You could call it Heartbreak Hill. As Crenshaw Boulevard climbs the two miles from Palos Verdes Drive North to Crest Road on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, it gains nearly 800 feet in elevation.
Several hundred competitive bicycle riders huffed and puffed and cursed and sweated their way up the hill Sunday in the first Palos Verdes Road Race. As they struggled through the toughest section of Crenshaw, friends and spectators showered them with water and encouragement. The riders' bright cycling jerseys and helmets contrasted with their drawn, taut faces as they struggled through the upper stages of the hill.
The hill rises from 422 feet above sea level at Palos Verdes Drive North to 1,200 feet at Crest. What makes it even more breathtaking (literally) is that it gets steeper as it climbs, reaching a 10% grade at Silver Spur Road--about the halfway point of the hill. The grade is even steeper--an estimated average 11.5%--in the quarter-mile between Silver Spur and Indian Peak roads.
Riders began at Silver Spur and immediately climbed the toughest part of Crenshaw to Crest. The route then cut across Crest to Hawthorne, before turning north for the long downhill to Palos Verdes Drive North and back to Crenshaw.
A few made it look easy. Roy Knickman and Thurlow Rogers, 1984 Olympians, won by such a large margin that they nearly lapped the field, and they joked with spectators as they pedaled the steepest part of the slope. They barely looked tired at the finish (Knickman came in ahead by about half a length).
And women's winner Sarah Forrest completed three laps without another woman in sight.
But the hill proved most of the riders somewhat less superhuman, even those who did well in their appointed races.
Marita McGoldrick of Hermosa Beach, who finished sixth among the women, said the thought that went through her mind when she hit the hill for the third time was, "Why did I take this sport up?"
Randy Marrs, who won one of the heats for Category 4 (lower-rated) amateurs, said his goal by the third lap was to "try not to throw up."
The best riders in each race had the added burden of trying to stay in a pack and apply pressure to the other competitors. For added discomfort, the sun burned through an early fog and shone brightly most of the morning, turning the first mile of Crenshaw, which is a canyon, into a withering corridor. Some riders dropped out or stopped midway up the hill to gasp for breath.
Professionals and top-rated amateurs like Knickman and Rogers did nine laps totaling 72 miles. Women and junior riders (18 and under) and most of the other categories did three laps for 24 miles.
Broc Glover of San Diego, a six-time national motocross champion who recently took up cycling, glistened with sweat in the morning sun after finishing in the top 10 in the Category 4 race. He said the race was fun but added, "I wish it was all turns and downhills. The hill was a little longer than I thought."
Glover, 26, has been racing for only four months but has already won one road race and was bunched with the leaders Sunday going into the final turn for the finish. But the more experienced riders unexpectedly sprinted away.
"Only on the hill can you really drop someone," he said. "You try to ignore the pain that's developed. By the third lap you feel like you've got rocks in your legs. If you're good on the hills that's your game."
Glover said he'll probably return soon to motocross, where he said top riders can win hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bicycling in the United States has yet to offer big prize money. Knickman won $500, but most of Sunday's top 10 placers were awarded prizes of double figures or less. They were there for the challenge.
Glover mopped his face and grinned. "This is a great sport," he said. "No money but you kill yourself."
Marrs, 21, a member of the Velo Playa Larga team out of Long Beach, said strategy is a big part of a road race. "When you go up the hill you concentrate on what (opponents) are doing," he said. "If one takes off you've got to be ready."
Marrs, who began competing just three months ago, said he felt strong but spoke respectfully of the hill: "This is the hardest course I've ridden. The only thing I think would be more difficult would be this course at altitude. I can't imagine there's a tougher course than this around here."
McGoldrick, a rider for the South Bay Wheelmen who would admit only to being "somewhere between 25 and 35," said she trains on the Crenshaw hill infrequently "but I try to avoid it." She said she likes hill climbs but Sunday's "was really hard."
McGoldrick said her strategy on the hill was "trying to get the gears right, stay ahead of everyone (who was behind), try not to lose my place . . . and hope the hill would get over soon. I tried to break away a few times but just couldn't. It was a really good race in that respect."
The hill took its toll. Andy Giovinazzi, 20, lives in Torrance at the foot of the Peninsula and said he trains on tougher hills at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he is a student. But the hill won Sunday. Giovinazzi, who rode for the host Palos Verdes Cyclists was disappointed in his finish in the mid-20s.
"It felt tougher than it's ever felt," he said. "I was with the lead group the first lap. They started pulling away and I just couldn't keep up."
Marrs said the formula to riding the hill is no secret: "Who's fittest--that's what it comes down to."