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Carbon Grows Footprint: Lebanon College Graduate Rising Star in Hill Climbing

  • Recent Lebanon College graduate Molly Carbon and her father, John, strategize before a hill climb race earlier this summer. Photo courtesy of Molly Carbon.

Canaan — Lebanon College doesn’t have athletic teams, but recent graduate Molly Carbon has carried the institution’s figurative flag to new heights the past two summers. The aspiring radiology technician finished second at the American Motorcyclist Association’s women’s hill climb national championship in Monson, Mass., earlier this month.

“I do it for the adrenaline rush and to be doing something different,’’ said the 23-year-old Carbon, who enrolled at Lebanon College in September 2011, graduated in May and completed her final clinical assignment earlier this month. “I like the speed and that it’s an individual accomplishment.”

Carbon beat out all but one of the 15 competitors in the women’s nationals and finished 17th out of 26 riders and 21st out of 30 that weekend in two coed races she used for practice. Earlier this month, during an international race at Dansville, N.Y., she became the first-ever female competitor to race on what’s considered one of the most difficult hills in the U.S. That was a verticross event, where two riders start simultaneously at the incline’s base. Carbon lost out to the eventual champion in the first round, but gained respect.

“It’s a really tough hill with a big jump in it that’s hard to clear, and I did that,” Carbon said. “I think I proved myself to a lot of the West Coast riders who hadn’t seen me ride before, and even to East Coast riders who hadn’t seen me compete at that level.”

Hill climbing is a niche sport, but one that captivated the 6-year-old Carbon when her father, John, began racing and she and her sister, Amy, accompanied him. Molly started riding two years later, and both girls did so until Amy was in her mid-teens and quit to focus on field hockey.

Hill climbs often feature children’s races where pint-sized riders buzz as far up the slope as far as they can manage. Course lengths range from about 200 to 800 feet, and portions near the top can be as steep as 75 degrees.

“She and her sister were raised as tomboys, and they knew Dad wouldn’t put up with whining or crying,” said John Carbon, who now rides in an over-50 class and who taught the girls to ride in their snowy back yard in Bellingham, Mass., about 30 miles southwest of Boston. “If they crashed, they knew to get up right away.”

The Carbons compete primarily in the Northeast, venturing as far as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio a few times each summer. Molly lived with family friends in Hartland while attending Lebanon College and would drive south to meet her parents after classes on Fridays. From there, the family would head to races on Saturday or Sunday, with Molly often returning to the Upper Valley only hours before a Monday class.

“We travel for hours and hours to ride maybe just 30 seconds altogether,” Molly Carbon said. “Everyone questions it.”

Carbon played lacrosse and field hockey and wrestled against boys in high school, then competed for Rhode Island College’s NCAA Division III lacrosse squad and its club rugby program. She entered RIC thinking of a nursing career, but while enduring a waiting period to enter the nursing program, she took a radiology course and decided to pursue that field instead. After hearing from a racing friend about Lebanon College, she moved to the Upper Valley seeking cheaper tuition and a change of scenery, knowing the area from hill climb races in Canaan.

Another attraction was closer proximity to sites for snowmobiling races, in which Carbon has competed for three years. She’s earned some sponsorship support from a local ski area where she races in the winter and has also competed in a pair of arenacross events, a sport she said she’s thinking of adopting full-time after her hill climbing career is done.

For now, the goal is to graduate to bigger, custom-made hill climb bikes powered not by gasoline, but by nitromethane. No woman has ever ridden such a vehicle in sanctioned hill climb competition, and Carbon wants to compete at that level for at least a couple of seasons. She needs additional pro experience and more money to reach that goal, but it seems within sight.

“There aren’t many women in our realm, but it’s obvious she has the instincts for this,” said Phil Libhart, a Pennsylvania mechanic and friend of the Carbons who often acts as Molly’s mechanic and is a successful pro hill climber himself. “She’s a smart rider in that she stays out of trouble and sees things other riders don’t. Pretty much anyone can go fast up a hill in a straight line, but she can go fast and around trouble spots.”

The depth of Carbon’s dedication was tested at 18, when she flipped her cycle backwards during a race at Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford, N.H., sliding violently off the back and landing on her knees. The resulting broken femur required the insertion of a steel rod between her hip and knee, and three months’ rest time was prescribed. Only a month later, however, she and her father attended another race, supposedly just to watch.

Just starting that competition, however, would earn Carbon valuable points in the season standings, so father and daughter agreed she would just run the course’s first few feet and end her run. Instead, Molly gunned the engine up the hill and finished first. Her cover was blown when an acquaintance snapped a photo of her riding back down and sent it to her mother, Deb, congratulating her on her daughter’s quick recovery.

Deb “swore she was going to burn the bike and my truck,” John Carbon said of her wife’s reaction. “Molly and I were in big trouble for quite a while.”

Ordinarily, the worst the Carbons have to put up with is boorish comments from the crowd, something Molly said she shrugs off and which her father ignores with gritted teeth. This mostly happens at events where alcohol is consumed. The season-ending race in Oregonia, Ohio, between Cincinnati and Columbus, can draw more than 5,000 fans, and Libhart said beer is sold there by the gallon jug.

“It can get pretty crude,” he said. “You’ll hear the crowd cheering when nobody’s racing, and it will be because two girls are taking their clothes off or someone’s riding a cooler down the hill. She’s doing something that mostly guys do and she’s attractive, so of course they’re going to holler at her. People can be very disrespectful.”

“I just shrug it off and keep walking,” Molly added. “Sometimes you hear it from guys who aren’t happy that their rider got beat by a girl.”

The Carbons, along with their pit bull, Tyson, were in Canaan last weekend for an amateur race put on by locally based Ridge Runner Promotions. Molly Carbon is in a transitional class bridging the amateur and pro classes this summer, so she used the event as practice while riding a 505cc bike. Her usual 450cc steed was with Libhart and the unfamiliarity showed on her first run, when she petered out and tipped over about two-thirds of the way up the 400-foot hill.

Her later runs produced better results. and the highlight of the day was John placing third in his class. The drive back to Bellingham was a happy one, and there are three races left to look forward to this year.

“I can’t ever see myself without dirt bikes in my life,” Molly Carbon said. “It’s such a good atmosphere and such a big part of my life.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.