Touching the sky on one wheel | AspenTimes.com

Touching the sky on one wheel

Nate Peterson

Aspen local Mike Tierney pedals his unicycle up Mount Washington in northern New Hampshire Aug. 20. Tierney set the new course record for a unicyclist in the annual Mount Washingon Hill Climb, finishing in 1 hour, 45 minutes. (Philbrick Photography)

The fog, like wisps of cotton, was so thick it cut visibility to 15 feet at most. Lashing wind roared across the bare mountainside, at times coming in bursts so fierce, it knocked riders to the ground. And, once off the bike, it was almost impossible to get back on and resume climbing. With an average gradient of 12 degrees, including stretches with 18 percent grades, the amount of kinetic energy required to resume pedaling forced scores of riders to start back downhill, then quickly swing back around.They were typical conditions for the Mount Washington Hill Climb in northern New Hampshire on Aug. 20 – renowned in cycling circles as one the toughest hill climbs in the world.What was atypical was the 45-year-old man from Aspen on his unicycle who continued to pass packs of cyclists as he strained toward the top of the 6,288-foot summit.When the race was finished, Mike Tierney, a ski patroller at Aspen Highlands in the winter and part owner of Aspen Solar, had eclipsed a third of the riders in the field of 600, finishing 399th overall. His time of 1 hour, 45 minutes and 27 seconds on the 7.6-mile course, which featured 4,700 feet of vertical climbing, set a new record in the unicycle division. The previous record of 2 hours, 19 minutes was recorded the previous year by the first unicyclist to ever complete the course.

Tierney didn’t make the trek out to Mount Washington to set a new record, however.”My whole goal was to have fun and finish,” said Tierney, who easily beat the other two unicyclists in the field. “It’s the steepest road I’ve ever been on. We had to sign up in February, so I knew for six months that I was going to do it. I had no clue how steep it really was until I drove [the road] Friday just before the race. It had me shaking in my boots.”For good reason. The private paved road that winds its way up to the mountain’s summit is only open to cyclists one day a year – for the Hill Climb – and is so steep that riders are not allowed to ride down because there are no guard rails. Two-thousand feet of the ascent is above tree line, leaving riders exposed to the harsh winds and fickle weather indigenous to the rugged Presidential Range in the northern part of the state. The average wind speed atop Mount Washington is 35 mph, but gusts regularly reach above 100 mph. The fastest wind speed ever recorded was 234 mph in 1934. The mountain also receives an average of 225 inches of snow each year.

“There’s 500-year-old trees on that mountain that are 3 feet tall,” Tierney said. “It’s a really rugged landscape. It’s unbelievable to think that anyone would ever want to build a road there.”While Tierney didn’t have to contend with any snow during his arduous ascent, he did have to fend off the unrelenting wind. The dense fog near the summit also gave him a sense of being alone at the end of the world somewhere. “I got blown off my unicycle by the wind,” Tierney said. “Because it’s so steep, you have to almost be plumb to the earth. It was really hard to get going again. It ends up that your whole upper body is leaning forward.”Aimee Vasse of Grosse Point Park, Mich., spent more than five minutes trying to get back on her bike after the wind knocked her down, yet still managed to be the first female racer across the line with a time of 1:12:38 – an anecdote Tierney recounted to illustrate the Hill’s Climb’s difficulty.

Maybe the most memorable thing about the Hill Climb, aside from setting a new course record, Tierney said, was being able to spend a few minutes with Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton of Boulder, who won the race with a time of 51:11. Hamilton, who was suspended by the International Cycling Union in September 2004 for alleged blood doping, was allowed to compete in the race because it is unaffiliated with the ICU. His appeal to be reinstated into the professional ranks is scheduled to be heard by a standing panel of three judges in Denver on Wednesday. Hamilton had entered the Hill Climb with hopes of beating the course record of 49:24 set by Thomas Danielson of East Lyme, Conn., in 2002.”It was pretty cool to hang with the winner,” Tierney said. “Overall, I had a great day. Coming from altitude, it always helps.” Nate Peterson can be reached at npeterson@aspentimes.com