Was this the hardest cycling tour ever?
I guess the Brutal Tour had really been about 10 years in the making and like most crazy ideas it had evolved year to year, as I travelled to Europe and climbed more and more passes. It just seemed that there were so many that felt “un-missable” and the more I read, watched on TV and tuned in to the experiences of others, the more climbs were added to the bucket list. Of course, nobody (not even me) can go to Europe and climb 200 cols on one tour, so there had to be a way to whittle down the list. But wait, rather than whittle down, why not ramp up the list? In the modern world of information sharing, blogs etc, most cyclists had heard tales of the “Uber climbs” of Europe; the Angliru in Spain, the Mortirolo and Zoncolan in Italy and Austria’s title contender, the Kitzbuheler Horn. Surely, we could make a list of Europe’s most fearsome challenges, put together a group of intrepid Aussie cyclists, fly 26 hours to the other side of the world and ride them all? Easy, right? And so, the Brutal Tour was conceived.
Next came the list, which climbs should we ride, which makes the cut and which does not? The “formula” included some stats, such as gradient (average and maximum), climb length, altitude at the summit etc, that part was easy. Then we added the “less tangibles” such as iconic status and “mystique”, or more accurately; “climbs that not many have heard of, are really out of the way and just bloody hard”. Once we had our list, the course (and order) needed to be plotted. It soon became obvious (not sure why it took so long) that the most distant pins on our map were as far apart as 2000km! But surely with excellent planning, a reasonably comfortable vehicle, some decent music, it would be doable? Turns out it was.
Meet The Crew
Fast forward to August 2017, the Brutal Tour became a reality. Let’s first introduce our “tourists”;
Mark “I cannot believe my data has run out already” Robertson,
Frank “the Stelvio is over-rated anyway” Nyhuis,
Darren “I never saw any T-junction” Joy and
Ramon “I was just tapping it out, I swear” Maurice. Plus;
Superguide: Gordo “when are we going back to Annecy” Sutherland
Our initial list of six, became just four, with two late withdrawals but what the group lacked in numbers, it certainly made for with character, determination and good old slice of “not taking yourself too seriously” (well, for the most part).
This tour was a three week epic in every sense of the word, so I will deliver the abridged version.
Tours like this are always about the characters, their contributions and the creation of experiences that shape each year’s tour story. As a planner and guide, it is my job to set the route, find the climbs etc, kind of build the canvas. But a tour is nothing without the riders, in this case everyday people who trained hard, then took a large leap into the unknown and emerged as giants, having achieved what very few others have.
We began the tour in Spain, essentially so we could climb one of the most feared roads on the planet, the Angliru. This nasty piece of asphalt is located in the Asturias and a really really long way from anywhere else we needed to be. In all honesty, it would have been a lot easier (and saved around 800km of transfers) if we had simply left it out. But that was not what the tour was all about, we simply had to climb it, and so we did. Picture the day; misty rain, cold winds, small farm roads covered in cow shit (makes getting traction on 23% slopes quite a challenge). then factor in the "warm up", 85km, three climbs and 2000m of elevation. Safe to say, the Angliru did its job, the Brutal Tour had well and truly lived up to its name, and it was only day one!
In a tour lasting three weeks, there were bound to be some tales that could (and should) not be re-told. There are also way too many climbs, points of suffering, highlights and lowlights to which I could not do justice. Here, however, here are my "brief points of note":
The magical "Cirque de Troumouse" (Pyrenees), climbed after a double ascent of the Tourmalet and truly one of the most magnificent "big" climbs in the world. Tough, raw, quiet with a huge dose of that "je ne sais quoi" that makes some roads special.
A triple ascent of the mighty Mt Ventoux where one is enough for most and two is thought of as a little extreme.
The incomparable Colle Della Finestre. 18km @ 10% where the final 9km is on very rough gravel at an average of 10.4%. Unlike the Giro in 2015, nobody graded the road for us.
A ride transfer day of 210km that included the highest paved pass in Europe (the Col de l'Iseran) and finished in darkness as we struggled to find our chalet, tucked away some 6km up a tiny mountain road above St Michel de Maurienne.
A double ascent of the one and only Passo Dello Stelvio - enough said.
The rarely accomplished (for very good reasons) 5000m day. This one was the epic Swiss loop that included the Susten, Grimsel, Nufenen & St Gottard passes. The Nufenen turned out (very unexpectedly) to be one of the toughest climbs of the entire tour and the final 6km "cobbled" section of St Gottard has to be seen (and ridden) to be believed.
Another transfer day, spiced up by a pre-breakfast trundle up the "Austrian Zoncolan", the Kitzbuheler Horn. This "little ripper" is 10.2km long (if you go all the way to the tower) at an ave gradient of 13.2%. Throw in the Grossglockner (in the afternoon), which is relentlessly harder than its "stats" suggest and you will appreciate how happy we were to see our lovely apartments in Flattach at the end of the day.
This brings me to what I rate as the hardest climb of the tour, the little known, Grosse Oscheniksee in the Austrian Alps. 17km from our apartments at 10.4% (including some downhill) with the final 9km @ 13.4%. Consider also that the summit of this beast is at almost 2,400m (other European behemoths such as Zoncolan, Mortirolo, the Horn and Angliru are all closer to 1800m), the road barely as wide as a cart path and a surface full of ruts, holes and loose stones. Brilliant!
Just one more. Statistically, the hardest day we had was the "double Zoncolan"., 136km / 5,200m. Any who have ridden the "monster of the Carnic Alps" will appreciate that the climb from Ovaro is considered one of the toughest in cycling. But just because we were nearly done (and needed an exclamation point for the tour), we added the little known (and quite possibly even harder) ascent back up from Priola, that is a double-Zoncolan (BAM). But we were not quite ready for dinner yet. Just up the valley from Ovaro is the HC climb of Monte Crostis (three times used in the Giro) and it is 14km long at an average of almost 10%. On it's own, it is one tough cookie but after a couple of casual "Zoncolans" it was more (as Frank so eloquently described it) like...."fu#*ing ridiculous". Again, no match for the "brutal tourists from down under". Oh how we had grown since the Asturias.
I am not sure if there is anything quite like this tour for bringing a few blokes together, I certainly do not know of anything. We arrived in Madrid as six individuals, full of nervous expectation. We left a group of mates, full of quiet pride in what we had achieved, forever more confident in our capabilities and connected by a shared experience that may never be repeated.
I would like to say a sincere that you to; Gordo, Robbo, DJ, Frank and Ramon for putting your trust in Bubba's Cycling Tours. But I am mostly thankful for the incredible energy, tenacity and flexibility you brought to the group. It is a three weeks that I will never forget and find very hard to top, both professionally and personally.
Brian "Bubba" Cooke
Lifelong (almost) cyclist, exercise physiologist and above-all-else just love riding my bike. Been lucky enough to ride some of the world's most epic roads and now live on the beautiful Gold Coast, hidden gem of Australian cycling.