This August a crew of MIT cyclists headed up to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to take on Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeast. The auto road that ascends its steep slopes is only open to bicycles one day of the year, and these cyclists couldn’t pass up an opportunity like that. Here is Hannah’s account of the weekend:
This year’s Mt Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb ended up being a wonderful MIT Cycling Club reunion full of hanging out, feasting, and on-the-bike suffering up one of the most intense and picturesque roads in the northeast.
On August 20, the Tin Mountain Conservation Center hosted their 49th ride up the 7.6 mile long, 12% climb to the top of the highest point in the white mountains. Full disclosure, I *did not ride* because this is way more suffering than I wanted to sign up for, but alumni Caitlin, Carolyn, Delia and Tori, current coach Robbie and former coach Erik all thought it was a good idea. For some, it was a farewell to New England, others had come back to ride “the rock pile”: a bucket list item that COVID had postponed. For everyone, it was a personal test of how hard they could push themselves. This post is to celebrate their perseverance, to share photos from the beautiful day on a peak that is known for its terrible weather, and to appreciate the past and present MIT Cycling community.
The “Auto Road” opened in 1861 and last year, Travis Pastrana averaged 80 mph on his record breaking drive to the summit. For the bicycle hill climb this year, former professional Philip Gaimon averaged 9 mph up the hill, demonstrating that cars are, in fact, faster than bicycles. The lanterne rouge rider (last rider to finish) finished in 3:20 hours at an average of 2.3 mph.
The cyclists are not allowed to ride down the mountain so a community of support drivers head to the top before the race to chauffeur the descent. After dropping off our riders, Joanna, Anne, puppy Rosie, and I headed up the 7 miles to the finish while the riders completed their final chaotic prep at the base. Even though you cross the line at less than five miles an hour, the riders were given 8 different number stickers to put on themself, their bike, their helmet and who knows what else. In addition to number placement, there was also the existential question of figuring out why in the world they had signed up for the race…
The scene on the top of the mountain felt like something you see on TV out of the Alps in the Tour de France. There was chalk all over the road with riders’ names and words of encouragement. Spectators lined the final few switchbacks where riders could hit a 40% grade if they picked the wrong line. Parents, partners, friends, and a few bewildered through-hikers made up the enthusiastic crowd cheering on the summiting riders summiting the mountain.
One benefit of having such a big community of MIT riders was that the action at the top (and the bottom!) started early for us. Sarah, Dmitro, Nic, and Sophie woke up at 4:30AM to hike Mt. Washington and catch former coach Erik cross the line.
Fortunately, they made it with 15 minutes to spare and we walked down the road slightly to be more recognizable in the crowd. Just as we were debating where to stand, Erik and Phil came around the corner and into view. Erik had hoped for his 3rd win at the race but unfortunately “the wall” at the end (a hundred foot long 25% grade section) got the best of him, and Phil finished just seconds ahead. That said, Erik was probably the real winner here since the finish line tape holders had a bit of a mishap and clotheslined Phil.
We reconvened with Anne, Joanna, and Rosie at the top, and a few minutes later got to cheer on Coach Robbie. He crossed the line slightly slower than he hoped but still way faster than I could have. Tori, Caitlin and Carolyn were next, all crossing within a minute of each other.
Joanna and I had discussed getting flags and noisemakers to run alongside the riders at the end but ended up just waving our hands enthusiastically. Delia finished off the day for our group, placing in the top 40% for the women in the race. She later titled her Strava ride “the worst thing I’ve ever done on a bicycle.” She stands by this title, claiming that gathering in a New England AirBnB with this grouping of people now triggers a fight-or-flight reaction due to the “hours of suffering she has experienced at Joanna’s encouragement.”
But regardless of how bad the time on the bike was, we all had a great time off the bike. Whether it was celebrating simply being at the top of the climb, laughing at the gearing choices made, or cooling off in a stream, the weekend certainly had more highs than lows.
So will MIT be back in future years? The answer is a resounding “yes”. Carolyn commented that part of the fun this year was going in with “zero expectations” and still being able to pull off a ride she felt proud of. Caitlin and Tori were both relieved after less-than-ideal-preparation was still able to carry them up the mountain, but also left curious how things could go under different circumstances. Delia is not sure if she will ever climb Mt. Washington again, but recognizes that she is incredibly susceptible to peer pressure and would probably do anything Carolyn, Tori, Caitlin, or Joanna ask her to do.
For the 2022 spectators, we still have the luxury of coming in blind. Dmitro and I are skeptical that the ride will ever be in our futures. After Nic recovers from his sunburn, he says he’ll consider it. Sarah was stoked after this year’s experience and inspired to ride “both from seeing our kickass women crush it, but also from seeing the diversity of riders making it up the road (age and fitness level)!”
I am a newer member of the cycling club (2022-??) and I am so glad I found this supportive and welcoming group of people. Hanging out with so many alumni over the weekend reaffirmed to me how supporting each other’s cycling goals (no matter how ridiculous) builds a community that endures during our time on campus and beyond.
Photo credits: Anne, Caitlin, Carolyn, Dmitro, Joanna, Hannah, Sarah