Former Bike Rider Reminisces

As a former bike rider, I still remember how to balance a two-wheeler and sometimes venture out into the world to remind myself what it feels like to roll along the local pavements.

This morning I had an appointment over on Solano Avenue, a couple miles from home. I rode over. Then afterward, I rode up Solano and wound my way into the hills. Just to remind myself what that uphill trudge feels like.

I got to the top of Los Angeles Avenue, which is short and no big deal though it has a semi-steep pitch at the end. I was taking it very easy and riding in my lowest low gear.

Turning uphill on Spruce, perhaps the most popular way into the hills on the north end of Berkeley, another rider appeared alongside me. He was going faster than I and was visibly fitter, too. We said hi and wished each other a good ride, and within a few seconds he was pulling away. As I got ready to turn uphill on Keith Avenue, a quiet and steepish side street, the Other Cyclist was maybe 100 feet ahead of me.

I stayed in my low gear up Keith and crossed Euclid Avenue. Then I started a sort of side-step up the ridge toward Grizzly Peak Boulevard. From Keith, which has a gentle grade east of Euclid, I turned on to Bret Harte Way, which probably has a 16 or 17 percent grade (and grade is a measure of a road’s slope: 10 percent means a 10-unit vertical change for every 100 linear units; 10 feet in 100 feet, or 10 meters in 100 meters. Given my out-of-shape linebacker physique, which my legs have to carry up these hills, I regard 10 percent as pretty steep. In Berkeley, Marin Avenue climbs into the hills with gradients of roughly 20 to 30 percent, and the steepest street I’ve heard of in town is said to be 31 percent. That’s another way of saying darn near impossible for mere mortals and former bike riders).

At each corner, I tried to turn uphill. The way it worked out, I alternated between steep eastbound pitches like Bret Harte Way and flatter south-trending pieces like Cragmont. And so it went, up Bret Harte Road (steep again, and different from B.H. Way), Keeler Avenue (flattish), Twain Avenue (steep), Sterling (gentle), Whitaker (steep), Miller (easy), and Stevenson, a short street that I knew topped out at Grizzly Peak. And that was as far up as I intended to go.

I finished the climb and turned left on Grizzly Peak. As it happened, I was about 100 feet or so in front of the guy who had just passed me down below. We waved at each other, and I called out that he could have taken the short cut, and he laughed. It was a lovely piece of symmetry in a short ride into the hills, but the neatness of the coincidence made me want to try to account for it.

So here’s some arithmetic. The corner of Keith Avenue, roughly where the Other Cyclist passed me, is at an elevation of 499 feet if online sources are to be believed. The corner where we met again is at 1,082 feet. So both of us climbed 583 feet. Now, how far did we ride in linear distance? Again using an online tool–Gmaps Pedometer, which you ought to try if you haven’t already–my ride was 1.21 miles. His: 2.47. That’s another neat coincidence: His route being twice as long and the net climb being the same, his net grade (4.5 percent) is half of mine (9.2 percent). He also had to maintain an average speed roughly double mine, which would have been no problem since I was probably poking along at about 5 mph or less when the road got steep.

So those are the numbers. Interesting, but they don’t quite sum up that moment of delight when I saw the Other Rider again.

3 Comments

Filed under Berkeley, Cycling

3 Responses to Former Bike Rider Reminisces

  1. I enjoyed that.
    Hope we can get out a bit together next week.

  2. Roy

    I’m very impressed you beat him. I’m wondering if maybe you would have beat him if you had followed his route the long way around.
    So what do you think is your optimal grade for climbing, ie the grade the maximizes the sustainable vertical feet per minute? Clearly it’s not zero since then you never climb. It’s also less than 30% since you probably are stopped then. From Los Angeles upward, isn’t Spruce pretty mild, maybe 5% or so? It seems to me your experience suggests you climb better at grades above 5%.

  3. Dan

    Roy, that’s an excellent question, and I have to say I’ve never thought about climbing efficiency in that way before. Intuitively I feel like I get less efficient as a grade increases, period. Perhaps there is a gradient where I’m able to put out an optimum wattage below anaerobic threshold–a key to the grade/pace being sustainable–and keep up a speed that translates to a higher vertical gain per minute. But again, intuitively I feel like there’s a transaction that happens where I push to a certain level of cardiovascular and muscular effort that I try to maintain on a hill. When it’s not so steep, I go a little faster and it hurts. When it’s steeper, I don’t go as fast, and it hurts a little more. I *assume* that the vertical feet per mile stay pretty constant through all this, but I don’t really know. In the actual event, the Other Rider and I gained the same elevation in the same time, so our climbing rate was virtually identical. I’m interested in how much work we both did to get there, say in terms of watt output per kilogram of body weight). My intuition is that he did more.

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