Archives • Switchbacks: Ramp Diversity

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: Italy makes me dizzy.


There is one kind of ramp I absolutely love, except when I'm using it, in which case I absolutely hate it. That ramp is the switchback.

Anyone who's done much mountain driving learns to hate switchbacks, even though they're some of the most cost-effective engineering tricks we have in the mountains. (Much, much cheaper than tunnels, that's for sure.) Truckers especially hate them. I've known some who will go hours out of their way to avoid them. I think gearheads are the only ones who enjoy them.

stylized photo of Stelvio Pass in Italy

Careful, there.

One of the craziest examples of the breed is the Stelvio Pass in Italy. It's one of the highest roads in the Alps and has 75 switchbacks. Seventy-five! Not a road you want to drive fast on, or even drive on at all if you can help it. Apparently, it’s so dangerous during the winter and spring that they close it completely during those seasons.

Of course, being dangerous, gearheads flock to it. That British car show everyone likes, “Top Gear” (I don't watch that show anymore after what they said about the F150), declared it the greatest driving road in the world. (Or at least in Europe. Have you seen the pictures of the crazy roads they have in the mountains in India?)

The Italian bicycle Grand Tour frequently goes through Stelvio Pass. (The Giro d'Italia, sister race to the Tour de France. I try to catch all three of the Grand Tours when I can.) Thousands and thousands of cyclists ride through Stelvio Pass every year.

It's easier to find info on battles fought at the pass than it is to find anything beyond basic info on its construction or maintenance, but that's pretty constant. Historians are obsessed with wars, despite the fact that construction and architecture affect us way more.

I'm working on persuading Maggie on this European vacation bit but, as carsick as she gets, I don't think that Stelvio Pass will be on the itinerary.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Moving Your Yard Ramp

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy provides some astounding weight comparisons (and gives me newfound respect for the blue whale, from which I'll never ever wish to receive a tongue lashing), then transitions from heavy to smooth and shows how easy it is to move a yard ramp.

Buckle up, then click HERE to read all about it.

From the Archives: Going Medieval on Our Ramps

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week I'm under siege. By medieval ramp monsters.


And boy are my horses tired.

Feels Like I Just Arrived in the 21st Century

I know I've kinda built up the idea about myself that I don't care about medieval warfare, that I consider it an absurd waste of thought. And, well, generally speaking, you'd be right. I think it's a distraction from the things that actually matter, like actual historical construction methods. I'm interested in how they put things together, not how they broke them.

That being said, some slightly interesting uses were found for ramps in war, specifically for the purposes of siegecraft.

The first use was actually pre-medieval, though it was used on occasion in medieval times. Siege ramps are huge earthen ramps built right up a castle or city wall, a cliff face, or other positions of strength. They're about as absurd as you'd think: the builders are going to come under constant attack by the people above, resulting in a wasteful loss of life. It was really only used when the besiegers grossly outnumbered the besieged, were otherwise unable to break through the enemy defenses, and had little care for loss of life on their side. The Romans used it a few times, as did a few of the smaller empires before them, and a few of the smaller kingdoms they conquered.

Or backward. Depends on your view.

Me, Looking Forward

The other use was in siege towers. These, at least, were constructed with a bit more safety in mind for the troops on your side: not that sending them over an enemy castle wall is, particularly, a safer idea. Siege towers, depending on the whim of the builder, were generally a bizarre hybrid of ramp, staircase, ladder, and watchtower, all built out of wood and canvas and stuck on wheels to roll right up to the castle walls, where troops could exit the tower directly onto those walls.

They also usually had sheltered positions for archers to fire from. Still absurdly dangerous, of course, but you at least had some shelter from enemy arrows, at least until you got onto the wall. They still were vulnerable to fire, which medieval people loved to use on each other.

All in all: I prefer my ramps for actual construction purposes.

The Yard Ramp Guy's Continuing Education

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy begins with a proverb about the stars and a finger. Which is right up my telescope alley. And he ends with an invitation to give him a call. And it all has to do, wonderfully, with the way he conducts business.

Before you give him a call, have a gander at his words HERE.

From the Archives: The Ramp Incident

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week I return to a ramp from my youth, one that taught me—the hard way—to always seek out the best quality.


I broke my first bone when I was eight. My cousin John and I had decided to build a bike ramp in his back yard. His mom was asleep, so we couldn't play inside the house, and we'd already read through his comics a dozen times before.

McCoy: Reflecting

A Disarming Story For You

We gathered a bunch of cinder blocks and boards from the shed my uncle was building and hauled them out to the top of the big hill behind the house.

I had a brand new Schwinn, and he had one of those heavy black Raleigh bikes from England. The boards were resting on the cinder block at about a 45-degree angle. I went first, on account of John being quite a bit smarter than me. I moved right up against his house to get the fastest start I could. I came at the ramp straight on and made it onto the board I was aiming at, which then promptly broke in half, and I crashed full speed into the cinder blocks.

Somehow I wasn't seriously injured, beyond a couple of scrapes and bruises. We rebuilt the ramp with a much, much lower angle this time. I went first again, again proving John was (and still is) much smarter than I am.

I hit the ramp at full speed again, and this time it held. I must have launched a good seven feet off the ramp, though at the time it felt closer to a hundred. I stuck the landing and shot down the hill faster than I'd ever gone before. I would have made it all the way down, too, if it hadn't been for a cinder block that had fallen down the hill when I crashed into the first ramp. My bike flipped over it, and I landed on my arm, breaking it just above the wrist.

How Far I Probably Fell

Both Arms Now Working Just Fine

John, meanwhile, hadn't bothered to watch me go down. When he saw me ramp, he just had to go himself. He used a different, longer board than I did. As soon as his back wheel hit the end of the board, it flipped up into the air like it were part of a catapult, flew through the air, and somehow managed to land on one end on my injured arm between the wrist and elbow, breaking it a second time before bouncing farther down the hill.

John had lost control of his bike after the failed ramp attempt. It came tumbling down the hill in loose pursuit of the board and landed right on top of me, which didn't feel too good. John was chasing his bike, but when it came to a sudden stop, he didn't, and he fell right on the bike, which forced all of that weight onto—yes—my injured arm again between the shoulder and elbow, breaking it a third time.

To add insult to injury, I got grounded for twice as long as John. There is one continuing advantage to the whole escapade, though: John always buys the beer when we go fishing. I guess he still feels a little bad.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Ramping Up For The 2019 Holidays

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy has apparently become a big fan of the IRS. I’d be concerned, though his perspective makes perfect sense.

Audit his words HERE.

Whipple Shielding

Preventing Satellite Debris

Space Junk

In 2013, director Alfonso Cuarón came out with Gravity, a movie about junk. Specifically, it's a movie about space junk.

In the film, a missile strike on a satellite results in a runaway chain reaction of collisions between space junk and satellites. This brings down space stations, satellites, and spacecraft left and right, rendering Earth's orbit useless to manned travel. 

Gravity is an excellent movie, and we’ll forgive a few scientific inaccuracies, since they're all in service of the plot. (Neil Degrasse Tyson, despite his multiple criticisms of the science, is a fan of the film.)

The threat in Gravity is a very real one. It's a scenario known as Kessler Syndrome, where space debris collides with space debris, generating more space debris, which collides with yet more space debris, until that specific orbit around Earth is so filled with debris that it is rendered nearly useless for human purposes. (Low Earth orbit is the most likely orbit to be lost to this process, though geosynchronous orbit is another possible victim.)

It's not astonishing that this is a serious concern for NASA and other space scientists. There are more than 2,000 satellites in orbit, about 1,500 of which are operational, along with nearly 18,000 trackable artificial objects.

Smaller objects are even more common—at least 29,000 chunks of debris in orbit that are more than 10cm in size, nearly 700,000 between 1-10cm in size, and 170 million chunks of debris below 1 cm in size.

Even with how spacious Earth's orbit is, there's a very high chance of impact, and at least one satellite is destroyed by debris every year. Space junk is a serious threat even if it doesn't trigger Kessler Syndrome.

Steps are being taken to combat the risk. We're tracking debris much more carefully than ever right now. The International Space Station and other spacecraft have special protective layers known as Whipple shield: instead of building hulls out of thicker material, engineers add an extra thin layer some distance over the regular hull. The layer isn't meant to stop the debris but to break it into smaller chunks. In essence, Whipple shield turns debris from a bullet into birdshot. It even makes the needed thickness for the inner hull much smaller, so overall spacecraft mass is actually reduced.

And this: we’re developing a technology known as a laser broom. Targeting a laser on debris will heat up one side of the debris. The resulting heat emissions will then alter and destabilize the debris' orbit, causing it to burn up in the atmosphere.

Like me, trying to make pizza.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Appreciating U.S. Industry

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy describes some select industries through a prism of how his yard ramps contribute:

Discover it HERE.

Lemmings Making Lemonade

About that r/K Selection

Lemming Culture

Not Really a Cliff-Diver

When you describe people as “behaving like lemmings,” most of us know what you mean (unless they're one of my grandchildren, who thought the word was “lemons”).

You're saying that the people are getting overwhelmed by mob mentality and preparing to launch themselves off a (let’s hope metaphorical) cliff because the rest of the crowd is doing likewise. Lemmings regularly commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs, so it's a good metaphor, right?

Well, that's not exactly what lemmings do.

There are two main reproductive strategies among sexually reproductive organisms—the r-selection and the K-selection. Roughly speaking, a K-selection is one that favors fewer offspring, with more care dedicated to each one. Whales and eagles are classic examples of K-selection. They tend to have longer lifespans, and occur in crowded ecosystems where more competition for resources is necessary.

On the other hand, r-selection centers around producing extremely high numbers of offspring, with less care invested in each. They tend to have shorter lifespans and tend to dominate unstable environments.

Lemmings are extreme r-selection strategists. Every few years, they tend to have truly massive population booms, which result in mass overpopulation. The lemmings react to this by undertaking mass migrations, which often compel them to swim across water, seeking new habitats. They sometimes...well, misjudge the size of the body of water in question, and try to swim across the Atlantic, or something of the sort, but they're definitely not committing mass suicide on purpose. That's something of an urban legend, in great part driven by a 1958 Disney film White Wilderness, in which lemming mass suicide was staged for the cameras.

So, we most definitely have a lot of room to develop good analogies about lemmings. Dire warnings about the dangers of overpopulation, perhaps, or warnings about the ease with which we transmit urban legends?

The way we’ve been using the term, however, is, um…rather lemming-like.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Ramping Up the Wheelhouse

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy tells the story of a transaction that involves an interaction between people and not an invoice, and it perfectly describes why we admire him so much.

Check out his great essay HERE.