Unicyclist continues to conquer the impossible
August 14, 2006
After more than 27 miles and some 7,500 feet of climbing, the unicyclist couldn’t pedal anymore. The finish line was only 500 meters off in the distance, but it might as well have been 500 miles away.Mount Evans had won. Mike Tierney had lost. For nearly four hours on July 22, the nation’s highest paved road had yielded to the will of the 47-year-old local as he strained atop his solitary 36-inch wheel. But when it mattered most, the mountain refused to roll over. His right quad and hamstring frozen from cramps, Tierney hopped off his bike, hobbled to the side of the road and sat on a rock to stretch and meditate.”I don’t know, I just believe in that stuff,” said Tierney, a part-time Aspen Highlands ski patroller and president of Aspen Solar Inc. “I just do it from time to time to gain energy. I’m a spiritual person.”After about three minutes, Tierney sensed something and opened his eyes. He found himself in a staring match with an idle mountain goat. The pair’s eyes remained locked for a few seconds, before Tierney, suddenly re-energized, jumped on his bike and began to pedal.”[The mountain goat] was a sure sign to me that everything was going to be all right,” wrote Tierney, a human mountain goat himself, in a blog detailing his ride. “Sure enough, the cramp was gone and I was ready to cross that finish line on my unicycle.”
A few minutes later, with tears of joy streaming down his face, he did cross that line, to raucous cheers from the riders already on top of the mountain. He was among an elite class of 950 to complete this year’s Bob Cook Memorial race, a near-annual event since 1962.Yet his ride was different from all the rides that cyclists have made up the peak since the first running of the race.Tierney was the first man ever to ever attempt – and complete – the race on one wheel.”It’s the toughest hill climb I’ve ever done,” said Tierney, who set the unicycle record last August at the Mount Washington Hill Climb in New Hampshire – the steepest organized road race in the United States. “Because of the elevation, and because it’s so long, even though the road does flatten out in parts, you don’t really get to recover ever. The higher you get, the harder it is. Near the top, there is half as much oxygen as there was at the start.”There are profound differences between the roads up Mount Evans and Mount Washington, Tierney said. The paved track in New Hampshire has an average gradient of 12 degrees and includes stretches with 18-percent grades – unmatched anywhere else in the country. But from start to finish, the road is only 7.6 miles long and ascends to a peak that is only 6,288 feet.The road for the Mount Evans Hill Climb is a 28-mile grind that sets out from an elevation of 6,500 feet – 300 feet higher than the summit of Mount Washington.
“It’s epic by any standard,” Tierney said. “[The Mount Evans Hill Climb] is a race that draws a certain breed of bike racer. It’s not everybody you see that rides down the road who will do a climb like this. We’re some pretty sick individuals.”Tierney thought he was going to have his sanity questioned by race organizers before the starting gun even went off. He said two officials approached him with unflattering looks on their faces, only to tell him to move his race number to a more visible spot on his bike.He was allowed to start, but other than himself, Tierney said no one really expected him to finish. Everyone was cheering for him, sure. But a guy on a unicycle conquering Mount Evans?The mountain chews up its fair share of two-wheeled cyclists every year, including more than 200 last month.As he continued to tick off the miles, however, Tierney said his confidence grew with each pedal stroke. Nine miles, the first view of the summit. Then 13 miles, marked by the sight of Echo Lake. Then, at mile marker 22, the first view of the observatory at the top of the mountain. From there, just 15 more switchbacks to go, including a fated meeting with a wild animal near the very last one. “It’s a massive amount of energy that you get from other people,” Tierney said. “When you get mutual respect from the best bike racers in the state, and Colorado has a lot of the best in the world living right here, it’s empowering.
“I’d say I got comments from at least 90 percent of the riders as they passed me or I passed them. They’d say, ‘You’re a [expletive] legend, man. You’re the shit, you’re the boss, you’re on top of the world.’ I just couldn’t help but give that respect back. I was like, ‘Hey, man, you’re up here doing great, too.’ Keep it going, you know. It’s just really, really mutual. I know I probably energized a lot of people.”What’s next for Tierney? He said his work with Aspen Solar has kept him so busy this summer that he doesn’t plan to head back to Mount Washington later this month. His busy schedule also forced him to cancel a trip to the southwest corner of the state, where he hoped to ride over Wolf Creek Pass, Slumgullion Pass and Spring Creek Pass.There’s still next summer, however, and Tierney already has his eye on some more “epic” hill climbs.”I’d like to do this race in Arizona,” he said. “I’d also like to do some of the hill climbs that are in the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. … I’m not a young guy anymore, but I’ve still got a lot of energy. There’s still so many hills I want to climb.”Mountains, beware of the one-wheeled man.Nate Peterson’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org