Ramsey Hill By: Mike Courteau

We live in a flat metro area. We have wonderful parkways, yes. We have new bikes lanes painted all over the city, yes, but for those of us who like to bike up a hill now and again, we Twin Cities’ cyclists are hard pressed to find any significant bump in the local topography.

Once, when talking with a colleague about “climbing” hills in these Twin Cities, he verily scoffed at the idea that there is any such thing as a hill worthy of its name anywhere around here. He had lived in Arizona, attended undergraduate school in Flagstaff, used to mountain bike a bit with the local fat-tire crazies, so he knew a thing or two about climbing hills on a bicycle.

Mountains are not necessary, of course, for a challenging hill course. One need look only at the jagged profile of the Tour of Flanders in Belgium to understand just how tough a course can be without mountains. I am thinking, specifically, of a legendary climb like the Koppenberg.

At first, it doesn’t sound like much. According to Wikipedia, the Koppenberg is a “(253 ft) high hill in Oudenaarde, the Flemish Ardennes, Belgium.” Compared with the legendary Tour de France climbs like the Alpe d’Huez, the Col de Tourmalet, or Mont Ventoux, whose challenges are measured in thousands of feet, a 253-foot climb does not inspire much awe. But that’s only part of the story.

“This climb is part of the route of the Ronde van Vlaanderen professional cycling race and feared by many because of its steepness (22% on the trickiest parts) and because of its cobblestones. This makes the Koppenberg difficult even for top professionals. Quite often, riders slow to the point of losing their balance, especially those at the back of the peloton who have to dismount and scramble to the top on foot.”

Now, I don’t care what anybody says, a 22% gradient is brutal, no matter how long it is. I also don’t know whether the Twin Cities boasts a comparable climb, but if it does, Ramsey Hill comes close.

I have scaled Ramsey Hill perhaps a half dozen times since I bought my Fuji a couple of years ago. It is always a test of my fitness. It always hurts. And since I don’t live in Arizona, and since there are no mountains nearby, Ramsey Hill is my Alpe d’Huez, Col de Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux, and Koppenberg rolled into one agonizing stretch of asphalt.

I have searched, but have been unable to find, what the average gradient is for Ramsey Hill, and I must confess that I have no real frame of reference for such metrics, but I am going to hazard a guess that it’s somewhere around 18 percent.

I once heard cycling commentator and former professional cyclist Bob Roll describe the Col de Tourmelat as the “Col de Tore-my-legs-off” because it nearly did him in when he was representing the ragtag 7-11 team that tried desperately to stay in contact with the peloton during the early days of American competition in the Tour de France.

Well, today, Ramsey Hill tore my legs off.

Even after more the 1600 miles and 70 spinning classes over the last two years, I still had to “dig deep into my suitcase of courage” as another famous commentator, Paul Sherwen would say, in order to summit this local behemoth. I had nothing left in the tank once I got to the top of Ramsey Hill today, and I was happier than hell.

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16 Responses to Ramsey Hill By: Mike Courteau

  1. mcblum says:

    Chilkot Hill in Stillwater has an average gradient of around 14, but kicks up to over 20+ for part of it. Something to see during the Nature Valley Grand Prix crit (http://www.naturevalleybicyclefestival.com/Stillwater)

    • mfcourteau66 says:

      mcblum: Thanks for your response. I spend a lot of time in Stillwater–even biked to Stillwater from South Minneapolis last summer–but I have been too intimidated by Chilkoot Hill to give it a whirl. If I can barely make it up Ramsey Hill in St. Paul, what hope for me, then, to make it up Chilkoot with my 25 pound Fuji? Now, if I had a 15 pound carbon-frame Pinarello, then maybe I’d have a chance. But that’s a previous post (see “It Happens Every Spring.”–Mike Courteau

  2. Michael says:

    I’m impressed! I’ve gone DOWN that hill, but even walking up it is a chore.
    My daily commute takes me up the hill from the Lake Street Bridge into St. Paul on Marshall (actually, all of Marshall to Snelling, and again from Snelling to Lexington, is a slight but steady incline that used to wear me out when I started this route). On the way home, I take Kellogg past the History Center: parallel to Ramsey, but much gentler; still a challenge, though, in the wind or in 100F temps.
    The nice thing about traveling by bike is that it puts you in touch with the contours of the city; we may not have a lot of big hills, but we do have some steady climbs that the glaciers, creeks, and river have carved out of our terrain.

  3. Phil says:

    I rode Ramsey hill yesterday to see how steep it is. Most of the hill is 8-9 % on my Garmin 800, but the very end at the top, the part when your most tuckered-out is 11%. The European way up is on average less steep, except the switch back which is built for a Mountain Goat! Try it some time, it’s the “funner” way up.

  4. Mike Courteau says:

    Phil, thanks for the feedback. Assuming your Garmin is correct, that just goes to show how ill-equipped I am to estimate the average gradient of any hill. Still, an 11% gradient is pretty hard. What do you mean by the “European way up?” Is there an alt route?

    • Phil says:

      I rode Ramsey hill yesterday to see how steep it is. Most of the hill is 8-9 % on my Garmin 800, but the very end at the top, the part when your most tuckered-out is 11%. The European way up is on average less steep, except the switch back which is built for a Mountain Goat! Try it some time, it’s the “funner” way up

      Take a right at the light at the bottom and follow the road that winds up the side of the hillside. You will ride right past old carriage houses. When you see the switchback be prepared for it to get steep at the bend, then take the high road and it dumps you out on summit. The route looks like a European mountain side.

  5. Paul Feng says:

    “European Way” = Pleasant + Irvine

    I find going straight up Ramsey to be just silly, and almost always take Pleasant + Irvine. I try to limit myself to a single Ramsey ascent per season, but somehow have done it at least three times this year (including yesterday, since the St. Paul Classic was going on, and how could I resist riding straight up when almost everyone else was walking?)

    If one is really beat, Grand is available as a safety.

    To get a better simulation of some of the great tour climbs, go up Ohio-Cherokee to the top of the HIgh Bridge – then imagine multiplying that dozens of times, with occasional stretches like Ramsey.

  6. Paul, the ascents by professional cyclists are unimaginably hard. I have no illusions about the difficulties of local climbs. The few times I’ve struggled up Ramsey alone, I’ve been forced to imagine the ease with which a rider like Andy Schleck or Alberto Contador would blast over it as though it were a speed bump.

  7. Miah says:

    I just moved to the Twin Cities from Seattle. I chose Saint Paul over Minneapolis because of the hills (actually river bluffs) I used to race bikes on the West Coast and dropped a lot of people over 9-12 mile mountain passes, they were never that incredibly steep just very long. That’s how mountain passes are graded. Now in places like Duluth, Seattle and San Francisco you’ll find +27% grades that occur over very short distances comparatively which make them very tough. Now I have ridden around both Minneapolis and Saint Paul for a couple months and Minneapolis is dead flat and thus boring for me these days when compared to what I’ve found in Saint Paul so I stay on that side of the river. It’s less crowded as well. I have to let you know that Ramsey or that side of Saint Paul in general (Summit ,Cathedral Hill etc) is not the toughest hill (bluff) in the city. As far as I can tell the “toughest” climb in the Twin Cities urban metro area terms of maximum elevation over the shortest period is on the other side of the river, starting at near Harriet Island (the trail is at a 676 foot elevation) go up Ohio Street which is very steep for about 3 blocks and then continues more gradually for another .8 miles or so, at Annapolis turn right and stop at Manomin and Annapolis, you’re at 1015 feet for a total climb of 340 feet in 1.7 miles. Not epic or all that hard for an average cyclist but not too shabby either and certainly not flat! Actually, technically the bluffs in the Twin Cities are as steep as anything else anywhere because they are cliffs and thus not navigable except by rock climbers! I’ve covered 320 feet in Seattle in .5 miles by comparison and +850 feet in Duluth and San Francisco in a mile! Nowadays I go to Duluth where the hills are as big San Francisco and way bigger and tougher than Seattle. If anyone knows of any other bigger tougher rides in the Saint Paul area let me know!

  8. Miah says:

    Oh yeah I wanted to say, if you keep going up the West Side bluff into West Saint Paul from Annapolis and Manomin and get onto Stryker and take that up it keeps going up albeit pretty gradually until a little kicker at the end and then dead ends at Imperial Heights, which again as far as I can tell from the USGS website and Google Earth is the highest point one can ride to in the Twin Cities metro area, ( 5 miles outside of either downtown) at 1115 feet, 200 feet above the highest spot in Minneapolis and 40 feet above the highest spot in Saint Paul proper, which is the 14th tee of the Hillcrest Golf Course near Larpenteur at 1075 feet above sea level. From Harriet Island and the river at 675 feet to 1,115 feet you climb +440 feet in about 3.0 miles. That’s the most elevation over the shortest distance I have yet to find in the entire urban metro area.

  9. Miah says:

    Oh yeah and just one more thing! My Mom grew up on Ohio Street right on the steep switch back part and she told me the other day…”Just picture me riding my trike out there in 1949…” I thought that was cool and worth mentioning. 🙂

  10. Oliver says:

    Hi Mike,

    I attempted Ramsey Hill last weekend, 25 miles into my 50 mile ride. I got about 2/3 of the way up and had to dismount. What gear ratio are you able to successfully climb it in? Just curious. My smallest gear is 39×26 and it wasn’t small enough (obviously).

    • mfcourteau66 says:

      Oliver, honestly, I do not know which gear ratio I was using. The last time I climbed Ramsey Hill was when I was riding my Fuji Newest 3.0. It was a rather heavy bike (26lbs) and it had a triple chain ring: 30/42/52. I certainly did it in the smallest ring and gear possible. Looking back, it’s almost hard for me to believe that I tackled that ramp with such a cumbersome mount. Now, I have a 17 pound, carbon-frame bike, yet each time I’ve approached Ramsey I’ve chickened out and gone up the hill on either side. I certainly never tried doing it after 25 miles, so that might have been part of your issue if your legs were starting to tire a bit by then. I plan to ride it soon, so I’ll let you know how it goes. Will you do the same?

      • Oliver says:

        Hi Mike,Happy to report that my fitness level has increased considerably in the past two months (lots of long rides). I’ve scaled Ramsey HIll twice now–once in a 42×25 last weekend and once today in a 39×26 (two bikes), followed by a ride back down and climb up Irvine, which isn’t as difficult. It definitely gets my heart rate up. Individual goals are the spice of life, so I’ll keep climbing. Oh, one unpleasant surprise–the water fountain in the little park next to the Hill was turned off today, so I couldn’t refill my Gatorade. That was a bummer.

  11. mfcourteau66 says:

    Oliver, chapeau for taking on the dreaded Ramsey Hill. I still haven’t done it this year. Perhaps next week. Tomorrow, I ride the Lifetime Fitness Gran Fondo for the second consecutive year–68 miles.

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