Steep Thrills
by Rob Ainsley

Photos (c) Rob Ainsley, shown here sliding gently down Baldwin Street, New Zealand.

(c) Rob Ainsley

Hills. I love 'em. Not out of masochism, but pleasure. Because of the ebb and flow they add to a ride. Would Sustrans's Coast to Coast route be more fun flat? Of course not: you'd miss out on the satisfaction of that cup of tea at the hilltop cafe after Hartside's punishing climb. And on the downhill plunge on the other side, and later on, that wonderful final 50-odd kilometres of eternally descending old railway track and prevailing tailwind.

"Hills are always an adventure," says John Partington. He's climbed more than most: he's the secretary of OCD Cycloclimbing, the UK version of France's Ordre des Cols Durs, 'Steep Hill Club'. They're cycling's mountaineers, enjoying the challenge and exhilaration of climbing a hill because it's there. Britain has only a few hundred cols -- that is, a 300m top which crosses a watershed -- while France has over 9,000.

"You see so many styles of landscape, changing minute by minute," Partington says. "You leave the town far below, perhaps rise above the clouds. The weather changes: sun, shade, maybe even snow at the top. The breeze goes against you and then with you on the hairpins. At the top you have the view, and the mountain hospitality." And then, unlike mountaineering, you have the best bit: the reward of a downhill.

I have two never-fail techniques for shortening the feel of long or steep hills. 1. Guess how many pedal revolutions it is to the top and count down. 2. Swear copiously. They'd be severely tested on the volcanic Hawaiian island of Maui. In 48km the road rises from sea level to 3055m, claimed to be the longest steep hill in the world. You go through some lunar landscapes en route (the Apollo astronauts practised moonwalking on it) and from the top you have spectacular views.

Europe has its share of bumps too, and it's where the idea of cycle hill-climbing started. In 1905, with the Tour de France in its third year, organiser Henri Desgrange added a little spice by including mountain passes. At the time it was a controversial idea. Tracks were rough, riders had only a single gear, and bear attacks were a real problem. In 1910 his addition of Pyrenees to the route earned it the tag 'Circle of Death' in the papers.

Bear attacks are less likely these days, gear technology has moved on, and tarmac rises everywhere, even to the top of Spains's Sierra Nevada, rising to 3365m in 41km. According to John Partington many of the stiffest road climbs are on the Austrian side of the Dolomites (Halltall rises to 1482m in 7km at an average of 14%, its steepest stretch being 32%). The classic French Cols provide more mammoth statistics. From the top of the legendary 1909m Mont Ventoux, where Tommy Simpson died in 1967, there's around 1500m of descent in 21km averaging 7.5%; Iseran's 2770m peak offers 37km of descent; Alpe d'Huez has 21 hairpins; while such climbs as Galibier, Tourmalet and Aubisque (where Eddy Merckx first made his mark) are achievements to challenge any serious road cyclist.

I'm unlikely ever to don the 'King of the Mountains' jersey (whose white and red polka dot pattern, incidentally, was designed by sponsors Poulain chocolate to resemble their wrappers). But I have been up some quirky hills...

(c) Rob AinsleyDunedin's learning curve
...Such as the steepest road in the world. In the A-Z of Dunedin, New Zealand, Baldwin St looks unremarkable: quarter of a mile of straight suburban side-street, perpendicular to the main south road out of the city. Unfortunately the people planning it were in Britain -- 12,000 miles away -- and their maps weren't quite contoured up to OS standards. That main road ran along the bottom of a steep valley, and the side road, laid faithfully according to the plans, ran straight up a hillside. It resulted in Baldwin St being the steepest paved road in the world.

I was in Dunedin. I had a bike. I couldn't resist it.

Baldwin St is easy to find. Just cycle south from Dunedin and turn right after the Steepest Street gift shop. The vertiginous monster's beige concrete strip rises above you like a take-off ramp. You can cycle the gentle grade of the first quarter or so, and then it simply becomes impossible to pedal. You walk, and curse your hearty kiwi breakfast, which is rising to the top faster than you are. (The annual foot-race here is called the 'Gutbuster' for a reason.) By tilting your camera so that the precipitous road aligns flat with the bottom of the frame, the flat-roofed houses on the way up appear to subside like foundering ships or deconstructionist architecture.

Near the top, a tourist asked me to pretend to cycle, for a photo. With the bike stationary and the brakes full on, I started to slide backwards down the hill to the sound of slipping rubber. I pushed on the pedals, but only succeeded in dislocating the back wheel.

The locals tell you of the (fortunately very rare) icy morning when the postman fell over at the top and slithered all the way to the bottom on his backside, and then had to go all the way back to retrieve his bag.

I drank from the water fountain thoughtfully provided at the top, and friendly residents in the well-to-do villa-style houses lent me a spanner to unjam my back wheel. From the top you have the queasy view back down, which gives the appearance of a prestige housing development strung by some freak clerical mixup along either side of a ski-slope.

Baldwin Street's monumental mapping error has given it a gradient of 1 in 2.66, or 38%. Its cycling satisfaction is pretty thin. Riding back down is just as impossible as riding up unless you want your brakes to outflare the Mir splashdown. But it's nice to say you've ridden the world's steepest. Or not. For a thrilling 9k downhill, cycle up the slopes of nearby Mt Cargill and freewheel back to Dunedin with constantly changing views of the peninsula and coast. (And if you're fed up of slopes, for a totally flat few day's cycle, take the train from Dunedin up the Taieri Gorge -- one of the world's most scenic journeys -- and cycle 110k along NZ's first Rail Trail to Cromwell.)

(c) Rob AinsleyThe Streets of San Francisco
When you try and impose a grid system on somewhere as lumpy as San Francisco, you get strange results. Take Lombard Street, a short streetcar ride from Fisherman's Wharf. This tourist photostop appeared for years in the Guinness Book of Records under its 'steepest street' entry, despite not even being the steepest street in San Francisco. At 1 in 5.5, or 18%, it's a mere slope compared to neighbouring Filbert St, San Fran's actual steepest at 1 in 3.2, or 31.5% (22nd St is also 31.5%). But where Filbert St is a rectilinear dive, Lombard is a crammed sequence of six hairpin swoops, lined by elegant Victorian villas.

Lombard is immense fun to cycle down, zigzagging your way past the lush flower tubs, and dodging the hired tourist 4WDs nervously manoeuvring their way down the one-way redbrick street. San Fran is a great city to cycle round: the Golden Gate Bridge is only a couple of miles away from here, taking you to the other world of Sausalito (and Marin County, where mountain biking was invented), while the Mexican mural district and Golden Gate park are well worth exploring.

Lombard is wrongly called the 'crookedest street in the world'. It's not even the crookedest in San Francisco: the corkscrew descent of Vermont St (not far from those murals) has seven tighter bends. And the crookedest street in the world? Wall St, of course.

Britain has its own share of hill experiences. Porlock Hill, in Devon, is legendarily hard (2.2k of climb with two hairpins, reaching 25% in places). Severe climbs don't come any more challenging than the snaking tarmac ribbons of Hardknott and Wrynose Passes in the Lake District. Wonderful views, allegedly, except that whenever I've been it's been pouring with rain and deafening with motorbikes en route to The Woolpack for lunch. Our longest steep hill is in Scotland, on the mainland opposite Skye: go west from Lochcarron to Applecross on the old drove road over the Applecross Hills. It's a narrow thread of tarmac that winds and climbs up to Bealach na Ba ('Cattle Pass') and then plunges 620m to sea level in about 10km with fantastic views of Raasay and Skye. You'll fly like the eagles you sometimes see round Applecross.

Up the Chimney in N Yorks
To me, the North York Moors are more convenient, and perfect for cycle touring. Five minutes ride from your village B&B, along an ancient bridleway or tarmac lane, you're up on top of a quiet purple moor with not a building, vehicle or pylon in sight, grand riggs and valleys around you. And on the back road between Rosedale Abbey and the village of Hutton-le-Hole is Chimney Bank, Britain's steepest (c) Rob Ainsleymotorable road at 1 in 3, or 33%. Plenty of roads have 1 in 3 signs, but this is the only genuine article. As a cycling experience, Chimney Bank is great stuff, because it's just climbable, and the scenery unfolds wonderfully as you ascend. From Rosedale the road winds past ominous signs warning you of the folly of towing a caravan or driving a coach. One excitingly advises '1 in 3 Cyclis s Pl Di m t', the missing letters taken out by someone with rural ennui and an airgun.

Di m t? Never! If you pedal fiercely enough you'll get the experience of your front wheel leaving the road surface for an impromptu wheelie -- it really is that steep. At its severest hairpin, an alarming yank upwards to the right, the tarmac is almost torn apart on the crook of the bend; there's one more hairpin left before your final ascent, with the beautiful sweep of the valley below you. From here it's a shortish run into Hutton. For a splendid short day's circular ride, start from Hutton, go along Blakey Top to the Lion Inn for lunch, and come back along the other side of the dale to Rosedale Abbey. Finish with Chimney Bank and a drink at the pub in Hutton. If you happen to overdo the lunchtime beers, Chimney Bank will sweat them out of you.

How Green Was My Face
Amazingly, there is even steeper. Ffordd Penllech, a road marked 'unsuitable for motors' in the centre of Harlech in north-west Wales, is as difficult to ride up as it is to pronounce. From the main square, facing the spectacular old castle, turn right. Fford Penllech (the old main road!) rises and winds insanely, its narrow lane lined by old cottages and houses. The sign at the top claims it as '1 in 2.5'; it actually clocks in at 1 in 2.91, or 34%. It's another road that's frankly too steep for anything but curiosity -- but it's a good excuse to do Sustrans's Welsh National Cycle Route, 'Lôn Las Cymru', route 8, which passes nearby. It makes a splendid week or so's tour, taking you from Cardiff up to Holyhead through a wide range of scenery -- rail trails; cosmopolitan Cardiff; tragic Aberfan; quaint mid-Wales; spectacular Snowdonia; the bridge at Barmouth; regal Caernarfon; bizarre Portmeirion, almost; the Menai Bridge; and what better last word for an article on extremes: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

© Rob Ainsley
CTC Magazine, June/July 2001

other stories by R. Ainsley