‘Unbelievably crooked’: Cyclists ascend Burlington’s Snake Alley
Many RAGBRAI riders who rolled into Burlington on Friday couldn’t help but test themselves against the city’s famous Snake Alley.
“You can’t be in Burlington, Iowa and not go up it once — or three times,” said Joe Coddington of Asheville, North Carolina. “It’s a great hill, a classic challenge. It’s just short enough to make it hurt, so that’s always fun.”
Coddington and his cycling group, Project Hero, encourage veterans to get on a bicycle as therapy for injuries. He said when it comes to navigating Snake Alley’s 275 feet of 21% incline, it’s all about strategy.
“Hold your momentum for the first three turns,” Coddington said. “You have to enter the mouth of the snake the right way. Stay close to the right. Ignore the first turn and then go wide through the next two. From there, it’s just a fight to the top.”
The rolling hills of Burlington led to sections of the city being separated due to elevation. Before the turn of the century, the downtown business district and the neighborhood shopping area located on N. Sixth Street were separated by a brutal one-block incline.
Three immigrants patterned Snake Alley after the switchbacks along the vineyards in France and Germany. The design ultimately added length but cuts some of the incline.
In 2017, “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” named Snake Alley the No. 1 location in its Odd Spots Across America Campaign.
Jason Reynolds, a RAGBRAI veteran, called it a “personal challenge” to get up the winding five half-curves and two quarter-curves. Reynolds has a Garmin GPS between his handlebars and said the alley peaked at 20% during his push up.
“I’ve ridden up to 23%, so I knew I wasn’t going to die,” Reynolds said. “But I’m also not going to do that all day. Experience will teach you what you can handle.”
For those eyeing the hill from the bottom, Reynolds had some thoughts.
“The best thing you can do is try it. A lot of people talk themselves out of trying and they don’t know what they can really do,” Reynolds said.
Tyrone Moore of Burlington said he’s been eyeing the hill for years.
“You have to train yourself for it,” Moore said. “Inhale. Exhale. Don’t burn yourself out. Just keep striving.”
Mark Anderson of Madrid and Kurt Schoenberg of Des Moines said the cobblestone pavers add to the challenge of traversing Snake Alley.
“The gaps between the stones can be difficult,” Anderson said. “You want to keep your cadence up. While you are going up, you are doing some balancing.”
“The bricks were bouncy the whole way,” said Schoenberg. “You just can’t quit.”