With some 750-plus cyclists on Sunday pedaling up and down the last 24.5 miles of the Mount Baker Highway from Glacier to Artist Point you can be sure there were 750 mini-dramas being acted out. This is mine.
I’ve ridden the Mount Baker Hill Climb five of the six times it’s been held; the only one I’ve missed was the epic cold and rainy one of ‘04 because I had to work. (Really, I did. I went mountain biking down in Southwest Washington and wrote a story about it for The Seattle Times.)
That first year (’03) I weighed about 175 and rode a 20-year-old steel bike. I finished in 2:16. Over the years, I’ve upgraded to a much lighter aluminum bike, speedy Mavic SL wheels, and this year, to an even lighter all-carbon bike: a Specialized Tarmac Pro which fairly makes me drool just thinking about it. Meanwhile, my weight’s been downgraded to the mid- to low-160s.
Still, I wanted to go lower. (Not in the name of anorexia, certainly, but when you have a 24-mile race that climbs some 4,300 feet, being as light as possible on race day seems to me as important as any intervals you do ahead of time.) So I was pretty stoked when three days before this year’s race I stepped on the scale and saw 157. I probably haven’t been in the ‘50s since the ‘80s. This was looking good.
So was the weather. Good god, but does Charlie (race director Charlie Heggem) luck out or what? Not a cloud in the sky, no wind and temps just about perfect—mid- to high-60s. The week before I’d ridden to Artist Point and froze me tuchus off on the way back down—it was misty and cold with temps probably high 40s. Brutal.
But enough of my build-up; on to the race.
For me this one was eerily similar to two years ago, when buddy, riding partner, and tuffest race mo-fo I know, John Clark, and I ended up second and third in the Rec division, he pipping me near the end to finish just behind winner Noel Phillips. (Read about that race here: http://mcqview.blogspot.com/2006/09/yet-more-on-mount-baker-hill-climb.html.) He surprised the heck out of me because on just about every pre-ride to Artist Point, I’d drop him early on the Power House Hill, wait for him once we were down the other side, then drop him again once we started the big 10-mile climb to Artist Point. So on raceday, two years ago, he freaked me out when he rode right on my shoulder the whole way, except for when he stood, mashed the pedals a few times and zipped on past me with about a half-mile to the finish. But we race Competitive now where, though there’s no chance of finishing second and third, the exact same scenario was setting itself up. But the element of surprise was gone. Despite his pre-race b**ching and moaning about how he was dreading the race, how he hadn’t been riding, how he was fat, etc. , I suspected that once the race started he’d be right there.
So when I got to the top of the three-kilometer long, 600-foot-high Power House Hill (or in Mike McQuaide parlance, the Nooksack Falls Hill) which I rode very hard, I was not surprised to hear his familiar breathing. (You ride and run with someone as often as John and I do and you’re able to pick out their breathing from 20-strong peloton.) He pulled up next to me and smiled. Nothing malicious. Nothing in-your-face. Just, hey, nice day for a ride, huh?
Good for you, John, was my first thought. But that thought was quickly replaced by, “You dirty, rotten son-of-a-b****, you’re never going to let me beat you at anything, are you?!” Thankfully, that stinkin’ thinkin’ was only momentary and I returned to focusing on the task at hand.
Last year, I finished at 1:39 (a 37-minute improvement from first race in '03) and this year was shooting—whether realistically or unrealistically—for 1:35. The Competitive race started out fast and it’s always that question of how and when do you burn your matches. If you’re going for a time, you want to latch on to some fast wheels for the flatter parts, but not so fast that you overexert yourself trying to hang on. What this race gets down to is about 12 miles of steady climbing--about 2 miles up the Power House, 10 up to Artist Point--where really, it’s up to the individual to come up with the goods.
In the early miles of the race, I could see up ahead of me that riders had split into two big groups, maybe with 25 or 30 in each. First, there were the really fast guys—eventual winners, record-breakers, and $4,000 taker-homers, Ian McKissick and Leah Goldstein—followed by the second group who wished they were up with the first bunch but were probably riding faster than they should be. They were burning matches left and right.
Then there was us. Hard to say how many; I had such tunnel vision, wanted to focus on nothing but riding strong, steady, and safe. Noel was there, as was John, some dude in a Jack’s Bicycle Shop shirt (who unfortunately would later break his chain about halfway up the big climb and end up running for a bit carrying his bike until he was able to borrow a chain tool from someone), and maybe 10 or 12 others. We hit the D.O.T. shed in about 41 minutes and then it was go time—the 10.5-mile, 3,000-foot climb to Artist Point. The dramatic standing and stomping escapes in the Tour de France are exciting as hell to watch but on an hour-long hill like this, they’d be suicide. I’d burn every last match all at once, along with the cover and tips of my fingers. So I didn’t do that. Rather, I just treated it like what it was from that point on: an uphill time trial. If I could find someone to draft off that fit my rhythm exactly, fine. If not, I’d just ride my own pace and leapfrog my way up if the opportunity presented itself.
I think some people were on my wheel (I didn’t turn around; I wanted all my focus to be on moving forward) and soon enough we starting passing and scooping up the folks who’d started out too quick. John’s breathing seemed to come and go and every once in a while, he’d say something like “This is it, Mike. Last time up the mountain this year,” or “Damn, if only Scott (Young) was here, this’d be perfect.” I’d answer in kind when I could and was a little surprised when just below the ravens at the White Salmon Day Lodge (the halfway point of the big climb), Noel pulled up next to me. This was too freaky. Two years ago, Noel, John and I finished one-two-three in the Rec race and here we all were again.
Just after the ravens is my favorite stretch of this ride. The road opens to the right (north) and before you is the stunning ridge of peaks: Tomyhoi, Yellow Aster Butte, Mount Larrabee, Goat Mountain, etc. On a day this past May when my sister called to say that our ill dad was likely to pass on in a few hours , I rode my bike from the D.O.T. shed to Artist Point twice as kind of a tribute to him. He got me into being the outdoor-ish guy I am and thus every time now when I ride this stunning stretch, with its mountains and meadows, it puts me in mind of him. No more so than it did Sunday. Simply, I was overcome.
Like some nut, I blew kisses and peace signs to the ridge and yelled something to the effect of, “This is why we do this!” (The beauty, the mountain, the freedom, I think I meant.) I felt like I could fly. Though the road steepens here, I hammered it and heard John’s fading voice behind me yell, “Go, get ‘em Mike!” At last, I’d snapped the imaginary elastic that'd attached him to my back wheel. I kept up a good pace ‘til I noticed my heart monitor beginning to tickle 180 so I latched on to this Colnago shirt-Rabobank shorts dude who pulled me to Picture Lake just below the upper ski lodge.
And then, oddly, ... I heard this familiar breathing. And out of the corner of my eye, I saw the yellow and black of John’s Fairhaven Bike Racing Team kit. “WTF?!” and similar thoughts flitted through my mind. Two years ago when we were in this situation--John riding my wheel as we got closer and closer to the end--the mental stress was almost two much to bear. Just pass me John, and get it over with, I remember thinking and when finally, he did, I was almost relieved. This past Sunday, though, was different. It wasn’t that I didn’t care if he passed me, I was just really focused on riding the best time I could. As close to 1:35 as possible. And I knew that the best way to do that was to ride it strong and steady with no dramatic attacks that’d feel heroic for about eight seconds but which, after the 45 minutes of climbing we’ve been doing, would leave my quads and hamstrings all seized up with no place to go.
With about a mile and a half left, Colnago-Rabobank guy pulled us up the hairpin turn where Death was hanging out. (Someone in a long robe and a mask like the Scream painting; I heard later that it was Stewart Bowmer, Fanatik race team head honcho.)
“Don’t let me beat you!” John yelled, still riding my back wheel. “You’ve been pulling me up this whole mountain.”
“And I’ll pull you all the way to the top, it doesn’t matter to me,” I said. “You’re my friend.”
Which I’m not sure what I meant; maybe I was looking for some kind of altruistic heroism in defeat.
Just after Death, Colnago-Rabobank guy jumped and broke away from us.
“Go get him! Attack!” John yelled.
I thought, No. Then I thought, Yes! I stood and went after him to John’s encouraging yells. And almost immediately felt the protestations from my quads and hamstrings. I sat back down and let Colnago-Rabobank guy go. He was probably 15 years younger than us anyway.
Thing is, I still felt strong. If I could just keep spinning, ride my own race, I thought maybe I’d be fine. John and I passed through the turn where he got me two years ago, but this time nothing happened—he didn’t zoom past. I rode steady, John hanging on my wheel and just ahead we could see the final straightaway to Artist Point. Probably a quarter-mile, really steep, really painful but oh-so-welcome at this point.
Rounding that last turn it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard his breathing for a few moments, but there was no way I was turning around—focus forward, focus forward, I told myself. Now I went into finish mode—stand and pedal for 10, sit for 10, stand for 10, sit for 10.With about 200 meters to the finish, I heard, then saw Jen and Bake banging their cowbell and cheering me on. I listened intently: was their “Go Mike! Go Mike” followed immediately by a “Go, John!” or was there a little time gap between the two? Unless I was mistaken, I could've sworn there was maybe eight to 10 seconds between them. Was I--dare I even think it?--pulling away from him?Just up ahead, I saw Craig Bartlett and again listened for any interval between cheers. Though Craig cheered with some urgency, I got the sense it was more because the finish line was just around the corner than because John was coming back to me. Entering the final flat 25 meters--when Mount Baker, for whom I named my son, comes into view for the first time--I finally turned around and saw two other riders, but not John. I’d done it. I’d held him off.
Which, of course, mattered to me not at all—I’m not the completive type—but for some reason I found myself so ridiculously relieved, pumped and excited that I crossed the finish line riding no-handed while doing my best Alejandro Valverde victory pose. (See Valverde finish pose a few entries below.) As the race photo shows (http://www.photoreflect.com/pr3/orderpage.aspx?pi=0KXN000J020499&po=499) I'd have done well to have zipped up my cool Quick Step rainbow jersey first.
Afterward, John and I hugged and laughed at the ridiculous pain and good times we put ourselves through. When I wrote this, results weren’t up yet, but we were about 1:37-something with maybe 10 or 12 seconds between us.
That’s my race report. I’ve got other comments, observations that I’ll probably write later this week.
To read my race report on the 2007 Ride 542, go here: (http://mcqview.blogspot.com/2007/09/ride-542-07.html.)