Cycling is an intense muscular and cardiovascular sport, requiring athletes to be in peak physical condition to perform well. In the sport of cycling, few elements are more challenging and demanding on the body than mountain stages. These grueling routes require large elevation gains on steep roads. The most difficult mountain stage in cycling is a subject of much debate, especially because most major cycling races vary the course from year to year.
Tour de France
The Tour de France, the largest and most prestigious event on the professional cycling calendar, is home to many of the hardest mountain stages in professional cycling. One stage of the race often includes the legendary climb up Mont Ventoux, which has been characterized by Lance Armstrong as "... the hardest climb in the tour, bar none." In the 1967 Tour de France, a British cyclist died of exhaustion half a kilometer from the top of the ascent, adding to the route's legend. Any Tour de France stage that includes the ascent up Mont Ventoux can be considered one of the toughest in cycling.
Italy's premier cycling race, the Giro d'Italia, has its own claim to the hardest mountain stage in the sport. Capped by the grueling ascent up Monte Zoncolan, the 2011 Giro d'Italia's stage 14 has a case for being the toughest mountain stage in recent memory. The Giro d’Italia is set to climax at Monte Zoncolan in 2014; it will be the fifth time this ascent is featured as a stage finish in the race. The climb up Monte Zoncolan ascends more than 1,200 meters in just 11 kilometers, forcing riders to ascend an 13 percent grade for 6 kilometers.
Vuelta a Espana
The Vuelta a Espana, Spain's answer to the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia, often contains perhaps the most difficult single climb in professional cycling. In the late 1990s, in response to extremely difficult climbs such as Mont Ventoux and Monte Zoncolan, Spanish race organizers added the Alto del Angliru to the course of many Vuelta a Espanas. This climb is both longer and steeper than Monte Zoncolan, with grades of nearly 24 percent in sections. The climb is so difficult that opinions are split among cyclists as to whether the ascent should be included at all. Despite reservations, this mountain climb has appeared six times in the race's history, including in 2013.
In virtually all professional cycling races, the course varies from year to year. Years where the most difficult single mountain climbs are paired with multiple other ascents usually result in the most difficult stages. All of these mountain stages and climbs are extremely difficult for recreational cyclists. Do not attempt these routes without a high level of fitness and extensive training.