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A newbie and a pro: Courtney Nelson and Phil Gaimon on their Mt Washington Hill Climb victories

Get to know the winners and their bikes

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Phil Gaimon and Courtney Nelson won the Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb (MWARBH) on August 2oth, both setting new course records.

It was the 49th edition of the event, which sees hundreds of people climb up the Mt. Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire.

Per the Strava segment of the race, the climb measures 7.6 miles and rises 4,700 feet at an average grade of 12 percent. There are extended sections of 18 percent, and the last 50 yards clock in at 22 percent. Riders cross the line anywhere from under an hour to over three.  

Rarely, some people ride unicycles (Photo: Joe Viger)

It was Gaimon’s fourth attempt at the title — his first was in 2008, and he won the event in 2017. The retired WorldTour pro’s time this year was 50:38.

Nelson, on the other hand, was a first-timer. The 38-year-old works full-time at Google and crossed the line in 1:09:35

In addition to posting the fastest time at the event, Gaimon got the the KOM on Strava, while Aimee Vasse’s QOM from 2018 still stands.

The riders

Phil Gaimon raced on the Pro Conti and WorldTour circuit from 2009-2016. Since his retirement, the 36-year-old has been busy with myriad projects, from writing to event promoting to content creation for his “Worst Retirement Ever” YouTube channel.

Much of the content on the channel chronicles Gaimon’s attempts to chase Strava KOM’s. He also talks training, equipment, and documents travel with friends. Through his events and fundraising, Gaimon has raised over $100,000 for the non-profit No Kid Hungry. He lives in Los Angeles.

Courtney Nelson lives in Marin County in northern California. For 14 years, she has worked on Google’s real estate and workplace services team where she manages data governance for the company’s real estate portfolio. 

When Nelson is not doing hill climbs, she’s on the trainer (Photo: Courtesy Courtney Nelson)

A few years ago, Nelson did a short stint of racing on the road, but “crits are not my thing, and road racing there was too much danger for me,” she said. She then discovered a love of hill climbs and e-racing — Nelson is a member of the Saris-NoPinz eRacing team. 

Nelson holds the QOM on the coveted Mt. Diablo climb in northern California and loves to hunt for crowns in the hills around Mt. Tam. She’ll likely race the Mt Diablo Challenge in October and try and break her record, and she’s hoping to qualify for eSports world champs.

The bikes

Gaimon — as to be expected — fully nerded out on his bike set-up for Mt. Washington. He slimmed his Factor VAM down to 13 pounds using — or rather, removing — completely stock parts.

“Part of the prep of the course is geeking out on your bike which I love,” he said.

Gaimon’s mountain goat drivetrain was 1x: a 34t chainring, XTR derailleur, and a 12×34 cassette. A Silca pre-waxed race chain completed the set-up. Gaimon ran Durace C24 rims with Kenda 24c tubulars. His saddle was a Pro Stealth with carbon rails and pedals were Wahoo Speedplay.

What he didn’t have? A rear (rim) brake or any bottle cages. (No one rides down Mt. Washington after the event, FYI.)

Nelson rode her Trek Emonda SLR with (both) rim brakes. She ran a compact 50/34 crankset with a 11×32 cassette.

“32 was only thing available at the time,” Nelson said. She carried one water bottle.

Notably, Nelson’s bike was damaged in transit, and she completed the event with a cracked seat stay. She said that the uphill-only format allowed her to “roll the dice” on using it anyway.

Nelson’s main takeaway from the event was that she learned a ton — and will make quite a few changes next year.

“I will definitely change the gearing next year,” she said. “But despite the mechanicals, I could control the efforts I could do and it was awesome to still place first and meet some amazing people.”

The effort

In terms of race day, there were two huge differences between the riders: it was Gaimon’s fourth attempt and Nelson’s first. Without experience to inform her, Nelson relied solely on her preparation.

Nelson said she focused her training on the effort although it wasn’t hugely different from what she usually does.

“I do a lot 20 minute threshold efforts,” Nelson said. “Building up to this, we knew would be over an hour so lots of high intensity efforts over a short duration of time. Then really focusing on threshold efforts over last two months.”

Nelson said that her FTP was good going into the event, which gave her a boost of confidence. On the day, she was consistent in her pacing and crossed the line two minutes ahead of second place.

She’s already scheming for next year.

“As soon as everyone finishes the race, within 24 hours everyone is shopping for equipment for next year,” Nelson said. “Shaving off minutes with bike, equipment, and gearing. I’m definitely going in next year with the motivation now that I’ve learned a couple lessons. Now I know what to expect.”

Gaimon on his super skinny bike (Photo: Joe Viger)

Gaimon, on the other hand, went into this year’s event a race-weary veteran.

“Tactically there’s so much data from previous years that we mostly knew who the competitors would be and I had a good idea what power I could do,” he said. “So there’s having something really specific that you know what to expect and how to train for, and there’s not much in the way of race tactics or drama or excuses.”

One notable difference in this year’s event was that the small dirt section on the climb was paved. Gaimon said he knew this would make for slightly faster times. The day was also relatively windless.

With those factors in mind, Gaimon used his data from 2017 to help inform his race-day decisions.

“I’d just blasted from the start with 400 watts for the first five minutes, and then fading so I only averaged 350,” he said. “This time I was really measured with my pace so I didn’t let an early attack get me out of my zone, barely looked back at all and just rode my best pace.

“Drake [Deuel] had warned me about Erik Levinsohn whose past times were really good. Erik dropped me around mile 4 out of 7 but I kept him close and I think he faded a tiny bit in the last mile, which let me come back. I wouldn’t call it a sprint finish quite, but I didn’t get a gap on him until the last 200 or 300 meters and it was only a few seconds at the line.

“Pacing smarter made me about 40 seconds faster than 2017. I’ll say 10-15 of that was the fresh pavement.”