I had just arrived in Vancouver for my Masterís degree, and I gave Dana Mersich, of Georgian Bay Nordic and UBC Nordic fame, a call. She welcomed me to Vancouver and then convinced me to leave Vancouver for a bicycle race. Despite assuring her that I had never done a bicycle race before, and that I needed to move into my apartment that weekend, she convinced me to go. So, on Friday, I drove to my apartment, threw all my bags of gear into the middle of my floor, put my road bike back on the car, and went and picked Dana up. We were on our way to Mt. Baker, in Washington State, U.S.A.
Mt. Baker is an intimidating hill. It is a volcanic, cone-shaped mountain rising near the Pacific, between Seattle and Vancouver. It stands 10,778 feet high (excuse the Imperial measurements throughout) and is the home of numerous glaciers. Mt. Baker is also a ski area, and has the distinction of holding the world record for snowfall in a single year- 1,140 inches!! The snow didnít melt off the ski hill for two summers after that year, 1998-99. The average snowfall is a mere 645 inches- thatís over 16 metres of snow!
The bike race I had agreed to do was the inaugural Mt. Baker Hill Climb. It was a cancer fundraiser, and was a part of a weekend of events around the seaside town of Bellingham, Wa. The race course was on a road which climbs to a pass between Mt. Baker and nearby Mt. Shuksan, which, at 9,720 feet, is also pretty impressive. The race began in the small but ominously named town of Glacier, and ended at the top of the pass. The course was 24.5 miles long, with a total climb of 4,300 feet and a vertical differential, top to bottom, of 4,000 feet. The first 15 miles of the course are rolling uphills, with two fairly serious climbs (Pinks Lake and Fortune Lake sized). The last nine miles are hard. The average grade over the last nine miles is between 8-9%, and the final three miles are an average grade of 12% with gradients as steep as 15%.
None of this I knew when the race began. I knew only that it climbed, and for a long time. I threw myself into the competitive category, with about 40 other men and women of various ages. The start was fast and fun. The semi-pro teams got away pretty quickly, and the rest of us were in a nice pack. I was having a great time. The first 15 miles flew past. I was working hard, but recovering quickly on the flats and downhills, which there were just enough of. At one point, I asked someone when the big hill started, and they said we had just started it. One of the stronger riders in the group went off the front at the start of the big climb, and I followed him. Soon there were just two of us, me panting at his wheel. The climb was pretty relentless, with long gradual switchbacks. I took a few turns at the front and was feeling great. A few times he stood up and pedaled away, but I, Ullrich-like, just stayed on the seat and came right back up to him. I was feeling like a pro.
I think my legs died with about 6 miles to go. He accelerated again and I could really only watch him pedal away. Thatís ok, I thought, Iím still in front of the main group. I stayed in front of them for a while. At this point, the switchbacks were tighter and I looked back and saw them coming up. I stood up to stay away from them, but, although I wasnít breathing that hard, I couldnít pedal any faster. They flew past me, and left me panting. From then on, it was survival. The last 3 miles were above treeline, and I was treated not only to the impressive sight of the road I had just climbed, but also the even more impressive sight of the progressively steeper switchbacks I had remaining. My pedal strokes were just barely keeping me upright on the steepest sections. I was seriously thinking it might be faster to walk up, but I didnít want to be caught by a video-person. At one point, a straggler passed me and said I had only 1 mile to go. That cheered me up. The last corner was a blind switchback, so I came around it wobbling, only to see the finish line.
The winnerís finishing time was an impossibly fast 1:28. I squeezed home in 1:48, somewhere in the back half of the group. I've never really died like that before, to the point where I wasn't breathing hard but I couldn't go at all. It was a great, albeit very hard, introduction to bike racing. I think next year I might start out a little easier.