Every serious cyclist worth his or her electrolytes carries around an inner list of “someday rides”, a dream landscape comprised of ferocious Alpine climbs, harrowing coastal descents and arresting scenery (topped off, of course, with enigmatic locals and restorative local elixirs). Riders can cite the established canon of iconic rides like a liturgy; those not sharing a language can forge an instant connection by simply dropping words like “Mortirolo” or “Galibier”, typically followed with an “ahhh”, a gauzy stare into the distance, and a knowing nod of the head. Making a list is fraught with difficulty – Italy alone easily has half a dozen rides you should probably do “before you die” – but half the pleasure in making lists is for someone else to counter with their own. Here then, in no particular order, is a list of not-to-be-missed rides that I, and a group of pro cyclists and cycling writers that I surveyed, think are monumental in their own way.
Col de la Bonette, France (above)
Max Leonard, author of the forthcoming “The Dark Glow of the Mountains”, votes for this section of the Mercantour National Park in the southern Alps. “It’s unspoilt – there are colonies of wolves roaming both sides – and the northern side is particularly stunning. Shepherds graze their flocks on the highest slopes, and the area is full of military history (Third Empire barracks, second world war bunkers).” While not as historically significant as some Alpine climbs, it has featured four times in the Tour de France and this year in the Giro d’Italia for the first time. It is also billed as the highest paved road in Europe. “Strictly speaking, I’m not sure that’s true – there is probably tarmac higher than Bonette’s 2,802m, which is the height of the loop road around the cime (summit) above the col, in a couple of other spots.” But, as he notes, the French invented branding (“think Champagne, think Bordeaux, think Camembert”), and they have declared it so. “And to be able to say you’ve pedalled the highest road in Europe, well, that’s something.”
Mt. Lemmon, Tucson, Arizona
Tucson ranks in the top ten sunniest places in America, which has helped make it the country’s premiere go-to winter cycling destination. For a sprawling city, it is surprisingly bike friendly, and one could spend days riding gorgeous desert loops in the eastern section of Saguaro National Park, or joining up with the city’s legendary “shoot-out”, a punchy Saturday group ride. But the city’s real draw is Mt. Lemmon. It is not the country’s highest or toughest climb by a long shot, but what it offers, across several dozen miles and some 7,000 feet of elevation gain on the Catalina Highway, is a wonderfully curving, generously shouldered, steadily rising (4-6% average grade) route from the hot desert floor into cool, thickly timbered ski country – with endless Cinemascope views and eerie rock formations the whole way. It is two hours of flow-state-bliss on two wheels. Just be wary of the desert: I did not drink nearly enough, and paid mightily for it the following day.
Petrich to Dospat, Bulgaria
France and Italy suck up a lot of the oxygen when it comes to great cycling, but Tim Moore, author of “The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold” (out this October), gives a tip of the chapeau eastward. “On the face of it,” he told me, “the ride between the southern Bulgarian towns of Petrich and Dospat seems nothing special: 4km of vertical ascent in 124km, some scratchy surfaces and the odd steepling vista of the Grecian borderlands.” But a great climb, he argues, “should offer more than sore legs and a nice view, and this one takes you to another world. Petrich is a lowland study in drowsy post-socialism, all crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks and the odd Lidl. Marooned high up in the Rhodope Mountains, Dospat is clustered with minarets and loose livestock, some forgotten realm where old women in hijabs cleave logs on their doorsteps and squatting masons chink away at roadside heaps of sandstone. As a bonus, the colossal bronze Communist who stands guard at the head of the pass makes for a cracking triumphant selfie.”
The Six-Gaps Ride, Vermont
When I asked the recently retired pro cyclist Ted King for his top ride, I expected something drawn from one of the big European races. But this New Hampshire native (and maple-syrup enthusiast) looked closer to home. “Sure, the Alps or Pyrenees all live in cycling lore; the Rockies are sky-scraping and have extremely high altitude, but for me there’s nothing better than the northern Appalachians and the Green Mountains running north/south through the heart of Vermont.” Instead of European-style passes, there are “gaps” that connect small towns, east to west. The famed “six gap ride” crosses half a dozen of these, each seemingly more challenging than the last, with daunting elevations (sometimes on gravel). Lincoln Gap is particularly notorious as the “steepest paved mile in America”, rising in parts at a grade of more than 20%.
“The Rider Route”, Massif Central, France
Tim Krabbé’s 1978 novel “The Rider” is one of the all-time iconic texts in cycling, a ferocious existential ode to suffering (“Nature is an old lady with few friends these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms, she rewards passionately”). In the same way the Beat poets drew feverish seekers to seedy bars in San Francisco, cyclists have for years been making a a pilgrimage to ride the route of the Tour de Mont Aigoual, in France’s wild Massif Central, the landscape depicted in the book. A friend who recently completed the circuit pointed out that, in addition to the cycling delights on hand, one can “visit the chateau where Josephine Baker lived for over 20 years, with her international adopted family. Very moving.”
The website Strava ranks this hors catégorie Maui monster as the “longest paved climb in the world”. Starting in the small, quirky sea-level town of Pa’ia Town, the route climbs some 10,000 feet, to the very windswept summit of the Haleakala Volcano. The Trek-Sagafredo racer Ryder Hesjedal was so taken with the “cycle to the sun” route that he moved to Maui to train there in the off-season. One can simply be shuttled to the top of the volcano by a local outfitter, and then ride down, but any self-respecting cyclist knows that an unearned descent is a grave moral violation.
Sella Ronda, Dolomites, Italy
When not actually riding, I often find myself nursing a cappuccino in Maglia Rosa, a cosy bike shop/café in my Brooklyn neighborhood, talking to the proprietor, Manuel Mainardi, about great rides we have done – or wished we had. For him, nothing compares to this shockingly scenic traverse in the Dolomites, covering four passes (Campolongo, Gardena, Sella and Pordoi), snaking through the shadows of the jagged ring of mountains. The route is home to the famous Maratona dles Dolomites, a 138km gran fondo held in July every year. “Just thinking about it now, it does this,” he tells me, picking at his arms, feigning goose bumps. The best time to ride it, he notes, is summer, avoiding weekends and holidays for the uptick in car traffic.