Ffordd Pen Llech in Snowdonia, Wales was awarded the Guinness World Record of the steepest street in the world in July this year. Previously the title had been held by Baldwin Street in Dunedin in New Zealand.
The sign at the top of Fford Pen Llech claims a gradient of 40%, but below that someone has written the actual gradient of 37.45%.
I arrived at Harlech, the town that Ffordd Pen Lllech is situated in, a few weeks ago. I was there to check and ride the route for 2019’s Children in Need Rickshaw Challenge for the BBC One Show.
I was vaguely aware that the street was steep, but my mind was elsewhere, I had reports to write and I’d just spent that day riding 75 miles from Holyhead in torrential rain with the prospect of more heavy rain to come.
It wasn’t until I sat down for dinner, in the hotel just below Harlech Castle and at the foot of the steep climb, that the waiter asked me if I was going up the Llech.
They told me it was so steep that it was almost impossible to walk up but then added that a recent cycling hill-climb competition saw the fastest rider get the top of the 300-metre long ascent in 55 seconds. I started to feel slightly intimidated, especially when I realised the gearing on my bike (a 34×26) might not be enough to keep my momentum going upwards.
The next day dawned, and I was served breakfast with the solemn respect that might have been more suitable for a condemned man.
Outside the rain was still coming down heavily from the ominously dark and sombre sky. The wet road would not be helpful in maintaining traction as the pitch of the street steepened.
I slowly got myself ready, delaying the inevitable. I rode out of the hotel car park and turned right, just before the railway crossing. The road was flat until I rounded the next corner and the road kicked up in front of me. It looked steep, but nothing that seemed insurmountable and I clicked into my lower gears and pressed hard down on the pedals as I stood out of the saddle.
I was moving forward and it wasn’t as bad as I had feared…Then the road turned sharply to the right. I took the corner wide, knowing that the inside line would be painfully steep, and it was – almost vertical – but the outside line wasn’t much better. It was developing into what I assumed was the 37.45% section.
I pulled on my handlebars, trying to leverage more power into my legs, but my speed was slowing, I crawled forward. It wasn’t hurting as I wasn’t going fast enough for that. It was more akin to trying to lift the front of a car and knowing that I just didn’t have the strength.
I pushed harder on the pedals, but that put more weight towards the back of my bike and my front wheel lifted. I tried to counter this by shifting my upper body forward, but my back wheel started to spin.
As I almost came to a standstill both my wheels lost traction and my bike started to slide backwards on the wet tarmac.
I quickly unclipped and jumped off the bike, only to find I couldn’t stand either without sliding backwards. I arrested my slip, and gingerly made my way back to the start of the right-hand bend.
Here, there was enough of a “flat” gradient to allow me to mount my bike again and have another crack at the climb ahead of me. This time I made it, just, but I was fearful that something on my bike would snap, such was the strain I was pushing through it just to keep moving forward. Beyond this bend the road became more manageable and I made it to the top.
“Next time we come up here it will be with a rickshaw!” I said to my wife.
Watch: The BBC One Show Rickshaw Challenge for Children in Need starts on Friday November 8. Scot will be accompanying the six young riders as they ride from Holyhead in Wales to Elstree in London