Length. Average gradient. Maximum gradient. Summit height. Figures that frame a climb. In some ways they seem to tell you so much, but in reality they tell you so little.
Standing in northern Italy, surrounded by the pale limestone peaks of the Sexten Dolomites, the task that lies ahead is as follows if expressed in those terms: 7.5km, averaging 7.5%, maxing out at 18% and finishing at 2,340m.
On paper, then, the climb of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (or Drei Zinnen in German, for this marks the linguistic boundary between Italian-speaking Veneto and the predominantly German-speaking South Tyrol that was until 1919 a part of Austria) sounds bearable.
Not too long, mostly not too steep and not too high at the finish.
Mentally translate those figures into the toll that you will feel in your legs and you would probably label it as about average – in fact, the figures are so unexceptional that you might even ignore this dead-end climb when planning a cycling holiday in the region, but for so many reasons it would be a mistake to underestimate Tre Cime.
Shape of things to come
Very early or later in the day are the best times to tackle the climb because you’ll either beat the crowds or let them subside. We’re not talking vast pelotons of riders, either, but crowds of cars and coaches.
By 10am in high season two large car parks at the bottom will be packed and plenty more will pay the €30 toll to reach the road that lies beyond a striped red and white barrier. If you have time to kill you could wait in a bar in the small settlement of Misurina at the bottom of the climb – the pizzas are excellent.
When you do clip in, you’ll find a tough start. The road is well surfaced but winds through hairpins for an opening kilometre that averages 11% – considerably more than the advertised 7.5%. Like the prologue at the beginning of a Shakespeare play, it’s a shortened foretelling of the main acts still to come.
Next up is that harbinger of softened gradients – a lake. Entirely natural and not very large, it lies still, reflecting the trees in its mirror surface. Things get easier still as the road descends through a switchback to the money collectors where cars must pay their dues.
Carry speed off the descent and hold it along another flat section that winds across a small bridge. It’s all very pleasant but if you look up you will see the Refugio Auronzo that you’re aiming for.
Although it’s getting closer, the altitude difference between you and it isn’t really decreasing, and that’s a worry.
Just 4km of the climb remains by this point, but there’s still around 500m of climbing to be done – not much less than there was at the start. That 7.5% average is now looking horribly deceptive. Try more like 12%.
With the next right-hand hairpin you start to climb once more and this time it won’t let up until the finish. The fir trees that line the road stay with you for another couple of kilometres, only occasionally parting to offer a narrow view on a hairpin.
Then, on a switchback with some red graffiti reminding you where you are, you emerge to be treated to the full IMAX experience. If your breath isn’t short enough already then there’s a good chance it will be taken away entirely by the sheer grandeur of the landscape.
From here the road twists back and forth on itself for a kilometre, and as much as you might want to stare at your surroundings you’re now into perhaps the toughest segment of the whole climb as it ramps up, then eases, then ramps up again.
It may only be a short climb but that’s why it can explode a race and time gaps can be surprisingly large at the summit.
No respect for talent
Look back at video footage of Stage 15 of the 2007 Giro d’Italia, where the infamous Riccardo Ricco pipped his Saunier Duval teammate Leonardo Piepoli to the summit, and you can see the carnage that these slopes unleash on the riders as they battle upwards.
Regardless of what pharmaceutical aid they might have had (the pair were sacked by their team for doping in 2008), their shoulders are rocking and rolling and mouths are hanging wide open. Danilo Di Luca in the pink jersey behind them isn’t faring any better.
Look back further in time and even the grainy footage of 1968 can’t disguise the effort wracking the body of Eddy Merckx as he pounds his way to the top.
It’s as though the climb is designed to sap the finesse from the pedal strokes of even the most graceful of cyclists.The other thing that seems to categorise this climb is the often inclement weather.
Surely one of the most famous images from recent Grand Tours must be Vincenzo Nibali crossing the line in the snow of Stage 20 of the Giro in 2013. Even I have experienced this climb’s capricious climate, as the first time I attempted to ascend Tre Cime back in 2012 I was beaten by snow. It was July.
Thankfully the sun does shine on Tre Cime di Lavaredo sometimes, and when it does the scenery is simply stunning.
It has the sublime air of a climb that has been wrought in a digital fantasy like Zwift and then brought to life. ‘A nightmare dressed like a daydream’, to quote another Swift (Taylor, not Jonathan). Even the cowbells seem more musical.
Peaks of perfection
As you round the last left-hand hairpin you’re faced with a straight run to the end, but any thoughts of a sprint finish are quelled by the fact that the gradient now hangs between 13% and 14%.
If you can afford the energy to look over the edge of the road to your left you will see the switchbacks, and beyond that the lake among the trees below. It has the appearance of a little model landscape.
At the very top your reward is the most incredible viewing platform. With the tre cime themselves (three peaks: Piccola, Grande and Ovest – Little, Big and Western) behind you, you have a picturesque panorama.
The German word zinnen means the upright part of a battlement on a castle wall and it’s a perfect description of the peaks that seem to form a natural fortress around you.
The Dolomites might not be the highest mountains in Europe but, like the climb to get here, they offer a view to which bare facts can’t possibly do justice.
• This article originally appeared in issue 80 of Cyclist magazine. Click here to subscribe
Tags: Best Bike RidesGiro d’Italia