USA Cycling Hill Climb National Championships

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The first ever USAC Hill Climb National Championships… spoiler alert on this photo! (Photo – Mellissa Westergard)

I can’t recall how many times I’ve laid in bed and daydreamed what winning a national championship would be like… coming across the line… would I try to post up?  Maybe just one arm up, I’m too clumsy for that two hands off the bars thing.  Finishing with happy tears.  This is what it’d be like for a mountain bike title…. this is what it would be like for a fat bike title… hmmm, unlikely, but a hill climb title.  Wouldn’t it be awesome?  The jersey to wear on Fourth of July, and getting to add the Stars and Stripes to the collar and sleeves of all my kits for the rest of my life.  All of it just sounds so awesome!

I pretty much decided last minute (aka a week out) to do the USAC Hill Climb National Championships.  I debated it most of the summer, and then after a horrid day climbing Mt. Evans, another Colorado 14er with paved road access (followed by another horrid day of attempting to climb Guanella Pass and giving up), I was pretty discouraged by the thought of giving Pikes Peak, a harder 14er climb a go.  Finally I decided what the hell and registered.  I figured if anything I could just mark the second road-bikeable 14er off my list and be done with this climbing nonsense and a season filled with some not so good times. On Wednesday I woke up with a sore throat and stuffy head that persisted all week, so I kicked myself for possibly getting sick so close to a race I already registered for, and one that couldn’t take most cold medicines for.  OK, just survive this…

After spending almost four hours in the car attempting to get to Colorado Springs on a Friday afternoon, I finally arrived to packet pick up, and old teamies Joe and Mike, who had a beer ready for me at the bar.  Pikes Peak was enveloped in stormy clouds as we swapped our thoughts for the next day and got caught up on our lives.  I was starting to get nervous.  What exactly had I gotten myself into?!  I have barely been doing anything that counts as “training,” let alone riding, and had those memories of Mt. Evans in the back of my mind.  The race would follow the PPIHC course (Pikes Peak International Hill Climb… the infamous car race that takes place every year) – 12.4 miles with 4,700 feet of elevation gain and 156 turns.  A 12.4 mile bike race may not seem like anything, but climbing 4,700 feet in that time is pretty damn insane… not to mention the race starts at 9,300 feet and ends up at 14,110 feet!

I surprisingly slept well, and woke up at 4:20am ready to go.  Packed up the car and swung through McDonald’s drive thru (which had a line… at 4:45am?!) for my traditional Number 3 with large Hi-C Orange and large vanilla latte.  The drive up to Pikes Peak Toll Road was uneventful, and I smiled as I railed Mr. Fozzy through the corners.  Pikes Peak is, after all, a special place for me.  It’s where I met the ex that introduced me to cycling… it’s where I saw Paul Walker in person, and was one of the last events I ever photographed as I winded down my racing photography stint.  So driving my turbo SUV like a race car brought me joy among the impending doom of what was coming up.

It was chilly as I aimlessly wandered around with no purpose.  Use the port-a-potty.  Get in my timing chip.  Affix said chip to bike.  Debate clothes.  Eat a third of my egg mcmuffin and get all sad as I had no appetite.  Laugh at Mike throwing up gang signs.  Ride 0.6 miles and call it a warm up.  Finally settle on arm warmers, thermal long sleeve jersey, wind vest, bibs, knee warmers, wool winter socks, and long finger gloves – I thought it was summer, why all the clothes?  Hold my teammate’s bike as she uses the port-a-potty.  Shoot, guess we gotta go race now.

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That mountain in the background? Yeah, that’s where I had to ride my bike to the top of!

Roll up to the start.  There’s three of us, so there’s a 33.33% chance of winning a national championship.  I had let the thoughts roll into my head the week between registration and the race.  I would try to shake them off.  I didn’t want to get myself excited for something that probably wouldn’t happen, much like at fat bike nationals, where it was so close but four minutes away in the end.  The whistle blows and Melissa takes off in a sprint, and I’m left wondering how to get my left foot in my pedal.  UGH.  I didn’t want a fast start.  There’s only so many matches when racing up to 14,000 feet in elevation that you can burn.  But I chased.  I wasn’t going down without a fight.  I tucked into her back wheel.  She was pushing the pace.  After about a mile or so the grade turned up, and I came around her and just kept going.  I just figured I’d just go and see what would happen.  I’d never led in a national championship race except for the 20 seconds I led in the pro race at Fat Bike Nationals.  Another what the hell moment, it’s not like I wouldn’t finish with at least a bronze medal if it all went bad.

The climb to the summit averages 7%, with many much much much steeper portions.  Surprisingly I found myself just trucking along, though I was sad to discover how early I was already in my granny gear (yay compact cranksets and 32t cogs!).  My cadence settled in around the high 60s (big contrast to my normal 90+ rpm), and power in the tempo zone.  I had come to terms that for two hours, or hopefully less, my sole purpose in life was to talk to Paul Walker’s ghost and to pedal my bike nonstop.  Really as simple as that.  Surprisingly, the course was going fast.  I ticked off every mile and gave myself a good ol’ “there ya go, now — miles to go to the top!”  I mean, it was 12.4 miles.  Anybody can do anything for 12.4 miles, right?

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The W’s!

Coming up to the W’s was almost an overwhelming moment for me.  There is was… my corner!  The one I photographed from in 2011!  For a brief second I actually closed my eyes and said “This one’s for you, Paul.”  (If anybody hasn’t figured out that the import car scene pretty much shaped my adult life by now, now you know.  Seriously, I wouldn’t have been riding a bike up Pikes Peak if it wasn’t for all the car stuff.)  The W’s are hard… hell, I had struggled walking up them with 20 pounds of camera gear in 2011… and here I was grinding them out on a bike (which actually did seem easier).  But I knew after the W’s came Devil’s Playground, where for some brief minutes the road flattens out and descends into Bottomless Pit.

This is where I would start riding blind.  I have never been beyond Devil’s Playground.  And I had made the fatal assumption that the road flattened out after Devil’s Playground for good… forgetting the fact it still ascends something like 1,100 feet in a handful of miles.  Bottomless Pit is a teaser… 30mph down I flew to grind 4.5mph up the hill that follows.  It had hit… the wall of doom.  I still had not seen my competitors behind me, which I had checked for as the road switchbacked up, so I knew I had a solid lead, but I also knew that anything can happen at any moment on a bicycle.  I knew I hadn’t been drinking very well, as it’s really hard to drink when your heart rate is 180bpm and you’re focused on pedaling at a steady pace.  So I panic drank some of my Tailwind mix.  I was using the raspberry caffeinated mix, so if anything I was hoping for a caffeine high.  Also to note, I had finally crossed above 13,000 feet in elevation, so it’s quite possible that I just wasn’t moving the oxygen to my muscles that I was needing.  Because 13,000 feet is very high, and it was only the second time in my life I had been at this elevation.  (Side note:  I am very thankful I was born at 7200 feet, raised at nearly 9000 feet, live now at 6200 feet, and race/train at 7000-9000 feet, as moderately high altitude has little effect on me compared to most others.)

At about mile 10 I spotted the familiar blue and yellow kit of Spradley Barr Wind Chill Cycling on the back of Joe… finally, my rabbit!  But I just couldn’t get those legs to turn faster, as my cadence dropped into the 50s, and my heart rate went from north of 180bpm to the 170s.  Elevation… it’s a bitch when it finally does affect you.  Or was it my lack of calories and fluid intake?  Oh hell, just keep pedaling.  WHY ARE THE FINAL MILES SO DAMN STEEP?  ARGHH.  My exact thoughts.  Come on Paul Walker, I could really use a shot of nitrous right about now…

Around a hairpin and cog railroad tracks.  OK, Joe mentioned something about this being near the summit.  Dammit, why can’t I catch him?  Around another corner… wait, is that the finishing arch I see?  HOLY SH!T I’M GOING TO WIN A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP!  And that, my friends, is how I managed to up my speed, up my power, up my heart rate, and actually start picking up speed on a bicycle again.  Or the caffeinated Tailwind kicked in.  Or I managed to engage NOS Program 2.0 and speed ahead of Toretto.

OK OK OK, WHAT DO I DO?!  The daydream… it was becoming reality.  Like… I don’t win very many bike races, let alone really really really REALLY important ones.  Zip the vest… ok, whew, remembered that.  Can’t have anyone seeing me win with my sports bra hanging out.  I don’t do it at LMBS, and I certainly can’t have it happening now!  Massive smile and a celebratory fist pump and single right arm raised into the air!

1 hour 51 minutes 12.89 seconds.  The inaugural masters women 30-39 hill climb national champion.

The flood gates of uncontrollable crying and tears began.  Joe Joe Joe Joe I WON!!! I yelled out as I finally caught Joe after the finish line.  I stopped and slumped over my bars just crying.  I think my other teammate Kate came over and asked what was wrong and I stammered out some sloppy half-crying half-happy “I WON!”  Then I noticed how badly my butt hurt.  So painful I couldn’t walk.  I couldn’t bend over.  Wow, 7% grade for nearly two hours does the sit bones no good!  (I never was out of the saddle after the starting sprint.  I was worried the acceleration in my heart rate could be a bad mistake.)

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14er #2 via bicycle, and I’m not faking my smile on this one!

The time at the summit was spent hobbling over to get my gear bag and tossing on my warm thermal jacket and dry gloves – my fingers were so cold and numb by the summit that I had trouble shifting for the final get up and go, and then gathering up some teammates for photos at the summit sign.  I had huge concerns about descending, as I spent the first 5 miles descending Mt. Evans crying in fear, but luckily Pikes Peak Highway is perfectly paved (see, car races are good for keeping road conditions good!), and after changing into my heavier wind proof gloves I descended confidently.  Traffic kept the speeds slow, and at some points I was actually wanting to go faster.

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Me, Jill, and Alli at the summit!

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These guys made the weekend that much more special! Joe – from sharing the Broken Spoke Award in 2013 to the top of Pikes Peak at a national championships in 2016.  Mike – proving that there’s gangstas in Wyoming every day! 307 and CYS represent! Thanks to both of you for your friendship and support over the past 3 years I have been racing! I’m not joking when I say that this weekend was way more memorable and fun due to your company!

I still can’t believe how it went.  Much like the Tatanka 50k where I spent a lot of time breaking my personal rules, I did the same on Pikes Peak.  I never thought I’d get a national title on a road bike, especially after my crash in June that left me swearing off any sort of group road biking competitive activity for the foreseeable future.  I’ve always described myself as a climber, but this year it never quite went well for me the times I tried the “big girl” climbs on Mt. Evans and Guanella.  But the entire time up Pikes Peak, minus for some negative thoughts with two miles to go, I was actually calm and enjoying the climb… I had accepted that it is what it is, and only way to go was to keep pedaling upwards.  ‘

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But I also think I helped break some other people’s rules.  Unfortunately I have had it mentioned to me more than enough times statements such as “You’re really big to be a climber,” “You climb well for someone your size,” and “You’re better off being a sprinter.”  Y’all, I am 5’9.5″ and 150 pounds.  By American standards, I am a tiny person.  But to some cyclists, I’m apparently “too big” to be climbing hills, or at least have it be my strength on a bike.  Yeah, I’m almost 33 years old…  I have hips and a big booty.  I have cellulite, and I certainly do not have a six pack (unless it’s six pack of tacos).  I can put down 800 watts in a sprint, there’s no doubt I can sprint.  But holy crap people, I can climb on a bike as well!  It’s my saving grace on the mountain bike, it’s how I do well at those races, and my ability to climb has also paid off on the road bike.  Stop telling people what they should be good at based on a body size!  /soapbox

But really…

Anyways, for a final wrap up of some nerdy statistics:
12.2 miles
4,717 feet of elevation gain
6.6mph average speed
182bpm average heart rate, max of 192bpm
67rpm average cadence
192 watts average power (195 watts weighted average)

I spent 41% of my time in my tempo power zone 167-199 watts), and 31% of my time in my threshold zone 200-233 watts).  I am super comfortable with how that all worked out, and mostly am very happy about the consistent effort.

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What a great highlight of my race season as it winds down!  Shoot, I just may have to race it again next year!

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