real life cycling

Struggles with unknown inclines: the 15% ‘ers

It was Ernest Hemingway who said that ‘It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them’. Now, i’m not sure what kind of tempo Hemingway used to ride at (I couldn’t find him on Strava) but he’s right, of course; because we cyclists feel every pedal stroke, we pay some serious attention to gradient. Unfortunately, many of us are also prone to exaggeration when recalling our struggles with the incline.

I do a lot of my riding in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria, and so the climbs that I regularly do battle with are not epic alpine ascents but rather short, sharp, and often steep. All of us who ride in this area know about The Coal Road, Hardknott Pass or the Buttertubs Pass, and nobody is questioning their vicious steepness, but what is up for debate is all those roads that your mate tells you about…unknown roads which he apparently just stumbled across, and which in the telling of the tale turn out to be of nose-bleed inducing steepness. There is a rule of thumb to be used here:

Unless proved otherwise, 15% is the average gradient of all those climbs your friends tell you about which were 20%, 25% or even 30%. If these hitherto unknown climbs were actually this steep, you would have ridden them, or heard about them…they would be the stuff of local legend, with names that send shivers down the spine. But to just stumble across a climb of this steepness, when there are no other witnesses, lest we forget…unlikely.

Steep? Probably about 15% (Photo: Teacher Traveler - Flickr CC)
Steep? Probably about 15%
(Photo: Teacher Traveler – Flickr CC)

Of course, because your mate logs his rides on Strava you could, if you felt the need, go and check the details and confirm the gradient as recorded by GPS satellite technology…but there’s no need for this. Take it from me, the climb will be about 15%.

But lets not be so hard on these exaggerators and self-promoters…it’s easily done. If nothing else, when you are struggling and blowing your way up some unknown 15% stretch of road it is a simple psychological ploy to tell yourself it’s around 20 or 25% to ease the pain in your legs, and provide some justification for the right pig’s ear you are making of it. It’s the unexpected nature of these hidden 15% ‘ers which make them inconveniently hard. Because you have no time to prepare yourself mentally, and conserve a bit of energy for the job, it’s the element of surprise which hurts the legs and lungs.

But even with all this taken into account…trust me, it’s still only around 15%.

Of course, with every rule, there has to be an exception to prove it, and my exception to this 15% rule comes in the form of one of my local sportives, ‘Le Terrier’. This particular ride is 104 miles (167 km’s) in length, with around 3000 metres of ascent, but it’s the nature of the ascent which defines ‘Le Terrier’. Despite the fact that it covers, to me, local ground, the organisers have managed to devise a route that feels like a voyage of discovery. It takes in every hill, valley, undulation and farm track within a 50 mile radius, and the gradient of these hidden roads push that mythical 20% with monotonous (and painful) regularity.

(Photo: Ouevre personelle - Wikimedia CC)
(Photo: Ouevre personelle – Wikimedia CC)

Before ‘Le Terrier’ nobody knew theses roads existed except a few sheep farmers and a small and select group of Lancashire’s iron men. Now, ‘post Terrier’, many of us see visions of them as we close our eyes at night, sometimes waking in a cold sweat. To think about riding it for a second time is to muse on the very nature of pain, suffering and the human condition.

I’m considering filling in my application to ride ‘Le Terrier’ for a fourth time, and the wife reminds me I swore ‘never again’ after my last effort – I suspect she will have little sympathy for my post ride agonies this time around.

I have plenty of friends who choose not to put themselves through things like ‘Le Terrier’, and who can blame them – it’s a very sensible position to take – and after I’ve ridden it and I’m holding court with my tales of sore legs and aching lungs, I watch their faces glaze over, and I know what they’re thinking…

‘…yeah, right mate…it was probably about 15%’.

12 comments on “Struggles with unknown inclines: the 15% ‘ers

  1. 15% ? Yikes. I have ridden a few of the beasts from the Tour (d’Huez, Galibier, Ventoux) and I do not think any of them had stretches of 15% let alone 20-25% !!


    • You’re right, these climbs are nothing like the alpine beasts. The north of England is peppered with short, sharp, lung bursting climbs, particularly Cumbria just north of me. Hardknott Pass (google it) is the stuff of legend; it only reaches a height of around 400 metres but the gradient officially hits 33% in places – brutal, and not for the faint hearted – i tend to ride it at least once a year just to keep my eye in…for work, not pleasure!


  2. I quite like the idea that there are all these classic cycling climbs waiting to be discovered, just like every fishing lake has a monster fish that nobody has ever caught, just as I still cling to the hope, based on the amount of kit that ramblers in my town have on them as they amble between the tearooms, that there is a 15th 8,000 metre mountain in Yorkshire which Messner and Hinks (and he should know, being a local lad) and co haven’t heard about yet.


    • I’m pretty sure in Lancashire they’ve all been found, but Yorkshire..? There are some pretty remote spots which may still be unexplored by bike! As for the ramblers, i’m with you on that – the sight of gators in mid-summer always makes me chuckle.


  3. Nice post, so true, unless of course that certain someone is Simon Warren. I envy you northern folk when I see the hills but not when I look to the skies!


    • Thanks. That’s right, if Mr Warren says it’s 20% it probably is! Indeed, hills good, cold wind and rain not so good. I really should head out of my northern outpost more often and sample some of the balmy weather further south.


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