In my whole life, I’ve had the lead in only three races. One was a triathlon where the swim was short and the water so shallow we ran the whole thing without getting our knees wet. Another was a small, first-time running event called the Dads and Daughters 5K. The somewhat misleading name implied it was for fathers with daughters only (it wasn’t), thus cutting out about three-quarters of the running population. Oh yeah, and it was held the same weekend as about five popular area races. (I actually won that one.)
And the third race I led was this year’s Mount Baker Hill Climb. Leading a race is way cool, especially if like me, you’re now closer to 50 than 40. But it also feels like you’ve snuck in someplace that you’re not supposed to be. It reminds me of being 17 when my friends and I at the Jersey Shore would try to sneak in to all the bars using I.D.s we’d swiped from our older brothers. On those few times it worked we shared an excited giddiness at our good fortune, but once inside we had a new problem: What are we supposed to do now?
Cut to this year’s race. (And just so I’m not leading anyone on, we’re talking the Recreational race here.) About two miles in, just past Canyon Creek Road, we started up the first climb. As the pack slowed a tad, I saw that the leader was right there; I mean, like right there. Close enough that if we had been sitting in a boring geography class together, I could’ve nailed him with in the left ear with a spitball. So I clicked up a couple gears, stomped on my pedals for about 20 or 30 good, hard mashes and, voila—I’m in the lead! Who knew it could be so simple?
I opened up a gap—I think that’s what it’s called—of about 50 yards and soon a motorcycle with a cameraman on the back pulled up next to me to get some shots. How cool is that! I felt like I was in the Tour de France (my ideal of it, that is) and that Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin were commenting on me dancing on the pedals in a most immodest way as I dug deeply into my suitcase of courage. Granted, the motorcycle and cameraman were probably just practicing for shooting the competitive race that started an hour later, but still.
Here I was at 45 leading a bike race with some 300 riders in it, but oddly I found myself wondering the same things I used to when I was sneaking into bars at 17: what am I supposed to do now? The race is 24.5 miles, with the last 10-mile climb being what it’s all about (Alfie), so having a lead here at about the three-mile mark is pointless. It’s like a football team being in first place during the preseason; it don’t matter none. Best thing would be to let the pack swallow me up when we hit the next flat section, suck everyone’s back wheel like the draft-strumpet I am, and save myself for the hour of hurt that ends this day. So that’s what I did.
It was a chilly, overcast morning in when we pulled into Glacier before the race. Early too, as a groggy John Clark pointed out from the backseat perhaps every three miles on the drive out. Glenn Gervais drove with Kevin Mills riding shotgun, the four of us doing our duty and carpooling.
At the start, I lined up next to John, a few rows back from the front. John’s a great pal and we’d ridden together a lot during the past few months, including three or four reconnaissance rides up the mountain. Next to John, coincidently enough (it will turn out) was Noel Phillips, who I noted was sporting a spiffy new carbon Scott CR1. Pretty. Noel is a super fast runner and last year, when I passed him on that final 10-mile climb I remember being impressed; I knew that the day before he’d run the Fairhaven Runners Waterfront 15K in just over an hour.
The race underway, things went surprisingly smoothly, the first few little climbs stretching out the pack. I did my little lead thing (alluded to earlier) and noticed that Noel and I seemed to be leapfrogging one another. Sure is a good rider for a runner, I thought every time I saw him.
Skip ahead to that final 10-mile hill, the one that climbs 3,000 feet and seems to break just about that many hearts and lungs in the process. It’s what first comes to mind when you think of the Mount Baker Hill Climb. As the pack passed the D.O.T. shed in the last flat stretch before the hill, many riders began hooting and hollering to psyche themselves up. It reminded me of the way Shakespearean characters always have some stirring speech or cry to steel themselves for battle. (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother …”)
As with the first climb, when the pack slowed, I maneuvered to the outside, pedaled hard for a few moments and, save for two riders about 150 yards in the distance, found nothing but open road ahead of me.
“You go for it, Mike!” Noel yelled. Which I thought was sweet. Not only is he a good rider for a runner, but he’s an encouraging one too. I made a mental note to wait around for him after I finish to tell him how much I appreciated his words.
I never turn around when I ride, but I gathered from what I could hear—it was a very chatty group, by the way—a handful of riders went with me including John, his co-worker Mark Harrison, Noel and a few others. Vern Latta, who took third in last year’s race, and one other rider (sorry, I never caught his name) were the duo ahead of us and soon we were on their wheels.
In not too much time, it was down to about four or five of us: Vern, John, Noel, me, and there might have one or even two other riders. There was some jockeying back and forth, a couple times when John and I considered teaming up on some killer breakaway (as if), but for the most part, that’s how it stayed for the rest of the painful climb.
Except … that somewhere on the way up the mountain, Noel got away. Not in some dramatic Landis-esque Stage 17 breakaway (my ideal of it, that is), but rather he just kind of drifted away; as if we’d grown apart. (Was it something we said, Noel?) But he never disappeared. Noel was always right there in our field of vision, like a smudge on your sunglasses that you can’t wipe off.
So then it was Noel by himself and a pack of four or five chasing him. Vern did a lot of the heavy lifting—I remember at one point John said, “I’d take a pull if I could but I can’t get up there”—until we approached the upper ski lodge with about three miles to go when it was every rider for himself.
Riding like this—in the red zone at the edge of my physical abilities—is seriously stressful. Mentally draining too. Winning this thing, or equally enticing, actually finishing ahead of John Clark in a race, was somewhat within my grasp and to someone not used to that (moi) it made the mountain feel twice as steep. I don’t consider myself particularly gutless, but there were times when the thought occurred to me that if the god of flat tires were to descend upon me, leaving me broken and busted by the side of the road, I wouldn’t have been too terribly disappointed.
Just below the upper ski lodge, there are flat spots around Highwood and Picture lakes that mislead one into thinking that they’re getting really close to Artist Point and that the climb must be easier the rest of the way. Nah.
Even more cruel is the stretch just past the Heather Meadows Visitor Center, where you head due north for a few hundred yards. At first it’s almost flat and you might even get up to 15 or18 miles per hour. But when the road abruptly hairpins south, the grade increases tenfold. (At least, that’s what it seems like.) I always feel like I’m pedaling through glue at this point; it’s the sole reason that within the previous month, both John and I replaced our rear cassettes with ones that have an easy, glue strip-friendly 27-tooth gear.
With about 2K to go, just before the Lake Ann Trailhead, John got past me on one of the final turns and started pulling away. I tried everything I could to get on his wheel, but it wasn’t gonna happen. About the only reaction I could muster was, “Oh look, there goes John. He’s wearing blue today. Goes well with his black carbon frame.” We were deep in the glue trip and it was all I could do to keep moving forward.
Just ahead of John was Noel—steady, consistent, and riding scared, he told me later. He won in 1:43:35; John was 11 seconds back at 1:43:46. I came in third at 1:44:02.
Once across the finish line, I quickly found John. We high-fived, hugged and laughed like crazy at what we’d just been through. We were brothers.
We and everyone else who made it up the mountain that day.
We happy few.
We band of brothers.