Signing up for the 18th Annual Whiteface Mountain Uphill Bike Race wasn’t my idea. I’ll own the choice, of course, but I wouldn’t have even heard about it if my friend Phil hadn’t asked me to do it. I was in the midst of concussion recovery at the time, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sign up in part in order to give myself a temporary feeling of hope. Surely I’d be better by May 31st. If I sign up for a race, then it’ll make sure that comes true! Magical thinking, to be sure. Luckily it worked out okay this time.
We had a drive of about 3 hours to get to Wilmington, NY, where Whiteface Mountain rises above the surrounding ridge lines at the eastern edge of the Adirondacks. Lake Champlain was on the way, so we treated ourselves to a ferry ride while we tried to pick the mountain out from the landscape across the water. We never did quite determine which one it was.
A couple of guys from Burlington wandered by and chatted with us briefly.
“You racing?” one asked.
“Yeah,” Phil answered, “Whiteface. You?”
The guy nodded, because obviously there was only one race all of us were thinking about. He looked up at my bike on top of the car, an Orbea Terra gravel road bike with 28 mm slick tires. Phil’s was a Trek Checkpoint, a similar machine, with slightly wider gravel tires. “You riding on those?”
“Yeah,” I said, a little unsure about the pointedness of his question.
“Wow,” he answered.
“What are you guys riding?” Phil asked.
“Mountain bikes,” the guy answered, as if it were obvious, and he and his flat-brimmed hat bid us good luck and wandered off.
For the next hour, as we completed our drive to the base of the mountain, Phil had something close to a minor meltdown as he parsed the conversation and tried to decipher what the guy had meant by his line of questioning, his clearly loaded, Owen Wilson-like remark of “Wow” and his utterly straightforward statement that he and his friend were riding MTBs. Did he think we were idiots for our bike choices? Or did he think he was the idiot, now seeing what we were riding? What did it mean, and what would possess a person to convey such apparent passive aggression directed solely to a person’s choice of ride? Were we idiots for riding these bikes? Were we even going to the right race? What day was it? Why were their brims so incredibly flat?
We arrived in Wilmington quite early, with hours to spare before the race was to start. We walked over the bridge spanning the Ausable River and found our way into the ski lodge, where we picked up our race packets, which included helmet stickers, bike stickers with timing chips in them, the largest number bibs I’d ever seen, t-shirts and exactly zero snacks. Good thing we brought our own. Phil had all kinds of goodies from home to choose from for on-the-bike nutrition, including some special power cookies his wife baked. I had opted for a singular choice item: a refillable energy gel bottle containing 100% pure maple syrup. That, combined with water and endurance formula in my bottles, was what I hoped would keep life in my legs as I scaled the mountain in a few hours.
After I gathered my race accouterments from the helpful check-in folks, I asked them a question which had occurred to me.
“Is there another race here soon?”
“Yes,” one said, “a 50 or 100-km qualifier for Leadville.”
And suddenly, it all made sense. Those guys on the ferry thought we were doing Wilmington Whiteface. They thought we were going to be riding single track for 60 miles, on slick 28-mm tires! “Wow,” indeed. We had a good laugh about that, and “Wowwww” became an instant catch-phrase for the rest of the day.
We decided to cruise down the course a bit, just to check out the opening three mile prologue, and see what interesting things we could find in town. We saw a bunch of guys fishing the river, and watched one of them pull a sizable fish out. We stopped in a local shop and got some chocolate for the kids and wives. We saw a giant metal bike statue and debated climbing on top of it, but ultimately left such shenanigans to the presumed local youth to get arrested for. A gaunt man with a beard was lost and tried to get into a locked building nearby. I said to Phil, “That’s either a hardcore cyclist or a meth addict.” Not a minute later, he asked us where to check in for the bike race. #nailedit
Finally, it got close to race time. We changed into our kits and took a little warm-up spin up the hill behind the parking lot. Phil had a little trouble with his cadence sensor, but we got it sorted. A lot of folks were really clamoring to start near the front of the pack, which surprised us considering it was a chip-timed race and drafting wasn’t going to be a major factor, so it didn’t really seem to matter when you actually started. Phil had a theory that the best strategy (if you were racing to win) might be to hammer the first 3-mile downhill section, though, so maybe the draft was a bigger player than it seemed. In any case, we opted to start comfortably from the back.
The national anthem was sung, the Canadian national anthem was played, we got the most anti-climactic count-down in history, and the race was underway!
As I mentioned, the first three miles were essentially downhill. I deliberately played it cool here, trying to spin up the legs in a relatively high cadence and to really back off the power. There was enough of a descent that I was clipping along basically without working. Then we hit the corner, and the climb began.
Once I settled in, I kept an eye on my numbers and found that an average of 340 watts felt about right. I was working, but I wasn’t hammering, and my heart rate was staying below threshold. I found my most comfortable gear and got to work.
There was the slightest of reprieves while passing the tool booth, and then it was nothing but up, for a section of about 4 miles that featured the steepest sections of the climb. Partway through this section, I took my first hit of maple syrup. It went down smooth and quick, and much easier than energy gel. I also didn’t feel like I had to wash it down with water to clear it out of my mouth. So far so good.
Because of how the road is laid out, I could see the switchbacks quite a ways before I got to them. They were laid out high above me on the side of the mountain. I knew that they were only a couple of short miles away, so it was a bit daunting to consider how high I had to climb in order to reach them, especially knowing the gradient it would take.
My legs were doing okay, but started to get a little crampy and uncomfortable at around mile 8 or so. Originally I had intended to ride a bit easier until this point, and then put the power down. As it turned out, I rode a rather more consistent power output, so I didn’t have a whole lot of reserves to draw from. I was going steady, though, so I figured I’d just keep on with my 340 watts and see how that worked out.
By the time I reached the first switchback, I had enjoyed some amazing views, passed two unicyclists, hit my second dose of maple syrup (so good), seen a guy riding deliberately crosswise across the road repeatedly (to rest his legs, I guess?), gotten slightly annoyed by someone with a squeaky bike that I couldn’t drop, and been told “I like that gear you’re in.” As in, complimenting me on my specific choice of gearing. At that moment. I guess? I still haven’t figured that one out.
I knew from simulating the ride indoors that the switchbacks provided some measure of relief, and were the time to drop the hammer for sure, if there was any hammer left to drop. I latched on to the wheel of a guy about my size, who I had noticed from his bib that he was also in the Clydesdale division like me, and followed him up and around the second switchback. Then I went by him and made for the finish.
I had enough legs left to put down a sprint for the finish of about 0:20. It was completely unnecessary, and nobody was sprinting with me, but I don’t get to race in bike races very often, so it felt right. It was an experience I had never had, and I wanted to go for it.
After I got through the chute and received my finisher’s medal, I pedaled around the courtyard of the little castle-like structure that is at the summit to behold a magnificent view of the surrounding landscape. It was a great reward for doing the work to climb to the top. I took a couple of quick photos and then went back to the finish line to cheer on Phil, who was only minutes behind me. I managed to get a decent video of him crossing the line. We took a few more shots and drank some Gatorade, then put on our sleeves and started the ride back down. It was getting cold quickly so we didn’t spend a lot of time up top.
The ride down was at once fun, beautiful, exciting and harrowing. We were cruising at 40 mph with our brakes engaged. If we had been alone on the mountain, we probably would have let it rip a little more, but there were still people climbing the hill, cars driving up and down both ways, and other cyclists heading down. With a lot of blind corners, it didn’t seem prudent to be going full speed with no chance to stop suddenly if necessary. It was also really cold, and I had to adjust my hands and arms periodically just to make sure that I could, in fact, still feel them.
We made it down safe and sound, and then cruised back to the ski area for food and to check out the results. I ended up in 7th out of 26th in the Clydesdale division (190 lbs+), with an official recorded time of 1:19:25. I was pretty darn happy with that effort. I don’t know that I could have done it much faster if I had changed anything, and I don’t know what I could have changed. It was pretty close to the best execution I could manage on the day. You can’t ask for much more than that.
The drive home was long and dark, but still a good time and there was plenty to recount and reflect on from the day.
I was very glad to be able to do this race. It’s one that I don’t think I will ever forget.