My obsessive searching for the steepest hills on the planet led me to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. The blogs and listservs where people post their favorite hills make for some interesting reading, but usually don’t produce too many interesting results. It seems that almost no matter what hill someone describes, there’s always someone happy to chime in that “the hill right next to my house is steeper than that.” Usually they’re completely full of shit. So when I first came across this post contesting that Baldwin Street was the steepest hill in the world, I was a little skeptical. Not because I believe that Baldwin is as steep as the Guiness Book of World Records says (according to my calculations, which I don’t stand behind at all, Fargo is steeper, and John Summerson’s book claims that Canton Ave in Pittsburgh is an average of 37% top to bottom for .1 miles).
The problem is that “steepest” is such a subjective thing. Steepest average gradient, top to bottom? But what if the hill is only 100 meters long? Would that really qualify? I always figured that there must be sections longer than Fargo of higher gradient on Scanuppia, even though the whole thing, top to bottom is *only* 17% (the first 2 miles average 24%, which pretty much makes the end of Lincoln Gap look like a walk in the park.) If you go by “steepest section,” what’s the threshold? I’d say 20 feet is the smallest distance that might actually be noticeable, but even that depends on the context – i.e. how much momentum do you have going coming into that section? And, if we’re talking about difficulty, I would submit that climbing (based on comparing, say, Jenckes to Mount Tom) climbing 1/2 mile or more at 12%+ is exponentially more difficult than climbing 12%+ for .2 miles. But at the same time, I don’t think beyond a certain threshold that length adds exponential difficulty. Just look at climbing times for Washington and Ascutney. Ascutney is about 1/2 the distance and the same gradient. Riders generally finish Washington just slightly longer than half the time they take to get up Ascutney. Based on personal experience, I’d say that somewhere around the .15 mile mark, if the road is steep enough, for me, any momentum I had going into the climb will be gone (and at 30%, that distance will be much shorter). I base this on the fact that I usually hit a wall just before the top of Jenckes, but George Street is sprintable top to bottom.
Back to Tenerife. Calle Monroy was the hill selected to challenge the previous claimants to the “steepest hill in the world.” Based on available data, Canton and Fargo are probably a little bit steeper, top to bottom. Calle Monroy, however, is almost a half-mile at 28% (i.e. 5 times as long)! The last half of the climb is mostly over 30%, so I’m guessing you could easily pick out a 1/10 mile section that would beat either Canton or Fargo. This also means that this hill gains almost the exact same vertical distance as Mount Tom in half the distance. I mean, really. Most people – most of my cyclist friends – have never done a hill harder than Mount Tom. (Certainly the two I took there last year haven’t done anything harder before or since and they’re still pissed off at me for making them do it.)
Then I noticed that Calle Monroy keeps going after the end of the pavement with what looks to be decent dirt. Adding that section, the distance jumps to 1.2 miles, and the average gradient actually goes up by .2 percent to 28.2%. Completely nuts. I wonder if anyone ever done this thing on a bike?? Extended 30% gradient is something I have no experience with. There’s a little section of 30% on Mount Tom, but you carry a little momentum into that because the road dips just before the last kicker at the top. The 30% section at the top of Bowen doesn’t last more than 5 feet, but even that is enough to make people fall over sideways if they lose momentum on the cobbles. My friend Andy recently did Fargo recently and I think had to do switchbacks. But keeping it up for a whole mile? yikes. Even with extremely low gearing, say my 39/26, 11-36 setup on the new cross bike, I don’t know if you’d be able to keep the front wheel on the ground, and it seems like rear wheel skidding would be a nightmare on the dirt section. The whole area around Calle Monroy also looks to be littered with hills almost as steep as well.