Tag Archives: pinnacle 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)

Pinnacle Mountain: The Beautiful Beast

The main attraction of our Saturday ride was Pinnacle Mountain. This was by far the toughest climb I have ever attempted. That was the group’s consensus as well, and we had some experienced cyclists. One of them had 30 years of experience and once had participated in the race across America. We all agreed that this was a beast.

We turned onto Pinnacle Mountain Road from Highway 225 and started out immediately with a steep climb. After we got over the first hump, it leveled off and we climbed approximately a mile to the Sky Top Orchard. We regrouped at the top and someone commented how that wasn’t nearly as bad as we expected. Tom, who had been here before, chuckled. “This is a false summit if I’ve ever seen one.”

As it turned out Pinnacle Mountain is quite a lengthy stretch of mountainous road. In it’s entirety is spans around 17 miles. We covered maybe a dozen, including the toughest part. Aside from the peak, the entire road is up in the sky. We pushed along at between 2,800-3,000 feet, with gentle, rolling hills. Most of the way we could see residential roads to the left that led to gated, expensive houses. To the right we caught glimpses of a vast valley and larger mountains off in the distance. If my bearings were correct, those were the big ‘Southern Sixers’ behind Asheville (edit: a reader points out that it was likely Mt. Pisgah in the distance).

The route was gorgeous and serene. We took our time, absorbed the scenery, took some pictures and enjoyed the conversation. It was not challenging, but we knew that would end in time. We were making our way to the Grandaddy of all the climbs, Pinnacle Mountain.

After riding a ways, we saw the peak up ahead. As you can see in the image above, it did not look too menacing. It was not too much higher in elevation than we were already. The problem is, we kept getting closer and were not climbing. We even descended right before reaching the base of the peak.

The climb began with moderate steepness, probably about the same grade as Howard Gap or Pot Shoals, nothing insurmountable. We rode by a small house with a couple doing yardwork. They greeted us warmly. The climb was still not too bad.

After turning a corner, we faced a wall. The pictures below hardly do it justice. I was a little bit behind some of the riders and I could see many of them stopped in the middle. A couple of them were walking their bikes. These were strong riders. This thing was no joke.

I started up and the grade was instantly punishing. It started in the 20% range and got steeper from there. I’m not sure the exact grade, but after looking at some mapping software, I believe it was between 25-30%. It was insane.

I made it about halfway up and had to stop. The problem was, I could not clip in at such a steep incline. I tried and failed a number of times. Finally I got it by going sideways and slightly downhill, and made my way up. I got to the top of the wall. I was almost to the top and wanted to get some pictures looking down. That is when I saw Neil huffing and puffing up. He was breathing like a locomotive, but did not stop. I got some pictures of him, one of which is below.

The summit was nothing special. It was just a road with a lot of trees around that mostly obscured the view. We gathered together, amazed at the difficulty of what we had just climbed. The entire climb was about 1,000 feet in less than a mile, the majority of which came in the last few hundred yards.