Friday, November 26, 2010

Part III: The High Sierras...The Hardest Climbs in the World?

On February 8th at 7pm, David Longdon and I will be doing a multimedia presentation titled "Cycling the Monster Climbs in the Owens Valley, CA" at the Downtown Seattle REI as part of the Cascade Presentation Series. We’ll be discussing the hardest paved cycling climbs in the world, and the Sierra climbs compare favorably. David and I spent a week riding in California during a glorious heat wave in late September:

With the Seattle area seemingly entering a new Ice Age, it feels appropriate to publish the final installment of my Sierra Trip report.

David took some great pictures:

The day by day (minute by minute?) account of the actual cycling can be found here:

Kilometer by kilometer statistics from all of the big European climbs can be found here:

The published Euro climb numbers fall in line with my actual on the bike numbers. I started this blog after returning from Europe in the summer of 2008. Many of the big European climbs are detailed in my day by day account, commencing with the Italian Dolomites (where the picture at the top of this blog was taken) and Alps. The first trip post is towards the bottom of the page, and subsequent posts are on later dated blogs:

Two of the Sierra Climbs make for pretty good comparison with the famous European climbs. White Mountain and Horseshoe Meadows are a whole different animal and I will get to them later.

Name of Climb


Elevation Gain

Ending Elevation

Average Grade

Name of Climb


Elevation Gain

Ending Elevation

Average Grade

Whitney Portal





Gavia (Italy)





Tourmalet (France)





Madeleine (France)





Onion Valley





Alp d’Huez (France)





Galibier (France)















Mt. Ventoux (France)





On paper, Onion Valley is harder than any climb in Europe, with the possible exception of the Stelvio (see below). The last ten miles of Onion Valley average 8.3%, beginning at around 5000’ altitude and finishing at over 9000’. Those are bruising statistics by any measure. Overall, the European climbs listed above stack up pretty well with Whitney Portal. But only the Galibier and the Gavia finish up at anywhere near as high of an elevation as Whitney Portal and Onion Valley, and other climbs in the Sierras finish up considerably higher. The effect of cycling at higher altitudes has to be experienced to be fully understood. I have not compared these Euro classics to what David Longdon and I both felt were the two hardest climbs we did in the Sierras. Here is how those climbs stack up with two more very hard European climbs:

Name of Climb


Elevation Gain

Ending Elevation

Average Grade

Name of Climb


Elevation Gain

Ending Elevation

Average Grade

Horseshoe Meadows





Stelvio (Italy)





White Mountain





Bonnette (France)





Paper doesn’t always translate to the pedals sometimes. Here, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Well, maybe one number does: ending elevation. At first glance, it’s easy to say that while Horseshoe Meadows and White Mountain may be higher, they are not as steep as the Stelvio and Bonnette. The Stelvio and Bonnette do have the highest ending elevation of all of the climbs in Europe, but the Sierra climbs top out over 1000’ higher.

The X Factor that doesn’t show up in the table is the fact that both Horseshoe Meadows and White Mountain Road have long stretches of very steep road near the end of the climb. On White Mountain for example, the last three miles average nearly 9% with sections up to 17%. These last three miles start at around 8700’, or almost as high as the Stelvio and Bonnette finish. Also, the grade is much more consistent on the Stelvio and Bonnette. Horseshoe and White Mountain throw wildly varying grades at you, and I think that makes these climbs all the more difficult.

The Stelvio does have a short (well, in theory anyway) section of 10% right at the top. The final half mile of the Bonnette goes at an average of almost 11%. I must have been delusional while riding at that point, because I have a stronger memory of watching the guy in the 2008 Tour de France fly off the road while riding the Bonnette in the opposite direction. Yeah, I mean the dude who went over the edge and down about 50’, with his bicycle plummeting down the rocky slope another 100’ or so. Guess I remember that scene so vividly because Versus showed it 100 times, and I only road the climb once!

Make no mistake about it; the Stelvio and Bonnette are seriously hard climbs, and seriously great and scenic climbs. I guess for the relative difficulty ranking really to be conclusive for me, I’d have to do the Stelvio, Bonnette, Horseshoe Meadows and White Mountain on four consecutive days, and I’d have to be 100% rested each day. Impossible other than in a daydream fantasy!

All of the Sierra climbs are hard, and all of them are long. It’s interesting that both David and I felt that Whitney Portal and Onion Valley (the climbs with the steepest average grade) were not the toughest ascents we did during the week. Both of us felt that White Mountain and Horseshoe Meadows were harder. I believe that the combination of higher finishing altitude and the overall length of White Mountain and Horseshoe Meadows made them “feel” harder.

We did other great climbs that were very difficult:

Name of Climb


Elevation Gain

Ending Elevation

Average Grade

Rock Creek/Mosquito Flat





South Lake





Lake Sabrina





Once again, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. These were super hard climbs, but perhaps not as directly comparable to the Europe climbs—you had to be there to know why.

Of course, statistics never tell the whole story, and below I’ll try to elaborate.

Stelvio (Italian Alps-the climb ranked #1 favorite by European cyclists, and the hardest climb I have done in Europe): Length: 15.1m Elevation Gain: 5932’ Ending elevation: 9048’ Average Grade: 7.4% (photo)

The Stelvio is a masterpiece sketched on pavement. This is my favorite climb in the world, and until I went to the Sierras, the hardest climb I had ever done. I would now rank the Stelvio third, behind both White Mountain and Horseshoe Meadows. The Stelvio is either the highest or second highest paved road in Europe, depending on whether you are talking to an Italian or Frenchman.

Alp d’Huez is renowned for its famous numbered hairpin turns, but the final number is a lot higher on the Stelvio…48 numbered switchbacks to be precise.

Check out this crazy video of a nut that did the Stelvio on a fixed gear bike (staged or genuine?) for some incredible action and scenery:

Tim W. and I had planned climbing the Gavia from the north after the Stelvio. It rained the entire way up the Stelvio and it was snowing on the top, so we prudently abandoned the idea of descending the south side of the Stelvio to get to the Gavia. Despite the tough weather, the Stelvio remains the single greatest climb I have ever done. When I go back to do the Gavia, for sure I’ll be riding the Stelvio again.

Madeleine (French Alps): Length: 12.3m Elevation Gain: 4987’ Ending elevation: 6539’ Average Grade: 7.7%

The Madeleine is a beautiful monster of a climb commonly used in the TDF. Madeleine was tough! A village dog trotted alongside me for a bit during the middle of the climb. As Tim and I were basking in our success at a café on top, the same dog popped up over the last little rise! He must be the Lance Armstrong of dogs if he does that every day. It hurt, but I loved this climb.

Alp d’Huez (French Alps): Length: 8.2m Elevation Gain: 3514’ Ending elevation: 5955’ Average Grade: 8.1%

The Alp is a classic that has been used many times in the TDF. The steepest part comes where you want it to—at the start. The initial 1.5m at over 10% would be a rude wake-up call if you started your day at the foot of the climb. For some reason, this climb didn’t light my fire as much as many of the other great climbs in France. For sure I would do it again, but I wouldn’t go out of my way.

Mount Ventoux (Provence): Length: 14.1m Elevation Gain: 5321’ Ending elevation: 6573’ Average Grade: 7.1%

The Ventoux is really the only major big time Tour De France climb that I have not done, thereby insuring at least one trip to Provence for Tracy.

Galibier (French Alps): Length: Elevation Gain: 4085’ Ending elevation: 8681’ Average Grade: 6.9%

The spectacle of the Galibier is fantastic, and this is one of the most scenic climbs I have ever done. I bet the Stelvio would have been even prettier if I could have seen more than blurry glimpses through the fog of rain.

Tourmalet (French Pyrenees): Length: 11.8m Elevation Gain: 4606’ Ending elevation: 6939’ Average Grade: 7.4%

The first big climb used in the Tour, this one supposedly had the riders accusing the organizers of trying to kill them. In modern times with modern gearing the Tourmalet is not a killer, but it is very, very hard, especially at the top when you ride through the ski town of La Mongie.

Bonnette (French Maritime Alps): Length: 14.9m Elevation Gain: 5213’ Ending elevation: 9193’ Average Grade: 6.6%

This is an outstanding climb, and perhaps my second favorite climb in Europe. Up high, the terrain (and view) is very similar to Trail Ridge Road in Colorado. The Bonnette is the highest paved road in Europe—well, maybe. Italians tout the Stelvio, and other French declare the Iseran to be higher because it is a true col. The locals actually built a little summit extension loop onto the Bonnette to have a tiny section of pavement higher than the Iseran.

Gavia (Italian Alps—I haven’t done this one, but most sources site the Stelvio as being harder): Length: 10.7m Elevation Gain: 4472’ Ending elevation: 8600’ Average Grade: 7.9%

Located near the Stelvio, this one seems to make it into more Giro de Italias these days. The Gavia is famous for being the climb where American Andy Hamsted took the lead for good in the 1988 Giro. A driving snowstorm caused many riders to drop out. Not Andy.

Mortirolo (Italian Alps—I have not done this one either, but it has a very butch reputation): Length: 7.7m Elevation Gain: 4265’ Ending elevation: 6072’ Average Grade 10.2%

Short in length but wickedly steep, this one is probably like doing the Butte (“Brute”) near Chelan, but five times in a row non-stop. Bring your low gears like the pros do (many use 34/29 or 27).

Mount Zoncolan (Italy-Carnic Alps): Length: 8.4m Elevation Gain: 3947’ Ending elevation: 5692’ Average Grade: 8.9%

This lesser known Italian climb will be used in the 2011 Giro. The Italians don’t appear to worry about building roads with “moderate” grades like the French do.

Haleakala (Maui): Length: 36.5m Elevation Gain: 10000’ Ending elevation: 10023’ Average Grade: 5.2%

Some sources list this one as the hardest climb in the US, with Onion Valley in 2nd place. Due to the lower average and more consistent grade, I didn’t find this one as difficult as White Mountain, Horseshoe Meadows, or Onion Valley (in some ways). With consistent grades on Haleakala, the high altitude is not nearly the factor that it is in the Sierras. Nevertheless, that .2m, 15-20%+ section at 10000’ into a 50mph wind is probably the hardest little piece of road that I have ever ridden. I rode up Haleakala on Wednesday, July 21st in calm weather, and then again on Saturday in incredibly brutal wind. While I didn’t think it was the hardest climb I had ever done, I did think it was one of the greatest:

I believe some riders might rank Haleakala as their personal hardest, simply because of the length and high altitude. I just can’t do that, and it’s hard for me to say that Haleakala is the 4th hardest climb that I have ever done (behind White Mountain, Horseshoe Meadows, and the Stelvio). The big Hawaiian monster just seemed a lot more enjoyable than difficult to me. Maybe it was because of what I witnessed on my second time up:

And just for good measure:

Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics (this climb is essentially a ½ Haleakala): Length: 18.1m Elevation Gain: 5000’ Ending elevation: 5200’ Average Grade 5.2%

This is the classic “alpine” climb in Washington, and the biggest climb in the state. It’s kind of hard to get to, and I have only ridden this one twice. I’ll be back.

Mt. Evans and other high altitude Colorado climbs: I lived in Denver for 13 years, and during that time I rode up some of the harder climbs. It’s been 20 years since I have done Mt. Evans, so I am going to have to take a trip to Colorado to repeat it. My gut tells me that the Sierra climbs will feel harder, because the steeper grades will more than make up for the over 14000’ finish of Evans. Of course I’ll be twenty years older…

Mt. Lemmon (near Tucson, AZ): this is a simply amazing climb that rises up from the desert through five climactic zones to the alpine, topping out at just under 9000’. The nearly 6000’ of climbing was not nearly as challenging as controlling my bicycle during the long descent in 40+mph cross-winds. I love this climb, but in terms of difficulty, the Sierra climbs are in a whole different league.

For an incredibly detailed account of each Sierra climb, as well as another take on how the Owens Valley climbs stack up, take a look at this blog:

One can debate which climbs are the hardest in the world subjectively, or attempt to analyze the numbers objectively. What adjustment factor does one use to compare different climbs that finish at much different elevations? On Haleakala, I rode a rental bike that was at least 5# heavier than my bike. For gosh sakes, it even had Shimano stuff:)

There are a lot of other variables involved with my comparison. How rested or fatigued was I when I did the climb, how fit was I, what were the weather conditions? Because of the weather difference, Haleakala felt much, much harder the second time I did it. Whether subjective or objective viewpoints are applied, the Sierra climbs really measure up. For me, the combination of length and elevation gain combined with the steep grades at high altitude make the Sierra climbs extremely difficult. The sheer size of the Sierra climbs is impressive. Here is a summary of the Top 5 most difficult paved climbs in the world (that I know exist), in my opinion:





White Mountain Road


White Mountains, CA

Length, altitude, very steep finishing section, inconsistent grade

Horseshoe Meadows


Eastern Sierras, CA

Length, altitude, long steep sections high up, intimidating visual impact!

Passo Stelvio


Italian Alps

Length, altitude, high average grade, overwhelming visual impact!



Maui, HI

Length, altitude, 36.5m long with 10000 of gain!

Onion Valley


Eastern Sierras, CA

8% average grade, altitude, visual impact, reputation!

White Mountain Road and Horseshoe Meadows sit atop my all time ass-kicker list.

As far as the greatest climbs in the world, I can tell you that the Sierra climbs make my list too. Cycling in the mountains of Europe is an incredible experience for so many reasons, but at least the difficulty can be easily replicated in California. The Sierra scenery is pretty stunning as well, albeit in a totally different way from most alpine climbs.

Would I go back? Of course I would. In fact, I am considering making the Sierras an annual pilgrimage. I’m already thinking about next year’s trip. What will I do differently? Well, I am going to more diligently prepare for the trip, at least as best I can while living at sea level. The area is so hard to get to that I might make it a longer trip, doing an easy hike on a rest day off of the bike. Perhaps I will throw in a few of the easier (but still very hard) Death Valley climbs.

As far as my riding goals for the trip, at least I can still say that I have never had to do the “The Weave.”

1 comment:

TypeOne1969 said...

Good post. I hope to get out to your REI presentation.
Some days I think that avoiding the paperboy weave is the best I can do!