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.


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