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Hillclimbs, heaven or hell?, by Al Hospers
 Article List
• My winter vacation
• Phil Gaimon wins 2008 Mt. Washington Hillclimb
• Biking brothers in law charge around the Whites
• Overendís ready for a Granite State nickname
• Maineís Islesboro is a seaside bicycle adventure
• Quietly cycling Connecticutís northeastís corner
• That "new bike fit"
• Cyclocross - Best way to enjoy it, watch it.
• The next step in personal training?
• What goes up, goes down along Virginiaís Skyline Drive
• Hillclimbs, heaven or hell?
• Acadiaís bikeways beckon
• Where Cycling Is Taken Seriously
• Crusing along Lake Winnipesaukee by bike and boat
• Crank That Kanc
• Wrap, ride and reward
• A Clean Sweep
I feel as if I've been in training all summer. First it was for the Crank The Kanc, then for the Equinox Hillclimb and now for the Mt. Washington and Seacoast Centuries. It's a never ending process. Thank god I actually like it.

An old college chum who's 10 years younger than me called me up in the Spring. In the conversation he hustled me into signing up for the Mt. Equinox Hillclimb, Mind you, I love climbing hills and living here in North Conway you better like hills. I'm happy doing loops of Thorn Hill and Dundee Road, over Hurricane Mountain Road to the top of Evans Notch and back, or Jackson - Gorham & back. The Bear Notch loop is no biggie anymore and a ride up to the top of Crawford Notch and back is all in a morning's fun, but a time-trial hillclimb just seems like such a different beast.

The Mt. Equinox climb is a daunting 5.2 mile ride up its beautiful Skyline Drive. Doug Jansen, of Doug's Northeast Cycling web site (, lists the Equinox climbing level as a 5 out of 5, right up there with Ascutney and Mt Washington. With an average grade of 12% it's steeper than the other 2. When I saw that it even boasts a section with a maximum grade of 28% I got seriously nervous.

I figured I'd better get on it. My training consisted mostly of the hills I normally ride, just more of them. In the beginning I did multiple laps on Cathedral Ledge Road as morning warmups and then some spin. One day I rode up to Crawford Notch and when I got back I did Cathedral Ledge Road just for fun. I did lots of long rides that had hills in them like Jackson - Gorham - Jackson, the Bear Notch - Kanc - Crawford Notch and Evans Notch - Pinkham loops. I was feeling better & better all the time.

Talking with my buddy I discovered he was going over to ride Okemo once or twice a week and even Ascutney. He had converted his old mountain bike to a hillclimb machine. He even stripped everything off it, sprung for a solid front fork and put on slick tires. I started feeling the pressure. I spoke to my mechanic about riding the De Rosa and he said "No way." unless I was willing to spring for mountain bike rear gears and a triple in the front. Besides the cost I didn't feel like I wanted to mess with the De Rosa. I hadn't been riding it lately so I hauled out my old hardtail mountain bike. Although heavy it had a lock-out front shock and I figured I could get some slick tired for short money. Hmmm, I might be able to manage this.
Al and son Daz at the finish
I did my final major training ride the Monday before the race. I figured if I could go over Hurricane Mountain and immediately come back I'd be OK. It's 11 miles from one side to the other and tho it's not as steep as Equinox, it has its moments. I decided to just be slow and steady and keep my heart rate well below my maximum, anything in the 140-150 range would be fine. The mountain bike gearing and slick tires made climbing so much easier than the road bike, and before I knew it I was at the top. At the bottom I circled for a couple of minutes eating a bar and guzzling water and then headed back up. The first half wasn't bad at all, but by the middle I was getting a little tired. As usual the last 300 yards that are the hardest. I didn't stand up or put my foot down, but it was most assuredly a slog. On the descent I told myself that this was a good test and I felt confident that I could at least finish Equinox, hopefully with no stops.

This year's Equinox "Gear Up For Lyme" race drew over 170 entrants from all over the Northeast. At the starting line I saw just about every type of bike imaginable: Colnago, Lemond, Trek, Merckx, Cannondale, a De Rosa King, Look, Specialized, you name it. There were carbon fiber, steel, aluminum and steel bikes with every combination of parts and gearing. Several riders had standard road bikes with normal gearing plus one older guy, who looked terrifically fit, riding a very plush blue cruiser bike albeit with special gearing. There was even a guy on a unicycle. I was impressed. The only thing I didn't see, except for my buddy, his doctor and me, were mountain bikes! We were at the bottom of the food chain!

The first two groups went off without a hitch. We were in the last group, old and slow, and the starting pistol misfired. Before I knew it the starter was yelling "Go, Go." and everyone was taking off. I found myself in the back of the pack with only a few people behind me and I reminded myself to just ride my own race. For a short while I was in a group with another rider and the unicyclist, but the other cyclist dropped out and the unicyclist kept falling so I motored on ahead, staying in the gear 2 bigger than my granny-gear. I'd forgotten my heart rate monitor, but I could tell that it wasn't high and I felt fine.

A little past the 2 mile mark I caught up with a guy named Tony who was race-walking the course and we chatted as we paced each other up the hill. At the 3 mile mark we caught up with a woman cyclist. As I pulled up beside her she uttered, "Oh no, you're going to pass me." I hung with her for a while but it seemed that she wanted every line I did so I stood up for a minute & pulled away. Of course when I got to the big steep switchbacks I kept to the outside so I didn't have to deal with the grade but there were a couple of riders who were struggling up the inside steepest parts! At the 4 mile curve there were ladies with water and I had one pour some down my back. It felt incredible and gave me the impetus to crank a bit more.

In the last 1/2 mile I passed a rider who was cutting back and forth across the whole road and I had to time when I passed him so that he wouldn't hit me. He looked totally hammered and I didn't think that he was able to stay out of my way. As I got closer to the finish I could hear the crowds. It was a great sound and I cranked out some more speed for the finish. My wife took a picture of me just before the finish line. She said that she was surprised that I wasn't even breathing hard and looked a lot more refreshed that I had on the Crank The Kanc in the Spring. I finished in 1 hour 24 minutes, almost exactly 10 minutes behind my buddy. He had stopped and walked for a few minutes, but it made no difference in his time. I was always worried that I would bonk so I had never pushed myself.

I had a great experience and I'm confident that I could have knocked 10+ minutes off my time on Equinox if I had had a better sense of my own abilities. Now I'm hooked and I'm going to have to do this again next year. I'm already planning how I can ride Crank The Kanc, Ascutney and Equinox next season. I saw someone who had set up an old Fuji SP-12 road bike exactly the my one as a hillclimb bike. I found a spare mountain bike XT derailer and cassette and that's what I'm going to do for next year.

Hope I'll see you out there.
by Al Hospers

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