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Pinhkam Notch NH-Cameron Cogburn of Arlington, Massachusetts, has raced his bike five times up the relentlessly steep Mt. Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Four times he has beaten every other cyclist in this race to the top of the highest peak in the northeastern United States -- twice in the Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb, in 2012 and 2013, and twice more, in 2012 and 2014, in Newton’s Revenge, another race held on the same course.
The fifth time, in the 2014 Hillclimb, he finished second, passed only in the final mile by a challenger who paced himself by riding on Cogburn’s shoulder. After spending 2015 away from racing, Cogburn will return this summer to test himself once more on the Auto Road.
“I love riding hard,” said Cogburn last month, adding in the same breath that his main goal this time will be to see just how hard he can ride after a layoff from racing. That layoff has included not only a renewed focus on his academic life – he is a PhD candidate in astrophysics at M.I.T. – but also hernia surgery at the end of May.
“I need to wait until at least mid-July to see how my recovery (from the surgery) goes,” said Cogburn. In terms of post-operation recovery, however, he pointed out that the effort involved in pedaling uphill tends not to aggravate any lingering post-operation discomfort.
Given his past success, Cogburn is the likely favorite to win the 2016 Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb, but he’ll have to contend with last year’s winner, Eneas Freyre of Norwalk, Connecticut, and with perennial challenger Eric Follen of Sanford, Maine.
Two years ago, Freyre finished third in the Hillclimb. His time, 54 minutes 11 seconds, put him just 21 seconds behind Cogburn (53:50), who spent most of the race leading John Kronberg Ebsen of Denmark before Ebsen overtook Cogburn near the summit and won in 52:53. Last year, with neither Ebsen nor Cogburn in the field, Freyre won the race in 53 minutes flat.
One minute behind him in the 2015 Hillclimb was Follen. Earlier that summer, Follen had won Newton’s Revenge in 54:36. Previously, he had finished second in Newton’s Revenge in 2013 and 2014.
A BREAK FROM ASTROPHYSICS
Two years ago, Cogburn competed as a professional rider, but he returned to amateur status when he resumed his studies at M.I.T., where he is focusing on mathematical distribution functions for globular clusters in space, publishing academic papers and seeking a thesis adviser. “I’m not racing now,” he said, “and I may not do another race this year before Mt. Washington – but I hope to do the practice ride.”
Held this year on July 17, the Mt. Washington Hillclimb Practice Ride is an opportunity for Hillclimb entrants to familiarize themselves with the peculiar challenges of the Auto Road five weeks prior to the actual race. The Practice Ride is open only to riders who are already registered for the Hillclimb.
Many variables affect the winning times for these races up the Auto Road. Of these, the least predictable are Mt. Washington’s sometimes extreme winds, with gusts that can exceed 60 mph. in atmospheric conditions that can include damp air, clouds that cover the mountain’s upper slopes – or bright sun and radiant heat.
Cogburn’s best time for the ascent is 50 minutes 48 seconds, which he rode in 2013. Freyre and Follen’s times last year are their fastest. The course record is 49:24, set by Tour de France rider Tom Danielson in 2002.
For years, the women’s field in bike races up Mt. Washington has been dominated by Marti Shea, a New Hampshire native who now lives in Marblehead, Mass. Shea has won Newton’s Revenge half a dozen times and the Hillclimb four times (2010-2012 and 2014), but her coaching responsibilities and her commitment to leading cycling tours in Europe kept her away from Mt. Washington last year, and she is not expected to enter this year’s race. Neither are last year’s two top female finishers, Veronique Fortin and Victoria DiSavino, nor 2013 champion Silke Wunderwald.
In their absence, it is hard to predict the women’s winner for 2016. However, four of the top ten female finishers from last year’s Hillclimb are entered this year: Elizabeth McClintock of Wellesley, Mass. (4th last year), Andrea Myers of Danbury, Conn. (5th), Alexa Gubinski of Fairfield, Conn. (6th), and Rachel Chambers of Bolton, Conn. (9th in 2015).
TIN MOUNTAIN CONSERVATION CENTER BENEFITS
Sponsored by Polartec, with additional support from Cadence Wealth Management, Quad Cycles and a variety of New England businesses, the Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb is the primary annual fundraiser for the Tin Mountain Conservation Center in Albany, N.H. Tin Mountainprovides school programs that reach nearly 5000 students, nature camps for over 300 children, a large series of community nature programs, classes, workshops, excursions and other lessons in the workings of the natural world. Entry fees for the Hillclimb provide crucial support for all these activities and may qualify as a tax deduction for most entrants. The balance of the entry fee covers the cost of substantial logistical support, food, commemorative shirt and other expenses involved in staging the race.
If the Mt. Washington weather on August 20 is sufficiently harsh to make the Auto Road unsafe for cyclists or for their support vehicles, the race may be postponed until the following morning, Sunday, August 21.