Cyclists ascend downsized Festival 542

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 9, 2013 

The breathtaking views along the Mount Baker Highway are easy to take in from the comfort of a car travelling to the vista at Artist Point. On a bicycle, it becomes more difficult.

But cyclists kept their eyes on the grueling uphill path of Highway 542 and off the sights of the Mount Baker wilderness on Sunday, Sept. 8, for the 11th Annual Festival 542 Mount Baker Hill Climb. The course took cyclists from the starting point at Chair 9 restaurant in Glacier, past the ski areas and lakes surrounded by evergreen trees, and up the steep switchbacks to the finish line in the parking lot at Artist Point.

Kerry Farrell, 53, came in first for the competitive division of the race. Farrell finished the race in 1 hour, 24 minutes, he said. No official timing was kept this year. Farrell, who is from Auburn, is a professional cyclist.

Charlie Heggem, who is from Bellingham, owns NorKa Recreation and has organized Festival 542 since its inception in 2004. He decided to take a break this year by shortening the race and limiting the registration to 200 riders. This was also the first year the Mount Baker Highway was not closed for Festival 542. Heggem said he plans to restore the event to its full capacity next year and will try to have the road closed again, even though most of the riders said drivers were very polite and safe during the race.

Chair 9 and Cirrus Cycle sponsored the event. Part of the registration free will be donated to the Whatcom Land Trust. Despite scaling back Festival 542 this year, Heggem was pleased with the turnout.

“I’m super stoked about the level of support,” Heggem said. “We ran this whole event with just four volunteers.” Farrell kept in stride with Heggem while he paced the race on his electric bicycle, until the final portion of the course. With about 2 miles left in the race Farrell led the next two racers by only about 15 seconds, but he was able to pull away and widen the gap to about 30 seconds.

“I could have sat back and tried to beat them in the final sprint, but I was totally committed to going all out the entire way,” Farrell said.

This was Farrell’s second Mount Baker Hill Climb win in the 10 years he has participated. He won the race in 2004, his first year in the event.

Farrell attributed the victory to his constant heart-rate and breathing management, and to his bicycle, a specialized SL core on Mad Fiber wheels.

“I’m not giving (an advantage) to anyone else because of my equipment,” he said.

The youngest participant was 11-year-old Jessica Long, who rode the Mount Baker Hill Climb for the second year with her dad, Dave Long. Last year the pair rode together for the entire race, but this year Jessica Long finished ahead of Dave Long and improved her time. She endured the demanding hill climb by making up songs in her head. “She just keeps getting faster over longer distances,” Dave Long said with pride.

Leah Tarleton, 79, didn’t have her fastest time this year, but through determination to get to the finish she showed that age is just a number. Tarleton’s training on the Sehome Arboretum Hill and on the 14th Street hill couldn’t prepare her for the draining climb up the Mount Baker Highway’s switchbacks.

“Ordinarily I don’t cramp up, but I did this year,” Tarleton said as she caught her breath. “I had to have (Heggem) give me a boost with his electric bike to make it up the last hill.”

Heggem had Tarleton grab onto his electric bicycle while she pedaled her own bicycle up the final hill to get her across the finish line.

Tarleton started doing the Mount Baker Hill Climb to help a friend make it to the finish. In spite of all the stops they made to rest, she has yet to improve upon their time from her first race, she said.

She plans to make next year’s event her last race, but has enjoyed the encouragement from the volunteers and those who pass her in the race.

“Since I did my first Hill Climb, (Heggem) has been like a mentor to me,” Tarleton said. “He does this event so people can just enjoy cycling.”

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