Tag Archives: grandfather mountain

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)

Bridge to Bridge, 2012, Lenoir, NC

Déjà vu!

Last year the forecast for Bridge to Bridge (now apparently called “The Bridge”) was for a cool day with a slight chance of rain. We ended up having dense fog until we reached Grandfather Mountain, where we escaped a massive cloud system into sunny skies. This time the weather was also worse than advertised.

We gathered on Main Street, Lenoir for a day’s worth of riding. I found a few guys from Vork Cycling Team, and decided to try and hang with them through the easier, early sections. They are a little stronger than I am, and have more experience finding good packs. That turned out to be a wise decision.

We left Lenoir a few minutes early, and the pack charged hard. I tried to keep up with them, but I am not an early starter. The pack glided up the first big climb, Poplar Street, which is a mile-long hill right outside of Lenoir. That’s when the pack first saw some separation. Unfortunately I was one of the riders that got separated. I lost sight of the Vork Cyclers, believing they were all ahead of me. So much for that.

At around the 4th mile, I heard a lot of clicking and yelling out. Everyone swerved, and I saw the remains of a crash with maybe four or five bikes down. Water bottles were rolling all over the place. At a glance, it looked like there was nothing serious, but I did not linger. I moved out of the way of the bikes, and got back on. Hopefully everyone was alright.

As it turned out, I was wrong about the Vork team being ahead of me. Brian from Vork showed up out of nowhere. A new pack formed after the crash, and we made steady progress. Brian moved to the front, and started his engines. I stayed on his wheel. We gradually increased our speed until we got sight of the big group. That spurred him on. He kept pushing, getting us ever so closer. Finally he ran out of gas, which left it to me. I continued in that vein, and was getting closer for a bit, but probably could not have bridged the gap. Fortunately another rider took the reins, and we sprinted to catch the pack.

Panting, I thanked Brian and the other guy for the pull. As we slowed down behind this massive group of 50-75 riders, we were able to rest. ‘This feels much better,’ I said to Brian. He nodded. ‘This is the payoff for all that work.’

The other Vork riders were in this pack, so we maneuvered our way around to ride with them. Gregg aka Tater is a tall rider, and stood out like a beacon with a giant blue skull. Chris aka McDiesel, a recent addition to the Haute Route team, was also there. I kept him in sight, so as not to get gapped and lose the group. I also met John, who rides with the Vork guys, but this was his first century ride. What a ride to choose! We kept speeds between 22-23 mph without much effort. We took it easy, and worked within the group while waiting to arrive at the climbs.

Those first 50 miles flew by. I was feeling great when the climb on Highway 181 began, but the mountain has a way of really telling how you’re doing. I realized almost instantly that I did not have it. I struggled immediately. Perhaps I didn’t eat enough during the first 50, or more likely, simply didn’t train enough in the preceding weeks. Hoping it was the former, I chowed down a Clif Bar, and made my merry way up. The Vork guys dropped me. Even John passed me about midway, along with everyone else and their mother. This was humbling, not my finest moment, and the climb went on for an eternity.

12-miles and 2,600 feet later, and I was almost spent. The climb fortunately stopped, but I had little momentum. All of a sudden a guy with an orange jersey blasted by me. I jumped onto his wheel, and he pulled me at least a couple miles. It was enough to get my mojo back. I later learned that his name was Mike. Thank you, Mike!

As Mike and I rolled along, another guy jumped on our wheel. We passed someone else, and they jumped on. I regained my strength, and took the front for a long pull. By the time we turned away from Linville, we had a regular old paceline again. All of a sudden John turned up. I must have passed him at some point without realizing it. He joined the party.

As we rolled down the long stretch on Hwy 105, the clouds became darker. Cloudiness turned to intermittent rain showers. We just dealt with it, kept trucking along. It wasn’t comfortable, but we were fine as long as there was no thunder and lightning. As we passed by the north end of Grandfather Mountain, I looked over and saw it enveloped in a gigantic cloud. Unless things changed, it would be an ugly finish. I was also pretty certain at that point that the Blue Ridge Parkway would be closed.

The paceline remained more or less intact until we turned onto Schull’s Mill Road, and began the climb back up to the Parkway. Some people went ahead of us, some stayed behind. I kept riding with John. Not only was this his first century, but it was his first real mountain ride. Schull’s Mill is a nice and scenic climb, but it is long. I told him just to buckle in, and try to keep from getting too tired. Save a little for Grandfather. We rode and talked. At some points he was getting tired, and I slowed down to let him keep up. At others, he tore ahead of me, and I had to pick up the pace. Most of the time we rode together.

We reached the top of the climb not a moment too soon. The fog was much thicker up here. We were directed onto the rolling hills of 221, and it immediately started raining harder. Now this was uncomfortable! We could already barely see five feet ahead of us. Now we had to deal with rain. There were a few small descents in the early going, which always make me nervous. I rode conservatively, not wanting to do anything stupid.

As expected, the Parkway was closed. No Linn Cove Viaduct again this year. Bummer. We continued on 221, completing the full circle around Grandfather Mountain. I told John that this was probably good, as the climb up Linn Cove Viaduct isn’t a cakewalk. There would be hills, but they were more up and down until we reached Grandfather.

The ride along 221 took forever. It was bittersweet to get to Grandfather. We were nearing the end, but still had to deal with one of the steepest mountains in the Southeast. Here goes nothing.

No clear skies on Grandfather Mountain.

Last year we had climbed out of the sludge into the sun on Grandfather. Not this year. The entire climb was covered in fog, with a little bit of drizzle. To my surprise, it made it a little easier. Not being able to see the next steep pitch was psychologically soothing. We just had to grind out each hill, one at a time, then move onto the other one. Each steep hill hurt like madness. We just had to suck it up and try to keep pedaling.

I kept going, ever so slowly, just making my way closer to the top. John was pushing a bigger gear, so he would sometimes stand up and climb ahead of me. I stopped once along the way for a moment just to catch my breath. I believe John stopped a couple other times, but he did amazingly well for his first time. At the visitor center parking lot, I went on ahead, while he took his time. Everyone has to take this one at their own pace. He was fine.

Even though I couldn’t see them, I was relieved to arrive at the three switchbacks, because this meant the grade would temporarily lighten up to around 10%. What I forgot was what waited for me after that.

Last year I had turned a corner, looked to my left, and immediately stopped in shock at seeing a ramp left to climb. This year I could barely see two feet in front of my face, and forgot where it was. I turned that same corner, and kept climbing, then heard some cheering ahead as someone else finished. The road pitched up, and I realized this was it! The beastly, excruciatingly painful 20% ramp. I alternated standing up, sitting down, moving from side-to-side, doing everything I could to inch my way up that hill.

When I was almost to the finish line, I was able to make out the people. “You’re almost there!” someone yelled. They looked so close, yet they were still so far away. I stood up, and powered with every last bit of strength I had remaining. It wasn’t much and it hurt a ton, but I was done. Grandfather conquered again!

My final time was 6:45, better than last year. I was 145th overall. Even though this wasn’t my best day climbing, especially up 181, I was pleased with the result.

A huge hats off to all the organizers and volunteers. I cannot convey how great it feels to hear words of encouragement when climbing up the mountains. Whether that was at mile 50, 90, or 102, it was all appreciated. Thanks for keeping our hands full of bananas and water along the way, keeping us from having to stop. Thanks for spending your time on a crummy day supporting us and making this a great ride.

Strava GPS Link (elevation understated by Garmin errors)



Last year’s pictures

Back to the Bridge

Grandfather Mountain’s Swinging Bridge from above the clouds


Let’s do it again! This Sunday will be my 2nd attempt at Bridge to Bridge.

Last year’s Bridge to Bridge was an epic endeavor. 98% of the ride was spent grinding it out in nasty, drizzly, foggy weather conditions, while the last 2% was in the bright sun. However painful that climb up Grandfather Mountain was, it was elating to climb out of the sludge and into the sun.

The early forecast looks promising. It looks clear and actually a little cool, which is perfect. It will most likely be in the high 50s or low 60s when we leave Lenoir. When we finally reach higher elevations, it’ll probably still be cool enough to keep riding with arm warmers. I seem to remember there being a good forecast last year, so there’s still a chance it could change. The weather is tough to predict at higher elevations.

Even though my training has been sidetracked by every excuse in the book (illness, hurricane, work, school, long vacation), I still feel alright. My strategy will be to beat last year’s time, which should not be a problem. On the last ride, I had to stop more often than I’d wanted, trying to coordinate with my ride home. This time I’ll be traveling solo.

My strategy will be similar to Mitchell. I’ll find a strong group for the first 50 miles to get me to the climbs as quickly as possible. No, it won’t be the front group, but hopefully not too much further back. From there I’ll just power my way up at a steady cadence, while not burning myself out for the final assault. I’ll eat more and stop less.

Grandfather, with grades in the upper teens and a finish above 20%, will be the real test. Aside from Blue Ridge Brutal, I haven’t tried to climb on tired legs since Mitchell, and have climbed few hills this steep all year. I’ll see how I feel, and give all that I can.

Bridge to Bridge Photo Journal

Since Bridge to Bridge was such a big ride, I could not include all of the photos in the blog post. Like I did with Mitchell a few months ago, I am posting a photo journal for this ride. These were mostly taken from the bike while moving, so the quality is not always spectacular. At the end there is a video of me crossing the finish line.

You can read the full ride report here.

Click an image to view full size.

Early bird gets the worm

Early bird gets the worm

Bridge to Bridge starting line

Starting line

Starting line behind me

Starting line behind me

Early Paceline Group

The early paceline group

The sign should have said '10 mile climb ahead'

Climbing up 181.

Grinding my way up Highway 181.

Foggy hwy 105

Foggy riding near Linville

Highway 105

Highway 105 near Foscoe

This was the usual greenery on Schull's Mill Rd

Schulls Mill Rd

Shull's Mill Road

Schull's Mill Road

fog on highway 221

Heavy fog on 221 / Blowing Rock Hwy

A short, steep and grueling climb ahead.

Still foggy heading up Grandfather

Oh look, the sun. My legs hurt.

Please pass, car. My quads need that lane.

Half mile from top of grandfather

C'mon, we're not there yet?

Three switchbacks near the top of Grandfather

Three switchbacks near the top of Grandfather

I would smile for the picture if this didn't hurt so much.

That's not a smile. That's a groan that shows teeth.

Last climb of Grandfather.

The last hurrah. Can I get a push?

The 3rd speck is me on the last climb.

The actual finish line.

Clouds below Grandfather Mountain

These are the clouds we rode through all day

More clouds on the other side.

Swinging Bridge is not as scary when you can't see the bottom.

Bridge to Bridge, 2011, Lenoir, NC

Bridge to Bridge starting line

It was a beautiful morning in Lenoir, NC. It was a slightly chilly start, colder than I expected. No complaints here. According to the weather report, the cold would not last. It was supposed to be in the 50s in the morning, then the sun would come out in the afternoon and would climb into the low 70s, maybe the 60s in elevation. That would be ideal riding weather. Unfortunately weather conditions are not completely predictable, especially up in the mountains. Things turned out a lot different, which made this more of an adventure than I had expected.

Early Paceline Group

The early paceline group

The first 50 miles of the ride are mostly flat with a few tough hills thrown in for good measure. My approach was to sit in with a good group, not too fast or slow, and save energy for the climbing. The key was to find a good group to ride with. I found the right one after a few miles and rode with them throughout the rest of the rolling hills until around mile 52-53. The pace was perfect. It was more than fast enough for me, about 21 mph for the first 50, and I felt comfortable and not worn out. I took my turns at pulling, usually a mile or two at a time, with maybe a dozen others in the pack also taking turns.

The clouds were still with us as we hit the climbs. It was still on the chilly side and I was feeling it in certain places, especially my toes. Fortunately I had prepared with a long-sleeve base layer underneath my jersey and arm warmers.

The sign should have said '10 mile climb ahead'

The first major climb was a whopper. Around mile 52 or 53, we headed up Highway 181 North and it was a bear. We kept climbing for the most part for around 11 miles. The climbs were interrupted with a couple minor descents, but it felt like one long, endless climb. The early going was on the steep side. Some parts were in the 10-12% range, a couple times a little higher. The rest of the climbing was more moderate, maybe 8% with some leveling off. To me, this was the toughest part of the day because you had to stay in climbing mode for so long. I must have been at it an hour or maybe longer. I was ever grateful to pass the Blue Ridge Parkway, knowing that meant the toughest part was behind me.

From there we headed past Grandfather Mountain’s north side on Highway 105. The clouds were still with us and it was still in the 50s. To our surprise, the temperature had hardly budged. That kept it from being as scenic as it might otherwise be, but still made it easier to perform. It also prevented us from wanting to stop and let those muscles cool down.

Highway 105 was a ten-mile stretch with a good bit of traffic. It had rolling hills, but not terribly difficult considering what we had just experienced. At the most, we probably dealt with some short 6-8% grades around the Linville Ridge area, followed by equivalent descents. I rode back-and-forth with a couple other people, mostly on own pace because we descended and climbed at different paces.

We turned onto Schull’s Mill Road, which would bring us back to the Blue Ridge Parkway and we would head to Grandfather Mountain from the other side. This is a climb I was somewhat familiar with already and it was comfortable compared with the rest. This is just a nice, scenic, moderate climb. The grade varied, but was usually not more than 8% and had some level sections in between. This climb is shaded and extremely green. The lush landscapes were a welcome distraction from the difficult task at hand. I didn’t push myself. Instead I just spun up comfortably, enjoying the scenery and saving energy for the mountain that waited for me ahead.

Schulls Mill Rd

Shull's Mill Road

It was still cold during the Schull’s Mill climb. That I expected since it is such a shaded area, but as we got higher and higher, the clouds became denser. When we got to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a thick, enveloping fog was everywhere. I believe we were supposed to turn here on the Blue Ridge Parkway, but the volunteers directed us away from it and we continued on highway 221, Blowing Rock Highway. My guess is that the Parkway wouldn’t let us on given the foggy conditions. As much as I love riding the Blue Ridge Parkway and the beautiful Linn Cove Viaduct, I didn’t mind the detour this time since the alternate would not have nearly the amount of traffic. Fog and traffic on the parkway could be dangerous.

Highway 221 was quite the experience. The fog continued to be thick, and at times I could barely see more than 10 feet in front of me. Sometimes it looked like there was a pure white floating blanket in front of me. This proved to be a uniquely difficult experience. Most of the road was rolling, up and down, with nothing too steep in either direction. Without visibility, it was impossible to see what was ahead. Knowing I was making good time, I rode conservatively. I didn’t want to get caught off guard by a tight corner. Plus, I still wanted to save energy for Grandfather Mountain.

By the time I reached Grandfather Mountain, my bones were chilled through and through. The temperature had dropped to the low 40s during this stretch and I feared that it would be even colder at the top. While I pledged to not complain about the cold, I was getting close here. To my surprise, shortly after the Grandfather Mountain climb began, the sun came out. We emerged from the clouds to sunny, beautiful 70 degree temperatures. The natural beauty of the mountain was finally visible after miles of murkiness. I pulled off my arm warmers and rolled up the sleeves on my base layer and thoroughly enjoyed the bright view. The climb, on the other hand, was not nearly as pleasant.

The climb up Grandfather Mountain is only about 2 miles, but incredibly steep. This was perhaps the steepest climb I have ever experienced. In that short distance, we climbed approximately 1,000 feet. Grades were typically in the 10-15% range and a couple of the hills were in the upper teens. The last climb, which is merely 20-30 yards, is a brutal 20%. This would be a tough climb even with fresh legs. It was brutal on legs that had already traveled 100 hilly miles.

Three switchbacks near the top of Grandfather

Three switchbacks near the top of Grandfather

It was a good thing that I saved energy because this climb nearly killed me. Others had it worse. I ran into a few guys who cheated by riding into the flat sections, usually parking lots. A couple other guys gave up completely and walked their bike up. Some guys swerved from side to side to make the climb easier. A lot of us stopped for breaks in the flat in-between sections. I cannot remember how many times I stopped, maybe three, and I did the parking lot cheat a couple times. As we approached the top, the climbs became steeper. The more I rode, the more it hurt.

I came upon a series of three switchbacks that looked menacing, but in reality, they turned out to be quite easy. I believe they were around 6-8% or so, which was a big relief. At the top of the switchbacks I saw a lot of people stopped, which caught me off guard. Then I turned my head and looked up, realizing what they were waiting for. I saw the image below.

Last climb of Grandfather.

The last hurrah. Can I get a push?

Yes, that was the last gasp, the last hurrah. The finish line was at the very top, with yelling and screaming crowds to welcome us. My wife was also up there waiting for me, with just a 20% grade in the way. I watched people go up and stagger, barely moving the pedals forward. I sat there and let my muscles rest, contemplating what was ahead of me. One of the other guys said “Here goes nothing.” He set off with another guy and I followed a little ways behind.

Ouch. Pain. The hill became steeper gradually, beginning at around 6-8% until quickly hitting the teens and 20%. Wow, this hurt. I pushed and pushed to get up these last few remaining feet. I saw the guys ahead doing the sideways swerve. I considered it, since it would make the climb easier, but it would also make it longer. I wanted to be done with this thing. I kept pushing ever so slowly, getting further up the hill. Finally I was almost to the top and it lightened up a little bit. A few more pushes and I was over it. A nice volunteer, who I probably was too tired to thank, motioned me towards the finish line to the side. I slow pedaled and crossed. I was spent, beaten, but at least I was finished. My time was 7:05, not bad especially since I had stopped for 20-30 minutes.

Thanks to everyone involved with organizing such a fantastic ride. Even with the tough weather conditions, everything went smoothly. The volunteers were so helpful, so amazing, just great people. They seemed to enjoy being out there as much as we did, never complaining about the cold.

Did I mention it was foggy? I’ll leave you with this view from the top of the clouds I had been riding through all day.

Clouds below Grandfather Mountain

GPS Link