by Chris Bagg, video by Sean Watkins

Ed. Note—a race! A few weeks ago, newly arrived in her winter training grounds of Tucson. HJ and Wattie rolled down to Mount Graham Mountain in Eastern Arizona, slapped some slicks on her Argon 18 Dark Matter, and climbed for about 100 minutes (HJ on the bike, Wattie in the car), claiming the win and the polka dot jersey that comes with it.

Arizona State Hill Climb Champion! What was the climb like?

It was cool. I think I liked it better than Mt. Lemmon, but I also don't know if I took it all in because there were stretches where I just had my head down, pushing. It’s more switch-backy, and there are a few sections way steeper than anything on Lemmon. The lowest part, though, was super shallow, and I was like “Is this the climb?” But then it would pitch up, shallow out, pitch again. It was much more variable than Lemmon, I’d say. Which made it a little more interesting. You had get out of the saddle at points, and then you're back down in the drops TT-ing. Way more pine trees and forest there than here in Tucson,  so it kind of reminded me of East Coast because all the leaves were changing. Fall for stretches!

You didn’t use power for this one, right?

I didn't have power, because I was riding my Dark Matter with slicks on it! I had heart rate, which I do use, but more to cross-reference efforts. I looked at it, but I don't ride off HR. I’d say it felt like a 70.3 effort, all told.

Earlier this year you and Paula Findlay “raced” up Mt. Lemmon. Did that ride help prepare you for this ride?

Oh yeah, 100%. Because I started this climb and was like, "Do not blow up at mile two!" That climb with Paula was about the same amount of time, so I knew what I should feel like, and what kind of discomfort I could expect. I spent a lot of time thinking "This is fine, you're fine. OK, keep it going, this is right." Having done that attempt with Paula helped so much for sure.

So technically your first race of the year. Did you get any of the familiar competitive feelings, did you not?

Yeah, it was good. I did get nervous a little bit. It's hard because driving out I was like, "Oh my god. It's race morning, this is fun. Have I had enough coffee?" All the race morning stuff. And then we got there and it was so relaxed! People were on their trainers, or riding up and down the road, and then the timer got set up and we you lined up, and then we got started! Pretty chill vibes. I didn't have all the same nerves as a triathlon, but a little bit of the nerves for sure! It was good. It was also cool because I could see both sides—and not that I don't want to race, because I DO want to race again, and I know when I do have those pre-race vibes then I'll cherish them. But I also was like "Why can't every race be like this? It's just a race. It's just for fun." And also the attitude of like, we get to do this, finally. It's an opportunity, and you don't have to feel sick to your stomach! It's so crazy what changes that emotion on any given day: a certain win is on the line, or there's money involved... what is it that changes that emotion from relaxed to nervous? The hill climb was a race, for sure, but it also felt very different from my normal racing.

Have those pre-race feelings changed for you over the course of your career?

Yeah, I have noticed they have changed the last couple years, and this is why I have to pick my schedule so carefully. I've learned that I have to LOVE a race, like Kona, or like Placid, or Wildflower. The races where it's really important to me to win that particular race, I get those nerves. And I get just so nervous. That kind of shifted over the past few years with other races—I've learned I can only get so amped up for a certain number of them, and since the racing is so hard I usually want to make sure I'm saving my bullets. BWR in Cedar City is a good example—I find myself so excited for that race that I'm having trouble focusing on Arizona, which comes about a month later!

Image courtesy of Jake Orness