Top Pros’ Favorite Climbs
By James Startt w/images by Startt and Yuzuru Sunada
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Comparing climbs is like comparing the great one-day classics. Everyone, it seems, has their own take on which one is the hardest, or which one is the most beautiful. Europe, of course, is covered with classic climbs that have seen stages of some of the world’s greatest races, so we asked a few top professionals for some of their own preferences and insights. Here is what they had to say.
“I’ve had the privilege to travel a lot, but at the risk of sounding chauvinistic I have to say that we have some amazing places to ride in France, specifically in the Alps and Pyrénées. I really love the Alps, especially the northern Alps…where we have some good long climbs at high altitude. I would say that my favorite would be the Col de l’Iseran. We don’t race up it often but I go to Val d’Isère and I train on it a lot. The road up to the Iseran is just so picturesque. It’s a pretty accessible climb for riders at just about any level. It’s not that difficult, but it is just so beautiful.”
PELOTON’s perspective: The Col de l’Iseran is the highest paved mountain pass in Europe at 2,770 meters (9,088 feet). (Note: At 2,802 meters, the Bonette-Restefond is actually higher, but that elevation is reached by a paved road around the peak, while the actual pass that joins the two valleys in the southern Alps is at 2,715 meters). And while the Tour de France has climbed the Iseran on numerous occasions since World War II, it has never been the site of a stage finish. Perhaps the climb’s remote nature explains why it has never been an actual finish, as it is found at the very end of two mountain valleys: the Tarentaise and the Maurienne. For birds or planes, the Iseran is closer to Italy than it is to much of France. Its isolation, however, is also its strength because the views are simply stunning and the roads are less trafficked than some of neighboring climbs like the Galibier.
“The Peña Cabarga is where I won my first race as a professional so it obviously has really special memories for me. It’s not a super-long climb but it has some savage kicks towards the top. It obviously has suited me well because both times I’ve raced on it I ended up winning! The number of fans up there has been unbelievable. There are sections where they climb up on the banks at the side of the road [and] it’s like they are right on top of you. It’s so loud and you feel like you’re going through a tunnel, but they really support every rider. It’s great to have that kind of passionate support and for me it just adds to the magic of it.”
PELOTON’s perspective: In many ways, the Peña Cabarga is a classic Vuelta a España climb. Unlike Italy, which boasts countless long, steep climbs, many Spanish climbs, while plenty steep, are not necessarily as long. And at just under 6 kilometers, the Peña Cabarga climbs to only 599 meters (1,965 feet) above sea level. But with an average grade of more than 9 percent, and pitches at 18 percent, this is a grueling climb—plenty hard enough to destroy a weekend warrior or a Vuelta champion. The effort, however, is well worth it, because the views over the city of Santander and the Atlantic Ocean on the northern reaches of the country are simply outstanding.
“My favorite climb would have to be the Aubisque, where I won my stage in the Vuelta ã España. I got in the early breakaway and managed to stay out there. It was a very hot, very hard stage. Every climb is different, but the difficulty of a climb also depends on how it is raced, and I can tell you that that day we raced it hard! To be honest, I didn’t have time to look around and enjoy the scenery. It was only after the race, when we were coming down, that I actually was able to understand just how beautiful it is up there.”
PELOTON’s perspective: While Gesink climbed up the Aubisque from the west side, which is steeper, the climb from the east is by far the most spectacular. Climbing gently out of the village of Argelès-Gazost, the pitches rarely exceed 6 percent, only getting steep as it nears the Col du Soulor. From here you can drop back down toward Pau or you can continue along the frighteningly narrow road toward the Col d’Aubisque. This corniche road can only be described as a true cliffhanger, as only a low stonewall often separates the single-lane road from the bare cliffs dropping into an abyss known as the Cirque du Litor. Gazing out across the valley, one wonders about the hows and whys of this spectacular yet unlikely road. One can imagine that, for centuries, it was little more than a goat path. And still today goats and cattle are known to wander onto the road. It was only in 1860 that the Empress Eugénie convinced her husband Napoleon III to build an actual road that would join the thermal baths she was so fond of in Argelès-Gazost and Eaux-Bonnes. But while the road may have been constructed to satisfy the fancies of royalty, it became forever embedded in Tour de France mythology when race founder Henri Desgrange included it when the race first ventured into the Pyrénées in 1910. It has provided a spectacular setting for the race ever since and remains one of the most frequented climbs in the Tour’s history.
Richie Porte “For me, living in Monaco, the Col de la Madone is the best way to get home from a training ride. It’s a beautiful climb, about 12 kilometers at about seven-and-a-half percent, so you can cruise up it if you want—or go hard. And the weather is always a bit different than down on the coast. There can be fog or mist. And at one stage there were some shepherd dogs that would chase you. It’s just really a cool climb. For so many of us living and training in Monaco, the Madone is a real reference point. It’s where we go to monitor our training before a big race. The Madone taught me to suffer. And when I go to big races like the Tour de France, I compare every climb to the Madone. It’s a perfect reference point.”
PELOTON’s perspective: It is perhaps ironic that one of the world’s most respected climbs has never been climbed in the Tour de France, or any other grand tour. But the Col de la Madone has a special place in cycling. It has been the stomping ground to many of the world’s top professionals for decades. Situated in the backcountry behind Nice and Monaco, it is the closest real climb for many of the pros that flock to the Riviera coast. Lance Armstrong, of course, made the Madone famous—but others such as Swiss rider Tony Rominger frequented it well before and loads of others in the post-Strava world have followed. Consistently climbing at around a 7-percent grade, the steepest parts can be found at the lower levels, while the increasingly narrow road makes the climb trickier going up. This is also the likely reason that the Tour has never climbed up these back roads. But that is what makes the road so, well, exclusive. And then, of course, there are the privileged views. La Madone is where the French Alps meet the Mediterranean, and the views can be nothing short of breathtaking. On a good day, it is said, one can even see down to the Italian town of San Remo. It’s well worth the trip…and the climb!
“I can’t really give you one specific climb but I can tell you that when I think of climbing I think about the Dolomites. The Passo Pordoi, Passo Sella, Passo Gardena are all amazing and I could go on and on. I do not remember how many times I’ve dealt with some of these climbs but each time it’s like it was the first time. They are my kind of climbs, often long and always hard. They fit my characteristics, as I do not like short, explosive ascents. And I always prefer those races that offer more climbs in one day. The Dolomites are perfect for that, as there are so many possibilities. I also remember my victory at the Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the 2013 Giro d’Italia in the snow. And in my own training sessions, I have been doing the Passo San Pellegrino for a few years now. It is one of my absolute favorites. That climb in a breathtaking, natural setting just provides this amazing backdrop when you are out riding.”
PELOTON’s Perspective: The Dolomites are to the Giro d’Italia, what the Pyrénées are to the Tour de France with their historic link to the race. During World War I, the Dolomites represented the front line between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces, and a certain Ernest Hemingway was stationed in the town of Bassano del Grappa during much of the fighting. And starting in 1937, countless cyclists have battled for the Giro’s coveted pink leader’s jersey in these mountains. Their rugged character can be made even more difficult for the riders since the weather changes frequently. But such conditions are perfect for a rider like Nibali, who has a unique taste for improvisation when it comes to bike racing. And while Nibali likes to train on the San Pellegrino, his victory at the Tre Cime di Lavaredo will be remembered as one of his greatest triumphs. When the snows thickened as the riders climbed toward the finish line, Nibali simply powered away from his competition, consolidating his grip on the maglia rosa on the way to his first Giro d’Italia victory.
“I really love the Cormet de Roselend—it is just so beautiful with the mountain lake in the middle. But after last summer’s Tour de France, and riding through the Casse Déserte on my way to the stage victory, well the Col d’Izoard will mark me for the rest of my life!”
PELOTON’s perspective: Indeed, Barguil won an epic stage on one of the most epic climbs. The Izoard is the mantelpiece of the southern French Alps. Peaking at 2,361 meters (7,746 feet), cyclists spend much of the climb riding above the tree line. And while the climb out of Briançon is spectacular, it is the climb through the mythic Casse Déserte, with its near-lunar landscape that cannot be missed. It is here where Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali battled for Tour glory in 1949, with Coppi giving Bartali the stage victory as a sort of birthday present, while Coppi rode on to his first Tour victory. First climbed by the Tour in 1922, the race has now crossed the Izoard 35 times, although it has only finished on the summit once—last year.