Last year’s Mt. Washington Century was the final ride for our four-man cycling cohort before Jay moved to Florida. This year, with Jay gone and Noah out of service, it was just my buddy Paul and I.
Things looked foreboding beforehand. A week before the ride, I smashed a toe, and Paul crashed when another rider went down in front of him. The forecast was ominous, too. The day before the ride, Boston hit 99 degrees on the sixth day of a heat wave which was predicted to break on Saturday (the day of the ride) with severe thunderstorms and wind. I posted a half-joking inquiry to Facebook about how much protection bicycle helmets offered against hailstones.
Friday evening we left Boston and made our way to New Hampshire, stopping for supper in Ossipee at the proverbial Yankee Smokehouse & Wild Hog Pizzeria, where I had a rack of baby back ribs and some (frozen, imported) corn on the cob. Leaving the restaurant, Paul and I watched frequent lightning flashes amongst the black clouds above the mountain peaks before us.
Arriving in North Conway, I checked us in while Paul started unloading our bikes. The check-in was smooth and easy, unlike last year when we struggled with a lost reservation. We rolled the bikes safely into our room, but by the time we’d turned around to go fetch our bags, a huge (but brief) downpour had come through. We’d been lucky to reach the hotel and get the bikes inside before the storm hit, but would our luck hold through Saturday’s ride? It didn’t seem likely.
After a quick convenience store run, we turned in, but not before I received an email from my angel sponsor letting me know that after resolving his employment issue, he was doubling his already prodigious donation to my PMC ride. That pretty much ensures that this year I will set a new fundraising record, which is completely unexpected, and guarantees that I’ll surpass my $100,000 lifetime fundraising goal next year. It was a heartening boost to my morale on a day that was (literally) overshadowed by darkening storm clouds!
Saturday morning we were up at 5am, on the road at 6am, and signed in and ready to ride at 7am, a half hour earlier than last year’s very late start. For the first time, the organizers were offering Mt. Washington Century cycling jerseys, and I was thinking of picking one up until I got to registration, where I learned that apparently I’d pre-ordered one back when I registered for the ride, and it was there waiting for me. Nice!
So we set out following a bunch of guys in Harpoon B2B jerseys up the Kancamagus Highway, following the rocky Swift River toward its source, accompanied by the musky smell of hot pine needles and the acrid tang of wood smoke campfires cooking breakfast. Despite the fact that it was only 70 degrees and we were riding at a very easy pace, the humidity was ridiculous and sweat was already pouring off my arms in rivulets, which would continue all day long.
As we reached the start of the climb up to Bear Notch, another daylong pattern revealed itself: Paul and I would ride together for a while, but then he’d go on ahead and I’d ride solo, catching up to him at each rest stop, which were spaced about 20 miles apart.
The Bear Notch climb was pretty manageable, and the descent is simply marvelous. I didn’t push the downhill and was surprised that the new bike didn’t descend as quickly as my old one. At the base of the pass I pulled into the first water stop exactly on my predicted time at 8:20am. One down, two to go!
The second segment was a long but very scenic climb up and over Crawford Notch. Although the morning had been partially sunny, dark clouds closed in, a bit of headwind kicked in, and it started sprinkling just as I reached the brutal last couple miles of the climb. But the shower had passed by 9:45am, when I pulled into the rest stop at Bretton Woods. I think Paul was a little dismayed when I told him that although we’d completed two of the three mountain passes, we’d only ridden 40 miles of the planned 108!
Although the third segment doesn’t have any mountain passes, it does have a couple good climbs, and by the halfway point of the ride my legs, neck, back, and seat had all filed preliminary complaints. The clouds were breaking up a little, and the temperature was climbing into the 80s: hot, but not as brutal as last year.
Along the way, I played leapfrog with a female rider who wasn’t sure of the route, so I gave her some basic directions. Although this was only my second time, I found myself giving a lot of advice to first-time riders all day, which made me feel like a bit of a veteran. I left this particular woman with the ominous message, “You won’t miss the next water stop; it’s at the top of a hill.”
When you first see it, Randolph Hill looks like a solid wall and will crush your morale, even if it really isn’t as bad as it looks. I pulled into the rest stop at the summit at 11:23, ahead of last year’s pace, and switched my bottle from sport drink to cola, which would hopefully provide a bit of a boost for the final mountain pass of the day.
Randolph Hill is followed by a screaming descent down into Gorham. I let Paul go ahead, because he usually descends faster than me, but I found myself gaining on him. Apparently he’d had an episode of “speed wobbles”, which I know from personal experience will scare the bejeezus out of you. For the rest of the day, he wasn’t the fearless descender he’d been earlier!
After passing through town, we made the turn that led up Pinkham Notch toward the base of Mt. Washington. The climb isn’t prohibitively steep, but it’s steady and relentless and sustains its ascent much longer than the other climbs. When you get there, the noontime sun is beating down, so I was thankful I’d loaded my bottle with more ice than cola back in Randolph. Still, the rest stop at the base of the Mt. Washington auto road came earlier than I expected. Pulling in at 12:35pm, I had been consistently maintaining a pace that was ten minutes ahead of my 2012 effort.
At the rest stop I replenished my drinks and helped the volunteers corral wayward supplies that were being blown around by a suddenly lashing breeze that gusted above 30 mph.
After leaving the stop, Paul and I climbed another couple miles before cresting Pinkham Notch and completing most (but definitely not all) of the climbing for the day. Along the way, I had to stop and fix the chest strap for my heart rate monitor; I’d sweated so much that it had come loose and slid down around my stomach!
As has been the case for most of my rides this year, I had planned to try to keep my heart rate at around 80 percent of my max as much as possible. That had served me really well on other rides, and I think it really helped here, as well.
Before the ride, I had also been worried about my ability to climb, since the new bike has a compact double chainring, rather than my old triple, which provided a much lower “granny gear”. However, I managed to survive with the gears I had. I didn’t spend all that much time in my lowest gear, and I wasn’t noticeably slower as a result, so I guess that had been an unnecessary concern.
After another ripping descent on the back side of Pinkham, I passed through the town of Glen (where I’d hit the wall last year) and onward into the final rest stop in Intervale.
I’d covered 97 miles in 6 hours 50, which was nice, given the amount of climbing we’d done and the brutal headwind. It had gotten quite hot, and the sweat would pour off you when you stopped riding. I was achey, but nowhere near as destroyed as I’d been in the heat of 2012. Still ahead on time, I was targeting finishing the ride within 8 hours.
Giving up on cola, I refilled with ice water and rode the entire last segment with Paul for company. Well, except for the final mile—the painful climb up Bald Hill Road back up to the start—which is just an utter and complete ballbuster. I hung my helmet on my handlebar stem and struggled up, finishing at 2:58pm, beating last year’s time by ten minutes.
We talked with other riders and rested at the conservation center that serves as the start, finish, and fundraising beneficiary of the ride. I downed two ice pops and two boxes of chocolate milk, and was inexpressibly delighted to find they’d put a big pile of facecloths on ice, which felt amazing at the end of eight hot and sweaty hours in the saddle.
Afterward, Paul and I drove down to swim in the rapids of the Swift River, where some kids were trying (and largely failing) to whitewater kayak. After cooling off, we drove back down to Wolfeboro and ate at the Wolftrap, as we’d done with Jay and Noah last year. I had a great penne, although next year I might con Paul into eating earlier at one of the restaurants in the Conway tourist book that was in our registration packet.
Then we drove the long road home, again watching the heat lightning flickering off the clouds in the distance for most of our route. After the ominous weather forecast, I was stunned that we’d gotten through the drive up on Friday, plus the entire ride and the drive back to Boston without us or our bikes getting wet.
In the end, it wound up being a really great trip and another wonderful ride, and I owe a big pile of thanks to Paul for being game to do the ride with me again this year. This ride is so much better than the CRW Climb to the Clouds that takes place the same weekend, and it really gives me a ton of confidence in my strength going into my upcoming PMC ride.
I’m pretty certain that I’ll be back for one more Mt. Washington Century in 2014, as preparation for my final (and one-third longer than usual) Pan-Mass Challenge.