mount washington

If you are a true masochist, there’s a good chance you have tossed around the idea to competing in a hill climb time trial. In this type of race, it’s you and your bike against gravity and the time clock, two formidable foes, for an hour of intense pain!

I was recently asked for advice on this subject, and that made me realize just how many factors need to be considered before partaking in such an event!

It can get complicated, especially if there is a big jump in elevation. Mountain tops are drastically different than the bases. And sometimes the road is closed to cyclists except for one day each year (race day) so it’s very hard to prepare!

Very hard, but not impossible! If you have a hill climb time trial (road bike race) coming up, here’s what to prepare for:

The Gradient.

hill climb road

In simple terms, the gradient is a measure of how steep the hill is, which you’ll see expressed as “% grade.” A grade around 3% is almost flat, 7-10% is moderate, and 18-20% is extremely steep.

One problem is that you usually only know the average gradient of the hill (unless you have ridden the hill.) See, a hill with an average gradient of 7% could be a steady grade that only fluctuates from 6-8%, or it could be a steep, switchbacked road where the gradient is 2% on the straight sections but a whopping 14% around the switchbacks.

For example, the King of the Mountain in Clearfield, PA contains a 3.5 mile climb at 7% – and that 7% is a fairly steady grade.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Mount Greylock Hill Climb in North Adams, MA is about 10 miles at a 6% average grade. But the hill is totally different. It contains numerous switchbacks, so some sections are merely 3%, while the turns and a few other steep sections are at least a 10% grade. So you’re switching back and forth from flat to steep numerous times!

Big races such as Mount Equinox (Vermont) and Mount Washington (New Hampshire) have course profiles online showing steepness, so check those for more details. At the very least, figure out if the hill has a steady grade or not.

Flat Ground.

Another consideration is whether there is any flat ground included on the race course. Some hill climbs will have a flat section at the bottom and one at the top, while others are steep the entire time.

In the aforementioned King of the Mountain race, you have a flat mile at the bottom to get your speed up, and then a half mile at the top where you have to gear up and sprint to the line. (It’s a 5 mile race course with a 3.5 mile climb in there.)

Mount Greylock, on the other hand, starts on a very steep slope and you’re still going uphill when you hit the finish line. The finish isn’t bad, but starting from a standstill and pushing uphill is tough!

Weather.

Even at low elevations, it’s not uncommon for the weather to change as you ascend the hill. In extreme conditions, like Mount Washington, you might encounter 231 mph winds, blizzards, and hail storms – in August!

On other hills, you’ll most likely face more wind and slightly lower temperatures towards the top and especially at the summit. Even small hills can have strong winds, though, so it’s nice to know if you’ll be facing a likely headwind and/or crosswinds as you climb.

Road conditions.

hill climb dirt road

While poor road conditions are a concern is every race, most road races will take place on decent roads. Hill climbs can be crazy, though, if they climb high enough.

Mount Washington starts out paved, but it has rough dirt and gravel sections towards the summit. Just imagine – howling winds and pouring rain, as you climb a dirt road with a 22% grade, on your road bike!

(Note the dirt road and lack of guard rails in the picture.)

The descent.

Do you have to ride back down the hill? Is it physically possible? Do you need a car at the top?

Smaller hill climbs, such as King of the Mountain, are nice because you can enjoy a fast but smooth cruise back down to the start area.

Huge mountains such as Mount Washington will either have shuttles for transport, or at least precautions in place that require you to have a car at the top for the trip back down. (Note: Be sure to hire a friend or family member for your driver, if required.)

The hills in between can be dangerous though. For example, at Mount Greylock, if you didn’t have a driver, you rode back down the hill. The road was steep, twisty, and rough. And after an intense 45 to 90 minute climb, you’re not quite ready to be testing your descending skills!

When in doubt, I’d recommend you have a driver waiting for you at the top! (Which is nice, because they can also pack food, water, and warm clothing.)

If you study all these aspects of the hill, you should have a good chance to conquer the hill climb!

Photo credits: Joe Shlabotnik and Joe Shlabotnik and Joe Shlabotnik

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2 Comments
  1. FYI: As of 2009 the Greylock summit road has been fully repaved from both sides, top to bottom inside the State Park.

  2. @Karol

    Interesting, thanks. Makes me want to go ride it again!

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