Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Friday, August 31, 2012

Getting my Mt Washington Fix

Regular readers know that the pixie fixie (that's the bike) was due to make another appearance at Mt Washington this year for the bike race up to the top. Leading up to the ride, the Fixie Pixie (that's me) tried to get back into proper fixie mode. I admit that I have been a bit shifty since late spring, with lots of long hilly rides with gears, but starting the first of August, I pulled out my road fixie and rode it a lot. Then I borrowed a belt-drive bike set up as fixed and test rode it for a week. And I raced the pixie fixie up Mt.  Equinox to test out my new slightly higher gear. So by the time August 18th rolled around I was definitely back in a state of not knowing how to shift.

It's been an action packed year, with lots of long distance rides, as well as a few hill climbs. I got a good kick-start with the Strava-Specialized climbing challenge back in the spring, and continued to do lots of climbing in the longer events. My first hill-climb race of the year was the Newton's Revenge race up Mt Washington.  I was finally persuaded to give gears another chance, and ended up having a pretty good race with gears, taking 5 minutes off my previous best time. But I really wanted to have another go on fixed. After all, I tell folks that fixed is actually an advantage.

But I'll admit that to take pressure off myself, I started saying the opposite. It's a little mind game I play so I can sleep the night before a big event. I'm not really racing. I don't care about placing. I'm just here because I drove John and his bike to the race. I'm just going to ride my bike up the same mountain. He's the one racing.

But apparently, my subconscious had a different idea, and turned my stomach inside out. I felt nauseous before the start, and most of the way up. It didn't make sense. I had already convinced myself that I would be slower than my Newton's time, and that the top three places in my age group would be much faster than I could be.

So why was my gut doing backflips?

At 8:35AM, the tiny cannon fired for the first time. I was across the street and watched the top notch folks, including John, take off like rockets. I still had 15 minutes. I had been warming up on a geared bike. The pixie fixie is geared so low (20X19), that it is pretty well impossible to ride on anything other than a steep climb, so I warm up on a different bike.  I headed back to the car to get the pixie fixie, pack away the warmup bike, and most importantly,  pack away my sunglasses. I'd just gotten a new pair of prescription sunglasses, and did not want to break them like I did the last time I forgot to leave them in the car! Then I locked up and headed over to the start.

The first group to start is the top notch racers, those who have previously finished in less than 1:20. The second group is for folks aged 20-34, then a 35-44 wave. The final group is 45+, tandems, unicycles and juniors. This group is usually almost half the total field. So they break this group into two, but not by age, but rather alphabetically, so one can be racing against folks who have started 5 minutes before or after. Even split, these two groups are still quite large and extend well beyond the steel grate bridge. It is really unpleasant for me having to start on that bridge. I really wish they would break this group up more and do it by category.

Anyway, there I was on the bridge, trying to suppress the butterflies and chatting with a few friends. The tiny cannon goes off for our wave, and folks hammer off the front. I manage to get started and twiddle my teeny gear down the little hill and across the flat section for a few hundred yards before the road finally pitches up. I'm the last rider in my wave to start up the actual climb, but very quickly I start passing folks as I twiddle that little gear up the hill. The first half mile can be a bit tricky as folks blow shifts and fall over or weave across the road, but I just take it easy and make my way through until I finally get some space and open road ahead. Well there was never truly open road. I had cyclists to pace off the whole way up the climb.

5 minutes in, I heard the teeny cannon again signalling the start of the final wave of riders. It seemed to take the first folks from that wave no time at all to catch and pass me. Riders from different start waves have different colored numbers so I could tell whether I was catching someone from an earlier wave or someone from a later wave was catching me.

I've gotten to know many of the women who do the series over time and thought I knew who was in my age group. I saw Amanda ahead of me, but I was certain she was in a younger age group. But wait, I'd already ruled out any thoughts of placing in my age group. Why was I thinking of these things? Darn, it seems that no matter how much I say I'm not competitive and that I'm not really racing it, I do have a suppressed racer inside struggling hard to get out. And she was struggling so much that I thought for sure I was going to puke her out! But I just did my best to ride below what I call the VO-puke threshold, but still maintain enough momentum to get the bike up the climb.

As I passed riders, some noticed my lack of derailleur and offered compliments and encouragement. I noticed many of them were in a similar gear, and were foolishly carrying an extra 19 gears, excess chain and derailleurs and shifters. Honestly, this mountain is quite optimal for a fixed gear. The gradient really doesn't change much. After the first half mile, most folks are stuck in the same gear for the rest of the ride. Might as well not carry the weight of all the other gears up the mountain!

I thought back to a conversation I'd had a few weeks prior. I had been asked, "What do you think about while you climb?" This time, my mind was blank. I really wasn't thinking at all, just letting my body do what I'd taught it to do, push these pedals around in circles, and keep the bike aimed uphill. I didn't even have a song stuck in my head.

I did have a small GPS mounted, but without my glasses,  reading the data was tough. At times, I make out the average speed, and the elapsed time. I watched the average speed settle down to 5 mph. And I watched the elapsed time spin by.

I hit the dirt section that signifies 5 mile grade. I worried briefly about my gearing choice, but I managed to keep the pedals going around. Thankfully it was a much calmer day than in July when the winds were so strong that I was practically being blown sideways and backwards.

By this stage most folks had settled into finishing order, although I would still occasionally catch someone and a rider from the last wave would occasionally pass me. One of those was 17 year old Rachel Chambers, who started 5 minutes back and had enough breathe to chat a bit as she danced past looking like it was effortless! Ah youth.

Copyright, Leo Kenney Photography.

My average pace stayed steady at 5mph though, and I began to realize that despite my sick stomach, that I might actually post a good time. Then I caught Amanda, but then the road flattened out and she passed me while I spun wildly. Then it pitched back up. I think we did another back and forth, but then she put in a good spurt and got ahead definitively. I didn't worry - not my age group!

Then I heard the sounds of the top, the announcer, the cowbells, the cheering. People were yelling encouraging words. You're almost there. Keep going.

Traffic around me had thinned. I looked back and saw there was no one close behind me. This was important because I always hop off and run/walk the final steep pitch. For me it's just more efficient, and I'm just so paranoid about blowing up or falling over that mentally I can't get myself to stay on the bike. But I don't want to mess up someone else's line by hopping off in front of them. So I check that it's clear first.

I was also looking around in the crowd for John, but didn't see him.

I hopped off a bit early, ran a bit harder than I should have and was a bit winded when I got to the flatter part at the top. But the gear is so low it is pointless to get back on, so I kept running/walking to the line. And I saw the numbers 1:45:12, 1:45:13, 1:45:14, 1:45:15, 1:45:16, 1:45:17, 1:45:18, ... my goodness... it took forever to get across the finish line, but I finally did as the clock ready 1:45:19. Take off 15 minutes, since my wave started 15 minutes after the clock and that meant 1:30:19. I had just taken another 4 minutes off my time from July, with a sick stomach no less!

And the handicap of a single gear!

I collapsed and tried to get the heart rate down. I don't doing any training for running, and the running at the end had pushed me over the top. I really must start doing some running, or learn how to climb that last bit. I eventually felt well enough to stand up and go look for my hilltop bag. As I came around the corner I saw Erik and Regina with my bag AND John's. Uhoh... Why did they still have John's bag? Erik told me something had gone terribly wrong with John's bike, but he wasn't sure what. I was starting to get really chilled, so I grabbed my bag and headed up to change clothes. Just then I spied John. he told me a bit of the story, which I will let him relay in his own posting, coming soon.

Results are here

It turned out that Amanda is indeed in my age group, and edged me out for the podium! But 4th isn't half bad. Especially since I wasn't really racing. Yeah, right!

I do keep suggesting they add a fixed gear category. Maybe if all the fixie riders out there lobby them...


  1. We'll have to wait for the drug tests to come back, but provisional congratulations seem to be in order! Just think, one extra gear and you would have landed on the podium. And thus the 2-speed fixie was born...

  2. So impressive! Jim Duncan