Friday, December 24, 2010

The Counterbalance

Over the last nine+ years of living in Downtown Seattle I’ve managed to ride up most of the steep little climbs around town. Always in the back of mind was the fact that I had not ridden up the Counterbalance (officially Queen Anne Avenue) on the south side of Queen Anne. The tracks are long since gone, but 120 years ago an electric streetcar was a popular form of transportation up Queen Anne hill.

The Counterbalance was a heavy 16-ton weight attached to a cable that would move the opposite direction to the travel of the street car. Due to the steepness of the street, the weight was required to assist the electric cars in climbing the hill and ease the pressure on the brakes on the downhill bound cars:

Queen Anne Avenue is one of those odd streets where there are no lane division markings. It’s really about a three lane street, but drivers almost arbitrarily use it as either a two or four lane, depending on traffic and time of the day. Because of this, I never really had much of an urge to ride up the Counterbalance, and rarely did I ride down it. Walking up and down the street gave me a pretty good feel for how it might be on a bike.

A few Sunday mornings ago, I managed to convince Reg N. to meet me at the bottom of the hill. Just as with Onion Valley in the Sierras (David L and I added a day to do this one); I guess I figured my Curriculum Vitae wouldn’t be complete without this steep little bugger. While not nearly as long as the climbs out at Cougar and Squak Mountain, it’s still a nice little test piece.

There are plenty of one block wonders around town. There are many very steep blocks all around Queen Anne, and some short steep pitches in the Montlake/Interlaken area. The south side of Somerset in Bellevue has some super steep blocks, and the trip up the cobbles on Virginia from Pike Place Market goes at 19+%.

None of these tiny climbs compare to the .5 mile long Counterbalance, where the crux .25 mile section averages nearly 15%. Here is how I rank the short but sweet climbs around town, at least the ones that come to mind:

1) Counter Balance on Queen Anne
2) Seattle View Hill south of Downtown Renton
3) West Dravus St. on the east side of Magnolia

I certainly can’t compare the Counterbalance to Onion Valley, White Mountain Rd, or Horseshoe Meadows, three monster Sierra climbs I did in CA. Nevertheless, what the CB lacks in length it makes up with steepness. It’s one of those nasty Seattle climbs that you don’t go looking for on a daily basis, but you just have to do…at least once. The Counterbalance is certainly Type II fun; you know; the kind of fun that’s only fun well after it’s over.

Merry Christmas!

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