Pikes Peak Hillclimb

Here is my story from the inagural “Assault on the Peak” hillclimb. THis is my favorite hillclimb event so far. I will attach some pics from start to finish as well. Thanks for reading.

             “ASSAULT ON THE PEAK” - CYCLING HILLCLIMB
                           PIKES PEAK, COLORADO  

I ‘m shaking in my boots in preparation for this epic hillclimb up Pikes Peak. This could be the hardest hillclimb event I have ever competed in. The week before was supposed to be spent getting the right nutrition, hydration, and rest. Unfortunately, my workload was so great that most of the pre-ride preparation was not followed. I was as prepared as I was going to be, so I headed over Independence Pass on my way to Manitou Springs. Pikes Peak loomed above all else to the east as I crested Wilkerson Pass. This did not ease my anxiety level, as I couldn’t help but stare at this beautiful, BIG, mountain. Pikes Peak has a storied history, and I was about to live it, on one wheel.
On Sunday August 29, 2010, Summit Cycling Productions, in cooperation with the City of Colorado Springs, The City of Manitou Springs, the U.S. Forest Service and The Pikes Peak Highway, collaberated to put on the inaugural version of “Assault on the Peak”, a cycling event to the top of Pikes Peak. The timed but, “not a race” event started in Manitou Springs and finished at the summit of Pikes Peak 14,115’ above sea level. 326 racers started the day at Memorial Park to classic clear Colorado blue skys. There was every kind of one, two and four wheeled contraptions there. I was on my 29er unicycle, a couple on a tandem, a recumbent, a paraplegic in a hand cycle, elite athletes like two-time road racing world champion and Paralympics medallist Allison Jones, soldiers from the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Carson, and a posse of battery assisted bicycles. Pikes Peak highway has been closed to bicycles, and besides a few championships held there, bicycles have never been allowed. This was the first of its kind event up & down “America’s Mountain”, Pikes Peak.
The elevation profile of the road up this 14er revealed that this was not like any other Colorado Mountain paved road. Total elevation gain is just short of 8,000’ in the 24 miles traveled. The top 5,000’ of elevation gained, from 9,000’ – 14,000’+ is almost all double-digit grade, some above 11%. My home hill, Independence Pass gains 4,000’ in 17 miles and averages around 5.5% grade. Most bicycle enthusiasts consider Independence Pass a hard climb, myself included.
The entire road from Manitou Springs to the summit was closed to vehicles, and what a treat that was. To be able to ride up that mountain and not worry about traffic was one of the highlights for me. Well-staffed aid stations were strategically placed along the route, and provided the necessary nutrition, first aid, and bike repair. Making it to the ½ waypoint feeling really good was awesome for me. The weather was perfect so far, the road was steep in spots up to that point, but the summit didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Soon after the Crystal Reservoir aid station the road ramped up steeply and climbing began in earnest.

I started to pick people off one at a time, very slowly, as I climbed higher and higher. I had heard about a dirt section, somewhere around mile 15. At the same time I hit the dirt section, the winds picked up. I was now challenged with both strong swirling winds, and slippery dirt road. Kneeling on the ground on my hands and knee’s, I catch my breath and get back on my unicycle. Not sure what had happened, just know that I was knocked off the wheel. That was the longest 2.5 miles of dirt road I have ever ridden.
At this point of the ride, a few event cars had come and gone, but the filming crew seemed to be attached to the group I was riding with. Sometimes being filmed pushes you over that aerobic threshold, and on this climb it did not take much to get there. I found myself redlined more often than I like to be, but passing bicycles on a unicycle going up a monster climb is a confidence booster, and I was absorbing all the confidence I could. The Glen Cove aid station came into view, and coincidently the road turned back to pavement.
I wanted to make a point to stop at the aid stations, share some stories, and meet and thank all the volunteers. Glen Cove is the last station below treeline. The west ridge of Pikes Peak envelops it on two sides, so I take refuge there to get out of the wind for a brief moment. My time to here is respectable; 2hr 49min’s with 18 miles ridden so far. I refill my camelbak, hydrate, and take a couple of pics and head back up the road.
Immediately the climb took on a challenge like none other. There was still 6 miles to ride, almost 2,600 vertical feet to climb and major exposure to the elements. Mother nature had given us a mostly clear Colorado blue sky so far. Some cumulus clouds were starting to build above the peak, but it was the invisible vicious winds that would dominate the rest of the ride. Upon reaching the 12,000’ sign on the road, I realized that I was in for the ride of my life. There were bicyclists walking, many of them in their socks, other bicyclists doing the weave, and the rest of us were hanging on to the road. The middle of the road was far less windy than the edge, where getting blown off had a high probability. This extremely windy section was in the famous “W” side cut in the mountain. The switchbacks were so intense, leaning 45 degrees one way then having to switch immediately the other direction. For me on the unicycle, when the road has a double fall line, the riding is very difficult. All switchbacks here have serious double fall line. Head down, talking to myself, I push my way up this beast. I am digging really deep to stay on the wheel and keep moving. I would not want to stop in this section. Rounding up another switchback, I am now pushed from behind so hard by a tailwind that I can’t pedal my unicycle that fast, or slow the pedals down enough, I fall off.

I spoke with a friend later in the ride who had the same sensation, and his Garmin showed that he accelerated to almost 40 mph and felt zero net breeze. These winds were so much worse than I felt on Mt. Washington in 2005, when I entered that hillclimb, and I remember those being the worst ever. These were relentless and so intense. The unforgiving winds were deafening to me, it sounded like being in a jet engine. Sunglasses were getting blown off faces, shoes getting filled with debris, and faces getting a free sand blasting. I raise my head and I see the next aid station, and a relief in the grade to the road as well.
The cute ladies at this aid station were so nice, and had such great smiles. At this point in the ride, I am into deep exercise high, and find myself smiling and laughing at everything said or done. I think I have found nirvana at this moment; life is so good. That is until I look up and see what lies ahead of me. The final cut into the mountain looks straight up, and is very sustained. I see little objects moving along the cut and find it hard to believe that they are people on bicycles. I am still smiling, just not laughing as I get on the 29er one more time for the final push to the summit. The lovely ladies tell me I only have 3 more miles to go, yeah!!! 21 miles complete, 6,600’ vertical feet climbed so far, only approx. 1,400’ feet to climb. This stop is called, “Devils Playground”, maybe that is why I stopped laughing.
The riding here now is easier, only because the road is less steep. I tell the guy next to me this is the sucker flats before it gets really steep, we laugh and enjoy it while we can. The air is now very thin up here. Oxygen up here is 50% less available than at sea level. My cadence is painfully slow, as I grind up this beast. Winds have laid down a little in this section. I have time to think about the climb so far and I get so stocked at how well my body is holding out, over 7,000’ of climbing to this point, with only a couple of short breaks. As Murphy would have it, the second I think that, my right hamstring begins to cramp up. I can see the top, this can’t happen now. I work through it enough to get to a spot where I can stop and stretch. I stretch, relax, take some Endurolytes, and get ready. Mounting back on the 29er unicycle I find myself w/o cramps and spinning along nicely. Then the winds pick up again and the temperature drops dramatically. I have been able to ride so far with only a short sleeve jersey on, but it is getting cold up here now, above 13,000’. I stop and put on a wind jersey and continue on. Finally, after 4 hours, I see the last switchback, I have passed the “Bottomless Pit”, and am riding up a double-digit grade named “Boulder Park”.
This is so steep, my pedals are held motionless. The winds feel like they are pushing me backwards down the hill. Grinding past a few more bicyclists, words of encouragement are traded back and forth. We all know that the summit is close and we are going to make it. BANG, I hit the pavement arms, chest, knees, and face. Startled I pick myself up and look up and see a guy who I guess was drafting me, tangled up in my unicycle. I apologize, regain my composure, and get back on the wheel.

Less than 3 minutes later, I reach the summit with a small crowd gathered. Screams of excitement bellow from my chest, arms automatically rise, and I look to the sky and give thanks and praise to the heavens for such an incredible day and successful ascent of Pikes Peak. The views from the summit are world class and surreal. Colorado Springs looks like a peas sized town far below me. I celebrate my accomplishment with all of the people on top; we all worked hard and enjoy the moment as long as we can. I didn’t want to leave. My ride time is 4hr 40 min; my saddle time is 4 hr 09 min. I finish 147 out of 326 starters, I am happy with that finish, especially being 50 years young and riding on a 29er unicycle!
I have been part of many hillclimb events, all on my unicycle. From Haleakala in Hawaii, to Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, to Mt. Evans in my home state, Colorado. This Pikes Peak hillclimb event has to be the greatest one of them all. It has all of the attributes that climbers look for, steepness, high elevation, exposure to the elements, world-class beauty, and a HUGE elevation gain of almost 8,000’. Mt Washington will lose its “toughest hillclimb” label, if they can make this an annual event, in my opinion. Mt. Evans is tough also, but seemed like a warm up climb to this behemoth! This event did not sell out this year, but it most likely will next year. You cannot ride this road until then, so don’t miss out, put it on your calendar, I will be there.

1st pic = this was my visual when i arrived at start at 6:30 a.m. that is pikes peak towering above the tent, with the summit building light on. only 24 miles and approx. 8,000’ vertical to the top
2nd pic = so excited

3rd pic = getting to treeline approx 11,600’ 3,536 meters
4th pic = just another switchback above treelline 13,000’ 3,963 meters

5th pic = only 2 more switchbacks 13,500’ 4,115 meters
6th pic = totally immersed in the moment 14,110’ 4,301 meters

nice write up
great pictures
awesome event

Congragulations on your accievement.

What an accomplishment!

Excellent write-up Mike, and what an epic achievement. You are a definite motivator; I will remember this story when I get weak during long rides.

Go Mike Go!!

Incredible. Very inspiring! Thanks for the great write-up!

Congratulations! Jacquie said “He’s a monstah!” Very inspiring, and an excellent write-up as usual! Sounds like the 29" was the right wheel for that ascent.

Question: Why are their train tracks at the top of Pikes Peak?

BTW, yesterday I hung in my office at work, this 2004 picture of the NAUCC 10k race, taken by Jacquie. I like it because it came out really nice, and it gives the illusion that I can keep up with you (not to mention the formidable Mr. Hansen as well). It’s in a frame along with this picture as well.

Sweet pics and write up.

Did you hitch a ride down, or did you uni back down?

Wow, great achievement and write up and pictures!

Looks like a gut-buster.

Good work and a nice write-up.

would be a fast ride down on a bike, would be a faster ride down with your unicycle. because you would be in an ambulance.

Awesome Mike! I’ll believe this is the top climb based on your say-so, but your greatest inspiration for me was the still the first entry and finisher in the Iron Horse on a unicycle. Thanks for stretching the limits!

Carey

This is absolutely amazing. A massive congratulations to you!

Awesome! Congratulations!

I really like those pictures, that was a really exciting time for my family and I. Racing, and winning, at an Olympic venue made the event more special. We enjoyed ourselves at our first NAUCC, how about that ride down Snowbird, that was fun:D

I think that I say “this is the best” after everyone of the these big rides that I do. I am so glad that the Iron Horse has that influence on you, that was such an awesome day in the San Juan Mountains for me and the sport of unicycling.

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Did you hitch a ride down, or did you uni back down?
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Great question. I try to remember to let the organizers know that I will be entering on a unicycle, just better PR for the industry. After they got my registration, which I asked about a ride down, they came back and told me that they werent sure if I could enter on a unicycle at all. I sent a nice letter back with my resume, and they (US Cycling) replied telling me that I could ride up, but not down. I had NO problem with that, all I really wanted to do was go up. They had vans shuttling riders back down the mountain, many bicyclists chose that option. I didnt want to miss the party back in Manitou anyway:)

And to the rest of you that sent nice replies, thank you! I appreciate you taking the time to read the story. I like big (rides), climbs and like to write about my experience. That way I can enjoy it again and share it with you all. Glad you all enjoyed it, and if I can motivate or inspire you, what a great bonus!

This picture is not unicycling related, although it was from the day of the Pikes Peak climb. It is from Twin Lakes, which is just 45 minutes from Aspen, just on the other side of Independence Pass. It capped off what was an already amazing day for me, on my drive home.

did any of the bikers that rode back down have brakes left on their bikes at the bottom?

oh, and excellent write up, i enjoyed reading it.

Crazy
Awesome
way to go!
ro

Great job on the climb - one of the hardest paved climbs in the world, I’d bet.

Memories

That is so cool. I used to live right by there in Chipita Park and could take a fire road from my house to the Pikes Peak road and ride my bike down a good stretch of it. The people in the toll booths would give me funny looks as I’d fly past them. Haven’t been in the area for 30 years.

Thanks for all the great pics!