Date: August 19, 2017
Race: Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb
Location: Mount Washington, NH
Racers: Alexa Gubinski
Disclaimer! This is a pretty self-indulgent race recap, so read at your own risk!
First - a little history: in 2012—before I had really ridden a bicycle—my family and I happened to be hiking in New Hampshire the weekend of the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb and serendipitously ended up watching the climb and my dad, brother and I promised each other that we would all race the next year - and we did, and have every year since!
This was now my 5th go at the hill climb: my first attempt was around 1:26 (I think) and I had improved on that every year to, finally, a 1:15:46 in 2016, placing 3rd for women. This year, I knew my legs weren’t quite as sharp and strong and that beating that time wasn’t a completely realistic goal. But I was still committed to giving it my best shot.
The Mt. Washington climb is an unusual one: the road is open to cyclists only twice a year (the August race and a July practice ride), it rises 4,600+ feet in 7.6 miles, averages a brutal 12%, with a final kicker at 24%, includes a mile on dirt and has, truly, the world’s most unpredictable and windiest weather. It becomes you against the mountain and there’s really no other feeling (that I know!) quite like it. There is something special that the payoff for all you suffering is not just a finish line - but the summit of an iconic mountain, with the weather, views and atmosphere to match.
So, anyway, 2017. I dug my trusty Trek Madone out, removed last year’s number plate (oops), worked out some frozen chain links (extra oops) and declared myself as ready as I was going to get! Mt. Washington absolutely requires modified gears and I’ve kept the same setup on my hill bike for the last few years: a compact crank, long cage rear derailleur, long chain, 34 cassette, no front derailleur, no rear brake. The 34x34 (1:1 gear ratio) is about as big as my little legs can get away with, but it seems to work OK.
It was a damp, foggy and pretty humid start, but the weather forecast looked remarkably good for the mountain: clear, warm and very low winds. We lined up and had the fun of sharing the start line with Phil Gaimon, adding Mt Washington to his “worst retirement ever” series. After a very loud “Cheer for Chad Young!,” the cannon sounded and we were off. I, as usual, started out probably too fast: I often judge my efforts behind my twin brother and I knew that staying ahead of him for the first 3/4 of a mile was probably a mistake, but I couldn’t help it - I always get so excited! The 2nd mile is the steepest and I knew to back off a little, but I actually think I slowed down too much and I ended up losing too much time: had I been more confident in my legs, I would have gone all in at the beginning and dealt with the consequences later.
My goal was to stay as mentally focused as possible: I find it easy to let my mind wander, stop paying attention to my efforts, or get discouraged by the suffering. And while, at some point during the second mile I did promise myself that I didn’t REALLY need to do this again, I tried to stay as relentlessly positive as possible. I didn't have data besides heart rate on this bike, so I kept it my heart rate between 180-185 and just kept repeating “good job good job good job you’re doing a good job!!!!” which always helps my compliment-motivated, narcissistic self :) I ended up having a really pleasant ride: I felt like I was keeping my power up, turning the pedals as quickly as positive, staying relatively focused, time was moving quickly and I was able to pass two women in the 5th and 6th miles. It’s a long effort and THEN the 24% section comes at you like an absolute wall. But the atmosphere is incredible, there are so many people SO cheering so loudly that getting up isn’t all that bad - there’s really nothing like the crowd support (every racer needs a car ride down the mountain - so there’s no choice but to have 100s of people lining the last tenth of a mile! It’s awesome.) Because I had had such a positive ride I was surprised to cross the line at 1:17:35, which was slower than I would have guessed but good enough for 5th for women and certainly not a disaster.
No matter what - the race is such a beautiful, motivating, special day: people cheer as loudly for the winner as for the last racer, and for everybody in between. I can’t help but encourage every bike rider to do it… I know I’ll be back!