The annual Mount Washington Auto Road
Bicycle Hillclimb can get ugly right from the start.
At the first tilt in the road, "what happens is people fall over," says Mark Reid of Clinton, a middle-of-the-pack rider who has reached the summit by bike three times. "They haven't checked their gears -- they're in too big of a gear or their shifting isn't working right."
The 7.6-mile race to the top of New England's highest peak is Saturday, or the next day if the weather is nasty. With the finish line 6,250 feet above sea level, wind chill is always a factor and precipitation a real threat.
All the numbers are daunting. The road climbs 4,727 feet from its base off Route 16 outside Gorham, N.H. The average grade is 12 percent, with extended sections at 18 percent, and the last 100 yards at 22.5 percent. The top third of the road is not paved. There are 72 turns, with the longest straightaway only three-tenths of a mile, on dirt.
It sounds like torture, but the challenge is irresistible to hundreds of cyclists. This year the field has been expanded from 400 to 550 racers. The race benefits Tin Mountain Conservation Center (603 447-6991) in Conway, N.H.
For anyone who breaks the record time -- 51 minutes, 56 seconds for men or 1:11:38 for women -- the reward is a one-year lease on an Audi Quattro A-4. Tyler Hamilton of Brookline, a pro on the U.S. Postal Service team, set the men's record last year after completing the Tour de France. Marilyn Ruseckas of Warren, Vt., who grew up in Westboro, set the women's record in 1996 and shaved nearly three minutes from it to set the new record last year.
For Reid, biking up Mount Washington is not about prizes or records; it's about reaching a personal peak.
"I wanted a goal of something that would motivate me to get me back in shape and lose weight this summer," said Reid, 38, a computer programmer for Quest Diagnostics who did the race in 1989, '90 and '92 and has paid his $100 entry fee for next weekend. "I had blimped out to 207 pounds, and 175 is my ideal weight. I've got bad knees, too, and the extra weight hurts them. Training for this, I'm down to 185 already, just eating better and riding."
Reid first set his sights on Mount Washington in 1988,but after going to the summit in a car (cycling up is not allowed except on race day) he saw that he was not ready to do it on a bike. In 1989 he learned "my brother Eric was right -- it was the hardest thing I've ever done on a bicycle." In 1990 he quit racing criteriums and concentrated on hills and turned in his best time on Mount Washington, about 1:26.
He started training slow this year, riding around Wachusett Reservoir and gradually adding hillier roads to the route. He hopes to finish the race in 1:30 or less, so he's been trying to do rides that take that long.
This month he changed the gears on his bike so that his lowest gear ratio (number of teeth in smallest chainring compared to number on largest cog in rear) is close to 1:1.
For Mount Washington, "people strip their bikes down -- they'll have no rear brake," Reid said. "They'll clip their fingernails and floss their teeth, anything to shave weight." But he figures the only benefit of knocking off a few grams here and there is psychological.
The final pushes in his training are to bike up Pack Monadnock in southern New Hampshire, which is almost as steep as Mount Washington, and to slog up Route 101 in Temple, N.H., on the side of Temple Mountain.
At least in training he gets to bike the downhills, too. Cycling down Mount Washington is not allowed; racers must have someone drive them down.
Reid's buddy Mike Josephson of Clinton, manager of the Nordic Track store in the North Shore Mall in Peabody, picked 3,491-foot Mount Greylock in Adams for his big pre-race climb. "I've also been doing some one-hour 'big ring' time trialing to force myself to grind out long stretches of time comparable to the mountain," said Josephson, 34, a triathlete who last rode Mount Washington more than 10 years ago, finishing in sleet and fierce winds.
On a mountain known for its miserable weather, Mother Nature's performance is duly noted each year alongside the winning times: 1986, race shortened to "halfway" mark because of icy road near summit; 1990, 30 degrees at summit, 30 mph winds; 1993, 28 degrees and rime ice at summit, 35 mph winds, subzero wind chill, race start delayed one hour; 1994 and 1995, race canceled because of weather. In 1996 the race date was changed from late September to late August.
After the pack thins out on the initial incline, "I just get into my own pace, try to time my breathing with my pedal stroke, and I'm on my own, not chasing anyone. I just get into grind mode," Reid said. "You don't care about people passing you. All you can do is your own thing.
"The scenery above treeline is spectacular," he continued. "The absolute best part of the whole thing is the finish. There's people you know cheering you on, right before that last 23-percent pitch. That dirt road, it's so hard you're weaving. At the end they throw a blanket around you and grab you before you fall down ... It's extreme and I love it."
As in a marathon or Ironman, "everyone who finishes is a winner," Josephson said. "I'm not going to beat the likes of Tyler Hamilton for the car, but to get to the top and enjoy the view with a few good friends will be a rewarding climb for me."
Volunteers are needed to help with trail work from 9 a.m. to noon Aug. 30 on the Quinapoxet mountain biking trails managed by the Metropolitan District Commission. Meet at Trout Brook Reservation, Manning Street, Holden. For more information call Peter Taylor (978 365-6242).
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