The toughest cycling climbs in the Alps
Issue 15 / 24 May 2019
The toughest cycling climbs in the Alps

The Alps are integral to the world of cycling and are home to some of the most infamous and challenging ascents in the world.

Serena Norton

Cycling in the French Alps

The French Alps are home to some of the most challenging and well-known climbs in the Alps. Made famous by the Tour de France, cycling here can in fact be as easy or hard as you wish. The best time to cycle in the region is from May to July and September to October when the traffic is at a minimum and the weather and lush green landscape is at its best. If you like to keep it relaxed then the Loire Valley has a lot to offer, as does Provence. However, if you’re on the lookout for a challenge then take a look at our three ‘must-ride’ cycle climbs in the French Alps.

Photo: Alpe d'Huez - © Robbie Shade
Alpe d\'Huez, France /
Photo: Col du Galibier -©Robbie Shade
Col du Galibier, France /

  1. Col de la Madeleine - connecting the Maurienne and Tarentaise valleys, Col de la Madeleine is one of the toughest ascents in the Alps and has featured over 25 times in the Tour de France. A relentless 26 km in length and climbing up to 2,000 metres in elevation, this is a serious test for mind and body. However, riders who reach the top will be rewarded by spectacular views of Le Massif de la Lauzière and Mont Blanc.
  2. Col du Galibier - regularly included in the Tour de France, this is a brutal climb, but the views of the Ecrins range and Mont Blanc at the top are worth it. Starting from Valloire, the 18 km long climb takes you from 1,397m to 2,642m. In 2011, Col du Galibier was used as a summit finish, making it the highest ever point a stage has finished at.
  3. Alpe d’Huez - this fearsome climb is one of the most iconic in the Tour de France. This 13.8 km climb begins at Bourg d’Oisans with relentless turns and gradient taking you all the way to Alpe d’Huez. With 21 hairpin bends to negotiate, this is not for the faint-hearted, but the sense of achievement at the top is worth the pain.

Cycling in the Italian Alps

One of the many reasons why cycling in the Italian Alps is so special is the spectacular scenery. In particular, the Dolomites offers a wonderful contrast between its high, craggy limestone peaks and lush green meadows. As breathtaking as the scenery are the gradients - the Giro d’Italia is regarded by many as the toughest Grand Tour in the world. If you want to find out why then a trip to these three passes will provide the answer.

Photo: Passo Dello Stelvio
passo-dello-stelvio-italy /
Photo: ©Monica Guy
Cycling in Dolomites /

  1. Passo dello Stelvio - one of the world’s most photographed roads, the Stelvio is the second highest paved mountain pass in the Alps with a summit at 2,758 metres above sea level. In fact, Top Gear has named it the “greatest driving road in the world” and it is no less exciting to cycle with 48 hairpin turns on its eastern side. From Prato, the ascent is over 24 km long and although marginally shorter (22km) from Bormio, it is no less challenging.
  2. Mortirolo Pass - connecting Mazzo di Valtellina and Val Camonica, the Mortirolo climb was described by Lance Armstrong as “the hardest climb I’ve ever ridden”. This energy-sapping climb has appeared in the Giro d’Italia 10 times and has an average gradient of 10.5% over its 12.5 km.
  3. Passo Giau - one of the most attractive passes in the Dolomites, the Passo Giau has frequently been used as part of the Giro. It also acts as the penultimate descent in the Maratona dles Dolomites, an annual single-day road cycling race open to amateur cyclists, covering seven mountain passes in the Dolomites. Starting in Selva di Cadore, the climb is just over 10 km in length, reaching 2,236m at the summit. Hopefully, the glorious views will distract you from the unrelenting gradient...

Cycling in the Swiss Alps

Whilst the Tour de Suisse and Tour de Romandie do not hold the reputation of the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, the Swiss passes should not be forgotten. In fact, the country is home to some of the best cycling in Europe. There are endless options, from rolling hills in the north and flat cycling by lakes and through vineyards to 17 paved passes over 2,000m in the Alps. So what are considered to be the best climbs in the Swiss Alps?

Photo: Tremola
tremola-mountain-pass /
Photo: Furka Pass - ©Kitty Terwolbeck
Furka Pass /

  1. Tremola - the south-side of the Gotthard Pass, also known as Tremola, is a big hit with cyclists. The 2,106m pass connects Andermatt to the north and Airolo in the south. Dating back to Roman times, the Tremola is considered to be Switzerland’s longest historical monument. The 7.3 mile climb has an average gradient of 8% and a series of switchbacks. While most of the traffic is diverted through a tunnel or on the main road to the pass , cyclists ride the old road where the top 5 km are cobbled in typical Swiss style (smooth..!)
  2. Furka Pass - most famous for featuring in the James Bond film Goldfinger, the Furka Pass is the fourth highest paved mountain pass in Switzerland. Surrounded by mountain peaks and with well-surfaced roads and hairpin bends, this is cycling heaven.
  3. Col du Sanetsch - technically a dead end, many cyclists are put off this beautiful ride which meanders through vineyards and woods before a series of switchbacks take you to the top section overlooked by rocky peaks. The benefit is that there is no relentless traffic spoiling your experience.  And although there’s no road down the other side, there is a cable car which takes you over to Gsteig, near the famous ski resort of Gstaad.
Newsletter
Sign up to our newsletter for exclusive news, offers & inspiration.
We respect your privacy
Memberships & Affiliations
iata
Schweize Reisegarantie
iata