2003 Mt. Diablo Challenge


This would be my first mass-start bike race. Against a clock, against a field of 1000 riders, against the mountain known as Mt. Diablo. One of the highest peaks in the Bay Area at 3849 feet, the route is 10.8 miles long and all uphill.
In the weeks leading up to this race, I focused on improving my hillclimbing performance. Going maximum intensity and trying to maintain a rhythm of breathing and leg power. I also focused on being efficient in the out-of-saddle position while climbing. I had climbed Mt. Diablo a few times before, but never under race conditions. And in actuality, I had only gone all the way to the very top once. The last 500 or so feet at the summit is nicknamed “the wall” and the grade is steep enough that you can’t see anything at the top until you crest the hill. In my lowest gear 39×25, I really have to pull hard with the whole body just to keep moving and keep from falling over at the slow speed. My strategy for this race was to maintain a rhythm at as fast a pace as I could, but keep my heart rate around 170 bpm’s. That way once I came to the finish, I would have enough energy to max out my heart rate and climb the wall with some sense of dignity.

During a hillclimb, every extra ounce of weight carried requires work to pull up the hill, so I didn’t want to carry anything that wasn’t going to help me go faster. In an effort to be as light as possible, I decided not to carry spare tire, pump, and only one water bottle. It actually saved me about a pound and a half of weight, which is 1% of my total weight + bike, somewhat significant. In retrospect, I probably should have carried the equipment, because it would not have been fun sitting on the side of the road if I had gotten a flat.

There were lots of serious looking riders present. I could tell by the expensive bikes as well as the colorful jerseys representing bike clubs and organizations. People weren’t just wearing basic clothing, they were all out to represent! Paige and I both wore our Wheely Cool jerseys, so we fit right in. We tried to warm up by riding up and down Diablo road, along with scores of others with the same idea. Other riders had brought stationary wind trainers and were pedaling in the parking lot. The serious riders had set up their trainers right at the starting line to save their spots. The road was very narrow, and so there was a long line of riders going back from the start. We chose not to get too close to the front, out of modesty I suppose.

As we waited among the quiet and tense crowd behind the starting line, I noticed a woman next to us had a Litespeed Tuscany, so I asked her about it and we started talking. Her name was Penny, and is a co-owner of Roaring Mouse Cycles. This would be her second time doing this race, and it was nice to know that not everyone was wound up about the race. (I was a little) but everyone around us eventually was chatting.

When the race finally started, we didn’t move right away. It took us about a minute or two to actually get past the starting line. And even then, the going was very slow due to the congestion. We were 5-8 riders wide in a one lane road, with everyone going their own speed. I tried weaving a bit, but didn’t want to piss anyone off, so I ended up getting caught behind a big wall of people and falling behind Paige, who was chit chatting with Penny at a casual pace in a faster “lane”. It was kinda fun zooming past people when I had an opportunity to shoot into a gap. I’m sure they thought I was being a jerk or something. But I was really intent on getting a good overall time, and I took the attitude of unless I’m having a conversation with someone, they’re in my way.

The first part of the climb is rolling hills and goes by several houses and rough pavement. We saw residents sitting in lawn chairs by the side of the road cheering us on, which was nice. I felt like a pro. After the houses , there’s a big severe tire damage speed bump thing, then the road widens a bit and you see the grassy hill on one side and a steep dropoff on the other – it feels like the work is about to begin. Alot of people started slowing down, so I did the opposite and pushed a bit harder to try to pass as many people as I could, to get in a clear area of riders and perhaps find a group to pace with.

As I got into a breathing rhythm, the climb was easier than I thought. So easy, that I decided to pass people in front of me, and probably took myself into working too hard. My heart rate was about 170 bpms, which was right where I wanted it. But I started to wonder if I could keep it up for an entire hour. I kept accelerating to get around people and it was a good feeling to pass people on mountain bikes, just because I wouldn’t want to have finished behind someone on a much heavier and unecessarily rugged bike than mine. I passed about three unicyclists on the way up. Each of them a bit different, but all with very large wheels. They didn’t make it look easy. It looked like it took concentration to be climbing and balancing. Unlike the circus clowns who ride holding their hands out, they would ride with both hands grabbing either the seat or the brake lever mounted to the seat. So from behind it looked like they were trying to pee. But anyways, I was glad to be passing the unicyclists as well. I figured I should be able to beat a bike with no choice of gearing or variation in muscle use. But now that I think about it, with so few parts, the unicycle would probably be one of the lightest bikes to be riding up the hill. (gravity is the enemy) As I passed one guy I drunkenly stammered “Heyyyy, Unicyclist, right on!” and crawled ahead. After several breaths of air I heard him finally say “yeah… tryin…'” in a faint and labored voice. I don’t really know what response I was expecting from my original statement, but that was good enough for me, as I had my own issues to worry about.

At one of the big switchbacks, a punk band had set up and would play songs to keep riders going as they passed by. I thought this was a great idea, and just as I got to them they started playing their version of The Ventures’ “Run, Don’t Walk” so I gave them a thumbs up as lurched onward.

The halfway point of the ascent is a ranger station where three roads meet. As I approached the station I saw they had a clock with race time ticking. My time was something like 35 minutes. That kindof upset me, becasue I thought I was doing really well, but at my current pace I would not make it to the top in under an hour. They also had people handing out cups of water here. It always weirds me out seeing people throw their empty cups on the road, even though I know that’s ok for something like this. I expected to avoid a sea of empty cups strwen across the road, but the water giver was running in between riders to pick them up. Very nice, but I didn’t get any water, as I had my own.

It was in this last half of the race that I began to lose my rhythm. I just couldn’t be comfortable anymore. I stopped passing people, and every now and then someone would pass me. My breathing was erratic and I had to slow down several times to bring my heart rate back down. I would stand up on the pedals, sit back down, move forward on the saddle, move back, change hand positions, nothing felt good. I would get into this rut for 30 seconds at a time. I consider these moments as giving up, as I had no will to ride hard anymore. But after 30 seconds, something would change, like the road would get less steep for a moment, and I could speed up and find a rhythm for another 2 minutes, enough to pass those who just passed me. So I was going back and forth with a group of people for the rest of the way. But I would say I gave up many, many times.

On one of the final switchbacks, I could hear music playing from the PA system at the top. Then I knew this ordeal was almost over. I immediately dumped out all my excess water in the bottle (every ounce counts!) in preparation for “the wall” and I could tell the riders around me were speeding up a bit. I tried to settle my breathing down in anticipation for the shock, and we came up to red cones separating the road, directing us up the left side of the road, while riders were already coming down a small section of the right side of the road. This configuration was the opposite of normal traffic flow at the summit. And thus the route was not the same as I had experienced before. I didn’t think much of it, since both roads go to the top, it seemed like no big deal.

As soon as the road split, the grade got steep, this was the wall. I was behind three guys when we started. They were seated, but I had to stand up out of the saddle. My heart rate shot up instantly and I was quickly gasping for breath. I must have even grunted or something, because the guy right in front of me on a LeMond bicycle yells out “Yeah, THAT’s the SPIRIT!! Come on!!” and he gets up out of the saddle to push harder. I took his lead and started growling and strained to keep up with him. He started grunting and panting really loudly as he went into oxygen debt while hammering up the wall. I kept up with him as we passed the two riders in front of us. They must have thought we were nuts, but we passed them like they were standing still. With each pull on the handlebar and push of the pedal I could see we were coming up to a crest, so I kept the power on to pull ahead of the instigator of it all. By now he was hyperventilating and had to sit back down. Since we were almost at the top of the crest, I turned to him in between cranks to say “C’mon!! let’s GO!!” to try to return the motivation, and he actually got back up and tried to muster more strength. The big disappointment as we reached the crest, was that the crest was NOT the top of the wall, and we both saw before us STILL MORE WALL, and the length looked to be the same as what we had just done already. I cried out “ahhh, dammit” and sat back down in disgust and fatigue, ready to flop sideways onto the road. Instigator was still hyperventilating and was probably in cardiac arrest, there would be no more spirit up this wall. I resolved to keep standing and pulling and pushing and breathing and not to stop. I left instigator behind, as I dug deeper into my soul, looking for more power to somehow get me up the rest of the way. It seemed like an eternity. My vision started to blur as I finally caught glimpse of the finish line. But merely seeing it was not relief from the torture. Not until I actually got there would the ordeal end. It was about 30 feet of distance, but it seemed to take a whole minute of grinding, wheezing, and cussing to get there. People were there, cheering and encouraging, but I didn’t hear them. All I heard was my heart beating 180 bpm’s, and air going in and out of my lungs., and my mind telling me “it’s over, you did it, once you hit that line, you can rest”

As soon as I crossed the line, and rode into the timing chutes, the volunteers were telling me to get off of the bike. Did that mean I had to swing my leg over the bike and get off? If I had tried that, I surely would have fallen over, because my entire body was shaking from the effort and I needed the bike to keep myself up. It was such a relief to be done. My time was 1:09, a bit slower than my goal of under an hour, but I was satisfied to be that close to such an arbitrary goal.

At the top, they served water, food, and gave away prizes. I first ran into Penny, and we congratulated each other. A random rider came up to me in the food line to tell me he saw Paige (Another good reason to wear the Wheely Cool jerseys is people remember you). We eventually found each other and compared notes about the race. Paige said she felt really good afterwards, and probably could have ridden harder than her time of 1:15

After a certaiin time, the officials let people start going down the mountain. We started descending and it became one of the most peaceful parts of the ride. Imagine a long line of riders spaced ten feet apart barrelling down a mountain switchback with no traffic to worry about on a closed road. We were like a long serpent slithering down the mountain road with only the sound of the wind in your ears, the clicking of freewheels, and an occasional squealing brake. Usually on a descent you are worried about oncoming traffic or from behind, but today was special. I really enjoyed the descent, because it was so peaceful and carefree. On one turn I saw a cloud of dust and someone yelled “rider down!” and another person say “man, this happens every year, some idiot goes too fast”. A rider had gone wide and laid their bike down into the dirt runout. Luckily there was a runout on that turn. There are many turns on Mt. Diablo that have nothing but a dropoff! The good thing was, at the next turn below, an ambulance was waiting. (the organizers sure know their stuff) and a lot of people stopped to help.

One poignant moment was when i came behind a father-daughter team on a tandem bike. They rode in perfect unison, as if they had been doing it for years, but the girl couldn’t have been more than 10-12 years old. They leaned into turns and could stop pedaling without any verbal commands (which are often necessary when riding tandem) so I enjoyed following these skilled riders. At one point, another tandem came by to pass us, which was a father-son team. The boy was alittle younger than the father-daughter team, and both fathers didn’t really have the luxury of looking at each other as the road was winding every which way. But I saw the boy look at the girl, and the girl look at the boy. The boy waved and smiled, and the girl waved back as he sped past them. It was a really cool bonding moment between two kids who seemingly didn’t know each other except for their position on the bikes.

At the bottom, we packed up and went for a well-deserved lunch. I always like to eat after a big ride to restore my energy, but I was pretty much useless for the rest of the day. My recovery was fast, with no sore muscles the next day and I was able to hit the hills at a medium effort no problem the second day after. Next year? under one hour.