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Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: 10 - 4

In-depth
1 May 2020
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So we've reached the top 10 of the Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs and, as was always to be expected, some of our inclusions and their placings have been put under scrutiny. 

It all started with the first climb - and people would even argue that description - which is Box Hill in Surrey.

The 'speed bump' that's ironically been coined the Alpe d'Huez of Surrey was for many a complete non-starter, it's inclusion as much a conspiracy among Cyclist's London-centric writing staff as the continued disparity of the UK's train system outside of the capital.

Then there's the fact that Sa Calobra has made the number 10 over Cap de Formentor and that both place higher than the Gavia and Nivolet. Pure and utter heresy.

But, tell me this, how many Tex-Mex restaurants that sell sombreros are there at the peak of the Madonna del Ghisallo?

The Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs

Introducing the Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs  
Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: 100 - 91  
Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: 90 - 81  
Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: 80 - 71  
Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: 70 - 61  
Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: 60 - 51  
Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: 50 - 41  
Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: 40 - 31  
Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: 30 - 21  
Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: 20 - 11  
Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: 10 - 4  
Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: Number 3  
Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: Number 2  
Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs: Number 1  

10 Hardknott Pass, Lake District, UK (2.6km, 11.8%)

Words Stu Bowers Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

Set in dramatic yet beautiful surroundings in the Lake District, between Eskdale Green and Ambleside, the Hardknott Pass will not afford you many opportunities to sit back and soak up the views.

There are plenty of people who will state that it is the toughest climb in England, and most of them will have encountered it towards the end of the brutal Fred Whitton sportive. It’s a severe test for even the strongest climbers, with gradients spiking to a quad-popping 33%.

Most choose to climb it west to east, where the climb begins in earnest after you cross the River Esk at around 90m above sea level. The pass takes you up to just under 400m elevation, which is a mere molehill by European mountain standards, yet in getting there you’ll need to have some serious firepower to tackle lengthy sections of 500m or more at above 20%.

Plus, of course, there’s that final ramp at over 30% that comes in a flurry of hairpins where it will seem as if you’re barely moving. Be prepared for your arms to hurt as much as your legs, such is the amount you’ll be hauling on the bars.

Expect a real sense of achievement when you finally creep over the summit of this beast. It fully deserves to make the top ten of our 100 Classic Climbs, and despite its relatively meagre stats, the Hardknott is able to rub shoulders with the Alpine greats in terms of overall difficulty.

See the ultimate Hardknott Pass route on Komoot

9 Monte Grappa, Veneto, Italy (19km, 8.1%)

Words Martin James Photography Alex Duffill

As cyclists we often talk about ‘suffering’, and many of the sport’s most treasured tales richly describe riders’ heroic ‘victories’ in ‘battles’ against the mountains, the elements, or even just themselves.

Now far be it for us to downplay these legendary exploits, but places like the Monte Grappa nonetheless serve as a cautionary lesson that such hyperbole should never be seen as anything more than just that.

The mountain’s pivotal location in Italy’s northeast, protecting the Venetian plain to the south, made it a key battleground in both World Wars. Nearly 100,000 soldiers are believed to have lost their lives here over three major battles near the end of World War I, and a museum and memorial at the summit are well worth the detour as a mark of respect.

Of course first you’ll have to get there, and Monte Grappa makes you work hard for the privilege, no matter which of the multitude of different ways up you choose.

Our own pick, and the one the stats above relate to, is from Semonzo to the south. This is shorter and therefore steeper than the nearby ‘classic’ route from Romano d’Ezzelino, and it was the route used when the Giro came up here in a time-trial in 2014, won by Nairo Quintana.

The opening 6km of the climb packs in 16 hairpins as you ride through the trees, teasing ever-more spectacular glimpses of the Venetian plain you’ve descended from as you turn.

Then comes a pause in first the trees and then the gradient, but don’t be fooled: the hardest part of the Grappa is still to come. A 2km stretch at over 10% throws several more hairpins into your path, and the views open up as you leave the trees behind for good.

You can see the summit at this point, but it’s still 5km away. Much of that is easily manageable, though – there’s even a brief downhill stretch – before a nasty 12% ramp right at the top to punish tired legs.

Still, as the memorial at the top will no doubt remind you, many have experienced far worse on the slopes of this mountain.

See the ultimate Monte Grappa route on Komoot

8 Colle delle Finestre, Piedmont, Italy (18.6km, 9.1%)

Words Pete Muir Photography Patrik Lundin

Every climb has its unique flavour, but few have the habanero chilli pepper punch of the Colle delle Finestre. It starts out spicy, slowly builds up the heat, then in the last 8km blows your head off.

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Italy, not far from Turin, the climb of the Finestre starts from the small town of Susa. There’s no preamble or small talk; you turn off the main road and immediately the tarmac rears up to 9% and stays there.

If you want a break during the climb, the only option is to stop pedalling. There are no easy bits, but there are some amazing views to be had at occasional windows between the trees – finestres– revealing the mountains that guard the border with France. Finding an excuse to stop won’t be hard.

The forested lower section of the climb is probably a blessing, as it obscures the enormity of the task ahead. Instead you are simply drawn from one tight hairpin into the next, each identical to the point where you fear you may be trapped in some sort of cycling Mobius strip, and going nowhere at all.

Eventually, however, you emerge from the trees and into one of the most famous and recognisable arenas in Italian cycling.

The final 8km of the Finestre is on gravel, which winds upwards through a natural amphitheatre that – come Giro d’Italia time – provides the perfect venue for crowds of screaming fans. And usually they get some action.

The last time it featured was 2018, and was the springboard for Chris Froome to launch an 80km solo attack that sealed his first and only Giro d’Italia victory.

How anyone can launch an attack on this surface boggles the mind. The gravel is more like rubble in places, with deep ruts from 4x4 vehicles, meaning that just staying upright can be a challenge. Still, it makes for a unique finish to a spectacular climb.

Occasionally there is talk of tarmacking the final section of the climb, but the tifosi would burn the local planning office to ground before they let anyone desecrate the Finestre’s holy gravel.

See the ultimate Colle delle Finestre route on Komoot

7 Gotthard Pass, Ticino, Switzerland (16km, 7.4%)

Words James Spender Photography Patrik Lundin

There are few more complete climbs in the world than the Gotthard Pass. Sure, it has the length and the pitch to make it testing, the sweeping vistas to make it rewarding, but what makes the Gotthard unique is the section known as the Tremola.

Beginning near Airolo, the first 13 gorgeously sweeping hairpins are Swiss-level smooth, but between turn 13 and 14 something magical happens: tarmac turns to cobbles, and continues this way for the next 5km.

But these aren’t Roubaix-level blocks, but tens of thousands of beautifully laid granite stones that give the road an enchanted and challenging feel without being a pain to ride over.

The cobbles, along with the 24 winding hairpins that comprise this climb, also make the Gotthard somewhat unsuitable for heavy traffic. As such an alternative route has been built for cars, meaning you’ll be unlucky to find any motorised traffic on this pass. In fact, time it right and you’ll almost certainly be the only one.

Time it wrong, though, and there’s every chance you could find blazing sunshine at the bottom and blizzarding snow at the top. For some that will be part of the fun no doubt (if you fall into that camp, try going in late October/early November to experience such extremes), and there is usually at least one refuge open serving up lake views and hot chocolate.

And if that’s not enough to complete this quintessentially Swiss, wonderfully unique climb, there are museums dedicated to the area at the summit. Curated documentation about a climb at its peak? That’s a ringing endorsement if ever there was one.

See the ultimate Gotthard Pass route on Komoot

6 Koppenberg, Flanders, Belgium (0.69km, 13%)

Words Joe Robinson Photography Alex Duffill

On the streets of Flanders, local cycling fans call cobblestones kinderkoppen, which roughly means ‘children’s heads’. This means that the Koppenberg sort of translates to ‘children’s heads hill’, a name that’s as frightening as the hill itself.

Because, let’s be honest, the Koppenberg is one of the most intimidating climbs on this entire list.

There are approximately 66,240 of these children’s heads on this spiteful 690m climb tucked away in the Flemish Ardennes. With no cobble the same, the road surface is as unpredictable as a jazz band in full swing, sending your front wheel every which way in a constant search for traction as you grind your way closer to its summit.

The gradient soars up to 21% at its worst, leaving you with an impossible choice. Do you ride out of the saddle and threaten a loss of traction in your rear wheel, or ride in the saddle as your front wheel attempts to lift itself from the floor?

If you find yourself stepping off before the summit, take comfort in the fact that even the great Eddy Merckx was forced into walking up the Koppenberg when the climb debuted at the Tour of Flanders in 1976.

And let’s spare a thought for poor old Jesper Skibby. The young Dane had been grafting all alone at the head of the Tour of Flanders in 1987. He was creeping his way to the top of the Koppenberg, getting slower with every pedal stroke, when suddenly he was bumped to the ground by the race commissioner’s BMW E28 5-Series.

Not wanting to stop on the steep slope, the race commissioner simply kept driving, crushing Skibby’s rear wheel and only narrowly missing his feet.

That incident saw the climb excluded from the race for the next 15 years until some much-needed maintenance saw it reintroduced in 2002. Other than one omission in 2007 due to deterioration of the cobbles, the Koppenberg has featured in every edition of Flanders since.

The Koppenberg has never been close enough to the finish of Flanders to have a significant impact on the end result, but its perfect mixture of difficulty and history means it typifies this great Monument of cycling and has been ingrained as a climb that sits towards the top of every amateur’s bucket list.

See the ultimate Koppenberg route on Komoot

5 Sa Calobra, Mallorca, Spain (9.4km, 7%)

Words Jack Elton-Walters Photography George Marshall

Few climbs give you a full preview of their slopes before you tackle them, but that’s just one of the many charms of Sa Calobra.

Before you can ride up it, first you must ride down it, and from the top you can see the magnificent twists and curves of the road laid out before you like a racetrack designed by a nine-year-old.

In fact, the road rising up from the port of Sa Calobra was created by Italian-Spanish engineer Antonio Parietti in 1933 and features among its many hairpin bends a stunning 270° loop of road that curls around and under itself, called the ‘Tie Knot’.

Once you have swooped down the 9km descent to the port, you have a choice. It’s either an immediate about-turn or you can put off the inevitable with a cafe stop and some leisurely views of the Mediterranean. The latter choice will hold appeal on a sunny day, but sit for too long and your stiff legs won’t thank you for it because the climbing starts the instant you clip into your pedals.

Although it’s likely to have been cars the road’s designer had in mind, the smooth surface and challenge of the climb make its appeal to cyclists obvious. True, you’ll most likely have to share the space with large numbers of other cyclists, not to mention tourist buses, but still Sa Calobra is a must-do climb for anyone visiting Mallorca.

The gradient remains pretty consistent for the duration of the climb. If you’re looking for a PB, once you get past the Tie Knot it’s time to empty the tank, drop your riding companions and push for the brown sign that marks the summit of the Coll dels Reis. And try to resist stopping every 100m to take photographs.

See the ultimate Sa Calobra route on Komoot

4 Col du Tourmalet, Pyrenees, France (19km, 7.4%)

Words Pete Muir Photography George Marshall

The Col du Tourmalet is cycling history. It’s the Battle of Hastings, the Great Fire of London and D-Day all rolled into one. Everyone who has ever slung a leg over a saddle has heard the tales of the early days of the Tour de France when publicity-hungry organisers first turned their eyes to the high mountains of the Pyrenees.

In January 1910, race planner Adolphe Steines almost died while investigating the inclusion of the Tourmalet in the race. He stumbled off the mountain after a night spent lost and frozen in the snow, only to send a telegram to HQ that read: ‘Crossed Tourmalet stop. Very good road stop. Perfectly feasible.’

That same year, the Tourmalet-Aubisque double act was introduced to the Tour for the first time – cue sepia images of race leader Octave Lapize pushing his heavy single-speed bike up the gravel path. His cry of ‘Assassins!’ has rung out through history, and his statue now guards the Tourmalet’s summit.

Equally famous is the tale of Eugène Christophe, who broke his forks on a descent of the Tourmalet during the 1913 Tour de France. After a two-hour walk to the nearest blacksmith, he then had to weld his forks back together himself, taking another three hours. When he finally set off again, the Tour judge penalised him ten minutes because Christophe had accepted illegal assistance from a seven-year-old boy who pumped the bellows.

Since the Tour’s inception, the Tourmalet has featured more than any other climb – 87 times in total, including three summit finishes, most recently in 2019 when Thibaut Pinot raised a nation’s spirits with a win on its most famous peak.

For all its celebrity status, the Tourmalet is still a wild and woolly place, a mixture of bare scrubland and brooding, rocky outcrops. What’s more, the climb is relentless, staying rigidly around the 8% mark for the majority of its length, never offering a moment’s respite.

Then, just as your legs are spent and the summit is in sight, the gradient pitches up to over 10% for the final kilometre. Anyone who finishes this climb will look up at the statue of Lapize, his body wracked with pain, gasping for breath, and know just how he feels.

See the ultimate Col du Tourmalet route on Komoot

Ride the Cyclist 100 Classic Climbs with Komoot

Cyclist has teamed up with its good friends at Komoot to give you the ultimate route for each and every climb in the list.

If you are new to Komoot, it is offering a free regional bundle (worth £8.99). Simply follow this link to Komoot.com and create your free account today.

Alternatively, head to Komoot and enter the voucher code CYCLIST100. Valid until 31.07.2020.