For a lot of years, I imagined myself as a climber, a grimpeur, an angel of the mountains, though mostly I ride hills. This ride set me straight. This story came during a time when I was trying to see how much I could write about cycling without actually writing about cycling — thus the ridiculously indulgent opening, which, I think, somehow works. It sets up the weird, slanty tone the rest of the story takes on. I appreciate working at a magazine that allows indulgence.
I: MY WOOBIE
Just between you and me, my woobie isn’t exactly setting the world of security blankets on fire. It is gray. It is a modern miracle fleece but only a shivery 4mm thick. It is 58.5 by 46.5 inches, which means that no matter how my woobie and I orient ourselves, when I lie with my shoulders even with one edge, my feet stick out. It has, after just seven months in my possession, seven loose seam stitches, which at the rate of one fray per month should bode well logically for longevity given that there are 846 stitches and, at age 40, I don’t have another 70 years in me. But woobies are emotional phenomena and their rate of decay accelerates not linearly but exponentially with age — in a mere five years an acquaintance of my daughter reduced his own woobie to a rank, tattered, disgusting shred — and I live each day with the awful mortal knowledge that my woobie will not be around to mingle its ashes with my cremains.
My beloved woobie.
Yes, beloved. Just as a lover’s slight physical imperfection can gradually grow more endearing as a relationship ripens, I adore my flawed companion.
We met last August at the top of the Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb, which rockets up 4,650 feet in just 7.6 miles – a 12% average grade, with extended sections of 18% on dirt and a final, half-a-football-field wall of 22%. Pros who have ridden it have pronounced it tougher than Alpe d’Huez, and perhaps the toughest uphill race in the world. The course record, set in 2003, is Discovery Channel pro Tom Danielson’s 49:24, an average crawl of 9.2 mph. Tyler Hamilton had it before that, with 50:21, or 9.1 mph. Imagine a Porsche unable to break a school-zone speed limit for nearly an hour.
I averaged 5.2 mph, and after one hour, 27 minutes and six seconds of that — or was it an infinity? — a bunch of people were yelling at me to stop, so I did and someone looped a finisher’s medal around my neck and someone else snuggled me into one of the blankets everyone who summits also receives. My sweat soaked into it, and I blew my nose on it, and used it to wipe the road from my eyes and I huddled inside it, safe from the fog and the rain and the 44-degree temperature and the 50-mph winds.
Why does that guy in the joke keep hitting himself in the head with a hammer? Because it feels good when he stops? I’d stopped.
The wind was making my eyes water. I hid my face in my woobie.
II: MT. WASHINGTON
Height: 6,288 feet.
Road: 2.6 miles of dirt, 5 miles of pavement, cut from 1854-1861 then opened as a tourist attraction.
Banned From the Private Toll Road: All bicycles every day of the year except race day (traditionally a mid-August Saturday) and one practice day in July. Acuras, Hondas, Jaguars and Saturns with a certain kind of automatic transmission prone to burn-out on 18% grades, as well as pre-1969 Lincoln Continentals.
Temperature: 26.5 degree average at the summit, -47 degree record low.
Breeze: 231-mph blowdown in 1934 is the highest recorded wind speed on the face of the earth. Average wind speed is 35.3 mph. Women’s record holder and 2003 winner Genevieve Jeanson, who rode a 59:58, was twice blown off the road by gusts.
Start: A cannon sends you off in waves by ability and age, beginning with the pros and “top-notch” racers who have completed a previous edition in 1:20 or less or have stated their intention to go for a record time. I start way back, one of 88 in my age group. There’s a guy in my wave wearing bunny ears. I shoot through the pack, the turtle, for once, starting ahead of the hare.
III: THE SUFFERING OF ST. GREG
By mile two I enter a 170-bpm-, 80-rpm-, 9-mph-state of spiritual apoplexy and Greg LeMond’s head floats before me. The three-time Tour de France champion’s head repeats one of his famous sayings, over and over and over: “It never gets any easier, you just go faster. It never gets any easier, you just go faster…”
In the ’80s and early ’90s, LeMond was a saint of suffering, a vessel of heroic misery with his grimaces and coughs and train-wreck anti-training plan from another era of racing himself back into shape season after season. (He also once famously said, “God, I dream of Dairy Queen.”)
“It never gets any easier…” says Greg LeMond’s head. I pass a red rainjacket, crumpled in the dirt just off the asphalt. “…you just go faster.” I pedal by a pair of gloves, a blue jacket, a pink waterbottle, an unused energy bar, a saddlebag, a yellow vest — the jetsam of those desperate to keep their bikes afloat. “It never gets any easier,” Greg’s head reminds me.
From the moment I heard about Mt. Washington I wanted to ride it in 1:20, to qualify as an elite, top-notch climber. I put in 800 miles in my basement in January and February. From March to June I ate like a cheerleader fasting for the bikini prom queen title. In July I hardened my legs with a century that gained 16,000 feet of elevation. I pimped a Scott Carbon Pro Team frame to 15 pounds with Velomax Ascent II wheels, full Record, and ridiculous details like a Ring-o Star headset adjuster to save two grams over a compression plug.
“It never gets any easier,” intones the visage of the saint of suffering, “you just get passed by the guy wearing bunny ears.”
IV: TRUE FEELINGS
Here is what happens to our bodies when we chase rabbits up hills:
As long as we ride aerobically, our slow-twitch muscles make energy by mixing stored carbohydrates and fats with oxygen in each cell’s mitochondria — it’s like the explosion in an engine’s cylinder, except instead of pistons the cells fire together to move the muscle. And it’s like a hydrogen car, a clean burn with little wasteful byproduct; aerobic pedaling produces only about as much lactic acid as would fit into two presta valve caps, an amount that the body can easily remove. Go harder and you begin to pant for more oxygen. When you can’t suck enough air in, your muscles recruit fast-twitch fibers, which can burn glycogen without oxygen. Like a drag-racing funny car, energy production is fast and powerful, but with lots of smoke and exhaust. When about as much lactic acid as the tiniest sip of water you’d ever take accumulates, it backs up and flows across the millions of nerve endings splayed throughout your muscles.
You hurt. You agonize. You cannot go on.
But whether you stop or prolong your agony, you choose. You decide, for fun, either way.
Here is what was happening to some other people while I was enduring unbearable anguish:
In Atlanta, a 13-year-old boy playing in his room with his two sisters heard gunshots, came out to investigate and found his pregnant mother and boyfriend dead. “He closed his mother’s eyes and gave her a kiss,” the children’s aunt told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A 42-year-old woman in Siren, Minnesota died when her Jet-Ski collided with a boat. Bombings in Bangladesh killed 14 people. Joseph Kucharski, a drummer, charter fisherman, welding instructor and Navy vet who was part of every Pacific landing from Okinawa to Saipan in World War II, died at 84 in the Akron, Ohio, City Hospital.
Here is something else that happened: A 5-pound, 8-ounce, 18.5-in. baby girl, Miranda Renee Haines, was born in Winchester, West Virginia.
V: OUR WOOBIE
I buried my face in my woobie. It felt good to stop pedaling. But it had felt great when I was riding, talking about life with Greg LeMond, jumping past the bunny ears, spinning upward in aches and ecstasies of my own making. The wind was making my eyes water.
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, June, 2005