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Veteran cyclists often recall their greatest moments on the bike with recollections of self-imposed suffering high on some mountainous, twisting course, churning the pedals in trance-like concentration. Powering up the climb, accelerating out of switchbacks and grimacing with effort, a devoted rider knows that there are few opportunities in sport - perhaps even in life itself -- to have such a pure experience of mind and body.
Save for those who reside in one of the few truly flat regions of the country, most cyclists can quickly name their area's toughest climb - a mountain road which stands apart from mere grinds and lies at the heart of those epic rides one never forgets. Cyclists seem drawn to these steeply angled roads as worshipers are to Mecca, believing that at least once, the climb must be made, the summit attained. For some, these endurance tests become annual events, but for most riders, the initial achievement is enough: Notch the gun barrel and add it to your list of goals accomplished.
Has a ride already come to mind that fills these lofty requirements? Certainly there are a great many tough climbs scattered across the U.S., and fans of the Tour de France can recite the storied names of that event's most brutal mountain passes. Maybe you're certain you know the very toughest climb in the country, and will accept no arguments. In the spirit of a good debate, then, we have compiled a list of the Great Hillclimbs of America, ranked by vertical feet of elevation gain.
1. Mt. Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii
Sea to summit - the ultimate
Rising to a towering 10,000 feet and offering spectacular high-altitude views, Haleakala is known for its distinctive moon-like terrain.
Directions: Begin the 37-mile climb in the town of Paia, near windsurfing's world-famous Hookipa Beach, and follow the road to Makawao. Continue towards Highway 378 and Haleakala National Park, passing through several distinct climactic zones before reaching the summit parking area and the top of the crater.
Haleakala National Park
P.O. Box 369
Makawao, Maui, HI 96768
Open daily, year round
Bicycle Rental Companies:
Directions: Begin the 28-mile climb in the historic mining town of Idaho Springs, at the Mt. Evans exit off I-70 in the mountains west of Denver. Follow State Route 103 to Echo Lake, and then Route 5 to the 14,250-foot summit. Be prepared for cold and snow at any time.
The road winds past one spectacular view after another as it ascends the mountain. The route to the top of Mount Lemmon is a dramatic example of a sky island's unique environment.
Directions: This 25-mile climb begins on the east side of Tucson, at the intersection of the Catalina Highway and Tanque Verde Road. Follow the Catalina Highway to the road's high point at the Mount Lemmon Observing Facility.
Local Bike Shops:
Directions: The 20-mile ride begins at mile post 115 along U.S. 191, across from the Federal prison south of Safford in southeast Arizona. Climb up the Swift Trail (State Route 366) to the finish at mile post 135, near the Snow Flat camp ground.
Sandia Crest is located on the Turquoise Trail, a national scenic byway that passes through the Cibola National Forest connecting Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Directions: Begin climbing just off I-40, at the Cedar Crest exit, 15 miles east of Albuquerque. Take the Sandia Peak ski area road, and follow it to the summit overlooking the city far below.
Races take place each year on most of these peaks, and - except for Mt. Washington, which opens to bicycles only on race day - the paved summit roads are also rideable anytime conditions permit. How many of the Great Hillclimbs have you finished?
6. Mt. Charleston, Nevada
Leaving Las Vegas
Mt. Charleston' s high, cool, forested landscape stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding desert landscape and the neon lights of Las Vegas.
Directions: The climb begins approximately 30 miles north of Las Vegas, along I-95 at the Lee Canyon exit. Follow Highway 156 upward to the ski area parking lot.
Local Bike Shops:
Mt. Baldy road offers many scenic vistas of the San Gabriels mountains and will take you into the heart of the Angeles National Forest, the "backyard" of Los Angeles.
Directions: Commencing in the city of Claremont, just north of Pomona, the ride follows the Mt. Baldy Road directly to the ski area finish.
Orange and avocado groves border your climb to rendezvous with the South Grade of Palomar Mountain. From there it's a seven-mile, 7% grade of twisting switchbacks. You'll pass the 3k, 4k, and 5000 foot altitude markers in quick secession. The uphill ends near the Palomar General Store. From there, it's a few miles uphill through the trees to the observatory.
Directions: Get underway 40 miles northeast of San Diego, in the town of Santa Ysabel, at the intersection of Highways 78 and 79. From Dudley's bakery, long a favorite with San Diego-area cyclists, follow Highway 79 to Highway 76, finally climbing up Route S7 to the summit - site of the world famous Palomar Observatory.
Breathtaking views will surprise you around every bend of the 8-mile path to the top of New England. The average grade of 12% slopes on the mostly paved road, reaching up more than a mile in the sky.
Directions: This eight-mile climb, open to bicycles only on race day each year, starts at the base of the Mt. Washington Auto Road, about 12 miles north of Jackson along State Highway 16. Even though the peak is only 160 miles north of Boston, be prepared for difficult conditions near the top of the northeast's highest and steepest mountain road.
Winding, twisting, turning, the 20 miles up Mt. Hamilton Road makes it one of the most challenging hillclimbs in California.
This photo looks westward at one of the many switchbacks on Mt. Hamilton Road and a hazy Silicon Valley from the Lick Observatory.
Directions: Start the climb at the Alum Rock exit off I-680 in San Jose. Follow Alum Rock Avenue north to the Mt. Hamilton Road (Highway 130), which climbs to the summit and its several astronomical observatories.