Event: 2017 National Hill Climb Championship 30-39
Conditions: Clear, chilly morning. Low-40s at the start, climbing into the mid 30s further up the mountain.
Course: The infamous Pike’s Peak. 20km, 156 turns, average 7% gradient, start line at 9,390ft above sea level, finish line at 14,115ft.
Equipment: S-Works Tarmac, Enve 3.4 rims with Specialized Turbo Cotton 24mm tires, SRAM eTap group with 52/36, 11-32 gearing.
Having never competed at altitude the plan was simple. Be conservative. My goal was to never go into the red and save just enough for one final move in the last mile in case it was needed. I’d done enough research to know what my average power should be for the climb to be in contention. I just had to make sure to not get carried away early.
The first two miles of the course are forgiving but the pace started surgy and quick. A couple of riders played early cards by going to the front and keeping the pace high. The pack was strung out over the first few rollers and I did my best to stay tucked in line. Just after the two mile mark the real climbing begins and the field settled in for the long haul to the top.
As the group started grinding into the first steep pitches I was feeling comfortable but putting out more power than I knew I could sustain for the duration of the climb. A small group of 6 was forming at the front and I was dangling behind them. After a couple of minutes into a sustained 9% gradient my legs were starting to burn from the effort. I began debating if I should ease up to something more sustainable or commit myself to sticking with the group. Remembering my pre-race plan I eased up and the group of 6 slowly rode away as I settled into a rhythm I was comfortable with.
Mile 4 ticked by and I had lost about 100m to the leading group of 6. Also around this time different race fields had begun to mix. We were catching riders from earlier starts so I had to pay close attention to how many of the riders from my field were still up the road in the leading group. Every several minutes a new rider would fall off the group and come back towards me after finding the pace at the front too much to hold. By mile 6, around the halfway point, only two riders remained in the leading group and my gap to them was now reduced to 50m.
Pike’s Peak is interminable. Each bend reveals another long straight of consistent climbing and all you can see above you is more road carved precariously into the side of the barren mountain. Forty minutes into the race we crossed through the 12,000ft elevation mark. My gap to the leading two riders was holding steady and I was happy with how controlled my breathing felt despite the altitude. Unfortunately, we still had just under 6 miles to climb and another 2,000ft of elevation gain to go.
Over the next several miles I yo-yo’d off the back of the lead riders. Occasionally pulling them to within 10m but never actually making contact. Each time I would see those gains disappear as the leaders would surge on flatter portions of the climb and extend their lead back out. I wasn’t motivated to catch them and fight to stay in contact because so far I’d assessed that my plan of riding my own pace was both bearable and effective at keeping me in contention if the two up the road were to falter at any point. As we swept through switchbacks the leaders would glance back to see if I was still in pursuit. And each time I was.
This back and forth continued until just before mile 9 where the climb flattens and then makes two quick descents (separated by a short wall) before arriving at the final push to the summit. As the gradient eased the rider from Pedal Racing got a gap and I quickly caught the remaining rider from 303 Project. He saw me coming and flicked his elbow to get me contributing to the chase. I obliged but still used the flat and downhill section to attempt a brief recovery. The Pedal Racing rider extended his lead slightly while we tackled the wall between the two dips and it appeared as if he may have made his final escape. After flying through the second descent I hit the last 2 miles on the wheel of the 303 Project rider and we started quickly gaining on the sole leader. What moments before looked like an insurmountable gap vanished in an instant on the 10% section we were now facing. In a matter of seconds we were all back together again. With nothing but a 2 mile grind to the top we were now firmly entering the finale of the race.
As we crossed the 13,500ft elevation mark the 303 Project rider used the steep incline of a switchback to launch an attack and quickly pulled away. At this altitude I was extremely concerned with going into the red so I was measured in my response. I subtly increased the pressure on the pedals and aimed to limit the damage of the riders attack hoping he’d attempted a move that he could not sustain. I grinded away slowly with the Pedal Racing rider by my side.
With 1 mile to go the 303 Project rider started coming back to us fast. I had gambled correctly and was now hoping a counter attack from the Pedal Racing rider was not imminent. After making the catch no attack came. Everyone was too tired for explosive jumps and I found myself on the front of the race for the very first time with 1k to go. I kept my head down and the pace steady for a couple hundred meters then glanced over my shoulder. I had a gap! Not a massive one but enough to give me hope. I increased the pace slightly to see if I could extend my advantage. Sure enough I slowly began pulling away. At 600m to go I arrived at the final switchback and I played my final card. I accelerated through the corner hard then looked back to confirm that I had successfully gotten away. With the final wall to the finish in sight I kept the pressure on but rode with the comfort of knowing I had already done enough. I crossed the line with a 17 second lead on second place. I had won my first national championship!
Pike’s Peak is an amazing climb. The length, the steepest, the altitude, the views… it really is a climbers dream. I obviously enjoyed my first experience on the mountain and I’m sure it won’t be my last!