How Steep is Too Steep?

tirreno adriatico

Earlier this week, the Tirreno-Adriatico (“Race of Two Seas”) buzzed around blogosphere and social media because of a brutal 6th stage. There were a number of stories, some of them inspiring (link to Phinney), and others downright painful.

The most notable aspect of this race was a 300+ meter climb with a 27% grade. It was more of a ramp than a hill. The riders had to endure this monstrosity three times. Some of them ended up walking their bikes up, while others had to tack from side to side. Peter Sagan was one of the few who stayed in the saddle, winning the stage in the process, which was a testament to his bike handling skills as much as his athletic prowess.

The stage was so brutal that race director Michele Acquarone apologized via twitter, although many others felt that the stage was legendary, an instant classic.

I’ve encountered a few climbs that reach that much of grade, a couple of which might exceed it. Not to compare myself to one of these pro cyclists (note: my gearing is a lot easier than theirs), but I am able to identify with how they felt. The steepest hills have a way of making you honest.

We ignored the warning signs and continued anyway.

Brasstown Bald

The three most similar climbs that I’ve conquered are Brasstown Bald, Grandfather Mountain, and Pinnacle Mountain.

All of them have a short section with an insane grade. Brasstown’s is described as a ‘Wall,’ while Grandfather is more of a ramp. Pinnacle is simply a monstrosity, and I think it’s steepest section is the roughest of the three. Pinnacle is the only one that knocked me off the bike and forced me to walk.

Neil Turner makes his way up

Pinnacle Mountain

In order to triumph against a climb of this magnitude, it requires a lot from the rider. Naturally, athletic ability is the most important thing. You need to have the fitness to keep your heart rate manageable. A friend warned me when we were approaching Brasstown to take it easy before reaching the steepest grade, otherwise you simply won’t make it.

Another aspect is bike control. When facing a grade above 20%, there is the potential to simply topple over. There have been a few occasions where my front wheel has left the ground for a brief moment. I found that if I lean forward in a certain way, the wheel will remain grounded. The rear wheel can also come off the ground. At least that’s what I am told, as it hasn’t yet happened to me.

Once the steep section of the climb has begun, there is no stopping. If you stop, it is highly difficult to clip back in. That was my problem on Pinnacle Mountain. My heart rate was racing high enough that I needed to stop (in my defense, it was January). On that steep of a hill, there is no way you can clip in without some deft maneuvering. I had to push off from one side of the road, move sideways, clip quickly, and then turn my wheel back upward to resume the climb. It is not easy, and took me a number of tries before I got it.

How steep is too steep? Clearly this 27% was the limit for these pro cyclists, which is saying something. Even though I have ridden a few times at a similar grade, the most I can climb comfortably (for lack of a better word) is in the 18-20% range. A good example of that is some of the steeper climbs in the Boone area. Some of the roads around Hawksnest were in the upper double-digit vicinity. By no means am I bragging here, because it is not pretty, but I found with those climbs and others that once the rhythm is established at a steep grade, that I can tune out and keep grinding for a good while.

View from the stands of the last climb

Grandfather Mountain

Of course my real comfort zone, at least as far as keeping my heart rate in check, is just south of double digits. Anything over 10% and I have trouble keeping in a tempo zone, which is where I prefer to climb. When the climb hits the teens is when I start getting anaerobic. While it can be done, it probably isn’t the most ideal workout for me.

So what type of grade do you consider too steep? Would you have been able to climb this hill in Italy?

(image credit: Velonews)

27 responses to “How Steep is Too Steep?

  • Wayne W

    I think that a lot of it is also about technique and understanding the characteristics of the hill in question. The first time I made the attempt to ride up Mt Mitchell it was a miserable failure. The second time up, I made it in rather good shape. While some of that is conditioning, I also think a lot is understanding the hazards of a particular hill.
    Watching the TDF over the years, and noting the large quantity of bikes of spectators on some of what are considered epic mountain stages, it seems to me that they are probably folks who ride locally in those hills and as such have a detailed knowledge of the hazards of those particular mountains from a cycling perspective. Hence they probably make it to the top relatively comfortably. The other thing I’ve noted is that none of them look like they are totally wasted as they cheer the pros on. They’re not racing.
    Charging up a big hill in racing mode, coupled with relative unfamiliarity with the details of the climb that can only be gotten by riding the hill in question many times is probably as much a factor as fitness.

    • aaronwest

      Good point. There are a number of hills in the upstate or across the border that I have done several times, and I seem to handle those better than new ones. The Watershed and Caesar’s Head Mountain are good examples. Knowing what is in front of you makes it easier. When I encounter a new hill, I approach it with trepidation because I don’t want to overwork myself and burn out too fast.

  • bgddyjim

    I tap out just over 20%. The hardest part for me was learning to match a reasonable gear and then pace it well. I had a tendency to rush it…my heart rate would spike and I’d cook out within a minute. Once I learned to pace it properly, climbing became a quick favorite. Now I absolutely love it. I’m comfortable in the 10-12 range.

    • aaronwest

      Same here with learning the appropriate gearing. The tendency on a lot of climbs is to just drop down into the granny gear, but when the road pitches up, there isn’t any relief. Of course when the road is 20%, I want another gear regardless what my set is.

  • stickyjumper

    A couple things made the Stage 6 climb hard. First, rain made the climb slippery, so one couldn’t always get out of the saddle. Second, the road was tight and if you weren’t on the front and a rider in front of you stopped, you were forced off. Let’s not forget it was cold and the stage was 209km’s long. And in between climbing it 3 times they weren’t riding at a century-rider’s pace, but at race pace.

    I noticed that several guys opted not only for big cassettes, but also compact cranks. Using an online calculator, I figured a 155lb rider would need to put out around 490 watts to make it up at 5mph. That’s above most of their thresholds, but manageable for a couple minutes.

    I’m fairly confident I wouldn’t have made it even with fresh legs. I like hard climbs, but anything sustained at more than 15% isn’t much fun.

    • aaronwest

      Isn’t Altamont a pretty steep grade? I was thinking it is somewhere in the 20% vicinity.

      That’s interesting about the gearing. I just assumed they were using standard cassettes, because I understand that’s what they use for most climbing stages. That makes it a little less humbling for me. I am sure I could conquer that hill when I’m in peak form (not now), but not 3x in the rain during a long ride.

      • stickyjumper

        The Furman side of Altamont averages 7%, with a couple 13% sections. The last 200m is 12-15%. The CVS side is not as steep, but does have one short section in the high teens.

      • aaronwest

        Okay, I think I’ve been confused about the difference between Paris Mountain Rd and Altamont Rd, but I guess they are the same thing. Yeah I’ve done that, but only from the Furman side,

  • Cherry

    15% is the limit of what I can manage; over 20%, I’m off the bike, no momentum at all. How did you train to become such a good climber?

    • aaronwest

      I wouldn’t say I’m a good climber. There are plenty around here that climb circles around me. But the more you climb, the easier it gets. Of course right now I probably couldn’t even manage 15%.

  • Chikashi

    On a few of the steep but short cobbled climbs in Flanders, my rear wheel did not exactly come off the ground but lost traction at times, particularly when the road was wet. When that happens, the likelihood of falling increases rather quickly…

    • aaronwest

      Yeah, if the rear wheel looses traction, I could see myself toppling over. At least with the front wheel you have a semblance of control. Would love to ride some of those cobbled climbs.

  • Gerry

    There are lots of variables, as others have stated above, but gearing is a big one, of course. I once climbed the first portion of Mt. Bouquet (22%) in my 50 because I couldn’t get the chain into the 34! That was pretty tough.

    Cardiovascular fitness plays a part, as does strength, but both can be overcome to an extent, if you have lots of gears. Then, there’s the ‘racing – not racing’ aspect, which can turn even 7% into Hell.

    I’m like you though, Aaron. Anything up to 10% is not too terrible. Anything more and I start wondering why I ever took up cycling.

    • aaronwest

      Ugh, I’ll bet that would be a beast. I probably would have been walking in that situation.

      Fortunately few of those big French climbs seem to exceed 10%. If HR had anything like the Italian coastal climbs, it would be a different event entirely.

      Strength is a good point. You have to have the legs, although I’ve found that the bulky riders often get out-climbed by the lean, sinewy, thin riders, who can just spin upward like it’s nothing.

      • Gerry

        Right you are. What I meant by ‘strength’ was simply strength in the legs. Climbing, as far as I can tell, is mostly about power-to-weight…so maybe I meant ‘power’!

      • aaronwest

        Ahh, that makes sense. That sort of strength/power is pretty important too. 🙂 Probably the reason the bulkier riders are often poor climbers is because of the weight side of that equation.

  • Nanc Johnson

    SQUAT !! Seriously, lifting definitely helps. Watch coach (weightlifting) Ripp’s great explanation of a cyclist vs. athlete.

  • Tom

    That looks like are friend Neil! Miss him!

  • Wayne W

    I read in one of the many road bike oriented magazines I get that some of the current crop of younger pro’s will even put mountain bike sized gearing on the cassette on occasion.

    While I was recuperating from my car wreck I upgraded to Ultegra DI2 electronic shifting. It is nice on hilly terrain.
    Also not a fan of compact gearing as it compromises top end for easier spinning. Higher top end on a downhill will carry me further up the next hill with not much more output going downhill.

    • aaronwest

      I’ve heard good things about electronic shifters, but I’m probably more of a manual guy. I like to ride based on feel.

      I use a compact, but kind of have to since I spend so much time in the hills.

  • Dr. Bill

    Romanian( one legged) squats. Try it you will like it. When you can do 100
    you will be a climber.

  • fizzhogg

    Outstanding post. As a HillSlug, I will save this and read it again and again.

    Well done.

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