Monday, September 16

Pottershop Versus The World

Somebody blew up! Top of Pottershop 3
Everyone thinks their local hills are the biggest and the baddest.  I had an email exchange with the organizer of the Sadie “Hill” Tour earlier this summer.  She invited me to come do the ride and sample the hills in northern Scott County.  I mentioned that I was from Powell County and we had plenty of fine hills I got the impression she wasn’t impressed.  And I realized I was guilty of overstating the badness of my own hills even then.  I do want to get up to Scott County and ply the pavement.  I will.
On the recent OKHT Pottershop Hill was the bugaboo that had the field all a-buzz.  On Friday night I was talking to Troy on the phone about some other cycling related stuff and he wished me good luck on Pitterpatter.  At the time I really hadn’t heard much hype about the hill except the blurb on the OKHT website.  I didn’t know anything about it, but I was comfortable replying: “I rode Furnace this week; I think I’ll be okay.”  
At mile 94.  I see nothing scary here.
As I hung up I thought to myself: Am I being too cocky about the hills around home?  I didn’t think I was.  I ran the numbers a few times.  The only places in Kentucky I’d seen that had comparable hills (excluding the far eastern part of the state) were those places where roads crossed the Kentucky River valley.  And beyond the narrow river corridor there just weren’t that many big climbs.  
Along the Pottsville Escarpment—the ragged edge of the Cumberland Plateau—is the only geologic region anywhere near the population centers of the state with any kind of real vertical relief.  That’s a fact.
I’m still looking, but I have done my research, and I’ve given this issue much thought.  Along the Pottsville Escarpment you have a wicked combination: steep sloped ridges and hundreds of feet of relief.  The lay of the land dictates roads that steeply tackle the ridges they must traverse.  Since the hollers are deep and narrow there’s little room for switchbacks and the natural grade of the land is insane.
I recognized in Colorado that the climbs lacked serious steepness when I heard cyclists groaning about 6% grades.  Even way back when I knew of some roads in Kentucky that exceeded 10% with gusto. I also realized those hills were intense, but that they burned you up fast.  While Colorado climbs were monsters because they could go on for miles and miles, Kentucky hills never seemed to take more than a mile to do their damage.
What is truly the thigh killing factor in my home state are the rollers.  The Bluegrass Region has them.  The Cumberland Plateau has them.  And unless you maximize gravity to the fullest you won’t ever enjoy them.  They can be crossed speedily if you know how.
So this Panderflop thing…yeah, it’s a stout little hill.  “Little” is the operative word.

My first real cycling hill challenge was Furnace Mountain, KY 213 south of Stanton, and it took me four tries to nail it years ago.  Furnace Mountain gains 470’ in 7/10 of a mile.  That’s an average 11% grade for nearly a mile.  My latest bike climbing challenge was Cobhill (for the time being I’m just talking about paved roads).  Cobhill gains 512’ in 6/10 of a mile for an average 16% grade.
In comparison, Photoshop Hill—the big one—gains a mere 246’ in just under 4/10 of a mile clocking in at a 14% average.  It has the steepness; it just doesn’t have the length or total gain to go with it.
When we were debriefing in the hotel room the evening after riding Sotterphop I explained that I knew it wasn’t harder than Cobhill because Cobhill felt like my limit.  It took four tries to ride it, and on that last attempt I felt stronger but not like I was crushing it.  Despite hitting Coppertop 95 miles into a hot and rolling century I didn’t feel like it was anywhere near my limit.  There was never a point when I felt like I was going to have to come off the bike.  On my successful ascent of Cobhill each pedal stroke felt like my last.
Despite Furnace Mountain having a lesser average grade it also seems harder to me than Padishah did.  But then, it does gain twice as much elevation in less than half again the distance.  I understand what I just wrote, do you?
Length (and your fitness level) plays a huge role in the difficulty of any significant hill you might climb on your bike.  And then there’s the mind games associated with such things.  I never worried about Pottersham because no one was giving the stats.  If someone had said: “It’s a 90% grade and four miles long!” before vomiting in the bushes I might have been worried.  No one provided evidence that this monster had any teeth.  So when I hit the bottom of Phottersop and didn’t see a pile of dead cyclist bodies at the bottom I knew there was nothing to fear.
Bottom of Pottershop 1.  Dead cyclists strangely absent...
The kicker is that “1/3” has two distinct sections separated by a nearly flat reprieve.  And the second section is steep but short.So you get a rest, and then the final effort before the aid station is almost insignificant.  Almost.
Of course the mystique is perpetuated by a warning of two more hills.  The caveat is that the first one is the worst.  Honestly, I wasn’t worried after doing the first one.  What became onerous after Stopperhop 1 were the rollers.  And there we go back to the mental aspects of it.  I could tackle the known threats easily, but the unknown grinders were the true demoralizers.  If I had lost my enduro-war of attrition it would have been to the roller pawns, and not to the knights of steepness.
In the final analysis Pohsrettop Hill isn’t as bad as the hype.  It’s a gnarly obstacle to throw at 1,200 recreational cyclists 95 miles into a two day road ride, but it’s not really justified to incite so much fear on its behalf.
Am I a hill snob?  Yeah, I probably am.  Do I have grounds to be one?  In this part of the country I think we really do have some of the nastiest hills.  I’ll be looking to the south and to the east for the real monsters.  I guess I’m like one of those river rats that go bare-handed fishing for snapping turtles in that respect.  Except I have all my fingers.  For now I have ticked (almost) all of my local problems.  I know just over in the next drainages there have to be more lung-busters waiting to kick me in the pants.


I do realize that outside of my home area that even my own hills are paltry in comparison to any in even remotely mountainous areas.  I think this is all an interesting exercise in perspective.  I have no illusions that Cobhill rivals Mount Washington or even the hill up the street from you, but I have a good grasp on the geology in this state and I know where bigger and badder hills might be possible.  Those areas are mostly to the east and south, not west into the Bluegrass.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I made it up Pottershop this past Sat as a new tandem team. It was tough to be honest. Thankfully, the first steep section was only a little over 1/3 mile as you know ... Our we may not hand made it without unclicking. There are a handful of hills just across the river in Southern Indiana I can recommend since you enjoy the challenge ... Doolittle, Firetower (the steepest at a max of 23%), Dow, and Farnsley. Would be happy to share more info if you are interested. Brian