Page Contributor(s): John Summerson, The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) 2nd Edition
Ride 7.4 miles gaining 4,712’ at 12.1% average grade.
Climb summary by PJAMM’s John Johnson.
Mt. Washington is the steepest 5 mile segment in the at 12.7% (#23 World) and the third most difficult US bike climb behind Mauna Kea and Haleakala and #31 in the world.
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.”
2017 Jersey featured PJAMM Cycling.
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). For more on what Summerson has to say about this race and climb, see his full quote, below.
Mt. Washington on a non-bike day (i.e., the other 363 days).
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.
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 will not see an elevation profile grid as consistently steep anywhere in the United States as the one below. 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.
Nowhere in the US will you find a gradient profile like this over three miles . . .
. . . other than the Mighty Mt. Washington.
The start to mile 4.35 is well paved.
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).
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.
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 contributes to the lore of Mt. Washington and validates Summerson’s references to it as perhaps the toughest bike hill climb in the world.
Big arching and steep left turn 8/10th’s of a mile from the finish.
The last two miles average 11.4% - there is no escaping the grade anywhere on this climb.
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.
The final 200 yards average 16%.
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, giving riders the experience of being pros finishing a mountain TdF stage – very, very cool. We captured the atmosphere on this Finish Video.
PJAMM video taken while finishing the race in 2015.
It is nearly always chilly at the top.
Blankets are handed out to cyclists at the finish.
Rides Down: There are no bike descents on Mt. Washington. Your options are to have a friend or family member drive up and take you down, or set up a ride down with one of the many racers who offer spots in their cars. 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.
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 on the second Saturday in August; 2018 Official Race Summary). 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 . . .
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!
Race Director Jotham Oliver and PJAMM’s John Johnson.
The email messages and Facebook information from signup to post-race are first class and extremely informative. 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.
Before heading out to tackle the mighty Mt. Washington, be sure to rely on our list of Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip, and use our interactive checklist to ensure you don't forget anything.
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. Additionally, on race day, you may choose one of those riders to represent your team/club in the competition. Sponsors would receive publicity and would be announced several times as supporters of the race.
Where to Stay: If you are from out of the 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 has been canceled due to weather before (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.
Weather statistics from MWARBH.
The authority on climbing by bike in the US, John Summerson, writes of this ride:
“In the universe of notable ascents, there are climbs and there are climbs so where does one begin for this one? Very likely the most difficult road bike hill climb in the United States and perhaps the World, the Mount Washington Auto Road is also one of the most spectacular alpine routes in the country. It is only open to bikes during annual hill climb races and at times for several hours for a practice ride shortly before those races. No concession to gradient was made on this hill as it starts out steep and never lets up all the way to its high elevation and wind swept summit. When you turn off of the main road you descend a bit down to the tollbooth. This stretch accounts for the frequent inaccurate listing that the climb of Mount Washington is 7.6 miles in length (the Mount Washington road is 7.6 miles in length while the portion of the road that is uphill is 7.5 miles long).
Begin just beyond the tollbooth where there is a brief shallow section and then the fun begins. A ramp of 12-14% grade smacks you in the face to let you know what is in store the rest of the way up the mountain. The route is tree covered early on as you continue uphill over very solid slope, the narrow roadway taking you through multiple curves and is rolling in places as you continue to gain altitude. You get a brief glance at the top of the mountain in this section before the trees close back in. Double digit grade climbing continues with only brief respite. Soon the trees begin to thin with some great views although it is difficult to appreciate them as you grind higher. Approximately 3.5 miles into the climb, the trees recede for good, revealing amazing views. A short distance later you round a bend and for the first time you see what is ahead of you (and it is not a pretty sight). The gradient then steepens through a section of multiple S bends.
At mile 4.4, the road turns to gravel for just less than one mile (as of 2015, 12% of this road is not paved, however, the unpaved section of the road is easily ridden as the route receives so much traffic that the dirt/gravel is packed tight and smooth, and frequent rain eliminates dust much of the time. There are plans to eventually pave the entire climb) with sustained grades of 11-16% along a spectacular and exposed a bit easier just before the road makes a right hand turn. Pavement returns at mile 5.3 and the grade gradually steepens again. Big time exposure is present in places here and a very steep turn to the left contains 20% slope briefly. The grade then eases as you climb into a tundra-like setting with rolling and wide open rocky terrain. At mile 7.4 a parking lot appears on the left and the grade ramps up. Just beyond the lot the steepest part of the climb is encountered as you bear to the right but the end is in sight. The grade eases over the last few yards as you finish the climb at the brown souvenir hut (with newer facilities nearby). If you make it, congratulate yourself as you have conquered what is perhaps the most challenging paved hill in cycling. Some of the best views on earth greet you at the top of the hill on clear days. The descent of Mount Washington should be among the most difficult but of course, who really knows?
As mentioned, currently opportunities to legally ride this monster are limited as it is raced only twice a year but in a sense this only adds to its legend. Mount Washington is about the same length but considerably steeper than the famous Mortirolo in Italy and Angliru in Spain, and longer and steeper than the Zoncolan in Italy, generally considered among the hardest hill climbs used in European cycling towns…” (This quote is presented with the approval of John Summerson, from his book, The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) in the Northeast, pgs 90-92.)
As if getting up on 2 wheels isn’t enough of a challenge . . . try it on a unicycle as Chuck Haskins did in 2017 . . .
As far as details about my effort, it was the hardest climb I've ever done and a massively rewarding experience. Being the only unicyclist in the '17 race I got TONS of encouragement from fans as well as fellow competitors so that was very special. Weather cooperated rather well - mix of sunny and partly cloudy but no high winds or really cold temps.
I chose a setup that would be the equivalent of a very low geared bike for the unicycle world: 24" wheel and 170mm cranks. I told myself I'd have to ride at least the first 1-2 miles without a rest and I did. I stopped to rest briefly every mile or half-mile after that.
A nice touch at the finish was everyone who crossed the finish line before the disqualification time got a medal. Normally I'm not a fan of "participation" medals but for this it was warranted :-)