RIDING BRITAIN'S STEEPEST HILL
CYCLING WEEKLY|September 23, 2021
Deep in the heart of Wales, climbing nut Simon Warren thinks he has discovered Britain’s steepest hill. This is the story off how he found it and just how painful it is to ride
Simon Warren
“There’s always a bigger fish.” That’s what the ancient proverb says, and just when I thought I’d ridden the steepest road in Britain and put the matter to bed once and for all, up popped another hideous incline to further move the goalposts and redefine suffering.

When I first tackled Hardknott Pass I assumed nothing could ever beat that, but then a few years after, I discovered the road up to Abdon Burf in the Shropshire Hills and my perception of torture was changed. A while later, the utterly horrendous Cowlyd in North Wales found its way onto my radar and again the slate was wiped clean and a new standard was set.

For a while there, I thought I’d settled it. I’d evaluated the merits of all contenders from Rosedale Chimney to Ffordd Penllech via Bushcombe Lane and Vale Street. But then came that bigger fish, then came a new vision of hell: Afon Ddu, AK A the Baby Zoncolan.

This mini monster was brought to my attention by hill-climb master and double national champion Dan Evans after I noticed a string of expletives in his Strava feed. If a man with legs as strong as Dan’s struggles up a climb then what chance do we mortals have? I had to go and check it out.

A few weeks later, I arrive with our photographer Andy, Dan and his wife Jess – a hill-climb champion in her own right – to share the experience with them and get the local lowdown on this insane 700m of near-vertical concrete.

‘Avoid like the plague’

The ‘road’, if you can call it that, was built so vehicles could access the giant pipelines that draw water from Llyn Cowlyd and Llyn Eigiau to feed the Dolgarrog hydroelectric power station and the water treatment plant that sits on its slopes. Named after the river beside it, the Afon Ddu (Welsh for black river) which flows down from Llyn Cowlyd, I ask Dan how he first came across it.

“Most local riders know it’s here, we gave it the nickname the Baby Zoncolan but we all avoid it like the plague. First time I went up was on a mountain bike and even that proved almost impossible. However, once I got to the top I knew I had to return on a road bike to see how fast I could ride it,” he recalls.

Afon Ddu starts abruptly from the main road and you’ll need just one gear, the lowest you can fit on your bike. Riding alongside Dan, with Jess tucked in behind, we set off, all three of us understandably apprehensive about what lies ahead. Dan is his normal chatty self as we hit the first ramp, our wheels getting their first taste of the ribbed and abrasive concrete surface that would do its best to hinder our progress the entire way up.

The death strip

Bending right, the slope immediately kicks up to around 25% but this is mere child’s play compared to what lies ahead. After around 50 metres the second bend arrives and Dan immediately heads to the shallower part of the corner to catch a few seconds’ respite. “You have to take each and every opportunity to recover when it is presented, no matter how slight,” he says. With this in mind, I put my eyes to work scanning the gradients ahead looking for any stretch of reprieve, no matter how short, where I can take a break from the infernal torment.

From bend two, the road swings left, kicks up then eases back to rumble across a cattle grid and so far, so pretty ordinary but then, up ahead, the road arcs away to the right and here it begins to look serious. As I forge round this wicked right-hander, bend three, the pale, rugged and debris-strewn surface rises up like a wall through the trees.

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