The Mount Washington Auto Road Hill Climb Race is a 12.4 kilometers climb at an average grade of 12 percent, with an extended stretch of 18 percent grade in the second mile and a surreal 22 percent at the finish. From the starting line just off N.H. Route 16, the course gains 4,727 feet in altitude, finishing at the windswept 6,288 foot summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire.

According to race organizers, professional riders have called Mount Washington a more difficult climb than the hardest climb in the Tour de France. Last month, Mount Washington record-holder Tom Danielson competed in the Tour de France for the first time ever. As the three-week-long race entered the mountain stages, Danielson moved up from 45th in the overall standings to 9th, eventually becoming the first American finisher in the field. He held his position against the world’s best on the Col de Galibier and the Alpe d’Huez, the back-to-back hors categorie (“beyond category”) ascents of the final days.

Danielson set the men’s open cycling record for the Mount Washington Auto Road in 2002, when he made the ascent in 49 minutes 24 seconds, and he nearly matched that time again in 2010, when injuries prevented him from making his Tour debut and instead he raced in Newton’s Revenge, the June race up Mount Washington. Course records may be set in either race. 

The women’s course record presents an only slightly less daunting challenge. The current record holder is former French and world cycling star Jeannie Longo, who made the climb in 58 minutes 14 seconds in 2000, the only year she competed in this race.

It is no surprise to my friends and cycling partners  that Mount Washington would be on my racing calendar. I first participated in the Mount Washington race in 2010. My first experience at racing up Mount Washington was….inconclusive……

My blog post about last year’s Mount Washington Auto Road Race was titled “Mount Washington: was my water bottle half full?” or more speciafically “was it half full or half empty?” Although I came out of the 2010 race happy to have made the Top Notch category by having a time of less than 1:20 hrs (Top Notch means you get to start the next race in the first wave regardless of age) I had watched my power go down in the last 45 mins of the ride and felt that I could have done way better. I only averaged 234 watts for the last 45 mins of the race. Overall, I averaged only 252 watts for the entire race, the same average power for a 79 min. effort that I had achieved over six months before the Mont Washington race while climbing Mount Figueroa in California.

After I got off my bike at the finish line this year I didn’t know what to think of my performance. My time was 1:15:31 hrs. My goal was 1:12 hrs. I didn’t know if I should be very disappointed to have missed my time goal by three and a half minutes or be very happy to have moved up from 135th overall in 2010 to 69th in 2011 – and be the fastest Canadian overall. I didn’t know if I should be happy to have averaged 266 watts this year compared to 252 watts last year. I didn’t know if I should be disappointed that I was not able to keep a 270 average for the whole race.

Once I got home I reviewed my race power file and compared it to power files from other races. I then started to gain perspective on the whole experience. I am generally the type of guy who keeps looking ahead, trying to improve in cycling and in all other aspects of his life. However, as a cyclist it is very easy for me to look back to hard data in order to gauge how much progress I have made over a certain period of time. With the advent of the power meter and sophisticated training software like Training Peaks, I can look at the past to objectively measure and quantify progress.

I have recently written a lot about progression, mainly because I have had such a good year on the bike and I feel I am at a level I never thought I could achieve. My wife Mary Lou thinks I write about my progress because I like to brag – or talk about myself as she puts it. The truth is that many of my friends have told me that reading about my improvement as an athlete inspires them. If I can inspire even one person to live a healthy lifestyle, get off the couch, train hard to meet a specific goal or to simply keep going when times get tough, then I will write about it. There is another reason I like to write about my “career” as a cyclist and it has to do with the people who have made it all possible: Carmichael Training System (CTS). I have been a member of CTS for at least six years now and my experience with them has been wonderful. They are real pros. If I am at a fitness level I never thought I could achieve it is in great part because the men and women of CTS have given me the inspiration, the tools and the support to get to where I am. They have insisted I continue to set big goals for myself and they have pushed me way above what I thought my limits were. My story is also their story.

So now back to the Mount Washington race. Let’s start bragging.

The picture below is my power file from the Burke Mountain Hill Climb race which I did in September 2010. You will notice that my time was about 32 minutes at an average power of 274 watts. I was pretty happy with my effort that day. I went as hard as I could and felt satisfied that I could not have done better.

Now let’s look at the power file for first 32 minutes of last week’s race up Mount Washington:

What? Hold on. 274 watts? Same power as at the Burke Mountain Race in September 2010? Yes. So why compare these two power files? Because it shows that last week I “replicated the 2010 Burke race ” and then continued to race for another 43 minutes. Last year in Burke I was done and very happy to get off the bike after my 32 minute effort. Last week, not only I continued to race for another 43 minutes but I was able to maintain an average power of 261 watts which is 27 watts more than last year`s 234 watts for that segment of the Mount Washongton race or a stunning 11.5% improvement. So while I am disappointed that my average power dropped in the second half of the race I am happy about my increased ability to sustain a certain power output for longer periods of time.

This is what the power file for the whole race looks like:

Now, as I pointed out earlier, when I got to the finish line last week I was very disappointed about missing my time goal of 1:12 hrs. My secret goal was even more ambitious: 1:10:30 hrs. This is how I set those goals. When I did the Whiteface Mountain race in June of this year I had a time of 56 minutes which was seven minutes faster that my time in 2010 for that race. So, having done Mount Washington in 1:19 hrs in 2010 I thought that I could shave seven minutes off that time, hence a goal of 1:12 hrs. The secret goal was based on the same improvement at the Whiteface race but on a percentage basis. I said to myself that if 56 minutes is 88.8% of 63 minutes then 88.8% of my 2010 Mount Washington time of 1:19 hrs would be 1:10:30 hrs.

I should have known that I was really ambitious when my CTS coach Jason Tullous replied the following by email when I asked him before the race if a 1:12 hrs goal was realistic:

“It’s possible and I don’t want to hold you back but I think 1:15hrs would be a big goal.  1:12 would be raising your average speed by .5mph  which I think you will increase your speed because of your power.  If it’s .5 mph or not, I am not sure.  Of course, time and speed all depends on weather.”

Jason was right. Maybe I should be very happy to have met what he described as a “big goal” a couple weeks before the race.

When I got home from the race I started doing some research on climbing and the effect of gravity and it became clear to me that I had been a little foolish to think that I could race Mount Washington in 1:12  hrs this year. I found a great website that allows riders to enter several data points such as their weight, wind speed, power, hill gradient and distance and it will tell them how long it takes to complete a certain distance based on the data points entered.

This is an image of the website in which I entered the actual data from the Whiteface Mountain race in June 2010:

In the image below I kept all of the data from the Whiteface Mountain race and only changed the slope from 8.1% to 11.2% to account for the Mount Washington actual grade (as calculated by my Joule 2.0). Mount Washington is slightly shorter than Whiteface but I have not accounted for it in this analysis in order to keep things as simple as possible. The conclusion is that by only changing the grade of the slope as described above the time to complete the same distance is increases from 56 minues to 1:13 hrs. For this to take place I would have to maintain the same power output of 286 watts which I achieved in Whiteface but for 30% longer. A steeper hill takes more time to climb and more time means lesser overall average power. How I thought I could maintain the same power in August for 1:12 hrs as I maintained in June for 56 minutes is beyond me. Objectively speaking, I can’t be “very disappointed” about my 2011 Mount Washington time.

Then I uploaded the actual data points from last week’s race in the website:

I then played with the power to determine the power I would need to achieve next year in order to complete the race in 1:12 hrs (assuming the same weight and adjusted for the slightly shorter distance). Conclusion: I will need to achieve an average power of 280 watts  for 72 minutes. My best 72 minutes average power ever was set last week during the race: 267 watts. I need a 4.8% increase.

It seems that I progress by about 5% every year but that 5% is never enough. I never seem to be satisfied with my fitness level or performance on the bike. I always want to do better. The beauty with the training tools we have access to as cyclists is that when we are disatisfied with a certain performance we can analyze data from past performances and objectively measure and quantify progress. It is a great reminder that if hard work paid off in the past it will most likely pay off in the future. Being able to objectively measure and quantify progress is a great source of motivation. The downside of it I guess is that we can also find out when we stop progressing – and even start regressing (I am sure I will one day find out what this feels like). Sometimes I am very disappointed about my results but I know that I can pick up my laptop, open up a few power files and feel very happy about how much I have improved as an athlete. And if I extrapolate that progression into the future it helps me set even more ambitious goals, it keeps me focused on getting prepared to meet those goals and in a way it keeps me mentally and physically young.