A cousin, who was in town from San Francisco to compete in last weekend's Ironman Arizona, turned to me during a relaxed pre-race ride through Papago Park and asked, "So how far do you have to go to get to some hills?"
OK, we get it...Phoenix is flat.
That's not to say that we don't have our share of good ramps to goat up though. It is a "valley" after all. In fact, right in the heart of town scattered around the Valley's iconic geographic formations cut five obscenely steep roads that make even the heartiest of climbers gasp for more oxygen.
The typical breaking point for most cyclists to cry out loud "DAMN! That's steep!" is when the road tips up to or past a 20 percent grade. But to be fair, pushing a 17-pound bike along with their body weight up any slope over 15 percent for a stretch longer than 50 yards should be considered a Herculean effort for anyone not getting paid to ride.
For a frame of reference, the road up South Mountain to the TV towers on the top runs an average gradient of around 3.5 percent with the steepest ramps hitting just over 12 percent. Granted, the ascent is nearly 8 miles, but the leg stress from the overall steepness is minimal.
But certain boulevards that wind up Camelback and Mummy Mountains to get to those mansions that cascade on the cliff sides ramp up sharply and beckon to be conquered by masochistic cyclists who love the taste of lactic acid as their legs explode under the gradient.
1. Dromedary Road on Camelback Mountain (.7 miles, 11% average gradient)
Dromedary Road may be the most famous roadway in Phoenix because it is the stretch of pavement that carries tourists and tour guides alike up to the Copenhaver Castle high on the south face of Camelback Mountain. Some consider Dromedary to be the steepest road in town and it has brought many a cyclist to a dead stop mid way, if not to tears.
The climb starts as soon as you turn onto Dromedary off of Rockridge Road. Starting at a mild 3-5 percent grade, the road lifts to 10 percent as it bends to the right and then doesn't let up until the very top. Beware of some loose gravel from storm runoff that can make the tires spin, especially if you're pushing out of the saddle. As you pass the windy road warning sign, the road slams you in th efface and pitches up to 23 percent before stepping off to a more manageable 11 percent to the base of the castle.
The beauty of this road is that it's a through street, turning into Red Rock Drive, which also makes for an extremely challenging but slightly easier climb. The Red Rock route maxes out at just under 20 percent in one small section.
2. Cholla Lane on Camelback Mountain (.7 miles, 9% average gradient)
Cholla Lane is the tails side trail head for the Camelback Mountain summit. But don't let that average grade fool you. This is the steepest road in town. The first half saunters up to the trailhead at a nice 5 percent grade, but just beyond this road becomes evil climbing to the highest point in Phoenix not on South Mountain.
Beware that this part of Cholla is marked as a private road and you are entering at your own risk, but if you want to brag, push forward. Follow the road right and around the bend to see it ramp to the sky, hitting and average of 15 percent over the next 170 yards. The road shallows for a breath before pitching up again for the last kick to the top, again touching upwards of 18 percent in spots. This road has some chunky sections so be careful on the descent and hold off on letting it fly until you're back on the public part of Cholla, zipping past the hikers.
3. Sage Drive on Camelback Mountain (.5 miles, 7% average gradient)
The street just to the north of Cholla, Sage Drive is another with a non-threatening introduction before kicking it up a notch. This road is all open with a brand new tarmac to the cul-de-sac on top and offers a pretty sweet view out to Four Peaks and the Superstitions.
The front half of Sage rolls out at an easy 3 percent before shooting upwards at a constantly increasing slope. It feels like one of those exercise machines that just keeps tilting harder with each passing second. By the top, the ramp tickles 20 percent just as the road, and rider, reaches the dead end.
4. Glen Drive on Mummy Mountain (.5 miles, 11% average gradient)
On the south face of Mummy Mountain is a distinctive switchback road that cuts up from the mummy's feet to its chest midway before v-ing up and back. This short climb is Glen Drive, which starts as 59th Place, just off of Indian Bend Road and 60th Street. Glen can also be reached off of 57th Place but the more fluid climb starts at 59th.
Glen never hits the super steep grades of the Camelback climbs, but this is a true take no prisoners climb that shoots right up to 15 percent and pretty much hold it for the duration of the ascent. Like Cholla, Glen becomes a private drive midway up so proceed on your own. The top of the climb is at the switchback as the remainder if gated off and too rocky to ride anyway.
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5. 36th Street near Piestewa Peak (.7 miles, 8% average gradient)
Another grinder, 36th Street tops out at 16 percent but holds steady for almost the entire climb at around 10 percent. The ascent begins at Lincoln Drive, which is a horrible road to ride on with high speed limits and no bike lanes. Instead approach it from the south from Stanford Drive, heading up on Palo Cristi Road, which turns into 36th just before Lincoln.
The climb eases into the tough grades about a quarter of a mile in and then holds steady to the top at an estate gate high into the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. The road is very exposed and has some tarmac breakup, but the descent can be the most rewarding of this bunch with its mildly meandering roadway and low traffic due to a minimal number of homes along this road.