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Order has once again been restored in the universe. No Paris-Roubaix won’t be held this weekend after all — rather, Baldwin Street in the New Zealand city of Dunedin has once again been declared the steepest street in the world.
This week, the stupidly steep concrete road in New Zealand’s South Island reclaimed the Guinness World Record for the world’s “Steepest Street (Road)”. While this makes it sound like the imposing ramp suddenly got steeper, the reality is it won back the record after locals were successful with an official review.
Let’s back up a little.
Baldwin Street held the Guinness World Record for over decade until, in mid 2019, an upstart street in the Welsh town of Harlech snatched away the crown. Harlech residents had campaigned for some time for Ffordd Pen Llech to be recognised as the planet’s steepest thoroughfare, but it wasn’t until local surveyor Myrddyn Phillips spent a day analysing the hill in excruciating detail that the tide finally turned.
Phillips’ measurements convinced Guinness World Records that Ffordd Pen Llech was indeed steeper than Baldwin Street — 37.5% vs 34.8% — and in July 2019 the organisation confirmed that the title would be heading over to Wales. And boy were the locals pleased.
But as we now know, the story didn’t end there.
Not to be outdone by his Welsh counterpart, Dunedin surveyor Toby Stoff reportedly spent months assessing Baldwin Street and Ffordd Pen Llech, and even went to Harlech himself to size up the opposition.
Stoff claimed that the Ffordd Pen Llech measurements had been taken on the inside of a curve, which didn’t represent the true gradient of the street because it doesn’t account for the different shapes of different streets. Notably, where Ffordd Pen Llech winds its way up the hill, Baldwin Street is one straight ramp.
Stoff suggested that a street’s gradient should instead be measured from the centre of the street and Guinness World Records agreed.
“The steepest street (road) is Baldwin street, in Dunedin, New Zealand, with a steepness of 34.8%, as verified on 7 November 2019,” the record’s webpage reads. “For the purpose of this record the measurement is taken from the centre line of the street.
“There is a street in Wales named Ffordd Pen Llech which possesses an inside curve with a measurement of 37.45%, however curvatures are not an overall representation of steepness which is why Baldwin Street is the recognised record holder.”
So how steep is Ffordd Pen Llech if measured from the centre of the road? A paltry 28.6%.
In announcing Baldwin Street as the rightful record holder this week, Guinness World Records said its decision was made after reviewing Stoff’s submission and after “consulting with industry specialists”. And they didn’t just give the record back to Baldwin Street — they’ll now use the centre-line measurement as standard for this record going forward.
So how steep are these streets exactly? After all, unless you live in Dunedin or Harlech (and hello to those of you that do), riding up gradients of above 30% isn’t something you’ll get to do all that often.
For context, the legendary Alpe d’Huez has an average gradient of a shade under 8%. The infamous Mortirolo climb in Italy averages a touch under 11%. Any climb that hits 20% for any length of time is considered obscenely steep. As for 30%+? Well, it’s going to take everything you have to simply keep the bike heading in the right direction, particularly if that gradient is maintained for any length of time.
I can tell you from first-hand experience that Baldwin Street is ludicrously steep. It looks steep enough on video and in photos, but when you get there? Hoo boy. It ramps up from North Road in north east Dunedin at a reasonably friendly gradient to start with … and quickly gets significantly less friendly. About halfway up the surface turns to concrete (bitumen would slide down the hill on hot days) and shortly after that you get to the steepest part of the climb: a brief section of 34.8%.
I didn’t get to ride the climb, sadly — it was wet the day I was there, which didn’t feel safe — but I can tell you it’s hard enough to walk up the thing. My colleague Dave Everett did ride it though, back in 2011. Here’s how that went:
Put Baldwin Street and Ffordd Pen Llech head-to-head in a number of contest and the Welsh street will come out ahead. Best name? Ffordd Pen Llech wins that in a landslide. Best location? Nothing against Dunedin but Ffordd Pen Llech takes you past 300-year-old houses up to a freaking castle in a quaint little town. I mean, come on.
But the contest that matters here relates to gradient, and in that battle, as Guinness World Records rightly decreed this week, Baldwin Street is the worthy winner.
Oh, and the nail in the coffin as far as I’m concerned? You can’t even ride up Ffordd Pen Llech legally. It’s a one-way street, reserved for vehicles coming down the hill.