Mt. Washington, according to The Climbing Bible -- John Summerson’s The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) -- is “the most difficult hill climb race in the U.S. and perhaps the world,” and “the annual hill climb race up its slopes is perhaps the most brutal on earth” (Summerson 249, 62).
We have travelled the world and researched, ranked and documented the top bike climbs. We can attest to the validity of Summerson’s claims. Mt. Washington is one of the hardest climbs you will ever encounter and it is, in our opinion, the most difficult bike climb road race that we are aware of anywhere in the US.
You will not see an elevation profile grid as consistently steep anywhere in the world and certainly not in the United States as the one below. Purple is a shade designated for very steep grades (though it could also be indicative of someone’s face color during this climb!). By any objective (and subjective) standard, Mt. Washington is unanimously and justifiably always included in the Top Three Most Difficult U.S. Climbs by Bike on any climbing chart or index.
This is more than just the most difficult hill climb race by bike in the U.S. – it is an extraordinary event. This “race” has been held since 1973. We put “race” in quotes because whether you race or just enjoy the climb, you must be entered in either Newton’s Revenge (held in July and affiliated with the main race) or the Mt. Washington Auto Road Bike Race (held second Saturday in August; 2018 Official Race Summary) – so technically you are in a “race” though you don’t need to rush the climb as the road remains open to cyclists as long as they can push the pedals (the last finisher took about three hours in 2015). This is an extraordinarily well-run event hosting about 600 cyclists annually and raising funds for the Tin Mountain Conservation Center, which supports environmental appreciation. From check-in the day before on through to the turkey/mashed potatoes/dressing/salad/ice cream awards lunch at the end – I mean, seriously . . .
. . . carved turkey after a bike race!???
Hey now, you have to EARN IT first!
Race Director Jotham Oliver and PJAMM’s John Johnson
This is the pitbull of U.S. climbs, sinking its teeth into you deep and early and not letting go until the top, all the while shaking the life out of your legs. Steep is an understatement for this one – although 11.9% is itself enough of a calling card for greatness, there are spots that clearly exceed 12% for extended lengths. And, while you appreciate the many obvious 12+% segments, there just doesn’t seem to be any offsetting <11.9% group of segments! It all just contributes to the lore of Mt. Washington and validates Summerson’s references to it as perhaps the toughest bike hill climb in the world.
The race normally has four starting groups and each is sent off with the report of a full cannon. No popgun start for Mt. Washington! You can hear the cannon at the 21 and 48 second marks of the full climb video at this link: Mt. Washington Hill Climb Video.
You begin with a very short lived flat section and thereafter experience nothing short of serious grades on to the top (okay – there are a few very short sub 10% segments – enjoy them while you can).
The calm before the storm.
First mile of the climb -
Mr. Steep is in your face from the start!
We encounter gravel from miles 4.35 to 5.35 -
12.5% grade and 627' of ascent during this stretch.
No problem on road tires.
There are several nasty switchbacks in the last mile and the final ascent on Mt. Washington is one-tenth of a mile that includes two switchbacks and 20% grade.
Big arching and steep turn 8/10th’s of a mile from the finish.
No getting around the steep: steep in front, steep to the side, steep behind . . . Help! Mr. Wizard!
There will be a big group of supporters ringing cowbells and cheering you on – along with the many colorful chalk messages written on the pavement over this stretch which gives the rider the experience of being a pro finishing a mountain TdF stage – very, very cool. We captured the atmosphere on this Finish Video.
Just below the finish.
Finish -- the only flat in the race!
The event is run in a world-class fashion and has the most exceptional meal we have ever experienced at the end of a race/ride/event (other than food-based rides – but it rivals those, too). We cannot say enough about how well this race is managed and if you are a climber, this one just has to be on your Must-Do/Bucket List!
The email messages and Facebook information from signup to post-race are first class and extremely informative and helpful. Packet pick-up is the Friday before the race (at Mt. Washington), so keep that in mind. Parking on race day is to the left of the toll booth. While many folks park across Highway 16 (White Mountain Road) from the Toll Road, you are permitted to park on the race side and there is plenty of space.
Rides Down: There are no bike descents on Mt. Washington. Your options are to have a friend or family member drive your car up and take you down, or set up a ride down with one of the many racers who offer spots in their cars for the ride down. We had no problem arranging rides for the two of us months before the race (via the MWARHC Facebook page) and we are told it has never been a problem getting a ride down (in 2015, there were more ride offers down than those in need).
Staging area at the top for rides down.
Practice Ride: This is included with the registration for the race itself and is held the third Sunday of July. For 2018, this is the link to the Practice Ride.
Note to Juniors Riders: In an effort to increase junior ridership of the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb, Tin Mountain Conservation Center invites clubs to create a team of five junior riders and one adult. With the support of a $500 sponsor, your full team can participate in the Hillclimb Practice Ride on July 15th, 2018. Additionally, on race day, August 18, 2018, you may choose one of those riders to represent your team and club in the competition. Sponsors would receive publicity and would be announced several times as supporters of the race.
If you are from out of area, Gorham, New Hampshire is a good place to stay. This is a small town (population less than 3,000) in the White Mountains, and we suggest getting your reservations early as it’ll fill up for the event.
Roadway Surface, Traffic and Weather Report: Like Mauna Kea, Mt Washington is not fully paved. Approximately one mile of hard packed gravel presents itself from miles 4.35 to 5.35 (12.5% grade and 627' of ascent during this stretch). However, there is absolutely no traffic because the climb is only open to bicycles twice a year and vehicle traffic is closed during those rides. Weather can be quite temperamental and extreme -- the race is closed due to weather occasionally (e.g. 1994, 1995, 2007) and until 2010, for 76 years the summit held the record for the highest wind gust directly measured at the Earth's surface (231 mph). The average high temperature for the summit of Mt Washington is 53-54 degrees in July and August.
The authority on Northeast Road Bike Climbing, Doug Jansen (northeastcycling.com) has graciously authorized our use of his detailed analysis and description of the climb (northeastcycling - Mt. Washington):
Mt. Washington is the biggest climb in the NE, and often dubbed the toughest hillclimb in North America or even the world. I would not challenge the notion it’s the toughest road climb in North America, and foul weather most of the time plays a big factor in this. It is the granddaddy of hillclimbs in the northeastern part of the country, and careers have been launched with wins on this mountain. In 1997, Tyler Hamilton broke a 17 year old record, and then in 1999, broke his own record again. A new kid on the block came along in 2002, Tom Danielson, and took another minute off Tyler’s fastest time. See this autoroad link for a history of records on Mt Washington. The mostly paved auto road rises 4685 feet in 7.6 miles, nearly a 12% average grade. There is a 22% grade section at the top! This climb is truly monotonically rising, no flat or downhill sections to catch your breath on the way up. There is a lengthy section of well groomed gravel that has not been a problem for my 23mm tires at all, but can get soft in rain. Bicycles are allowed on this privately owned auto road up to four times a year currently. These are the July and August races and their respective practice climb days. Riders must take auto transportation down. Weather at the top can be downright nasty, even mid-summer. One year when I did the climb in August it was in the 60’s at the base, but 39 and extremely windy at the top, and it snowed that night! There have been times when the race was cancelled. Mt Washington is also home to some of the worse weather on Earth. Until recently, the highest non-tornadic wind speed ever recorded on Earth was at the summit of Mt Washington at 231 mph. Hurricane force winds are present 100 days a year on average. This in part makes Mt Washington one of the toughest bicycle climbs in the world. Due to great demand for this bicycle hillclimb, two races are held each year. The traditional Mt Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb is held in August. Since 2006, a second race called Newton’s Revenge has been held in July. The races benefit different causes and are independent of each other. Both races are held on Saturday mornings, with Sunday available for backup. Both races also offer unsupported practice climbs approximately one month before the race. Both races also have catered awards banquets after the race. Registration opens for Newton's Revenge only after the August race fills. Here's more information on the Newton's Revenge and August MWARBH races.
Wikipedia summarizes the cycling opportunities on Mt. Washington: “In July, the mountain road hosts Newton's Revenge, and in August the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb, both of which are bicycle races that run the same route as the road race. The hillclimb's most notable victor to date has been former Tour de France contender Tyler Hamilton. The climb is regarded as one of the world's toughest for cyclists - it features a greater altitude gain, and is steeper, than the Mortirolo Pass, the Monte Zoncolan, and the Alto de El Angliru, and is far steeper than any of the famous climbs featured in the Tour de France.”