Rare Air

Cyclists in the mist on Mount Washington

Sports Illustrated (10/29/2004)

Brion's comments:
'Sports are often defined by the agony and the ecstasy of the competitors. Those two extremes come together on the winding auto road to the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, especially if you're pedaling the entire way on a bicycle.'

Feature article:

"It is easier to go down a hill than up, but the view is from the top." - Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), English novelist, playwright and journalist.

The scene at the mountaintop observatory is surreal, like some Hollywood B-grade horror flick. One by one, dozens of Lycra-clad cyclists, shivering beneath fleece blankets, click-clack across concrete floors to escape an impenetrable fog and biting, horizontal rains outside. They look gaunt, almost delirious, with wicked smiles revealing one supremely satisfying truth – they have conquered a brutal, unyielding stretch of incline in northern New Hampshire called the Mount Washington Auto Road.

"It's just a wall," says Drew Miller, 36, of Flagstaff, Ariz., a member of the Trek VW cycling squad. "Right from the gun, the road disappears into the trees. You get going, and – Bam! – it's right in your face, and it never really relents. The grades might change a little bit, but it goes from crazy steep to just super steep, and alternates between those."

For many, downhill biking represents the uber cyclist – adrenaline junkies adorned in body armor and bawdy tattoos atop full suspension rigs that resemble motorcycles more than bicycles. Their races are lightning-quick, made-for-television bursts of power that hurtle them down hillsides at speeds reaching 50 miles an hour. But others know the real badge of human grit is the climb. Judging from the number of hillclimb events such as the Everest Challenge in California and Mount Evans in Colorado (see sidebar), these nasty tests of endurance, character and sustained suffering, where legs and mind bend to gravity's pull, are enjoying a renaissance.

The best of the genre is Mount Washington, a 6,300-foot granite knob. Even Miller, who's won the Ironhorse Classic in Colorado and finished second at the 14,200-foot Mount Evans on three occasions, says he underestimated the ornery nature of the Northeast's tallest peak. The Auto Road, first built in the mid-1800s, features 72 corners and an average grade of 12 percent, including an ungodly 22-percent stretch over the last 100 yards, while rising almost 5,000 feet in 7.6 miles (steeper and longer than the L'Alpe d'Huez of Tour de France fame). Unlike Mount Evans, there is no run-up, no time to get acclimated to the effort. From the start, the paved road ascends to peak, eventually disintegrating to a patchy dirt and gravel path scarred by rivulets formed by run-off. And every August, 600 hardy cyclists come to take their measure of the mountain.

"The only way to go is to go up, but the only way to go up is to put yourself into this extra level of suffering that you're not used to," says two-time winner Tim Johnson of Middleton, Mass. "You have no other option other than pushing yourself until you can't push yourself anymore. You can't coast, you can't relax, and you can't do anything but go super, super hard. And maybe that is an attraction, because you learn new limits for yourself."

It could be worse. According to a plaque outside the observatory, the size of the Granite State's Presidential Range once rivaled Europe's massive Alps. Today, Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet, stands as a testament to the corrosive power of the winds and rains that swirl and occasional rage through this unpredictable pocket of the White Mountains. It was here, on April 12, 1934, that the highest on-land wind speeds – 231 miles an hour – were recorded. The first bike climb was held in 1973. Once, in 1986, the race was called at the halfway mark due to icy winds, and in 1993 and 1994 the race was cancelled altogether, prompting organizers to move the race from September to August.

"Although, at last year's race, when the riders got to the five-mile mark, and they were hitting 50- to 60-mile-an-hour winds, fog and drizzle, we thought about it," says Mary Power, race organizer. "But we didn't know that when they headed out."

That's Mount Washington. The weather often changes in a heartbeat, with scant warning. Temperatures have been known to swing from high 80s and sunshine at the base to sub-freezing and hailstorms above treeline at 5,000 feet. "You have to be prepared for anything," says Emily Thorne of Wenham, Mass., a former professional racer who completed the climb in 1999, and hasn't been back for an encore. "The weather can change rapidly, and what it is at the bottom isn't necessarily what it's going to be like at the top."

If the weather doesn't get you, the lack of willpower can. This savage, unyielding climb first attacks your legs, then slowly your resolve. After 30 minutes your mind can start wandering into dangerous places, pushed there by lactic acid flowing into your limbs. And you dare not submit to daydreaming, since the roadside features a number of precipitous drops and precious few guardrails.

Dale Stetina's 1980 record of 57:41 stood for 17 years before Tyler Hamilton of Marblehead, Mass., fresh off his first appearance in the Tour de France, shattered the mark with a time of 51:55 in 1997. Two years later, with near-ideal conditions and a strong lead-out, Hamilton soloed his way to a new mark of 50:21. But the effort came with a price. "This is by far the toughest climb I've done, and I've done a lot of tough climbs," said Hamilton after climbing off the saddle in 1999.

For the next two years, Mount Washington belonged to Johnson, Hamilton's former teammate. The Middleton, Mass., native saw Mount Washington as a symbolic obstacle, a hurdle he had to clear during his transition from amateur racer to professional. "On the pain scale, it's definitely up there, a 9.5 or 10," says the Saunier Duval racer. "But the switch back to happiness is equally as dramatic. Once you get to the top, in a second, everything is OK."

Johnson's reign atop Mount Washington came to an abrupt end in 2002, when a tall, skinny kid with a scrappy streak ventured north. Thomas Danielson, a Connecticut Yankee who spent two years honing his two-wheeled skills at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., took advantage of a flawless forecast to obliterate Hamilton's mark, shaving almost a full minute off the previous record. "I'd never seen it before, and I think that helped," says Danielson, laughing. "It's one of those climbs that so difficult it makes your head hurt." Last year, buffeted by gale-force winds, Danielson still won, but almost a minute and a half behind his 2002 mark.

"I remember thinking, the second time, that I was just going to float up that climb," he says. "Then you get started, and it's like someone hitting you with a big hammer. Regardless of whether your having a good day or a bad day, it's painful. There's no music in the background."

Both Hamilton (5-foot-8, 130 pounds) and Danielson (5-foot-10, 135 pounds) have the ideal power-to-weight ratio that allows top-flight climbers to seemingly soar up mountainsides. "That climb was made for Tom Danielson," says his coach, Rick Crawford. "It's very, very steep. The steeper it goes, the better his power-to-weight ratio gets. He's a wisp of a man. You're talking about a very small car with a very large motor. That's what makes guys like Tom and Tyler go uphill so well."

Still, if Hamilton ("I'd like to come back before my career is over," he said last November) represents the perfect rider to attack Mount Washington's grades, his father Bill represents the "everyman" aspect of the race. "Tyler and his brother, Geoff, they race up Mount Washington. I struggle up," says the elder Hamilton, 64. "Tyler does it in 50 minutes, his brother just a bit over an hour, and my best time was just over two hours. That puts it in perspective. I do it to prove to myself that I can still do it. I don't do it fast, and I don't do it pretty, but I do get to the top of the mountain."

Less than a quarter of the 600 riders have realistic hopes of achieving the honor of a Top Notch time (1 hour, 20 minutes), much less winning. Still, there's no shortage of lab rats – the race filled within a month of the opening of registration on Feb. 1, says Power. Since bicycles are only permitted on the road once a year (in additional to a mid-July, two-hour "practice" ride), there is a forbidden fruit attraction. But for most, it's simply the chance to tackle the road's near-vertical grades.

"It's marketed as the most challenging hill climb in the world. That's how we promote it, that's how we sell it," says Power. "When I look at the field every year, the average age is 41 to 45. These are mostly guys who are sitting behind a desk. They're at that point in their lives where they love being out there, and they want the challenge."

Johnson agrees. "The best part is watching everybody else come up, and seeing the effort they put it, and how much they loved to hurt in that masochistic way. Everyone tried as hard as they possibly could, and whether it took them 55 minutes, or two hours, it didn't really matter. Everyone had the same experience."

This year, Danielson, Hamilton and Johnson won't attend, due to other obligations (Danielson will contest the Tour of Spain for his Italian team, Fassa Bortolo, while Hamilton is focusing on the Olympics). But the women's record holder, Geneviève Jeanson of Quebec, is expected. She first broke the women's record in 1999 at age 17, winning an Audi before she had her driver's license. Could she win overall honors? Two years ago, she set a new women's mark, at 54:02, while finishing third overall, and last year she finished third behind Danielson and Phil Wong. "I'm small, and I'm thin," she says with a thick Quebecois accent, a smile and a slight shrug.

And, clearly, willing to suffer.


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