Posts tagged ‘climbing’

Skyway Epic plus Alabama’s Newest Cat 2 climb

I might use “epic” a few times in this post… Today was epic x3, starting with my commute into work climbing up South Cove Dr inspired by the Dirty Dozen film I watched last night describing an annual ride that goes up Pittsburgh’s toughest climbs. Then after finishing teaching, I headed back home climbing up and over Little Valley Mountain hitting 60mph on the S Cove Dr descent. Afterwards, I hopped in the car to drive 43 miles out to Lake Howard in Sylacauga to pre-ride part of the Skyway Epic course. Traffic was already pretty bad on 280 and it took over an hour to get there and get ready to ride.

I headed out about 1:30 hoping that I had enough daylight to ride the course. 4 hours 15 minutes later, I just barely had enough light left finishing about 20 minutes after sunset. Along the way, I encountered just about every possible terrain you could imagine for a mountain bike race course – flowing singletrack, a few roots/rocks in singletrack, a grassy dam, various levels of bumpiness on gravel/dirt forest service roads and rural roads, steep rocky fire roads, huge mud puddles at the bottom of each hill across the top of the ridge line, fast steep relatively smooth descents, fast loose rocks … basically everything you could imagine in a non-technical epic mountain bike race.


  1. The singletrack portion that I rode is fast and smooth … only a few rocks and roots … much, much less than the Bump trail at Oak Mountain. I only had enough daylight to ride the opening singletrack section, but there is quite a bit more singletrack that will be included for the finish of the race … has anyone rode that portion and comment on whether it is more technical or about the same as the opening singletrack?
  2. The opening county roads (Wiregrass and Rocky Mt Church) are very fast in both directions. The rollers are pretty steep, but you can fly down the descents leading into the climbs to chop off some of the work you have to do on the climbs
  3. The “big climb” of the day is much more gradual than I expected. It does, however, go on and on forever. I rode the whole thing in my 38 (big chainring)
  4. There are some rather large mud puddles all across the top of the ridge line – basically every small hill that bottoms out into another small climb will have a large mud puddle. I was able to ride around most of them, but the ones I had to ride through were not that deep even though they were HUGE taking up the entire forest service road!
  5. The most difficult part of this entire course is the DESCENT and rollers from about mile 14 to mile 18 … I went FASTER on many sections of the climb back up (mile 36 to mile 40) than I did on the descent!!!
  6. The descent to the turnaround at AL-77 is very fast and fun. There are a couple of loose gravel corners mixed in with the fast corners. It is pretty easy to see the loose ones in enough time to brake.
  7. The entire skyway portion of the ride (mile 12 to mile 42) is rough with ruts, rocks, and sometimes water. I found a few sections where you can just bomb over the ruts, but there are definitely some sections where you need to pick and choose your line through the rocks/ruts carefully. If I were to guesstimate, I’d say that 25% of mile 12 to mile 42 is really rough, 50% is moderately rough, and maybe 25% is smooth. As I mentioned before, there are definitely some rough sections that you can still fly over, but there are also some rough sections that are kinda slow (at least for me, coming from a road racing background)
  8. Overall, the course is AWESOME. It is definitely EPIC. I am very tired after having ridden only the first third of the course at near race pace and not having ridden the last several miles of singletrack. This course has something for everyone, which should really even the playing field. Plus, simply finishing the race should be reward enough for anyone who enters!

Complete ride data from Strava is here:

Here is the elevation profile and topocreator map – note that my garmin was reading a couple hundred feet lower than the real elevation. Note all the hills and the long climbs. The first long climb is Alabama’s newest Cat 2 – the climb from Rocky Mt Church Rd to the first high point on the Skyway forest service road. This brings Alabama’s Cat 2 climb total up to 9.

Elevation profile – my Garmin recorded data is shown as the dark line shifted down (reading a couple hundred feet too low) – CLICK TO ENLARGE

Annotated topocreator map of the ride – it should be fairly easy to see from the topography why this is called the “skyway epic”! CLICK TO ENLARGE

Finally, I’ll let the pictures and garmin screenshots tell the rest of the story for the day –

February 18, 2012 at 1:29 am 1 comment

Cheaha weekend wrap-up

While Kristine finished up her work yesterday at Fort McClellan, I biked home to Birmingham from our hotel in Oxford by way of Mount Cheaha. I climbed Cheaha three different ways — including a new Cat 2 climb starting at the low point on the Adam’s Gap side and climbing all the way to the lookout tower inside the state park. This brings Alabama’s Cat 2 climb total to 8 — including the two new climbs I discovered in my ride on Saturday. The eight climbs are labeled on the map below.

Annotated map of Alabama cat 2s from including the new Cat 2s from Saturday’s ride (“G” and “F”) and the new Cat 2 climb from yesterday’s ride (“H”).

I am sure there are more out there to be found … I know that climbing Moorman Mountain from the west would also be a Cat 2 (I climbed it from Bain’s Gap on the east) — so if there is anybody adventurous out there who wants to get to it before me – have at it!

I left Oxford shortly after 7AM in a fog, very light rain mist all the way through Friendship Rd, up to AL-281 and the first ascent of Cheaha from AL-49. Everything went smoothly until my first descent from the lookout tower. I had been climbing for 7 miles in heavy fog – and since it is all uphill, I hadn’t touched my brakes AT ALL and forgotten about how much water would have accumulated on the rims. As I headed into the first switchback and applied the brakes, absolutely nothing happened except for an instant realization that there was no hope of making the turn so I simply straightened up and looked for an escape route that didn’t involve running into a cabin or cliff. Fortunately, the brakes dried off fast enough that even before I left the road, they had started to grab and I only ended up a few feet off the road next to a cabin.

My approximate path in a switchback descending from the Cheaha lookout tower.

This first bit of excitement on the ride led to the next bit of excitement less than a mile later. I continued down out of the park and turned right onto AL-281 to descend down the Adam’s Gap side of the mountain. I had only made it half a mile or so and had just reached max speed when I heard the sudden “psssssssss” of a tire puncture. I didn’t panic, but I knew I would be in big trouble if the air leaked out before I could slow down. The roads were wet so I couldn’t exactly slam on the brakes either. I just pressed as hard as I felt comfortable pressing on the brakes and slowed down to a stop. Fortunately, the puncture wasn’t a complete blow-out so I still had air left in the tire to keep the tire from rolling off. At this point, I’m only 29 miles or so with well over 100 miles left to ride so I took my time and made darn sure that whatever had caused the puncture wasn’t still in the tire. In fact, I think I spent more time running my finger around the tire and digging out a couple tiny pieces of glass than I actually spent changing and reinflating the tube. It was well worth the effort, though, as I was able to use my pump and CO2 cartridge to fill the tire up to maybe 80 psi and complete the rest of the ride with no more flats. It might have just been coincidence, but I’m thinking that I may have picked up the glass when I went off the road in the switchback previously.

After changing the tire, I finished the rest of the descent and after reaching 45 mph with no thumping or any other signs of a bad tire change, I felt pretty confident that all was good. I attacked the Adam’s Gap climb hard so I could get the KOM on it … my legs were definitely feeling the 400 miles that were already in them for the week up to that point — including the hard climbing ride from Saturday, but I was able to get the KOM. Adam’s Gap ends at the transition to a gravel “scenic road” that if you followed long enough would take you all the way over to Bull Gap and Brent’s new skyway epic course. Turning around, I snapped a few pics and then headed back up Cheaha also pushing it hard to try to get the KOM on this side. By this time, the fog had lifted significantly so that only the very top of the climb was still foggy/wet. At the top, I turned around and headed back down the Adam’s Gap side, but this time I turned at the road to Camp Mac and headed down to Lake Chinnabee to do the climb one last time stopping to take pictures of the mountain from Cheaha Lake (over 1000 ft below the summit).

View of Mt Cheaha and the Cheaha restaurant -- the true summit is at the tall radio tower in the background towards the middle left of the picture

At the top this time, all was sunny and beautiful so I snapped this panorama of the view from the Cheaha restaurant (which is about 250 ft below the true summit)

Annotated view looking southwest from the Cheaha restaurant

From there all the way back home was an awesome ride, which I could spend hours describing — but instead I’m going to just let the pictures tell the rest of the adventure.

February 6, 2012 at 6:47 pm Leave a comment

Exploring, climbing, riding the Oxford-Jacksonville ridge line

Riding today was easily the most fun I’ve had on the bike in four or five years. Considering how much I love to ride all the time, that really is saying a lot about my ride today. I guess the thing that strikes me the most is how many times I was just flat out surprised on the ride – not just “oh I didn’t see that coming”, but more like “are you kidding me? are you for real?” in a really good way. I summarized the ride in terms of 10 surprises, listed below. I also took a bunch of pictures and Garmin screenshots I will post later.

A few things to set the background for this ride: Kristine and I are in Oxford for her work this weekend, and the kids had separate sleepovers last night at friends’ houses and again tonight at my parents house. Kristine had the idea last week that maybe I could come up here with her and enjoy some riding while she worked and a weekend getaway when she wasn’t working. Some of Alabama’s tallest mountains are right out the door of our hotel, so I thought – “sure!”

Surprise #1 – no rain!
The original plan was for me to leave work on Friday and ride part of the way over here where Kristine would pick me up along I-20. I documented yesterday’s ride, which also included a surprise climb up to a radio tower that I hadn’t planned on doing. Then today I was going to bike back home via a long 150 mile climbing route over Mt Cheaha (the highest pt in Alabama). But the weather forecast all week long indicated that most of today would be spent with heavy rain showers and even thunderstorms. So I changed my plan to do a shorter ride (60-70 miles) today and then do the longer ride tomorrow when the rain was supposed to have cleared out. I woke up expecting to find rain and was instead greeted with partly cloudy skies and no rain.

Surprise #2 – an empty interstate-like climb
The route I had created ahead of time had me climbing up Henry Rd and then into some neighborhoods that looked ultra-steep on the map (and a little bit later in the ride when I did get to the neighborhoods, they were even steeper than I had imagined). So I’m following the route and then I realize that I’ve ended up on a divided highway not on the map that for all intents and purposes is a full-blown interstate that looks like it may climb up higher than the neighborhood route. There was practically no traffic, so even though I could see where I needed to turn, I wanted to just keep on going and see how far the climb went. You could tell where they had dynamited through the mountain and there were some killer concrete drainage ditches with 40-60% gradient that I really, really wanted to try but there were concrete blocks at alternating angles to slow the flow of water. I’m 20% sure you could ride it on a mountain bike with a 1-1 gear ratio while dodging the blocks, but I wasn’t going to try it on my road bike with a 39×28. I crested the mountain and of course there is still this tall divider for the interstate so i’ve got to figure out where/how to turn around.

So I’m on the descent on the other side when I suddenly I realized that the whole thing is still under construction and the road ends at a spot in a valley before another mountain climb where the road hasn’t been finished yet. For whatever reason, I just found this all to be hilarious … I guess I was giddy with excitement for the ride to begin with, and then to be only a few miles into my ride on a four-lane divided interstate-like road that is still under construction with no cars in the middle of a beautiful mountain valley was just so awesome that I couldn’t stop laughing until I had to focus on the 180 deg turnaround at the bottom. I went back up and over the mountain and halfway down to take the original route I had planned which fairly quickly led to surprise #3.

Surprise #3 – GPS “fail” bigtime
My Garmin worked great as I picked back up my original route, which had all kinds of turns in it as I was looking for contour lines closest together when planning the route — which often means making a bunch of turns from street to street through a neighborhood. I was surprise by how steep the Lynn Rd climb was — the first of maybe thirty or more 20+% gradients for the day (I tried to take a screenshot of all of them so I could count them later – and I know of at least three or four that I missed because I couldn’t take my hands off the handlebars to hit the button to take the screenshot).

So anyway I make it back across Henry Rd after the Lynn Rd climb, and I’m diving down hills (53×11), climbing back up 20% gradients (39×28), and then I get to a spot where I’m supposed to make a turn and I see a sign that says “Dead End” … interesting. I pulled up the map screen on Garmin and saw another way to get around, but when I got to the next “road”, it was a steep grassy descent behind a curb and a gate. It looked rideable so I hopped the curb and rode around the gate, but after a tenth of a mile or so, the access road ended at a water tank that was gated off. I couldn’t see any path beyond it through the woods, so rather than risking poison oak so early in the ride, I turned around and headed back up the grassy climb. I looked at my map again and found another way around, headed down a steep descent and came to another dead end. This was getting to be laughable at this point. This turnaround involved a steep Cat 4 climb back up to the top of the mountain. I revisited the original dead end sign that my route was trying to take me on, and sure enough it really was a dead end – complete with a basketball goal in the road. Another steep climb back up to the top of the mountain, and I tried a third way off the mountain leading to surprise #4.

Surprise #4 – Awesome descent/climb with three different kinds of pavement
This was a mini-surprise, so I won’t spend much time describing it – but the descent that finally worked to take me off the mountain transitioned through three different kinds of pavement (chip/seal, tarmac, cement) with some cool switchbacks through a neighborhood into a city golf course. The descent was so cool, that I had to turn around do the climb. Hitting the top of this mountain on a road called “Hillyer Rd” (probably pronounced “hilly-er” road) for a fourth time (maybe fifth? i lost count), I turned around and came back down and hit my original route plan to head through a VERY hilly part of anniston.

Surprise #5 – upper 20% gradient in Anniston
I went through this really hilly neighborhood on the outskirts of Anniston and hit one section that was cemented b/c of the gradient which was probably approaching 30% … I wouldn’t know though b/c my speed dropped too low and the Garmin switched over to –% gradient. Easily steeper than Woodcrest in Birmingham which is in the upper 20s. Probably even steeper than Valley Hill, but much shorter (maybe only 1/10th of a mile).

Surprise #6 – Steep Cat 3 climb to radio tower in Anniston
Immediately after leaving the neighborhood with surprise #5, I started a climb that I had seen on the satellite to some radio towers just on the edge of the Fort McClellan boundary. I wasn’t sure the status of the road, whether it was gated, or what. It turned out to be a very steep gravel road with even more 20% gradients. Gates were open all the way to the top, and I was able to summit at just over 1500′, which I had not been expecting.

Surprise #7 – Woodland Park
On my way up towards Jacksonville, I road right past the starting spot of the very first century I ever did back in high school (the Woodland-Calhoun century). This was not planned at all, and was therefore quite a surprise that brought back tons of memories.

Surprise #8 – Cat 2 climb in Jacksonville
I had scouted this climb out, and knew that the current segment on Strava was on the upper end of the Cat 3 range but stopped well short of the actual crest of the climb. I knew that if you started the segment a little bit lower and went all the way up to the towers at the top, then it would probably be a Cat 2. So I scouted out the starting point and started on the climb. It starts out very gradually, but then gets steeper as you start to leave town. At the bottom were three college-aged girls (maybe from JSU) all decked out for running – and they were walking up the very steep hill. One of them shouted “good luck”, which kinda tells you how steep and long this climb is. It started out steep, flattened out a bit in the middle, then got really steep at what I thought was the end, but as you come around the corner, you see the road skyrocket up for the last 200 feet of climbing and a rather large fence with razor wire across the top blocking access to the towers. But, I was very lucky today in that the gate was wide open. So I was able to ride the climb all the way to the top – where there is an observatory, fire tower, lots of radio towers, and a beautiful view of the valley.

Surprise #9 – Mt Laurel neighborhood
On the Cottaquilla climb, which is on the Foothills Road Race course, there is a neighborhood off to the left called Mt Laurel that was surprisingly steep (I saw 26% at one point), plus a bunch of roller coaster like climbs/descents I wasn’t expecting inside the neighborhood.

Surprise #10 – stumbling upon a Cat 2 climb!
The last surprise was the best of all. I had seen a climb called Bain’s Gap, which was on the Fort McClellan property, that I assumed would be inaccessible because of the military. So when I passed the turn-off for the road and didn’t see a gate, I decided to just turn and see how far I could make it up the climb before encountering a gate, or road block. Instead of a gate, I found a national wildlife refuge, amazing waterfall, more 20% gradients, a nearly unrideable gravel road that I was able to ride (barely) and a friendly local at the top who was able to tell me a shortcut to get back home – oh and it worked out to be a climb with over 1200′ of gain putting it well into the Strava cat 2 category.

February 4, 2012 at 8:12 pm Leave a comment

Hoover – Vestavia Hills 10,000ft

Annotated panoramic view from Vestavia Hills Baptist church (click to zoom in and read the captions)

Garmin elevation profile – 60 miles,
10,000+ ft of climbing
Garmin – max speed 57.5mph
(South Cove Dr)

Out of the three 10,000ft rides so far this week (Red Mountain 1200s on Tuesday, South Shades Crest climbs on Wednesday), today was definitely my favorite by far. These are the roads I ride all the time, but usually not all in the same day! The entire route was nearly 65 miles long, yet the farthest point was only 5.2 miles (as the crow flies) from my house with Sulphur Springs/Shades Crest the western boundary and US-280 the eastern boundary of the route. I was toying with the idea of very carefully creating a diabolical route that could climb 10,000 ft in this area without any backtracking or route intersections, but that would have taken some of the fun out of just riding. Instead, I opted not to duplicate any climb. I did end up duplicating the middle part of the Vesclub climb and the final push to the top on Vestavia Dr – but otherwise, these are all different climbs of Shades Mountain in Hoover and Vestavia Hills. I documented them with screen captures at the steepest sections of the climbs – as well as lots of photos (126 photos narrowed down to 61).

First, the topography in this area is just absolutely incredible. And it’s not just because the area is especially rugged, because it really isn’t. Instead, what makes the topography so interesting is the combination of valleys, ridges, AND roads that go up, across, down, sideways, over, under everything! Note that for my route today, all the climbs are either on Little Valley Mountain or Shades Mountain on the SOUTHERN side in either the Patton Creek valley or the Little Shades Creek valley … so notably missing are some local favorites: Smyer, Berry, Big Bertha (W Oxmoor), and Hwy 31, which all start on the Shades Creek valley (different from Little Shades Creek). On the side I did ride, I somehow missed the Patton Chapel climb past Simmons.

Hoover – Vestavia Hills topocreator map, annotated Click the map for a medium resolution version, or click here for a super hi-res version (10.2 MB)

Now, onto the climbs and the photos. I’m going to do a Garmin screenshot from a climb and then follow it up with one or more photos that were taken on that climb – but first…

All ready to go … lots of water leftover from the heavy rain yesterday.

South Cove neighborhood (but not south cove). The Garmin screenshots are taken near each other, with the second one just past the skid marks in the photo.

The first climb up Shades Mountain was from the low point near Patton Creek on Al Sier Rd all the way to one of two high points on Shades Crest Rd – this one near Crest Lane. The pictures from the top are captioned here (you can also just hover over each pic for a caption) – 1) Shades Mountain Ballpark – I played baseball here from T-Ball to Junior High. 2) Looking towards the steep part of the climb on Shades Crest Rd. 3) Looking up at the steepest part of the climb – this is a busy road! 4) Took this pic to keep the camera from going into sleep mode while I was discreetly getting ready to take the next picture with the neighbors standing in the yard as I rode by. 5) Reminder that we do live in the South, even in Birmingham. Confederate flag. Alabama flag. Two other flags? Vote for Ron Paul. 6) The high point of the climb at the intersection of Crest Lane.
Shortly after the crest of the climb, you reach an interesting intersection which is a hub of activity. A long time ago, there was just Lover’s Leap and the antique store. Now there is also a very popular restaurant – Tip Top (aptly named). Hover over each picture for a caption.

The next climb up the mountain started out next to the Green Valley golf course (at the Patton Creek bridge) climbing back up to Crest Lane – the same high point as the previous climb. Near the middle of the climb, I heard a hawk calling out overhead and then heard a response from a different hawk. I looked up and saw these two hawks flying together. It was really cool so I took a bunch of pics. But before I saw the hawks, I crossed several full creeks as I criss-crossed the mountain. Each creek creates a mini-roller coaster as annotated in the first picture. In the second picture, you can look ahead through two different creeks and see the hills that are created. After the hawks, I turned around to finish the climb up to Crest Lane and caught up with the van at the stop sign to take the picture of the slogan across the back. Plus, I took a picture of the narrow rough road at the end of the climb.
At the top of Crest Lane, I turned right again and took a few more pictures near the Tip Top Grill. There is one of the choo-choo train antique store called “On a Shoestring” antiques, and there is also an interesting historical sign talking about the origin of the area as a popular resort for some sort of springs at the top of the mountain. Then I took one of the small access roads off of Alford Avenue to get back up to Shades Crest Rd before descending down Hackberry (one of six 50+mph descents today).

After the descent down Hackberry. It was time to really hit the climbing – starting with Jacobs Rd – Mountainwoods.
Instead of descending all the way back down into the valley, I headed back up over Columbiana Rd (after taking the last two pics from the previous photo set) and down into the valley that separates the two ridges at the summit of the mountain. Hurricane Branch is the name of the creek that runs through the middle where it joins some of the other creeks that form the headwaters of Patton Creek. The elevation gain from the creek to the summit is about 200-250ft on the southern ride and 250-350ft on the northern ridge. Today, I noticed a gate that was normally closed on an access road off of Blue Ridge Blvd was open – so I went down it and found a very muddy creek crossing. I started there and went up to one of the summits on the northern ridge on Shades Crest Rd – and lo and behold it was long and steep enough to be a Strava Cat 4 climb – so I actually discovered a new climb today in an area that I have literally ridden tens of thousands of miles. After that climb, I descended back down a different road to this valley between the ridges and climbed up the Old Creek/Indian Hill climb which is also a Strava Cat 4 climb – but one that I do all the time on my commute home from work. The Garmin screenshot is from the Old Creek climb — and the photos are from both climbs (the first two are associated with the new climb, and the next four go with the Old Creek climb).

After these climbs, I did the crazy Vestavia Forest speed reflector dodging descent followed by a diversion across Hwy 31 to Little Valley Mountain where I climbed up and over via 20+% Gay Way, turned around and then came back up 25% South Cove Dr. Below the Garmin screenshots, I have included an annotated photo of the descent showing the approximate max speed spot and where you have to brake to keep from crashing. Also, I have a picture taken at the top which shows the blind curve where you have maybe 1/10th of a second to decide whether it’s a “go” or “no go” on the descent. Sometimes you just have a bad feeling and hit the brakes. Sometimes you see a car pulling out of a driveway or at the cross street and hit the brakes. Or sometimes you see cars parked alongside the road and you hit the brakes. But if it is completely clear, then you tuck and accelerate from about 40mph up to 60mph in only two or three seconds. It would be interesting to calculate what percentage of free-fall skydiving acceleration this descent is … my rough guess would be 25-50% … i.e, you are accelerating at a rate equivalent to 25-50% of simply jumping off a cliff. In other words, this is a really, really dangerous descent. CLICK EACH PICTURE TO ZOOM IN.

Panorama of the Vesclub roller coaster descent. While we are talking about descents – here is a panoramic photo showing a descent that causes an interesting Garmin phenomenon. This is the middle part of the Vesclub climb – but if you come back down at close to 50mph and then make the hard right turn up the 18-20% gradient where I was standing when I took the pictures that make the panorama, then you can achieve a 3 second vertical acceleration of greater than 10,000 ft/hour upwards simultaneously with a 30 second vertical acceleration of greater than 10,000 ft/hour downwards.

Before I could descend down Vesclub – I first had to get over to it and climb it. From South Cove Dr, I headed across Panorama and down Limerock Rd past Vestavia High School into Rocky Ridge to do the longest/steepest climb of the day — Vestavia Dr from Little Shades Creek. This climb has well over 800 ft total gain and several sections with gradients approaching 20% and one section with gradient above 20%. I got Garmin screenshots of the first three sections of the climb, but missed the steepest one by the golf course. These are the pictures I took on the way up, across the top, and then on the way back down.

After the descent, I headed across to Dolly Ridge, climbed back up to Smyer Circle and Vestavia Dr via Caldwell Mill Rd (the portion of it that is north of I-459). On Caldwell Mill, I heard another hawk very loudly crying and I looked up and spotted him in the tree above me. When I made it up to Smyer Circle, I stopped at the Vestavia Hills Baptist Church overlook and got the Panorama shown at the very beginning of this extremely long post. Then I descended down stopping along the way at Vestavia Falls. So I’ll end this post with a thank you if you read all the way to here and these two pics (of the hawk and the waterfall)

Beautiful red-tailed hawk
Vestavia Falls

January 27, 2012 at 10:51 pm Leave a comment

South Shades Crest climbs

Overview map showing the entire Shades Mountain ridge line highlighted in red (click to zoom in)

Complete Shades Mountain topography annotated (click for super-hi res 12MB version)

Shades Mountain is one of my favorite mountains in Birmingham. After climbing 10,000 ft on Red Mountain yesterday (Tuesday), I didn’t want Shades Mountain to feel left out so today (Wednesday), I climbed 10,000 ft mostly on the southern portion of Shades Mountain out towards Bluff Ridge. I live at the bottom of Shades Mountain and commute over it every day to work (during the school year). The topography of the mountain is really intriguing. The part of it closest to where I live is a double-ridge mountain thanks to a creek that cuts down through the middle of Vestavia Hills and on over into Bluff Park. Plus it runs for about 60 miles starting a few miles south of Tannehill and running northeast to Springville where it ends in an interesting series of ridges (lots of them). All along the 60 mile length of the mountain, there are probably several hundred ways to climb the mountain.

Today, I headed to the southern portion of the mountain and did some climbing and photographing of the steep neighborhood access roads. The ridgeline is very narrow at its southern end dropping off steeply on either side with South Shades Crest road running along the top. Within the past 10 years, a number of neighborhoods have been built in the valleys on either side of the ridge. These neighborhoods all have steep access roads coming off the ridge down into the neighborhood. Plus, South Shades Crest road itself eventually turns into Bluff Ridge Rd and dives off the mountain towards Bessemer crossing two smaller ridges. If you turn around at the bottom and go back up to the main ridge, you traverse what is called the “Triple Climb”. At the top you can make a quick right left to hit Co Rd 1 which is a nice 50+mph descent … turn around at the bottom and you have a short steep 10% cat 4 climb back up the ridge.

Still tired from yesterday’s ride on Red Mountain, I had decided to go easy on all the climbs and get pictures of everything … but later in the ride I started feeling better so I decided to try and set a KOM back-to-back double (KOM on one side of the mountain, turn around and KOM coming back up the other side). I couldn’t quite do it, but I did hit a new power record on the Triple Climb (see screenshot below).

New power record – 336 watts for 13’10″

Here are the climbs annotated with Garmin Screenshot and photo for each climb (except for Triple climb which doesn’t have a photo) -

60 miles of riding on Shades Mountain – this screen capture was taken just after descending back down from Bluff Park on the same route that I had taken on the way out. Here is an annotated view from on top of Bluff Park looking along the south shades mountain ridge line (annotated with thin red line) … The climbs described below all come off of this ridge line on either side.
Note – this Garmin screenshot doesn’t have anything to do with the photo. The screenshot was taken out near the horizon behind and slightly left of Ross Bridge 73 degF in January – are you kidding me??? This is supposed to be our coldest month of the year! This photo is a view of the Ross Bridge golf resort from Bluff Park … Ross Bridge is interesting topographically as it sits atop its own “mountain” – look for the yellow raised area below Shades Mountain on the topo map.
Silver Lakes climb (18% max gradient near the top). Silver Lakes climb in the distance up to South Shades Crest
No screenshot for this climb! But I think it maxed out at about 17%. This is by far the fastest descent though, because the average gradient is 13.4% for 3/10ths of a mile with a good run-out although you definitely have to trust your tires as you lean into the sweeper at the bottom at max speed (53.3mph yesterday). It is not off-chamber, which helps. Long Leaf Lake descent/climb
Sterling Lakes climb – only 15% max, but it hits this at several spots and averages 11.5% for the 1/2 mile long climb. Annotated view of the mountains southeast of south shades crest – this is the view from near the top of the Sterling Lakes climb
Timberlake climb – this is the craziest (but not fastest) descent with an offchamber sweeping turn at the high speed spot. Timberlake climb – photo taken at the off chamber high speed spot towards the bottom
Bluff Ridge 2nd climb (i.e., the middle climb of the “Triple Climb”) – this max gradient is at the bottom. No photo here – I was trying to set the KOM
Shelby Co Rd 1 climb – steepest part is near the middle. Shelby Co Rd 1 descent towards the top, the steep part is also slightly curvy beyond the ford explorer in this pic and just to the left of the trees … max speed 51.0 mph yesterday – but this was into a headwind you can usually hit 53 on this descent.
Co Rd 52 (Morgan Rd) climb … this road is really busy – not a recommended climb … max gradient maybe 50m after passing by Co Rd 93. Co Rd 52 (Morgan Rd) climb back up to South Shades Crest

Ross bridge parkway
One more pic from the day – power line trails next to Ross Bridge parkway – I used to go mountain biking on these trails with friends while I was in high school. Fun times!

January 26, 2012 at 10:25 am 2 comments

Red Mountain 1200s – revisited

After riding out to see firsthand yesterday’s tornado damage, I decided to go climb my favorite spots on Red Mountain that have an elevation greater than 1200ft because I spent a lot of time yesterday looking at the topo maps of the far northern end of Red Mountain near Chalkville and Clay. I call all of these spots the “Red Mountain 1200s”, and I wrote about them just over a year ago when I climbed them in December 2010.

Complete ride map Strava data here –

I pieced together these panorama photos I took on Shades Mountain looking towards Red Mountain. The labeled spots are all the places I crossed Red Mountain on my ride today. The 1200 ft spots are Ruffner Mountain (#5), St Vincents East Water Tower (#6), and Turncliff (#7). Ruffner and Turncliff each have two different 1200 ft summits for a total of 5 different 1200+ summits on the ride.

Part 1 – Red Mountain ridge crossings annotated – the 1200ft spots are #5, #6, and #7 on the northern end of the ridge which starts out from higher elevation (i.e, the whole valley is uplifted in that direction). This picture is taken from the Vestavia Dr high pt on Shades Mountain.

Part 2 – Red Mountain ridge crossings annotated – the 1200ft spots are #5, #6, and #7 on the northern end of the ridge which starts out from higher elevation (i.e, the whole valley is uplifted in that direction). This picture is taken from towards the bottom of Vestavia Dr on Shades Mountain.

Birmingham annotated along with the mountains northeast of Birmingham … this picture was taken on Crest Ln on Red Mountain

So I wasn’t planning on going hard, but I knew that there were ton of steep climbs. As I got farther into the ride, I realized that trying to “go easy” was pretty much pointless because the terrain was either straight up or straight down pretty much the whole ride. I started out with a new climb up the Vestavia Forest ridge using the road that Jacob Tubbs had posted to Strava the other day. Then I took one of my favorite routes through Homewood to my first crossing of Red Mountain by the WBRC42 radio tower … this route involves climbing through a couple alleys, one driveway, a radio tower, two tree crossings and the Vulcan trail.

Then I headed down the mountain part of the way towards 5 points south before climbing back up towards the Vulcan before veering onto Warwick Dr to finish the second crossing of Red Mountain. I headed back down via a 49mph descent of Woodcrest before climbing back up via the 16th ave south alley with its super steep gradient including one section that might be close to 30% if you take the inside part of the switchback.

Google Maps streetview image of the 16 ave so climb up Red Mountain … this is the unrotated version giving you an idea of the angle the Google Maps car was at when it took this picture

I descended again off the mountain over by Altamont before climbing back up again via Clairmont / 58th and then descending again at 49mph on Southcrest. I headed over to Oporto Madrid Blvd which could be better known as the “Ruffner Mountain” bikeway since it is the easiest way to get from Crestwood over to Ruffner Mountain. Technically, Oporto Madrid also crossed the Red Mountain ridge, but it is so low that I don’t really count it.

Finally, I made it to the first of the Red Mountain 1200s … Ruffner Mountain starts out with a gradual climb on Rugby before the grade really kicks up on 81st all the way to the Nature Center where you can hop a curb onto a somewhat paved trail up to the old firetower. From the nature center to the firetower averages 12% for 1/2 mile with a few short sections well over 20%. My original plan was to head back down the mountain past the nature center and take an alternate road in the valley to get back to the next crossing, but instead I decided to explore the trail across the top of the mountain, which I had never done before. It switches from paved to double track as soon as you turn right off the firetower. Then the double track turns into a dirt single track which takes you down very steeply to a saddle between the two 1200+ ft summits. The second ridge was way too steep (20-30%) and rutted for me to ride with the wet conditions from the rain from the thunderstorms yesterday morning so I just ran up the whole thing (maybe 1/10th of a mile). Once you make it to the water tower on top of the second ridge, there is a dirt / gravel access rd that descends very steeply to the Observatory Rd neighborhood.

From Observatory Rd, I descended down into South Roebuck before climbing back up to the St Vincents East hospital. There is a cement access ramp (see pics at the end) with a gradient well over 30% that leads onto a gravel rd which eventually turns into a leaf covered double track 16-18% climb to the water tower which at 1275 ft is the highest 1200+ ft summit that is accessible by bike (that I know of) on Red Mountain. Turning around at the top so as not to disturb the person working on the radio tower, I headed back down to the hospital and descended the other side towards Trussville. Just before you cross under the interstate, you can turn left into a really odd (but extremely cool) neighborhood called “Turncliff”. What makes this neighborhood really cool is that there are no houses until you get to the somewhat flattened summit of the climb. Along the way there are a few switchbacks and then a rolling section through a kudzu forest (i.e., kudzu has completely taken over). Towards the top, there is a very steep access road to the radio towers that is gated off. You can go around the gate, but you have to dismount and crawl through a narrow opening in the kudzu. Today, however, the gate was wide open so that made it much easier since I didn’t have to remount and start uphill on a 15% gradient. At the top, I turned around immediately and went back down to finish climbing the rest of the way up to the Turncliff neighborhood which is lower than the radio tower summit, but still just barely above 1200 ft. There are some cool 90 degree turns right before you get to the neighborhood … then you finally make it to the neighborhood and there are maybe 15 houses all on the summit of the mountain.

This was the “out” part of my out/back ride so from there I turned around and headed back home – bypassing all the summit side roads/trails but crossing back over the ridges. On the way back, I descended the Valley Hill climb which I think might be the steepest climb in Birmingham at 27% … the Google Maps streetview pictures below are the best I can do to illustrate how steep the climb is. I took some pictures, which are in the gallery but nothing ever looks as steep in a picture.

Google maps streetview image of the Valley Hill climb

Rotated version of the Google maps streetview image of the Valley Hill climb

On the way back home, I ran into Lennie’s friend Aaron and rode back with him from Ruffner Mountain all the way to Cherokee Rd in Mountain Brook … it was fun talking about Leadville with him (he did it in 2009). When I finally made it back, I had climbed over 10,000 ft in a 63 mile ride. Here are some of the pics I took along the way:

January 24, 2012 at 11:17 pm Leave a comment

Mount Cheaha Revisited 4.25x

Awesome ride today doing hill repeats out on Mount Cheaha. I managed to climb it 4.25 times (yes I turned around about a quarter of the way up to restart the climb from state highway 49 when I was not happy with how the climb was going … just a number of random things interrupting the climb that made me say “enough” let’s go try this again since it was a first ascent for me from Lake Henry on Hwy 49). Yes, with the climb from Lake Henry, I think that means I have climbed Cheaha from every conceivable direction except for the mountain bike trail. This has been an unusual year in that I have had the opportunity to ride out at Cheaha at least 3 times this year including one ride from Birmingham.

About the Strava climbing competition, this ride today gives me even greater respect for the guys out in California who do most of their climbing on longer climbs like this one. It took me almost 5 and a half hours and a lot more effort to climb the same amount that I could do in under 4 hours on the smaller climbs and rollers around Birmingham. You just never get a chance to rest on these long climbs! Give me a 500′ rolling monster with pitches of 20+% any day over a 7% climb that just goes on and on forever. Still, it’s always fun to change things up a bit with long climbs like today on Cheaha and last weekend on Clingman’s Dome and the Blue Ridge Parkway. My personal preference for now is the smaller, steeper stuff because the descents are faster and more frequent.

View of a cloud covered Mount Cheaha from Cheaha Lake about 1200 vertical feet below the summit.

Nearing the top on the first time up the Cheaha climb — the longest version of the climb from below Camp Mac with an elevation difference of about 1800′ and total climbing exceeding 2500′.

The lookout tower on top of Mount Cheaha – the highest point in the state of Alabama – trying to peak out through the clouds.

Switchbacks climbing out of the Lake Chinnabee canyon.

The view looking southwest down the ridge line, plus a view of the road climbing up from the western side.

My bike after the ride … not looking so good after my accident on Wednesday (check out the right handlebar tape and the seat).

Finally, here is a link to the interactive data on Strava as well as a gallery of all the pictures I took on the ride. Hover over each picture for a caption.

November 21, 2011 at 1:47 am 2 comments

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Awesome preride with Kyle. North trailhead entrance Kyle I'm at the north trailhead ;-)

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Brian Toone

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Anaerobic Threshold:
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AT power estimated by critical power curve in Golden Cheetah, which predicts I should be able to maintain 315 watts for 1 hour.

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