Most of the iconic climbs in Europe are iconic for a reason — they’re long, or steep… tough or picturesque… or a combination thereof. They have often been the scene of fearsome attacks, titanic battles and race defining moments. Defining climbs such as Ventoux or Alpe d’ Huez have been the scene to a multitude of heroic exploits, drama and tragically, death. Our story focuses on European climbs that get under the skin and into the heart of all cyclists, whilst pushing minds and bodies to breaking point.
There’s no shortage of beautiful mountains to climb by bike in Europe, but only a few that are elevated to global status by famous races like Le Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and La Vuelta de España. From Italy’s Stelvio Pass with its dizzying hairpins to Mallorca’s fearsome Sa Calobra or the French ‘Giant of Provence’, Mont Ventoux, these are the climbs that test our physical and mental limits.
Whilst there are many climbs earning of the title “Iconic”, we have focussed on the following 6 Iconic European climbs.
1. Alpe d’Huez
One of the 21 hairpins on Alpe d’Huez, France. Pic credit: Robbie Shade.
Where: Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France
Maximum gradient: 13%
Average gradient: 8.1%
Elevation: 1,860m at highest point
Few climbs in world cycling capture the imagination like Alpe d’Huez. If you’re serious about your cycling then this iconic climb is probably already on your bucket list, but if it isn’t, it should be.
It has been called the Tour de France’s ‘Hollywood climb’, and there is no doubt that Alpe d’Huez has played a starring role in cycling’s history since its first encounter with the sport back in 1952 when the legendary Fausto Coppi triumphed on the summit. Re-introduced to the Tour in 1976, Alpe d’Huez has risen to mythical status, thanks initially to a string of victories by riders from Holland, whose exploits attracted tens of thousands of their compatriots to the climb, which has become known as ‘Dutch mountain’.
Arguably the most iconic climb in the Tour de France, Alpe d’Huez has seen many epic battles over the years. "During the Tour de France it becomes like the World Championships for climbers,” writes former pro Andy Hampsten, who won there on the ’92 Tour.
Each of its 21 hairpins are named after professional riders who have been the first to make it to the summit of the 13.8km climb.
The gradient is pretty much relentless from the start and the steepest sections are during the first 2kms of the climb.
2. Mont Ventoux
Where: Provence, France
Length: From Bédoin, 21.8km
Maximum gradient: 11%
Average gradient: 8%
Mont Ventoux is a classic and considered by many to be the most fearsome of France's climbs. Known as ‘the Giant of Provence’, it’s 1,912m high and stands alone in its infamy.
Mont Ventoux is often, the scene of great battles in the Tour de France, Critérium du Dauphiné and Paris-Nice. The ascent from Bédoin is relentless at 21.8km. Closer to the summit, the climb was completely stripped bare of trees by shipbuilders many years ago, and is now little more than limestone scree, which offers zero protection from the strong winds and intense summer sun.
It’s notorious for claiming the life of English cyclist Tom Simpson who collapsed of exhaustion and died during the 1967 Tour, aged 29. Official cause of death was heat exhaustion. The amphetamines and brandy found in his system would not have helped.
3. Passo dello Stelvio
Where: Northern Italy bordering Switzerland.
Length: From Prato, 24.3 km
Maximum gradient: 11%
Average gradient: 7.4%
The Stelvio is one of the toughest climbs in Europe and perfect for diehard masochists. Viewed from above, the Stelvio looks evil and yet totally majestic with its whopping 48 hairpin bends. It’s only open to cyclists during summer due to its elevation, and even then, anyone attempting it may find themselves snaking their way up through walls of snow.
Starting from Prato on the Northern side, it boasts a vertical gain of 1,808m.
The legendary Fausto Coppi said he “felt he was going to die” during the climb.
“The Stelvio is a symbol of the Italian Alps and has a magical appeal to cyclists,” says former pro Ivan Basso. “It’s a bucket-list climb that has to be done and experienced, but it’s brutal. Its altitude, length and gradient make it one of the hardest climbs there is”.
4. Col du Tourmalet
Where: Hautes-Pyrénées, France
Maximum gradient: 10.2%
Average gradient: 7.4%
No list of Cols in France can be written without mention of the Col du Tourmalet. It is the highest mountain pass in the French Pyrenees and has featured in the Tour de France more times than any other climb.
The Tourmalet can be climbed from either the east or the west. The western side is longer at 19km and has a steeper average gradient of 7.4%.
Col du Tourmalet is a climb that entices cyclists from around the world and it does not disappoint. The scenery, the history and the sense of accomplishment provide the most compelling reasons to tackle a climb described by Eddy Merckx as 'the most legendary Col in the Pyrenees’.
But it’s not facts and figures that make the Tourmalet so special; it is history. This climb stands as a memorial to men who understand the indomitable power of the human spirit, who are not prepared to accept limitations. It’s a memorial to all the great cyclists who have raced over it.
5. Col du Galibier
Where: Rhône-Alpes, France
Maximum gradient: 13%
Average gradient: 7%
Another French biggie, this col can be climbed from both sides although the traditional ascent is from the north. The Col du Galibier is only accessible after the Col du Télégraphe or the Col du Lautaret. Only then does the iconic climb start at Valloire and goes up and up for a further 17.6km at an average gradient of 7%.
Framed by the jagged peaks of the Dauphiné Alps, the famous Col du Galibier makes all other climbs look like “gnat’s piss”, according to Henry Desgrange, founder of the Tour de France.
The Galibier is one of the Tour’s most iconic climbs and legendary because it is so uncomfortable to ride on. Nobody likes it, not even the most gifted of climbers.
The weather is rarely pleasant, ranging from hot, humid and oppressive on the Télégraphe, to an angry freezing wind blowing unrelentingly at the top, even during high summer.
The Galibier is one of the most intimidating obstacles of the Tour de France, which is why Henri Desgrange, loved it so much.
6. Sa Calobra
Where: Mallorca, Spain
Maximum gradient: 12%
Average gradient: 7%
Ascent: 782m at the highest point
Sa Calobra is known as one of Europe’s most beautiful bike rides, with breathtaking sea views, tight hairpins and narrow roads. The Sa Calobra climb is one of the main reasons why cyclists travel to Mallorca.
It may not be the highest summit on our list, but Sa Calobra is a mecca for pros and amateurs alike, wanting to log some winter miles in the sun. Rumour has it that Sir Bradley Wiggins holds the unofficial record for Sa Calobra, having set a time of around 22:30 during the winter before his Tour de France victory.
Whilst it is not as challenging as the giants of the Alps and the Pyrenees, it is an extraordinary climb and certainly the most famous in Mallorca. Its 26-hairpin bends, breathtaking views and spine-tingling descent have captured the hearts of many cyclists.
T-Shirts that tell the story
Whilst Cycling is our heritage, Fashion is our medium for Storytelling. Our range of “COL” inspired T shirts pays tribute to these iconic climbs and its legendary stories.
"The Ventoux is a God of evil, to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering". - Roland Barthes
Established at 2768 feet in the Central French Alps, A.D. HUEZ & CO are fine purveyors of thin air, nausea and exhaustion.
Tourmalet & Sons
A member of the Pyrenees Group, specialising in 2115 M of Iconic Brutality. What more could one wish for?
The Stelvio Groupé
This T-Shirt pays tribute to this iconic climb which has been going and going for 48 generations of ascendents.
"Bon courage" is a French well-wishing expression. It can be used in many contexts where the person being spoken to is about to perform a difficult action, and implies that success will be due to the persons strength.
It's Just a Hill
This Tee has been specifically designed for all Serial Bonkers suffering from acute Cyclophrenia ( classified as Gradient 6+).
Tour de Freedom
The T-shirt that symbolises the freedom, adventure and spirit whilst we pursue our bike-it list of climbs. Our chains truly set us free!
Tour Down Under
Inspired by the toughest cycling climbs in the land Down Under, a small group of passionate and adventure seeking cyclists set out in a vintage Holden on a tour down under, to conquer what they believe to be the most brutal of those cycling climbs.