Cycle: 5 Local(ish) Climbs Comparable to the Tour de France
Riders climb past the roadside hoodoos on Mt. Lemmon.
Carmichael Training Systems
See also: Jackalope Ranch's Cycle archives
See also: Cycle: Tour de France Viewers' Guide and Drinking Game - 2012 Edition
The Tour de France is now half way done and if you're still starting each morning with some bike racing on the TV, the itch to tackle some crazy uphill roads is just beginning to swell in the legs and the lungs.
Luckily, Arizona is home to three hors categorie mountain climbs (the toughest of the tough), and another two that have hosted pro races are within a day's drive to southern California.
Hors categorie climbs are not for any average cyclist, though. These routes are brutes that extend even the best of the pros to their mortal limits, but the sense of accomplishment from ascending to the summit and looking down on the twisting tarmac below is unparalleled. And the descent always kicks ass.
The term "hors categorie" is French for beyond category and refers to climbs in the Tour de France that exceeded the highest rated mountain passes. There's no tried and true qualification for an HC climb, but generally is must be at least 10 miles in length, ascend a total of at least 5,000 feet and feature substantial ramps of at least 10 percent gradient.
The six HC climbs featured in this tour include Col du Grand Colombier, Col de la Madeleine, Col de la Croix-de-Fer, Col d' Aubisque, Col du Tourmalet, and Port de Balès. Here's how the local mountains stack up:
1) Mt. Lemmon. This 23-mile ascent from the desert floor to the pines high atop Tucson is considered by many to be the very best cycling road in the US. Lance Armstrong was known for renting a cabin at the top and riding up and down the mountain multiple times daily during the off season. Local pro Chad Beyer calls it his favorite ride in Arizona. Bicycling Magazine chose it this past winter for its annual bike proving grounds. And the multitudes of cyclists, both pros and enthusiasts, make regular runs up the mountain before and after the hot months.
The Catalina Highway tarmac is glassy as can be the entire way up and substantial bike lanes line each side of the roadway meaning there is plenty of room for everyone to feel safe on the way up. And although the climb is long, the ramps are never overly daunting, always hovering around five to eight percent. On the way down, the road just lays out for a fast and smooth drop back into town. Mt. Lemmon is a cyclists dream.
2) Kitt Peak. Famously known as the home to some of the world's biggest and best astronomical observatories , the road up Kitt Peak is Tucson's steeper complement to Mt. Lemmon. Located off of Highway 86 heading west from Tucson on the road to Ajo. While Mt. Lemmon can easily be approached from town, Kitt Peak Road is only accessed after a long, straight 35 mile push along the 86. Consider driving to Three Points, just 16 miles east of the turnoff before beginning the 12-mile twisting ascent to the telescopes.
The road is narrower and rougher that Catalina Highway, and does see some tourist traffic for those wanting to visit the scopes. This climb also has more intermittent ramps angling upwards of 12%-plus in sections. But the views from the top are for all around and reach as far as Phoenix to the north to Mexico to the south.
3) Mt. Graham. Southern Arizona's third big climb is generally considered the hardest road in the state. About an hour east of Tucson just outside of Stafford, this road has Mt. Lemmon's distance and Kitt Peak's steepness. From a distance, Mt. Graham lays on the horizon like a long, slumbering giant; more of a mound than a mountain. But there's no mistaking the 6,000 feet of up as you mash those big gears.
For 33 years it has been the home to the Arizona State Championship Mt. Graham Hill Climb , inviting riders to battle its slopes in effort to be awarded the hallowed red polka dot jersey and bragging rights for a year. While the climb unwinds for what seems like forever, remember that some of those tight turns can be very tricky on the way back down. And don't forget some sleeves of a jacket for that descent because it can get downright chilly.
4) Palomar Mountain. In many ways, Palomar Mountain is southern California's version of France's fabled Alpe d'Huez . Bending up from Carlsbad, the roadway - known either as Palomar Mountain Road or Grade Road - snakes back and forth to the summit point of almost 5,100 feet. That's from near sea level, depending on where the ride starts from.
The 2009 Tour of California rode over this mountain with Frank Schleck winning the stage over current Tour de France contender Vincenzo Nibali. Local pro Chris Horner is known for making Palomar his bitch, regularly sprinting up the 12-mile climb in a hair over 30 minutes. The road is a favorite for local motorcyclists who like to take the turns with their kneecaps scraping the ground, so be wary. But also remember that a sandy beach awaits at the bottom.
5) Mt. Baldy. Tucked in the San Bernardino Mountains just to the northwest of Los Angeles, Baldy is home to a small ski slope for those East L.A.'ers to get in some quick and easy boarding. But once the snow melts, this 13-mile road to the heavens is SoCal's prime ascent for cyclists. The roadway cuts up from the town of Claremont, out of the smog and traffic and up into chaparral and pines that line ridges and bluffs that look down on the idiots still sucking the pollution.
Baldy has been the big mountain top finish and deciding stage for the past two editions of the Tour of California, with Robert Gesink taking this prize this past May. The mountain mirrors Mt. Graham for the first seven miles with a long, gradual pitch up to the village before heading up to the ski lift and the 20 percent ramps to the tippy top. Remember, that's good pain.
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