This weekend marked my last trip to the mountains for a little while. I attended one of Neil Turner’s legendary climbing rides and this one, which he named ‘Insanely Steep Climbs,’ would be extra special. The ride lived up to the name. The toughest climbs were Sassafras Mountain and Becky Mountain, both of which had 20% grades. There were other smaller climbs and difficult rolling hills, which paled in comparison. This would be a tough day. It would also be one of the more scenic days, as you can see from all the pictures in the gallery below.
We began just north of Pickens, SC at the intersection of Highways 11 and 178. We hardly had time to warm up before the climb began. We rode up Highway 178 to Rocky Bottom, SC. This was a moderate climb, enough to get the heart racing and the body warmed up. The real climb would begin momentarily. Sassafras Mountain is the highest point in South Carolina. Neil noted that most cyclists take 178 into Rosman, NC. When I hit the mountain, I understood why. To put it plainly, Sassafras Mountain is a beast of a climb, one of the toughest I have ever done.
We started out with a slight incline. Not bad, I thought, then it turned up. Straight up. The real climbing begins with long 20% grade, a real killer. I made it about halfway up this section before having to stop, the first time I have done so in nearly a year. This was just to get my heart rate down. Once somewhat rested, I found it impossible to clip back in and did the unthinkable by walking a little bit. It was brutal. Fortunately that was the only time I would stop on the climb.
After the initial grunt, the climb levels off with some easier grades, some flat sections, and even a couple slight descents. But when it turned up, it was usually in the 20% vicinity. Someone once told me that this inconsistency makes the climb more difficult because it takes you out of a rhythm. I found the opposite to be true. These reprieves allowed my legs and heart to rest before the next pitch. I welcomed them with open arms.
About 3/4 up the climb, the smooth pavement turns to rough pavement with potholes, gravel and tree limbs littering the way. We navigated these obstructions for the last mile or so until we finally reached the overlook. What a relief! From there it was a short hike up to the real summit.
While the climb was rough on the legs, the descent was rough on the hands. We bolted down the rough road, avoiding potholes and debris while trying to keep speed in control. That meant that I had to continually pump the brakes and occasionally ride them hard. By the time we got to the turn-off at Gladys Fork Road, my hands were on fire.
For awhile we had a break from the climbing. We cruised through Rosman and rode through the valleys between the hills, checking out the local farmland, including some Llamas and a Giraffe sign of all things. No explanation for that one.
The next major climb would be Becky Mountain. Not long before we reached the climb, Jay looked at me. “You know Howard Gap?” Unfortunately I did. “Becky is Howard’s Momma!” Great. That description was fitting. Becky is like a more difficult Howard Gap. It is a little shorter and a lot steeper. When Howard Gap is 15%, Becky Mountain is 20%. Howard is around 1.25 miles, whereas the initial climb up Becky is exactly one mile.
I braced myself and started to climb. Ouch! Jay wasn’t lying. This was a leg-crusher! I tried to spin my way up comfortably, but had the same experience as on Sassafras, my heart rate was getting way too high. I stopped again. I was able to clip in this time when I got back on, but had to stop again about midway through the climb. It was relentless. Once you thought it was about to let up, it would kick back up to 18-20%. Finally I reached the top and found a graveyard. How appropriate. The climb continued for a couple more miles, but in a more normal fashion. There were a couple of steeper sections, maybe 12% or so, but nothing like the monstrosity that I had just faced. We also climbed See Off Mountain, just after Becky. It was also in the 12-14% vicinity, but short and hardly noticeable after the nastiness behind us.
At this point the insane climbs were over. We climbed up the back side of Caesar’s Head, the easy way, and descended six miles to the bottom. That was my first time descending Caesar’s Head, which was a delight. Towards the end of the descent raindrops started and we would get a little drizzle from here until the end of the ride, but we were spared from any significant downpours.
We made our way through the rolling hills and took in the gorgeous vistas with Table Rock Mountain in the background. Even overcast with drizzling rain, this was a sight to behold. The rain shower yielded a double rainbow at the end of the ride. A nice way to end the day.
January 8th, 2012 at 11:57 am
Great post Aaron. The captions on the gallery pics are great – love the double rainbow reference! Thanks for doing my recon for me; I’m planning to do Sassafras this coming Saturday.
January 8th, 2012 at 3:18 pm
Thanks, I’m getting a little better at this. Look forward to hearing about your Sassafras adventure, but I warn you, it’s a beast!
January 8th, 2012 at 11:40 pm
I liked your description of the beast and know exactly what it feels like to have to stop to get your breathing back to normal. We get a little too much snow for really steep hills but closer to Denver we have a few of these that are short and I have a real love hate relationship with them.
January 9th, 2012 at 6:08 am
Hey there. I’ll be out in that area in August so maybe I’ll be able to check out some of those hills. Starting in Denver, then in the Breckenridge area and hopefully doing Copper Triangle.
January 10th, 2012 at 9:04 pm
20% inclines are no joke. There’s no shame in stopping on one of those! It’s hard to capture the incline of a hill in a pic, but you have done so very well.
January 11th, 2012 at 7:15 am
Thanks. The best picture was taken by someone who finished awhile before the rest of us. He had a good angle to show the steepness.
January 10th, 2012 at 11:06 pm
Whew! This is your OFF season? That was some punishing climbs certainly worthy of the name SteepClimbs.com!
January 11th, 2012 at 7:16 am
Thanks, Zeke. While it is the offseason, I’m doing what I can to maintain climbing legs. This was a good test, but I will probably perform better later in the year.
April 14th, 2013 at 11:42 am
Aaron, I had a blast at my first AOTC! You inspired me to do it! Funny enough, you unknowingly took a pic with me in it at the starting line….in the Furman jersey. Kept an eye out for you and the cervelo, but figured it would be a long shot to meet you in such a crowd.
On the way home I swung up to Sassafras (via car, mind you) and the last leg of the climb is a newly paved road–nice and smooth. You may have been up there since, but just wanted to let you and your readers know about the change from potholes and gravel.
Hope the healing process continues to go well!
April 14th, 2013 at 11:57 am
Hey Ed. Glad to hear it. It’s a fantastic ride. Keep an eye out for the Cervelo and the blue skull Vork kit. I’ll be wearing that at most upcoming rides. I’ll look for a Furman jersey.
I heard that Sassafras has been paved, and I know they are building a visitor’s center. I probably don’t have the fitness to climb it just yet, but I may take a similar drive when I’m back up there next week. Again, good to “see” you. Thanks for the support. Hopefully we’ll bump into each other in the future.