A terrific article by Phil Letts, one of our most enthusiastic members:
So why would you put all that effort into cycling up some of Europe’s highest and best-known mountain passes? Because that’s what I like to do. Come the springtime-end of May, it’s off to the Dolomites or the Alps or Pyrenees to ride the famous cols. If I can combine that with watching one of the big races – the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France – even better. Over the years I’ve become a bit of a ‘pass-junkie’ collecting, if you like, the major passes which feature in the famous Tours (a bit like Munro-bagging for the walker)
So what’s the attraction? Because believe me, it’s tough cycling. Maybe that’s part of the allure. Riding uphill is always going to be hard. To do it for 2 or 3 hours at a time up gradients which can average 10% and even go up to 23%, is seriously hard work and so to ride to the top is a real challenge. To make a mountaineering comparison, the famous Alpe d’Huez and Col de Galibier are a cyclist’s Eiger or Matterhorn. There’s a real feeling of achievement and elation to have at last stopped riding upwards, levelling off, reaching the pass having defied nature and gravity and pushed yourself to the limits. And then there’s the exhilarating and sometimes terrifying swoop off and back down.
For me one of the pay-offs for all this endeavour, is you get to see majestic and awe-inspiring scenery (that’s if it’s not misty!). I also like to combine my cycling with photography…so up high in the passes I’m surrounded by fabulous shots … every tour de France or Giro d’Italia is raced against a backdrop of stunning scenery.
But apart from the attraction of simply ‘bagging’ the pass, there’s another reason for making the effort to ‘ride high’. To the avid cycle-race fan, many of these passes and climbs which feature regularly in the Tours, have almost become places of pilgrimage. They’re legendary, almost sacred, in the tradition and history of professional cycling. Mont Ventoux, Galibier, Stelvio – this is where our cycling heroes have created the legends, displayed superhuman qualities, demonstrated heroic deeds. These are the scenes of sporting heroism. Very often the mountain climbs define a particular year’s Tours. The races forge heroes and colourful characters. The mountains are the Tours’ theatre where successes and failures, dramas and tragedies have been played out.
And it’s this cycling tradition that makes a cycling fan like me want to visit and conquer these same places which have become part of cycling’s legends. Few of us will ever be able to play at Twickenham or Wembley or Wimbledon, but we can all ride the famous passes and relive the exploits of our heroes.
I always research the passes I’m riding so that on the way up, amidst all the pain, I can distract myself by remembering/revisiting some of the exploits of the cycling legends – Merckx, Coppi, Anquetil, Armstrong and the like – which took place on that very pass-very often there are plaques and memorials to take note of explaining some of the history of that climb.
This year I hooked into the Giro d’Italia when it got to the eastern Dolomites. I saw Spanish rider Izaguirre win at Falzes, then watched Cavendish struggle up the first pass of the next day – the Passo Valparola – along with thousands of other passionate cycling fans. After the peloton had gone past, we all rode down the adjoining Passo Falzarego to watch Joaqim Rodriguez beat them all into Cortina as they all came through from the famous Passo Giau after a really tough day in the mountains. Cavvy was hanging on in there with the Gruppetto. Then it was a drive west to Bormio and the Passo Stelvio. But first on the way I rode the Mortirolo which the peloton was due to do in a few days time as a prelude to the final climb of this year’s Giro, the mighty Stelvio. Along with thousands of fans who’d cycled up, I watched Belgium rider De Gendt win the stage but Canadian Rhyder Hesjadel win the overall race. Exciting stuff in fabulous cycling country – that’s why I’m a Mountain Pass junkie!