- Story and Pics by Bob Cullinan -
“Are you crazy? You’re gonna race up Mt. Tam…on a road bike? Good luck!”
With those luke-warm words of encouragement from my non-cycling friends, I decide to see what it’s like to race up Mount Tamalpais from sea level. The locals know this granite goddess as Mt. Tam…a looming, hunchbacked hill that rises more than a half-mile from the bottom to the top. True, it’s not Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez, but it is the biggest challenge in all of Marin County, California.
Here’s our man – definitely NOT faking it….
The annual Mt. Tam Hill Climb is a 12.2 mile leg-breaking uphill slog, drawing both pro and rank-amateur riders. It’s the last race of the season for most of these cyclists, so this is the one ride that everyone talks about over the course of the long, wet Northern California winter.
The Hill Climb is actually three separate rides. Starting on the Pacific Ocean at Stinson Beach, the route goes north along Highway One for four flat miles. But then it changes quickly. After a right turn on Bolinas-Fairfax road, the course climbs 1,500 feet over the next four miles, reaching grades of 10% along the way. Topping out at the intersection with Ridgecrest Road, the final four miles are a set of rollers known as “The Seven Sisters.” Locals refer to these ever-increasing climbs at “The Seven Bitches.”
I’m about to find out why.
Mt. Tamalpais dead ahead.
• 9:50am – The start
I look around at the 75 other fools who’ve entered the “public” category of the Hill Climb. All of the pro men, pro women and age-group riders have already departed ahead of us, with five-minute gaps between each bunch. There’s a reason why we’re last…most of the guys in my group are racing novices. Nobody wants to ride behind us, for fear of what sudden moves we might make. I decide to start on the far outside of the field, hoping it will keep me out of danger.
• Mile One
Up ahead, I see flashing lights. As we get closer, I can see the crumpled body of a cyclist on the side of the road. Medics are attending to him. Not a good sign. I try not to look too much, for fear that I might run into one of the other guys in my pack and end up on the side of the road, too.
Cruising along Highway 1 – North of Stinson Beach before the climb up Mt. Tam.
• Mile Four
I work my way up near the front of the public peleton, and try to stay out of trouble. We’re cruising along Highway One at a pretty good pace. How good? As we make the turn onto Bolinas-Fairfax road, I glance down at my bike computer. 24.30 mph average speed. Wow! Much faster than I anticipated.
There’s a cattle guard on the road just before we start to climb. You’ve probably seen these guards…they’re a series of horizontal bars running the width of the road. There’s space in between all the bars just wide enough for a cow’s hoof to fall through. That keeps the cattle from going where they’re not supposed to go. Thankfully, the race organizers have laid a big sheet of plywood over the bars. We make a heck of a racket as we all ride across, but everyone gets over safely. Then the climbing starts.
Crossing a cycle-safe cattle guard at the 1500ft level – the real pain is about to begin.
• Mile Six
Two miles into the climb, and the public peleton has exploded. Up ahead, I see a rider zig-zagging across the road. I try to pass on his left, but he darts left and almost hits me. He looks over and says, “Oh, I’m sorry…I’m hallucinating!”
And we’re not even half-way to the finish!
• Mile Seven
I hate to even admit it, but I feel great! This just might be my day. As I pass a woman on my right, I jokingly say to her, “Are we there yet?” Her terse reply: “Oh, Jesus…NO!”
• Mile Eight
We’re almost to the top of Bolinas-Fairfax road. Just then, I’m passed by a strong rider. I turn to him and say, “Well, the hard part’s over, right?” He looks at me like I’m crazy, and says, “Oh, no…the hard part has just begun.”
Right before we get to the top of this climb, there’s another plywood-covered cattle grate. But…we’re 1,500 feet above sea level. What’s a cattle grate doing up here?
I glance at my computer, and see that my elapsed time is 37:37. Hmmm…the course record is 37:26. I still have four miles to go. I guess the record is safe.
High above Stinson Beach – don’t miss the view Bob!
• Mile Nine
The race is really starting to string-out now. Everyone is single-file as we cross the first two of the Seven Sisters. The views from up here are just amazing! You can see all the way down to Stinson Beach, nearly 2,000 feet below us. If you dare take your eyes off the road, you can catch a glimpse of Point Reyes in the distance. If you look hard enough, you might even be able to see the Farallon Islands sitting about 20 miles out west in the Pacific.
• Mile Ten
The biggest of The Seven Bitches…er, um…Sisters…is ahead. I glance up and see the hill going up…and up…and up. OK, maybe it’s less than a half-mile climb, but after ten miles of racing, it looks like a wall. I suck down a few slurps of Hammer Gel, and almost gag myself trying to get that last bit of energy before the big climb.
• Mile Eleven
I can see the top of the climb. I’ve been steadily gaining on the two guys in front of me, and at crest the hill, I remember the words of one of my old running coaches. He told me to always push over a hill. Most people let-up a bit at the top, but if you can keep pushing until you’re on the downhill, you’ll leave them all behind you. I try it. It works! I’m flying for the finish now.
Mt. Tamalpais gains 2000 feet in 7 miles – ouch.
• Mile Twelve
I can see the finish line in the distance. There’s one rider between me and line. Should I try and chase ‘em down? I give it a burst of energy, start to close the gap, and then realize that it’s a woman up ahead. Knowing that some of my friends are waiting for me at the finish, I decide that it would be bad form to make a pass in the last few yards, so I ease up and let her cross the line ahead of me.
• The Finish
The clock reads 53:13. A great sense of relief, and accomplishment, comes over me. To survive this trek up Mt. Tam is truly a badge of honor. I see my friend Kevin O’Donnell at the finish, and ask him how his ride went. “Well,” he says, “it was OK, but I almost got sick on the big climb. I had to tell the guy next to me, ‘You better not stay on my right…I might throw up on you!’”
I wonder who won? Chris Phipps is the local favorite, and I ask one of the race officials how he did. “Third place, in 40:50,” he says. Third? Who was first? “Lucas Euser beat Ned Overend by just one second…40:31 to 40:32.”
Ned Overend? The mountain bike hero? The guy they call “The Lung” rode the Mt. Tam Hill Climb? Wasn’t he racing Tyler Hamilton to the top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire just a couple of weeks ago? “Yeah, I was out here visting my mom and three sisters. I looked on the web site, and saw that the race was this weekend, so I entered,” he said. “I won it in the ‘80s sometime…it been like 20 years. The equipment’s a little better now.”
Chris Phipps (The Local) and Ned Overend (The Lung) – funny how you can always spot an mtb guy.
Just one year ago, Chris Phipps was a Cat 5 rider…now he’s racing Ned Overend up Mt. Tam. Ned gave Phipps the ultimate compliment, telling me that, “He’s got a heck of a motor.”
It was a heck of a day for everyone who survived the Mt. Tam Hill Climb. I’ve got to admit…I had a great time. And for further proof that it was indeed my day, as I rode back to the starting line, a piece of paper was blown across the road in front of me. I stopped to see what it was. To my surprise, it was a five dollar bill.
Yeah, this really was my day.