My good friend “Rocket Man” asked me to distribute the following article. Any similarity between Rocket Man’s writing style, climbing inability, or cycling mis-adventures, and my own is purely coincidental.
-Tom Sheffield

Rocket Man’s Climb Ratings

bicycle chain

Catalogued in the frequently oxygen-deprived caverns of my mind is a humbling list of cycling experiences known as “climbs”. Someone once told me that “Climbing is easy, if you don’t go fast”. I’ve never found that to be true, and I’m afraid that if I go any slower I might fall over.

Using any single characteristic for rating climbs would be a disservice. Length isn’t everything (ooh!), but using a company paid sick day for a trip to the mountains can only be justified by a route that includes long climbs. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, so convenience receives a heavy weighting in this ranking. Accessibility has its downside, which is automobile traffic (ugh!). Since it’s unlikely that we would be riding these roads if they were not paved, and I’m sure they wouldn’t have been paved just for cycling, I’ve discounted the presence of motorized vehicles in this ranking. In addition, factoring automotive traffic would provide an unfair advantage to isolated (Sauratown) or remote (Snake) nominees.

Climbs come in a variety of profiles. If you cruise the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) from the Folk Art Center to Craggy Gardens or spin your way up NC181 north to the BRP, you’ll experience a “rolling” climb. Even though experience tells me otherwise, upon arrival at the Craggy Gardens Visitor’s Center I would swear that I had been constantly gaining altitude since entering the parkway from Tunnel Road. Certain that the return trip is only a matter of coasting, my demented desire for more climbing is satisfied with side trips on Ox Creek Road and Town Mountain Road. Then – back on the parkway and totally exhausted – I’m rudely awakened from my endorphin-induced daze (aah!) when the road turns briefly upward and I realize I’m no longer coasting. (ugh!).

If you have ever had the pleasure of riding south across Roan Mountain through Carver’s Gap (aah!), or found your granny gear on Sauratown Mountain (ugh!), then you’ve experienced a “flat” climb. Such climbs are physically and mentally debilitating. Roan Mountain is similar to the BRP, where park employees have mastered the technique of placing the mile-markers further apart as the grade becomes steeper. Long straight sections offer visual reassurance that the climb will last forever, because the summit is nowhere in sight.

Switchbacks are a cyclist’s friend. In fact, the more switchbacks there are, the better I like it because they tend to flatten the grade. Can you imagine what NC80 or Beech Mountain would be like without switchbacks? The word “impossible” comes to mind. Switchbacks also provide visual (often blurry), intermediate goals. Many times going up Grandfather Mountain I’ve used them as milestones. For example: “I’ll try to keep my cranks turning until I get through that next switchback” (ugh!).

S-curves are closely related to switchbacks, although unfortunately they don’t have the same decelerating effect on motor vehicles. One of the most agonizing aspects of climbing is watching your “friends” disappear into the distance. Once they’re out of sight, they’re out of mind, and frequent curves are a blessing on a climb like Pilot Mountain.

Whatever goes up, must come down (with Grandfather Mountain being the notable exception), and for many cyclists a brief, white-knuckled, screaming descent is their reward for enduring the ascent. While the road surface isn’t as important during the climb (although losing traction due to loose gravel has caused me to search for a way to control my excess power), clean and smooth pavement (NC151) is exhilarating enough, without the adrenaline rush caused by gravel (Three Tops), cracks (NC80), or potholes (Snake). On one memorable descent I participated in a paceline of about a dozen bikes as we soared through the curves and tunnels of the BRP between Mt. Pisgah to the French Broad River (aah!).

A climb’s difficulty is relative to its position in the route. For example: I’m quite certain that my opinion of Grandfather Mountain results from only being able to ride it as the last segment of the Bridge-to-Bridge century. If I could drive to the base and climb it more frequently, I’m sure Grandfather Mountain (which ranks highest in difficulty) would be no more imposing than Pilot Mountain (ugh!). Snake Mountain is 1st Runner Up in difficulty, and might have knocked Grandfather from its lofty perch, if there were dozens of spectators, rather than a few dogs and horses, watching to see if I would fall before reaching the summit. Beech Mountain was relegated to 3rd in difficulty because the long, steep, straight sections at the base of Beech Mountain Road get most of the “fun” over with too soon.

Scenery is often taken for granted, or even ignored by some cyclists. Upon reaching the end of a climb my eloquent descriptions of streams, waterfalls, overlooks, flowers, trees and wildlife are met by blank stares and comments from my patiently waiting “friends” such as: “Where have you been?”, “Did you have a flat?”, or “I’m cold, let’s go!”. It’s nice to be appreciated and, as always, thanks for waiting for Rocket Man…

Rocket Man’s Climb Ratings:

  1. BRP MP382 to MP364 (Folk Art Center to Craggy Gardens)
  2. BRP MP393 to MP407 (French Broad River to Mt Pisgah)
  3. Hanging Rock Mountain
  4. Roan Mountain (south from TN to NC)
  5. Mount Mitchell
  6. Pilot Mountain
  7. Town Mountain Road (from Asheville to BRP MP377)
  8. US215 (south to BRP MP423)
  9. Schulls Mill Road (from NC105)
  10. US276 (north to BRP MP412)
  11. NC151 (south to BRP MP405)
  12. Beech Mountain
  13. Snake Mountain (Meat Camp Road north from NC194)
  14. NC80 (from Marion to BRP MP344)
  15. Three Tops Mountain (Buffalo Road west from NC194)
  16. NC194 (west from Valle Crusis)
  17. Sauratown Mountain
  18. NC181 (north to BRP MP312)
  19. Ox Creek Road (East to BRP MP374)
  20. Grandfather Mountain

[ NCBC home page ]