Sunday, January 3, 2010



Here in Texas, we will rightly pat ourselves on the back when ascending our local hills such as Tower View near Helotes or the hill leading west from Vanderpool or, further afield, the climb up to the observatory in Fort Davis. But how do these hills compare with the rest of the world? Although the discussion below focuses only on the steepness or grade, this is clearly only one piece of the puzzle. The effort needed to complete a hilly ride depends on a host of other things including the total elevation climbed and the altitude you are at (there is less air to breath as you gain altitude and that means that you are getting less oxygen into your blood).

When you travel through the mountains, you might see signs that read "Trucks check brakes: 10% grade". These numbers obviously have something to do with the steepness of the road, but their exact meaning is a mystery to many cyclists. So, what is the grade? The formula is quite simple: vertical feet gained ÷ horizontal feet traveled (1 mile = 5280 feet). For example, Monarch Pass in Colorado ascends approximately 3000 vertical feet in about 10 horizontal miles, so 3000 ÷ (10 x 5280) = 0.0568 or 5.7% average grade. In this example, the figure is an average; obviously over a ten-mile distance, the road will include steeper and flatter sections. To be accurate, remember that the horizontal distance is exactly that and so using your bike computer distance in lieu will give an inaccurate value. You are obviously not traveling horizontally when climbing a hill! High-school trigonometry (remember Pythagoras?) will, however, enable you to calculate the correct number. ¬ It’s also worth noting that in some parts of the world, the grade is expressed as a ratio rather than a percentage but the trigonometry is essentially the same.

Even if you're a better-than-average cyclist, there are many areas where your legs might cry out for very low gears. Let’s take a look at some examples. The steepest sustained grade on Ride The Rockies is typically 6 to 7%. You might expect to climb grades of this class for ten uninterrupted miles but occasionally, a route will include a short stretch of road as steep as 10%. The Blue Ridge Parkway is another example. Mile for mile, it has some of the steepest grades (7 to 10%) of any roads in the country. Even steeper, however, is Wolf Creek Road in Oregon where the steepest stretches reach 17%.

What about Europe? A rider going from Land's End to John O'Groats by bicycle (the whole length of Britain) writes: “Lindsay and I encountered the longest and steepest hills I have ever met on a bicycle, more than one indicated by a 30% road sign. On several of these ascents I simply could not make it.” Also in England, the Rosedale Chimney, on the North Yorkshire Moors, climbs up to Blakely Ridge where you can find “The Lion Inn”, the third highest pub in England. It is famous amongst cyclists being a 33% climb that has been used in some racing events where some racers are invariably reduced to walking.

An Italian cyclist records: “The hardest climb I know is in the Euganean Hills, southwest of Padua. It's known as the Pirio and it is infamous. A sign at the bottom says 22%. It requires absolute concentration and an iron will. If you falter, either mentally or physically, it's all over.”

In Germany, a rider takes some risks on a descent: “Here Northern Bavaria, the steepest climbs are some roads of 23% to 27%. Some old roads go simply straight uphill; the 27% road is actually banned for bikes going downhill. My usual apology is that I was unable to decipher the road sign while going downhill at that speed.”

And what of the world’s most arduous sporting event, the Tour de France? The Alpe d'Huez stage is one of the toughest. The first kilometer is like a wall, rearing up at 11%, the steepest pitch of the 13 km ascent. The stage also includes the Col du Glandon, a 21 km uphill averaging 6.9% but where the final kilometer reaches 10.4% before reaching the peak. As we are in Europe, let’s not forget the Tour of Spain's killer stage, Angliru. This is the Vuelta's most feared and notorious climb with 13.5 kms of climbing including 14% - 23% stretches. This year the U.S. Postal team took precautions: "We spent all night turning the machines into mountain bikes. The Posties were riding 12 x 25 on the back and 30 x 39 x 53 on the front.”

Think that sounds wimpy? Consider taking on Baldwin Street in Dunedin, New Zealand, the steepest paved road in the world at a 35% grade. This stretch of pavement rises one foot for every 2.9 horizontal feet. “I stopped, stood over my bike and took a look up there. The street started out flat, and then gradually began to slope upward, more and more until about the middle, where it was very steep. But from there it just kept getting gradually steeper and steeper until, close to the top, it was hugely and ridiculously steep. I could see that it wouldn't be easy to get up there on a bicycle. Of course I'm rarely the kind of guy to do things the easy way.”

Now let’s get back to Texas. Of the rides that we do from time to time, the toughest ones are probably Utopia-Leakey where there is a total of 3300 feet of climbing (on the 49 mile ride) and Bandera-Utopia where there is a total of 4240 feet of climbing (on the 69 mile ride). However, the absolute grades on these rides are not as steep as some of the short hills we tackle that might reach 18-19%. Such grade values certainly are not averages but rather represent a short, steepest segment of the hills. They do not reflect the overall difficulty or the endurance that might be required to accomplish a ride; however, a high numerical figure represents a hill that would require some very good climbing gears to ascend without dismounting.

Further west, one of the steepest continuous roads is on River Road between Presidio and Lajitas. One side is 17%, the other direction is 15%. And finally, Fort Davis. On the 75 mile loop, there is a remarkable 5075 feet of climbing, almost a mile! And steep; one tourist deliberates: “The road flattens, and I come to the turn for the McDonald Observatory Visitor Center, just to the north. Here I stop to catch my breath, top off my water bottles, and consider if I will attempt the 1.2 mile, 17% grade climb to the McDonald Observatory at the top of Mount Locke. The cycling guidebooks agree that everyone should try this side trip up the steepest slope to the highest point on a paved road in Texas (6,791 feet), but this time I decide not to take their advice. I have many miles of unfamiliar mountain roads still to come and prefer to save my legs for the unknown.”

I did too.

¬ for more details on this calculation, see

1 comment:

  1. You mentioned Tower View Road. Would you happen to know how steep the grade is at its steepest point? It has to be one of the steepest streets around. I frequently climb this hill, and I know of only one other guy that can climb it at its steepest grade. I never see Scenic Loop cyclists attempt this climb (sad thing).