Steep, steeper, steepest
What is it about climbing steep mountains? Why does it attract us and how does it inspire us? Why do we like to suffer in silence as there are usually no crowds cheering is on at the side of the road? We join Sophie Moser on a ride and talk about what it is about riding upwards that keeps us coming back for more.
The Julier Pass is one of Sophie Moser’s favourite climbs in her adopted home of Switzerland. Little red trains pass overhead as the road winds up through quaint villages into snowy S-bends.
Mountains like this stop us in our tracks. They fascinate us and draw humans to conquer them. But even world-beating scenery can’t help when your legs are hurting. Sometimes the struggle is real: you’re fighting your mind as well as the gradient.
On a summer’s ride last year, Sophie was hurting. “It was so painful. I was waiting for it to feel good. It was a day when I questioned why I do this,” she says.
Why Sophie has a longing for mountains
Cycling uphill is German-born Sophie’s passion. She has hiked in the Himalayas, now she bikes up and down the big beasts of Spain, France, Italy and her adopted home of Switzerland.
“Mountains have always had a very particular impact on me. They make me peaceful, but they also give me energy,” Sophie says. “You feel so small when you’re surrounded by these mountains, but once you reach the top it’s also a very big feeling because you made it.”
Heading uphill is a meditative micro-adventure for her. “What I like about climbing – and I don’t have this experience on just a flat ride – is that pedalling really focuses and concentrates me. I’m very clear then. At work when I have a busy day or a crazy project, I just jump on my bike, pedal and after, I’ve sorted it out.”
It helps when Alpine climbs, such as the Julier Pass, give four seasons in one ascent. “You start in the valley, everything is growing. Nature is exploding,” says Sophie. “And then with every meter you climb, it changes and all of a sudden you’re back in winter, it’s freezing cold and the sun is shining. And then when the snow melts, you can hear the birds and the water.”
Sophie became interested in cycling in her early twenties, drawn to its speed and simplicity. Smaller loops around her home city of Munich changed when she moved to Switzerland. She realised that if she wanted to go somewhere exciting, she’d have to head higher and further.
The learning curve for a new cyclist can be as steep and daunting as a Pyrenean goat track. When Sophie started, she had to stop several times to take a breath several times on long climbs.
Nevertheless, she signed up to do the Highlander Radmarathon in Austria, 160 kilometers with 2,400 meters of climbing. But her first road bike, an old De Rosa, came with a standard groupset and she couldn’t spin uphill.
She wept while slowly turning the pedals and fought the urge to turn back. Bad days on the bike aren’t fun, but such an episode can be more educational than ten straightforward ones.
A cool, custom Koba Pro
The perfect set-up helps to avoid disappointment. On her custom-made Koba Pro with DURA-ACE groupset and Di2, Sophie now has an 11×34 cassette, which means she can do climb-heavy rides for days on end. “Once your legs are sore, that’s it. I just want a gear ratio that helps me to pedal easy. I realised that when I keep a certain cadence, I can pedal forever.”
Meanwhile, her Shimano C50 wheels give her confidence on both sides of the mountain. “You have to go down as well. I love how they feel and how precise they are. I know exactly what the whole system is doing: when I brake, it brakes, when I shift, it shifts. It does what it should do. Also, as a woman with normal-sized hands, the ergonomics [of the hoods and levers] are good.”
Over time, Sophie has learned to fuel properly on rides and to layer for a Swiss winter. She climbed higher challenges, included more mountains and went on longer rides. “At some point, you realise the more you go, the better it gets, the easier it is. And then I started to enjoy climbing,” she says.
Finding a steady breathing pace helps her too. “What I like about riding steep climbs is when the pedaling connects with my breathing, it’s a rhythm I get into. And then when it gets deeper, I don’t really think about anything. It’s just me, the cycling, the bike and then the climb I want to take,” she says.
Her DURA-ACE power meter gives constant confirmation of her progress. With cold, hard data, she knows she’s going faster, even if it hurts the same.
With all her improvements, five years after her Highlander Radmarathon debut, Sophie returned to the ride. She finished second in her age group and was two and a half hours faster. There were no tears that time, that’s for sure.
Company can help to change the experience too, compared to solo riding. “I like both. But going alone is more intense. Sometimes you struggle with yourself and there’s no one to talk to,” she says.
“It’s regulating yourself, talking to yourself, motivating yourself. And sometimes, I’m going rather slow. But other times, when I have a good day, I go all in and push myself really hard. It’s like playing with myself: what can I do? And I also learned from cycling that sometimes it doesn’t work and I’m completely done. But after every down, there’s an up again.”
After her bad day on the Julier Pass, Sophie tackled the Route des Grandes Alpes. It features 17 mountain passes and over 7,000 meters of elevation between Lake Geneva and Nice. But she resolved to take her dream on day by day. “It was the best thing ever. I know it’s just a bad day and there will be a good one,” she says.
Climbing classic cols: Galibier, Madeleine, Izoard
Every cyclist is on a journey and hers was destined to cross new frontiers. In 2019, Sophie went over the border and tackled the giants of the French Alps for the first time. The Col du Galibier, Col de la Madeleine, Col de la Croix de Fer: each with its own personality, distinctive scenery, Tour de France folklore and steep stretches.
The summit is the best place to stop and reflect. She enjoyed standing on top of the Col d’Izoard, heart pounding, hearing her ragged breathing, surveying the unique lunarscape with excitement.
Looking at the wild view from the 2764-meter Col de l’Iseran made her realise the exceptional nature of the undertaking. “I like how exposed it is,” she says. “That a bike, your legs and your body can actually take you to this place. Is this real?”
For Sophie, pedaling up steep mountains brought the discovery of abilities she didn’t know she had. It has opened up new routes, rewards and confidence that had previously seemed unimaginable.
“You realize you can actually do more than you’re capable of doing, like climbing Mont Ventoux three times in one day,” she says. “Since then, I’d rather go up than on the flat because it’s so much fun.”