As cycling mania reaches fever pitch with the start of the Tour de France, which runs from July 5-27, we scour the globe to find the hardest and most epic climbs you can ride on two wheels. Some may be classics that let you test yourself against cycling's hardmen. But others, such as India's Khardung Pass will require you to journey deep into your soul to make it to the top. Succeed and the rewards will not just be a good view.
1. Dante’s View: For a Window Into the Gates of Hell
Maximum gradient: 13 percent
Hazards: Heat exhaustion and death
Death Valley is not generally known as a great place to ride. With summer temperatures routinely hitting 49°C and landmarks with names like Funeral Mountains, Devil’s Golf Course and Coffin Peak, you can see why. But where in the world could you ride from below sea level to almost 1,700m above in one hit?
Beginning at 85.5m below sea level at the dry, salt-covered Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, the first 25km of the ride up to Dante’s View is virtually flat and the next 30km of asphalt rises steadily at around four percent. But the sting in the tail is the increasing gradient the higher it gets. The final kilometre reaches 13 percent, before the road ends in a small car park overlooking the valley. Hopefully you'll be more alive than dead to enjoy the view.
2. Khardung Pass: For Bucket List Braggadocio
Maximum gradient: 5 percent
Hazards: Altitude sickness and army truck drivers
Long claimed to be the world’s highest driveable road, the Khardung Pass in India features on many a die-hard cyclist’s bucket list. Anyone game enough to ride this ultra-long slog is likely to regret it as soon as they start pedalling. From the town of Leh, it’s a mighty 39km to the summit. While the gradient is steady at 5 percent, the road is not asphalted. So for the final 15km you can expect rocks and the odd lump of snow on the route.
Due to the proximity of the Pakistani and Chinese borders, army truck convoys are a regular hazard, however that’s nothing compared to what the altitude can do. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can start to affect people over 2,400m. Khardung Pass rises to well over double that, making those final kilometres absolutely agonising.
3. Passo dello Stelvio: The Climb for Diehard Masochists
Length: From Prato, 24.3 km
Maximum gradient: 14 percent
Hazards: Psychological torture
Viewed from the air, the Passo dello Stelvio looks evil and yet totally alluring. Its elevation means it’s open during summer only and even then anyone attempting it may find themselves snaking their way up through walls of stone. Starting from Prato on the Northern side, it boasts a vertical gain of 1,808m and 48 hairpin bends, all of them numbered on a stone by the road.
The legendary Fausto Coppi, nicknamed Il Campionissimo (Champion of champions), said after cycling it that he “felt he was going to die” during the climb. It's fair to assume you'll feel worse.
4. Hardknott Pass: A Climb for Hardy Souls
Where: United Kingdom
Maximum gradient: 33 percent
Hazards: Wind, rain, stray sheep
England may not do Alpine mountains, but as the 2014 Tour de France through the northern county of Yorkshire just demonstrated, it can still pack a punch. Hardknott Pass in the Lake District has a claim to be the country’s steepest and toughest.
A cattle grid at the start sucks any speed you may have had, before the road kicks up with an extremely steep opening ramp. There’s some respite for a few hundred metres and then it’s into the switchbacks which measure over 30 percent on the apex. If you survive that it’s a grind to the top with most of the last 800m between 20-25 percent. The road is fairly exposed so expect some wind and rain to liven things up too.
5. Mont Ventoux: For Cyclists Looking for Martyrdom
Length: From Bédoin, 21.8km
Maximum gradient: 11 percent
Hazards: Wind, heat, duration
Mont Ventoux is a classic and considered the most fearsome of France's climbs. Known as ‘the Giant of Provence’, it’s 1,912m high and stands alone. The ascent is long, 21.8km if you ascend from Bédoin. It doesn’t let up, the asphalt rising consistently at around 10 percent most of the way. That might be a manageable gradient on a normal hill, however once on the treeless higher parts, cyclists are exposed to often very strong winds.
It’s notorious for claiming the life of English cyclist Tom Simpson who collapsed of exhuastion and died during the 1967 Tour, aged 29. Official cause of death was heat exhaustion, but we're pretty sure the brandy and amphetamines in his system didn't help.
6. Paso Internacional Los Libertadores: A View to Die for
Maximum gradient: 14 percent
Hazards: Altitude, trucks, cold
This pass, which has its own Twitter feed, snakes its way over the Andes between Chile and Argentina. From Los Andes Chile, the road ascends by perfectly formed sets of switchbacks eventually ending up at over 3,800m with a statue of Christ the Redeemer to welcome you. The first 29 hairpins climb 600m up from the valley floor to around 2,800m above sea level and from there it’s 5km to a Chilean immigration point and then another 2km to the start of an old road which leads to the summit.
The summit is made significantly tougher by the altitude, rocky unsurfaced road and 10 percent plus gradient. Wind can also slow things down, but conquer all that and you'll be rewarded by magnificent views of the switchbacks below and South America’s highest peak, Aconcagua. Top tip? Bring a warm top – in 2013, 15,000 Chileans got stranded on the Argentinian side for a day during a snowstorm.