Arrive at Toulouse, Geneva or Verona airports this weekend, head to baggage reclaim and you'll spot them lurking. Dressed in shorts, a Rapha T-shirt and with a pair of Oakleys perched on their close-cropped head of hair, these middle-aged men wait nervously by the oversized baggage area as unwieldy bike boxes are unloaded with a clatter.
These are the Col Collectors, a new breed of amateur cyclist who head to the continent in their thousands each summer with something to prove, to themselves and to their mates. They are there to tick off the biggest, toughest and most fabled mountains - or cols - from their lists. These are the mountains made famous by the Tour de France and Giro d'Itallia. And they feature in dozens of "10 best" bucket-list books of mountains to cycle, rushed to print to cash-in on the cycling boom. These are the Col Collectors' bibles, each page listing a future conquest to add to their palmares.
The Col Collectors are there to prove that, after months of rising early on miserable British Sunday mornings to put the miles in, they have what it take to cycle over the same cols that Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome have ridden.
Top spot on the bragging rights is heavily contested. Some argue it is Mont Ventoux, the giant of Provence whose moon-like landscape claimed the life of British rider Tom Simpson in 1967. Others rank Alpe D'Huez higher, the Alpine climb whose 21 hairpins have played host to more Tour de France duals than any other. After that there is plenty more to choose from, be it Italy's fearsome Stelvio Pass or the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees.
I have a confession. I am entering middle age. I own a Rapha shirt and a pair of Oakleys. I have waited at Toulouse and Geneva airports to discover if my beloved racing bike has made through the roulette wheel that is baggage handling. And I have a yearning to ride the Stelvio which remains unchecked on my list.
But, while the boom in cycling is to be celebrated, there is a danger that by applying a stamp collector's zeal to ticking off cols, the real joy of cycling could be lost.
These are the base elements that make the sport so beautiful, the reasons we got into it when we were young and why we have remained addicted ever since. It's the cocktail of oxygen and endorphins that only a long mountain climb can blend. It's the Zen-like state brought on by the two modes of concentration while cycling: riding faster or fending off fatigue. It's the fresh legs, sun-on-the-back moments. The unfolding vistas and the thrilling descents. These are the simple and undiluted pleasures of cycling. The mountains on the Col Collectors' lists can produce this (although who can honestly say that the Alpe D'Huez's vista is really that beautiful?). But in this box-ticking obsession, these simple, subtle pleasures can be overlooked.
There is a solution. In France, the western Pyrenees are packed with cyclists bagging the big monuments - the Tourmalet, Aspin and Aubisque. But head instead to the east, crowned by the Col de Pailhères. It may not be listed in the "10 greatest" books but it is one of the most perfect mountains a cyclist could want to ride. Challenging. High. Beautiful. Dramatic. Long.
In Italy, the north is a Mecca for cyclists with its steep gradients and deep historical roots in the sport. But further south is the overlooked Emilia Romagna region which offers extraordinary countryside. The route of the historic 200km Nove Colli bike race is a good bet. Well ridden by passionate local cyclists but largely unknown outside Italy, the route begins and ends in the pretty seaside town of Cesenatico after snaking over nine big climbs.
This is cycling for the pleasure of the sport, not the bragging rights. It is a focus on the means and not the ends. It is time to rediscover cycling.
(Picture: Cresting Col de Pailhères)
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