I’m from that weird, warped breed of cyclists who prefer to go uphill than down. You’ve seen us, sweating and swearing and grimacing all the way up, and then silently sat by the side of the road wearing a stupid, satisfied grin on our face at the top.
I have become obsessed by cycle climbs and I’m on a mission to knock off as many as I can while my legs will let me.
Here are my top five hardest cycle climbs in the world (so far), in order:
1 Pang La pass, Tibet
Difficulty: 10/10. Gradient profile: N/A.
A monster in every sense. It’s 20km long, ascends more than 1,000m and doesn’t even have Tarmac, just soul-crushing, momentum-sapping gravel. But they aren’t the worst things, as it’s the altitude that makes Pang La such a horrible, endless ordeal. Located deep in the Himalayas, close to Everest, it finally tops out at 5,150m – 340m higher than the summit of Mont Blanc. The thin air takes away all the energy you need for such an immense undertaking, leaving you chugging along at no faster than 3mph. It took me three-and-a-half hours to climb it and left me as close to the brink of submission as I’ve ever been on a bike. Epic, biblical, mammoth –adjectives don’t do it justice.
2 Lhakpa La pass, Tibet
Difficulty: 9.5/10. Gradient profile: N/A.
A near relative of Pang La pass and only beaten into top spot by virtue of its Tarmaced surface, Lhakpa La pass is actually higher, at 5,248m, and longer, at about 23km. This too climbs more than 1,000m and the altitude leaves you so fatigued and short of breath that I had to stop every half-mile or so to allow my air back into my lungs and strength back into my beleaguered muscles. Another chug-fest, another three-and-a-half hour marathon, another hellish hill.
3 Winnats Pass, Peak District
Difficulty: 9/10. Gradient profile – click here
At about 1.6km in length, this is by far the shortest climb on my list and admittedly a surprise choice ahead of the French giants, but I’ve never ridden on a hill so physically difficult and demanding just to get from start to finish. In parts the gradient exceeds 25%, meaning if you have to stop – either due to sweat trickling into your eyes and blinding you, or pain tearing through your thighs – it’s virtually impossible to get going again. Therefore, show one hint of weakness and you’re finished. Every degree of every revolution of the pedals has to be fought for and earned and the whole experience is pure agony. Both times I’ve climbed it, the aforementioned sitting at the side of the road grinning stupidly came after I’d spent five minutes sprawled out on a patch of grass recovering. Each time it took me 11 minutes to climb, every second of which was complete, unrelenting carnage.
4 Mont Ventoux, France
Difficulty: 8/10. Gradient profile – click here
Ventoux is arguably the most revered climb on the planet after claiming the life of the legendary Tom Simpson in 1967, while Lance Armstrong once described it as “the hardest climb in the Tour bar none”. For me, the so-called Giant of Provence is beaten only by the altitude of the Tibetan titans and sheer steepness of Winnats Pass. Ventoux climbs a sobering 1,600m over its 22km course and with not a single flat section, you have to earn every centimetre the hard way. Nothing comes for free. Once above the tree line, you also have to contend with the elements, which are as inhospitable when the weather is good as they are when it’s bad. On a clear summer’s day the sun rebounds back off the bare, white rock and bakes you, while on a bad day the Mistral wind whips up and drives you back, biting away at any exposed skin. It took me two-and-a-half hours on my mountain bike, the last 20 minutes of which I was doing little more than hanging on and surviving.
5 Alpe d’Huez, France
Difficulty: 7/10. Gradient profile – click here
A legendary and spectacular Alpine climb, it’s gloves off with Alpe d’Huez the moment you set rubber on it. Turn the corner from the feeder road and you’re straight on to a 13% incline. In fact, the hardest part is the first four or five ramps, meaning you’re never again at full strength from that point on. The climb is made up of hairpins and while there’s a flat part at each bend, which allows minimal recovery time, the straights in between are never easier than 9% or 10% gradients. These small battles repeat over and over for the entire 13km of what is a savage, pulsating climb.
Five climbs I want to tackle next: Stelvio Pass (Italy), Mortirolo Pass (Italy), Monte Zoncolan (Italy), Alto El Angliru (Spain), Col du Tourmalet (France).