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Mike Cotty rides up a gravel road in the Swiss Alps. He's shown all alone as the road switchbacks down into the valley below, amid treeless slopes of tan-brown grass and shrubs.

Five rides that changed me: Mike Cotty

We all have rides we'll remember forever. But this new series explores which ones truly change us.

Photo © Alain Rumpf

By Michael Cotty as told to David McQuillen

There are few people who know as much about the mountains of Europe as Michael Cotty. Mike is the founder of The Col Collective, which profiles epic climbs around the world, and the host of Wahoo SYSTM’s On Location training series. He lives in Nice, France for part of the year. For the rest, he drives a custom van around Europe in search of high roads yet to be ridden. He rides a Cannondale SuperSix EVO.

Beyond the neighbourhood – Romsey, 1988

I was 10 and rocking a legendary Raleigh Burner BMX. My best buddy and I decided to go on a big – a really big – ride. It felt like we were out all day, covering huge distances on our 20” wheels. The sun shone as we took every twist and turn we could find, struggled on every little incline with our single gear and spun out like nutters on the descents. It felt like we’d covered the entire south coast of England on that one ride. We probably weren’t ever further than 3 miles from home, but since we had no clue where we were we could’ve been on the other side of the planet. I learnt a lot that day – the feeling of freedom, the sense of adventure but most of all a childhood life lesson in perspective.

First race – Southampton Sports Centre, 1991

I was playing pretty high level schoolboy football when my older brother started racing cyclocross. I think deep down I wanted to feel accepted by him – that I could be one of the cool kids, too – so I decided to enter a 20-minute race. I never felt pain in my lungs or legs like that ever before, the burn of lactic acid throughout my whole body. I finished mid-pack – nothing special. But I kept thinking about that race and pretty quickly after that, I gave up football. I was captivated by the individuality of cycling – there was absolutely no hiding. You reaped what you sowed. I was never that worried about trying to be better than anyone else. I just wanted to try and be the best I could be for myself and see how far that would take me.

Mike Cotty rides the Gotthard Pass in Switzerland. He's riding away from the camera at a distance, nearing a switchback. The surface is paved in cobblestones and conical stone bollards frame the roadside above a steep drop. Misty mountains loom in the background.

First fitness test – Southampton, 1994

I was racing on the UK MTB circuit. My coach invited myself and a teammate to a lab in Southampton to take a fitness test. My friend went first and being two years older and about 5kg heavier set the benchmark. As I took to the saddle, I never thought that I could beat his result – I just hoped I could get somewhere close to him. The test went on, the legs started to scream, sweat beading onto the floor. Finally, I couldn’t hold the cadence and pulled the plug, knowing that I hadn’t got anywhere near him. “That was impressive,” said my coach. I was confused. I thought he was trying to comfort me in my moment of weakness but then he explained. “You’re 5 kg lighter and only just under his power which means your power to weight is way higher. You’re going to be fast uphill.” I always remember that evening in the lab and what I learned there: don’t doubt yourself. 

Non-stop across the Pyrénées – France, 2011

My younger brother sadly passed away in 2009 and many things didn’t make sense anymore. I struggled to understand some of the basics of life and the questions wouldn’t stop. It was a hard time. On what would’ve been his 29th birthday, I set off from the French Atlantic coast. The entire chain of Pyrénean mountains was ahead of me and I wouldn’t stop until something made sense again. Aubisque, Soulor, Tourmalet as the last rays of sun shone and the stars began to shine. Aspin, Peyresourde, Mente, Portet d’Aspet, dawn on the Port, Pailhères…. Thirty-one hours later, I finally reached the coast – and for the first time – stopped. I’d ridden the full length of the French Pyrénées. As I waded into the cool mediterranean water I knew that I’d found solace amidst the suffering and that we only have one chance to truly follow what’s in our heart. It was – it is – possibly the most pivotal moment of my entire life.

Mike Cotty hike-a-bikes in the Swiss Alps. He has his bike hoisted on his shoulders as he makes his way up a steep, scree-filled trail. The summer sun beats down from a clear blue sky.
Photo © Alain Rumpf

The release of the Col du Galibier video – October 2014

After a number of mountain inspired challenges, I felt a deep desire to share those peaks with others. Retreating to the high mountains had helped me in many ways over the years and I wanted to try and give back to others what the mountains had given to me. With a small crew, I went out and filmed over 30 mountains in three weeks in the summer of 2014. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing, or what it was all going to look like in the end, but I kept going. In October, I released the first video from that summer on YouTube: The Galibier. The response was overwhelming. And that is when things started making sense again: that all my years of riding up to those peaks and down to those valleys finally found a way to connect with and inspire others. To give them, at the least, a few minutes of the tranquillity that I felt on the bike and, at the most, the courage to challenge themselves. That single video – that single ride – changed the direction of my career.

About Five Rides

We all have rides that we’ll remember forever. A bucket-list climb. A new skill. An incredible performance. A crash. A new friend. An adventure. But which ones truly changed us? Five Rides captures the rides which had a lasting impact on one particular person. Five Rides that really mattered. What are your Five Rides? Leave them in the comments or discuss in the Escaping channel on our Discord.

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