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Back in my younger days, when my legs were bigger and lungs better — or is that, when my legs were better and my lungs bigger? — I used to try to find the biggest hills in town up which to ride my bike.
I’d go miles out of my way to seek the tallest, longest, steepest ups the city had to offer.
From behind the wheel of a car, it’s difficult to appreciate just how vertical some of our city streets really are. When the horsepower is self-generated, it’s easy to realize — and, of course, exaggerate — just how hilly it is around here.
Before and/or after work or just tooling about town, I tackled all the obvious candidates. In the interest of fairness, I went up all the ups on the same bike — my fixed-gear. Some bikes are geared so low you really can climb up a wall. But on a fixie, there’s no hiding from elevation gain.
Several access roads to the Kansas University campus, especially the numbered roads on the east side, are among the obviously notable inclines.
I used to like to test my legs on two pretty good challenges on Ninth Street — westbound, over the few blocks before Iowa, and again farther west on the short-but-oh-so-steep rise between Lawrence Ave. and Crawford Drive — but in the interest of self-preservation, I pretty much skip that route these days. Cresting the Ninth Street hill at Iowa gets a little dicey on the drunk-clogged streets at 2 a.m.
My regular commute offers a choice between two other, drastically different, climbs: the not-so-steep-but-long-slog that is the climb up Lawrence Ave. from Princeton to Trail, and the abrupt rise into Fall Creek Farms west of Kasold, up Tomahawk Drive.
And while none of those molehills compares to, say, the Mount Washington Auto Road — 4,500 feet of ascent over 7.5 miles — or Mauna Kea (13,790 feet of rise over 41.6 miles) … well, they’re the best we’ve got. (And it’s probably appropriate to say here that my ability to climb like a sprinter is a perfect match to my ability to sprint like a climber, which is to say I’m all-around slow under any condition.)
Over the weekend, I stumbled over a new favorite bump.
I don’t know how many times I’ve rolled near it, but I wasn’t exactly sure where it ended up; I figured I’d Google-map it someday to make sure it was, in fact, a through street, but I never did.
Sunday, though, I decided just to ride on up Fifth Street, west of Colorado and South California (behind Carquest and Jayhawk Pawn and Jewelry on Sixth). It’s a quiet little road that seems to end abruptly in the trees at the top of a deceptively steep hill.
From the bottom, it doesn’t look like much, so I approached it casually — just spinnin’ along.
After a few dozen yards, the incline grew. I stood on the pedals. No worries.
It turned up. I bore down.
Still yards from the top, I realized my mistake: The darned thing just gets steeper as it goes along. It’s not a steady hypotenuse; it’s half of a “U” — gradual at the start, closing in on straight up (not really!) at the top.
I approached the peak and saw a woman walking her dog. She smiled and said hello. I tried to return the greeting as nonchalantly as possible as I pumped my bike left and right, bearing down on the pedals.
I swear that grin was the smirk of an insider, her way of saying, “You’re not from around here, are you? Welcome to life on the side of the mountain.”
Eventually — everything was in slow motion — I crested, but not before making my bailout plan. Since I wear clipless pedals that attach my shoes to my cranks, I kept telling myself to make certain I unclipped if my momentum hit zero. If I couldn’t get out of the pedals, I was sure to flip over on my back before log-rolling tail-end-over-teakettle back down.
Maybe it was the effects of the cold/flu/crud that kept me off the bike all of last week that made it seem to steep, but the view from on high convinced me there was some serious steepness to the road behind me. A similarly vertiginous downhill sealed it.
So for now, at least, I consider that stretch to be the steepest incline in city limits, at least that I’ve tackled.
If anybody knows of a steeper stretch, I’d love to see it, so please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment down below.