The 10 best climbs you’ve probably never heard of

Head off the beaten track this year on some lesser-known mountain gems

Looking to head off the beaten track this year? Philip Deeker, founder of the Cent Cols Challenge and a man looking to chalk up 1,000 cols in 2017, is our guide to some of Europe’s lesser-known mountain gems.

I didn’t ‘discover’ these climbs, nor are they hidden to the curious map-reader, but I consider them to be some of the Cent Cols’ secrets. Their discovery is reward for the brave riders who sign up for a Cent Cols Challenge; their severity the price to pay for an appetite for gradient. These climbs remain untouched by the majority of amateur cyclists, who still see the iconic climbs as the path towards cycling achievement.

Are the hardest climbs the ‘best’? Yes, usually, because the harder the effort required, the more intense and memorable the experience. Also, the hardest roads are usually the most dramatic, both through their design and setting.

Our list is in no particular order, and there are so many that didn’t make it, and more still waiting to be ridden...

1. Col de Pra-l’Etang

  • 16km
  • Average gradient 6.5%
  • Maximum gradient 9%
  • Stage 10, CCC Northern Alps

The actual col isn’t that eventful, this one is more about the journey than the destination
The actual col isn’t that eventful, this one is more about the journey than the destination

From the small town of Pont-en-Royans, rammed into a dramatic gorge so typical of the Vercors region, the road up to the Col de Toutes Aures twists tightly as it carves its way up the steep, wooded sides of the Royans Valley.

The way this road is at times literally carved into the rock face can leave no rider untouched by the bravery and skill of those people who built these mountain roads we love so much.

Having scaled the steepest first part of the climb up onto a pastoral plateau, the road then explores dense woodland where gentler gradients allow time for minds to wander.

A magical woodland fountain adds further charm to this ‘lost’ forest road, one that can only just still claim road status. The actual col isn’t that eventful, this one is more about the journey than the destination.

2. Santuario de Aralar

  • 10km
  • Average gradient 8%
  • Maximum gradient 15%
  • Stage 9, CCC West Pyrenees

Follow in Aru’s tyre tracks for a winning climb
Follow in Aru’s tyre tracks for a winning climb

Fabio Aru won here in 2014’s Vuelta. The ‘rough side’ (south) is a favourite with local cyclists, but was feared by the pros due to the state of the road — photos of the cracks in the concrete filled social media.

Its tough, steep passages were equally talked about. To the northwest of Pamplona, this climb is located in a National Park, with impressive views, especially as the summit approaches.

The Sanctuary at the official top is a popular pilgrimage destination, but there is a very broken, singletrack, dead-end road that continues 2km higher, up to a small satellite station.

For CCC riders, this is their top, and is the steepest part of the climb. The descent on the north side is the pilgrim coach route, so wide and smooth tarmac is the perfect reward.

3. El Acebo

8km

  • Average gradient 10%
  • Maximum gradient 17%

10km

  • Average gradient 9%,
  • Maximum gradient 11.5%
  • Stage 4 and stage 5 CCC Cantabrico

Great scenery can help take your mind off the pain of climbing
Great scenery can help take your mind off the pain of climbing

This climb has two very contrasting sides. For CCC riders, one ends stage four, while the other opens the ‘queen’ stage five (212km with 6,700m of ascent).

The stage four side starts in a tight valley from the tiny hamlet of Carballo and uses sections of concrete farm lanes and brief bits of place-to-place ‘proper’ roads. It’s a climb that bites at you viciously and grants you little respite.

The other side starts in Cangas del Narcea, a relatively busy town in the heart of the Asturias, with a double-figure gradient initially announcing another onslaught. Steep though it is in places, this is also a steady, smooth, open road that winds its way across the contours of open grazing land. I love this type of climb for its tranquillity as the valley below slowly becomes silent and almost abstract. Soothing views of rolling hillsides remind you that you don’t always have to suffer.

4. Col d’Arnostéguy

  • 13km
  • Average gradient 7.5%
  • Maximum gradient 16%
  • Stage 8, CCC West Pyrenees

Watch out for the sheep
Watch out for the sheep

The Ossau-Iraty region of the French Basque Country produces some of France’s best mountain cheese. Flocks of sheep freely roam open hills that incessantly plunge and rise from deep, shaded valleys. Sheep dogs round them up daily for the farmers to milk. You can imagine that the shepherds’ need to drive up and down to their flocks is the reason why the area has such a dense network of the most dramatic singletrack roads a cyclist could hope to find.

Gradients can be scarily steep, bends three-point-turn tight, but the overall road surface is surprisingly good. The open views and soothing pattern of roads as they briefly follow ridge contours before disappearing down again, and the purity of the light, have provided many unforgettable moments of exhausted jubilation.

5. Col de la Bataille

  • 17km
  • Average gradient 6%
  • Maximum gradient 12%
  • Last 5km average 9%
  • Stage 9, CCC Corsica

With very little flat ground, this is just one of Corsica’s many climbs
With very little flat ground, this is just one of Corsica’s many climbs

There is very little flat land on Corsica. Most climbs are short (under 10km, with the exception of the impressive Col de la Vierge), with little steep gradient, but it’s the incessant nature of the climbs that is the most challenging.

This particular climb is a very special way to leave the coastal plain near Calvi and weave your way above the treeline into a barren, scrubby landscape. Extensive sea views enhance the contrast of the rugged nature of the mountain.

The dense woodland in Corsica hides most roads, but this climb shows you the road both above and below, with a superb almost aerial view of the hillside village of Speloncato. With its final steep 2km, its patchy road surface, and the Col cafe, this does ‘epic’ Corsican-style.

6. Col de la Croix Saint Robert

  • 10km
  • Average gradient 5.7%
  • Maximum gradient 8%
  • Stage 4, CCC Cevennes

The summer opens up the popular ski resort’s sweeping roads
The summer opens up the popular ski resort’s sweeping roads

Not all climbs need to be steep and cruel to be kind. This one is a perfect example of how the sheer beauty of a place can suffice.

The Massif Central and the Cevennes still remain France’s best-kept secret as a cycling destination, despite recent visits by the Tour de France. It is one of the most remote areas to ride in, scantily dotted with charming villages.

Climbs alternate between open, often windswept, steady ones and steep, tight-sided wooded gorges. The Mont-Dore region, south of Clermont Ferrand, is a popular cross-country skiing area in winter but few visit this region in summer. Starting from the old-style thermal town of La Bourboule, the climb is a steady affair, never breaking into double figures, but the way the landscape opens up gradually as the summit approaches can leave no rider untouched.

7. Passo Del Créer

  • 21km
  • Average gradient 7%
  • Maximum gradient 13%
  • Stage 8, CCC Dolomites

The top section has a few 15 percent sections
The top section has a few 15 percent sections

The CCC Dolomites route takes riders along as many roads in the Trento-Veronese region as it does in the Dolomiti itself. This climb, a mirror-road to the ultra-tough Passo Fittanze (which provides the scariest descent of our event), explains why.

The climb begins just outside Avio, and takes you from close, dense woodland up to one of the most spectacular plateaus of the region, via a wonderful, but very taxing, road. The climb is one of two halves: the bottom section is all about twisting up a tight valley side via the sort of endless hairpins that Italian roads do so well; the top section, despite a couple more 15 percent sections, is steadier and grants you plenty of opportunities to take in the truly impressive views below and around. The top comes into sight with 3km still to slog up, making for one of those mind-over-body moments, again.

8. Colle Dei Morti

  • 21km
  • Average gradient 7%
  • Maximum gradient 20%
  • Stage 9, CCC Southern Alps

The Marco Pantani monument at the top
The Marco Pantani monument at the top

Known so well to locals, this Piemonte region climb has a Marco Pantani monument at the top, which is perhaps the most haunting tribute to him you’ll ever find.

Climbed from the Ponte Marmora side, the singletrack road first weaves up through a bucolic mix of open pasture and larch woodland, packing in frequent short, very steep ramps.

The final 4km above the treeline to the first col (Esishie) afford stunning mountain views, with craggy, rocky skylines all around. This truly Italian vista becomes even more intense as the road itself, visibly fatigued by harsh winter conditions, struggles to bring you up the final 2km to Il Pirata at the top.

9. Mont Colombis

  • 12km
  • Average gradient 8.7%
  • Maximum gradient 16%
  • Last 2km 12.5% 
  • Stage 6, CCC Northern Alp

Amazing views are your reward as you conquer Colombis
Amazing views are your reward as you conquer Colombis

Found between Gap and the Lac de Serre Poncon, this up-and-back road takes you from the Durance Valley up to a communications satellite station perched high above its surroundings.

Official (often scary) average kilometre statistics signs —usually only a privilege of more reputed climbs —remind you that your task is a serious one. Steep ramps, especially once past the five-house hamlet of Théus, alternate with flatter recovery sections to create a ‘staircase’ climb that plays with your mind as much as your legs. 

The last 2km at an average of 12.5 percent deliver a final stinging attack that makes the 280-degree view reward at the summit even sweeter.

10. Collada Espina

  • 9km
  • Average gradient 10%
  • Maximum gradient 26% 
  • Stage 1, CCC Cantabrico

This is a climb that’s as rich in its gradient as it is in stunning scenery
This is a climb that’s as rich in its gradient as it is in stunning scenery

Perhaps the toughest climb on any of the CCC events, riders have been truly terrified by this one on the opening stage, wondering what on earth could possibly follow it… 

This ridiculously steep piece of concrete road can be found very close to the splendid Collada de Lunada in Cantabrico. Stunted poplar trees, silver-grey rocky outcrops and bright green grazing fields create a unique setting for this challenging climb that feels so much longer than its 9km. 

There are no signs to this road, nor signs once on it; locals will discourage you from trying it. To climb this one is to gain instant respect among the riding fraternity. Halfway between a Basque Country ‘wall’ and a proper mountain, this is a unique climb whichever of its two sides you dare to tackle. This is a perfect setting for the purest glory through suffering.

Five alive

More rare treats from Europe’s great ranges…

Col du Chasseral

  • 11km
  • Average gradient 6.8%
  • Maximum gradient 18%
  • Stage 8, CCC Vosges/Jura

Swiss Jura, north of Neuchatel, and highest point of the North Jura mountains with a Ventoux-like weather station at the top.

Col de Croix de Bauzon

  • 15km
  • Average gradient 5.2%
  • Maximum gradient 9% 
  • Stage 7, CCC Cevennes

A steady, snaking climb that gets itself into a knotted twist over the last 5km, with infinite views of the Cevennes and Lozere regions. Based due west of Aubenas.

Col du Vaumale

  • 12km
  • Average gradient 7%
  • Maximum gradient 10% 
  • Stage 3, CCC Southern Alps

The south bank of the Gorges du Verdon. Riding above swooping vultures is different, while views down to the bright turquoise water in the Gorge make a worthy reward for the tough ascent.

Passo di Compet

  • 12km
  • Average gradient 8%
  • Maximum gradient 10%
  • Stage 2, CCC Dolomites

North of Levico Terme. Experience dense woodland, silk-smooth tarmac, perfect hairpins, demanding but steady climbing, with a great cafe at the top.

Col de Tende

  • 8km
  • Average gradient 8%
  • Maximum gradient 18%
  • Stage 10, CCC Southern Alps

On the Italian/French border, north of Tende, this climb features over 65 hairpins and the last 4km are on gravel road… But that’s another — long — story...

Ride of a Thousand Cols

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cent Cols concept in 2017, Rapha Travel is holding 10 CCC events back-to-back (separated only by one transfer day, one ‘shopping day’, and one induction day for the next group). Phil Deeker will lead 10 groups of riders through these 10 events in his attempt to ride 1,000 cols from Bastia to Bilbao.

For itinerary and booking details see www.rapha.cc

To discover what makes a Cent Cols Challenge different from any other cycling event visit centcolschallenge.com

This article was originally published in Cycling Plus magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

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