The 45th annual Bob Cook Memorial Mt. Evans Hill Climb was held July 24, 2010. The climb starts in Idaho Springs, Colorado and ends 27 miles later at the top of Mt. Evans. It serves as the National and Colorado state hill climb championships. I was there to compete and represent the North Iowa Spin. At the risk of seeming self indulgent I am going to write about my experiences with regards to training, race day, and post race reflections in great detail. I do this for a number of reasons. First, to spare my regular group ride buddies from having to hear me drone on and on about it. Second, in case anyone wants to do the climb they may be able to glean some helpful tips from this article, and lastly because I had entirely too much time to think about it on the long drive home across western Nebraska. For anyone who loves climbing on their bicycle I recommend you put this on your cycling “bucket list.”
According to the Forest Service’s “Guide to Mt. Evans” the Mt. Evans road is the highest paved road in North America. The climb starts at 7,540 feet and ends at 14,130 feet. Each 1,000 feet of elevation gain is equivalent to driving 600 miles north in terms of climate. Above 11,500 feet the land is treeless and one enters into alpine tundra. This is literally some of the harshest environment on earth. Of course, this sounded like the perfect challenge for a bike racer from the flat lands of North Iowa.
I began thinking about the climb in December of 2009. I knew training for such an event would be difficult in Iowa, but I resolved to do the best I could. I started with some base miles in January on the trainer and tried to get outside on the snowy, gravel roads at least once a week on my cyclocross bike.
I also decided I wanted to lose a little weight and began to slowly ease back on snacks and portion sizes at meal time. Power to weight ratio isn’t so important on the flat, windy roads of North Iowa. It can mean everything in the mountains particularly as the grade increases.
Registration for the race opened at 6:00 a.m. February 1, 2010. By 6:15 a.m. I was registered and got a free T-shirt for being one of the first 100 people to sign up (once I finished the race I put the shirt on and have only taken it off to shower since). I had wanted to do the Citizens category, but if you hold a racing license of any kind you are not eligible for this class. I therefore landed in the 35+ category 4. Not ideal for a 44 year old category 5 racer, but it was the closest I could come to what looked like a reasonable group based on the last year’s finishing times.
I was able to sneak away for a week in February to Fredericksburg, Texas and get in some great training in the Hill Country. This honed my early season form. It wasn’t at high altitude, but it gave me a boost in climbing over some pretty tough terrain.
In March I spent a week in Boulder, Colorado. In terms of the weather you never know if you are going to be able to ride in Boulder in the early spring, but I was able to get in 4 days of riding before it snowed 10 inches. It was here that I was able to get some objective feedback on how the training was going. Flagstaff Mountain is one of the classic Boulder climbs that is used as a real world training assessment. A good estimate of a person’s lactic acid threshold is the average power output one can maintain from the bottom of the climb to the Amphitheatre turn off. A typical lower category racer can do it in 18 minutes or less with the elite racers doing it closer to 13 minutes.
I had done this in July of 2009 at my peak form and averaged 274 watts and clocked a time of 17.20. My weight at the time was 158 lbs. This March I wasn’t close to my peak, but my weight was now 145 lbs. I hadn’t weighed that since my sophomore year in high school. Predictably for the time of year my power output was lower at 264 watts, but my time was faster at 17 minutes even. This drove home the importance of the power to weight ratio.
In April I decided I wanted to experience race day anxiety so I signed up for the Iowa City Road Race. This may very well have been my last road race. This was the race that was marred by at least 5 crashes including a flying deer that destroyed one of the racers. It looked like the scene in The Matrix where Neo battles Morpheus. I’m talking about slow motion helmet to helmet, personal foul collision between man and deer. Unbelievable. Tactically and physically I did well and finished 6th.
Training in May through July was geared more towards efforts at or above lactate threshold aiming for a peak at the end of July. I assumed the hill climb would be more of a time trial type effort with fewer repeated high end attacks. This lactate threshold type of training isn’t ideal for the demands of a road race or a criterium, but I felt it would be best for what I was trying to achieve. I also began taking part in our local time trials and found this to be very helpful.
In order to fulfill a promise I had made to my son, Sam, I found myself lined up to do the local Bicycle, Blues and BBQ criterium in the middle of July. The field was deeper and stronger than the previous year. Physically I did well and was out in front for much of the race. Tactically I did poorly because I was out in front for much of the race. It is hard to get a good result when your primary goal is to not crash. No matter, July was the time to stay healthy and peak for the hill climb.
The Saturday before the hill climb my wife, Rebecca, and I drove out to Boulder. You really need several weeks to acclimate, but a week would have to be good enough. Sunday I went on an easy hike with Rebecca and started getting used to the altitude. Monday I went for my first ride and did another classic Boulder ride up Left Hand Canyon to Ward. This is a scenic climb up 16 miles and is my favorite ride. That night I had a little headache, but no major problems with the altitude.
Tuesday was an important day. I had made a date for Flagstaff. This is where I would see if all of my training had paid off. I was actually more concerned about my results here than I was with the criterium. I intentionally began the climb a bit slow. The initial pitch is pretty steep and it’s easy to go too hard and blow up. I was hoping to break my record of 17 minutes. When I got to the Amphitheatre I was thrilled to see my time was 15.55 with an average wattage of 285. This was by far the best I had ever done. At this point I knew physically all systems were go for Mt. Evans, but I had to hold it together mentally.
I finished up the day with a ride up Sunshine Canyon. This is a steeper climb that only takes 30 minutes or so. The harder pitch would be good training for the Mt. Evans climb. Even though the grades at the upper slopes of Mt. Evans are only 4-5% the altitude makes it feel like 10-14%.
Wednesday was a rest day. I lubed up my chain and checked over the bike. I found a cut in my back tire and this caused me great concern. I was freaked about a blow out during the climb. I rushed the bike over to Boulder Cycle Sport and was fortunate enough to meet a sympathetic employee there, named Sam, who ran tubular tires and had done The Mt. Evans Hill Climb (It seems everyone in Boulder has done the climb once). He looked over my tire and convinced me to go with the time honored advice of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it and don’t make any changes close to race day.”
I was starting to really feel the stress as Thursday came. Fortunately, my friend Bob took me on a nice ride around Lyons and up Rabbit Mountain. We then met Rebecca and Bob’s partner, Jana, for lunch. They are Boulder natives and were so kind and hospitable. It was just what I needed at that time.
Friday was another rest day of sorts. No biking, but Rebecca and I drove the hour to Idaho Springs to scout the course from the car. This was overall very helpful, but incredibly stressful. Rebecca had been to the top of Mt. Evans before and understood better than I what it was I was proposing to do. As we drove up out of the tree line I began to realize what a hard place the upper slopes were. It is not fit for human life. Only the mountain goats thrive there. We got to the summit and took a few pictures, but didn’t stay long. The wind chill was 24 degrees and just walking could be difficult.
As I looked out from the summit I was reminded of a story someone had told me at Bob and Jana’s house earlier in the week. Their friend, Eric, had planned to do a difficult bicycle climb in Hawaii. Once he saw the mountain he quickly realized his gearing was wrong for the climb. He called the bicycle shop back in Boulder and asked them if there was anything he could change on the bike. The shop manager told him the only things he should change were his expectations.
Like Eric I now felt I needed to change my expectations. Looking at the times from last year I had initially set the goals of trying to break 3 hours and trying to be the fastest Iowan. In my dreams I would like to go 2.30 or be within an hour of the course record of 1.40. I felt that by breaking 3 hours I wouldn’t be last in my division. I was aware that there would be only a handful of Iowans in the race and this goal was mainly for fun. Now I was afraid of this climb and just wanted to finish.
It was a quiet ride down the mountain. My thoughts swirled as I tried to mentally figure out how to do this climb. I have been fortunate enough to do a few climbs in France over the years. The lower slopes of Mt. Evans reminded me of the Tourmalet and the upper slopes the Ventoux. Perhaps if I had the mind set of doing the Tourmalet and Ventoux in succession it would seem more of a reasonable task. The flaw here was both of those climbs peak out at about 6,000 feet. I would be starting at 7,500 on Saturday! What if I compared it to doing Left Hand Canyon twice? No, that didn’t work either. Some friends of mine in Iowa had done the climb in training before. I reasoned if they could do it surely I could as well.
It took an hour to drive down. Rebecca broke the silence first by asking what I thought. I simply said, “It’s doable.” By this time I had determined to break the climb up into thirds. The first part would be the start to the feed zone at Echo Lake where I could get more water and gel. The middle third would be from Echo Lake out of the tree line to Summit Lake where I would put on more clothes to stay warm. The last would be Summit Lake to the top. Each third had a defined end point with a tangible reward at the end whether it be nutrition, warmth, or the finish. By breaking it up into parts it seemed more possible rather than viewing the entire 27 miles at once.
We went back to Boulder and I started to organize my gear and pack things up. One beneficial thing about the day’s trip was I realized how cold it is at the top. I elected to wear more of my cold weather gear rather than send it to the top on the shuttle the race provides. Once the shuttle leaves the start area with your bag you can’t get to it until you finish.
That night I only got about 5 hours of sleep. I rarely sleep well before a big race. I woke up and decided to wear my Marco Pantani T-shirt to the race. Pantani is the last rider to win both the Tours of Italy and France in the same year. He did it fueled on a mix of performance enhancing drugs, but he was the greatest climber of our era. He died of a cocaine overdose alone in a Cuban hotel. Great climbers are often tragic figures. From the reclusive Charly Gaul, the original “Angel of the Mountains,” to Frederico Bahamontes who died by his own hand they all seem damaged somehow. The riding seems less about exercising the body and more about exorcising the soul. Are they riding away from something? Are they climbing toward something or are they just trying to be? On this day I needed to channel a little bit of the best of Marco.
Rebecca and I arrived in Idaho Springs by 7:30 a.m. This would give me plenty of time to drop off my bag for the shuttle by 8:40 a.m. and get to my start time of 9:35 a.m. It was cool to see some of the pros going off for their start. One of the Garmin boys rode past me on the way to the line. Like all pre-race areas the atmosphere was tense though. You could feel the anxiety throughout the whole town as riders lined up for the port-a-potties or whirred away on their trainers.
At 8:30 a.m. we were able to meet up with my sister Terri, her two daughters Erin and Meagan, and my niece Emily’s husband Trent. My sister’s family are marathoners and they could feel the familiar pre-race jitters in the air. Rebecca is very intuitive and absorbed it all in as well. By the end of the day they would be as wiped out emotionally as I was.
I can’t say how much it meant to me to have them all there. To take time out of their busy lives and put up with me before the race just to see me off at the start was huge. Knowing they were there helped so much.
At 8:40 a.m. it was time to leave and start to warm up. Trent could tell I was nervous. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You can do this.” Terri’s husband Mark texted me “Your thighs are thunder and the wind is your trail.” Like a lot of things Mark says I didn’t understand it, but there was a kernel of truth somewhere in there. So, with a vote of confidence from Trent to steel my resolve and a race mantra from Mark I was off.
I skipped my usual hard 45 minute pre-race warm up and opted for a more relaxed pace just to get loose. I did not want to burn any matches at 7,500 feet. I figured we would have a little time at the start of the climb before the pace kicked in too high.
I got to the staging area in plenty of time to get a few last words of encouragement from the family and get into a good spot in the bunch. The field was 100 riders in the 35+ cat 4. This was my first aged race rather than a senior cat 5 and I could immediately tell by looking around the field. Most everyone’s lateral elbows and knees bore the scars of old road rash from battles long since lost rather than the fresh, weeping abrasions the younger guys have. There was also less fighting for a front position in the staging area. Of course there was one rider who showed up late and walked his bike to the front, but he was on a local team and I suppose he was due that.
The staging area is in the Clear Creek Middle school parking lot to keep riders off the road as the bottom half of the course is open to traffic. This was fine except right after the start the driveway goes down a short hill to the road. At the bottom of the driveway there was a foot wide dirt area we all had to get over as we were clipping into our pedals. I had to use a few cyclocross skills just to get on the road.
Once we got on the road the pace was pretty mellow for the first few miles. Everybody seemed content to warm it up a bit as we all knew what was in store for us. I was amazed at how quiet the peloton was. Nobody said a word. Again, the group maturity was readily apparent as riders pointed out hazards and held their lines well.
At mile 5 or so the pace picked up a bit and the group became less bunched and three wide. A mile later the pace increased again and the group split. I was pleased to see I was still hanging in what felt like the front half. I am not really sure how many were behind me. As we came to a left hand turn I knew the grade was going to kick up and another selection was coming. Sure enough at mile 7 everything lined out. I maybe could have gone with the front guys for awhile, but I knew in order to finish I had to ride at my own tempo pace of 230 watts and let them go.
For those of us who can’t ride at the front of the race there is always the race within the race. Little battles you have with guys around you. For me it started when someone behind me saw my North Iowa Spin kit and asked if I was from Iowa. He told me he was from Nebraska and said, “Go Flatlanders.” For the next 45 minutes we intermittently rode with or against each other.
His name was Jeff, from Sydney. Sydney is the home of Cabella’s and elevation 4,100 feet I soon learned. Jeff would occasionally accelerate and I would ride my tempo back up to him. I could not let another Flatlander beat me. Jeff told me he did this climb the weekend before and got sick at 13,000 feet. This seemed insane to me. It would be like running a marathon the week before your marathon. Jeff and I caught up to Skinny, Pony-tail guy and Left Knee Brace Guy. This was a pretty solid group to be in, but they eventually rode away from us.
45 minutes into the ride I had downed my Accelerade and tried to eat a PowerBar. By this time I really couldn’t eat anything solid and basically let it sit in my mouth until it dissolved. I was going to need to use gel for fuel from now on. I then drank my water as the feed zone was coming up.
The feed zone was 13 miles up at Echo Lake. A few dozen hearty spectators made it up and cheered us on with shouts and clanging cow bells. I made it there in 1 hour and 6 minutes and I knew I had it. I knew I was going to be able to do this climb. I understood as you climb your power output goes down, but I still felt good and could maybe even post a decent time. I grabbed two bottles of water and some more gel and turned right towards the Ranger Station and the middle third of my climb.
Once you get to the Ranger Station the road is closed to traffic. This provided me some comfort, but it is not long after that you begin to lose the protection of the trees. Somewhere around here I dropped Jeff and was left to wonder if he would make it past 13,000 feet. This deep into the effort my thoughts came to me in short phrases or pictures.
Burley White Capo Kit Guy. You could thrash me any day in a crit, but I knew today I would be catching you on this mountain. Team Evergreen Guy. Do you know you just got passed by somebody from Iowa? Next is Big Guy on The Yellow Bike. Wow, Echo Lake looks cool from up here. Dang, it is still a long way up. Do not look up again. Man, the leaders from the group that started behind me are flying past. Thighs of thunder, wind is my trail. Hey, here’s Knee Brace.
I sat in on Knee Brace for awhile and apologized for not coming around. He said he was at his limit so I took a few pulls and we worked well together for a few minutes. Just before Summit Lake there is a short, steep downhill. Like most people from Colorado Knee Brace could descend way better than me. He got a gap of a few hundred yards and I could never close it.
The pavement around Summit Lake is buckled and has a few potholes from the permafrost. So, I took it easy here and just worked my way through it. I was now into the final third of this challenge.
Big Guy on Yellow Bike is strong! I can’t catch him. Summit Lake my ass. There’s still five miles left to the summit. Switchbacks. I’ll being seeing switchbacks in my dreams. This has got to be the last one. No, there are still people way up there going back and forth across this mountain. Don’t look up, you fool. Is my power output only 130? Big Guy you are my hero. Oh, these must be people from the earlier categories I am passing. I can’t look that bad. That poor guy is walking his bike up. My computer says 27 miles. Why am I not there yet? Did that volunteer just say this is the last turn? Yes!!
My time was 2 hours 39 minutes and 32 seconds. My average power output was 186 watts. I had achieved my initial goal of breaking 3 hours and was near my dream goal of 2.30. I perhaps could have gone faster. I was wasted, but I wasn’t completely shattered at the end. I probably could have gone 2.35, maybe 2.30. The thing is on the flats if you go too deep into the red you may lose some time, but you can slow down and recover. On the climb if you go too deep and slow down for a few minutes you don’t recover. You are only a few minutes higher where there is less atmospheric pressure that you need to recover. So, I was absolutely satisfied.
After the finish line a volunteer directed me to where our bags were and second volunteer went and picked it up and handed it to me. Yet another volunteer came over and poured more water into my empty bottles. There was a great sense of satisfaction, but not much else. I was too tired and cold. My lips were still blue five hours later. I put on my warm clothes, drank some Endurox I had in my bag and got ready to go back down. Just before I left I bumped into Jeff. He made it past 13,000 feet and finished in 2.43.
There are shuttles that can drive you back down, but I was in this for the full pull. I rode up this mountain and I was going to ride back down it. On the way down I realized the pavement is full of cracks. Going up you roll over the cracks and don’t notice them. Coming down at 30-40 miles per hour each one jars your cold, sore body. As I alluded to earlier I am not the cleverest of descenders and I was impressed by the speed of the riders blasting past me. I saw a few other racers still grinding their way up the mountain. My heart went out to one rider who flatted on the way up a few miles from the summit.
The wind had really picked up and it was blowing me from side to side as it came into the mountain and then bounced back off the mountain. It was all I could do to keep my numb hands on my brakes. The wind and the cold got better once I got back into the safety of the tree line.
Back down at Echo Lake I was surprised by all of the people waiting to pick riders up. It is ok to do that, but we were encouraged to ride all the way down to Idaho Springs which is what I was going to do. I wasn’t going to relax until I was all the way back down. At this point the road surface was better and the wind that was now howling up the canyon helped to slow my descent.
When I finally got back to my van I sent a text to my family that said, “I did it.” It was at this point the enormity of what I had just done hit me and I got teary eyed. I want to keep this in perspective. I understand I hadn’t just defeated cancer or even done anything as meaningful as volunteering at the animal shelter. I tend to think in one emotion at a time. When I’m happy, I’m happy. When I’m angry, I’m angry. When the emotion is there it’s there and when it’s gone it’s gone. However, at that moment a range of emotions washed over me. For anyone who’s finished their first marathon or their first 5K family/fun run you understand. I felt thankfulness to all of the volunteers who made sure we were safe on the route, gave us food and water, and said “Great ride” no matter what our time. I was appreciative of the crew at Wayne’s Ski and Cycle who got my bike ready and all of our team sponsors. I felt gratitude towards my wife and family for all their love and support. I felt relief that I was back down safe and warm. Mostly, I felt a great sense of accomplishment that I had actually done the Mt. Evans Hill Climb.
Over the next few hours phone calls and messages came in from family and friends asking how I did, if I was ok, and to tell me they were praying for me. To paraphrase Rick in Casablanca I know my problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but it’s nice to know so many people cared.
My wife asked why I wanted to do this climb. I succinctly said, “I don’t know.” Sadly, this is the answer she too often gets when she asks me to examine my emotions. As I was driving home somewhere near Ogallala I thought back to the darkest parts of the climb. It was at those moments I thought of my wife and my kids. I thought of my family. I thought about friends who couldn’t ride because they or their loved ones were battling health issues and then I thought of nothing. The climb had stripped away everything.
It is when we are in that place of nothingness we are closest to our family and friends and closest to who we are. It’s not really a moment or a feeling. It just is. It’s that place where the club hits the ball and you don’t even feel it. Where the ball leaves your hand and you know it’s in. When the ski carves that perfect turn. It’s the space a diver is in as she floats weightless over a pristine coral reef or where a hiker looks at the muted colors of the sunrise as they reflect off the Flatirons. It’s when you sleep in the “desert with a billion stars all around.” At this stage in my life and the way my brain is wired I know I can’t get there by yoga or meditation. I do know I can get there, sometimes, on my bike. That is why I climb.
The Pro 1,2 race was won by Garmin-Transitions rider Peter Stetina in a time of 1.50.20. Ned Overend and Phil Zajicek rounded out the podium. The winning time in my class was 2.09. I finished 40th out of 83. I had the fastest time out of the two other Iowans in the entire race field of 1,200.