There are some mountains that are cycling royalty, the bucket list climbs that everyone knows and are steeped in Grand Tour history. While they are classic climbs for a reason, it's often the local secret gems that are the highlight of a cycling trip. We have scoured the main mountain ranges in Europe to identify our favourite ten climbs off the beaten path.
Hospice de France: Pyrenees
Never featured in the Tour de France, this narrow, steep road out of Luchon in the Pyrenees leads to a remote mountain hostel popular with hikers. The first part of the climb follows the road up to Superbagneres and after a left fork the road gets narrow and very tough. The last 4km rarely dips below 11% with steep straight sections and nasty hairpins. The road goes past waterfalls in dense forest and only opens out at the very top. This is the final climb in a popular French youth race, you will be doing very well if you have the ability to attack your riding mates on this brutal climb,
Luchon is an incredible town for climbing. There are no less than 6 long Pyrenees climbs straight out of town including the Peyresourde, Portillon & Port de Bales. A great spot for a short break.
Tre Cime di Lavaredo: Dolomites
Staying with steep and beautiful climbs, they don't come in much more extremes than Tre Cime di Lavaredo. The Dolomites are less well known than the Alps & Pyrenees and a lot of riders come here for either the fantastic Maratona dles Dolomites or a Raid across the whole mountain range. This climb is often missed which is a crime as it is possibly the most spectacular in Europe. Literally meaning three peaks, the Tre Cime rock formation can be seen for miles around and are very popular with hikers and climbers. The ride here starts from the mirror lake in Misurina and is a one way road to a restaurant near the rock formation. This is a very tough climb with the last 4km averaging over 12%.
You can ride the Tre Cime on a quite long day from our favourite base town in the Dolomites, Corvara, or you can add this as part of a tour of the Dolomites. Highly recommended to add to your col collection.
Coll d'Honor: Mallorca
Mallorca is packed with great climbs and with so many riders in a small area it is hard to get off the beaten path. We love the climbs in the middle of the island including Puig Randa, but to escape completely our favourite pass is Coll d'Honor, a short climb out of Bunyola. Most of the other riders are heading to Soller leaving this short, remote climb for the locals particularly early in the morning or late in the afternoon. The climb is not tough - 5.5km averaging 6% and follows a stream before some sharp hairpins take you to the summit. Over the other side, the descent is fun taking you into a very remote part of the island through the hamlet of Orient (population 33) before spitting you back out into the real world.
The Coll d'Honor can be included in a loop ride from Port de Pollensa going up to Lluc, over the Puig Major to Soller and then the Coll de Soller to Bunyola. From here, head over our climb and then home.
Cormet de Roselend: Alps
A famous climb but sometimes missed out from the classic climbs of the Alps. The Roseland has been in the Tour nine times and there are three ways up. This is an unmissable climb for it's beauty, 3km from the top there is a turquoise Alpine lake that is as stunning as anything we have seen from a bike. Our favourite way up is from Bourg St Maurice, a 19km climb averaging 6% with steady gradients the whole way up, find your rhythm and enjoy! The bottom section is in the forest following the river before you hit your first section of tight hairpins. After this the climbs open up into high meadow with cows for company (they are busy making the milk for Beaufort cheese). Past a campsite you can see the hairpins all the way to the top at just under 2,000m. Over the col there is a cafe and then soon into the descent to Beaufort you will see the lake.
This climb is on the Route des Grandes Alpes or if you have less time, a short break staying in Bourg St Maurice or Megeve would allow you to do this great climb.
Luz Ardiden: Pyrenees
Luz Ardiden has been used as a stage finish a full 8 times in the Tour so is not as off the beaten track as some of these others but is still an overlooked climb in the area. The top 5km of Luz Ardiden (pictured above) is one of our all time favourite spots to ride and a great spot to race your mates if you are evenly matched. The road starts at the bottom of the Tourmalet and is a one way up to a small ski station. It is a long climb at 15km but rarely steep, averaging 7% most of the way up. The highlight is the top 5km where the views open up and you can see the top. In your way are all the hairpins you could ever want, all at a nice gradient allowing you to smash it and sprint to the finish line.
The climb can be added to a Circle of Death ride or as a great finish to a Tourmalet ride. Our preference is to take an extra day to make a four night trip from Pau to Luchon and ride Luz Ardiden on the "rest day" first thing so you can attack the last section. You can then add a nice Tourmalet loop or head down to the stunning Cirque de Gavarnie.
Col de Sarenne: Alps
The second way up to Alpe d'Huez and an absolutely stunning climb. In the last few years this has become more famous after being used in the Tour de France for the first time. This is a long and at times hard climb on a narrow and rugged road. Starting in Bourg d'Oisans the best way to do the Sarenne is going up the first five hairpins to La Garde and riding along towards Auris and then from Mizoen the climb proper starts. The total climb is 20km averaging 5.5% with several tough sections over 10%. You finish above Alpe d'Huez at just shy of 2,000m and then have a short descent into the resort. There are sections of unpaved sections and the views throughout are spectacular - a must ride if you are in the area.
This ride makes a great loop ride from either Alpe d'Huez or Bourg d'Oisans, make sure any visit to this excellent cycling area includes this ride.
San Gottardo Pass: Swiss Alps
If you love cobbles and you love climbing, this is for you. Set in the Italian part of Switzerland, this 12km climb averaging over 7% is a pretty unique challenge. The start is paved, then you get an introduction to the cobbles before the last 5km which is all pave. The cobbles are nothing like Paris Roubaix, cars go over here often so they are smooth but still challenging. The views all the way up are stunning as you ride up a steep valley to a pass over 2,000m with snow covered peaks for most of the year and you get some great views down of the road. No part of the climb is too steep with gradients staying at 7% most of the way up. There are a lot of hairpins all the way up and the corners are flat, allowing you to build momentum for the next straight. There is very little traffic on the climb so you feel you have this all to yourself (there is a modern road which is more suited to cars) and there are some other terrific climbs in the area. Well worth the effort in getting here.
You can ride this on the excellent San Gottardo Sportive.
Col d'Azet: Pyrenees
Another gem in the Pyrenees and often missed, the Col d'Azet connects St Lary with the lake at Loudenvielle and is a southern way over the Pyrenees. Our best way up is East to West, a climb with hairpins a plenty and some tough gradients. The climb is open without tree cover so you are afforded great views all the way up, at the start you see the lake below and the higher you get the more of the mountains you get, all the way to the top of the Peyresourde in one direction and over to the next valley to the West. The gradients change regularly from 10% to a more comfortable 7% so this is a pretty tough ride but fairly short at 7.5km. It's the sort of climb where the few cars you see are stopping all the time to get out and take in the views.
We love doing this ride from Luchon. For the pure climbers, head on to the amazing Lac de Cap de Long, a brutal climb going over 2,000m. For an easier day, head back along the valley and back home over the Peyresourde.
Passo Gavia: Italian Alps
A bit of a stretch to call this off the beaten track, the Gavia is a classic climb in Italy sitting right next to the Stelvio but for newer riders, this is very overshadowed by it's famous neighbour. Starting from Bormio, this is a climb of two halfs with the first 13km on gradients of 3 to 5% following the valley before things get serious in the second half. The total climb is over 25km and ascending over 1,400m. The road hits some steeper switchbacks in the second half and the ride feels remote and high. To all sides you can see snow covered peaks almost all year round and by the time you reach the cafe near the top it feels like a long time since Bormio.
The Gavia is a tough climb but really easy to get to and to add it as part of a longer ride. The start is out of Bormio, the same town where the Stelvio starts. Going over the top of the Gavia takes you Ponte di Legno. From here, you can climb the Mortirolo and then head back to Bormio.
Barbotto: Emilia Romagna
THE climb in Emilia Romagna and the training ground of one of the greatest climbers of all time - Marco Pantani. This is the headline climb in Italy's most popular sportive, the Nove Colli and the top section is brutally tough. The hills of Emilia Romagna are fantastic cycling grounds with some longer climbs (5km plus) and stunning hilltop villages. The Barbotto is the most famous climb here, winding up some fairly gentle switchbacks to start with before hitting the hardest part near the top. The gradient tops out at nearly 20% on a straight, long section where you will need every gear you have.
The Nove Colli route is a classic and a great way to ride the Barbotto. The other choice is a trip to stay either on the coast or in the hills in Emilia Romagna, it makes a great long weekend with some great cycling on quiet roads and amazing food.