The Classics might often elicit the most nuanced performances, but for scenery and drama on an operatic scale, you can’t beat the high mountains. So, for me, it’s always been about the climbers.
Getting home after school to watch Pantani, Mayo or Contador haring off into the mist and rain, eternally soundtracked by Phil and Paul sparked something of an obsession. It just looked so superhuman, which, of course, in retrospect, it might well have been. Still, those mountains. Sometimes with roads easily twice as high as the summit of the biggest lumps in the UK, and peaks that reached up the same again.
Stack two or three in a row and simply completing the circuit becomes a challenge. The idea that people race each other up these things still blows my mind decades later.
Discover Rouleur's Desire Selection: Our guide to the best kit across cycling
However, at the pro level, the past decades have seen the mountains tamed slightly. Shorter stages, the advent of power meters, and the way most of the peloton is driven to exhaustion long before the summit has made it less likely a pure climber will ever again win a Grand Tour. And don’t even get me started on flat time trials.
Yet the mountains themselves haven’t changed. If you want to make it up them as quickly as possible, then a lightweight bicycle made for climbing will help you create some high altitude magic. In fact, as an amateur, you’ll be at an advantage thanks to not being restricted by the UCI’s 6.8kg minimum weight limit. Here are seven of our absolute dream bikes.
(Don't worry, they also come in cheaper models, the best value of which we've highlighted beneath...)
Specialized S-Works Aethos Red AXS
£12,000, Shop Specialized
With a huge budget and a host of A-list sponsored riders, Specialized knows how to make a race-winning bike. The S-Works Aethos isn’t it. Or at least, not quite. Instead of seeking to eek the most from every watt, the Aethos is designed to provide well-funded riders with something incredibly light, extremely comfy, and uncommonly user-friendly.
This means disc brakes, copper-bottomed stiffness, plus a conventional bar, stem, and seatpost. In a world where aerodynamics is now understood to provide the biggest increase in speed across most situations, the Aethos also goes against the grain by using more conventional tube profiles, placing instead the greater emphasis on ride quality.
Easily adjusted and quickly packed down to take somewhere nice, it’s a superbike for normal humans. Unconstrained by either the UCI or the demands of the peloton, it also sweeps well below the racing weight limit at a square 6.0kg, making it what Specialized claims to be the lightest disc road frame ever produced.
Photo by Benedict Campbell
Also to consider, Specialized Aethos Comp Rival ETap AXS, £4,500
Giant TCR Advanced SL 0 Disc
£7,499, Shop Giant
Ever since engineer Mike Burrows realised a compact frame could be both lighter and stiffer than something with a traditional flat top tube, the Giant TCR has been at the forefront of bicycle design. Over twenty years later, the TCR hasn’t rested upon its laurels.
Still light enough to be included here, its makers also make some bold claims regarding how aerodynamic it is versus the competition too. Rolling on equally well balanced Cadex 42mm deep carbon wheels, the bike also represents keen value. At least as much as anything costing ten grand can anyway.
It makes sense that a bike chasing every gram-saving going would have an integrated seat mast, even if this does make it a bit of a pain to box up should you find yourself a plane ride away from the nearest mountains. Strangely, this is offset by a conventional and easily adjustable bar and stem plus external brake lines. Looking a tad less slick, both nevertheless make the bike about a million times easier to service or adjust.
Also to consider, Giant TCR Advanced Pro Disc 0, £5,199
Canyon Ultimate CFR Disc EPS
£9,749, Shop Canyon
Having navigated the choppy seas of Brexit, Canyon continues to offer incredible value. Essentially, if you break a shifter on your existing bike, it’s often cheaper to buy a whole new machine from Canyon than get the replacement parts at UK RRP. I jest, but only just.
Apply this financial model to the question of building the lightest possible bike, and the result is something truly super-luxe but at merely regular luxe pricing. Adorned with Capangnolo’s 12-speed Super Record ESP groupset, the world’s lightest production disc wheels in the form of DT’s PRC 1100 Mon Chasserals, plus a Schmolke seatpost, the Ultimate CFR clocks in at 6.29kg.
Despite not having any padding atop its Selle Italia SLR C59 saddle, the rest of the build is surprisingly cushy. This includes normal width 25c Schwalbe Pro One TT Evo tyres, disc brakes, and the now-standard bolt-through axles.
Also to consider, Canyon Ultimate CF SL 8, £2,249
Wilier Zero SLR Disc Dura-Ace Di2
From €8,000, Shop Wilier
Taste can be a tricky subject to navigate. So in case you were unsure; yes this is, without doubt, the best looking bicycle on the list. It would be even without the ridiculously lovely paint job. Flirting with the UCI’s 6.8kg weight limit, Wilier’s Zero SLR manages to both be very modern and simultaneously classic looking.
Designed with a focus on weight, at the same time subtle Kamm tail profiles on the seatpost and seat tube are matched by a wide-open fork and similarly broad dropped seat stays that leave little for passing air to catch upon. Designed for racing there’s not much in the way of extra clearance, while adaptability of the one-piece bar and stem isn’t as broad as on other machines.
At the same time, Wilier claims the inclusion of something called liquid crystal polymer within the frame’s layup helps protect it against impacts while also improving vibration damping. Whatever the efficacy of this, it certainly doesn’t seem to be holding back the Astana team, who regularly pick up wins aboard the bike.
Also to consider, Wilier Zero SL Disc, from €4,500
Factor O2 VAM Disc
From £7,999, Shop Factor
Entry-level WorldTour. Undercutting the UCI’s weight limit, Chris Froome will probably have to chuck on a pair of solid tyres to bring his Factor O2 VAM Disc into compliance when he takes on the Tour later this year. However, not only is the stock version of his bike a few hundred grams lighter than much of the competition, but it’s a useful couple of thousand pounds cheaper too.
Created by engineer Rob Gitelis, who moved to Taiwan to fully immerse himself in the latest in carbon composite technology, Factor’s bikes now emerge from a factory entirely owned by the brand. Allowing it to pursue new production processes, such as those involving high-pressure compaction of the frame to squeeze out every drop of excess resin, the result is a range of preposterously light bikes.
Also finding room for a few aero features, the firm’s VAM nevertheless remains most at home among the higher climbs.
Scott Addict RC Ultimate
£12,649, Shop Scott
With extensive integration and complex tube shapes, it’s largely left to the scales and not the eye to determine the lightweight credentials of Scott’s Addict RC Ultimate. Promising a claimed weight of 6.9kg, it certainly mixes it with the lightest.
However, crucially this doesn’t come at the expense of practicalities like wide 28c tyres, a deep Zipp 303 Firecrest wheelset, or full-size disc rotors. All of which is good news for anyone whose day out doesn’t finish at the summit. Despite its slice-like looks, the Addict is also supremely easy going. With the top-tier model using Sram’s wireless Red eTap AXS groupset, this both does away with cables and shrinks the chainring and cassette without minimising the range of gears available.
At the front, Syncros’ Creston integrated bar and stem does a similar job by making the brake cables disappear directly into the frame’s headtube. Shipped with a power meter included as standard, it’s ready to either grind or dance up the climbs as your preference dictates.
Also to consider, Scott Addict RC 20, £4,799
Trek Émonda SLR 9 eTap
£11,600, Shop Trek
Like many brands, Trek long ago sliced up its range, with different models coming to cover different segments. The Émonda is the slinky and lightweight sibling to Trek’s more Classics-focused Domane and the out-and-out aero Madone models. Unlike some makers’ lighter bikes, it’s still seen regularly beneath the riders of the Trek–Segafredo team.
With a slickly integrated front end featuring a one-piece bar and stem, it also gives little reason to suspect it’ll suffer too much versus machines made for flatter days when it comes to wind resistance. This top-flight version not only comes with a very fancy Wireless Sram eTap 12-speed groupset but rolls in on a set of Bontrager Aeolus RSL 37 wheels.
Designed in conjunction with the bike, they’re light without being so diminutive as to drag on anything but the most hellish of hill climbs. Also sporting the brand’s H1.5 Race geometry, the pricier models share their angles with those demanded by the team.
Also to consider, Trek Émonda SLR 6 eTap, £6,700