There have been many stories and books written about the grandest, most spectacular climbs in Europe. With such greats as Zoncolan, Angliru, Mortirolo, Colle della Fauniera, Gavia, Colle delle Finestre, Alpe d’Huez, Col du Galibier, Plateau de Beille, Col du Tourmalet, Col du Glandon and Croix de Fer, we could argue until we’re blue in the face which are worthy of monumental status. We try to classify them by length, gradient, altitude and other metrics in order to quantify their difﬁculty, yet what makes one climb more remarkable than another is a matter of perspective. So, we asked a handful of retired pros what three European climbs are most monumental to them.
At nearly 8700 feet in elevation, the Gavia Pass typically receives the Cima Coppi designation (highest point of the race) when used in the Giro d’Italia. Factoring in the climb’s lung-searing elevation and 7.9-percent average gradient for 10.7 miles, it’s easy to see why it ranks among the hardest Italian climbs under the very best of weather conditions.
“To me, you have to climb this at least once if you want to call yourself a cyclist. And preferably, it should be done in sub-freezing temperatures like it was when Andy Hampsten rode it to win the famous Giro D’Italia stage in 1988. Talk about a special day, but one that was off the charts in terms of suffering. And back then the peloton was made up of tough guys, so for those of us who ﬁnished, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that we were tougher— maybe just more tenacious. I was blue at the ﬁnish and remember being so cold that I was afraid that if I stopped on the road that I would freeze to death. “There are two sides to the climb, and they are both back-breakers. On that day in the Giro we descended into Bormio, but if I ever did it again, I would go in reverse and start in Bormio, which I think makes it a better ride.”
Muro Di Sormano
“The Wall of Sormano was featured in the Tour of Lombardia for just a few years in the 1960s before being removed because of its brutality. At only one mile in length, the climb gains 856 feet with pitches of 25 percent and an average of 16 percent. It has since returned to the Tour of Lombardia and was used in the 2015 edition, where Thibaut Pinot set the Strava KOM at a whopping 7.3-mph average speed.
“This is an old, forgotten climb located in the mountains near Lake Como in northern Italy that was once the proving grounds of such titans as Fausto Coppi and Eddy Merckx when it was used in the Tour of Lombardia. The climb was eventually dropped from the race when it was deemed too steep and narrow. Sormano holds a special place for me, thanks to one day back in 1989 when I was riding for 7-Eleven and living in Como.
“On that day Claudio Chiappucci and I went off exploring trying to ﬁnd the climb, and when we got to the town of Sormano he started asking the locals, but they just looked at him like he was from a different planet! Well, we ﬁnally found it near the Madonna del Ghisallo and it was in complete disrepair, having not been used at all for years. Half of the road was actually dirt. I think one thing that makes it so memorable for me was that Claudio and I found it as just two young pro riders out exploring without the help of Google Maps! Although short in length, it’s a climb that is steeped in the history of the sport, which is what makes it so special.”
Col du Galibier
“At 8,678 feet the Col du Galibier is one of the highest passes in the Alps and has regularly been featured in Tour de France routes since 1911. The Galibier can be tackled from the north or the south, with the north side being the more popular option. Starting in Valloire, it climbs 11 miles with an average grade of 6.9 percent.
“This climb is so beautiful and the passes are so ancient. Long before the Tour de France raced through these parts, Hannibal came through here with his elephants! The climb is hard but manageable, and it’s actually a well- engineered and -constructed road. The Galibier has played such a big part in the Tour de France that you easily recognize the many iconic parts of the road that have been the battleground for so many epic duels. This is a climb where you can’t help but picture yourself turning pedals alongside Pantani, Froome and Quintana. The good thing about climbing the Galibier is that it isn’t so hard that you can’t ﬁnd some time to reﬂect on life, which is an important thing to do on the bike.”
Col du Galibier
“It just demands respect. It’s no accident that the plaque paying respect to the founder of the Tour de France is on the slopes of the Galibier. It’s arguably the most famous climb in cycling, even more so than Alpe d’Huez in my opinion, because it’s higher, it’s a pass, and the summit is so sharp! It was an honor to race over it numerous times in the Tour. I couldn’t help but feel like part of history doing so.”
The 13.5-mile climb (from the south side) is reputed to be among the toughest there is due to the bleak, exposed landscape and extreme winds that the climb is named after. It’s also the place where Briton Tom Simpson died during the 1967 Tour, now marked with a statue to memorialize him.
“It started for me as a 13-year-old watching the 1987 Tour de France time trial on TV. It didn’t seem real, the way it stuck out of the plains of Provence, towering 2000 meters above. My first time riding it was during reconnaissance prior to my first Tour de France in 2002. I rode it with Michael Boogerd, just the two of us, someone whom I had watched on TV and really looked up to. He demolished me that day, but it could’ve been due to the fact I was awestruck to be riding such a legendary climb. It was intimidating to say the least. Afterwards, during the Tour and subsequent Dauphiné Liberés, I always performed well and got inspired by it. I’ll never forget that Tour stage in 2002; it was a 220 kilometer day, and you could see Mont Ventoux the entire first 200 kilometers looming ahead.”
The Rettenbachferner is in the Austrian Alps, and when used during the Tour of Germany was the highest finish of any European race at 8,776 feet in elevation. It’s not only the altitude that makes the Rettenbachferner a memorable ascent; it’s also the fact that the 7.5 miles of climbing comes at an average gradient of 10.7 percent—ouch!
“I’m partial to this beast, because winning it en route to my 2005 Tour of Germany overall was one of the highlights of my career. I defeated one of the greatest cyclists of all time that day, Jan Ullrich. The stats, the beauty and the relative obscurity of the most underrated climb in Europe rank it among my top three.”
Compared to the high-altitude mountain passes, the Oude Kwaremont might not seem like such a beast, yet it’s a mainstay cobbled climb featured in the Tour of Flanders each year. It’s not as steep as the Koppenberg’s 22-percent pitches, but it is the longest of the cobbled climbs in the race at 1.4 miles in length.
“Its name alone just screams toughness to the cycling world! Oude looks like a dude, and the Kwaremont most certainly is a dude of a climb. It is ﬁerce. Maxing out at 11 percent, it just goes and goes and goes—okay, it’s only 2 kilometers and change—like a kick to the teeth. Tons and tons of drunk Belgians are there to spur you on. It’s truly one of a kind.”
From the Catalonian village of Montseny, the Montseny Massif range has numerous climbs to choose from. Climbing to the summit of the Turó de l’Home, the highest peak in Montseny Massif, will have you going up for 11 miles at an average grade of 7 percent.
“Having lived in Girona for six years I came to love and embrace the Catalan culture, the friendships, the entire way of life there. I became very good friends with Greg Henderson, and I always knew that when I did a big smasher with Hendy, it would be something epic. When an authentic Mexican restaurant ﬁnally came to town, the owner/ chef Arturo, Greg and I would gauge the intensity of the ride in increments of burritos: ‘That was a two-burrito ride!’ really hit the nail on the head for when we smashed a big one. Montseny was a big one from Girona where you had to dedicate at least six hours to make it a great day. Long, always-crazy weather, then a breathtaking summit—it’s a two-burrito ride for sure.”
Although not famous as a featured climb in a major professional race, Monte Serra, located outside of Lucca, Italy, is a hot spot for local riders and Tuscan cycling tours. Climbing from Pieve di Compito you’ll be in for 4.3 miles that averages a very challenging 9 percent. Looking at the Strava leader board you’ll see a number of pros that have tested themselves on Monte Serra.
“I called Lucca, Italy, home for two years as I sharpened my Italian linguistic skills and ducked and weaved my way through the Italian cycling culture. Monte Serra is southeast of Lucca and lives in Italian cycling lore for the number of threshold tests that have been conducted on its sinuous roads. There are three routes to the top—Pieve di Compito, Buti, and Calci—each with different characteristics and each outstanding in its own right.”
Perhaps the most famous climb in all of cycling, Alpe d’Huez features 21 switchbacks along the 8.6-mile ascent up to the ski resort at the summit. When included in the Tour de France, which is about every second year, the climb ﬁlls days ahead of time with spectators numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Switchback number seven is home to Dutch Corner, where thousands of Dutch fans come out to support their countrymen.
“In my life I did the most difﬁcult climbs on the WorldTour program, and although there are probably other climbs more difﬁcult in Malaysia or Colombia, without the fans they lost part of their signiﬁcance. My ﬁrst time on Alpe d’Huez was in 2003, and I was really nervous because there were so many people! I ﬁnished 10th in the sprint with Jan Ullrich and Roberto Heras that day.”
Going from the small community of Mazzo di Valtellina, the Mortirolo climbs for 7.7 miles at an average gradient of 10.5 percent. It’s regarded as one of the outright most difﬁcult climbs in pro cycling. On the way up you’ll ﬁnd a monument in honor of Marco Pantani that was erected after his death in 2004.
“The ﬁrst time I used a 25-tooth cassette was for the Mortirolo stage at the 1999 Giro d’Italia! For me, it was really difﬁcult, because it was at the end of my ﬁrst Giro, and I did a really good Giro.”
North of Verona, Italy, there’s a small town called Peri, and that’s where you’ll ﬁnd the Peri to Fosse climb. Ten switchbacks take you up the ﬁve-mile ascent that averages 9 percent in gradient. Although it’s not one of the more famous Italian climbs, it was used in the 2008 Giro d’Italia.
“This was the climb where I tested my condition during my training. Peri-Fosse is nine kilometers at an average of 8.9 percent and a max of 15 percent. This isn’t an easy climb, but the panorama is magical. And on that climb I spent a lot of time imagining myself in a race.”