Few climbs hold as much mystique and defiance as Mt. Baldy. This iconic ascent has presented a stern test of cycling chutzpah for decades, earning regular recognition from the media and “queen stage” status at the Tour of California. Depending on a rider’s starting point in either Upland or Claremont, this route gains approximately 5000 feet of elevation in just 12 miles. That equates to an average 7% grade, give or take. It’s a pro’s profile. We’re talking Alpe d’Huez numbers.
What makes Baldy such a leg-breaker, however, is the fact that it gets steeper as you get higher. The last four miles or so, from Baldy Village to the summit at the base of the ski lifts, average 11.2% The inside line on a couple of the switchbacks near the top almost require a grappling hook. A final, straight kick skyward often has even the mountain goats employing the desperate, paperboy zig-zag technique. The air gets thin up here too, with the road mercifully ending 6200 feet above sea level.
Images by Phil Beckman/PB Creative
Naturally, somebody has the audacity to hold a race on this sadistic stretch of pavement. And, of course, riders actually show up to do it. For the last three years, Brad House of Back On Track Productions has issued the challenge. According to House, he isn’t the first promoter to make the call to arms: “This is an historical event that went on for many years but ended probably 20 years ago. We brought it back and decided to start it in Upland instead of Claremont. It’s little shorter than it used to be back in the day. The first year we had about 40 enter, last year is was around 60, and this year over 80 started.”
The “Hotter ‘n Hell Hill Climb at Mount Baldy” is staged time trial style, with competitors starting one at a time every thirty seconds. This year it wasn’t too hot, but there was very little wind (which usually assists riders up the canyon) under clear skies, making the race seem just as warm as its name suggests, plus a bit slower overall.
The best time of the day was recorded by Aliso Viejo, California’s, Alexander Kusztyk (MRI Endurance Elite U23), who topped the hill with a 1:03:03. This was well off the record held by former Pro Neil Shirley (58:24), but still a huge accomplishment for a 20-year-old Category 2 cyclist. As we learned, Kusztyk (as in “acoustic” guitar) is quite familiar with this road.
“I got second place last year,” he reminded us. “Today I got first overall, so I’m happy about that. I train on Mt. Baldy and Glendora Mountain Road a lot. I paced myself really well today, relying on my heart rate mostly. I made sure to keep it within the powerband I’m comfortable with. I’ve done it so many times I know exactly where I can push myself and where I need to ease back a little. I feel I prepared well for this. I did the Mt. Whitney stage race last week and got third. Today was not as hot as last year—that was a nice surprise—but it was not windy either, so that didn’t really help. It’s nice when there’s a tailwind going up the climb. I just got in a groove and made it happen. You have to be patient and ride within yourself. You have to wait till the end, for the switchbacks, before you start really putting in your hard effort.”
On the other side of the coin, Monique “Pua” Mata (Sho-Air/Cannondale) smashed the women’s record with virtually no course knowledge. This endurance mountain bike champion raised a lot of eyebrows with a stunning 1:03:58, good for fourth overall best time of the day.
According to this laid-back athlete from Yucaipa, California, “I haven’t done a road race in a while. It was a super-last-minute decision. I’ve never gone up Mt. Baldy that way, so I didn’t know what to expect. My strategy was to just redline it from the beginning. I knew it could be bad, but I had nothing to lose. It was good training to just go as hard as I could and see what happens. I figured it was better to possibly blow up than have regrets that I maybe could have gone harder.
“About halfway through I was saying ‘Oh, this hurts.’ I knew what was ahead of me from the village; I always go up the GMR way and come down Baldy. When I got to the village I knew that was the section that really pushes you. I had my power meter and I saw where my numbers were and what I should hit. It was really hard, and there were times I asked myself why I’d signed up for this, but it’s all good,” Mata concluded.
Words and images by Phil Beckman/PB Creative