A strange addiction. Climbing to the skies, slow motion, pain, body revolting, hour after hour of mental questions. Why am I climbing this mountain?
We’re a strange bunch us cyclists. Speeding along dressed in tights, bottoms padded, riding great distances much to the bemusement of non-cyclists.
To them it’s unfathomable that riding up a mountain, a mountain for god’s sake, can be pleasurable. If only they knew.
What is it we find so appealing climbing over these hulking chunks of rock? The views we miss staring at our stem? The thrilling descent, cold and shivering, arms tired from constant braking. The pure mountain air, so thin near the summit we struggle to breathe?
The achievement perhaps? The first time maybe but what makes us return? Bragging rights? Surely not.
For me it’s the aura of the mountains, that feeling, that sense you get of being so small and insignificant against a monumental backdrop that has existed through the aeons, which, despite its frozen face is still alive, still growing, standing tall against the elements, constantly changing amidst the shadows as it reflects the skies, the view renewed morning, noon and night, isolated yet visible for miles around.
Spiritual. I may have missed my calling as a shaman.
What makes a good mountain climb?
Yet not all mountains are equal. We all have a favourite mountain. Many defer to Ventoux, a climb I find so boring I prefer the mini lumps and bumps of Yorkshire. Yet ask me about summit views and Ventoux tops the lot. That view of Mont Blanc in the distance, spectacular, you, stood on a mountain separate to the ranges in the distance, views for miles.
I’ve not climbed a huge number of mountains, the famous Alpine climbs of the Tour de France, the mighty beasts of the Giro d’Italia, the mid-mountains of Majorca. The Pyrenees and climbs of the Vuelta Espania are missing from my collection, along with the hundreds of lesser known climbs still to be discovered, Romania or Slovakia perhaps. The Andes chain in South America. I can dream.
Even so it is difficult to point to a favourite climb. Each climb has its own personality, each a moment that challenges and inspires in equal measure. The horror gradients of Monte Zoncolan that scare your limbs into action, the shock of an ice cold tunnel on the summit of Passo Giau, or the crazy rollercoaster loops of Sa Calobra in Majorca.
The many variables mean no two climbs will feel the same. Heck, the same climb will change on different days, on different legs. When judging a climb we are not judging the mountain but the experience. Our experience.
Mountain weather can mean many experiences in just one climb, let alone repeat visits. The wind, rain and heat will add or detract from your experience. The animals you see, a fluffy fox on the Stelvio, a marmotte on Alpe du huez.
And then there’s that little variable that is you. And my oh my how we vary. How hard you climb, how tired you are, the climb where you ran out of food, or the one where you decided to chase the thin whippet up ahead with disastrous consequences.
The type of rider you are also plays a part too. Punchy or stamina based? Are you wearing enough clothes, too many? How big was your breakfast? All variables that will make or break the climb.
Not to mention the many different routes up a mountain. Most have two, some three, some more. How to choose? Just because a famous race tackles one side doesn’t mean it’s the best.
So the below is not necessarily a rank of climbs, but a rank of experiences.
Best mountain climbs
1. Zoncolan, Italy
It’s odd to me that the Zoncolan is top of the tree. A murderous climb, a leg breaker I almost didn’t ride as I thought it would be a sufferfest and nothing more. Yet the five hour round car trip was worth it. Body at peak fitness, I found my zen zone and rode this climb well within my limits, marvelling at the ever increasing gradient yet barely noticing the 1km stretch of 20%. The novelty of the narrow tunnels near the summit, the big reveal when leaving the darkness to a world full of views and mountains after climbing amongst the trees for so long. Elation.
2. Stelvio Pass (classic side), Swiss, Italian, Austrian borderlands
There’s a mystical beauty to this climb purely because it seems unfeasible that such a road could or should exist. The steady gradient of the Stelvio Pass demands you find a rhythm, a steady pace to winch your way up the incredible 48 hairpins, each twist and turn dropping your jaw ever nearer the floor. Beautiful, heart-achingly beautiful.
3. Beleach na ba, Scotland
Beleach na ba is perhaps the UK’s only true mountain pass. Isolated, climbing towards the lonely coastal village of Applecross from Tornapress, this Scottish Goliath delivers incredible views, hairpins, steep gradients and a weather roulette. An oddity in the UK, I felt privileged to be able to climb so high on the single track road, to enjoy the views of the Cuillin mountains in the distance on the Isle of Skye. Magical.
4. Col du Glandon, French Alps
My visit to the French Alps was largely disappointing. True I prefer short and sharp climbs like those found in the UK rather than slow and steady mountain passes. Yet the Glandon stood out for me, following the Romanche valley, the scenery constantly changing, incredible views at the top of snow capped peaks and ice-cold turquoise lakes on the descent of the other side.
5. Sa Calobra, Mallorca
The Mallorcan mountain road designed by a child. Loop de loop, forever twisting and turning, a writhing road trying to escape its rocky captor. There’s not much in the way of views on Sa Calobra, this short climb is one to hit hard and spin around each successive corner ever quicker. You will no be able suppress a child-like grin when descending and climbing.
Top 5 worst mountain climbs
A bad climb sees us endure a variety of emotions not too dissimilar to the five stages of grief: denial (I’m fine, there’s not much further to go), anger (I hate myself, cycling and this bloody mountain), bargaining (Please, just please let it end), depression (the world is mad, I’m mad) and acceptance (I’m not enjoying this at all but it’s not like I’m ever giving up so might as well just get on with it). In fact, it’s quite likely we’ll run through this cycle at least four times a minute up a bad climb!
Also revealing was the fact I have no photos of these climbs – experiences I wanted to forget. Once again, these climbs are bad because of my experience rather than the climb per se.
1. Ventoux, France
Perhaps it was the 4am rise to ride 40 miles to the base of the climb? Or the impending illness that would strike just 24 hours later. Or the weather, too good, pleasant in fact, little sign of the heat and monster winds battled by those who have struggled up this mountain. Perhaps because this was my first true mountain climb? Or perhaps I never attacked the climb enough to suffer? Or maybe, just maybe Ventoux is boring.
Truth is I was disappointed with this climb. Perhaps the myths had raised my expectations. I do regret not riding harder, after all this is a climb to suffer, not enjoy, right? The one redeeming feature of Ventoux is the summit view. Incredible.
2. Alpe d’Huez, France
Historic for sure, plenty of hairpins too, yet not a climb for me. Too famous for its own good. Alpe d’Huez is busy with traffic, crappy views on the way up and the finish, ha what’s that all about? No real summit to speak of, just a big car park and an assortment of ugly ski chalets.
It probably, well most definitely, didn’t help that I was stopped by a traffic light on the way up. Ha. Nor the fact I was routed through a busy market near the top. Not when I was riding full gas. A climb that was not to be!
3. Col du Chaussy, French Alps
A case of one climb too many. Day 3 of climbing mountains. The whimsical hairpins of Lacets de Montvernier and the lovely Col d’Madeleine already making for heavy legs on a blisteringly hot day, with temperatures hitting 38c. Not the time for another climb.
Yet the Col du Chaussy called simply because it was on the way home. Sure I could have just rolled back but a left turn to climb to the skies once again was hard to resist. The sketchy route profile in my head reassured me this was just a little lump to be navigated on the way home. My body quickly disagreed.
Bonking within a mile or two, the remainder of the climb was spent slumped over the stem. You know you’re cooked when you find yourself constantly standing only to sit down exhausted moments later. And repeat. A twisting, turning ascent, levelling off, dipping, only to climb again, no end in sight on the single track road. Beam me up Scottie.
4. Puig Major, Mallorca
Another climb on tired legs. Day four of mountain climbing, another blisteringly hot day, another slog up a climb that never seemed to end. Few hairpins to relieve the monotony. I’m sure these climbs would be very different on fresh legs. Even the sight of the turquoise waters at the summit couldn’t cheer me. I hated myself, cycling, and the world goddamit. Exhausted.
5. Passo delle Erbe, Dolomites
There’s a theme here. Day four of climbing in the Dolomites. Legs not quite dead but very far from fresh. The day began well with a 40 minute descent, 40 minutes! This can mean only one thing. It’s a long way back home and the only way is up. This climb has stunning views of the Funes valley but I was long since shot by this point. A puncture near the summit confirmed what my legs already knew. It was not my day.
What about you, what do you love about riding up mountains and which would be your best or worst?