Daniel Friebe, author of Mountain High: Europe’s 50 Greatest Cycle Climbs selects ten of his favourite European cycling destinations.
Southern Tuscany and the Colli Senesi
Less green, less busy but, for my money, much more beautiful and charming than northern Tuscany, the southern part of the region is a serious cyclist’s dream. I say serious because, although the most feared and revered Italian climbs are hundreds of kilometres away in the Alps and Dolomites, the burnt hills to the south of Siena harbour some mean ascents framed by clichéd views of stone villas and swaying cypress trees. One suggestion: choose from one of nine roads which climb the 1738 metre Monte Amiata volcano – then descend (and climb again) to luscious Montalcino, home to some of the finest red wines in Italy and probably the world.
The Great Swiss Passes
There are higher roads in Europe than the southern and central Swiss passes, the Grimsel, Furka, Susten, Gotthard and Nufenen, but it’s doubtful whether anywhere on the continent does the work of man and nature dovetail as spectacularly as here. All over 2000 metres high, all typically snowbound for eight months of the year, and all within two or three hours’ ride of each other, these five, interlinking mountain roads are cycling’s Giza. Utterly breathtaking in every sense – even for the extremely fit.
The Aquitaine Coast
The Aquitaine coast in south-west France is a paradox: people flock there for the undulations they find on the sea, but probably should visit more often for the flat terrain that lies inland. You see, the French surfers’ paradise is also a great place to cycle; from the Gironde estuary in the north to Biarritz in the south, long, sandy beaches back onto pristine pine forest embroidered with cycle paths. Any hills here are no bigger than sand dunes and, if you venture off the paths, you can sometimes ride for five or ten kilometres before seeing a kink, rise or fall in the road. If you like your cycling relaxing rather than mentally stimulating, these could be the roads for you.
The French Jura
If you’ve never ridden a bike up a mountain, chances are that you’ll be shocked and slightly appalled when you do. My advice, then, would be to ease yourself in and aim relatively low in altitude, maybe in one of the ‘smaller’ French ranges like the Vosges or the Jura. The latter, in particular, is the perfect place to lose your mountain virginity. With some exceptions, the Jurassian climbs come in at under 1500 metres, aren’t steep and tend to be blissfully low on traffic. The Col de Belleroche, 30 kilometres west of Geneva, in France, is a fine example.
The Majorcan Coast and the Serra de Tramuntana
For cyclists, Majorca is a wonderful counterpoint to the more remote and barren regions of the Spanish mainland. The island’s roads form an endlessly varied matrix between villages and towns, sea and mountains, and the vistas are memorable. Budding Bradley Wiggens’s should head for Sa Calobra and Puig Major, a pair of twisty but not excessively difficult climbs through the rugged and rocky Serra de Tramuntana, and where Wiggins himself trained to win the Tour de France. For something much more leisurely, up on the north-eastern tip of the island, go for a coastal cruise from Alcúdia to Puerto de Pollença, up and around Bahia de Pollensa, then inland to Pollença and back to Alcúdia.
The Scottish Borders
In cycling terms, the United Kingdom can’t lay claim to legendary mountains – but it does boast some world-class mountain biking. Glentress in the Scottish Borders is a multi-award-winning mountain bike Mecca with superb trails catering for every standard of rider. The surreal, misty, descent through Spooky Wood is as hair-raising as it sounds, and unlike anything else you’ll ever have encountered on two wheels.
It’s a common misconception except among cyclists: Belgium and Holland are almost completely flat. Right? Well, no, actually, wrong, to the extent that a handful of the most famous cycling climbs in the world are located in the ‘Low Countries’. Admittedly, the Cauberg in the Dutch Ardennes and the Côte de la Redoute over the Belgian border are neither high nor long, but they are both steep, emblematic ascents in a pair of pro cycling’s most prestigious one day races, the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège respectively. My advice: make lovely, lively Maastricht your base camp and head for these wooded hills.
The Schwarzwald or ‘Black Forest’
The German Black Forest, like the neighbouring Vosges over the French border, offers varied, challenging riding and excellent ‘après-cycle’. The tree-lined, often deserted climbs lack the cachet of Tour de France giants like the Mont Ventoux or Col du Tourmalet but are no less picturesque or enjoyable. The region is also famed for its (invariably well-signposted) mountain bike trails. Plus, of course, those extracurricular activities that I mentioned: great, hearty food and, it being Germany, superb beer.
Not a region but a single climb which, on its own, is worth the price of the plane ticket.
The Mont Ventoux in Provence has almost as many nicknames as it has claimed lives, including that of the British cyclist Tom Simpson during the 1967 Tour de France. The French philosopher Roland Barthes called it “The God of Evil demanding sacrifices”; to others it’s the “Bald Mountain”. To anyone who attacks it on a bike, it is a brute. Steep from both of its two best-known angles of attack, asphixiatingly hot and often dangerously windy, the Ventoux is on every cyclist’s bucket list.
Istria, the Dalmatian Coast and the Croatian Islands
Croatia is a country with precious little cycling heritage, but it does possess some sublime terrain for mountain biking. The karst outcrops of the Dalmatian coast and some of the trails to secluded coves on islands like Hvar and Korcula will make you swoon and make you sweat. If road-biking’s your thing, Istria is criss-crossed by climbs of every length and gradient, often to hilltop towns overlooking the azure waters of the Adriatic.
Daniel Friebe is one of Britain’s leading cycling journalists and, at 30, a youthful veteran of nine Tours de France. For the last five years Daniel has been the Features Editor of Procycling Magazine. He collaborated with cycling superstar Mark Cavendish on the bestselling Boy Racer – My Journey to Tour de France Record Breaker.
Pete Goding is a formidable force in professional cycling photography. He currently supplies Tour de France content for the BriKsh sports arm of Reuters and was an official photographer for Tour of Britain and Tour of Ireland.