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Mountains - French Italian or Spanish

dougzzdougzz Posts: 1,833
edited February 2015 in Pro race
I've noted comments about the climbs in the Alps are easier than the Pyrenees because.... or Spanish climbs are more difficult because of....... and I think here in the Giro thread the Stelvio was described as the most French like of Italian mountains.
Could someone explain the broad differences, and what people mean by some of these expressions. I assume we're talking about length/gradient differences, and maybe quality of surface?
Cheers

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  • ddraverddraver Posts: 20,353
    Alps - longest, less steep, usually wider roads (usually linked to big ski resorts)

    Pyrenees - steeper, shorter, can be a bit worse

    Italy/Spain - steep and long, like fireroads that happened to have been concreted....

    Now let the arguments begin....
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  • No_Ta_DoctorNo_Ta_Doctor Posts: 9,941
    I'm interested in whether it's an engineering difference in how the roads are built, or a geological difference in how the mountains are formed.

    It's also worth noting that the Giro and the Vuelta have been consistently upping the stakes for having the hardest mountain stages in the competition for being number 2 to the tour. The Vuelta gained ground with L'Angliru,the Giro added Zoncolan in response. The Tour doesn't need to go out and find something supremely nasty, as it sits comfortably in top spot.
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  • ddraverddraver Posts: 20,353
    I don't think there is much to choose from I'm terms of structural geology, they re all related to the African plate colliding with the European plate around the end of the cretaceous/start of the tertiary. The biggest difference is that the dolomites are made of dolomite (limestone + magnesium) as opposed to the combination of all three (shallow igneous and metamorphic).

    I think it has more to do with how steep the ancient paths/tracks/rights of way were and what was subsequently tarmaced and made into a road....
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  • knedlickyknedlicky Posts: 3,097
    Like you surmise, how climbs are judged is usually based on a mixture of length and slope, and also how 'even' they are (constant slope or continually changing). Perhaps surface too, although this is more important on a descent. For riders from the UK, the length can be a greater factor than the slope. Temperature likely to be encountered, and thus also which direction a climb faces, also play a role. In the Alps you get extremes of very hot and unseasonally cold; in the Pyrenees I've never found it too hot, sometimes just rainy.

    When it comes to which areas are ‘most difficult’ I don’t think one can generalise. Also it depends whether you are talking of passes used in Tours or other passes too (without getting into those which are really only suitable for mountain-bikes).

    The most difficult roadbike climb I know of on the Continent isn’t in France, Italy or Spain, but in Austria. The climb to the Oscheniksee (Lake Oschenik) in Carinthia rises over 1200 m in about 9 km. But I doubt it’s ever been used in a Tour because it’s a dead-end road.

    Although I’ve only limited knowledge of Italian Alpine climbs, I’d guess Italy probably has the most 'difficult' climbs, and of the more well-known ones, I’d say Tre Cime and San Pellegrino are the most difficult two.
    And I’d rate the difficulty of several climbs in Switzerland, Austria and Germany greater than those in France, whether Alps or Pyrenees (I’ve ridden nearly all the well-known passes in the French Alps and Pyrenees, as well as many passes in Switzerland and Austria).

    In France the Galibier is mainly hard because of its length following the Telegraphe; in other respects, the Grand Colombier (from the west, not the south as in the Tour this year for the first time) and the Glandon or Croix de Fer from the south are harder (based on the combination of length and slope). Personally I also found the Col de Joux Plane harder than the Galibier or the Glandon/Croix de Fer, perhaps because south-facing on a day the temperature was in the mid-30s degC.

    I don’t know who in the Giro thread suggested the Stelvio as the most French-like of Italian mountains, but I would say that wasn’t true.
    Firstly, on very few French passes do you get to see so far ahead. On the Glandon or Madeleine (I forget which) you can only see about a quarter that distance ahead, and on the others even less. The Stelvio also has no ‘faux plat’ which many long French Alpine climbs (thankfully) have.

    Not sure about the historical differences, but I imagine the French Alpine pass roads originated in the time of Napoleon and had to be sloped for horse-drawn traffic while the Italian passes were originally donkey trails which were hurriedly surfaced for foot-troops in WW1. Thus why Italian passes are steeper.
  • dougzzdougzz Posts: 1,833
    Thank you for the answers, all very interesting. I think it was actually Rick Chasey that mentioned the Stelvio as being French like, but I apologise if I've got that wrong or misunderstood his point.
    What I didn't get was how could the Alps be different in France, Italy or Switzerland, all the same mountains the borders are quite artificial, but I guess the attitudes and reasons for road building differed. Similar with the Pyrenees, whether French or Spanish it's the same mountains.
    Roll on Le Tour eh :)
  • dave milnedave milne Posts: 703
    I've heard that bit about the French Alps before. Namely Napoloean got them engineered for easy passage with a horse and cart, hence you only very rarely get gradients >10%.
  • mrc1mrc1 Posts: 852
    ddraver wrote:
    Alps - longest, less steep, usually wider roads (usually linked to big ski resorts)

    Pyrenees - steeper, shorter, can be a bit worse

    Italy/Spain - steep and long, like fireroads that happened to have been concreted....

    Now let the arguments begin....

    I think this is a pretty good summary.

    The other thing I'd point out out on the Pyrenees/Alps comparison is that in general the Pyrenean climbs are much less trafficed. This obviously makes the riding more enjoyable but also explains why the roads are narrower and in certain stretches, not very well maintained!

    As for the heat in the Pyrenees, we saw 35-40c for long stretches in the valleys last summer and 36c at the top of the Toumalet so its plenty hot enough down there!
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  • rick_chaseyrick_chasey Posts: 49,999 Lives Here
    knedlicky wrote:

    I don’t know who in the Giro thread suggested the Stelvio as the most French-like of Italian mountains, but I would say that wasn’t true.
    Firstly, on very few French passes do you get to see so far ahead. On the Glandon or Madeleine (I forget which) you can only see about a quarter that distance ahead, and on the others even less. The Stelvio also has no ‘faux plat’ which many long French Alpine climbs (thankfully) have.

    That was me, in reference to de Gendt, who was saying before the Giro that he only did well on 'French climbs' since they were the right balance for him. I was saying that, of all the important climbs they did in the Giro, the Stelvio was the most 'French' in terms of gradient/length, so perhaps it was no coincidence de Gendt did his best ride on that climb.
  • rick_chaseyrick_chasey Posts: 49,999 Lives Here
    The French Alps are much more even in gradient than the Italian climbs. AFAIK they also tend to be a little higher on average, and usually a little less steep. The Pyrenees are more similar to Italian climbs in that they are less consistant, and so have steeper bits - though rarely is a Pyrenean climb steeper than the famous Italian climbs, and the pyrenees are also less high generally.

    There's a distinction between Dolomite climbs and Alpe climbs in Italy, but you'd be best asking Iain or blazingsaddles for that.

    Similarly there are differences in the ranges in Spain, though I'm not sure the best person to ask.

    As a rule of thumb the steeper/less even a climb is, the better the 'pure climbers' do.

    As has been said elsewhere, re surface - the surface is mainly dependent on how frequently the road is used. The big French ski-resort roads are usually pretty good as a result.

    There used to be a BIG difference in road quality in the pyrenees, which, because they were more southerly, were much more 'heavy' to deal with the hotter weather. That's less the case now. You'll inevitably hear Sean Kelly discuss this very fact come a slow day in the Pyrenees.
  • knedlickyknedlicky Posts: 3,097
    mrc1 wrote:
    As for the heat in the Pyrenees, we saw 35-40c for long stretches in the valleys last summer and 36c at the top of the Toumalet so its plenty hot enough down there!
    I'm not so sure about heat in the Pyrenees.
    I've been cycling there 4 times, so maybe 20 cycling days altogether, always between mid-July and early Sept, and although it's never been cold, about a quarter of the time it rained, and half the time it was mixed cloud and sun, and on the days when it was all sun, I only remember one day when it got over 30 deg C.
    By contrast, in the French Alps (where I think I've been 8 times, with accordingly more cycling days, also in the same time of year), I don't think I've ever had proper rain, just once some 'spitting', and I must have experienced at least 9-10 days of temperatures 35-40 deg C (in the valley).

    I think Millar (perhaps because a Brit) preferred the Pyrenees because it wasn't likely to be unbearingly hot and sunny there, whereas Ullrich preferred the French Alps because he didn't like the unpredictability and possible wet weather of the Pyrenees.
  • knedlickyknedlicky Posts: 3,097
    knedlicky wrote:
    I don’t know who in the Giro thread suggested the Stelvio as the most French-like of Italian mountains, but I would say that wasn’t true.
    That was me, in reference to de Gendt, who was saying before the Giro that he only did well on 'French climbs' since they were the right balance for him. I was saying that, of all the important climbs they did in the Giro, the Stelvio was the most 'French' in terms of gradient/length, so perhaps it was no coincidence de Gendt did his best ride on that climb.
    I was surprised by De Gendt on the day and am also surprised to hear he likes 'French' climbs, because when I think of where I noticed him in the past, it was usually on shorter climbs, where sometimes he'd 'jump' before the finish (so similar to Rodriguez but a few kms farther out).
  • knedlickyknedlicky Posts: 3,097
    There's a distinction between Dolomite climbs and Alpe climbs in Italy, but you'd be best asking Iain or blazingsaddles for that.
    As has been said elsewhere, re surface - the surface is mainly dependent on how frequently the road is used. The big French ski-resort roads are usually pretty good as a result.
    There used to be a BIG difference in road quality in the pyrenees, which, because they were more southerly, were much more 'heavy' to deal with the hotter weather.
    The climbs into the Alps from Italy where it borders France are similar to the French side, in fact often longer but for that less steep overall.
    The Dolomites (still part of the Alps!) are a different kettle of fish.

    It isn't the hot weather which destroys a road surface, rather frost damage, especially if the road was originally poorly constructed - quite possibly the case in poor areas of the Pyrenees.

    The surfacing on even the small pass roads in Switzerland and Austria is usually pretty good.
  • RichN95.RichN95. Posts: 23,837
    It seems to me that the primary characteristic of climbs used in the Vuelta is that they aren't close to one another. You don't often seen two big mountains in quick succession on a stage - if there's more than one there's usually 20-30km of valley in between.
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  • blazing_saddlesblazing_saddles Posts: 15,613

    There's a distinction between Dolomite climbs and Alpe climbs in Italy, but you'd be best asking Iain or blazingsaddles for that.


    Luckily, the mad house have been talking on this subject.

    The Dolomites are a very defined and narrow set of mountains.
    800px-Dolomiti.png

    Main dolomite passes are:
    Fedaia, Giau, Pordoi, Campolongo, Gardena, Sella, San Pellegrino, Rolle, Valparola, Duran, Falzarego, Forcella Staulanza, Furcia, Passo Delle Erbe, plus as final climb Tre cime di Lavaredo and Rifugio Gardeccia.
    Also, the Giro descent side of the Manghen and the Pampeago, which lies below a Dolomite.

    Note: No Mortirolo, Zoncolan, Monte Crostis in that list, so the seriously steep stuff lies either in the Eastern Alps, (MR) or the Carnic Alps (the other 2)

    Then you have the "tall boys", Messrs Gavia and Stelvio. (Alps)

    Hard to generalize with Italian mountains, but they tend to mostly fall into 2 catagories: Shorter than the long French stuff, but a lot steeper.
    Slightly shorter than the long French stuff, but a bit steeper.
    The roads are mostly a lot narrower with all grades of quality.......

    Having said all of that, we then have the Colle delle Finestre.
    Located very close to the French Alps, as long as a french climb, seriously steep and unsurfaced for half it's length.
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  • knedlickyknedlicky Posts: 3,097
    The Dolomites are a very defined and narrow set of mountains.
    800px-Dolomiti.png
    I know some people refer to the Brenta area as the ‘Brenta Dolomites’ (as per the colouring scheme on the map), but that area is no more like the ‘true’ Dolomites than many other areas colloquially called ‘dolomites’, like the ‘Lienz Dolomites’ (Gailtaler Alpen and Karnischer Hauptkamm on the map), the ‘Friaul Dolomites’ (Südliche Karnische Alpen on the map), and the ‘Engadin Dolomites’ (off the map to the SW of Chur).

    All these areas have the same rock type as the Dolomites, as do also the Alps N and NW of Innsbruck (on the map, Karwendel, Lechtaler Alpen, Allgäuer Alpen, etc), as well as the whole area SW of the Dolomites (not just where the map shows Piccole Dolomiti).
    But none of these areas really have the same landscape as the ‘true’ Dolomites, which is why calling them dolomites is just a poor imitation (which the Brenta area certainly doesn't need).

    What they all lack is the characteristic scenery of sharply-rising, distinctive mountains (not a linked chain of peaks) towering above a high-altitude green Alpine landscape of meadows and forest. Or they only have such scenery in a less imposing, much reduced form, or only in small localised areas (e.g. the Piccole Dolomiti in the Vicentine Alps).

    You could just as well colour 'red' on a map of Europe every area claiming to be Switzerland of a sort, so not just Switzerland itself, but also ‘Luxembourg Switzerland’ (around Echternach, where Charly Gaul learnt to climb), ‘Sachsen Switzerland’ (hills S of Dresden), and even the Hardcastle Crags in Yorkshire, since they too are sometimes known as ‘Little Switzerland’.

    Geology/Geography lesson/rant over!
  • No_Ta_DoctorNo_Ta_Doctor Posts: 9,941
    What about the Arrochar Alps then? You'll be telling me they aren't genuine Swiss Alps that have been moved to Scotland next. Pah.
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    20120701_ocheniksee16.JPG

    20120701_ocheniksee19.JPG
  • andypandyp Posts: 8,269
    knedlicky wrote:
    I don’t know who in the Giro thread suggested the Stelvio as the most French-like of Italian mountains, but I would say that wasn’t true.
    Firstly, on very few French passes do you get to see so far ahead. On the Glandon or Madeleine (I forget which) you can only see about a quarter that distance ahead, and on the others even less. The Stelvio also has no ‘faux plat’ which many long French Alpine climbs (thankfully) have.
    The classic north side of the Stelvio doesn't, but the southern side from Bormio does, which I think is where Rick's comments from De Gendt come from.
  • shazzzshazzz Posts: 1,071
    In my experience the generalisations about, say, French Alps vs French Pyrenees, are not very helpful. These typically come down to a suggestion that climbs in one range are steeper / longer/ better surfaced/ more variable gradient, etc, than the other. You only have to go to a town such as Bourg d'Oisans or Bagneres de Luchon to experience that both ranges have a similar variety of different types of climbs. So I now look at each climb in isolation, considering constants such as length, ave gradient, max gradient, surface, etc, and variables such as wind direction, weather, ....

    One thing that really set the Dolomites apart from my previous European riding was the fact that the climbs start at an altitude of around 1500m. They may not be super long or super steep, but most are topping out at over 2000m which makes a real difference.
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