FFind out how I used ‘VAM’(Velocità Ascensionale Media/average climbing speed) to compare my performance to a top professional cyclist on a section of the Alpine route of the ‘Etape Suisse’ and use a free ‘VAM’ calculator to analyse your own riding.

“After a 1-hour warm-up, we met on the Albula Pass at 1800m of altitude: [He] rode a stretch of 100m of total difference in height several times, at increasing intensities, checking the times, the heart rates and the lactic acid concentrations”.

“His VAM at 4 mM (millimoles; a measure of blood lactate concentration) was 1780 [metres per hour], an excellent value considering the oxygen deficit due to altitude.” 

The quote above is attributed to one of the most infamous Italian ‘Sports Doctors’ of the last 20 years in relation to a test he conducted early in the career of a professional cyclist who went on to become a Grand Tour and World Championship winner. Whilst the rider’s record is impeccable and we believe that this was his only contact with the controversial medic, it’s undisputed that both were at the top of their respective fields.

I’ve long maintained a morbid fascination with the science and experimentation which has characterised professional cycling’s chequered history, so I’d been aware of this mountain encounter for some time. Consequently, I have to admit to feeling a frisson of excitement when I realised that I’d get the opportunitity to ride the Albula Pass as part of the Etape Suisse event, this September.

Flying into Zurich, I took a transfer to the hotel to meet the rest of the Etape Suisse group and pick up my bike for the weekend: a teammachine BMC SLR01.

BMC SLR01-03

“The requirements for the teammachine were defined by the demands of World Tour racing. National champions and GC contenders like Philippe Gilbert, Cadel Evans and Tejay van Garderen requested a bike that balanced lightness for grueling, above category climbs, and rapid-fire acceleration for laying down aggressive attacks.” BMC

The SLR01 sounded like the perfect machine to tackle the mountainous route; 790 grams (frame only), super stiff to take advantage of Switzerland’s stunning descents and beautiful but sometimes steep climbs, ‘optimized’ carbon-fibre layup and tube shaping to soak up the bumps and buzz on the anti-clockwise loop from Davos.

We were booked into the Intercontinental HotelThe 5-star residence, shaped like a giant perforated lozenge and nestled at the foot of a mountain, had excellent WiFi so, using Strava, I’d managed to discover a stretch of the Albula Pass that matched the description given by ‘The Doctor’ for his VAM test. The 1.3km segment offered 105m of elevation gain at a 8% gradient (The Doctor’s preferred gradient for testing, apparently).

Velocita Ascensionale Media (average velocity of ascent, metres per hour) is a simple way to compare climbing performance, either based on individual changes or between riders. VAM only really requires 2 pieces of information – the ascent in meters (105 metres in this case) and time (very slow). It can be used to estimate watts per kilo, but all of the values based on VAM are essentially educated guesses, but useful, nonetheless.

On Sunday morning, I wheeled my 6.4kg machine into the sunlight. Dropping down the short but steep section of road leading from to the hotel, I settled into the saddle, swung the bike into a right-hand bend and accelerated on to the avenue leading to the town. I’ve ridden many carbon-fibre bikes over the years and the SLR01 shared the characteristics of the ‘pro-level’ machines I’ve enjoyed; the lightweight, stiff frame immediately felt lively and energetic. Grasping the drops I sprinted over a small rise and bunny-hopped the train-lines. It was going to be a fun day…

The ride began with a gentle descent, it was a cool, crisp morning with cobalt blue skies. Flat roads would be in scarce supply today. We wound our way down a sinuous, narrow switchback: a good opportunity to test the braking. It’s unfortunate that, when presented with it often, human nature soon takes excellence for granted. The Dura-Ace calipers and blocks were, as expected, predictable, progressive and confidence inspiring.


At around 18km we began a short climb. I raised myself out of the saddle and accelerated up the early slopes. Again, the UCI rule-skimming weight was noticeable, as was the stiffness of the bottom bracket. Selecting the big-ring, pulling on the bars and driving down on the pedals I tried to create as much torque as possible through the frame. It responded impeccably, driving me up the road until I eased off – there was clearly more pedigree in the bike than in my humble aerobic engine!

We began to descend again and I raised the pace to interrogate the bike’s handling. The stiffness coupled with the performance orientated geometry resulted in the precise cornering I expect from a race bike. I was encouraged to brake late, point the bike where I wanted it to go and trust the BMC to take care of the rest. It worked and I found myself wishing I was a little bit younger, with a less well developed sense of risk and danger, to fully appreciate what the SLR01 was capable of. Despite this, I experimented with a range of moderately acrobatic aerodynamic postures to evaluate the bike’s stability. I’m pleased to say that I felt perfectly at ease sitting on the top-tube, hanging my chest over the handlebars à la BMC pro Michael Schar.

Michael Schar BMC

Tour of Utah stage 2 Michael Schar (BMC) on the descent Photo credit © Jonathan Devich/epicimages.us

After around 30km, we began the ascent which would take us to the Albula pass. I found a steady rhythm. I’d matched my position on the bike from the measurements I’d brought over from Cyclefit in the UK and I was pleased to find I felt comfortable and ‘at home’. I knew that I’d hit the section described by ‘The Doctor’ after another 24km of climbing, but I didn’t intend to push myself too hard: we had over 3600m of ascent planned for the day, so I needed to pace myself. I may have been an Elite rider once, but those days are a distant memory. I know my limits and experience has warned me off letting my mind write cheques that my body can’t cash! I crested the summit without a hitch, enjoying the thin, fresh mountain air and picture postcard vistas.

Albula Pass 1

The descent from Albula was fun and interesting; a theme which continued for the rest of the day. Around the town of Madulain we began the return leg on super-smooth roads through quintessentially Swiss towns before taking a sharp left and conquering the ride’s finale on the Flüela Pass: 12.8km at an average 7% gradient.

The hotel sits at end of the descent off the Flüela, so I ended the day by throwing the bike around a few hairpins and reflecting on the last 120km. The BMC SLR01 is a thoroughbred performance bike that would be amongst my first choices for races and fast sportives: a high-mountain Haute Route killer and Marmotte munching machine. You will not be disappointed.

And just in case you’re wondering, I ascended the Albula Pass Climb with a VAM of 1324 m/h. 25% slower than our Grand Tour winning champion, but surely faster than I would have been had I not been riding the SLR!

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