Review: “The Complete Guide to Climbing (By Bike)”

Is this the ultimate climbing book? Our asphalt billy goat Bruce Hildenbrand tells us what he found after reading John Summerson's "labour of love"


Have you ever wondered what are the toughest paved climbs in America? The Complete Guide to Climbing (By Bike) by John Summerson (224 pages/Extreme Press) is a must read for anyone aspiring to ride the biggest and hardest climbs in the US.


The book is definitely a labor of love. Over the past decade, Summerson, a research associate and exercise physiologist at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, traversed the USA searching out and chronicling the biggest and most difficult paved road climbs. He used a construction grade WAS-enabled GPS unit to collect his data, which speaks volumes for its reliability and accuracy.

As a rider whose personal motto is “I live for switchbacks,” I’m skeptical of such efforts, but this book backs up its claim with a plethora of data and maps in such detail that I must say “chapeau”. Summerson’s tome should be welcomed by all die hard climbing aficionados and may well become the bible for going uphill in America.

The first several chapters deal with training for climbing, a history of climbing and a discussion on how the specific climbs were selected and rated. At first, I was disappointed not to see such legendary ascents as Mount Hamilton in the San Francisco Bay Area and Hurricane Mountain Road in New Hampshire missing from the list, but Summerson’s explanation for their exclusion seemed logical given his stated criteria.

The meat of the book are the descriptions of the 100 hardest climbs which include total elevation climbed, length, average grade and rating. The author’s formula for calculating the rating helps answer the age old question as to how a climb compares to the ascents in the Tour de France.

Based on my experience here and in Europe, I would say that Summerson is pretty close though one has to remember that where a particular climb is located on a stage is major rating factor used by the Tour. This explains why a 3700-foot climb like Alpe d’Huez is usually rated Hors Category (HC). While it isn’t a huge climb by altitude standards, because it is the last climb of a stage, its rating is increased from Category 1 to HC.

A written description including directions on how to get to the start and a simple map are also included for each climb, very helpful information for out-of-towners. Every ascent is also represented in graphical format with approximate grades indicated. And for those statistical geeks, there are a number of lists detailing such topics as the highest climbs, fastest descents and greatest elevation gained, etc., etc., etc.

Upward, ever upward!


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