Life from an outsider's perspective…

Riding steep streets on a bicycle:

Street warning sign - Slope with a 30 % Gradient!I recently wrote an article about the steepest street in the world, Calle Monroy. So after diligently studying the countour maps provided by Google Maps, I decided to take a look for myself, IN PERSON (no one ever does that these days!) I wanted to observe the entire street to judge it for myself, compare it with the other steep streets in the region, and of course take some photos.

I’d previously explored this region in 2006 and came across a sign which warned of a 30% grade! Despite the maze-like network of tiny roads and streets, I managed to find the same sign again; it appears at the top of the adjacent steet, “La Calzada”. The top section of this street is so incredibly steep that concrete is used to seal this road instead of bitumen or tarmac. Note that there are grooves moulded into the concrete in a chevron pattern to aid in the traction of vehicles going up or down this terrible slope.

La Calzada, a very steep road with a 30% percent grade.I’ll confess that I did not even attempt to climb this street. I know it is well beyond my current capability. Not only that, but it can be dangerous: if you fail an attempt, you will inevitably fall of and slide backwards down the incredibly steep slope… it’s hard enough to stop with good brakes as it is. On the opposite side of the road, a small shrine stands as a rememberance to someone who died here. So I decided wisely to approach it from the top and decend the whole length of Monroy St instead. Even so, I have thoughtfully provided some free advice for tackling hills with 20%, 30% and even 40% gradients (see below).

I chose to take a cross-country MTB instead of my usual downhill beast. The XC mountain-bike made the arrival somewhat easier, but it was still a big mistake. Going back downhill along these streets towards Santa Ursula was just plain scary. The 80mm fork compressed with the extreme braking effort required. This lowered the front of the bike considerably more than I would have liked & then I could not lean far back enough to feel secure. Descending these streets demands the utmost control & brake modulation.

Calle Monroy Street in the foreground with houses on Calle La Calzada shown in the background. La Corujera, Santa Ursula, Tenerife.Despite some previous experience with downhill braking, I completely lost my confidence in going down hill at any sort of speed along Monroy St. Although the dual 6″ hydraulic brakes were equipped with sintered metal pads, this incredibly steep descent completely overwhelmed the brakes. The rear disc brake was at the point of skidding the entire time. The front disc brake was howling like a noisy bastard in protest. I stopped 3 or 4 times along La Calzada and Calle Monroy to take pictures and let the bike’s brakes cool down. I could smell that typical “burnt brakes” smell wafting in from behind me whenever I stopped… next time I’ll choose something with more stopping power!

I thought about it for a second, but I will not be holding any sort of “insane climbing competions” here. Common sense also prevents me from taking cyclists on guided tours around this region. It’s just too dangerous. Having said that, if you are an idiot, and you feel strangely compelled to attempt to cycle UP these tremendously steep streets somehow, might I suggest the following friendly advice:

  • Choose a MTB instead of a road bike. Mountain bikes have far lower gearing compared to road bikes. You’ll find that the extra stopping power + easier braking modulation more convenient for when you fail the attempt. Likewise for the greater tyre contact patches.
  • If you have to choose a road bike, go with a triathlon bike. Why? Well, when you’re facing up the hill at an angle of anywhere between 10 to 20° along this particular street (yes I’m talking about the ANGLE here, not the percentage gradient), the seat tube angle will be lowered by the same amount. So it helps to use a triathlete bike like this one with a steeper seat tube angle to compensate.
  • Not that you’ll be sitting down, but to reduce the risk of falling back off your saddle, lower the nose. Tilt the saddle down by at least half the angle of the hill you expect to encounter. Why else do you think downhillers set their saddles with the “noses pointing skyward position”? You might not realise this, but seat position in downhill racing is a science. This is the same thing, except in reverse.
  • Dual hydraulic disc brakes are highly reccommended for when you inevitably grind to halt and have to come to a stop. Especially think about the rear one, as this will provide almost all of the braking effort to prevent you from reversing back down the hill. Furthermore, if you’re accustomed to using a bigger disc rotor on the front wheel, mount in on the back wheel instead. 😉
  • FORGET using road pedals such as Look, SPD, Time and speedplay. The soles of the shoes simply don’t provide enough grip for these slopes. If you can’t even manage to walk about on flat ground, how the hell are you going to get by when the road surface drops off at a 15 or 20° angle?!
  • Use smaller wheels for added manoeuverability. Consider mounting a 650c or 24″ front wheel.
  • Consider a double chain drive system, for added strength. Remember: if you snap a chain on this sort of extreme gradient, you’ll probably die. All your power is going to be transferred through that one skinny chain, so this is a good place for redundancy.
  • Suggested gearing guidlines: 20T front chainring. 34T rear cog. Single speed.

Discussion Area - Leave a Comment