There’s one thing everyone (read: me) can’t stop talking about on this year’s Charity Treks route: The Kancamagus Pass! “The Kanc” as it’s affectionately known, is one of the most classic roads to ride in New England. The Kancamagus Pass is the highest paved public road in the state (surpassed by Mount Washington’s auto road--a private toll road, and Jefferson Notch, which is unpaved) and it boasts views deserving of the ride to the top. One more note: It’s pronounced Kank-ah-MAW-gus, major style points will be deducted for anyone caught mispronouncing it during the ride (tip: stick with calling it “The Kanc”).
The Kanc is a major climb, to be sure, but it’s not as daunting as many make it out to be. I’m not saying it’s not a worthy challenge, and a triumphant accomplishment to conquer it, just that you--yes YOU!-- can do it.
OK, it does rather stick out in a profile of the week a whole. But with a smart approach, utilizing some simple, practical tips, you can make a molehill out of this mountain.
How to Survive the Kanc
Just keep spinning just keep spinning!
Keeping your cadence nice and high will help shift the demand of riding to more fatigue-resistant slow twitch muscle fibers in your leg, as well as letting your cardiovascular system pick up a lot of the workload. This will help ensure that you ride strong from the from start to finish, from the bottom of the climb to the top and all week long. This doesn’t necessarily mean riding slowly! Just riding more efficiently at whatever speed you choose. There are two ways to put this tip into practice: First, practice it! Make sure you’re riding in an easy enough gear that allows you to spin at 90+ RPM up most hills. Get a sense for the different feels of riding a higher cadence vs. grinding away in a harder gear, by riding hills on your regular rides in different gears. Try one gear harder or one gear easier on some shorter hills of manageable grade, using a change in your cadence to maintain roughly the same intensity you normally would. Second, get your bike in order. With the popularity of both compact cranksets and medium or long cage rear derailleurs, you can often have your bike set up to ride a 1:1 gear ratio. Check in with your local bike shop to see what your options are here.
Eat well and plentifully all day, and keep carb/water intake up during climb; A harder effort like this climb will shift the fueling demands to more carbohydrates, so plan accordingly. Plan on an intake of 40-60g of carbohydrates for this climb alone. Also practice eating while climbing in the months and weeks before the ride. Pro tip: set you cycling computer to auto-lap and beep at you every 10 minutes. Every time it beeps, take in a little food and hydration.
Don’t burn matches early in the day, don’t burn matches on the climb, resist urge to press too much during the climb. The key thing with a climb of this length is to ride within your ability level, and avoid time above your threshold--the point at which your muscles start to burn and your body starts accumulating lactate faster than it can use it as a fuel.
Mix it up:
Get out of the saddle for 5-10 pedal strokes every 5-10 minutes, stretch your back out and change the demand on your muscles and avoid monotony. This isn’t a big surge in pace, just shift up 1-2x and rise out of the saddle, lowering your cadence to keep your pace roughly the same. Shift back down and get back into the spinning groove.
The challenge of the Kanc is more its length than its grade. From Loon Mountain to the top it’s 10.5 miles @ 3%. The real meat of the climb is the last 5 miles @ 5%, but it’s a steady 4-5% this whole stretch never steeper than 6%. And it only just touches 6% at the end, when the top of the climb and all the attendant glory of your achievement will be plainly in view in front of you.
“But Ian-- I don’t have a 1-hour climb to practice on!” You might object. That’s OK! You can prepare on hills of any length, or terrain of any type, really. If you have a hill that is at least a few minutes in length nearby, you can practice repeats on that at around 90% of your max effort, recovering for a few minutes in between each rep. For instance, 1-2 times a week, ride a 5-minute hill effort, starting with 3-4 reps, and building up by adding 1-2 reps each week until you get to 8-9 reps a couple of weeks before the ride. Adding intensity like this will help you develop more muscular strength and cardiovascular power, allowing you to ride longer more easily, and survive long steady climbs like Kanc without too much difficulty. No hills where you live? None at all? No problem! As long as you’re not training on a single-speed bike, we have the technology to help you--yes even YOU--ready yourself for the Kanc. In this case you’ll be using your gears to help mimic the effort of a long climb. So same idea: hard efforts around 5:00 in duration, extending the number of them you do out until you’re in the ballpark of 40-60 minutes of intensity. In this case you’ll be putting yourself into a mighty hard gear and pushing a cadence of around 60-70 RPM for each repeat. Churning away like this will help your muscles get ready for the whole week of climbing fun we have to look forward to in August.
Let’s talk about the climb in some detail: Most people use Loon Mountain to demarcate the start of the climb. The eagle-eyed among you might notice that this climb does not rise as monotonically as it might first appear, though it does grow steeper and more steady as you near the top. The terrain has been generous enough to offer you a few breaks from the grade along the way, and as luck would have it, they break the climb up very neatly into quarters.
1st Quarter, Loon Mountain to Lincoln Woods ~2.5 miles: This is your appetizer, your chance to warm-up into this effort. This stretch is never steep, includes some solid breaks from going uphill, but does end with the first sustained, but moderately graded stretch, leading into a brief flat section with great views as you ride over the Pemigewasset River.
2nd Quarter: Lincoln Woods to Big Rock Campground/Otter Rocks ~3 miles: The road starts to tilt further upwards ever so slightly in this stretch, but the road still offers you some occasional respite, especially as you near the end of this segment. The last stretch of climbing relief is roughly between Big Rock Campground and Otter Rocks picnic area.
3rd Quarter: Otter Rocks to the Hairpin, 2.5 miles: Now we’re talking! This is a very steady stretch of the climb, and in some ways the most challenging--it’s not the steepest, but you’re grinding away going uphill but without a lot of clear indication that you’re making much headway. The pay-off for this effort is a spectacular vista at the Hancock Trailhead, just above the hairpin turn. It should also be noted that this is the most mellow hairpin turn in the world. Constructed not to take the teeth out of a steep pitch, it was put in to help keep motorists flying down the mountain from losing control and killing themselves. Because of this, you get the benefit of a couple hundred yards of flat to slightly downhill road, meant to slow those on the descent.
4th Quarter: The home stretch! The final countdown! Hairpin to the Top, ~2.5 miles. This is the real meat of the climb, a steady stretch of 5-6%, but it also offers the most spectacular views of the entire effort, and the real sense of accomplishment that views back down on the valley that you’ve just climbed out of offers. Also, it being the home stretch, you can dig deep here if necessary and just get it over with. While this is the steepest bit of the climb (saving the best for last!), even this stretch offers you a bit of respite in the form of a short flattish stretch with just about one mile to go. From here charge your way to the top, where another scenic vista awaits you. Make sure to catch an obligatory selfie at the sign at the top of the climb!
So follow these tips, train and prepare for the effort ahead of time, break it down into helpful chunks, and get ready for the ride of a lifetime!