Hillier Than Thou is a ride specifically designed to break the human spirit
It was shaping up to be a “normal” hill climbing race until a few days prior when the grim reaper climbed out of one of the prize medals and with a wave of the sickle changed the forecast from sunny and 70s to rain and 40s. Since we set up a base camp in NJ the day before I could only ride with the clothes I had packed.
Lucky for me I brought a lot of cool (but not cold) weather choices which lent themselves to a little doubling-up improv:
The wool swobo arm and leg warmers acted an an insulating first layer which were chased by three layers of lycra with a wrap of saran wrap in-between.
Purely by chance I had unpacked my gore-tex windproof winter gloves which ended up being a lifesaver.
Like a grand tour stage the ride began with neutralized start. Our pace van led us through Washington Township in southern NJ and turned us loose via bullhorn right at the base of the first climb.
The contenders went straight to the front. Figuring that a little breathing room would be good to get a group into a rhythm I pushed hard to stay with the leaders until everyone was warmed up. This was a steep, twisting out-of-the-saddle affair and set the stage for the rest of the day.
After a couple of long climbs the leaders hulked themselves free and I was joined in chase group #1 with woman with a climber’s physique, a guy with a strong eastern european accent and a veteran of the sport who has ridden this ride many times. We kept each other company and bantered (and battled) for a few hills and valleys. While we were making good time and working rather well together we knew that the course had other plans for us. In quick succession we lost one on a flat stretch (pulls were being taken at 24-27mph), we lost another to cramps and the veteran warmed up and took off up the road.
In these extreme conditions the leaders only pull further ahead and the weak fall further behind. After my chase group fell apart around mile 30 I only saw two other souls in the next 70 miles (who also had to slow due to cramping). You just find your dark place and get to the work at hand.
As you can see from the profile this is not your average century:
The course had no less than 20 categorized climbs. At least 6 sections between 18-23% grade. Basically you’re either busting your lungs and legs climbing a wall or blasting down into the rain and cold at 40+mph.
There are points where you are kicking yourself for clicking into a smaller gear because it means it will be more pedal strokes to the top. There are points where you recover better standing than you do seated. Some of the climbs are so steep that your wheel loses traction over tar patches on the road, causing violent slips that almost throw you off your bike. Due to the remoteness of many of the roads you are almost always alone struggling against the voices in your head.
While the markings on the road were very clear, I liked using my Garmin 800 to follow the course. With the roads being slick it’s good to get a visual heads-up for what kinds of turns are ahead so you don’t go flying by and have to backtrack. It’s not about saving the seconds–it’s about keeping the mental beating to a minimum. One less cane lash to the brain could be the difference between fighting on and cracking.
After a day of struggle I was not surprised in the least to see the sadistic bastards had planted the finishing tent at the very top of a long climb. Whether it was due to the mental relief that the beating was over or due to the physical release of being able to relax and coast for the last time, a few man tears were shed as I crossed under the checkered banner.
When I arrived back in town I was told that the next group on the rode just reached the last rest stop and were about 2 hours back. Seven riders completed the course about an hour faster than I did.
Some of the locals of Long Valley who were having brunch at a nearby restaurant started congregating at the finish. They were checking out the bikes of the riders and a family stopped by to interview me about the ride. It was funny: this was not a high-profile race and the only cameras there were owned by the riders and organizers, but the course, the difficulty and the local interest really made it feel like it was something bigger than it was.
Like all things truly epic, time will soften the hard edges of this experience and like a fine wine, it will become legend as it ages.
Strava for view of categorized climbs:
Garmin for temperature profile: