Pikes Peak Hill Climb

From Harvey:

 ...here we found the snow middle deep; no sign of beast or bird inhabiting this region. The thermometer which stood at 9° C above 0 at the foot of the mountain, here fell to 4° C below 0. The summit of the Grand Peak, which was entirely bare of vegetation and covered with snow, now appeared at the distance of 15 or 16 miles (24 or 26 km) from us, and as high again as what we had ascended, and would have taken a whole day's march to have arrived at its base, when I believed no human being could have ascended to its pinical. This with the condition of my soldiers who had only light overalls on, and no stockings, and every way ill provided to endure the inclemency of the region; the bad prospect of killing any thing to subsist on, with the further detention of two or three days, which it must occasion, determined us to return."

– Excerpt from the Zebulon Pike Expedition, 1806, after a failed attempt to summit the mountain.

Today, Pike’s Peak is a lot tamer than it was in 1806. There’s a paved road and cog railway leading to a restaurant/souvenir shop at the summit. However, it is still a proper mountain with an elevation of 14,115 feet (4,302 m) and prominence of roughly 8,000 ft (2,400 m) above downtown Colorado Springs.

The USAC Hill Climb route would take us up the same route that the International Auto Hill Climb has been using for 85 years. This covers of the last 12.1 miles of this paved road from Crystal Creek to the summit with 4,688 feet of elevation gain, 154 switchbacks, and an average grade of 7.3%. 

Now, that doesn’t sound too bad considering the fact that they can fit 10,000 feet of climbing in the Michigan Mountain Mayhem, but we are starting from an elevation over 9,000 feet! The air gets pretty thin up there and just warming up I noticed a pretty significant shortness of breath. The other thing I noticed was how under-dressed we were to be climbing a mountain. I just had my M-Cycling skinsuit and jacket and my teeth were chattering! The temperature was hovering ~45°F and I could see that the summit was already obscured by a lenticular cloud. I knew I would be “climbing a lot” and so I convinced myself this was fine, besides plenty of other people didn’t even have jackets! This may have contributed to the fact that of 349 starters, there were only 243 finishers….

The race started in waves offset by 3 minutes. Me, Ky Kieffer, and Jeremy Ziegler were all together on the line in the second wave for the Cat4/Masters race. From the start, I planned to go pretty easy, but surprisingly the road was rolling and the pack stuck together for the first half-mile or so. I ventured to put in a little more effect to stick on the back and enjoy some protection from the wind. Jeremy and Ky stayed back and we split at this point. 

After that half-mile, the road turned up and the switchbacks started. From this point on, we were climbing. I shifted down to my lowest gear and spun for a good bit. I was generally passing people, but then I was also breathing pretty heavily for my measly 4mph. When the grade finally dropped back to 4 or 5% I’d shift up just to give me the perception of control and pedal on to the next switchback. I’d hop from one guy’s rear wheel to another’s on and on and on until I saw the 8 mile sign.

Now, I’m not exactly sure what mile marker we started at, but I remember the start being about 6 miles up the road. This is where I freaked out a bit. I was already hyperventilating and my hands were completely numb with needles. My core was warm, but it was clear I might not finish if I kept pushing. I settled in and dropped the cadence from 85 to something more like 70 and struck up a conversation with some guy from Colorado. I stayed here until we reached Glen Cove (~12.5 mi) and the Colorado guy pulled off.

I lost the tree line and my mind at about the 13 mile mark. Above the tree line we had 30-50 mph wind gusts from the South (pretty much 12 o’clock high). This is also where the pitch and switchbacks became extreme.

There was a steady stream of deserters heading back down the mountain. While the wind seemed to be generally against us, it was more unnerving that you’d never know what way it was going to hit you. This was nice in that sometimes you could stop pedaling and coast up the mountain, but terrifying in that death by cliff face became a very real possibility. Thankfully, miraculously, this is where Ky caught me. Ky didn’t have a compact front chainring and so he had to work a bit harder, but hey he was making killer time. I’d like to think we were helping each other, taking pulls, but Ky definitely maintained the pace through here. 

We started passing people like crazy and it just proved how critical it is to have a friendly face in the race. At about 14 miles, the road leveled out and we had a quick traverse from a false summit to the central peak. I took the lead here and with some help from the slope/winds we were cruising fine at about 45 mph. We finished the traverse and started the final climb just as we passed the 5k to go sign. 

We were still moving pretty good, but at the 4k to go sign we were completely immersed in the clouds. The winds were still brutal and now we were riding in/on an icy rind. The mountain took on an otherworldly feel. Visibility was about 20 feet and everything had icicles jabbing the direction of the prevailing wind. There were a few times where Ky almost dropped me here, but somehow I stuck with him.

I kept running the conversions in my head, 4k, that’s like less than 3 miles!

3k, that’s like less than 2 miles!

2k, yeah, that’s like barely over a mile.

1k, I should be able to see the finish!

It has to be right there!

I must be like 400m out, maybe even 200m!

And then another switchback and pavement turned to dirt and there it was. Ky and I crossed simultaneously taking 3rd and 4th at 1 hour, 46 minutes, and 43 seconds. We pitched our bikes against an icy guardrail and jogged inside. Ky’s hands had swollen like balloons. Mine looked pretty normal, but I couldn’t really feel them or my toes. 

We took refuge in the restaurant, but other than the blow drier in the bathroom there wasn’t much warmth to find. The food wasn’t ready and the donut fryer broken. CURSES!

I ate a Nature Valley bar, found some hot chocolate and we waited for Jeremy to catch up. He finished at 2:18:41 and took 5th in the Masters 35+ race. After warming up a bit, we started the summit picture bonanza and then bundled up for the descent just as the first train arrived from Manitou Springs. 

The descent was far more terrifying than the ascent! Between the shivers and the wind our bikes were shimmying all over the road. Ky gave up and hitched a ride. I took my sweet time and rode the brakes down. Once we reached the trees, the wind died down and I finally started warming up. By the time we reached the parking area the temperature had reached the mid-70’s and the frigid summit was a distant memory.  Jeremy has GoPro footage of the descent which you can watch here. Checking Strava the descent took about 40 minutes and my new max speed by bicycle registers at 53 mph!