, you’re still below the actual tree line.  You come across the first opportunity for water, but are quickly dismayed to read the sign above the faucet that states, “For Radiators Only – Not for Drinking”.  At this part of the climb, I started to find myself getting into a rhythm and passing some folks…radiators notwithstanding, racers were starting to overheat. 

Mile 4 starts another “between the ears” challenge as you’re introduced to the first straightaway that looks like it never ends.  This stretch isn’t any steeper, it’s just visually daunting.  Locals that I’d talked to earlier in the week at some of the area’s bike shops advised that the first four miles of the climb are the worst.  “Things won’t get easier”…”but getting to mile marker 4 is big”…”if you get there”…”but don’t think it gets any easier.”  After completing the straightaway climb, riders take a left on “The Horn” (4,000’) and then (finally) find themselves well above the tree line now.  At this turn, I came across a rider who hadn’t made swing successfully and, as a result, had fallen over.  A couple of spectators had gotten him back on the bike & were trying to push start him…to no avail.  “Stay on the bike, Dexter”, I reminded myself.

Mile 5 begins a stretch of steep gravel road that zig-zags back & forth.  Fortunately, on this day at least, the road was dry so there wasn’t any mud to contend with.  Regardless, there was no standing on this section or your tire would slip.  Stayin’ in the saddle all the way, at the end of this section, riders take “The Cragway Turn” (5,000’).  Tossing an empty water bottle to a volunteer at the mile 5 marker, that doubt that had entered my mind during the first mile was starting to get overcome with some actual confidence that I could pull this thing off.

Mile 6 continues on gravel as you ride up a road overlooking the Great Gulf Wilderness.  You also get a peek at the actual top of the hill.  Strangely, at the time at least, I noticed a huge black plume of smoke emanating from at the top from this point on the course.  “What the heck is that about,” I thought to myself.  Are racers, literally, blowing up there on top!?!?  Come to find out, it was only the Mount Washington Cog Railway…a coal burning train ride that takes folks up to the top from the other side of the mountain.

Mile 7 is still on gravel and presents the “Sheep’s Back Hairpin” and the Cow Pasture Hairpin”.  A couple of turns that, once completed (6,000’), will bring you to the end…well, almost.

 While it’s nice to see that mile marker 7 go by, there’s that last 0.6 mile stretch to contend with.  I was getting pretty excited about this upcoming challenge.  You can see the summit & the spectators are starting to become a factor.  The 600 of us that bike up this hill aren’t allowed to ride down it (thank goodness!) and, as such, are tasked with securing a drive down.  This means that there’s, at least, 600+ spectators up on top that have been waiting for us.  The excitement builds to the finish, and the last 50 yards of the climb are both brutal and unforgettable.  You take a blind right hand turn and, suddenly, you’re staring at “The Wall”.  A 22% pitch that veers left before you cross the finish line.  It’s a “wall” of colors as various chalk messages of encouragement have been drawn on the pavement.  Climbing this stretch is unbelievably difficult.  It’s almost as if you have to first leap onto it.  From there, you then try to hang on and scramble your way up the rest of it.  DEFINITELY the biggest rush I’ve ever had on a bicycle.  As I type this report, I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about it.  Loved it…just an awesome feeling crossing that finish line, everyone screaming around you and then it dawns on you, “yup, I cleared it!”

My official finish time was 1:20:14.  The 143rd racer to the top overall and the 32nd in my category (male: age 40-44).  I’m very pleased with these results and, most importantly, feel like I threw everything I had in me at the hill.  The heart-rate monitor showed an average of 174 bpm, with a maximum of 187 bpm hit (definitely there at the end).  Nico Toutenhoofd (Boulder, CO) got up on top first in 0:57:26.  Said he relied on his power meter…trying to maintain a steady output of 350 watts.  I don’t follow wattage, but I’m thinking that’s pretty high! 

Tinker Juarez wasn’t far behind Nico and ended up taking 2nd place.  Tinker was in Butte three weeks ago for the Butte 100, but I didn’t get to meet him there.  When I did see him in Butte the night before the race, he was busy doing a lot of formal meet & greet with photo ops and autographs.  With so many folks clamoring for a chance to meet the mountain bike legend, this just wasn’t something I wanted to wait around in a long line for.  However, as I was warming up on the road outside of Gorham, NH before the hill climb Saturday morning, an unassuming rider come up next to me sportin’ some very familiar looking dreadlocks.  I took a chance & introduced myself.  Tinker was great…we rode together for a bit, compared notes on our respective Butte 100 experiences, shook hands, wished each other luck and went on with our separate pre-race preparations.  Now, that’s the kinda “meet & greet” I like!

So, that’s my story from New Hampshire and “the world’s toughest hill climb.”  It’s perhaps not the best story, and it’s certainly not the only story out there.  Crawling up the summit, I passed a woman rider fully decked out in a Batgirl outfit (cape & mask included).  There was an 11 year old competitor.  There was a 75 year old competitor.  There were 5 teams on tandem bikes.  One guy climbed it on a unicycle (1:40:42).  This would be good stories to know more about for sure. 

Hours after most of us finished, as we drove in a steady convoy of rigs descending to the bottom of Mount Washington, we all encouraged a rider, decked out in a Livestrong race kit, who was just about to reach the homestretch of things.  As he slowly trudged up the last part of his climbing story for the day, I think we were all reminded of how fortunate we were to have an opportunity to suffer so wonderfully today.

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