Baltimorean takes on Lanterne Rouge in toughest bike climb on earth

I signed up for the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb in New Hampshire –called “the world’s most difficult feat in uphill cycling” by Smithsonian —mostly to train for the equally brutal SavageMan 70.0 Triathlon, named “The Hardest Race on Earth” by Triathlete magazine.

I’d wanted to test my masochistic limits at SavageMan in Appalachian Western MD, since hearing about it years ago and was registered for it in 2014, yet deferred. I’d failed to prepare sufficiently for the 6,700+ feet of climbing on its bike course and figured that training (and paying $400) to go up Mt. Washington this year would compel me not to put off SavageMan any longer. At 6,288 feet, Mt. Washington is the highest peak in the Northeast.

With no serious bike climbing experience, my goals on Mt. Washington’s 11.9 percent grade, 7.6-mile auto road were straightforward: finish without getting hurt or feeling more miserable than necessary, and ride my bike all the way up without having to dismount and push it. (Truth is, most reasonably fit great-grandmothers could walk up the Mt. Washington Auto Road while pushing a bike. Cycling up seemed the more significant achievement.)

How steep is a road grade of 11.9 percent?

If covered with snow or ice, many people would slip or fall walking up. To climb it, motor vehicles must be in first or second gear. And no cyclist may—after this race or at any other time—descend the Mt. Washington Auto Road. It’s just too steep for most bikes and riders to handle, and going off the edge could easily be fatal. Washington also has sustained sections of 18-22 percent grade plus a precipitous mile of packed gravel with loose stones, making traction a challenge on skinny road bike tires.

Doubting that I could even complete the climb, I found inspiration in a book review an uncle sent me of Max Leonard’s Lanterne Rouge, a history of the last cyclist to finish the Tour de France in various years. Such riders are wryly dubbed the lanterne rouge, in reference to the red lantern that hung on the last car of old trains.
As one reviewer put it, “We fans know that there is no dishonour in finishing last, for we know that the lanterne rouge is really the last rider who did not fall along the way, not the rider who finished last. As such he represents for us all those who did not make it…”

I came across many of the latter during my ascent…those brave enough to try and likely determined to return and have another go.

In addition, not worrying about being last would help me relax during the climb, avoid injury, and take in the sublime scenery of the White Mountains more than if striving to shave seconds off my time. Also on my mind was philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s exhortation to live according to self-generated values, rather than the values of others (in this case, others who cycled fast). What I valued was completing the climb without undue misery, no matter where I placed.

The night before the race, I chatted with a friendly Lutheran pastor from Massachusetts, who had completed the race a year before with similar snail-like goals. He said that last year, many riders bolted off the starting line only to be passed by him in the first miles, their energy spent.

He also confirmed what I’d long assumed: that doing the “paperboy”—cycling in an S-shape as if delivering papers to different sides of a street—would help counter the unrelentingly steep grade when the going really got tough. His story was especially moving because he had done the race despite a fear of heights…Mt. Washington has many vertiginous views, with no guardrails to prevent falls.

Dineen at summit of Mt. Washington
Dineen at summit of Mt. Washington

On race morning, I immediately noticed that all the serious-looking riders were on stripped-down road bikes with tiny front chain rings and large rear cassettes. This offered many low-gear options. To reduce weight and and enhance climbing efficiency, these bikes had only one brake and derailleur.

I was on my relatively heavy, entry-level triathlon bike, with its two brakes, two derailleurs, and large, superfluous aerobars—all adding extra weight, along with the many extra pounds I carried around my soft midsection, my stockiness an inauspicious contrast to the 135-pound elite male cyclists on hand. I was right down there with the loony also-rans on tandems, heavy mountain bikes…even unicycles.

Last over the starting line, I began the race with a young unicyclist and his middle-aged road-biker dad. When I asked about his background, he turned out not to be a carnival performer, but rather a novice unicyclist. He fell hard on his rear a few seconds later (as he did several times after), yet remained chipper as he remounted. I found this chipperness momentarily threatening: Did he and his father plan to stay in the race despite the falls and achieve lanterne rouge? Soon enough, they sped up and I was out of danger.

I also passed a guy who fell off his mountain bike with what looked like a broken crank. Not sure if he got back in the race. Then came the most dramatic mishap of the day. I heard a crash ahead and saw a bearded, portly fellow resembling a 19th-century sea captain fall right off the edge of the road. I went over to see what I could do, as he lay 15 feet down the tree-covered slope, unharmed. He pulled himself and his bike up with a grin, declaring: “First tragedy of the day!”

My plan was to use my two lowest gears the whole way, trying to stay in second (34×32) as long as possible, until feeling compelled to go down to first (34×36). This resolution lasted less than a mile, as I soon understood why most riders had, unlike me, wisely fitted their bikes with even lower gears.

I worried that I might not make it pedaling in a straight line, even in first gear, up the steeper stretches of 15 percent plus. So I tried reducing the grade by resorting to “the paperboy,” turning in repeated S patterns. This helped tremendously once I found my rhythm and optimal turning width. I actually began to enjoy the climb, confident that I’d make it to the top as long as I took it easy.

Even in these first miles, several riders were dropping out or already pushing their bikes up the road. I suppose “pushers” should be allowed to collect a finisher’s medal. But somehow pushing instead of riding violated the spirit of the climb to me. The race is called the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb, after all, not “…Bicycle (and Bicycle-Pushing) Hillclimb.”

That said, I did stop several times for less than a minute to stretch my back, the lower part of which started aching. But stopping briefly is a different category of break-taking than spending lots of time pushing. Should stopping be illegal? It would be nearly impossible for officials to monitor, and one can hardly imagine a cyclist being disqualified for stopping to address a flat tire or drivetrain issue.

But pushing is more problematic. I’m reasonably sure I could have finished faster by combining cycling with walking or running (while pushing or carrying my bike) than by cycling only. Race organizers ought to consider this matter. I mean, can you really claim that you “cycled up Mt. Washington” if you pushed your bike half the distance? Still, with a $400 entry fee, I can imagine the fury of someone disqualified for doing anything short of hitching his bike to a car or balloon to reach the coveted peak.

I soon noticed a white-haired fellow who pushed his bike for about a mile. I caught up and heard him talking to a race official, saying that he had finished the race 16 times in past years but needed to drop out that day. He was wearing a POW-MIA jersey and, given his age, I asked if he had any connection to the Vietnam War. He turned out to have served there in the late 1960s, and I told him my father had died there in 1967. He graciously said he appreciated his sacrifice, and I rode on.

Then I saw another rider walking his bike down the mountain, his expensive gear indicating he was no newbie. I asked if he had a mechanical problem. “No, I’ve just had it—can’t handle the hill.”

This was only Mile 3 out of 7.6, and soon I saw another gentleman (this race had far more males than females…midlife crisis, anyone? ) on a humble bike in a marginal outfit. He was laboring mightily, barely able to turn his crank as he did a (drunken) paperboy pattern. I noticed that his chain was on the larger of his two front rings and asked if he was saving his small ring for the steepest grades.

“Does using the small ring make pedaling easier?” he asked with utter sincerity.
“Yeah, definitely!” I replied, shocked that anyone taking on this mountain wouldn’t know something so basic.
“Great, maybe I’ll try it.”

I realized then that at least one other cyclist was less prepared than I.

More uplifting was the image of the youngest rider in the race, a 12-year-old boy doing the event with his 16-year-old sister (I talked to them before the start). His sister apparently far ahead, Alex from Brookline, MA, was doing the paperboy and occasionally pushing his bike. He and I were within sight of each other for most of the climb.

The road headed above tree line around Mile 4.5, as a crisp breeze arose along with miles of sublime views. The thick forests of hardwoods, spruces, and firs that had surrounded me on the way up gave way to stark gray slopes of boulders, rubble, and occasional cairns.

Then came the mile-long section of packed gravel road with loose stones. On my thin tires, the reduced traction made steering in an S shape risky. Good thing that fellow had fallen off the road at the beginning of the race rather than here, where he would have crashed into jagged rocks instead of greenery.

As I fought to do a controlled paperboy, 12-year-old Alex fell over, but quickly got up. I rode over and asked if he needed anything to drink or eat (I consumed a half-gallon of liquids and half a nutrition bar in total), and he said thanks but no. He was remarkably stoical for a pre-teen. His father, who had done the race for the last 15 years, appeared on foot between Miles 5 and 6, and proceeded to walk beside Alex all the way to the finish. The boy neither fell off his bike nor resorted to pushing it after his dad turned up.

This father wasn’t like those often found crudely haranguing children at soccer or football games; instead, he strode beside Alex calmly suggesting how best to manage his cadence, how to approach various grades, etc. More parents ought to have his attitude when kids are giving their all during sporting events.

I saw the outlines of the summit when I reached Mile 6. The weather remained ideal on this exposed part of the mountain—cloudy enough to obscure the sun but with none of the rain and 50 MPH winds that had pummeled riders in recent editions of the race.

I soon came across the saddest rider of all sitting on some rocks by the road. He looked in good shape with high-end gear, but his bike was lying on its side in front of him as he leaned back, propped on his elbows. I thought he may have been waiting for mechanical help.

“Do you have a flat?”
“No, it’s my legs that are flat!”
“You’re so close to the top. What if you rested and tried riding later?”
“I’m done.”

My legs were nearly done, too. With about a half-mile to go, I saw the final, curved section of road and the austere Sherman Adams Summit Building, looming over the valley like a huge concrete gun battery.

Race custom held that no motor vehicles were permitted to descend the Auto Road until all riders had finished. But a few bike-laden cars did start coming down, people in them shouting encouragement to me as they passed. Seemingly thrilled as they were for me, these were cheers partly of relief—they could at last leave the chilly summit after three hours of waiting.

With 12-year-old Alex about 100 feet behind me, I decided to let him pass after I’d gotten up the last, very steep section of road near the finish line. I would then be officially last, and avoid saddling a young boy with what he’d likely consider a dubious distinction.

Throngs of screaming people stood around the final steep hill (22 percent grade), which had some flat road above it before the finish. My plan was to paperboy up the tough grade and wait at the top as Alex passed. As I gritted my teeth and stood up from my saddle for leverage, a barefoot spectator came up and started pushing my back, only then asking,

“Do you want me to push you?”
“No, but thanks anyway.”
“I can push you!”

He was just clowning around on a festive occasion, but I am not a touchy-feely person and so told him, with some irritation, to back off. He did, but not before I started tipping over and had to unclip from my pedals to avoid falling completely. Angry as I was, I smiled as Alex came up the slope; I let him go by and finish his ordeal.

Unable to clip my shoes in on the severe grade, it was then my turn to push…about 10 feet to the flat stretch where I remounted and crossed the nearby finish line (which was immediately pulled up and packed away by shivering volunteers).

It took me awhile to decompress and take in the electric atmosphere of the summit, but I soon felt elated that I’d finished without major calamity. I walked over to congratulate Alex, who was sitting by his bike changing his shoes. He looked up at me, slightly dazed and still stoical. He may have been as happy to have avoided being Lanterne Rouge as I was satisfied with the droll title.