My European Cycling Adventure

By Khem Suthiwan

There are times in your life you just have to take full advantage of your situation and there is no shame in that. With the opportunity to do some photography for USA Triathlon in Lausanne, Swizterland at the ITU World Championship, I couldn’t pass up the chance to go ride some of Europe’s iconic mountain roads. So I packed up my bike and across the pond I went.

After a busy week of chasing around Team USA athletes, I was off in a rental car headed towards the Provence region of France. The charming little village of Mazan to be specific. There I was meeting up with my friends John and Meli Reumann, who were starting their week with Trek Travel. The next morning, I was tagging along on their Mont Ventoux ride because why not?

Our ride to Mont Ventoux began with a warm up 10 km ride through the busy morning “rush hour” traffic of Mazan to a bike shop in the neighboring village of Bedoin (La Route du Ventoux) where the iconic climb’s 0 km marker resides. What surprised me the most was how drivers always gave riders plenty of space on super narrow roads and even yielded to us at turns and roundabouts. I was stoked!

Mont Ventoux definitely lives up to its reputation. 13.7 miles, elevation gain of approximately 5,600 feet, and an average gradient of 7.6%. The five-ish miles of climbing before you hit Chalet Reynard featured grades of 10%+ with no relief in sight. After that point riding 7-9% grades to the summit felt like a somewhat welcomed recovery ride.

Around a few of the turns, there were photographers hanging out in their camp chairs taking photos of cyclists riding up. As you rode by, they would run alongside and stuff your jersey pocket with their business cards. Genius! Before reaching the summit I made a stop to pay my respects at Tom Simpson‘s memorial, a British professional cyclist who died racing up Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Le Tour de France. Once at the top, there were tons of cyclists hanging out cheering others on and taking photos with the famous “Sommet Mont Ventoux” sign. By chance, I ran into three lovely ladies who were all wearing their Triple Bypass jerseys! What a small world!

With Mont Ventoux “conquered” and in the rear view mirror, next up on the European cycling adventure – Stelvio Pass. Located in Northern Italy near the Swiss-Italian border, and a day’s drive from Mont Ventoux, Stelvio Pass is one of the great mountain passes of the Alps and one ride that I couldn’t pass up. Starting from the village of Prato allo Stelvio the climb is about 15 miles long, just over 6,000 feet of elevation gain, average grade of 7.4%, 48 switchbacks, and tops out at 9,048 feet in elevation.

As with Mont Ventoux, there were several photographers capturing cyclists and motorcyclists heading up the road. For the most part grades were between 7-10%, which compared to Ventoux was easier but still a challenge. The views from this ride were the most picturesque I’d ever seen in my life. It took everything for me to not stop at every turn and take photos. I encountered a handful of cyclists from all over the world saying “bonjour” or “morgen” as I was riding. We all smiled at each other sharing in the joy of riding this magnificent road.

Once at the top, there were various restaurants, souvenir shops, a hotel, and the “summit” sign covered with tons of stickers. Before heading back down (because that’s the fun part of climbing!) I did my fair share of stimulating the local economy and had a delicious pepperoni pizza (I was starving) that ended up getting wrapped and stuffed into my jersey pocket.

I was reluctant to leave Northern Italy and I hope to go back someday soon, but after a quick stay in Prato allo Stelvio it was time to head back over to France for the last climb of my trip. My drive over took me past the alpine resort town of St. Moritz, Lake Como in Italy, and then to the little French village of Le Bourg-d’Oisans where there were many reminders of past Tour de France races painted on the roads (allez allez!).

As one of the top climbs of Le Tour de France, but certainly not the toughest, Alpe d’Huez was definitely a memorable one. One of the Trek Travel guides gave me a little bit of intel regarding the first couple miles being a steady 10-13% grade. No problem. With an average overall grade of 8.1%, just over 9 miles from the start in Le Bourg-d’Oisans, 21 switchbacks, and about 3,500 feet of elevation gain, I was ready.

Riding up I imagined the peloton hauling up the climb at blistering speeds chasing the lead riders and crowds on each side of the road cheering, people wearing funny costumes running alongside, and everything I’d seen on TV from Le Tour. Each switchback also had a sign naming it after the stage winners. When I reached the “finish” there was a group from Germany that I had spent most of the morning leap frogging that erupted in cheering upon my arrival. So awesome!

Of the three I will say Stelvio was my absolute favorite. Primarily for the breathtaking scenery and endless switchbacks. Each turn gave me an ounce of “recovery” which was very much welcomed before settling back into the grind of climbing. The order I did these climbs definitely played a big part in enjoying the remainder of the trip. After climbing Mont Ventoux, everything else seemed so much “easier” if there is such a thing when riding in the Alps.

Lastly I was pleasantly surprised how courteous all users of the road were to cyclists. Most of these roads were barely two lanes wide and drivers and motorcyclists patiently waited until it was safe to pass cyclists on the road. They always gave me more than 3 feet, and the only yelling that came from inside their cars were words of encouragement. I never felt more safe riding on roads than I did in Europe. If you even have a slight inkling of heading to Europe to ride some of these iconic climbs – do it! You won’t regret and it! And if you do, make sure you look for some evidence of “303” left behind! Happy riding y’all!!!

Khem Suthiwan is a staff content editor/media correspondent with 303 Endurance Network and also races for Palmares Racing in road and cyclocross.

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