British cyclist Philip Woolway undertook the epic challenge of completing 100 Tour de France climbs on a Brompton.
“Some cyclists are not very enchanted when I overtake them on my Brompton,” laughs cyclist Philip Woolway. “In France, I was asked if it was electric so many times that I learnt to laugh and reply, ‘Non, je suis électrique!’ One chap was so convinced that I had to tell him: ‘If you can find a motor I’ll give you one million euros.’ He forensically examined my bike and only relented when he could find no trace.”
For anyone who’s laid eyes on the British-made Brompton, they will not be surprised at reactions like this. Despite being a marvel of engineering due to its groundbreaking foldability, the bike’s tiny wheels, low frame and extended seat tube often make passers-by double take.
This reaction is precisely what draws Philip to the bike. “It’s lovely being underestimated. No one takes you seriously – and that’s a good thing. When I cruise past someone riding a Pinarello, and they’re dying as I say good morning to them – there’s nothing quite like it.”
Add the fact that you can put out a surprising amount of power on a Brompton, its alluring craftmanship plus its inherent transportability, and you have a set of wheels that, as Philip discovered, is more than simply for commuting.
The 68-year-old cyclist, who lives in Gosport in the south of England, bought his bike in 2017, choosing a lightweight, titanium Brompton Black. He stripped the bike down, dropping grams by removing the mudguards, and fitting a new saddle and clipless pedals. He also modified the chainset, adding a second chainring to expand the bike’s original six gears.
“I joined my local cycling club, Portsmouth CTC, and when I rolled up on the Brompton they all looked curiously at me and said if I lagged behind they’d wait,” he recalls. “Then we got to the first hill and I shot up it and everyone was saying, ‘Where’s he gone?!’”
The fact that the retired IT worker is a former competitive cyclist at an amateur level means he has an inbuilt obsession and talent for cycling. But owning the Brompton ignited something deeper that had lain dormant within him. “I realised I could give cyclists who’d spent thousands on their bikes a run for their money. So I began to think, ‘What else can I do on a Brompton?’”
Onwards and upwards
The answer came via Simon Warren. For those of you who know Simon, he’s a British cyclist and author behind the popular series of ‘100 Climbs’ books, apps and Strava club that provide the opportunity for cyclists to locate, and tick off, a country’s 100 most brutal – and beautiful – ascents.
“I noticed that for some of the climbs I’d done in the UK, the Strava segment listed them as ‘OFFICIAL 100Climbs’,” says Philip. “When I looked into it, I discovered Simon’s book, 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, so I bought it and began to tick off my local ones, like Steyning Bostal, Ditchling Beacon and Box Hill.”
As most cyclists will concur, once you’re bitten, you have to scratch that itch – so Philip began to drive to locations across the UK in a quest to add to his tally. Within five months, he’d completed the entire 100 UK climbs. “I really enjoyed it,” he says, citing the Lake District’s Hardknott and Wrynose Pass as the standouts. “But UK climbs are short and brutal. They aren’t French mountains…”
And so the next idea was set in motion, and another of Simon’s books would provide the carrot: 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs of the Tour de France.
Polka dot dreams
“My immediate thought was it would be a great challenge, but totally impractical,” Philip says. “Then I looked in the mirror one day and thought, ‘It’s only me that’s stopping me from doing it.’ So I decided to give it a go.”
In summer 2021, Philip slung his Brompton in his Toyota Yaris and headed to France to tackle the 13 ascents in the Massif Central. “The climbs in that region are all around 6% average, and after completing them, I felt good, and thought, ‘Have I had enough or do I want more?’”
I realised I could give cyclists who’d spent thousands on their bikes a run for their money. So I began to think, ‘What else can I do on a Brompton?’
You can no doubt guess his response: he set off south, driving down to the Pyrenees to bag the more challenging climbs in that region, including some of the brutal monsters on every cyclist’s bucket list, such as the formidable Col du Tourmalet.
“It’s one of the Pyrenees’ most iconic climbs, and I was in awe of it, but I found it relatively straightforward. I climbed Hautacam the next day and absolutely died. It’s a horrible climb – it’s so undulating you can’t get into a rhythm.”
The country’s unique landscape, endless views and friendly locals blew him away. While cycling through a nature reserve between Col du Aubisque and Col du Soulor, he was accompanied by a vulture, gliding along 100ft beside him. “It eventually tipped its wings and off it went. It sent a tingle down my spine.”
He worked his way through the remaining climbs over the course of 2022, building up to tackle the beasts in the Alps in 2023. While grinding his way up Col du Joux Plane (7.2 miles at 8.3%), he was overtaken by a French cycling team, and when he arrived at the summit, the team applauded him.
“I was chuffed to bits,” says Philip. “They were extremely inquisitive about the Brompton, wanting to know the weight, gearing and so on.” On Col de la Faucille, he met a pair of gendarmes who’d never seen a Brompton before and couldn’t believe the bike’s folding mechanism.
That just left the Southern Alps to complete, and Alpe d’Huez, which Philip wasn’t a fan of, despite its iconic reputation (“There's so much traffic the first four kilometres, all you're doing is just breathing fumes”), followed by the likes of Col du Galibier (“You feel like you’ve achieved something and want to stay on the summit longer”) and Cime de la Bonette (“So quiet and peaceful with amazing landscapes”).
His plan was to end the challenge with Mont Ventoux, a climb he had completed previously but one that he wanted to do again as part of this adventure. “Ventoux is the ultimate climb,” he says. “It’s all by itself, so is a magnet for riders.”
On reaching the summit, Philip became the first person to finish all 100 climbs in the book. “I'd achieved what I wanted to achieve. I'd done it. It was time to go back home.”
For a 68-year-old, completing the challenge, let alone being the first person to achieve it, is no mean feat. “Without Strava, this wouldn’t have happened,” he reflects. Not only did he discover the challenge on the platform, but he also received support from around the world as he ticked off the climbs. “I had friend requests from people all over Europe, even as far as Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and America. It's quite something to be able to interact with them.
“Everyone has their own equivalent of the 100 climbs,” he adds. “For some, riding 25 miles in one go might be the big achievement. But to achieve it, you have to say to yourself, ‘Why aren’t I doing it?’
“There’s a great quote by Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree – ‘My biggest fear isn’t crashing my bike at 85mph and losing my skin – it’s sitting in a chair at 90 and thinking, ‘I wish I’d done more.’
“You’re never too old. You don’t require the latest or most expensive equipment. You just need the will.”
Read more about Philip’s TdF adventures at on-a-brompton.com