What is that mysterious quality reserved for the highest mountains? Why are we so hell-bent on suffering in silence on our solitary climbs to reach cloud-riddled peaks? We join Sophie Moser on a ride on the Julier Pass to learn more about our fascination with the gravity-defying act of cycling in the mountains – and why we keep coming back for more.
The Julier Pass is one of Sophie Moser’s favorite climbs in her adopted home of Switzerland. Little red trains pass overhead as the snowy road bends through quaint villages. These mountains stop us in our tracks. They fascinate us and inspire a will to conquer them at any cost. But even world-class scenery won’t help when you’ve spent your legs. Sometimes the struggle is real: you’re fighting your mind as well as the gradient.
On a summer ride last year, Sophie had it bad. ‘It was so painful. I was waiting for it to feel good. It was a day when I questioned why I do this,’ she tells us.
Longing for the mountains
Going uphill is 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 render 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 al-so a very big feeling, because you made it.’
Heading uphill is a meditative micro-adventure for Sophie. ‘What I like about climbing – and I don’t have this experience flat rides – is that pedaling really focuses and concentrates me. I’m very clear. At work, when I have a busy day or a crazy project, I jump on my bike, pedal, and sort myself out.’
It helps when Alpine climbs, such as the Julier Pass, push you through four seasons in a single ascent. ‘You start in the valley, everything is growing, nature is exploding, and with every meter you climb, the landscape changes and suddenly you're back in the freezing cold of winter. 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 realized 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 for a breath several times during longer climbs. Undeterred, she signed up for 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; she couldn’t spin uphill.
In tears, she broke down while she fought the pedals as well as the urge to turn back. Bad days on the bike aren’t fun, but episodes like these follow us throughout our cycling journey, we learn from them that we have the strength to overcome seemingly impossible odds.
Custom Koba Pro
The perfect setup helps to avoid disappointment. On Sophie’s custom-made Koba Pro with DURA-ACE groupset and Di2, she now has an 11-34T 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 pedal with ease. At a certain point, I realized that when I keep a certain cadence, I can pedal forever.’
Meanwhile, Sophie’s Shimano C50 wheels give her confidence on both sides of the mountain. ‘You have to go down as well. I love how my setup feels and how precise it is. 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 up for the sharp Swiss winters. She climbed higher challenges, included more mountains, and went on longer rides. ‘At some point, you realize that the more you ride, the better it gets, the easier it is. Then I started to enjoy climbing.’
‘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.’
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 and 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 in-tense. 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 slowly. But other times, when I’m having have a good day, I go all in and push myself really hard. 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 lousy day on the Julier Pass, Sophie tackled the Route des Grandes Alpes, featuring 17 mountain passes and more than 7,000 meters of elevation between Lake Geneva and Nice. 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.’
Climbing classic cols: Galibier, Madeleine, Izoard
For any cyclist, there are childhood aspirations and longstanding dreams tied to the ascent of some majestic mountain. In 2019, Sophie followed her dreams, tackling the French Alps for the first time. The Col du Galibier, Col de la Madeleine, Col de la Croix de Fer. Each has its own personality, color, and distinctive scenery and is steeped in ex-tensive Tour de France history.
Whenever we climb, there invariably comes the stunning moment at the summit, where grandeur of the earth silences us. The sheer bigness of nature, the wild beauty of the French Alps, these moments of complete reverence remind us that these are the roads to ride. Sophie stood atop the Col d’Izoard, her heart pounding, her breath ragged, satisfied.
‘You realize you can actually do more than you’re capable of doing, like climbing Mont Ventoux three times in a day,’ she says. “I’ll tell you this, I’d rather go up than on the flat because it’s just so much fun.’
Watch Sophie Moser share her passion for cycling up mountains as she climbs the Albula and Julier Pass in Switzerland.
Sophie Moser is passionate about cycling and climbing high mountains. She has toured Europe, including the Dolo-mites, Vosges, Mallorca, the French and Swiss Alps. She has climbed Mont Ventoux three times in a single day. Sophie has been involved in the #fastandfemaleSUI initiative since 2020, organizing trips for and with women cyclists. Follow her on Instagram @sophiemoser.