Washing Up Good
Epic rides deserve epic ride reports, so here’s the tale of the 2012 Mt. Washington Century…
The story begins with last July’s Climb to the Clouds ride. For at least the past three years, my Pan-Mass Challenge training culminated with that century ride up Mt. Wachusett a couple weeks before the PMC. But that ride isn’t well run, and last year my buddies and I reached the breaking point (ride report). As we sat around recovering from a brutal ride, all four of us concluded that we never wanted to do that ride again.
So this year I proposed a different ride that occupies the same spot in the New England cycling calendar: the Mt. Washington Century. It took very little convincing that a different ride would be more fun than yet another disappointing Climb to the Clouds.
The bonus is that this isn’t just another ride; it is an epic 108-mile ride over three named passes in the White Mountains. The route accumulates more than a mile of vertical by traversing the well-known Kancamagus Highway, Bear Notch, Crawford Notch, and Pinkham Notch. Billed as “New England’s most challenging century”, it circumnavigates most of the Presidential Range, including Mt. Adams and, of course, Mt. Washington, which is the highest peak in the northeastern US.
In anticipation of the most difficult route I’d ever attempted, I spent a couple weeks doing hill repeats on the biggest hills in the area. On July 3rd I did four ascents of Great Blue Hill… and, of course, four high-speed descents, which I would also need to be ready to tackle. And on July 8th I did six trips up Eastern Ave to Arlington’s water tower… again with six screaming descents down the Route 2 on-ramp. While I wasn’t sure I was ready for 108 miles of mountains—especially after my self-destruction on my attempted Harvard century two weeks earlier (ride report)—I figured I was as ready as I was ever going to be.
I also wanted the Plastic Bullet to be ready, and it needed help. After a recent cleaning, my shifting had started skipping around. It had been more than a year since my last tune-up, so on Tuesday I brought it in and had them true the wheels and replace the chain and cassette. Seemed like a wise idea, right? Let the shop make sure everything was in good order for the big ride.
On Wednesday I biked to work, and the shifting was just as bad, if not worse. It was bad enough that after work I rode directly to the shop and asked them to fix it up properly. But as soon as the tech touched it, the shifter cable snapped at the shift lever: a problem that has happened to me two or three times in the past. When it happens, your shifter locks into the hardest gear and there’s nothing you can do about it. In short, had that happened during the Mt. Washington ride, I would have been absolutely screwed. I had really lucked out.
The day before the ride, I left work at 4pm and met my buddy Noah drove me from my place out to Jay’s in Waltham. Rather than try to fight Friday rush hour traffic, we followed the first of several insightful suggestions I offered: get Thai from the restaurant around the corner. Everyone loved that idea… even me, who’d already eaten Thai for lunch for two days in a row. Hey, I figured it was good veggies and carbs! So that was my first good call.
Hanging at Jay’s, the sandbagging began. It was clear that each of us had some level of anxiety about the ride. Paul hadn’t ridden in a while. Noah hadn’t ridden much all year. Jay was surprised to learn that the ride’s site had lied about how much climbing was involved, proclaiming 4800 feet of vertical instead of a more realistic 6000'.
We also took a moment to acknowledge that this would be our last major ride together as a group, with Jay moving to Florida next month. We’ve had a great run together, and I think everyone’s sad to see it pass. On the other hand, doing the White Mountains would be a fitting and memorable way to go out!
The 3-hour ride up was pretty uneventful, and we arrived at the hotel Jay had booked at 10:30pm. That’s when the fun began: the woman at reception couldn’t find our reservation. Jay whipped out his laptop, but all he could come up with was some followup spam that Marriott had sent him. Apparently their central booking agent had added him to their spam list, but never bothered to make our reservation! Thankfully, by the time all was said and done, the local manager gave us a two-bedroom for a ridiculously low price; another crisis averted!
Departure & the Kanc
After grabbing some stuff from the hotel breakfast, we hit the road to the start: the Tin Mountain Conservation Center just outside Conway. We were already running later than Noah or I wanted, since it promised to be a very hot day. We signed in, got all our stuff together, and finally rolled out at 7:30am. The first mile featured a screaming descent which we all knew would be a kick in the teeth on the way back.
Within a mile, we turned left onto the Kancamagus Highway, arguably the most famous road in New Hampshire. It was a bright, beautiful morning. The road was smooth and steady. The mountains towered above us, the evergreens covering the hillsides offered fragrant shade, and the granite boulder-strewn bed of the Swift River ran along the road, keeping us company as we climbed toward its source.
My buddies stopped to stretch for a while, but I was eager to keep moving, so I went on ahead alone. The Kanc climbs gradually but steadily, but I kept a comfortable pace, knowing that I’d need lots of strength in reserve for the peaks that lay ahead. Still, I kept my buddies at bay until shortly after making the left turn onto Bear Notch Road. The Kanc had ascended about 800 feet in 12 miles.
On the course’s elevation profile, Bear Notch looked like the easiest of the three ascents, with more gradual, easy climbing. And that’s pretty much how it turned out. It never seemed to get steep for any sustained period of time, and I climbed alongside my buddies, who had finally caught me. It was cool that three of us were together when we passed the event photographer, who captured us.
The climbing we’d done on the Kanc (800 feet over 12 miles) had put us more than halfway to the top, so the actual climbing on Bear Notch Road really only amounted to another 600 feet over 4 miles.
Then, without really expecting it, we were over the top and coasting at 35 mph down a winding, wooded road. Thankfully, the road surface was beautiful, and we zoomed down almost without touching our brakes, admiring the mountain and valley vistas that opened up on our left.
After a long descent (over 1000 feet in 5 miles)—but still too soon—we were dumped into a little village called Bartlett, where the first rest stop sat in a public common. We all had big grins on our faces as we recounted our experiences to one another. So far it had been a wonderful day, and the temps were still in the low 70s.
We rolled out and turned left onto Route 302, a somewhat busier road. Paul and Noah caught and passed me, but Jay hung with me as we fought an unexpected northwest headwind—the only time that happened all day.
Again, the ascent was long and gradual but very manageable (550 feet over 12 miles). As we got close to Mt. Jackson, we stopped for a photo opp at the Willey House pond, close to the source of one of my favorite rivers (the Saco).
We caught a slower paceline just as the road started kicking up at the summit. Jay and I debated passing them, but that soon sorted itself out, as some of them distanced us while others went backwards. The last two miles or so was a real struggle, gaining another 550 feet, but that made it all the sweeter when Jay and I crested Crawford Notch together, yelling weightlifter Ronnie Coleman quotes at each other (“Yeah buddy!”, “Whoooo!”, “Lightweight baby!”, and the ever-popular and slightly-modified “Everybody wanna be a cyclist; nobody wanna climb these big-ass hills… I’ll do it tho!”). It felt like a victory worthy of celebration, and thus it was nice to share that moment with Jay.
The problem with Crawford was that there wasn’t any real descent afterward. The road leveled out and angled down just a hair, but not enough to really make a big difference. The road was also barren, having emerged from the woods, and the temperatures were into the mid-80s.
Fortunately, the second water stop materialized in a convenience store parking lot. Surprisingly, the organizers had run out of sports drink, and we had to go buy our own from the convenience store. That was the organizers’ one obvious shortfall: we shouldn’t have to pay for Gatorade out of our pocket on a ride we’d paid to do!
Going Round the Mountain
Jay and I left Crawford and continued north on 302. I pulled him for a few miles as we turned east by cutting across Route 115 to Route 2. Here there was a mix of rolling climbs and a few long descents, but nothing like that off Bear Notch. Jay pulled away but Paul caught up and rode with me for a while before he too moved on.
Then, shortly before we reached Gorham, I rounded a corner to find myself facing an immense wall known as Randolph Hill. In the distance, the road looked like it took off like a jetliner, soaring into the sky (in reality it climbed 200 feet in less than a mile). By this point, temps had climbed to 90 degrees, and there was little if any shade along the route. I poured the last of my Gatorade over my head and plodded up the brutally steep climb.
Fortunately, the third water stop was at the top of the hill, where I collapsed in the heat. Thankfully, the organizers had cold drinks on ice in coolers, and I shoveled ice into my water bottle for the next segment. I also had a couple sips of Coke, which certainly went down nicely.
It was at this point that my stomach started doing flip-flops. At the rest stops, I felt bloated and queasy, full of too much liquid, which I’d been pouring down my throat; but on the bike, I felt pretty good for the most part. This would continue for the rest of the day.
Mount Washington and Pinkham Notch
Jay and Paul left the rest stop shortly after Noah showed up. Noah was pretty cooked, but I rested for a few more minutes and we left the stop together. The good news is that the road continued to descend (650 feet in 4 miles) after the rest stop, and Noah and I rode together through Gorham, where we finally turned south onto Route 16 for the climb up to the base of Mt. Washington.
Route 16 was a really long, steady climb, but a bit steeper than the easy slopes we’d taken to approach the other notches. It was grueling, but I found it manageable, so long as I kept pouring water on myself. On the other hand, Noah was still struggling and fell behind quickly, although he stayed within sight of me much of the way up.
Eventually I pulled into the gravel parking lot at the base of the infamous Mt. Washington Auto Road. Again, no shade was to be found, but with the temp peaking at 95 degrees, I loaded up on ice and headed out with Jay and Paul, who quickly gapped me as the climbing continued for another 4 miles to the top of Pinkham Notch. Overall, that climb had ascended 1200 feet over 11 miles.
Then came the final payoff: a 15-mile, 1500-foot descent down from Pinkham Notch, into the woods and down to Jackson. My legs were so beat that I didn’t push the descent, but just rolled with it. Just as I was thinking I could go wade in a mountain stream, Noah caught up with me and left me behind, so I plodded on.
I eventually reached the town of Glen, where 16 rejoins 302 and again becomes a major thoroughfare. As I looked left, I saw a moderately-sized hill that just wasn’t going to happen. So I pulled into a Dairy Queen parking lot and rested for a few minutes before finishing the final two miles to the last rest stop. That was the only unscheduled stop I made during the ride; I hadn’t gotten off on any of the hills, but I needed to gather my strength before attacking that one just before the rest stop.
The Final Countdown
The last rest stop was a grassy lawn—essentially someone’s yard. I laid on my back and just gasped due to the heat. It was only 13 miles to the finish, so I would certainly finish it, but I needed another good rest first. I downed half a can of Coke, filled up with ice, and poured ice water over my head before following my buddies, who had left five minutes earlier in hopes of finishing within eight hours.
Again, once I was back on the bike things settled into place, and I made okay time. I wasn’t strong, but made steady progress. With all the climbing behind me, it was just a question of closing it out, and surviving that final mile.
The final segment—West Side Road—was a long but nice ride, although it felt like I was still climbing a false flat. Finally I came back out onto Route 16, and half a mile later passed the point where we’d turned onto the Kancamagus. I marshaled my strength and made the turn onto Bald Hill Road that led up a punishing ascent up to the finish at Tin Mountain (officially it gains 300 feet in 1 mile). It was as steep and difficult as anything we’d done, but I finally drifted into their driveway and hung gasping over the bars for a minute before signing in and meeting up with the guys.
Final tally: 108 miles in 8:15, with 5800 feet of climbing and an average speed of 16 mph. For the mappy junkies, here’s a link to the GPS log.
I tried to eat a bit as we sat outside the Tin Mountain cabin, but really only managed to down a couple chocolate milks. It was still too hot to let our core body temperatures drop, and we all were feeling the effects. But this is where my second grand pre-planning idea paid off in a huge way.
I knew it was going to be hot. I knew we were going to be near lakes and streams. I knew we were going to be four stinky, grimy, sweaty guys stuck in a car for three hours. So one of my pre-ride emails suggested that everyone bring swim trunks, and they had. We briefly discussed where to go, then went back to the truck and exchanged our sweaty kit for trunks and drove to the nearest possible water: the Swift River we’d ridden by on the Kancamagus at the start of the ride.
We quickly found a swimming hole others were using, pulled off the road, and picked our way down to the torrent. As I said earlier, the whole area was just a pile of granite boulders: the smallest being the side of a dog; the largest being as big as a tractor trailer. The water was absolutely blissful: cold yes, but not blisteringly frigid. We dunked in the deeper parts, then sat in the middle of the rapids and let the cold water flow over us. Jay clambered around and found a way to swim underneath a huge monolith in the middle of the river. Everyone agreed it was the perfect way to relax and cool off.
At this point, I saved the day again. Jay jumped into the water and lost his sunglasses in the torrent, but I was able to spot them, so that was gratifying. Less gratifying was learning that Noah had stolen a towel from the hotel, when we had earnestly promised them we wouldn’t incur any incidentals. That was the one sour note of the trip.
The road home included a stop at a donut shop that featured (for me) more chocolate milk and a blissful rest in a big overstuffed armchair. Then we hit the Wolfetrap, a restaurant in Wolfeboro, Paul’s home town, so that was kinda cool, and my huge burger and cornbread were precisely what the chirurgeon prescribed. That was also where I saved the day yet again, pointing out to Paul that—despite his claiming otherwise—he really was about to leave his credit card behind with the check.
We got that straightened out and hoofed it back to Boston, where I was anxious to begin my next task: recovery! It was still Saturday night, and I had all day Sunday to shower, relax, fuel up, and rehydrate.
I really enjoyed the Mt. Washington Century. I think it lived up to its billing as a very challenging ride, but it was also just an awesome day all around. The scenery—the rivers, the mountains, the woods—was just breathtaking. The climbs were long and steady which made them very manageable but they still packed some challenging sections, and the descents were long and smooth. Sure, with a newer bike I could have pushed the top speed on the descents, but it was just as nice to let gravity do all the work.
The Plastic Bullet once again did its job admirably for an old bike with more than 20,000 miles on it. After the cable was swapped out, I literally didn’t once think about the shifting problems I’d had earlier that week.
This was my third complete century of the year, which puts me about on pace with my previous two years, and it certainly puts me in good shape for the PMC, which is only two weeks away (as of this posting). I’d love to do this ride again, but I’m not sure whether that will happen, with Jay moving away and the group likely to fragment.
Which brings me back to the idea that this was the last major organized ride for Jay, Paul, Noah, and I. From the ride to the post-ride swim in the Swift River, this was a perfect day and a fitting way to honor our friendship and our mutual encouragement. It was epic.
And I’m so glad I was able to convince them to go for Mt. Washington instead of the Climb to the Clouds. After last year’s CttC, we were too exhausted, overheated, and demoralized to even stay for a post-ride swim in nearby Walden Pond. The contrast between that and this year’s relaxing dip in a wild mountain stream just underscores what a truly awesome time we had on the Mt. Washington Century, making memories that we’ll take with us for years and years to come.