I registered for the 2016 Mt. Washington hillclimb on Sunday, having last made the commitment three years ago. Time flies. I vowed not to return again until my daughter could make the trip with us. There’s no doubt now she can, and we’re all in.
Barring a cancellation due to inclement weather, which in my experience happens 25% of the time, it will be my 11th and 12th trips up the big hill. I’ve been a part of this event for ten years now; my first year as a driver, and then all successive ventures as a racer.
I’ve seen a lot of change in this event over the course of a decade. Leadership has changed several times. As has the price, which has been controversial. As has the level of passion for the event in the cycling community, and for hillclimbs in general. It’s been hard to watch as a “hill junkie”, to borrow from Doug Jansen.
Numerous climbing events have suffered over these past years, some vanishing from the landscape. Newton’s Revenge is the most recent victim. Once intended to capture the MWARBH overflow, Newton’s became a low-key equivalent that offered better scheduling for some, and for others a chance at four trips up Washington in one summer. Numbers dwindled over time, barely cracking 100 in the last iteration. Like Ascutney and Equinox, the sun had set on yet another pillar of the BUMPS series.
In it’s prime, somewhere around 2008-2009, MWARBH was selling out instantly. In recent years, it scrapes and claws to reach the maximum of 635 entries. At the time of this writing, there are 200 spots open, which will probably hang out there for weeks and months as racers slowly rationalize the massive investment, which stands at $350, plus fees, plus travel and accommodations. I make it work by selling stuff on eBay and staying with friends in the area. If you’re not from the area, and your bike needs some work, you could be in for a $1000 bike race.
I don’t have a solution. Over the past ten years, cycling has evolved considerably. Cyclocross has grown. MTB racing is seeing growth again. The gran fondo was born, gravel rides are a thing, fat bikes happened, and all of this collectively has impacted our regional road cycling scene and without question, hillclimbs as well. Conventional road racers may have not considered it, but we’re suffering very similar fates. The only difference is that there is a strategy to pull road from the ashes through NEBRA. The hillclimb community has no real structure of its own to leverage.
To that, I can only offer one observation: there’s now too much to choose from. Registration dollars are spread thinner than they ever have been. To succeed, every promoter knows the value proposition needs to be there. For Mt. Washington, it is barely there. It has lost something. Personally, that mountain is my thing; it’s a part of my family, a part of me, and I’ll always do it. But my registration, and others like mine, are not going to prop the event up. MWARBH, like all climbs, needs re-invigoration. Or it, and the others still above water, are done.