Cycling holidays alps supported

The Toughest Cycling Climb of the Season?

The Toughest Cycling Climb of the Season?

Over the course of the season we frequently get asked (and ask ourselves) what’s the most challenging cycling climb in our season. It’s a great question don’t you think? It’s kind of a subjective question because depending upon your personal view of what ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ actually is it could be different for everyone. So with this is mind over the course of the last couple of summers every time we ride one of our most challenging mountains we’ve had a think about if it really is the toughest of them all and also why that might be. We’ve also taken some great insights back from many of our guests who have ridden each of the climbs in question to make it a more rounded answer!

So without further a do here’s the short list of the climbs to be covered over the next few paragraphs. They are not the longest, highest or in the case of the latter the most known but they are certainly two of the climbs that have a physiological impact beyond the norm! We discussed at length a few weeks back the Stelvio, Galibier, Ventoux and Bonnette and surprisingly none of these iconic climbs topped these two.

1. The Passo di Mortirolo - Italy

2. The Valley of the Tears - Gran Canaria (Spain)

We’ll start with the the mighty Mortirolo in the Italian Alps


Mortirolo - Italian Alps Cycling Holiday

So the Mortirolo. What even gets this climb into our short list of cycling climbs? It’s only 12km long when starting from Mazzo di Valtellina and has a summit at 1852 meters so neither that long nor that high. Ok so hold on a second, did we forget to mention this climb has an average gradient approaching 12%? Many professional cyclists refer to this as one of the most challenging mountain climbs during their season, and if you’ve ridden it or about to have a thought for when a pro is being asked to go just that little bit harder!

So it’s fair to say that we now know that the Mortirolo’s most demanding feature is its relentlessly steep gradient which doesn’t give up too much for the duration! The vast majority of this climb is in the forest which is a real blessing as for much of the summer you get protection from the heat of the sun. This is especially important during the first 6km of the climb where gradients can reach a quad busting 18% for sustained periods before backing off just a little. The saving grace for the Mortirolo is that it’s only 12km long, any longer and it would really seem like a gargantuan effort to reach the summit.

Gearing is essential when climbing this mountain and it’s always a firm recommendation that a compact 50/34 accompanied with a 32 tooth rear cassette is the weapon of choice on this beauty!

We take on the Mortirolo twice each year during the Ultimate Italian Alps Holiday in June & September so we always get a second stab to test ourselves against this iconic cycling mountain. Believe it or not it’s always good to be back.

Next we move to Gran Canaria in Spain and the Valley of the Tears.


Gran Canaria - Valley of the Tears

Gran Canaria I hear you say, isn’t that full of beaches!? Hmmm beaches there may be however the entire central and mid western side of the island is home to mountains with climbs that would be at home in the Veulta such is their difficulty. It often surprises guests that some (not all) of the climbs we can visit are longer, steeper and generally just as challenging as their counterparts in the Alps. The high point of Gran Canaria is Pico las Nievas at 1949m above sea level however for this brief post that’s not where we are headed. Rather we head further west toward La Aldea into a tight Valley ‘Barranco de la Aldea’ towards the black lakes (valuable reservoirs in fact) before taking a rather abrupt right turn heading onto a climb that’s known as the Valley of the Tears. Oh my how that reflects the nature of the next 11.1km.

Now this climb is strange for several reasons. Firstly you’ve climbed one 10km mountain plus a further 12km through a gorge before you even arrive at what we’ll call the official start of the Valley of the Tears (VOTT from this point on). Now if it’s a hot day and I mean hot the gorge leading to the beginning is as close as we’ve been to being in a human pizza oven and there’s no breeze either! There’s a reason we visit Gran Canaria in the winter months after all!! Once you turned right and started to climb towards the Mirador de Parralillo the next 3km are punishing to say the least, a real challenge not insurmountable by any means rather just a good old fashioned shock to the system!

Greeted with gradients approaching 17% with steep narrow hairpins that make even the outside line a fair challenge these first 3km really soften you up. You’ll struggle to ride at anything much less than your threshold and cadence (well mine at least) struggles to get above the mid 50’s and that’s with the 32 on the back. This climb was by the way the reason for me switching to the 32 in the first place! Relief comes after the first 3km as the road chops and changes in gradient before arriving at the next series of ramps towards the small outcrop of buildings at El Toscon. Once again gradients soar and the views if you can bring yourself to look up are truly amazing. You’ll work hard for the next 10 minutes up the second set of zig zags before being rewarded with a final 7km of the climb with gradients in the 8-10% range that feel delightfully easy after what’s gone before. The climb ends with a small descent but it does have the last laugh as you have a final sharp ramp to overcome before rejoining the GC60 and the road to a well earned fresh papaya juice in Ayacata!

I’ll never forget the first time I climbed the Valley of the Tears in Gran Canaria. It can only be described as emotional. I’ve been called many things at the top over the years but there’s always a unique glow of satisfaction at dinner the night after!

And the winner is…..


After much discussion, debate and a huge amount of collective sweat running into our eyes the winner by a nose is the Passo di Mortirolo in the Italian Alps. Its relentless gradient over the 12km just forces you to ride at a level that makes it uncomfortable and you always have this on your mind when you know you’ll have to climb the Gavia afterwards to get home later in the day. Yes the Valley of the Tears is exposed, hot and the two sets of zig zags with their steep ramps are punishing but you do get recovery time even if it comes in the form of some 9 to 10% sections of road closer to the top.

So we find ourselves agreeing with our guests that have ridden both and the pros who dread this being included in the Giro d’italia each year!

What do you think? If you’ve had an interesting experience on either of these climbs we’d love to know we’re not alone!

If you’d like to experience or re challenge yourself on these climbs you can climb the Valley of the Tears in our Gran Canaria Winter Break Holidays plus Gran Canaria Island Challenge Tour. The Mortirolo of course is included in Our Ultimate Italy Cycling Holidays.

Continue the discussion...