Top Five Cols
Some words to try and describe "Mountain Magic"
A pick of five favourites
CCC Appennini :
It’s our first proper mountain of this event, satelite masts ‘n all at the top. We’ll tackle it from a new side this time, via a tiny (tarmac) track, before we come out to the open windswept top, complete with wild horses and infinity views. The descent is another affair : this is the side kept open in winter for the crowds of cross-country skiers. So the road is wide and slowly sweeps around the land’s contours : a perfect, safe and very fast 15 minutes of fun.
The much-feared legendary climb of this region. Sure it’s got some tough passages, a few longer- than-comfortable 10-12% stretches, but the views soon make the effort worthwhile. Numerous small piles of rocks witness determined ‘farming’ to improve the grazing quality of the tussocky grass. Trees become stunted ; the road surface deteriorates, then we arrive at the fortress-like Auberge that marks the beginning of the final up & back five kms. The road stops at a small group of satellite masts, but we carry on to the « proper » top. Last time we squeezed through a narrow section of sort-of-tarmac peeping through the stubborn snow-drifts who seemingly refused to melt away. I have to use that word : « epic » !
In total contrast, this one is not on any bucket list. After more than an hour on a road designed for cars but seemingly never actually used by them, riding deeper and deeper into a dense forest ( National Parkland), the road narrows but tarmac actually improves : we’re now en route towards a monastery reknowned for it’s Pharmacy – huge walls covered in wooden drawers full of medicinal plants inside. ( I took something but I didn’t seem to climb any faster….) Then follows a short section of ‘tame’ gravel and we’re there : nowhere ! Fabulous.
Vado di Sole
When I drove this on the route recon, with Claire my wife, we were both aghast looking at the scale of the beauty in front of us. On the event, at the end of this stage, one rider said that he had suffered so much on this climb that when he saw the landscape which so generously opens out at the top, he thought he had actually died and was in Paradise. I’ll say no more.
Mid-stage we get this treat. I have been through few woodlands as beautiful as this. The road seems to take it’s time too, as slowly it winds it’s way through various tree families, with occasional forest streams cascading through huge randomly-placed rocks. The combination of the graceful road design, the rocks around which the trees have learnt to grow, and the following sweeping descent after a brief plateau at the top made this a very special moment.
CCC Northern Alps :
I hesitated about talking about this one. Despite having gradient/ kilometre markers ( lots of double-digits) like famous climbs, this one remains a local secret. Maybe because it’s an up&back ? Fact is, it’s got it’s own family of satellite masts like all the best climbs at the top, saves the steepest section for the last two kms, and has quite simply the BEST view of the Alps that I have ever found. And like all the best ones, it’s T-o-u-g-h !
Another obscure one, yet right in the middle of the Aravis massif. Which ever side you take this one on, it’s going to stay with you forever. Both sides offer cramped switchbacks on a narrow thread of tarmac that leads you to such a wonderful open space at the top. There is a café. It is even open sometimes. Not often though. This is France, after all ! This is one of my very favourite moments of this event. 3.
There are techincally four ways of climbing this one. The Tour took the pro’s up « our » side last time, and many complained. David Millar, had he been riding still, would have thrown his bike away again ! There is quite a tough 2 kms of 18+% before the open approach to the summit starts. The view over to Mont Blanc is pretty spceial too, at the top. This is the King Climb of the Ain region, which we explore fully on stages 1 & 2. It’s attention paid by ASO in recent years (three appearances in the Tour in seven years) is so deserved. 4.
One of many climbs I remember so well from the first time I explored the Vercors region. Not the most dramatic, but it does have a bit of road carved out of overhanging rock (photo on CCC homepage) and the best spring I know of, at the foot of a very ancient oak tree, deep in the forest. Part one climbs a rock-face ; part two is a forest ‘road’. Perfect !
I have to refer to this one again, because it has to be one of the most anticpated moments for CCC N Alps riders. Rightly so. It is very unique ; very talked about ; and very Italian. You can sense that it’s going to be special in Susa, with Giro murals brightly painted on village walls, a little like in Ovaro, at the foot of the Zoncolan. These are ‘signs’ that drama is close. With three distinct sections to enjoy, this climb quite simply HAS to be ridden, as much as Ventoux, Galibier and Tourmalet do
CCC Dolomites :
Tre Cime di Lavaredo
A 200km day on the bike that starts with the Monte Zoncolan and yet saves it’s most impressive climb for last has got to be a pretty special one. Stage four of this event brings riders into the heart of the Dolomites National Park with an up&back Natural Wonder that starts at the Misurina lake. Motorised traffic is limited by a toll bridge ; the pedalled type is limited by the severity of the slopes. But for the brave, the experience is worth so much more than the effort required. The small car park at the top, where the road ends, stands in the shadow of one of the most impressive walls of rock of the area. Unmissable.
In a smiliar way to the Tre Cime, this climb also ends a stage that is full of Names in a true ‘Finale Spectacular’. Stage five is THE Dolomites stage. But to reach our hotel means poking our way through a steep,deep, narrow gorge ( which the Giro remarkably usually uses whenever they take on this Giant) and then dealing with a morale-crunching two kms of straight road at 10-12% before the road engineers showed us some mercy and put in some glorious switchbacks to lure us up to the unique summit with one of the most picturesque mountain lakes of this region. The descent to our hotel, and a rest day, is another part of our reward !
This climb is often cited by CCC Dolomites riders as one of their favourites of the event. I’m in with them too. ( The Giro is back on it this year.) Yet it’s neither exceptionally dramatic by it’s vistas, nor by the road itself. It’s long, at a good 23kms, and for the most part, wooded. But the variety of woodland, the gentle progression of the climb, from do-able to challenging, and the final four kilometres, combine to work a magic spell on the rider. Mountain drama appears almost from nowhere at the top. A favourite for motorbikes : our descent side shows you why. One of the best descents for us of the whole event.
One of the longest climbs of the event, with several steep sections, as usual, but with possibly the greatest change in scenery of any of them. From a narrow valley, we climb up through rocky outcrops, quickly gaining elevation. Deep woodland then swallows us, with welcome shade and mountain streams, before we turn a sharp left and go UP again, dramatically. This effort takes us out into the start of wide open grazing land, where some woodland hangs on stubbornly. But soon the trees give up and tussocky grass is all that’s left. Our top is in sight well before we arrive, in thanks due to an impressive Albergo situated perfectly on the col. This climb always has a strong sense of ‘journey’ for me.
How could I not add this King Climb to this short-list ? I would choose to ride this any day rather than the Stelvio. We will not know until the day before we ride whether the Gods will let us over this Passo. It’s a savage place at all times. But one of the best roads you can ever hope to take on a bike.
CCC West Pyrenees :
A « Beautiful Monster ». This climb tidies up stage two, after a true Basque Bashing and yet it manages to impress above all that came before. It’s steep, of course, but it’s long too. In fact it is quite impossible to make out the top until you are almost there. But it will have taken you up into these wide open grazed hills, where only horses, sheep and their hardy shepherds roam. Roads are narrow and follow high ridges before often plunging down scarily into the valleys below. They provide, quite simply, the best roads to ride on that I know of. Anywhere.
Another « beast » of the Pyrenees, which gives us two ascents during our event ( stages 3 & 9). We first climb it on it’s ‘hidden’ side, which is less tough but more picturesque. Then, on stage 9, we take it on it’s classic side. I love this climb because of the way it cunnningly disguises it’s cruel gradients by edging up the side of the hill, crossing contours without anyone but cyclists and walkers noticing. It curves like a cunning snake, luring riders into it’s painful trap. The gradient gets harsher and harsher. Shade is a dream away. Fantastic !
This climb is a long way up and a long way back down. But the road gives us some of the most spectacular views in the Pyrenees. There is rarely any traffic to interrupt the peace. The road takes us to within eyesight of the Spanish border, with a vista there to make it all so worthwhile. A climb that all cyclists should pay hommage to !
There are three ways up this – one a 10km gravel pain-fest, which we rode in 2017, by mistake ( !), in the rain. Another includes a 18-20% section that we used to have to ride on gravel, but has since been paved. And then the way we ride now : a longer road that takes us sharply out of Sarrancolin, before exploring the valley woodland. The fresh green woods though soon let us go and we head up into the hotter ramps of the steeper part of this climb. But it’s the top which this climb is all about : one of my all-time favourite place to admire the Pyrenees cattle and horses. They are always there waiting for us !
This is the highlight of stage ten. A unique Spanish concrete road climb with another satellite mast top. « Contador » is still just about readable on it’s slopes, thanks to a one-time visit by the Vuelta. The views are one thing ; the heat is another. But the final kilometre is something else ! We always spend a while at the top here. We know this is our final « proper top » of the event and we also recognise how lucky we are to be there together.