This blog’s road to rides section is enduringly popular and consequently there’s stream of email enquiries from readers wanting to know which ones are best, often people are planning a trip to the mountains or even a first visit to Europe and want to visit the roads featured. It’s always difficult to rank them but for the fun of it here is a suggested top-10, some famous and some that ought to be.
The Colle di Fauniera comes first and if this list had to be reduced to one pick it’d be this giant. It might not be on many other people’s lists but the Fauniera isn’t picked for some esoteric reason nor a desire to be contrarian. It’s just this giant climb hasn’t been used much in the Giro d’Italia so it doesn’t have the celebrity draw or even familiarity of other climbs. You may never have heard of it and that’s all right. Objectively it scores well when compared to any other climb in the Alps and if there was a pack of Alpine pass trump cards it would be a great one to hold. It’s a challenge being 22.5km at 7.5%, it climbs to 2,511m above sea level and it’s been decisive when the Giro has visited too. When the Giro visited in the late 1990s some riders went for a recon ride and came back shaken and saying it was harder than the Mortirolo or the Angliru. Is it? It’s not as vertical but it has long sections above 10% and the road surface is dilapidated in parts that some gravel roads may be smoother.What makes this road the first pick is scenery that just gets better and better. An initial climb alongside a whitewater river is nice, the section past Alpine pastures and a monastery is special takes on a wilder feel and then the upper part is a spectacular wilderness, there’s not a ski lift nor souvenir shop in sight, just high peaks and long views.
- When: go late in the summer or even in September when it is warm and sunny, ideally you need blue skies to appreciate the enormity of the views around
- Bonus: if you like to collect cols then there are several on the way up and on the way back down including four over 2,300m high
The Col du Soulor is special. It may not be the highest nor the hardest climb in the Pyrenees but it captures the essence of cycling in this region and this feeling starts before the climb proper as you approach up the Ouzom valley from Asson. On a gentle ride the approach is bucolic as the road criss-crosses the babbling river, in a race the way the road narrows and the river gets whiter signals the impending proximity of the climb.
- Visit any time in the summer as even in July or August the valley and road won’t be too busy
- Bonus: wild horses and cattle graze near the top of the pass
The Chartreuse Trilogy used to be a fixture of the Tour de France where it played host to many a legendary raid but has fallen by the wayside. It’s no bad thing because these three climbs used to be legendary but what chance the peloton devours them today leaving TV-onlookers thinking the trilogy is mediocre? Nevermind that racing these climbs may not produce the outcomes of old, this route simple make for a rewarding ride, you can tackle these three climbs and then pick your return route, possibly along the Isère valley to the east which is flat but you could equally take the balcony road above it passing near the Prapoutel ski resort; or head west before looping back north.
- Visit in June when the pastures are lush and before the holiday crowds arrive
- Bonus: Ag2r road captain Samuel Dumoulin has a bakery at the start of this route and you can try a lap of the 1989 Worlds Course, one of the hilliest ever courses alongside Duitama and possibly Innsbruck in 2018
The Arenberg Cobbles have to be seen to be believed. This is one of those destinations that you may prefer to visit alone or at least in the company of fellow cyclists rather than as part of a family holiday because the region is grim with the oppressive feeling of low skies and high unemployment and the sense that the area’s best days have long gone. But it’s not dangerous – some readers have asked! – and the locals have a saying that you’ll cry twice: once when you arrive and again when you leave. The pavé are the same too, a brutal shock as you first hit a sector but the feeling of floating afterwards once you return to tarmac is glorious, as if riding on velvet.
- It does feel like a visit in March or April is appropriate given the association with spring classics but it’s open all year and try in the summer to see the region’s softer side with leafy trees and fields ripe for harvest
- Bonus: there’s an organised cyclosportif ride allowing you to try Paris-Roubaix for yourself with the signposted route and logistics to get you between the finish and start
The Ghisallo is the opposite, a climb that’s decorative, even decadent as you climb out of Bellagio with its villas and teak-decked speedboats circle in the azure waters of Lake Como. But anyone can ride, this is the original “poor man’s spaceship” as labelled by Gianni Brera, you can ascend into the heavens and if the top of the climb isn’t sufficient you can stop by the famous cycling chapel. It’s a good climb, or rather two given the long flat section midway and one where the “summit” is very much a destination with the museum and chapel, as well as great viewpoint across the lake to the Alps and you can do this all as part of a longer ride.
- When? Autumn of course. Just as Il Lombardia is or at least was “the race of the falling leaves”, the fall is a great time to visit as the woodland goes psychedilic
- Bonus: the Muro di Sormano is nearby if you’ve got the low gears… or the cleat covers
The Colle del Nivolet is probably the greatest road in Italy never used by the Giro d’Italia. Like the Fauniera it scores high for length, gradient, altitude and the sheer sporting challenge. It’s a breathtaking ascent in both meanings. Subjectively the Fauniera is the better ride because it is wilder but this is the narcissism of small differences, both are majestic climbs but again the Nivolet didn’t win because you must turn around and descend again at the top although given this means you get to see the scenery you’ve just passed again it’s no bad thing.
- When? Spring may come to most of Europe in March and April but not at 2,000m above sea level. Like many high altitude passes this is only open from late May onwards and always check the weather before visiting
- Bonus: there’s nothing much extra, you are unlikely to ask for more after this
Mont Ventoux is a crowd-pleaser and genuinely worth riding for its challenge and beauty. The mountain attracts lore and hype and to ride this is to leave all the books, quotes and thoughts behind in Bédoin and just experience a steep road that climbs up to a peak almost two kilometres above sea level amid an unusual landscape.
- When? Go in May or early October to avoid the crowds and the reek of burning brake pads and clutch plates from the motor traffic. Pick a day of clear blue skies and still weather, sometimes a hard combination to find
- Bonus: the nearby Gorges de la Nesque and other roads in the region. You could quite easily spend a week in the region without scaling the Ventoux although it keeps appearing and taunting meaning a climb at least once is inevitable
The Cormet de Roseland via the Col du Pré is a joy, once past the early phase the climb takes on a chocolate-box image and you half expect Julie Andrews to burst out from a barn singing the Sound of Music as you ride up. The combination of these two passes allows for plenty, the early pastures and farms give way to forests and then there’s the large hydroelectric dam to ride across before the road hauls itself away from the lake and enters a vast open space on the the mountain side.
- Go before the 18 July so you can say you knew it before the Tour de France “discovered” it
- Bonus: take your pick from roads around Beaufort like the Signal to Bisanne or the cheerful-souding Col du Joly
The Col de Turini is a sly pick because to get there you may have to tackle the the Col de la Madone first or at least another route away from the Mediterranean coast and if you’re visiting the area then you can add the Poggio, Cipressa and more too. It’s a good ride thanks to the scenery and peaceful road, a world away from the busy Côte d’Azur. This is the kind of inland Alpine climb that the Tour de France won’t or can’t reach any more but is easily accessible to visitors.
- Visit in March around Paris-Nice time. The snow at the top will be melting if not gone and the micro-climate can make this area the warmest place in Europe. Ride in the morning and you may spot many of the Monaco based pros
- Bonus: turn right at the top for Authion if you want more climbing, turn left and take the descent to Lucéram which is hairpin heaven
The final pick is a difficult one because to make a choice now means to exclude all the others. The likes of the Stelvio and Alpe d’Huez are so famous you’d probably go and ride anyway so they don’t need any more introductions. It feels wrong to steer anyone away from the Muur van Geraardsbergen or the Basilica San Luca, try them if you can but they’re part of a longer ride rather than astonishing by themselves. The Zoncolan has to be ridden to be believed but evokes the Japanese saying about Mount Fuji that “a wise man climbs Fuji once. Only a fool climbs it twice” and if it is the reference by which other climbs it’s not the most scenic place for a long leg-press session. Wise or foolish it seems nobody can climb the Jebel Al Akhdar on a bike any more and the Puy-de-Dome is off-limits too.
So the Colle de Finestre wins the final spot. Even if it was tarmacked it would be a majestic climb with its hairpins and long views but the gravel section just brings more. Gravel may be fashionable today but this is picked out of tradition: your chance to discover what felt like to climb in times past even if the sterrato here is actually very good and for safety it’s only on the way up meaning a reliable descent
- Go in the May when the Giro visits and you can ride up early on the day of the race itself but keep going at the top unless it’s a glorious day as waiting for hours at over 2,000m above sea level in your cycling kit can turn grim
- Bonus: start at the finish, ie base yourself in or around Susa. You can loop around to tackle this climb one day but if you have more than a day then you’ll be in place for more routes such as Moncenisio
Roads written up: these are just selective picks among the celebrity roads featured so far and depend on taste, ambition, location and much more. There are more roads to be written up and plenty more that don’t have pro race links but make great rides. Suggestions to think about should include Monte Grappa, the quieter climbs of the Dolomites in mid-summer or the Cinque Terre coastline in Italy, the Allos-Champs-Cayolle trilogy in France, a sunny Sunday morning anywhere in the Basque Country in May, a host of unsung Alpine roads in Switzerland and Austria that offer fine roads and so on.
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads