15 of Europe's highest roads to ride on your bike

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Fifteen of Europe’s highest roads to ride

Got a head for heights? Here are the highest climbs in Europe accessible by road bike

While Britain is packed with picturesque, challenging and downright steep climbs of its own, from the Lakes to the Peak District, via the North Pennines and even the Surrey Hills, if you want to scale some serious heights you need to head out to the Continent.

The Alps, the Pyrenees, the Dolomites… Europe’s highest roads have become intrinsically linked with cycling thanks to the Grand Tours, with each of cycling’s three-week races posing its own leg-numbing challenges.

Europe’s highest climbs feature on many a cyclist’s bucket list (Pic: Media24)

There’s something about heading to the hills that will always capture the imagination of cyclists. Indeed, the bucket lists of many a riders will feature long, twisting ascents, iconic climbs and thigh-numbing gradients. A test of rider and machine against the mountains.

– The 13 highest roads to ride in the UK –

But where should you go if you have a real head for heights and want to reach for the sky? We’ve found 15 of Europe’s highest climbs, including the highest peaks in the major mountain range, so you can get serious altitude.

Pico del Veleta, Spain (3,380m)

Pico del Veleta, overlooking Granada in Andalucia, Spain, in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, boasts the highest paved road in Europe.

Climbing up from the city of Granada, the road is traffic free from Hoya de la Mora, which sits just above the Sierra Nevada Ski Station, but can still be accessed by road bike.

Pico del Veleta is the highest paved road in Europe (Pic: Yasu, via Wiki Commons)

The roads are generally quiet in the Sierra Nevada anyway, which is handy because, at almost 40km long, it means you can focus largely on your pedalling on this brutal climb.

As you approach the summit you’ll be greeted by a barren landscape and, of course, the thin air at well over 3,000m. Add the rough road surface, a six per cent average gradient and the threat of high winds on the wide-open mountain, this out-and-back climb is undoubtedly one of Europe’s toughest as well as highest.

If you’re in the area, you can also choose to ride to the IRAM telescope, which peaks at 2,845m, on Pico del Veleta.

Ötztal Glacier Road, Austria (2,830m)

Europe’s second highest paved road is also an out-and-back climb, being the access road from Solden to the Rettenbach glacier in the Ötztal Alps.

The highest point the road reaches comes at the end of a ski tunnel, marking a slightly unusual end to the climb itself.

The Otztal Glacier Road is the access road to the Rettenbach glacier (Pic: Tom Kelly, via Flickr Creative Commons)

On this climb you’re not only fighting against the altitude but the severity of the climb, too. It’s 10.2km long from Solden – with an average gradient of 11 per cent. Ouch.

Take a look at the Strava leaderboard and you’ll see plenty of famous names – the climb featured as the finale of stage five of the 2015 Tour de France, before returning at the end of stage seven in 2016. The current Strava KOM? Frenchman Warren Barguil in just over 40 minutes.

Cime de la Bonette, France (2,802m)

The Col de la Bonette is a monster of a climb in its own right, with the Alpine ascent – which has featured four times in the Tour de France – covering 26km at an average gradient of 6.4 per cent.

But the ‘summit’ of the col, which in 1993 saw Robert Millar lead the way over the top, is not actually the highest point accessible by bike on the Bonette.

The Cime de la Bonette is a 2km scenic around the peak of the Col de la Bonette (Pic: HOY Vulpine)

That is reserved for the Cime de la Bonette, a 2km scenic loop around the peak, which is the highest paved road in the Alps.

Note that scenic does not mean this is one for the weak-willed – you pay for the stunning vistas with a gradient which touches 15 per cent and, of course, the thin air you can expect at 2,802m up.

Col de l’Iseran, France (2,764m)

The Cime de la Bonette does not qualify as a pass, because it is a loop around the peak, meaning the Col de l’Iseran boasts the title of Europe’s highest paved mountain pass.

Featured seven times at the Tour de France, both the north and south sides of the ascent start climbing well back – with the northern ascent rising for 48km from Bourg-Saint-Maurice and the southern climb starting to head skywards at Lanslebourg-Mont Cenis, some 33km before the summit.

The Col de l’Iseran is the highest Alpine pass (Pic:  Will_Cyclist, via Flickr Creative Commons)

It was also used for the first mountain time trial at the Tour de France, won by Sylvere Maes in 1939, and both climbs feature a steady average gradient around four per cent, masking the fact they kick up much more sharply on the ‘proper’ climb.

Peaking at 2,764m, if you want to climb the Col de l’Iseran, you’ll naturally have to head out in the summer months, as in the winter it forms part of the Espace Killy ski area.

Passo dello Stelvio, Italy (2,757m)

Arguably the most iconic climb of the Giro d’Italia, thanks to its 48 hairpins, the Stelvio is the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps.

The eastern pass snakes down the mountain side, twisting and turning its way up to the summit and has become a Giro favourite as a result.

Cyclists take on the Stelvio’s hairpins as they await the arrival of the Giro d’Italia peloton (Pic: Sirotti)

Fausto Coppi was the first man to ever lead the way over the summit, and the climb is designated as the Cima Coppi – the prize for the highest point of the race – whenever it now features in the Giro d’Italia.

This year’s 100th Giro d’Italia included the climb, and part of its descent on the Umbrail Pass, with Mikel Landa crossing the summit first, before Vincenzo Nibali won the stage.

Kaunertaler Glacier Road, Austria (2,750m)

Overlooking Kaunertal in Tyrol, the Kaunertaler Glacier Road boasts 29 hairpins and snakes all the way up to the Weissenseeferner glacier ski area at 2,750m.

The Kaunertal climb boasts 29 hairpins (Pic: obias Luksch, via Wiki Commons)

The Gepatschstausee Reservoir provides the scenic backdrop once you’ve climbed to 1,800m – also the point at which the gradient ramps up – and crossing the dam also allows for traffic-free riding.

The climb comes with a real sting in the tail, with gradients regularly one-in-ten, and steeper, on the twisting road to the glacier. And as this is an out-and-back climb, once you’ve reached the summit and enjoyed the views, you get to enjoy the technical descent on the way down too.

Col Agnel, France/Italy (2,744m)

The highest international pass in the Alps, in that it traverses the Franco-Italian border, is the Col Agnel – or Colle dell’Agnello depending which side of the border you live.

While the climb peaks at 2,744m, it doesn’t quite enjoy the same sort of limelight and kudos reserved for the Alps’ more iconic peaks.

The Col d’Agnel has featured in both the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia (Pic: Sirotti)

Nevertheless, the ascent has been used in both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in recent years, with the late Michele Scarponi the first across the summit back in 2016.

From France the climb is 20.5km long with an average gradient of 6.6 per cent, while from Italy it is 22.4km in length and comes with an average gradient of 6.5 per cent.

Legend has it that this was also one of the passes used by Hannibal when he marched on Rome.

Col du Galibier, France (2,645m)

A Tour de France regular, the Col du Galibier returns to the race this year after a six-year absence for what will be its 32nd post-war appearance in cycling’s greatest race.

Regularly the highest point in the Tour – and therefore the Souvenir Henri Desgrange climb – it was also the highest ever summit finish in the race’s history when Andy Schleck soloed to victory in 2011.

The Col du Galibier is often the highest point reached by the Tour de France (Pic: Marcel Musil, via Flickr Creative Commons)

The climb itself can be tackled from either the north or south, with the former taking in the Col du Telegraphe too, reaching a maximum gradient of 10.1 per cent near the summit.

From the south, the climb is 8.5km long with an average gradient of 6.9 per cent.

Colle del Nivolet, Italy (2,641m)

Yes, this is the very same climb used in the Italian Job. No, we don’t know how Charlie Croker et al got out of their sticky situation at the end either, but they’re not hanging over the mountain anymore – which is good, because they’d only spoil the stunning views.

The Agnel and Serru lakes offer a jaw-dropping backdrop to the hairpin-laden climb, alongside snow-capped peaks, with the road snaking up from the Orco Valley in the Graian Alps.

The Colle del Nivolet is more famous for being the mountain used to film the closing scene of the The Italian Job (Pic:  Will_Cyclist, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Above the Lago Serru, at 2,275m, the road is closed to motorised traffic every Saturday in the summer, making it a road cyclist’s dream as you ride across the dam of Lago Agnel, surrounded by water on one side and stunning views on the other.

Then the hairpins, and the site of the Italian Job’s iconic ending, lead the way to the summit, with the road peaking at 2,641m.

Passo di Gavia, Italy (2,621m)

The Passo Gavia has provided some iconic Giro d’Italia moments, not least the snowstorm which hit in 1988 as Andrew Hampsten went on to claim the maglia rosa.

And that snowstorm is indicative of the unpredictable weather you can encounter on the ascent – a challenge even before you consider the steep gradients and narrow road.

The freezing Passo Gavia has hosted some epic Giro d’Italia battles (Pic: Sirotti)

From Ponte di Legno the climb hits a maximum gradient of 14 per cent after a gradual start, marking the beginning of a fiercely tough climb to the finish.

From Bormio, meanwhile, the full climb is 25.6km in length, with an average gradient of 5.5 per cent and some sections double that.

The reward at the summit, alongside stunning views, is a giant panini from the Rigugio Bonetta – as if you needed any more inspiration.

Edelweissspitze, Austria (2,571m)

The Grossglockner High Alpine Road is Austra’s highest surfaced pass, reaching 2,504m, but if you want to go even higher then there’s also the Edelweissspitze, a side road off the climb, which rises to 2,571m up.

Offering panoramic views from the summit, the climb itself is just 1.5km in length (if you don’t include what you’ve already ridden to get to the turn-off on Grossglockner…), but with an 11 per cent average gradient and an undulating profile which makes rhythm virtually impossible, you really have to earn those views.

Edelweissspitze is a side road off the equally stunning Grossglockner (Pic: Stefan Jurgensen, via Flickr Creative Commons)

The out-and-back climb is marked by an inn at the summit, but with so much to explore of the region – and the descent of Grossglockner to come – you won’t want to be spending too much time at the top.

Vintcheto, Bulgaria (2,552m)

You only have a four-month window to take on the Road to Vintcheto – the highest paved road in the Balkans – as it is closed from October to July.

Looking over the top of the Kalin Reservoir and Karagyol Reservoir, Vintcheto, the summit, is marked by a crumbling old building. To get there you’ll have to nearly 23km at an average gradient of nine per cent.

Bulgaria may be off the beaten track for many cyclists but if you make the trip you’ll be rewarded with stunning mountain views (Pic: Filip Stoyanov, via Flickr Creative Commons)

The climb sweeps up the mountainside with a series of switchbacks, although the rough road surface may demand something a little more heavy-duty than your conventional road bike.

There’s also an annual event organised for cyclists and runners – the Rila Ride or Run, which tackles the super-steep climb to the summit.

Others climbs of note

Port d’Envalira, Andorra (2,408m)

While the Alps generally offer most of Europe’s highest climbs, the Pyrenees aren’t without some giants of their own – not least Andorra’s Port d’Envalira.

The climb featured at last year’s Tour de France and has also been included in the Vuelta a Espana before now, with its peak at 2,408m.

Port d’Envalira is the highest point in the Pyrenees, but it does see a lot of traffic (Pic: Sirotti)

The full climb from Escaldes Engordany is 22.6km long, with an average gradient of 5.5 per cent that generally remains steady throughout the climb.

With an excellent road surface too, the climb would doubtless be more popular with cyclists if it weren’t for the heavy volume of traffic due to it being the main entry point into Andorra from France, and Andorra’s sole highway.

Mount Teide, Canary Islands (2,356m)

The Canary Islands is an increasingly popular location for cyclists and Tenerife’s active volcano, Mount Teide, is the highest point accessible by road bike at 2,356m.

Mount Teide is the highest climb on the Canary Islands (Pic: Santiago Atienza / Creative Commons)

And alongside its height, it’s also the longest continuous climb in Europe – with the 36.7km ascent from El Medano on Tenerife’s south coast actually the most direct route.

– RCUK’s essential guide to road cycling in the Canary Islands –

There are five ways to climb it in all, but the El Medano ascent comes with an average gradient of six per cent, and climbs from sea level through the lunar landscape to the volcanic crater at the summit.

Tre Cime di Lavaredo (2,340m)

The Dolomites provided us with perhaps one of the most iconic images in recent Giro d’Italia history, when Vincenzo Nibali battled through a snowstorm to win the penultimate stage of the 2013 race and close in on his first overall victory.

But the climb to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo – the highest accessible road in the Dolomites – does not need snow to look dramatic.

Snow battered the Tre Cime di Lavaredo – the highest point in the Dolomites – at the 2013 Giro d’Italia (pic: Sirotti)

The three towering rock faces overlook the road below, while the lakes and twisting turns of the climb below – rated by Eddy Merckx as the toughest he ever tackled – make for a scenic backdrop in clearer weather.

And if you fancy ditching the bike at the summit, you can then enjoy the imposing rock faces by foot with hikes and trails around the peaks to enjoy.

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