I completed the Horribly Hilly Hundreds (HHH) 100K+ yesterday. The route is 72 miles long with 5,700 feet of climbing and takes cyclist through the hilly kettle moraine country in southwestern Wisconsin. The HHH is one of three cycling events held in this area, the Dairyland dare and the Insane Terrain Challenge are also held every summer. The HHH is considered to be the most difficult century ride in the Midwest, but the other two events are also very difficult. Most people would agree that all three rides are both beautiful and extremely challenging.
The HHH 100K ride for me started with my alarm going off at 2 a.m. on June 19. I was apprehensive about what lay ahead of me that day despite having ridden 5000 miles in 2009 and improving on my fitness this year. I had ridden in this area three weeks prior and exhausted myself completely and had to shorten the ride. The prior weekend I rode with a HHH veteran who encouraged riding as slowly as possible on every incline. Using my heart rate monitor, I would make every effort to keep my heart rate low on the flats and not exceed 160 bpm on the climbs. A perfect pre-dawn morning greeted me when I opened the door and climbed in my car for the three hour ride. Around 5:30 a.m. I arrived at the parking lot at the top of the Blue Mound.
Many riders had already arrived and some were even leaving before 7 a.m., probably to avoid the mass start. The sight of cars, bumper to bumper, entering the parking area and the sounds of bikes being unloaded and friends greeting one another gave me a real sense something special was about to happen. The popularity of this ride is truly amazing.
I started in a line of riders. I drifted towards the back of the pack to enjoy the colorful sight of the long line of riders ahead of me. The first big downhill on County Road K, north of Barneveld, brought everyone into Walnut Hollow at the base of Blue Mound. From here we climbed 620 feet up Mounds Park Road. The pavement is marked with the grade, 15%, 16% and other numbers, this was not what I needed to know. I followed my plan and stopped once my heartrate hit 160. I took pictures and waited for my body to recover. Other riders were walking it. How many of them knew that they would be climbing this one a second time at the end of the ride? Were many of them already wondering how they were going to respond to the challenge of the other 13 major hills ahead? Many of the early climbs were shaded, which kept them cool and quiet. At times the only sounds I heard were derailleurs downshifting and the soft chatter between riders, as they encouraged each other.
I think riders are drawn to the HHH for the challenge of climbing. But for every uphill there is a corresponding big downhill. At the top of many hills there is a panoramic view of the Wisconsin countryside. No better view and downhill can be found on the HHH than those experienced on County F at Brigham County Park. The view to the north towards the Wisconsin River valley is inspiring. And the downhill, which follows shortly thereafter, may be the best descent in the state. Descending 760 feet over four miles can trick some riders into thinking the HHH isn’t so challenging a ride.
A right turn onto Blue Mounds Trail Road quickly brought back into focus the real test HHH presents. A climb up Sand Ridge started shortly after crossing Elvers Creek, rising 260 feet in the next three-quarters of a mile effectively taking back almost all of the altitude lost in the descent from Brigham County Park. Two high-speed descents and another long climb brought the ride out to State Highway 78, where a Dane County sheriff’s deputy was positioned to assist riders making the turn onto Moen Valley Road.
I climbed the increasingly difficult stepped hill on Moen Valley Road and enjoyed it. To be on this shaded climb on a cool, sunny morning with dozens of other riders has always given me a big shot of adrenaline, which has helped me look forward to the upcoming trials. I very attractive lady cyclist coached me up the hill: “make smooth circles with each turn of the crank”. I was a little too embarrassed to chat at that point. I kept telling myself “take it slow, avoid heavy demands, save yourself for the finish”.
The 1 1/2-mile stretch of riding on County Road KP after the Union Valley Road descent is the only truly flat section of road on the 100K route. I cannot think of any other ride where a flat section of road would be noteworthy.
The reality of the HHH is quickly reestablished with the steep climb on Schebel Road up to the first rest stop of the ride at Festge Park. There hundreds of riders seek relief, nourishment and friends from whom they had become separated.
One of the most notorious climbs on the HHH is encountered soon thereafter. This section is just over a quarter-mile long, but in that distance it gains 240 feet with an average 13 percent grade. Again, I stopped and allowed my heartrate to recover. In the middle of this climb may be the point on the HHH where riders intending on completing the 200K route decide maybe 100K is enough. 200K riders who struggle badly on Barlow Road and on the next steep climb on Mineral Point Road are much more likely to get off the 200K route by continuing straight on County Road J instead of turning right onto Greenwald Road.
I took J and the 100k route, as planned. A 20 mph headwind was hitting us with full force, but this section is mostly downhill. I found myself passing riders and traveling in the 35 to 45 mph range. Several riders dropped in behind me and a small paceline formed up. At this point in the HHH there is only one steep climb on Zwettler Road to negotiate before Rest Stop No. 2 on County Road K. The climb op Zwettler has an 18% section. I surprised myself by completing the climb without walking. Noting my heartrate was above 160, I stopped again and took more pictures. I also ate and drank well. Feeling good, I was able to skip the second rest stop. My plan was working.
Every rider leaving Rest Stop No. 2 has a very important decision to make before continuing. If they decide to finish the ride as they set out to do, they will have to endure three major climbs over the next 15 miles before encountering the final climb to the finish. If they elect to take the shortcut, they will still have to survive the final climb, but the finish is only 3 1/2 miles away. I elected to finish the 100K HHH route as designed.
The first major climb on the last portion of the HHH is sadistically 1 1/2 miles from the rest stop. It is not a good idea to undertake this climb on a full stomach with muscles that have cooled down from a long rest. Pinnacle Road ascends 310 feet in a half mile at a 12 percent pitch. I knew getting to the top was just the start of the hardest part of courses.
Yet to come were 400-foot, three-quarter-mile climbs on Lake View Road, with a maximum grade of 11 percent, and County Road T into Barneveld. Fortunately, there are also a couple of very fast downhills on good pavement on Knudson and Bryn Gyrwen roads between all uphills. The downhills are nice rewards. The shifting routine was notable. With 30 speeds I would shift across the range and use a few of my lowest gears or a few of my highest gears. It became shift, shift of the front triple crankset and shift, shift, shift, shift, shift, shift, shift, shift, shift, shift at the rear. The two miles between Barneveld and the last downhill on Ridge View Road allows one to refocus in time to tackle the last difficult climb of the ride. Saving the biggest challenge of the ride for the end is devious but ultimately empowering.
When you turn onto Mounds Park Road after a short jog on County K from Ridge View Road, you can see the top of the Blue Mound looming on the horizon. Over the final 3.5 miles of HHH, 925 feet of elevation are gained. I believe this has to be the most difficult finish to any bike ride currently in existence in Wisconsin. When Mounds Park Road crosses Blue Mounds Creek, the grade increases to 11 percent and remains there for the next three-quarters of a mile, sections of this climb are 16%. A short 55-foot descent breaks up the climbing just before the ride enters Blue Mound State Park. The last half-mile of the HHH ascends 300 feet at a 12 percent grade bringing you to the highest point in southern Wisconsin.
I stopped before the 16% section for water and to get my heart rate down. I also stopped again in the middle of the climb, one cyclist was suffering from cramps that would go away, and another had simple fallen over and was bruised and bleeding. I made sure they did not need further assistance and waited for them to recover and get moving again under their own power. I was good for the next mile, keeping my speed to 4 -5 mph with a smooth cadence of 50 rpm. The last section as above 15% again. Most of the finishers were walking, I joined them.
Well, I finished! I felt better than many of my flat 200k rides last year. Like skiing, cycling requires technique and mental skill, not just athletic ability. Next year will be better yet. I’ll also do the Dairyland Dare in August. I must be a masochist!
I'll add pictures later today.
Edited by WILDCAT - 6/20/10 at 7:50am