Wednesday, April 20, 2016

"Cadillac Hill"

It's widely considered the steepest street in Akron, Ohio.

To me, it's the only hill I haven't been able to ride up on a bike.

Bates Hill, on the near northwest side of Akron, overlooking the city's "skyline," reportedly has a maximum grade of about 28% and is one of the little quirks of the Rubber City. The hill has long been known by Akronites as "Cadillac Hill" because of the Cadillac car dealership that was (still is) located at the top end of the road. Local legend has it that the car salesmen of days gone by would often show off the power of the Cadillac's big V-8 engines by driving customers up the hill. Nobody has ever been able to tell me if they demonstrated the power of the brakes by taking people back down the same hill, but I can verify that it is a real test whether going up or down.

The hill is so steep that in a car, at the top of the hill, one can't see the bottom. One pretty much has to take it on faith that they aren't going to drop off a precipice.

One of the things that makes the hill so unique and such a challenge to ride is the odd feature of the road's brick paving. Built at the end of the 1800s, in the days before cars became commonplace, the paving in the steepest section of the hill is a combination of brick pavers set almost like miniature stairs, with raised granite stones that give something akin to a "washboard" surface which reportedly was done to give some purchase for horses' hooves. Every third row of pavers is raised slightly and I've read that the effect was computed based on the length of the average freight horse's stride. That paving feature led to yet another (though less common) nickname for the street: Jacob's Ladder. Suffice it to say, the tires of cars going up and down the hill make a hell of a racket.

That washboard-like surface makes riding down Cadillac Hill a bone-jarring experience, and the insanely steep grade and sharp 90-degree turn at the bottom make it even scarier. I don't recommend riding down it.

When trying to ride up Cadillac Hill, those raised pavers severely limit a bike tire's traction, while the steep grade is enough to make unintentional wheelies a real possibility.

I've made several attempts to ride up Cadillac Hill. Let me describe what happened.

In my first try, I attempted to ride up the edge of the road. The brick pavers are laid flat there (somewhat visible in the photo) and my first instinct was that it might be better than going up the washboard section. Better tire contact, I thought. My typical style when riding up any super-steep section of road is to pick the right gear and stand out of the saddle. In this case, I found myself putting more of my weight forward to keep the front wheel from lifting. As soon as I got to the steepest section, my back wheel just started spinning. Not enough weight on it. I ground to a halt, and just managed to stay upright long enough to get turned around and go back down.

My second attempt was again on the smoother paving along the edge, but I stayed in the saddle to keep some weight on the back wheel to get traction. Immediately my front wheel pulled up. Leaning forward to keep the front wheel down, the back tire started slipping again. I barely managed to get a foot out of the pedal in time to keep from falling over.

On my third try, I attempted to go up the middle and brave the washboard. As I'd predicted, the bike's tires (32 mm with fine road tread) weren't making good contact with the pavement. It was as if the tires would sort of skip over the edges and corners of the pavers, making traction a real difficulty. If I tried to go too fast, the tires would bounce over the surface and have no contact at all. Out of the saddle, weight forward, my back wheel started to slip. Shifting my weight back, and my front wheel pulled up again. Stymied again, I managed to turn around.

I made one more attempt on Cadillac Hill. I decided I needed to work at it as if it were a tightrope balancing act. I got out of the saddle, but kept my body low and centered with my knees slightly more bent than I might normally ride, and tried to keep my weight poised delicately between the front and rear of the bike. If I felt the front start to pull up, I shifted slightly forward, careful not to over-compensate. If the back wheel started to slip, I shifted slightly back. I kept a slow, methodical pace to minimize bouncing over the raised granite blocks, going just fast enough to not lose balance.

My efforts seemed to be working. I made my way up the "ladder" methodically. It turned out that I'd gained a spectator -- an old man was standing by the side of the road watching me climb. As I neared the end of the washboard section, just a few yards away from the spot where the grade reduces slightly, the old guy started to cheer.

"YA GONNA MAKE IT! YA GONNA MAKE IT!" he hollered.

I didn't make it. The moment my tires went from the washboard to the smoother bricks, the back tire spun. I was already going so slowly that the brief loss of momentum brought me to an immediate standstill. There I was, trying unsuccessfully to get a foot out of the pedal, and down I went, hard, smacking my hip against the granite blocks.

With both my hip and my ego bruised, I walked the remainder of the climb and went home. I have not tried again since. I know people who say they've climbed Cadillac Hill on a bike, but I've never seen it done, and I've never been able to do it myself.

Bates Hill. Cadillac Hill. Jacob's Ladder. The hill I haven't been able to climb. . . yet.

25 comments:

  1. As a fellow rider once said to me, "I've never encountered a hill I couldn't walk up."

    Not far from where i live there's a paved (alleged) bike path through a forest preserve that has three +20% grades. Fun to ride down if you're able to avoid losing it on a curve and hitting a tree. i haven't measured it, but i believe that the steepest section is about 25%, and about 70 meters long. This path was surely designed by someone who either doesn't ride a bike or has a devilish sense of humour.

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  2. "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,/ Or what's a heaven for?"

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  3. Venturing a guess that if you borrowed a buddies MTB you could do it. More tread, lower gearing....

    For giggles, I just recently set up one of mine with a range extender cog (normally just for 1X set ups, but I figured what the heck), so my low is a 20x42, nothing I can't climb!

    Post a pic of the surface up close, color me intrigued.

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    1. 20x42?! Wild. Apart from the fore-aft tire purchase problem, I would think there would be a threshold where you couldn't pedal fast enough to move forward without falling sideways!

      Clearly, an MTB would be cheating. What makes it retrogrouch is testing the limits of the given setup and relying solely on technique. Otherwise you end up designing the reverse of a downhill bike and calling it an uphill bike. It would have wonky geometry and look a lot like a funicular. Then when you got to the flat at the top you'd struggle to not fall over the handlebars.

      I really enjoy the idea that each bike, each build, has a functional range that far exceeds its intended use—up to a point. Then, in the same way people slower than you are idiots and those faster are maniacs, the bike's rider looks beyond that functional range and either tests it or asks, "Who on earth would want to do that?" And then argue about it over beer.

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    2. I remember my father taking me up, then back down, that hill in his '48 Ford. I was a kid. Going up felt like we were going to flip over backwards. Going down...I think I wet my pants. ;-)
      I've never tried it on a bicycle. Thanks for the memories.

      Louis

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    3. I can say for certain that gearing wasn't a problem. I had a granny gear on my crank, and was not even in my lowest gear. It seemed to me that too low of a gear exacerbated the wheelie tendency. It's possible that some knobby tires would help on that raised brick surface. My thought was that they would be a liability on the smoother sections though. I just don't know.

      I'm told there are some hills even steeper than 28% that people have been able to climb (like in San Francisco, for example, or even Pittsburgh). Not sure what the secret is. I do know the unusual surface makes it more difficult.

      And Louis - An Akron native? Or at least once upon a time?

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    4. Without going back to the hill to snap a picture, I found one on flickr that gives sort of a look at the surface - Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, sitting on Cadillac Hill - https://www.flickr.com/photos/eartha/241765893

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    5. Canton Avenue in Pittsburgh is cobbled with a reported grade of 37%. It is featured in the annual Dirty Dozen ride. I walked it last fall (fortunately I didn't have my bike on that trip; I don't think I could get up it w/o a motor.

      http://www.wired.com/2010/12/the-steepest-road-on-earth-takes-no-prisoners/

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canton_Avenue

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    6. I've heard of that Dirty Dozen ride - that must be why I knew about some of the insanely steep hills there.

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  4. My off-road touring bike is an 1993 Miyata mountain bike with smooth-but-2.5"-wide tires and the lowest gearing is a 24x36. I haven't measured the angle of the steepest hills, but I can bike up stuff that I have trouble walking on. I build this up in Vancouver BC but now that I've moved to Houston all those gears are wasted - it's flat as a pancake here!

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  5. Do yourself and the rest of us who like you a favor, don't try that meaningless nonsense again. I once fell on my hip while cycling and broke the femur. It ain't nice and it is extremely costly.

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  6. What gearing did you have?

    I'll bet your Expedition will be lower, and RG approved! =:)

    Yeah, I spin like mad in that gear, but do still get up things I shouldn't be able to....

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  7. "And Louis - An Akron native? Or at least once upon a time?"

    Yes, born in Akron, lived in Norton most of my life. Still do.

    Louis

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  8. There's clear a few that have done it: https://www.strava.com/segments/2923269

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    1. Like I said - I knew people had done it. Just haven't been able to do it myself. I'll have to try again sometime.

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    2. Use mountain bike tires at low pressure. Or 42 mm road tires.

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  9. You should try 45% in Italy:
    https://zigak.wordpress.com/2008/12/11/scanuppia-from-bessenello/

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  10. I used to live on a street called Fairview Avenue in the northernmost neighborhood of Manhattan.

    Today, the island below 96th Street is flat; however, in the middle of the 19th Century, the terrain was hillier and more wooded. The last vestiges of that landscape are found in the upper Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood. Fairview Avenue is the border between those two communities.

    As best as I can determine, the grade of Fairview is 15 percent. It also zigs and zags up to St. Nicholas Avenue, which adds to its challenge--especially if you've just walked out your door (as I used to do) or you turn onto the street from the flat Broadway.

    When I was working in downtown Manhattan, I used to start my commute by pedaling up the hill even though I could have taken Broadway. But there was less traffic on St. Nicholas Avenue and the climb woke me up.

    Oh--I used to do that climb on my first fixie conversion (before they were fashionable).

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  11. The funny thing is that really steep climbs like Cadillac Hill aren't always found in mountain ranges, and the highest mountain ranges don't necessarily have steeper climbs. As an example, I rode up roads that were like walls in Pennsylvania; they were even more challenging than anything I saw while riding the Sierra Nevadas from California into Nevada. Ditto for the Pyrenees vs. the Alps.

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    1. I think that in a lot of old cities, built up by a riverfront, will have some really steep climbs because back in the day they would make no attempt to "grade" a road - they'd just build the road straight down the slope.

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  12. Trouble getting your "foot out of the pedal"? Toe clips or clipless? Have you considered trying 'flats'? My randonneur bike, a Soma, has toe clips and straps. Everything else I ride in town has 'flats' - no foot attachment. So much more convenient. I already knew how to make my feet go in circles decades ago.

    I'll second the walk suggestion. There was a cartoon in a cycle magazine years ago that showed a fellow with a ridiculously exaggerated granny gear/cog combo. Caption: North American low gear. The next picture was of a 'native' walking a bike up a hill with a hundred pound sack of rice over the top tube. Caption: Low gear in the rest of the world. In countries with a lot of bikes in daily use, they don't have anything like the elaborately outfitted machines we ride for 'play'.

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    1. I have clips and straps on several bikes, clipless (clicking) pedals on one, and "flats" on a couple others. As it happens, the bike I was using in this instance had toe clips and straps, but I was using a non-cleated touring type of shoe, so I still had some pedal retention, but not so much that getting out should have been so difficult. Still too difficult anyhow. On a steep climb, I do like to have some attachment to the pedals, even if it's only a light attachment. Just didn't work out this time.

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  13. Are you running pressure too high. I have ridden up it a few times with 38 slicks on my gravel bike. Maybe the long chain stays help but I ride up many barely paved roads in the Valley. Old AP and Honeywell rd. (If you can find it) are my favorites. Super hard. Sadly my friend totally smoked me when we raced up it. He would have gotten the strava KOM but his gps didn't work. But he is 28 and a very strong rider.

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  14. Another Akron local? Maybe I should try lowering the pressure, but I'm not one to run my tires all that hard normally, so I just don't know. I have ridden up old Akron Peninsula numerous times - though that's barely even a road anymore. Mostly some crumbled asphalt, loose gravel, and some ruts. It's a neat (and quiet) challenge.

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