Ernest Hemingway wrote: “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and can coast down them.” Hills and cols might make you work hard on a bike but they offer some of the best rewards, including great views, better fitness, personal satisfaction and the chance to freewheel at speed down the other side. And there will always be those hills (cols or passes, call them what you want) that cyclists talk about in revered tones. They are usually made famous by a professional race, especially the Tour de France, but sometimes it is word of mouth that brings these hill climbs to your attention. Why not plan to make 2016 your year or riding some of Europe’s famous cols? Here we suggest 10 great ones.
1) Col du Tourmalet, Hautes-Pyrénées, France
No list of cols in France can be written without mention of the Col du Tourmalet. It is the highest mountain pass in the French Pyrenees and has featured in the Tour de France more times than any other climb. The Tourmalet can be climbed from either the east or the west. The western side is longer at 19km and has a steeper average gradient of 7.4%. The eastern climb of 16.5km begins are a lesser gradient but includes sections of more than 10% over the final 10km.
2) Col du Galibier, Rhône-Alpes, France
Another French biggie, this col can be climbed from both sides although the traditional ascent is from the north. It starts at Valloire, in the Savoie department, and goes up and up for 17.6km at an average gradient of 7%. The founder of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange, apparently enjoyed seeing the riders suffer on the Galibier, which s why it has featured so many times in the famous Tour.
3) Alpe d'Huez, Oisans, France
Alpe d’Huez has featured many times in the Tour de France, Indeed, each of its 21 hairpins are named after professional riders who have been the first to make it to the summit of the 13.2km climb. The gradient is pretty much relentless from the start and the steepest sections are during the first 2kms of the climb, which begins at the valley town of Bourg d’Oisans, in the Isère department. The average gradient is 8% and the total elevation is just over 1000m.
4) Sveti Jure, Croatia
This climb is a cliff-hanger in the most literal sense. The climb to Sveti Jure at 1,743m offers a combination of thrills, views and heart-stopping drops as you round hairpin after hairpin. The climb is also long at 29.3km. You could round off your Island hopping: Dubrovnik to Split holiday with a climb of Sveti Jure.
Looking towards Mont Ventoux Summit.
5) Mont Ventoux, Provence, France
France has so many great cols including the Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux. There are a possible three routes to ascend and the route to the south via Bedoin is the most popular. Some people even try to ride all three ascents in one day as a special treat! Mont Ventoux starts fairly gently before it ups the steepness and leg-punishing toughness. The total length of the climb is 20km with an average gradient of 8%. The total ascent is around 1500m.
6) Sa Calobra, Majorca, Spain
This is an out-and-back climb that is said to be one of Europe’s most beautiful bike rides. First, riders ascend the opposite side of the mountain and then descend towards the sea on a road that is a dead end. You must then turn back and climb the route that you descended. The total length of the climb is 9.4km with an average gradient of 7% over 668m. If you can tear your eyes off the tarmac ahead the sea views are truly breath-taking. Macs Adventure cycling trip in Mallorca is Back Roads of Mallorca.
7) Passo dello Stelvio, Tuscany, Italy
The chances are you will have seen a photograph of the impressive Passo dello Stelvio with its 48 stunning hairpins on the eastern approach. It is a fabulously beautiful road but it is a true beat of a climb. That’s probably why so many cyclists want to attempt it! The ascent from Prato in the Province of Prato is 24km and rises from 931 to an epic 2,758m top. The average gradient is 8%. All this combines to make it one of the toughest bike climbs in Europe.
8) Loop of the Les Gavarres, Catalonia, Spain
If you fancy a few cols in one day how about this loop? The warm-up is the La Ganga pass (315m) before you ride the Romanya de la Selva (335m) and the Grau d’Ardenya (400m). The descent sweeps down to the coast and then on to the country lanes to Torroella de Montgri. This section of road has featured in stages of the Tour de France, as well as other professional races, the Vuelta Espana and Tour of Catalunya. The days’ cycle is 130km with 1346m ascent Road Cycling Catalonia: Coast, Cols and Pyrenees include the Loop of Les Gavarres as well as another pro’s favourite, the pass of Els Angels (484m).
9) Grüntenhütte, Germany
This climb is so ridiculous that the chances are you will need to get off and push your bike. The road climbs to 1,477m and includes gradients that reach 40%. If you can, look around as your ride (or push) and relish the spectacular views over the Allgäu Alps. You can reward yourself with a Bavarian lager available from the “Hütte” at the summit.
10) Bealach-na-Ba, Wester Ross, Scotland
A legendary UK climb is found in the north-west of Scotland at Applecross. Considered to be one of the toughest and wildest hill climbs, it offers the same engineering as the cols of the Alps and Pyrenees yet the weather is notoriously more fickle. The tight hairpin bends switch back and forth up the hillside and with gradients that approach 20%. Bealach-na-Ba – which means Pass of the Cattle – boasts the greatest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level to 626m and is the third highest road in Scotland. It is almost 9km long. ** This post was originally posted in November 2015 **