Wash #13

I had no idea my next foray up Mount Washington would be in the winter, on a fatbike. While the annual ski/snowshow/fatbike to the clouds race (you pick the discipline) only goes halfway up the mountain, I was pretty sure that would be more than enough. My fatbike weighs in around 30 pounds, nearly double that of the road bike I’ve taken up the mountain on a dozen occasions. As I devote much of my time to karate these days, my cycling regimen of one Zwift ride per week was sure to be suspect.

Fatbiking is a finicky discipline, not unlike that of cyclocross to be honest, but even moreso. You need the tires and the tire pressure to be right for the conditions, but on top of that, the conditions themselves need to be in such a narrow spectrum. If the snow isn’t packed and cold, the ride can be a huge waste of time. Great Glen had very little snow left as of two days before the race. They acquired 4 inches on Friday, did the best they could to groom, and on Sunday we were shredding it, quite literally.

The race is a play about suffering in two parts. The first is what amounts to a ten minute race through the rolling woods of the Great Glen trails.  There’s actually a lot of climbing back there, but before you know it, you’re deposited onto the base of the auto road, where you will spend the next hour or so in a steady, relentless grind on a really heavy bike.

I probably raced at 8psi and it was way too much to be honest. It was serviceable for the trails, and for the portions of the auto road that had some semblance of stable snow. But on numerous occasions when the lines up the road went to shit, even with all 180 pounds of Chris over the back wheel, it wouldn’t bite. I’d say at least three times, I had to jump off the bike and push until I found a spot to remount. This is quite a trick when your cleats are packed with snow and the grade is around 15%.

Under the right conditions, this would be a great race. But it’s too frustrating if the snow is garbage. There was almost no opportunity to stand up and relieve your hamstrings, as you’d break traction. That, combined with having to concentrate the entire time on finding a line and steering out of mashed potatoes, it made the event kind of stupid. At least, for someone whose expectations were to simply buckle down, put your head in the right place, and grind up the mountain.

That said, the event was $30! Granted you only get halfway up the road, but considering the proper MWARBH is $350, it is absolutely refreshing. It really demonstrates how much MWARBH has lost its way, and how events on that hill can be accessible if they want to be.

In the final tally, I was right in the middle at 35th place and 1hr 22m. For what I’ve put into cycling this year, that’s perfectly fine. I hadn’t touched the auto road since 2016, and it was great to be back. It’s pretty much like a family member at this point. It hasn’t changed at all.  In the first minute of my warmup I went straight up the mountain, and within 30 seconds your body knows exactly what you’re doing, and it hates it. It feels bad, just like it does every single time. And it’s a stark reminder that if you don’t put in the time up front, and get your body warmed up for what it’s about to do, you’re going to pay for it.

I’m not convinced I’ll come back to do this in the summer yet. I’m hyper-aware right now of the commitment it will take for that to make sense.  You see and feel it with every passing minute of that race on Sunday.  Looking upward at the grade before you, knowing the next chance for respite is always just a little further than you want it to be. The best days I’ve ever had up there, those thoughts never, ever entered my mind.  There is, though, a lot of time between March and July.  The $350 question is – as it always has been – how much personal sacrifice am I willing to make.

Sometimes you ask yourself why you want to suffer so much, when you grew up suffering, and now you’re in such a better place – don’t you owe it to yourself to just live outside of that shadow now, and just enjoy yourself. It’s a really legitimate question! A hard one to answer. Having fun on bikes for me is really, really hard. I so rarely jump on a bike with the sole intent of not burying myself physically, and when you ride less often, doing other things that you enjoy, that becomes the only thing you’re left to do when you find yourself wanting some kind of fitness when entering races. There’s some kind of vicious cycle in there.  One day – maybe – I will stop torturing myself with bike races. But they feel like the one thing that will always keep you honest.



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.

Breaking down the seventh trip up the hill

Bob Blais just sent me an email I found really interesting.

“Saw the post on Strava about your warmup ride.  MAJOR BUMMER.  But, even with that time and the clear issues your ran into, including the wind, you gotta feel good about what you could possibly do on race day.  Right?”

I could never have had this observation.  Mostly because after you’re totally shelled from a day like yesterday, the last thing you’re capable of is optimism.  Especially when you’re three years removed from the last time you were even on the mountain, and five removed from the last time you felt any good up there.

But as I drove home today, I started to think about that one word question – 


I figured the way it made sense to break that down was to work backwards from yesterday’s finishing time of 1:49.

-If I hadn’t suffered the whopper mechanical at 1:41 and stopped, I would have finished in 1:44.  And of course a minute or two faster than that, because I would have been riding the bike, not running with it.

-That puts me around the 1:40 mark, which is around where I finished in 2008 and 2010.  Both of those times I recall having gone fairly well, at least in terms of weather.  Conditions were almost definitely better on those days.

-If the mountain got colder like it usually does after treeline, maybe I pick up a few minutes.

-The wind never goes away, but if it wasn’t 40-50 sustained like it was, I pick up a few minutes let’s say.

-Now we’re talking about being in the mid 1:30s.  My PR is 1:35, which was the 2008 Practice Ride; the year I rode 6 Gaps and the last time I felt unbelievably strong.

-If I had slept more than 6 hours, and not woken myself up on purpose to drink a shake, and in general slept a little better, let’s say I pick up a few minutes.

-If I had actually eaten breakfast, which I did before the Kanc, where I had absolutely zero fueling issues through 90 minutes of work, pick up a few minutes.

-Technique suffered with the downtube shifting setup.  I rarely shifted out of my easiest gear.  Had I been disciplined to shift into harder gears when standing, time is gained, no question.  It’s free speed on the hill.  Your body weight makes the change easier to tolerate than were you to just keep sitting there, mashing a harder gear.

-Now we’re talking about being under the 1:30 mark, well under my PR, and inside of ten minutes away from 1:20.

-Those are a lot of things to have gone right, but not an impossible confluence of events. 

Now consider that it’s June 2nd.  MWARBH is in mid-August.  In the scheme of hillclimb season, and really the road season in general, this is early.  

Two and a half months from now, all that additional riding and fitness – that should add a few minutes.  

Then if I was all in on the absolutely lightest possible bike with fantastic power transfer, and the most feathery wheels I could imagine taking up the hill…

…things start to look a lot less impossible than they did about halfway up that mountain yesterday.

And I haven’t even talked about the fact that our daughter just started sleeping through the night.  It only took sixteen months.

And I haven’t yet discussed that according to Strava, I ride an average of twice a week, for a total of 26 miles, for 2 hours and 14 minutes.

I say any given day in August, we could do this.

Ascent #7

This one was not pretty.  Even though it’s a practice ride and not the actual race, I still approach it with a sense of seriousness.  It’s too much money and time invested to get all the way up there and not try like hell.  But a lot of things did not work out, and better they happened on a day like yesterday.

Holy hell was it hot.  Before we went up, I heard the winds were 50mph up there, and I figured two things.  One, that it would be rugged above treeline.  Two, that things would cool off.  It was rugged for sure, but the cooling off thing never happened.  It was weird.

So the nutrition plan was to not eat before the ascent.  I stuffed my face the day before with an almost inhuman appetite, as if my body was keenly aware it wouldn’t be getting any fuel the next morning.  I was so full.  At 2am, I got up and downed a Myoplex shake, as was the plan.  This was supposed to keep me topped off.  When I woke up for real at 4am, I definitely wasn’t hungry.  I drank some really lame instant coffee, kept fueling with Skratch drink mix, and we were out the door within a half hour.

My warmup was pretty inadequate, but I wasn’t that concerned.  My plan was to go easy the first half, and ratchet it up around mile 4.  I figured I’d ease into the effort anyway, so a soft 20 minute warmup wouldn’t be that big a deal.  170bpm first half, wherever it happened to land in the second half.

I was starving and I hadn’t even taken off yet.  This was not good.  I pacified myself with a few dates, and threw some more in a back pocket.  Even though I wasn’t sure eating them on the hill would do any good.  It was highly unlikely that, given the level of intensity up there, that they could do anything for me once I had started.  I never ended up touching them as a result.

Right up the first pitch, 170bpm, things are looking fine.  I am hot, and salty, but I’m banking on it getting a lot colder at treeline and I’m not too worried.  The bike is shifting flawlessly.  The fit, even though it was kind of cheesed together, feels good.  I am definitely holding back to keep things at 170.  I get out of the saddle routinely to break things up, it shoots my HR up about 5-6bpm, but I’m always able to settle it right back to 170.  The first few miles I’m feeling alright, not great, but alright.  I’m starving though, and I am constantly wondering if that is going to work out.

I think getting into mile 4, I can tell it is not working out.  I’m also growing confident in the fact that I’m not going to want to ratchet my effort up at mile 4.  I feel like I will blow up if I do that, and if I just maintain the same level of effort, I’ll finish with a time somewhere in the 1:30s, which is all I wanted out of today.

The wind starts at mile 4.  44-51mph, right in your face at the 4 mile marker.  It was so loud in my ears that I had to keep turning my headphones up.  Only one point did I feel like it was helping; there was a brief stretch  where I could angle into the crosswind just right and it didn’t feel completely stifling.  But otherwise it was just loud and not helpful.

5 mile grade was just tough.  My cadence was so pitifully low here; 40s and 50s I think.  The guy who parked next to me had conventional gearing and he was off the bike at this point.  Could have been this guy or another, but Kristen (driving our support car) stopped to ask a guy if he needed any help and he replied “I’m just humbled.”

I had definitely not been here in a while.  The dirt was a lot longer than I remembered, and harder.  Compounding the problem was that I had squarely bonked by this point.  I was nearly there by mile 4 and toiling through 5 mile was the end of it.  My HR couldn’t get out of the low 160s.  I was just trying to pull this thing into the garage with something near a 1:45, which was the first time I ever recorded here.

I rode these 25mm tires, and they were certainly a help.  The pavement is really beat up in spots from the snowcat and they took the edge off.  It left me to wonder how the 21mm Tufos would fare.  I suspect I’d need to be a lot more choosy about my lines with them.  The dirt would be interesting.  I spun the 25s in the dirt a few times, but that was a technique issue more than a tire issue.

The downtube shifter performed solidly, and it’s a quaint idea, but I’m going to need more practice with it.  I would never downshift when standing, which is a horrible habit that gives away time.  It’s super easy to do this with STI, but requires premeditation with this setup.  Once you’re up and out of the saddle, you’re up.  So next time, I have to remember that just before I stand, drop two clicks.  Then get up, dance for a while, then sit down and throw the lever back.

Things are just starting to feel eternal.  I’m processing a lot of thoughts.  That I’m way too tired to be doing this.  I’m not even sure I want to come back after Newton’s to do this two more times.  I feel nothing at all like I did five years ago.  I don’t have the time or even the initiative to ride like I did back then.  I just want to finish.

As I get up 6 mile, things are getting really foggy.  I usually try to sight the summit in places to gauge how far out I am, and I can’t see anything.  It starts to get so bad that I can’t even see past the next turn.  Now I’m totally lost.  I’m still moving forward but have no sense of where I am.  I pass Kristen at a turnout and the grade gives me a little something to work with.  I figure I must be close to the final pitch, so I start ramping it up.

My chain comes off the front and buries itself underneath the K-Edge.  I am trying with all my might to bend the thing in a way that will allow me to pull the chain back onto the ring, but it’s impossible, and I can’t even figure out how the hell it could get under there.  I’m going mental.

Just as this happens, Kristen passes me in the car and I wave frantically to get her attention.  She backs up, I fetch a multitool from the emergency repair bag I left on the passenger seat, and start working the K-Edge loose.  In order to remove it, I need two wrenches, and only have one.  I loosen it enough to free the chain, but it’s sort of just dangling from the front derailleur mount now.  Hopefully it will stay out of the way, but I easily see how it will rattle around and interfere with the chainring.  I so don’t care right now.  I’m so, so fired up.  I probably have a quarter mile to go and I’m ready to sprint the whole way.

I jump back on and the bike goes nowhere.  Somehow the chain has wedged itself between the cassette and the spokes.  I sternly place the bicycle on the ground again and start pulling the chain as hard as I can.  It won’t come out.  I try rotating the wheel back and forth, and it accomplishes nothing.  The thing is totally fucked.  I take off my shoes, put the thing on my shoulder, and start running.  I ended up past the line in 1:49:47 according to Strava, having lost about 6 minutes trying to fix the bike.  The net time was 1:44:16, which would have been somewhat shorter had I actually been on the bike the entire time.

I got home and pulled the bike off the car.  The front tire was dead flat.  I have no idea when that started to go down, but it’s quite likely I picked something up in the parking lot or on Route 16 during my warmup.  Likely it was losing pressure the entire time.

Hot, tired, starving.  Definitely not a good showing.

At least before the actual race (9am start), I will have time to prepare and eat breakfast.  Really hard to do that for an event that starts at 6am.

Less than 6 hours of sleep was not good.  Not only that, but waking up in the middle of less than 6 hours to
drink something was not good.

More testing is required with this shifter.  If I can’t get disciplined with it, I can’t use it.

More work to do.