5 famous cycling climbs (+ how to photograph them): Q&A Michael Blann Back to top
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5 famous cycling climbs (and how to photograph them): Q&A with Michael Blann

Michael Blann is a cycling photographer whose photos connect cyclists with the majestic landscapes around them. His are the sort of images that you can lose yourself in for hours.

Michael has recently released an updated version of his classic "Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs" coffee table book, which brings together 200+ of his photographs of famous cycling climbs and 33 essays by pro cyclists.

Michael Blann photographing famous cycling climb Mont Ventoux

Michael on Mont Ventoux

Here we talk to him about five of his most iconic cycling photographs; he shares the story behind how he captured his striking images of Mont Ventoux, Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aubisque, Passo Giau and Passo Stelvio.

We hope you enjoy his insights.

For our conversation with Michael more about his background and the creation of his book, check out our interview with him here.


1. Mont Ventoux, Southern Alps, France

Mont Ventoux (from Michael Blann's Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs)

Mont Ventoux is one of the most famous cycling climbs there is. I've been lucky enough to photograph it four or five times and every time it's a little bit different.

This photo is from the first time I photographed it in 2013.


Practicalities

As I was photographing Ventoux during the Tour, my first priority was to get orientated quickly due to how many people come to the event.

Originally, I camped down in Bedoin, which I thought was a great place. Then I suddenly realised that there would be no way to get up the climb on Tour de France day, the next day. So, quickly, I put the tent back away and went up and got to Chalet Reynard.


Vantage points

The next day, from Chalet Reynard, I hiked to the top of Ventoux and found a great spot, two or three kilometres from the top. There’s a natural bowl in the landscape which gives you that elevation and has a natural viewpoint looking down into the road.

It was a scorching hot day and the day that Chris Froome won the stage. He dropped Quintana and soloed to victory.

The vantage point I had meant I could capture all the motor homes, the crowd and Chris Froome coming around the corner. I also love the limestone scree and the pops of colour everywhere in this photograph.

For me, it encapsulates what the Tour is all about.

Check out pages 78-85 of Michael’s book for his Ventoux images. You can get a reminder of the events of Froome's 2013 Ventoux win here.


2. Col du Tourmalet, Pyrenees, France

Summit of the Tourmalet (by Michael Blann from his book Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs)

The Tourmalet is one of the best Tour de France mountain climbs and it also does everything from a photographic point of view. It ticks all the boxes. You have a fantastic view into the summit, you have that great rock face and then the mountains disappearing off on the horizon behind it.


Why I love the Tourmalet

The Col du Tourmalet epitomises everything I want to show about the mountains and cycling – the crowds, the colours and the beautiful landscapes. It’s one of the most iconic climbs in cycling as well, so there’s a lot of history attached to the Tourmalet.

The summit of the Tourmalet is very narrow, but that's what’s great about it. You get to the top and then you're going back down, there's no plateau. That means that you can enjoy perfect views both to the east and the west.

For this shot the summit let me sit back and take a passive observer’s view.


Leave the bike behind

The Tourmalet is a perfect example of why you really should leave the bike behind and go for a walk sometimes.

There’s a ski village called La Mongie, which is about three or four kilometres down the climb. From here you can get the cable car up to the Pic du Midi, which is a science observatory. Then, you can walk from the top of that, down to the top of the Tourmalet.

It's the most spectacular walk and you can see all the way down the valley towards the west. I recommend for anyone to just forget about the bike and go for a walk while they’re here.

Check out pages 106-109 of Michael’s book for his Tourmalet images.


3. Col d’Aubisque, Pyrenees, France

Col d'Aubisque - another hugely famous cycling climb

A hard climb to photograph

The Pyrenees are so close to the Atlantic that they get a lot more weather than the Alpine cycling climbs. As a result, the Col d’Aubisque is often tricky to photograph because it’s foggy or raining.

The first time I photographed the Col d’Aubisque was during an Haute Route event. It was absolutely bucketing it down and I had to hide in a tunnel to take shots. I got to the top and you couldn't see for more than 25 feet in front of you.

The next day I went up there and it was still foggy but I stayed up there in the evening. It is a pretty stunning mountain when you do get it right.

Another thing that makes it a hard climb to photograph is that the best bit of the road is the Cirque du Litor, which faces north, so it rarely gets any sun on it. Shadow can be okay, but you really want a little bit of light, even if it's just clipping some of those rock faces, to get a decent shot. That means you're forever trying to work out the best time to photograph it. 

Check out pages 94-101 of Michael’s book for his Col d’Aubisque images.


4. Passo Giau, Dolomites, Italy

Passo Giau in snow (by Michael Blann from his book Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs)

The Passo Giau is one of the great cycling climbs of the Dolomites and it's one of my favourite areas to visit and to photograph.


High mountain drama

The Dolomites are made up of sharp limestone and you see a lot of rock. Mountains in the Pyrenees tend to be lush and green, whereas the Dolomites are quite grey and severe.

The Italians build lots of tunnels and things into their mountains, so on top of the natural beauty they have these human characteristics as well.

They're always fabulous to photograph.


Getting the best shots isn’t always easy

I’ve photographed Passo Giau a few times. Once was during the Giro. I didn't have a press pass then, and I really wanted to get to the top so I tried to blag it.

I had this big camera and I had a press pass, but it wasn't for the Giro. It didn’t work and they wouldn't let me drive up so I had to go and park the car.

It’s 15 kilometres to walk up to the top of the Giau, and I had all this equipment that’s probably 10kg or so. I started walking and then I heard a car coming so I put out my thumb and she stopped! I thought, ‘this is fantastic, I've got a lift to the top, I don't have to walk.’ So, I jumped in and the lady started driving and then she pulled up about a kilometre later and said, ‘this is the turn from my house’.

So, I had to walk it up and that was a pretty hard slog up to the top. I spent a day up there and then when the Giro came up I got some great shots. Luckily I managed to get a lift back down!

It shows some of the lengths you have to go to sometimes if you want to get good shots.

Check out pages 158-163 of Michael’s book for his Passo Giau images.


5. Passo Stelvio, Alps, Italy

Passo Stelvio (by Michael Blann from his book Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs)

The Stelvio Pass is one of the most iconic cycling climbs in the world and it's got an awful lot of history, especially attached to the Giro d’Italia. It’s a great place to photograph, but I've also been back there on various trips to ride it as well.


The Stelvio Pass isn’t always accessible

As you’ll know, the Stelvio Pass is really high, so it gets the worst of the weather and it has a really short season when it's open.


Head off the beaten path for unique shots

I’ve been up there when you can’t see ten feet in front of you, but likewise, I've had fabulous stays up there, when the views just open up in front of you and there are so many different viewpoints to take.

My favourite is that classic view looking down into Prato, but the downside is that everyone has the same shot.

I want to take a different version of that shot, looking back in the opposite direction. Hopefully I'll get it, but it needs a proper hike.


Choose your hotel location wisely

I tend to stay in Bormio, I know really nice hotel there. I’ve stayed in Prato too. I’ve never stayed on top but I should do because it’d let me get some more sleep! The Stelvio is a long climb and you need to be up really early if you want to get to the top for the best light.

Check out pages 168-175 of Michael’s book for his Stelvio images.


A big thank you to Michael for these vivid insights and stories behind some of the stunning photos that make up his book.

Front cover of Mountains by Michael Blann


Read on

We also spoke to Michael about how he created Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs. Read our interview here

Looking for other great cycling books? Check out our pick of the must-have books for any cycling library.

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