Five toughest climbs you've never heard of
Forget the Stelvio, Alpe d’Huez or Galibier. These unheard-of climbs are way tougher
We as cyclists love to bang on about ‘classic’, ‘iconic’ or ‘historic’ climbs.
There’s Alpe d’Huez; the Passo dello Stelvio; the Koppenberg… We’ve seen the pros darting up these climbs so many times, that it sometimes feels like there’s little beyond these frequently mentioned ascents. Surely there must be some really tough climbs out there that are off the beaten track and worth testing our legs on?
Yes, there are, and at GCN, we’ve sought them out. Over the years, we’ve tackled some of the toughest climbs in the world, most of which you've probably never heard of before.
5. The road to Val Thorens, and then some
Jeremy Powers is a former pro rider with 90 UCI victories to his name, so when he rocks up to the bottom of a climb with an e-bike, you know it’s a toughie. Enter our first climb: the road to Val Thorens (with an extra stretch added on). Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘hang on, didn’t this climb feature on stage 20 of the 2019 Tour de France?’.
Yes, the climb up to Val Thorens did indeed feature. At 33km long and ascending 1,820m (averaging a challenging 11% gradient), it instantly became one of the longest climbs in Tour history. But we think that’ll be its one and only appearance at the Tour: due to the likelihood of bad weather at high resorts like Val Thorens, it had never been featured before and, after a storm in the mountains almost scuppered the stage there in 2019, it’s unlikely to feature again.
After 33km of climbing at 11%, Val Thorens might feel like the top of the world. In fact, while the tarmac stops in the town, the road continues right to the top of Cime de Caron, 3,195m above sea level. To add a bit of an extra challenge, the 8km track to get there is gravel, with gradients reaching 26% – just what the legs don’t need after one of the longest climbs in Tour de France history.
We sent GCN Presenters Si Richardson and Jeremy Powers along to give it a crack. After softening up their legs on the brutal climb to Val Thorens, Richardson and Powers could hardly ride up the gravel, and in fact, both of them ended up walking far more than they might have expected. Should have packed your hiking boots boys!
4. Highest road in the Philippines
In spring 2023, ex-pro and GCN presenter Conor Dunne and retired sprint legend Marcel Kittel headed to the Philippines for a five-day trip exploring Luzon island, the biggest and most populous island in the country.
Always keen for a challenge, Dunne and Kittel took on the highest road in the country on the fourth day of their trip. The Kiangan-Tinoc-Buguias road tops out at 2428.66m above sea level, rising 700m from the town of Tinoc and averaging 7%. Despite the geographical significance of this road, it’s relatively untouched, with just 91 attempts logged on Strava – truly an ‘unheard of’ climb.
Straight out of the town, the road kicks up to over 10%. The punishing gradient had Kittel weaving across the road. For 10km, the climb gives no let-up as it zig-zags through the mountains of Luzon. To give you a sense of how tough this one is, it took Kittel and Dunne over an hour and a half to complete the 10km climb, averaging just 6kph. At the summit, Kittel said it was, "one of the hardest climbs I’ve ever done in my life" – and he's ridden the Tour de France six times.
3. Bamford Clough
Tucked away in the Peak District national park, near the picturesque village of Bamford, is the Clough. This climb is relatively new – it was only tarmacked in 2021, so it is yet to enter cycling folklore like Baldwin Street in New Zealand or Ffordd Pen Llech in Wales, other roads that have claimed to be steepest. However, this climb is sure to take its rightful place as one of the most feared strips of tarmac in cycling: over 700m, the climb averages 21%, with the steepest pitches unofficially measuring in at 36.5%.
So why doesn’t this climb have the Guinness World Record sitting on its fireplace? Essentially, because of some technicalities. Despite being (now) beautifully paved, this road is not actually a road – it is closed to motor vehicles. And it doesn’t have any buildings on it, another world record stipulation. Altogether, it's tricky to argue that this road is, as Guinness World Records requires, a ‘major thoroughfare’.
Certified or otherwise, we wanted to tick it off the GCN bucket list. We sent along Oliver Bridgewood, the crème de la crème of cycling journalism, and the chicken à la crème of the UK hill climb circuit. Fast forward to a damp November morning, and Ollie was poised at the bottom of the daunting climb.
Our in-house Yorkshireman gave it a good go, but the slippery leaves on the road scuppered his shot at glory. To be fair to Ollie, at these gradients, we don’t think we could have done much better, even on a dry day.
2. Salita Scanuppia
The Salita Scanuppia is a 7.5km concrete monster set deep in the Italian Dolomites. With an eye-watering average gradient of 17.6% and a maximum gradient of 42.8%, there's little doubt that this is one of the toughest and most obscure climbs in the world.
This climb is truly a beast. Few cyclists could keep up the power required to reach the top: not only is the gradient punishing and the road long, but the surface is rough concrete. As far as rolling resistance is concerned, this washboard surface is going to do you no favours.
This climb is so hard that when we sent Andrew Feather – one of the world’s best climbers – up it, he said that if it were just 100m further, he would have had to put a foot down and give in. Brutal.
1. Pozza San Glisente
How do you like the sound of 10km at an average gradient of 18%, with a maximum of 40%? The Pozza San Glisente may not quite reach the same mind-boggling 42.8% ramps of the Scanuppia, but it’s longer, rougher, and even more relentless. So, naturally, we sent Ollie to Italy to take it on and find out just how hard this epic climb really is!
This climb is so hard that only 16 people have completed it, according to Strava. And as we all know, if it's not on Strava, it didn't happen.
In reality, the overall statistics from this climb don't do it justice. The really tough section comes in the middle, where for 4.5km, it averages 22% – that's 40 minutes, riding at 22%. Even on a mountain bike, that would be a monumental challenge. Unfortunately for Ollie, he had his regular road bike, which, although light, was comically over-geared for this challenge. Watch the video to see how Ollie got on (spoiler: he didn't spend much time on his bike).