Each road, each region, sets the scene for different types of stories. At Content Lab we spend an inordinate amount of time studying maps, scouting (preferably by bike), and listening to other cyclists’ accounts of the best roads to ride around Europe. One may be surprised, but more often than not, the most iconic climbs are not ideal for filming. Traffic, extraneous “sights” such as cables, road surface, and sun angles at various times of the day all contribute to the quality of our shot set. For these very reasons, we have a select list of our favorite climbs on which to shoot. Most will never see a stage finish of the Giro or Tour, although some have played some very significant roles in the history of cycling be it in famous races, or as training roads for the sport’s stars.
Here are our favorite climbs to film and photograph for their natural beauty and how they allow the models to work fantastically from both sides of the lens.
Col d’Ispeguy (Basque Country - France/Spain)
This is the testing ground for pro and amateur cyclists from the French Basque Country. Riders from Pamplona based teams such as Caja Rural come as well during their long, mountainous rides in preparation for big stage rages, including the Vuelta a Espana. The Ispeguy tops out at the French - Spanish border in the heart of Basque Country.
We love filming on this climb as the two sides offer distinct types of shots. On the French side, the climb is long and steady, offering views that could be confused with high Pyrenean peaks like the Tourmalet or Col du Soulor even though it tops out at only 672m. This means that we have access to Pyrenean scenery all year long - if it happens to snow here, it’ll be gone in a day or two.
The Spanish side is less open apart from the top couple of kilometers. The combination of open views, woods, switchbacks, a relatively wide road, and great asphalt means that we can combine almost any types of shots we dream up - Drone, from the front, side, or back of the car, or using the tele lens across the mountain as the road winds up the side. If there were a Hollywood of cycling productions, this would surely be one of the film sets.
Passo Pordoi (Bolzano/Belluno, Italy)
This one is somewhat obvious. There’s a reason the Sella Ronda is a UNESCO world heritage sight. Here, it’s a paradise for just about anything outdoors, not just filming and photography. If you like cycling, hiking, or skiing, it’d be hard to find a better place than 4 passes that compose the Sella Ronda group - the Pordoi, Campolongo, Gardena, and Sella.
The Passo Pordoi, however, has a special place in our hearts though, as we were once caught in an early-autumn snowstorm forcing us to stop in Arabba at the base of the Passo Campolongo and Passo Pordoi. We’ve always loved the Pordoi's open switchbacks snaking below the towering, jagged Dolomite peaks, but this forced delay turned out to be memorable. After spending the night “trapped” in the snowstorm in Arabba, we awoke to a completely white landscape - in September! The car thermometer read -1C! It was too good an opportunity to pass up. We loaded the drone, bike, and camera back into the car and took off toward the summit. The images speak for themselves.
Lizarrieta (Basque Country - France/Spain)
A little known pass, used by the Basque underground resistance during WWII to smuggle jewish refugees and allied POWs into neutral Spain, this climb tops out on the French/Spanish border. On the French side, the Basque region of Lapurdi, on the Spanish, the Basque region of Navarra.
Like in the days of the war, there is very little traffic on the narrow, sinuous road. On the French side, as the road switches back and forth over itself, there are numerous opportunities to capture the true cycling spirit from different angles - from the back of the car to classic switchback shots. Until recently, the road was rough and damaged, meaning that filming from the car required a high-quality stabilizer, but thanks to the inclusion of the Lizarrieta in the 2016 Vuelta a España, the top 2km are perfectly asphalted.
The Spanish side is a joy to film. The road is slightly less steep and offers up switchbacks and sweeping views of the Bidasoa Valley. Towards the top, there are numerous switchbacks stacked on top of each other offering opportunities to shoot from higher angles.
Gorramendi (Basque Country - Spain)
The climb to nowhere. If you need a road with no traffic and lush, green countryside all year and the occasional view of the Atlantic, this is your place. Situated in Navarra in Spanish Basque Country, this road is used mostly by hikers and Pottok (tiny Basque ponies), meaning that we can count on car free shots 99.9% of the time. To boot, the green valley below allows us to create summer scenes in the middle of winter. The one downside is that the road surface ranges from bad to terrible.
When filming, a quality stabilizer is a must. Alternatively, if you’ve got a drone pilot and drone able to handle the gusts from the nearby Atlantic, you’ll get some fantastic material.
Bormio 2000 (Bormio, Italy)
Most people who go to Bormio are drawn to the Passo dello Stelvio and the Passo Gavia, and for good reason. They offer up magnificent views and are arguably the two most iconic climbs in Italian cycling. It’s hard to beat what they offer and that they can both be filmed from the same home base of Bormio. However, they have one downside - summer traffic.
One summer, after days of filming on those two giants, we were tasked with filming riders climbing behind the car chatting and joking as they would on a ride. The beautiful day must have attracted every Swiss, Italian, and Austrian tourist because every time we got the shot set up and rolling, another car or motorcycle entered the frame. CUT!
Remembering my own suffering on a road that led out the back side of town as a professional back in 2011, I asked our models, both of whom are from the Alta Valtellina, about Bormio 2000. They had only been to ski in the winter they said. We gave it a try and got exactly what we were looking for - No traffic, forested Alpine roads, and a picture of satisfied suffering on the bike from the models as they chased the car up the climb. Mission accomplished.