Ken Roberts - - Bicycling
earlier in this year
selecting high mountain roads to ride
October 2009 - (revised from September 2008)
Different climbs are worth riding for different reasons. Different people at different times have different preferences + goals. So if you know which climbs fit which preferences then you can do better at choosing climbs (or a region) that fit for you.
Revision in 2009: I started exploring climbs that don't go over a pass -- and discovering that some of those deserve to be selected as more interesting or pretty. Then I discovered www.quaeldich.de -- a community exploring and assessing climbs for qualities other than steepness and size.
[ to be added ]
timing: snow + selecting season to ride
For me views of snow make a big difference in how much enjoy riding in the mountains -- I really like seeing the contrast of bright white and dark rock, bright white with green trees, bright white with blue sky.
My thought is that there's three categories of mountain scenes:
(a) those with such interesting rock or water structures (pinnacles, vertical cliffs, lake, waterfall) that they are sufficiently wonderful without the enhancement of snow
(though often the presence of snow makes them even more wonderful) - (examples are the Sella and Groedner / Gardena passes in the Dolomites)
(b) those with sufficient permanent year-round snow to be wonderful even after all their seasonal snow has melted away
(though the presence of the additional seasonal snow makes them more wonderful) - (examples are the views west from Grosse Scheidegg to the Fiescherhorn + Mönch + Eiger, or on various sectionns of roads around Mont Blanc)
(c) all the other mountain places, which are much more spectacular with substantial seasonal snow than without.
Therefore (c) is much prettier in early season than late season.
Here's my assessment of how to apply this:
based on the discussion under "why ride high mountain roads?", here's what I'm going to focus on for selection:
pointy peaks or interesting rock formations
Myself I'm not all that impressed by seeing high summits or ridges with a smooth or rounded profile. Because the hills and ridges around where I live have mostly smooth profiles, which is nice sometimes -- but why should I put in the time and effort to ride high if I'm going to see basically the same kind of shapes? So I prefer to select roads with views (and close views) of pointy peaks.
see also: viewpoints for Mont Blanc mountains (09jun)
For me, snow enhances the interesting visual contrast of almost any mountain view. I've found that seeing the same pass with snow is much more dramatic for me than without. In another section I've discussed the timing strategy for riding near "temporary" seasonal snow. In this section I'll give some suggestions for riding by snow which does not depend on timing -- because it's there all year round. (though usually it's even more spectacular to ride these roads when they are enhanced by additional seasonal snow.)
I love riding near water, lakes or streams or rivers. Wide rivers are rare in the mountains. Streams are pretty frequent (so they're not a strong distinguishing feature for selection). Lakes are not so frequent up in the mountains. And with mountain roads you often get to see the lake from above, which is different (and often more visually dramatic) than on flat or gentle valley terrain.
Timing: waterfalls tend to big bigger in springtime as they snow is melting. But mountain lakes in springtime and early summer sometimes look like empty bathtubs -- because the human communities
ideas I haven't tried yet
lakes or waterfalls on loop routes
I have not been so much into this myself -- I've tended to prefer wide open spaces.
What I like on a long climb are: variety of curves, some variety of steepness (but not much of steepness too high, or I'll burn out my muscles), pretty villages, nice views across the valley already low down, rock formations or pretty creeks close alongside the road, variety of views.
For me one of the big problems of riding in the high mountains is long climbs that get boring, so what I do not like are mostly long straight sections of constant steepness, and long sections with lots of dense trees on both sides (so I don't see a view).
Also I prefer to avoid climbing up roads where if I ride on the right side of the road, most of the time I'm riding on the up-slope side of the road (away from the side which has the better view outward and downward) -- especially on roads with significant motor vehicle traffic in the uphill direction. Because when such a road makes a sharp curve toward the right, cars overtaking me have limited visibility around that curve, so they might not see me riding until they're close to me. Since I'm climbing I'm slower so I'm spending more time in that limited visibility situation, and the speed difference between the motor vehicle and me is larger.
Here's some roads with climbs I found interesting:
Austria + Germany
What I usually like for going down are: interesting curves, variety of slopes, little rollers, variety of curves, short tunnels
I usually do not like roads which are too steep, or too gentle, or too much straight.
I think there's wide variety of "tastes" among bicyclists for descents. I think lots of more skillful riders prefer steeper descents than I do. And some people like steep straight roads, so they can attain higher speeds. Those riders need to find a different list from mine.
And perhaps my own "tastes" in descents vary with the mood and the day.
Here's some descents that struck me as interesting at the time:
I usually like seeing interesting human constructions in all kinds of terrain: villages, cities, buildings. There's usually less of it in the mountains, and there's varieties of opinions among bicyclists about which kinds are positive or negative. Myself I like seeing colorful villages and buildings and railways; do not like big power transmission towers, and I'm more tolerant of ski lifts than many riders.
lack of human structures
Some people sometimes (but not me most times) prefer to ride where there's little or no sign of human presence (other than the nicely paved road or well-trodden gravel path).
especially domestic animals, but (non-violent) wild animals are interesting also.
challenge - (added to other good features)
To me the main "challenge" of climbing is steepness. Climbs that are long are mostly just a matter of patience -- just keep slogging along and resist the temptation to "conquer" the hill.
Since there are several places to look up climbs by the steepness and length numbers, here I'm going to focus on climbs that have something else interesting to offer.
The famous high pass roads in France and Switzerland and Italy are mostlly well-engineered for tourist and commercial traffic -- so they tend not to be real steep overall -- and tend to have fairly "even" grades -- not many short steeper sections. So far my finding is that the main place for interesting roads that are steep is Austria.
Here's some roads with substantial sections at least 10% steepness grade, and also some other aspect that make them worthwhile:
Here's some thoughts about some famous climbs:
My problems with this one are (a) there are some dramatic high peaks in the region, but you can't see them from the top of the climb; (b) the road is so well-designed that it's mostly a long slog with little variety -- just one switchback after another; (c) It's supposed to be an incredible challenge, but the road is so carefully engineered that it's mostly not very steep.
What's good about it: (a) Dramatic contrast between the approach and start of the climb; (b) looking across at the steep north wall above Bourg d'Oisans; (c) If you've never seen a road with switchbacks before, it's got lots of them; (d) It's one of the highest roads where the snow gets plowed off all year long; (e) If you want to see other riders while you climb, it's a good bet here.
Key: Get a list of the several other more interesting + pretty climbs in range of Bourg d'Oisans (like try the map on the quaeldich.de page for Alpe d'Huez)
Delivers something special: (a) riding all the way to the top of peak that stands apart, with a big 360-degree view; (b) climb thru at least three different ecological zones: pretty farmland at the base, forest in the middle, barren rock on top. Starting from Bedoin on the south side there are some sustained steep sections, so it's got some of the "challenge" aspect. Lots of variety of other great riding nearby: farmland, villages, at least one gorge, other smaller interesting passes to north.
Key: If you're not sure you're strong enough to handle the steeps from Bedoin, start from the southeast by Sault.
More famous east side delivers on snow-covered mountains (but not so much pointy peaks) and on remarkable engineering of a road up an intimidating steep slope -- which you get to look up to while riding. Indeed so well-engineered that much is a long uniform slog, just one switchback after another, and never really very steep (so its challenge is more in the size and high altitude). For more variety, try the west side, which has variations on steepness, some sections with and without switchbacks, a section with tunnels. Or the loop to the north with Passo Umbrail + Val Mustair + Glurns. Or both.
Key: If you don't like lots of motorcycles whizzing by, try to avoid sunny weekend days. If you want to spend multiple days nearby, Bormio has more interesting climbing options, even though its climb to Stelvio is less famous.
Aspects of long slog. Climbing it from the east side over Aspin at least breaks it up. Don't wait till late summer or autumn when most of the snow is gone.
Delivers on the high-mountain experience. North side has some nice variety in the road. Too bad its view of the dramatic Ecrins peaks is partly blocked by its own ridge. I found the descent south + west to Bourg d'Oisans rather fun + pretty.
Key: The obvious approach to the north side by climbing up to Col Telegraphe is too much a boring slog: think about creative ways to avoid that.
Delivers on the high-mountain experience with snowy peaks in view (as it should since it's the highest paved road over a true pass in France) -- though the glaciers in view are not as big as they used to be, so it doesn't hurt to get there in early summer while there's additional seasonal snow around to enhance the white-contrast. The north side has several ski lifts in view -- so if you're offended by that, try to spend less time on the north side, and more time on the south side (with authentic old villages).
Key: The "full" climb up the north side starting from Bourg St Maurice (coming from Cormet de Roselend) or from Seez (coming from Col du Petit St Bernard) gets lots of motor traffic (including trucks) because it's the main road up to two of the most popular mountain resorts in France -- and most if it is not that rewarding for views (though it's good to know where to look up to see the glaciers on the east face of Dome de la Sache and Mon Pourri). Especially consider avoiding Saturday, since that's the day lots of the resort apartment rentals change. But really . . .
My advice is to just avoid climbing up most of the north side road at all -- two ways: (a) take a bus up at least to the north end of the obvious big lake (or to Val d'Isere town) and start climbing from there; (b) go over the pass from south to north, so you take the main north side road in the downhill direction (and also spend less time staring at the ski lifts).
my favorite climbs - with multiple strong features
Here's my favorites which combine multiple positive features:
loop clockwise from Zweilütschinen (or Wilderswil / Interlaken) > bike route 61 to Grindelwald Grund > (optional side trip for "animals": climb asphalt to Grosse Scheidegg with great views, and perhaps ? optional expert descent on dirt trail ?) > climb asphalt road to Männlichen > walking / jogging off bike on Panoramaweg trail from Männlichen north to Kleine Scheidegg > descend on dirt-gravel to Wengen > train down to Lauterbrunnen (or optionally very steep descent on dirt-gravel with tight corners) > moderate descent to Zweilütschinen (or Interlaken) at least some on main road, could do much of it on dirt-gravel. Optional side-loop clockwise from Lauterbrunnen: ride south then take lift up to Gimmelwald (or the "animal" option: pedal up thru Stechelberg with substantial hiking on rough path to Gimmelwald -- dual-suspension bike recommended) > climb on asphalt to Mürren > traverse much on dirt/gravel to Winteregg > descend much on dirt/gravel to Lauterbrunnen.
Note that the first three climbs above are all close to the village of Innertkirchen (and Männlichen is not so far away).
Also near Innertkirchen is the pretty climb on asphalt thru Gental to Engstlenalp (or higher on dirt-gravel) - (Higher percentage of interest + scenery with less slogging if start climbing from higher than Innertkirchen, like around the toll station, perhaps with aid of post-bus). Also nearby some like the climb to Axalp + Chruttmettli.
So Innertkirchen could make a good "base" (? also has mountain bike trails which I've never explored ?), or other possible bases could be Meiringen or Interlaken.
favorite mountain loops - with multiple strong features
I love to ride loop routes that go over an interesting mountain pass and around thru an interesting valley, or over multiple high mountain passes. Here's some of my favorites:
? Grimsel + Nufenen + Gotthard + Susten loop in early summer ? -- I've done all the parts, but I think the whole loop is too long for me to ride in a single day. And I'd want to include side trips to the Oberaar Panoramastrasse and perhaps south from the Nufenenpass to Griespass and into the Ticino mountains (now sounding definitely like two days). Also I'd probably try climbing the new road up the south side of Gotthard / San Gottardo instead of again the old Roman cobble road.
Optional side trip: climb paved road up to Maennlichen and descend the same way. - (or conceivably, hike from Maennlichen to Kleine Scheidegg and descend to Wengen or even to Lauterbrunnen -- but that's lots more on dirt, some very steep -- not sure I'd want to try it on a road bike). (Switzerland)
other famous loops:
"les Marmottes" (France) = Croix de Fer > ? Mollard > Telegraphe > Galibier > Lauteret: a great challenge, and I really enjoy certain sections of it (e.g. the descent west from Lauteret, the upper north side of Galibier) but it doesn't make my list of favorites as a total loop, because of some uninteresting sections (e.g. north side of Telegraphe) that go on for much too long -- and somehow the lakes and other view features just don't quite come together enough for me like on the Grimsel-Furka-Susten loop. So I feel like I want to just "skim" the best from this area of France with up-and-back rides, rather than riding it as a complete loop.
Mortirolo - Gavia (northeast Italy) = Ponte di Legno > Passo Gavia > Bormio > Mazzo > Passo Mortirolo > Ponte di Legno. Two famous "hard climbs" of the Giro d'Italia - (anyway Mortirolo from Mazzo road actually has some really steep sections -- and interesting variety). I'd want to do it in early summer, so I could get some white-snow-contrast on the long climb up the south side of Gavia (whose views didn't impress me in autumn).
bases with multiple interesting + pretty climbs
Riders who do multi-day tours tend to be focused on achieving a grand multi-day goal. While they want to have interesting single days, they tend to want each day to contribute toward the grand goal which looks impressive when drawn on a large-scale map.
So they tend to overlook interesting or pretty climbs that do not go "over" something, which require you to go back down the same way. And they tend to overlook interesting + pretty "balcony" traverses which do "go" somewhere but by a longer and hillier route (instead of the shorter flatter way along the floor of the valley). And they tend to miss even short easy pretty side trips -- because they are side trips.
This is not because they're not strong enough to do the "extra" work, or lack the will to do "extra" work. I think usually because they simply do not learn about about the existence of these other climbs, because time required to explore for possible other climbs more interesting + pretty risks just being "wasted", yielding neither more pretty riding nor progress to the grand touring goal.
But there are lots of interesting + pretty climbs which are not also convenient to go to some long-distance goal.
Boring sections: Experienced cyclotourists tend to be accustomed to and accepting of long boring sections -- because it's difficult to design a tour route which has a worthy "large map" start-to-finish goal which does not have long boring sections. And the fact that a rider has decided to make bicycling the main activity of almost every day for a week or more is not a sign of someone looking for interesting variety on their travel or leisure -- especially where traveling thru regions that have several different interesting outdoor activities (as mountain often do).
So as long as there's a view at the top, cyclotourists are less likely to notice that most of the road they climbed up to it was mostly just a long slog with little interesting variation in riding or view. And if there were an interesting variety of views along the climb, noticing them and stopping to photograph would get in the way of steady progress toward the destination for the day (before the bad weather hits?)
racers + famous race events
Race events which are famous internationally tend to look for climbs which:
But there are lots of interesting or pretty climbs which don't have much of those things, so you miss out on opportunities -- (and sometimes you do a boring climb just because it was what fit into the middle of a multi-climb stage).
One problem I've seen is that there is a famous race climb which draws cycling visitors to an area -- but actually there are more interesting climbs which draw bicycling visitors -- but actually there are more interesting climbs nearby, but you don't try them because those weren't the ones that got used in the big race. So you feel you have to leave and travel somewhere else, when actually you could have made a base there for several days -- or if you were unimpressed by the famous climb, you might feel that it wasn't worth making the visit (or any future visit).
Absolute steepness is not critical, since top pro and amateur racers are able to climb up almost any paved road that vaguely fits the criteria above. If their bike lacks low enough gearing to make it straightforward to climb some road, that is a choice not to spend the time and money to set up a bike with sufficiently low gearing.
Racers themselves tend to be more focused on other riders around them than on the road itself or pretty views around it. "Interesting" aspects of the design of a road are relevant only in so far as they change competive tactics and strategy. They will tend to be happy choosing roads from famous events partly because they're likely to be chosen by other racers, so they're more likely to see other racers on those climbs, which allows for informal competition, or at least thinking about competition -- or talking about competition.
There are websites which allow people to assign a numerical rating to each climb. I normally ignore these voter ratings when selecting what to ride. Because there's lots of problems with them:
Of course this gets tricky because one of the main reasons we try to ride up any climb at all is for the personal feeling of success. And one of the main reasons we try to visit other climbs is for the feeling of "discovery".
Two basic problems are that:
(1) There are several different kinds of voters -- and it's worth knowing the ratings and preferences of each different kind to draw different kinds of conclusions -- but it's not so helpful if their differences are congealed into an average.
(2) There are several different important qualities of a climb, and it's not very helpful to lump them all together into a single number. (Especially if each voter is using different proportional weights on the different qualities when deciding on what number to give).
Some great things about www.quaeldich.de: (a) It presents findings of a few (presumably) well-qualified riders with a wide range of experience; (b) It distinguishes ratings of two key qualities of a climb: prettiness and difficulty; (c) lots of specific detail in prose about each climb; (d) The difficulty rating is not calculated by some convoluted formula.
I think it could be even greater if they: (a) Also include as a separate result the statistica of ratings of all members who wanted to vote on a climb (perhaps self-qualified by range of experience and number of times they'd done that climb); (b) Distinguished more different qualities to be rated: Especially distinguishing the prettiness with and without seasonal snow.
more . . .
concept words: roberts Europe European visit trip vacation holiday American visitor report reports
bicycling: bicycle bicycling bike bikes bicycles bicyclist cycle cyclist cycling touring riding rider riders
routes: route routes ride rides tour tours map maps
places: place river valley state country region regions area areas city town village
fahrrad rad radfahren radtour touren routen velo tour tours route routes velotour cyclisme
bici bicicletta percorso itinerario visita giro turistico