The perfect climb

View up Brynwood road in west Portland, looking uphill. A “yellow lion” is painted on the foreground. Road sign reads “Steep narrow road. No through trucks. Cars going uphill have right-of-way”
Published 2023-01-13

Riding a bike up a hill is like eating spicy food, an acquired taste and one that aficionados take seriously. This is about suffering; how much you enjoy it is a function of in what ways you like to suffer. My recipe for a perfect climb is:

  1. low traffic
  2. grade between 5% and 15%
  3. lots of curves
  4. not too short

1. Low traffic

As with literally everything else the presence of cars makes a climb worse. There are a couple of fine routes up onto my favorite hill that I have never taken simply because it would mean having to climb next to impatient assholes gunning their motors. I don’t care how well they’ve honed the spice balance, if I have to eat it in a portapotty it’s gonna taste like shit.

2. Grade between 5% and 15%

Grade is the Scoville rating of a climb. Grade × distance = climbing category. So in theory “steeper is better” but ah yeah, how much do you really want to hurt? Over shorter distances steeper grades are tolerable, but at some point my heart complains.

Grade is both intensely personal and intensely mental. Too shallow (below 5%) and it just feels like I’m pedalling through oatmeal, not climbing a hill. Steep pitches (for me: above 15%) are great in short bursts but if I have to stand over the pedals for 5 minutes I start to hear my heart in my ears. Too spicy. It depends on distance of course but somewhere around 8–9% is ideal: steep enough to feel like I’m going up, but not too steep to demand I stand.

3. Lots of curves

I debated putting this one ahead of pitch. Again: personal and mental. Curves are the cucumber raita of climbing. They don’t cut the heat so much as distract you from it. I know climbers who love one of those long straight climbs where you can see the top of the hill from the bottom. They attack that stuff the way some people clean off a whole plate of buffalo wings without even touching the celery. On those things I have to force myself to look just ahead of my wheel, knuckle down and zone out. I prefer to delude myself that surely this is the last one, no?

4. Not too short

Every other thing about a climb could be perfect, but if it’s too short it’s more of a flavoring than an experience. Short punchy rollers are the wasabi of climbing. Put three or four short punchy rollers together, however, and you might have a proper climb. How long is “long enough?” I dunno, enough to make me sweat in any weather? That’s a pretty good metric I guess.