A Handy Guide to Climbing Grades

08.1.2012 | 2:33 pm

I have made my life’s work the study of grades. Not the kind of grades you get in school, because how weird would it be if you got a grade in the class you’re taking on grades? Real weird, that’s how weird.

The kind of grades I study are inclines. Specifically, I study the effects of various climbing grades on the average cyclist (which is to say: me).

I believe that what I have discovered will be of some value to you.


In order to understand the rest of this very scholarly article (yes, I know it looks like a blog post, but trust me: this is far too intellectual of a topic to warrant a mere blog post), you will first need to have a grasp of some basic mathematic principles. Specifically, you will need to understand what it means to express a grade as a percentage.

Also, you will need to be able to understand complex quantum mechanics, and may even be required to do some long division.

So let’s get to it.

When you’re riding, you’re either going up, or down. Or flat, I guess (I am not really familiar with that kind of riding and am unconvinced that it exists outside the imagination). For every 100 feet you go forward (or sideways, on very windy days), you will also travel vertically a certain number of feet.

if you put a percentage sign after that vertical distance, you’ve got your grade.

For example, suppose you go up two feet as you go forward 100 feet. That’s a 2% grade. Suppose you climb eight feet as you go forward 100 feet. That’s an 8% gradient. Or suppose you go up 100 feet as you go forward 100 feet. That’s a 100% gradient, and is also going to be pretty hard to get your tires to not slip a little bit.

Or you can just look at your GPS when you ride. That’s what I do, although I think the number my Garmin picks is actually a number between one and twenty and is based on some brownian motion detector or something. Yes, it’s that accurate.

What You Should Be Feeling At Certain Common Gradients.

With the very thorough understanding you now have of climbing grades, you are now ready to learn what those grades mean in practical terms. What do common climbing grades look like? How do they feel when you ride them? What are interesting and useful facts about these grades?

I shall answer these very excellent questions forthwith.

one.jpg1% – 2% Grade

This grade is noticeable because you are aware that you’re climbing, yet still feel like you’re going quickly enough that it may as well be flat.

At this grade, you wonder what the big deal is about climbing. You don’ even have to shift down to a lower gear; you just pedal a little harder. Maybe stand up once in a while and accelerate

When you’re on a 1 – 2% grade, you like climbing, and wonder why anyone else might not like climbing.

Unless, of course, you’ve been climbing a 2% grade for half an hour or more, in which case you might start to get an inkling of why someone might not climbing.

Among those in the know, the 1 – 2% grade is commongly called “The grade of deception,” because it leads you to forget the hard realities that steeper grades will remind you of. Forcefully.

4 – 5% Gradefour.jpg

The 4 – 5% grades are what I like to call “The Best Climbing Grades.” As you plug along, you’re absolutely aware that you’re working, good and hard. However, you’re not absolutely positively cooked. You can go on at this grade for hours.

OK, minutes. But those minutes kinda drag on, you know?

When climbing at this grade, you may find it useful to stand up, shift into one higher gear, and pedal that way. This gives you a fantastic boost of power . . . until it doesn’t anymore. At which point you have to sit back down and shift down two gears.

Or three. Or possibly four.

It is while climbing at this grade that most cyclists imagine themselves as one of the great cycling climbers of yore. Or — if you’re more inclined to make grotesque faces as you ride — as Voeckler.

six.jpg6 – 8% Grade

This is what I like to call the “Last Good Grade.” At 6 – 8%, it’s still possible to feel strong. Sure, you’re going slow, but — you tell yourself — you could still stand up and attack if you really wanted to.

Interesting fact: If you try to stand up and attack on a 6 – 8% grade, you will think the following over the course of the next five seconds:

  • 1 second: “I’m doing great!”
  • 2 seconds: “Wow, who’d have thought my legs would start hurting so quickly?”
  • 3 seconds: “This was a bad idea.”
  • 4 seconds: “I’m pretty sure I’m going slower than before I started this attack.”
  • 5 seconds: “Why is the darkness closing around me?”

nine.jpg9 – 10% Grade

When you are riding a 9 – 10% grade, you gain a new perspective on life. Mainly, you stop thinking about your normal Maslowvian needs — food, shelter, love, etc. Those silly little things are replaced with a few much more important and relevant questions:

“How much longer does this grade go on?”


“Would anyone think less of me if I were to make up an excuse for turning around now?

The answers to these questions are as follows: “Much, much longer than you want,” and “Not if you make up a very interesting and dramatic story that has you coming off as a hero in the end.”

Not that I would know anything about that second strategy, because I always finish the climbs and never ever ever give up and make up a story about why I would have finished if I hadn’t had to rescue an overturned schoolbus full of adorable puppies.

Interesting fact: It is perfectly acceptable to serpentine up any road that is 9% or steeper. 8% is probably fine too.

twelve.jpg12 – 14% Grade

Have you ever heard that myth about how bees shouldn’t be able to fly? Well, climbing a 14% grade is kind of like that. According to top physicists, it really should not be possible for pavement to stick to an inclune of greater than 11.9%; at 12% all the asphalt should eventually slump down to the bottom of the hill.

Also, tires should not be able to stick to a road surface at an angle of 12. 6% or greater. Instead your wheels should just spin, futilely.

The fact that you are able, even for a moment, to nevertheless make your bike stick to the road, just goes to show that you are an amazing person with tenacity and strength that approaches — then surpasses — superhumanness.

And you should feel to comfort yourself with those thoughts when you pull over and throw up.

fifteen.jpg15% + Grade

Riding anything above a 15% grade means you’re showing off. You’re not climbing because you are going somewhere; you’re climbing because you want to tell people about how you did this impossibly steep climb.

Thus, even as you’re doing the climb, you’re no doubt gathering details about how your legs burned (I recommend the simile “as if they were in a fiery furnace”), how your lungs burned (“as if I were breathing in the very fumes of hell”), and how you wanted to barf, but you had already done that and so there was no point.

Honestly, climbing a 15%+ grade is the most awesome thing in the world.


  1. Comment by Bryan Hill | 08.1.2012 | 2:42 pm

    I did the Muro di Sormano a few weeks ago – 1.8km, 18% average, ramps at 25%.

    Entirely agree with your assessment – we did it to say we’d done it. Proof? We rode down it first…

  2. Comment by Lorraine | 08.1.2012 | 2:59 pm

    Katzenlückstraße right now is my favorite climb. It’s short, starts off not so bad (this leads to the deceptive 9.2% average grade) and then just when the road curves and shoots up to around 20% grade – it TURNS TO COBBLESTONE. The first time I discovered that, I almost fell over sideways it slowed me down so much.


    (Or it might be my favorite climb because I’m QOM on it)

    (or possibly because German drivers are respectful of bicycle riders doing hard things and will all patiently wait behind me as I churn until I get to the wide part where it’s safe to pass me again)

  3. Comment by Vince | 08.1.2012 | 3:03 pm

    Problem with living in Austin Texas is that all of our legit climbs are short and STEEP. My climbing workout, when the climbs are combined, comes out to 6 miles at 8.3%

    it hurts

  4. Comment by Alan Schietzsch | 08.1.2012 | 3:03 pm

    Not to forget the most devious of grades: the “false flat”.

    A false flat LOOKS like it is a flat area, (or on the REALLY nasty ones, looks like it’s slightly downhill). Maybe the trees grew tilted because of the prevailing wind, or there’s an optical illusion in the lay of the land. But look out. In reality it’s 1-3% UP hill.

    Woe to someone suffering mightily on what they think is a flat. Riders who knows the area act all nonchalant like “What, are you getting tired early this ride, buddy? Hijinks ensue.

  5. Comment by rich | 08.1.2012 | 3:23 pm

    awesome post and very apt description….

    “and how you wanted to barf, but you had already done that and so there was no point”
    We ride up Mt Diablo a couple times a month and the last section “the driveway” generates this feeling every single time…

  6. Comment by Shep | 08.1.2012 | 3:33 pm

    I ride in the Clearwater area of Florida, and I can assure you that there are literally hundreds of square miles of truly flat roads. I do get to ride over some decent bridges (7% for half a mile), and that is about it. If I ever tried to ride in Utah, I’d be out of it quickly.

  7. Comment by onomastic | 08.1.2012 | 3:34 pm

    I note that you don’t discuss climbs of 3 percent or 11 percent. I have neither your expertise nor your experience. Are they what are known as hors categorie grades?

  8. Comment by Jeff Bike | 08.1.2012 | 3:46 pm

    You missed 3%!!! How would you feel if you were overlooked?
    Poor 3%, so lonely and miss-under stood. Not tall enough to earn any respect. Just between the 1%-2% “I like climbing” and 4%-5% “Best Climbing” Grades. Left out and not even mentioned, why? Because 3% is tall enough to make you slow a little and work a little but you can’t even claim a KOM for it or all your friends will laugh at you.

  9. Comment by Jeff Dieffenbach | 08.1.2012 | 3:47 pm

    Baldwin Street in Dunedin (NZ) is reported to be the steepest street in the world. No doubt, this reporting is done by Baldwin Street itself, and also no doubt, countless other streets make this same claim (or hire a world famous, funny, and handsome blogger to do so).

    What is interesting about Baldwin Street is that its steepest parts are concrete rather than asphalt allegedly because on hot days, the asphalt would flow down the hill.

    With that background, I almost snorted my beer out of my nose when I read this in your post above, “According to top physicists, it really should not be possible for pavement to stick to an inclune of greater than 11.9%; at 12% all the asphalt should eventually slump down to the bottom of the hill.”

  10. Comment by Jeff Bike | 08.1.2012 | 3:49 pm

    11% grade is the beginning of the death march.

  11. Comment by Jason | 08.1.2012 | 4:24 pm

    So how would you describe the Dirty Dozen in Pittsburgh? Thirteen climbs that all have sections with 20+% grades including the steepest public street in the world (Canton Ave maxing out at 37% and it is cobblestones).

  12. Comment by Lisa | 08.1.2012 | 4:54 pm

    SO HELPFUL! Thank you for the guide including pictures! ;)

    I am trying to figure out what cycling event to sign up for and the elevation is a bit frightening on some of these rides!

    There’s a section of my commute home that LOOKS like it is flat but it’s probably a 2% grade and it feels like I’m biking through water. Always. So hard.

  13. Comment by Miles Archer | 08.1.2012 | 5:49 pm

    There’s a Strava segment that’s 560% grade in SF. http://app.strava.com/segments/1520752

    It starts at -95m – must be one of those underground rides I hear about after the fact.

  14. Comment by Heather | 08.1.2012 | 6:15 pm

    I genuinely appreciate the explanation and illustrations. Thank you!

  15. Comment by Mark | 08.1.2012 | 6:54 pm

    I teach college algebra part time. I always throw in grades (inclines) and percentages in the mix of problems. They don’t get it. I appreciate this much more lucid and interesting explanation of it all. Now I know why I read this blog, er…, scholarly article. Every time I ride, I certainly get it!

  16. Comment by AKChick55 | 08.1.2012 | 6:54 pm

    I love it! However, I don’t believe you suffer at all when climbing. I think you are a climbing machine and scoff at anything less than 15%. Same for the Hammer. You two make me want to be a better climber (and I hate hills, though I’m learning to appreciate them). Most excellent post!

  17. Comment by Brian in VA | 08.1.2012 | 7:17 pm

    I prefer my climbs like I like my roof, short and steep. Seriously, I don’t really enjoy climbing anything that is longer than my roof from gutter to peak. And that’s a problem here in the Old Dominion. At least, until you get down to the ocean. We don’t have mountains like Utah but we got some hills. You’d probably call them speed bumps.

  18. Comment by Pat Schleck (the cyclist formerly known as MattC) | 08.1.2012 | 7:28 pm

    EXCELLENT POST Fatty! I’m still chuckling at your illustrations! One of the things I HATE MOST is the false summit. You THINK you are about done, you can SEE the top, so you get that boost of energy and mental happiness moment as you approach the top, and lo and behold, you are not done. False summits are CRUSHING! The harder the climb, the more dastardly the False Summit is. There should be rankings of false summits…ooooh…that one is an HC-FS, or a Cat 1-FS.

    And funny that you show complete darkness at 15%+, which is pretty much what I recall seeing when I was riding the stupid grades over in England earlier this year. Your mind goes blank except for the pain, you’re looking straight down at the front tire as you try to keep moving at a cadence of 7 (doing near trackstands between each downward mash). And then, suddenly, you are THE KING OF THE WORLD (however briefly)!

  19. Comment by Alex | 08.1.2012 | 8:03 pm


    I need more gears when I hit double digits.

    But I don’t have ‘em.

    I hate that.

  20. Comment by Daniel | 08.1.2012 | 9:01 pm

    The street where I live in San Francisco is 25%+-

    You are correct about the asphalt because they use cement, otherwise the street would slump down the hill. Unfortunately, the only showing off I have managed is not getting out of my pedals at the end of a ride.

  21. Comment by Carl | 08.1.2012 | 9:44 pm

    Here’s that Baldwin St, Dunedin, New Zealand segment:
    It gets into the 20s and 30s%

  22. Comment by LoPhat | 08.1.2012 | 9:46 pm

    1-2% is great if you know it is 1-2%. If you don’t, welcome to “boy, I am just doing horribly today” for 20 minutes.

    That is so amazingly accurate, and I have been there so many times. – FC

    I would like to make one correction; the random Garmin number goes higher than 20; I saw 22 a couple of weeks ago…

  23. Comment by Sthenic | 08.2.2012 | 5:41 am

    I always suspected that riding up a 20% grade on a 52×14 fixed gear was showing off. Now I know.

  24. Comment by Math_Geek | 08.2.2012 | 7:17 am

    Your little math lesson in the beginning is slightly incorrect I’m afraid.

    going up 2 feet as you go forward 100 feet = 1.15%
    (going up 3.49 feet as you go forward 100 feet = 2%)

    going up 8 feet as you go forward 100 feet = 4.57%
    (going up 14.05 feet as you go forward 100 feet = 8%)

    going up 100 feet as you go forward 100 feet = 45%
    (going through a wormhole 100 feet = 100%)

    Regardless, I still find it awesome to climb! Go figure …

  25. Comment by Grade_not_Angle | 08.2.2012 | 7:37 am

    @Math_Geek: actually, he is correct. You’re talking angles, he’s talking grades. 100 feet up in 100 feet horizontal is a 100% grade and a 45-degree angle.

  26. Comment by Math_Geek | 08.2.2012 | 7:45 am


    My mistake…I’ll go up the 45°/100% grade staircase to my study and think about the meaning of life and climbing in general…

  27. Comment by dude | 08.2.2012 | 7:46 am

    Hahaha… after all these years of endless climbing it’s still very funny that some people don’t get the difference between % and degrees. Awsome!

    I only hope they don’t teach math.

  28. Comment by Geo | 08.2.2012 | 8:45 am

    In the Houston area we have lots of flats, they do exist. One route I like to ride I do a whopping 100 feet of climbing in 25 miles. Here you really FEEL a 1 percent grade.

    I used to live near DC and found one of the trails had a nice, steady 2-3 percent grade (with a few short, steep climbs thrown in for “fun”) heading away from my house. So I’d just steadily climb for a while then turn around and go wheeeeeeee all the way back home as it was pretty much all down hill. Until the last mile when I climbed a few hundred feet from the creek level back to the house.

    I miss the rollers of the DC area for their training aspect, I don’t miss them for the pain aspect.

    And I’m with Clearwater above, I wanted to win the Ibis road bike giveaway but was afraid of actually having to make the climbs if I made it to Utah.

  29. Comment by Whippet | 08.2.2012 | 8:51 am

    All my clouds have silver linings, I must be going downhill. Even when it’s raining, reason…I’m on my bike. Every ride I’m looking for that rabbit(full kit) chasing the carrot(commuter)that I’ll blow bye(waving) on my singlespeed(tall geared). Sure my rides tend to be longer, beating the grades so they don’t beat me.

  30. Comment by Justin | 08.2.2012 | 9:12 am

    Back to math-geeking, I can’t help myself – the calculation of grade is based on actual horizontal distance, not the distance you’d measure on the road. You’re riding up the hypotenuse, not the base of the triangle, so a 100% grade would entail gaining 100′ of elevation while riding more than 100′ of road. Your horizontal displacement would equal 100′.

  31. Comment by Mathias | 08.2.2012 | 9:37 am

    What about each grade if you have to take a dump

  32. Comment by Katie | 08.2.2012 | 10:14 am

    My 16 y.o. son was looking over my shoulder as I read this, and he wants you to know that you have “mad MS Paint skills,” so the next time you’re weaving up one of those 15% grades, well, at least there’s that.

  33. Comment by Clydesteve | 08.2.2012 | 11:04 am

    I do 28% every day I commute home. Not to show off; to get dinner.

    It is under a mile, but no matter how low of gear i install, no matter how slow i go, it is painful. But, I persist, because of the dinner thing.


    I really really liked the beautiful iconic artwork describing the various grades. Deceptively simple, yet elegantly descriptive. Except you need a different icon for >20%. It is just like the 15% one, with the addition of blood & puke particles.

  34. Comment by Clydesteve | 08.2.2012 | 11:10 am

    Justin, you are correct. On a 100% grade, you would gain 100 feet in horizontal distance while traveling (a^2 + b^2 = c^2) 141.42 feet.

    But, mostly road grades are less than 15%. To travel 100 feet horizontal on a 15% grade incline, you will travel 101.12 feet up the incline,thus for any reasonable grade, the incline distance is close enough to the same thing as the horizontal distance that you lose the difference getting off the bike to measure!

    I am pretty sure this scholarly article has now been peer reviewed, and should be submitted to a physics journal.

  35. Comment by bikemike | 08.2.2012 | 11:15 am

    I did a century in Melbourne, Florida a few years ago and although it was flat, it was during a tropical storm. Winds 40-50mph and i was riding my Zipp 808’s. I’m sure if i should use pi or divide by Coke Zero to figure out the grade angle degree equivalent.

  36. Comment by Paul | 08.2.2012 | 1:37 pm

    I was riding up Broadway into St Louis, not a difficult hill or anything, just a bad area of the city and a bit into my ride so the spirit ebbs for a while.

    I was coming up to a guy sitting in an electric wheelchair about 10 feet into the road for some reason. He says something I can’t understand. Finally the third time I hear it, “It’s a 3 percent grade.” Yep, taunted by a guy in a wheelchair *s*.

  37. Comment by Full Monte | 08.2.2012 | 3:38 pm

    I was told there would be no math on this ride.

  38. Comment by Joe | 08.4.2012 | 2:56 am

    well, I am a fatty @ 250 and you completely ignore heart-rate and fitness level therefore I suspect your a < 2% body fat guy and there're not fat at all which means you are making fun of us truly fat guys.

    I am a 2nd year rider with 2k miles 2/3 on a comfort bike in Colorado. My problem is keeping my heart in my Chest and staying in the 3rd ring of my Surly LHT.

    My garmin edge 500 has grade but I have not used it. I am competent and comfortable if I keep mt HR under 135 At 68, my max is 150. Without including heart / physical conditioning in your study, you are merely explaining the mechanics of the hill/gravity. Sign me as Disappointed.

    Did I ignore fitness level, or is it possible I was just saving it for a future post? I gotta spread the ideas out, Mr. Disappointed. – FC

  39. Comment by Lonster | 08.4.2012 | 10:22 pm

    Two summers ago I rode Mt. Etna in Sicily. The locals have marked every switch back with the percent grade. It was exciting at first to see what was coming up and know what exact gear to be in for the corner. By the end I was dreading some of the 12-14 percent corners and hating the very idea of labeling them.

    It seemed Contador had a much easier time on them a few weeks later. I would have to assume his fitness level is a bit higher than mine. Clenbuterol not withstanding.

  40. Comment by Libby | 08.9.2012 | 7:18 am

    Thanks for the illustrations…I used the terms mondo, killer and death knell to describe most hills. Or did until it was suggested to get mt. bike gears for my hybrid (Trek 6.7fx)…so I did -34×11 and hills aren’t that bad anymore…I can climb without losing a lung or two (asthma sucks). Too often.

    Those deceptive grades (1-2%) work the otherway also, I think I’m sooo fit and could take on a Gran Fondo because I can go 25+km/hr without strain & I”m singing “I’m on top of the world looking down on creation” (I’m a first liner type of gal).

  41. Comment by rjsmit1 | 08.9.2012 | 10:42 pm

    Great post! Being a Virginia flatlander, I notice when the air gets thin at altitude. I visited my son this week in Salt Lake, who arranged for me to rent a bike at a local shop and took me to a hill called Suncrest. I really thought my son and I had a pretty good relationship, but that climb on a 95 degree day, starting at 4,500 feet above sea level with several miles at 8% was tough. The big reward was the 50.7 MPH ride back down – wow!

  42. Comment by BikerBoyz | 08.17.2012 | 7:31 pm

    20 & 30% grades on Baldwin St? That’s all?? Try grades in the mid 40s on Ortloft Road in Central New York State.

    Check it out on strava: http://app.strava.com/segments/1560584

    My 39×28 low gear is still a knee breaker


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