Five Must Ride Climbs
By Mike Cotty
A Cannondale and Mavic brand ambassador and founder of The Col Collective, a platform that aims to educate and inspire through imagery, editorials and video, Mike Cotty has an extensive knowledge of the sport. A man of the mountains, there are very few iconic climbs Mike has not tackled. With that in mind we set him the task of picking out his five must do climbs, we were not left disappointed.
Col du Tourmalet (France) - 2115m
It took 7 years from the very first grand depart, from the Café Reveil-Matin, before the Tour de France introduced mountain stages to what was then an already ruthless endurance event navigating the perimeter of France. The Pyrénées were included at the insistence of Alphonse Steinès who, after nearly losing his life during the recon, declared the Col du Tourmalet ‘perfectly feasible’. Now of course it is, but before we had the luxury of modern day asphalt this mountain was a brute.
Octave Lapize, who declared Henri Desgrange and his colleagues ‘assassins’ for the inclusion of such a road, was the very first rider to crest the summit back in 1910. His efforts are celebrated today in the form of a giant silver statue that sits at the summit during the summer months. The Tourmalet drama didn’t end there, in 1913 Eugène Christophe (who was set to win the race) had to walk 10km and weld his own forks together after they broke during the descent to Ste-Marie-de-Campan. He still had two more climbs to go and got a time penalty for having help with the bellows. Needless to say there’s a statue of him too.
The Col Collective tackle the Col du Tourmalet
Whatever way you ride this climb it hurts. Sure, it’s an easier start from the Campan side but this leads you into a false sense of security until 12km to go when the enormity of the task hits you. I love this mountain, it’s now a local road and honestly, I never tire of riding it, well not mentally, my legs might tell you something different.
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Passo dello Stelvio (Italy) - 2757m
There are three sides to ascend Italy’s highest road pass, the 2,757m high Passo dello Stelvio, most famously from Prato, and it’ll have you feeling exhausted before you even start. The first 8km up to Trafoi has you believing you’re making progress, and of course you are, but a small sign with a '48' on it indicates just how many hairpins you have to the summit. It doesn’t get any easier, the despondence is swiftly replaced with getting your head down and dealing with the task at hand. The jaw dropping scale of the road comes into view, this is it, you’re riding the Stelvio.
I’ve ridden it many times now and it still gets me excited. Coming up from Bormio and you have a totally different ride, it’s still relentless but the scenery takes on a whole new character. Make sure you have lights, there are a few tunnels to get through and they are narrow, but once the ladder of tarmac appears ahead of you the true beauty reveals itself. The third side ascends from the west via the Umbrail Pass, generally the quieter side of the three.
Scenery to climb for
The reputation of the Stelvio makes this a must do climb for any mountain loving cyclist, but there’s no denying you need to start early. Get out before the drivers and moto riders have had their breakfast and you’ll have a much better day on the bike.
Trollstigen (Norway) - 852m
I’ve ridden in Norway twice now, the scenery on the first occasion was a little underwhelming. The weather didn’t play ball and aside from this, a nerve-wracking moment involving a blocked tunnel and Cyclist magazine’s Deputy Editor Stu Bowers (long story) left me not hugely desperate for more. Cue a few years later and all that was about to change.
It’s true a little sunshine makes the world a brighter place but when it reveals the Stigfossen waterfall (which I managed to ride past and barely notice on my first visit) it makes the world feel nothing short of magnificent. Riding from Åndalsnes, the Norwegian scenery is a novelty in comparison to the traditional chalets and farmhouses of the Alps and Pyrénées. Colourful wooden clad homes reflecting on crystal waters dotted around the rugged landscape had me mesmerised. It gets a bit touristy as you near the highlight of the climb, while trolls are a big thing here and you can’t help but smile at the charm.
Trolls and Waterfalls
The real reason for riding the Trollstigen soon comes into view, the Stigfossen waterfall. It crosses the road after 12km at the Stigfoss Brua *warning you will get wet. Often we enjoy water cascading off the mountains in the distance, but this one’s different. Its power is insane, it’s like nothing I’ve seen before, natures majesty at its very finest. Carry on up to the highest point for a journey alongside frozen lakes and snowcapped peaks and you’ll have experienced one of my most treasured climbs in the world.
Pico de las Nieves (Gran Canaria) - 1949m
Many of my winters have been spent exploring Gran Canaria. The island for me has an idyllic combination of reliable weather, challenging terrain and stunning scenery, which make for a perfect retreat when the northern hemisphere is under the big freeze.
Leave the Maspalomas holidaymakers relaxing on the beach with their piña coladas and head for the GC-60. Here you’ll find nestled in amongst the myriad of tiny roads the start of a monster 44km climb that takes you from sea level to 1949m.
A Winter Escape
The challenge itself rivals any of the great European stalwarts, but no other climb that I’ve ridden takes me from sand dunes, through canyons and desert landscapes to top out with a view of a volcano on a neighbouring island (Mt Teide, Tenerife). Pico de las Nieves (the peak of snow) is usually my first stop when I arrive and of course, a 44km climb means a 44km descent. Happy days!
Mt Evans (USA) - 4307m
(you read that right)
If like me you’re a sea-leveller (compassionate term used by Colorado residents for tourists) my advice would be don’t climb Mt Evans the day after you arrive in Denver, and we’ll make that a double warning if you fly in from Puerto Rico (the home of our cameraman). It was never actually my plan to do that either, but a potential road closure on our scheduled filming day meant a drastic change to the schedule so, unacclimatised, off we went to ride up to 4307m, that’s 500m shy of Mont Blanc where you’ll need crampons & ice axes to get that high!
This climb is massive in every way, just under 44km from the historic mining town of Idaho Springs with an elevation gain of 2116m. You pretty much start at the equivalent summit height of the Passo Giau in the Dolomites then continue on an upward trajectory until either the wind knocks you sideways or you run out of breathable air. We encountered both on our journey, our camera operator was fading at a rate of knots as he tried to sanely ask me to recall stats at 4000m yet aside from a headache, mild pneumonia and a few slurred words, the sea-levellers survived, cycling to the summit of the highest paved road in North America.
Climbing above the clouds
This was a truly unique experience and one that I will never forget, my advice - acclimatise, prepare for every season imaginable and enjoy the ride of a lifetime.
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