I just gave myself this idea the other day while writing a blog article on a tour we just finished running in the Dolomites. It’s as much a memory exercise for my ageing brain as a list that I hope will be useful to someone. I feel like I’ve got a little ‘authority’ now, at least here in Europe, having passed 12 years of riding here with 10 of them guiding clients.
Sella Ronda (Dolomites, Italy)
Possibly the most perfect mountain cycling loop there is, this 55 km route climbs 4 mountain passes, while offering some of the best views you can imagine. The climbs are:
- Passo di Gardena (2121m)
- Passo di Sella (2213)
- Passo Pordoi (2239m)
- Passo di Campolongo (1875m)
Being a loop, you can of course ride this either direction. Sella Ronda Bike Day does it counter-clockwise, which is what we did with our clients, starting and finishing in Corvara.
Does all this sound too good to be true? Right, it is. This route, along with many others in the Dolomites, is jam-packed with cars, motorcycles and tour buses. We had no issues with these other vehicles and we cohabited quite nicely together, but if you are looking for a quiet, pristine mountain ride, this is not it.
Still, you will be hard pressed to find a more stunning route of this length anywhere.
Col du Pré de la Dame (Cévennes, France)
One of my ‘go to’ rides when I want to get some climbing in and put a smile on my face at the same time. The Pré de la Dame climb actually finishes on top of Mont Lozère, the highest mountain in the area, and this is one of two ways to climb it (the other is to the Col de Finiels). At 1475 m this is not a high col, but it is a proper climb: 15 km at 6.5% average gradient.
My ride starts 20 km before the start of the climb, in the former mining town of Bessèges (also known for being the inspiration for the first pro stage race in Europe on the calendar each year). You start this lovely 83 km loop along a river valley that very gently takes you up through chestnut forests and terraced fields till you find yourself in Genolhac, 20 km in and 450 m of climbing in the legs already.
The climb itself starts off steeply but then settles into a nice 5% to 7% rhythm the whole way up, leveling off a little before the top. The descent down to Villefort is fabulous and you won’t need to worry about meeting many cars on blind corners. You will have to contend with loose gravel in early summer, though, till they get it swept up from ski season.
The last time I did this climb I passed two cars on the way up and one camper van on the descent.
Lombarda, Bonette, Larche Loop (Alps, Italy/France)
This might end up being the biggest ride I list here (160 km, 4135m), but I include it not because of its massiveness, but because it just has so much to offer.
I did this ride in July 2015, just a few weeks before riding my 2nd Haute Route Alps. It was part of a solo ‘training camp’ I designed for myself in the Italian/French Alps. The ride starts from Cuneo, in Italy, but you can do this from Barcelonnette (France), of course. Just an aside here; both of these towns are excellent bases for riding huge cols. You could easily spend 3 or 4 days in each and not run out of options.
Out of Cuneo your first climb of the day is the lovely, quiet Colle della Lombarda, which tops out at 2350 meters. It forms the natural border between Italy and France. The French descent is much less interesting, much of it on a large ski station access road.
At the bottom of the long descent you turn right (turn left and you’ll be in Nice!) and climb the long, epic road to the Col de la Bonette (2715 meters), but once you are there you might as well turn left and tick off the Cime de la Bonette (2802 meters), a very steep loop road that leads you, well, back to where you started. Really though, you know you’re going to do it!
The descent off the Bonette is one of my favorites, especially the top portion, which offers open views and awesome, sweeping turns.
When you hit Jausiers in the Ubaye Valley eat something because you’ll need it to get yourself up and over your last col of the day – Col de Larche (1996 meters), or its far cooler name in Italian: Colle della Maddalena. You are on a main National road here, so it’s not as pleasant, especially at the bottom. Anyway, it’s still a good climb and it’s your only way back home!
Sarenne and Alpe d’Huez (Alps, France)
There are a few excellent loops to be done from Alpe d’Huez and I’m not sure which is my favorite (anything that includes the several ‘balcony’ roads are just incredible), but I chose this one because of the amazing contrast between the stark serenity of the first climb with the busy ski resort road of the last.
Your ride starts in the ski village of Alpe d’Huez, i.e. where the Tour de France climb ends. The route heads east out of the village and quickly turns into a goat track that climbs then descends down a deep valley before climbing steeply to the Col de Sarenne (1999 m). This mountain pass connects Alpe d’Huez with the Romanche Valley and is usually free of cars and just about anything else. The descent down the other side is hairy, but thrilling, and often has ‘road furniture’ on it (sheep). Care should be taken, especially near the top.
Once you reach the bottom of the valley you could turn left and ride up to the Lauteret and Galibier, or you could go straight and lengthen this 50 km loop by going up towards Les Deux Alpes, but your mission today is Alpe d’Huez, so turn right. After some more climbing and descending on this National Route you have a 5 km arrow straight ride down the Romanche Valley. At the roundabout at the edge of Le Bourg-d’Oisans turn right and you are nearly on the most famous 21 switchbacks in cycling.
Els Angeles (Girona, Spain)
Although the exit and run-in back to Girona is not the best riding there is in this world, if you find yourself in this most excellent little ‘cycling mecca’ you will also find yourself doing this loop, which is a short favorite of many pro cyclists who live in the town.
It’s a pretty straight forward 65 km loop but you’ll want to have it on your gps to navigate out and back into the city. There are two fantastic climbs, both around 10 km long with averages around 4% to 6%. Just perfect for stretching the legs.
Once you get to the east side of the mountain there are plenty of ways to extend this ride, as far as going all the way to the Mediterranean, if you feel like a long one. Our tour company uses this little loop as our ‘shakeout’ ride on the first day of our Girona tours, though, and it’s a great intro to riding in Catalonia.
Tour of Flanders ‘Blue Route’ (Oudenaarde, Belgium)
This one is super easy to organize, since you can simply download the gpx file from the Flanders Cycling Museum’s website. There are several routes from the museum to choose from, but the ‘blue loop’ offers the most in terms of famous Tour of Flanders ‘bergs’ and is a nice and manageable 80 km, giving you plenty of time to hit the museum and brasserie for a pint of Kwaremont afterwards.
I did this loop a few years ago with old friend Karsten in beautiful April sunshine. When you aren’t climbing cobbled hills you are mostly on small farm roads and just like the Tour of Flanders, there’s barely any stretch of road more than a few kilometers long before you have to make a left or right. The route is very well signposted, but it’s probably prudent to plug the route into your gps anyway.
If you feel like channeling your inner Boonen I can’t think of a better place to ride (ok, maybe Paris-Roubaix). Enjoy.