Whiteface Uphill 2007 Race Writeup

Hey everybody -

I and 4 other unicyclists raced last Saturday in the Whiteface Mountain Uphill Bike Race.

My writeup is here. At that URL are some links to the professional race photographer’s site of us unicyclists.

I’ve included the text below.

Whiteface Mountain Uphill Bike Race.
June 16, 2007; 7.9 miles, 3555 feet elevation gain

On June 16, 2007, I entered the Whiteface climb for the third year in a row. In 2005 I was the first person ever to climb this mountain road on a unicycle, and in 2006 I was still the only racer in the one-wheeler category. My time in 2005 was an agonizing 1:59:14, as a relative beginner. Due to some equipment adjustments and much better technique, in 2006 I bettered my own record with a 1:25:53. But it’s easy to hold the record if one is the only entrant.

By the time this year’s race rolled around (pun intended), I’d managed to interest other masochistic uni riders and when the starting gun went off, five unicyclists began wobbling toward the distant and oh-so-lofty peak of Whiteface Mountain. The other racers were Mark Premo and Bill Merrylees from Vermont, Eric Scheer from Rhode Island, and Max DeMilner from Maine.

I had been training even harder than last year, but all my opponents had strong resumes. Mark and Eric are both bike racers and training gurus. Bill is a 30-year veteran of the sport, and he’d been beating Mark to the top of some big hill climbs in Vermont. And Max, only 20 years old, had recently completed an unsupported 1000 mile unicycle tour of New England. Everybody entered this race with reason to believe they might win our race-within-a-race up this grueling hill.

Of course, I really wanted to win the unicycle category, but I also had two goals besides winning. My first priority was breaking my record of 1:25:53 and my second aim was to do the whole climb without a dismount. In 2005 I’d dismounted to rest my ailing, flailing body dozens of times, but in 2006 I’d stopped only 5 times. If I accomplished both objectives, I knew it would take a heck of an effort for anyone to beat me.

Eric arranged to drive from Rhode Island to my house in Albany, New York, and we drove up to the race in Wilmington NY together. We arrived around 2:30 PM and joined Mark and his friend Dawn, who became our capable team manager and driver. Bill and Max arrived shortly and the entire unicycle contingent of the race gathered in the parking lot of the aptly-named Grand View Motel. As we stood drinking water, munching high-energy foods, taking group photos, and jittering our pre-race jitters, we looked west, directly up at the hulking mass and sharp peak of Whiteface Mountain, a “grand view” indeed. My friends looked at me with varying levels of incredulity when I informed them that that’s where we’d be riding to in a couple hours’ time.

Then we took our cycles and went down to register and pick up our race-packets. We all had various rigs, ranging from Eric’s 24-inch wheel, Bill’s 26, Mark’s 27, my 29, and last, but certainly not least, Max’s 36-inch big wheel. The bikers, most of them gear-heads, had many questions for us, but mostly they swarmed around Max and his 36er, a wheel larger than they’d ever seen before.

Some of the unicyclists had driven the race’s first three mile stretch, up to the toll booths, and when they came down, Mark said it didn’t look very steep and he thought Max, with the big wheel, was the new favorite. I said, “I don’t know, dude. It may not look steep from inside a car, but when you’re riding up it, it’s relentless.” Many of the uphill biking addicts, who know me from previous Northeast hill climbs, asked me if I’d be able to defend my record, and I honestly said I didn’t know. I thought the big wheel was effectively too hard of a gear to push up that hill, but I was worried.

Back at the hotel we all made our final preparations and hydrations, and Dawn took off in the car for the summit where she’d meet us after the race. Since the hotel was only one mile, all downhill, to the starting area, we opted to ride our unis down there. We must have made quite a sight: a veritable parade of five brightly colored unicyclists, riding in a tight line down the shoulder of Route 86.

Nearing the start, we passed a group of young female cyclists resting in the shade of a tree before the race. Smiling and whooping at us, one singled out young Max on the 36er and shouted “Are you riding that huge wheel in the race?” Max said, “Yeah, do you think I’ll win?” She replied “Yeah, and you’ll look hot doing it!” I turn to see Max grinning hugely and he said “That’s the best comment I’ve ever gotten.”

Just before the race, as I was conserving energy in the shade of a building, Mark and Bill were riding around, basking in the attention of the gathering racers. Bill’s lifelong obsession with unicycles has given him fine skills and he was idling, one-foot riding and generally wowing one and two-wheel riders alike with his prowess. Unfortunately, as he performed a graceful pirouette, there was a loud “SPROING” and he dismounted, reached down, and pulled a broken spoke out of his wheel. If that happened to me I would have fretted and worried, but Bill, a Vermonter to the core, just laughed and, nonchalantly holding the spoke, said that’s why his wheel had 35 more.

Soon we were lining up in the first wave of cyclists at the starting line and the starter was saying “ONE MINUTE!” I can’t speak for everyone, but all the anticipation and smack-talking from the preceding months and all the pent-up energy had my stomach doing flip-flops. As I stood there, I became ridiculously focused on when to put my foot on the pedal in preparation to free-mount. The importance of this magnified and I could think about nothing else until the starter jolted me out of my trance with his shout of “TEN SECONDS!” I blinked, took a deep breath and raised my right foot onto the pedal.

The horn went off and I hopped on, dimly aware of Mark doing the same in my peripheral vision. I now thought of nothing but getting into a rhythm of spinning my feet, relaxing my upper body to conserve energy for the unremitting mountain climb ahead. The bicyclists began to string out and I passed a few of the slower riders as I realized that Mark was still in front of me. He’s inexperienced, with less than a year of unicycling, but extremely fit, so despite some flailing, he’d had a good start and I had to consciously stop myself from sprinting to catch him. As I steadied myself on the seat’s front handle and kept my pace constant, I slowly, but surely reeled him in. As I got next to him he quipped “I had to get in front for the cameras”.

I laughed but kept spinning, wondering where the others were but not wanting to waste the energy to twist around to see. As my heart rate and breathing increased and my thighs began to feel their first strains, I pedaled past the cone marking the first mile of progress. I joked with a biker next to me that it’s not that encouraging to say “one eighth of the way there”. We’d now begun to taste real pain and fatigue, and the one-mile marker is a slap in the face reminding us that we’ve barely started the huge task in front of us. Seeing the steadily climbing road curving endlessly upward didn’t lighten that mood, so I looked down at the pavement in front of me thinking “just spin and breathe, breathe and spin”.

I steadily toiled away the distance and passed the two-mile and then three-mile mark, pedaling at what I thought was the fastest pace I could maintain without burning myself out early. Passing the toll booths at three miles was heartening as I was approaching the halfway point and the slope eases off slightly for the next mile or so. I determined to make the most of the easier grade and kept my wheel spinning, reaching the four mile point, where the angle stiffens to about a ten percent grade on the steepest portion of the course.

(continued below in the next post)

I was tired, the hill reared up visibly in front of me, and I allowed myself a somewhat slower pace on this section of road. I began to wonder about my competition. I knew I’d started pretty fast and felt like if I didn’t stop, I could stay ahead of the other unicycles. The faster bikers from later starting waves were periodically passing me and I was trying to glean information from them about my friends. “How far back are the other unis?”, I asked. I got conflicting answers like “pretty far” and “not too far” at the same time, so the uncertainty of my lead drove me to speed up again.

Riding past the five-mile mark and a sign that said “3307 ft above sea level”, I knew I was about two-thirds of the way through, in distance and elevation. The view of the western Adirondacks was spectacular off to my right, and bikers were still passing me, now with surprised exclamations of “Go uni!” This time when I asked about the other unicyclists’ progress all reports agreed that I was well ahead. I knew I could maintain the lead if I just stayed on the cycle and kept ascending. I was pleased enough to start letting the cyclists in on the secret mantra of my success taught to me by unicyclist climbing guru Mike Tierney: “pain is a good thing”. The bikers already seemed to know this.

Last year, I’d started feeling a bit wobbly in the last part of the race. In retrospect, I think I was in need of replacement electrolytes so, for this year’s race, I’d brought along some packets of energy gel. Since I knew I was approaching mile six, and my stomach was still feeling alright, I decided to suck down a serving of it. The question was, should I go for the strawberry-banana goo, or the double-shot espresso flavor? Those of you that know me can probably guess that I chose the espresso. I prefer that taste and also wanted the included dose of caffeine, so I pulled it out of my bike shirt’s back right-hand pocket (carefully so as not to unbalance myself), tore it open, and squeezed the contents into my mouth.

I’d never tried one of these before and the flavor was sweet and strong, like eating some kind of strange toothpaste. It was a bizarre sensation to pedal around a tilting, frost-heaved roadway and experience such a powerful taste at the same time. I counted myself fortunate that I didn’t gag on it and I quickly rinsed it down with some water from my Camelbak and tried to re-focus on the task at hand.

I rounded a bend and found myself at the six-mile marker where I could look straight up at the race’s finish still over a thousand vertical feet above. The road takes two huge hairpins to get there, but from that angle the view makes getting to the top seem impossible. At this point, I heard “Go, Steve” and I turned to see my bicycling friend Andy Holzman, the man who organizes the Mt. Equinox Uphill Race, slowly catching up to me.

As we turned the first hairpin, the “Lake Placid Turn”, he told me I was way ahead now. That good news, along with this section’s gentler grade and the sugar and caffeine from my energy gel kicking in gave me a surge of power. I started whirling my pedals around madly and flying up the hill. I was keeping a constant distance behind the bikers and none passed me for a half mile or so until the angle resumed a steeper pitch.

I climbed up to the left bank of the last hairpin, the “Wilmington Turn”, and got my first glimpse of the stunning view off to the north and east which was previously blocked by the mountain. The panorama of mountains and sparkling-jewel lakes receding into grey infinity across the Adirondacks of New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont was the cherry on top of my race day.

I sped around the turn with purpose and charged between high rock walls of the final straightaway. The wind, which blew me off the unicycle twice in this home stretch last year, was merciful and I realized that I was going to win the uni category and do the entire ride with no dismounts. The only thing I didn’t know at that point was how my time would compare to my previous best.

At last I could see the clock and it was clicking a little past 1:20, so I ecstatically realized I was also going to set a new record. The crowd cheered loudly as I approached and finished. I saw more than a few surprised faces and even a couple expressions of confusion, where the people seemed to be wondering “How’d he get up here among all these bikes?” I set my jaw and pedaled as fast as I could until I crossed the line, with a 1:20:56 official time, 4 minutes and 57 seconds better than last year. I high-fived my way up to the refreshment table and grabbed a Gatorade. Turning around, I remounted and rode back down to the finish line, basking in the effortlessness of riding the slight down-slope, to cheer on my fellow uni-riders.

The next one-wheeler to pedal into sight was Mark, still swinging his upper body around like a shadow-boxer, but taking the silver medal with a 1:30:48, amazing for a guy who couldn’t even ride a unicycle a year ago. Then came Eric, not far behind with a time of 1:33:18 for the bronze, which wasn’t too bad considering he’d yacked his lunch out in the bushes around mile two. Next, after not too long, came our veteran, Bill, none the worse for his broken spoke with a time of 1:46:21.

We all waited for Max and his 36 inch wheel, discussing how insane a task it would be to push the huge gear of that wheel up to the top of this mountain. Unfortunately, we didn’t see him until the sag-wagon, the pickup truck sweeping the course for riders who opted out at one point or another, drove into view. He was sitting, somewhat dejected in the back. Although he’d finished his water supply by mile two, he’d mashed his giant wheel all the way to mile seven, when the sag wagon offered him a ride up. As only a fellow unicyclist who’s ridden such a beast could know, the effort it took to get that cycle that high is more than anyone else in the race put out that day. We all gave Max a big group hug and assured him that, even though he didn’t quite finish, almost no one on earth could have done what he did.

I recognized the expressions on all the other unicyclists that I felt so strongly my first year. It’s a sort of shell-shocked look that every first timer here gets, a realization of just how much work it is to climb that mountain, and how satisfying it is to finish. After the delicious barbeque and the awards ceremony, we all sat around outside the hotel and rehashed our big, much-anticipated day. By then, some of the pain had already faded and everyone was already talking about next year. They were hash out the changes they would make to their training and equipment to improve their times and take another run at my record. I’m starting to worry again, and from their attitudes, I’d better start training now.

Another excellent writeup! I remember reading your account of your first assault in 2005; it made an excellent article. What was your tire and crank length? I agree a Coker would be a beast to haul up such a steep course, though I don’t doubt Mike Tierney would beat me even if I was riding a zero-pound 45-incher (mine weighs around 29). A Coker might work with some nice long cranks, but it’s the weight! At that sort of grade I’d think a light unicycle would actually matter.

I’m surprised at you for eating something you’ve never tried in the middle of your race! Fortunately it didn’t gross you out, as some people get the cooties when they try those things. Brings back bad memories from kindergarten paste-eating or something. But they definitely work for me! I sucked down several on the Tahoe ride (Power Gel was free at the rest stops). For that ride I was careful to not try out any new shoes, shorts, foods, etc. for the ride. Inadvertently I ended up riding the first half on a deflated air seat but that’s another story…

Congratulations to you and the whole unicycle category! Sounds like you’d consider our “local” Mt. Diablo Challenge (3300’ or so in around 10 miles) a vacation after that! I’ve done that ride, once, but not on the official day.

Thanks, John!

Arg, I can’t believe I forgot to note my crank length. I went with the longer ones: 165mm. Max had 170s on his Coker.

As to wheel size, I did say:

Well I’ve had a couple gels before, just not espresso flavor.

Great Job everyone on competing! That’s awesome! Steve, you have some monster calves! !exclamation mark!!

seriously though, you guys rock

Big Apple tire? Skinny, hard tire? I guess it has to be pretty big to be 29" on a 700c rim so that pretty much covers it…

Bummer about Max not being able to make it. But you can’t always control how your body will feel on race day. Sometimes the body can get get out of sorts. I’ve had days like that before.

From looking at the profile and general data I’d say that climb is Cokerable in race conditions. I’ve done sustained climbs (more than a mile) that were in the 8-9% range on the Coker. That’s a very manageable grade for a Coker. The question for a race being is the extra weight of the Coker worth the bigger wheel size. But for just climbing that route a Coker would be very doable.

Congratulations on your win. What a thrill. Great write-up and great ride.

Awesome write-up, well done to all the riders and especially Steve!


Way to go Steve! You are an inspiration! I share your happiness and wish that I could have joined you guys!



Steve, I got tired just reading that narrative! What a terrific accomplishment. I can’t conceive of riding a uni up a 10% grade and to do the whole stretch without a dismount is really impressive. I’m not even sure I could make it to the top on my road bike (even with Gu).

That was a well written wrap up that really conveyed what the experience must have been like. Thanks for sharing it.

Thanks, guys.

My ride, which I most certainly should have put in my writeup: KH29, BA2.0 tire (pumped up to 50psi), 165 cranks, KH Freeride Seat.

I think it would be Cokerable, but the race-route has absolutely nothing less than 6% grade (avg 8%) for 8 straight miles. I think it’s the wrong tool for the job. It would a slow agonizing stair-stepper, like my first year’s experience when I had too little strength and technique and 150s instead of 165s. I might try 150s one day, but that first year I couldn’t spin them and had to mash one step at a time. I was in he||.

awesome Steve, I thought for sure you’d be second this time :wink:

Here’s a couple nice summit pics by a fellow racer: (Patrick Campbell)

Nice write-up Steve. It was really fun to join you on the climb, although I suffered more than I expected!

A few hours before the race, Max and I drove the lowest three miles of the course, and both of us thought it didn’t look that bad. It was certainly less steep than the 4.5 mile climb at Bolton ski area in Vermont where I’d done a few training rides. I decided to ride on my 28 instead of the 26 like I’d planned. It turned out to be a mistake. I didn’t need to dismount until mile 4, but from there on I needed to stop every quarter mile or so to breathe and get my heart rate down. While I was riding I was keeping pace with the bikers on the course (not the fastest bikers at this point) but the stops cost me a lot of time.

My lesson - stay with the race day plan! This time I rode on a 28 with 175 cranks, but next year I won’t underestimate this climb; I’ll be on my 26 with 170’s, hopefully spinning the whole way.

At the top I was greeted enthusiastically by fellow wheelers Mark & Eric, followed by Steve, who tells me I’m an animal! Steve, you are one MAJOR animal, and a great promoter of our sport!


Bah, doesn’t look that steep


Nah, it’s easy :roll_eyes: . In fact, next year you should ride this on your 36UW! I’d buy the beer if you did that!

great write up and time. reading about it makes me want to get out there next year.

Great write-up, it made me want to climb! It sure takes good mental toughness for a race like that.
Congrats to all of you!
And much respect to you Steve!!!

Beer is a buck a bottle here…

Actually, Billythemountain will probably have the uw36 at that point :wink: