“Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades” – Eddy Merckx
The great Eddy Merckx knows his onions when it comes to cycling. While lightweight
carbon wheels will make you look good, the best way to get strong on the bike is to hit the hills.
We’re incredibly lucky in Europe to have some of the best mountains for cycling in the world, and with a little planning and a good wind you can fit a good few into a long weekend away. Here’s our suggestion for five trips that allow you to tick off some iconic peaks between the Friday bell and the return to the office.
Europe’s new cycling mecca
Since a certain Mr Armstrong discovered the small medieval city of Girona in the early 2000s it has developed into the cycling hub in Europe. Home to enough professionals for you to nonchalantly share a nod as you rub shoulders at the supermercado, the city and its environs have everything you need for the ultimate weekend away – a plethora of cycle-friendly hotels and apartments, fantastic weather, cyclists everywhere and the all-important airport just 15 minutes from the centre (although it’s only open in summer). The city is compact enough to feel familiar after a few hours of wandering around and there are enough restaurants and coffee spots to cater for all tastes.
But it’s the riding that draws cyclists from all over the world here, with famous climbs such as Els Angels and Rocacorba (so special that ex-pro and modern-day cycling tsar David Millar named his own cycling club after it) less than 20km from the city. A little further afield is the Mare de Deu del Mont, a hidden treasure with 12km of sinuous tarmac reaching up to a viewpoint to take your breath away. The roads between them are straight from the cyclist’s playbook – smooth, quiet and bathed in Spanish sunshine.
The Belgian bergs
If Girona is Europe’s locale of the moment, then the cobbled climbs and unforgiving landscape of Flanders in Belgium represent its enduring, unchanging history. There’s only 85km separating the Kemmelberg in West Flanders and the Kapelmuur in Geraardsbergen, but the spider’s web of roads and cobbled tracks between them have seen some of cycling’s most epic battles. Close enough to Calais and Ostend for a ferry trip, it’s easy to fall in love with pain here.
It’s a place to visit, to get lost and discover yourself. Roads criss-cross each other with alarming regularity, but there are three climbs, in particular, you should ride. The Oude Kwaremont in Kluisbergen is one of the longer climbs here, 2.2km long with an average gradient of 4.2%, which sounds easy until you see the cobbled surface. First used in the Tour of Flanders in 1974 it regularly lights up the racing in other one-day races such as Dwars door Vlaanderen, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and E3 Harelbeke.
Don’t miss the Koppenberg in Oudenaarde. 600m long, dead straight, with a 22% gradient at its steepest, it’s comprised of cobbles the size of bowling balls. Famous for the 1987 incident when Danish rider Jesper Skibby was clobbered by a race vehicle it’s a challenge whether attempted in warm sunshine or the more common wet conditions.
Finally, the iconic Kapelmuur in Geraardsbergen looks to have been built by half-baked bricklayers on a Friday afternoon. The cobbles look dropped rather than laid and with a gradient of 20% at its worst, you’ll understand why the locals named it after the Flemish word for ‘wall’. Flandrians love their cycling and you’ll just as likely have the hotel receptionist suggesting hidden gems as anyone you meet on the roads. In mud and the blood of Flanders everyone who rides a bike is a local.
The giant of Provence
Within an hour’s drive of Marseille is perhaps the most famous climb in all of Europe. Host to triumph and tragedy, Mont Ventoux rears up from the Provençal landscape and demands to be ridden. There are three road routes to its summit, enough to keep you happy for a weekend, though if you’re feeling strong and/or crazy you can attempt all three in one day and join the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux.
Each route is as demanding as the other, the one starting from Bédoin on the mountain’s southwestern flank being the one most used in the Tour. Bédoin is also the best spot to base yourself for the weekend, providing easy access to Marseille airport and with plenty of bike-friendly hotels and all-important pizza and pasta joints to refill your empty reserves in the evening. A word of advice though – it’s no metropolis so it’s always a good idea to reserve a table. Hungry cyclists do not a good evening companion make.
The views from the top of Ventoux are staggering – there’s little to obscure the view south to the Mediterranean coast or north to the snow-capped Alps. Best visited in late summer, be prepared for changeable weather and for it to get a bit blowy – it’s not called the Windy Mountain without good reason.
You don’t have to travel to foreign shores to get your vertical kicks. In the UK we have some fantastic cycling within easy reach and if you’re short of time a few days in the Peak District can be squeezed into a busy schedule. On a single 100km ride from Castleton, a small village carved into the limestone rocks at the western end of the Hope Valley, you can ride celebrated climbs such as Winnats Pass, Mam Tor, Holme Moss and the nattily titled Cote de Bradfield. Recently visited by the pros in the Tour de France Grand Départ in 2014, Holme Moss is a beast, particularly if you ride its snaking hairpins from Holme into the typically challenging westerly winds.
UK climbs might not be as long as those in the Alps, or as relentlessly painful as those in Flanders, but they’re plenty challenging enough to give you a warm glow as you sup your recovery pint in any of Castleton’s fine pubs. For a weekend away you could do worse.
Whatever your opinion on the late Marco Pantani, what can’t be denied is his enduring legacy. Il Pirata’s hometown of Cesenatico is only around an hours’ drive from Bologna airport and his influence is still felt in the town and the surrounding countryside. Pantani’s favourite climb, the Colle del Barbotto, is located 40km from the town, where its 18% ramps await you.
The scenery around these parts is nothing short of breathtaking. If you can, timing your trip to coincide with May’s Nove Colli gran fondo, taking in some 200km of beautiful roads of the Emilia-Romagna region, will give you a real flavour of the particular passion Italians have for cycling.
Have we tickled that adventure bone? Take a look at our series of iconic climbs and get planning. As Eddy Merckx would tell you, “Ride as much or as little, as long or as short as you feel. But ride.”
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