Tag Archives: brasstown bald

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)

Brasstown Bald, Hogpen Gap & More

Another weekend, another state. This time I was in Atlanta, GA, catching up with some family. Of course I brought my bike, and somehow I convinced family to drop me off in Helen, GA. I would ride my bike while they would gallivant around.

Brasstown Bald had my eye, the highest point in Georgia. I had heard stories about ‘The Wall,’ where the grade increases to above 20%. Many have said this is the among the toughest climbs in the Blue Ridge. On top of that, it used to be a stage finish spot in the defunct Tour of Georgia. Lance, Levi and other celebrated pros battled it out on the steep grades, adding to the mountain’s legend and lore.

Jeff Dilcher was gracious enough to help me devise the route. Towards the last minute, he decided to join me. That was great. Not only would I have some company, but I would also get words of wisdom from someone with riding experience out here.

First on the menu was another legendary behemoth, Hogpen Gap, the prize climb of Six Gap Century. Again, I had heard that this is a beast. It is approximately seven miles with many steep grades.

We left Helen bright and early, and turned onto the Richard B. Russell Scenic Parkway. Before long the road turned upward. I asked Jeff if this was Hogpen. “No,” he said. “This is the climb before the climb.” In a couple miles, the climb really began.

The grade ranged anywhere from 6% to maybe 15% in some sections. It went on awhile and was quite the climb, but not quite the quad killer that I had expected. There were even a couple level sections and a slight downhill near the top. I mentioned to Jeff that the actual Hogpen climb paled compared to its reputation. He reminded me that most who ride up Hogpen, do so at mile 70 of Six Gap Century, where it hurts a lot more. Good point. We tackled it with fresh and tapered legs. By the time we reached the top, those legs were feeling loose, stretched out and ready for the big challenge ahead.

Hogpen had not been a particularly scenic climb, but the descent more than made up for it. The tree line opened up on our right and revealed a splendorous view of the North Georgia mountains below. We started down aside a rocky cliff to our left, as the road pitched steeply downward. There weren’t as many bends on this steeper side of the climb, which made for a screaming and somewhat scary descent. I had to continually pump my brakes in order to keep my speed under control.

The next climb was Jack’s Gap, which would be more of a prelude for the main event, Brasstown Bald. Jack’s was not much to speak of, just a short and not too steep of a climb. What was imposing about it was that we would still be climbing when we reached the spur to Brasstown Bald.

As we reached the park entrance, the difference between Jack’s and Brasstown was apparent. The winding road to our left turned straight up, with a yellow sign warning of steep grades for the next three miles. We stopped briefly to collect our breath, then put rubber back on pavement. Here goes nothing.

Yep, it was steep alright. The early portion was a double digit grade. “This is the easy part,” Jeff said. He warned me not to push too hard during the first mile. He said that if my heart rate was too high when we hit ‘The Wall,’ that I would have to stop. No problem there. I took it as easy as possible.

We reached the mile one marker. Really, that’s all we climbed? The steep grade continued and I kept the pedals moving slowly. We reached a clearing and I could see the road zigzag ahead far above my eye line. I figured that must be the wall. As it turned out, that was only the beginning. We turned the corner and the punishment began.

I have noticed that some grades get exaggerated in cycling circles. Not this one. It was at least 20% and maybe higher. It reminded me of Pinnacle Mountain from early in the year.

It was so steep that my wheel would leave the ground. I had to lean forward and be careful not to topple over. My riding was wobbly. I could barely keep my balance. My wobbling unintentionally made me tack from side to side (something I try not to do), just trying to keep control of the bike. After pushing and grunting for what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only a tenth of a mile, the grade leveled out to an ‘easy’ 10%. The rest of the way was not too bad, but I kept going easy in case the road pitched up around another corner.

We reached the parking lot, but not yet the summit. There were still approximately 400 more feet to climb to reach the highest point in Georgia. I had heard of Brasstown’s strict rule against letting cyclists ride to the top, but had also heard that on quiet days, they would sometimes let you through.

The ranger met us at the gate. I asked if we could keep going. Absolutely not, was her answer. I begged. I had come a long way, and pleaded for her to make an exception . Nope, not happening. Jeff joked that she couldn’t catch our bikes going up. She replied that there is a hefty fine for riding to the top, and that effectively ended the conversation. I snapped a picture of my bike next to the ‘No Bicycles’ sign, then took the shuttle bus to get my summit pictures. It was a glorious view, even if a little hazy on this morning. I walked back down and got back on the bike.

Descending Brasstown was a white knuckle affair. We had to ride the brakes much of the way down, and throughout all of the wall. Fortunately the descent was short. After winding down the steep switchbacks, we were back at Jack’s Gap in no time, ready to finish the ride.

We looped around via the Unicoi Parkway, where one more challenge awaited us. Unicoi Gap would be the last hill of the day. Jeff warned me that it was no cakewalk, but how bad could it be compared to what we had just climbed?

The grade was not terribly steep, yet it was tough nonetheless. Part of that was because my legs were worn down from the last two climbs. The heat was also taking a toll. And, this was a nagging, tough little climb. Fortunately once we were done, we were done.

The descent from Unicoi Gap was exhilarating. It had technical, winding roads, but the grade was moderate enough that we were able to glide through them, barely touching our brakes. It was a nine-mile stretch back to Helen, mostly downhill.

After the ride, I reconvened with family and we had lunch at a German restaurant. Bratwurst and a gigantic glass of German beer was the perfect recovery food. Prost!

Strava GPS link